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

Nick Bostrom
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 20, 2010 0415883946 978-0415883948

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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Editorial Reviews


"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

Product Details

  • Series: Studies in Philosophy
  • Paperback: 238 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (June 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415883946
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415883948
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,412,147 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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 groundbreaking 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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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep, thoughtful - and yet so funny book! September 11, 2002
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.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent as usual April 10, 2009
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.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking March 16, 2005
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.
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