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Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy (Studies in Philosophy) [Paperback]

Nick Bostrom

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Book Description

21 Jun 2010 Studies in Philosophy

Anthropic Bias explores how to reason when you suspect that your evidence is biased by "observation selection effects"--that is, evidence that has been filtered by the precondition that there be some suitably positioned observer to "have" the evidence. This conundrum--sometimes alluded to as "the anthropic principle," "self-locating belief," or "indexical information"--turns out to be a surprisingly perplexing and intellectually stimulating challenge, one abounding with important implications for many areas in science and philosophy.

There are the philosophical thought experiments and paradoxes: the Doomsday Argument; Sleeping Beauty; the Presumptuous Philosopher; Adam & Eve; the Absent-Minded Driver; the Shooting Room.

And there are the applications in contemporary science: cosmology ("How many universes are there?", "Why does the universe appear fine-tuned for life?"); evolutionary theory ("How improbable was the evolution of intelligent life on our planet?"); the problem of time's arrow ("Can it be given a thermodynamic explanation?"); quantum physics ("How can the many-worlds theory be tested?"); game-theory problems with imperfect recall ("How to model them?"); even traffic analysis ("Why is the 'next lane' faster?").

Anthropic Bias argues that the same principles are at work across all these domains. And it offers a synthesis: a mathematically explicit theory of observation selection effects that attempts to meet scientific needs while steering clear of philosophical paradox.

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More About the Author

Nick Bostrom is Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University. He is the founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, a multidisciplinary research center which enables a few exceptional mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists to think carefully about global priorities and big questions for humanity.

Bostrom has a background in physics, computational neuroscience, and mathematical logic as well as philosophy. He is the author of some 200 publications, including Anthropic Bias (Routledge, 2002), Global Catastrophic Risks (ed., OUP, 2008), and Human Enhancement (ed., OUP, 2009), and the forthcoming book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (OUP, 2014). He is best known for his work in five areas: (i) existential risk; (ii) the simulation argument; (iii) anthropics (developing the first mathematically explicit theory of observation selection effects); (iv) impacts of future technology; and (v) implications of consequentialism for global strategy.

He is recipient of a Eugene R. Gannon Award (one person selected annually worldwide from the fields of philosophy, mathematics, the arts and other humanities, and the natural sciences). Earlier this year he was included on Prospect magazine's World Thinkers list, the youngest person in the top 15 from all fields and the highest-ranked analytic philosopher. His writings have been translated into 22 languages. There have been more than 100 translations and reprints of his works.

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"From traffic analysis via a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the problem of the fine-tuning of the universe to the purely philosophical problems of the Doomsday argument and the Sleeping Beauty problem, Bostrom succeeds in shining a new and interesting light on all of these issues." --Wouter Meijs

"Bostrom presents a highly readable and widely relevant work which can be warmly recommended to everyone in philosophy of science."--Christian Wuthrich, Philosophy of Science

"Probably the worst thing one can say about this book is that it is too short....Anthropic Bias is a wonderful achievement, which should find place on the shelf of every serious student of modern philosophy of science, epistemology, and cosmology." --Milan Cirkovic, Foundations of Science

"Anthropic Bias is a synthesis of some of the most interesting and important ideas to emerge from discussion of cosmic fine-tuning, the anthropic principle, and the Doomsday Argument. It deserves a place on the shelves of epistemologists and philosophers of science, as well as specialists interested in the topics just mentioned."--Neil Manson, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep, thoughtful - and yet so funny book! 12 Sep 2002
By Milan M. Cirkovic - Published on
Why the universe is just so? The question has been posed by scientists and philosophers for millenia, but only very recently have we accumulated enough physical and astronomical knowledge to be able to discuss these issues in a serious and quantitative manner. And, lo and behold! what modern cosmologists began to explore in earnest is a sort of necessary link between our own existence as intelligent observers evolved from the simplest procaryote lifeforms over billions of years and the properties of universe (and other universes!) at large. This link is technically called an observational selection effect, and if from now on anybody wishes to seriously study these matters, "Anthropic Bias" is without question an excellent place to start.
Bostrom's book makes amusing, although at times quite exacting, reading. Early on, he gives a splendid overview of the entire field of anthropic reasoning, much used and abused in the last quarter of century. Then, almost imperceptibly, he passes on to several instances in which the nature of the anthropic selection effect becomes clearer and clearer. From quantum cosmology to annoying traffic jams, from quantum mechanics to Adam and Eve thought experiments, from freak observers created by black holes' evaporation radiation to the (in)famous Doomsday argument of Gott, Carter and Leslie (not to mention future totalitarian world government and paranormal causation), the book reads as an exciting detective novel, as you rapidly change settings following the same thread of evidence to the main culprit: the universal observational selection effect, explained in detail in the Chapter 10, arguably the culmination of the drama. Here, Bostrom develops a theory which promises a unifying treatment of observations, in particular in cosmology, explicating in detail the accompanying Bayesian methodology. The unity of the underlying analysis is emphasized in the final Chapter, where new theory is aplied in several fields of contemporary research.
Probably the worst thing one can say about this book is that it is too short. After finishing it, the reader is left with the impression that the very scope of the new theory is such that there is enough material for entirely another book, or at least reconsideration of many issues treated previously. The re-reading potential is thus very strong. The reader will also find some consolation for finishing the book in a detailed and cleverly composed bibliography. In any case, she or he will probably never think about the relationship of man and the universe in the same way as before.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent as usual 10 April 2009
By Rob Zahra - Published on
This is a powerful unification and expansion of a number of papers Bostrom has written. He's usually many steps ahead of most other thinkers on whatever subject he's considering, and this appears to me to be the case here as well. I'm not fully comfortable with the conclusions about the relativity of one's choice of reference class, but I don't currently see any better solution. This book has made it much easier to think about the issues clearly. Highly recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking 16 Mar 2005
By Peter McCluskey - Published on
This book discusses selection effects as they affect reasoning on topics such as the Doomsday Argument, whether you will choose a lane of traffic that is slower than average, and whether we can get evidence for or against the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Along the way it poses some unusual thought experiments that at first glance seem to prove some absurd conclusions. It then points out the questionable assumptions about what constitute "similar observers" upon which the absurd conclusions depend, and in doing so it convinced me that the Doomsday Argument is weaker than I had previously thought.

It says some interesting things about the implications of a spatially infinite universe, and of the possibility that the number of humans will be infinite.

It is not easy to read, but there's little reason to expect a book on this subject could be both easy to read and correct.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A reinventing of the maximum entropy principle 8 Jan 2014
By Tim Tyler - Published on
This is the second book on observation selection effects I have read. The first was Barrow and Tipler's book on the topic. The good news is that this book is better than Barrow and Tipler's book was. On the positive side, the book embraces and uses Bayesian statistics, which helps to clarify many of its examples. It is a good example of how to use mathematics helpfully in a popular science book. The book is easy to read and clearly presented. However, I felt that it failed to make some important steps.

The history of the idea of observation selection seems like a bit of a scientific embarrassment. To clarify the field, I think there are some inter-disciplinary links that need to be made. We already have a fairly mature and well-established science of selection - in the form of evolutionary theory. Observation selection is special a case of selection - and so needs to be married with evolutionary theory. Similarly, "survival of the fittest" is an instance of the more general principle of "observation of the observable". Both areas produce cases of adaptive fitness.

Another relevant link is the maximum entropy principle - which is part of Bayesian statistics. This book presents what it calls the "Self-Sampling Assumption" - the idea being that:

"All other things equal, an observer should reason as if they are randomly selected from the set of all actually existent observers (past, present and future) in their reference class."

The "Self-Sampling Assumption" represents the maximum entropy principle applied to observers - in the special case where nothing is known about which member of a set of observers is involved.

The maximum entropy principle neatly covers this case - and it deals with other cases where additional information is available. It also deals with uncertainty concerning other entities besides observers. It is a very general statistical principle.

Rather frustratingly the book fails to make either link. It argues for the broad applicability of the S.S.A. to scientific topics. However science already has an older, and more broadly-applicable framework which covers this topic - namely the maximum entropy principle. It seems hard to make a case for giving a very limited subset of this principle such a grandiose name.

Another strange thing about the book is its choice of examples. There seemed to be a big emphasis on cosmology and doomsday. I understand these are areas of personal interest to the author - and reflect the history of the topic. While interesting, these examples seem kind-of remote from everyday experience, and are often challenging to understand and test. Since observation selection effects apply to all observations, I thought it was surprising not to have more everyday examples from practical fields - such as medicine and ecology.

The author recognizes that the term "anthropic" is terrible, but he nonetheless puts it in the title of the book. That seems rather disappointing to me.

Overall, while it is great to have a new book about observation selection effects, I felt that there was too much reinventing of the wheel going on here. The S.S.A. is a rechristened and cut-down version of the maximum entropy principle. Since it seems so inferior to the common wisdom in the field, it doesn't seem to deserve the positive treatment it receives in this book.
1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Amazingly Disappointing 27 Mar 2013
By Achin - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I purchased this with the thought that it would be a great resource for an extended essay concerning selection bias and the nature of both science and philosophy. I was thoroughly disappointed.
Bostrom attempts to demonstrate the invalidity of a multitude of both uses and interpretations of the Anthropic Principle, generally claiming that whomever he is currently proving wrong is incorrect because he (Bostrom) is going to define the words they used differently. In other cases his examples simply make no sense (it is obviously reasonable to assume that actually drawing the shortest straw from a stack of 1,048,576 is due to chance, and not due to rigging of the system).
He seems to have a general lack of actual understanding of the physics he is dealing with, a view easily obtained with but a little background research. The language he employs is overly superfluous (just as that was), and at times he sounds like a preppy school boy showing off the language he just learned for the SAT.
I will admit that Bostrom had some valid points, but the style of writing and his obvious bias (ironically favoring a multitude of authors (Leslie, van Inwagen, etc.)) made it exceedingly difficult for me to read the book in its entirety, resulting in a very premature abortion of the reading.
I believe Bostrom's book is a great example of the effects of selection bias, demonstrating the irrationality that it can lead to and its ability to corrupt even those who are purportedly well-versed in it, and would recommend reading it only to see this phenomena.
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