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Mediocrity principle

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The mediocrity principle is the philosophical notion that "if an item is drawn at random from
one of several sets or categories, it's likelier to come from the most numerous category than
from any one of the less numerous categories" (Kukla 2009). The principle has been taken
to suggest that there is nothing very unusual about the evolution of the Solar System,
the Earth, humans, or any one nation. It is aheuristic in the vein of the Copernican principle,
and is sometimes used as a philosophical statement about the place of humanity. The idea is
to assume mediocrity, rather than starting with the assumption that a phenomenon is special,
privileged or exceptional.
[1]

[2][3]

Consistent with the notion, astronomers reported, on 4 November 2013, that there could be
as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of sun-like
stars and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way Galaxy, based on Kepler space
mission data. 11 billion of these estimated planets may be orbiting sun-like stars. The
nearest such planet may be 12 light-years away, according to the scientists.
[4][5]

[6]

[4][5]

Contents
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1 Extraterrestrial life
2 Other uses of the heuristic
3 See also
4 Notes
5 References
6 External links

Extraterrestrial life[edit]

Life on Earth is ubiquitous, but does it exist elsewhere?.

The mediocrity principle suggests, given the existence of life on Earth, that life typically exists
on Earth-like planets throughout the universe. Andr Kukla criticizes the argument from
mediocrity on two counts:
[7]

The first is that whatever prima facie plausibility the principle of mediocrity may have is
entirely dependent on the single case having been drawn at random. But the earth is not a
randomly selected planet... The problem of randomness aside, the principle of mediocrity... is
amenable to two drastically different readings, one of which is a probabilistic truism, the other
a fallacy. The principle that's needed to underwrite [extraterrestrial intelligence] is the
fallacious version. But the fallacy is obscured by virtue of its being confused with the truism.
On one reading, the principle states that the single randomly drawn object is more likely to
have come from the category that we know to be more numerous. This is the truism. If
category A contains 3 elements and category B contains 1 element, then a random draw
from the total population of 4 elements has a 3/4 probability of having come from A, and only
a 1/4 probability of having come from B. This inference presupposes that we have
antecedent knowledge of the relative numerosities of the classes A and B. In its
[extraterrestrial intelligence] application, however, our antecedent knowledge and the
inference we draw from it are reversed. We know that the random choice has come from A,
and we infer from this that A is probably more numerous than B. For example, the classes A
and B are "inhabitable planets that contain life" and "inhabitable planets that do not contain
life," respectively, and the fact that our single examined case belongs to A is alleged to
license the inference that A is probably more numerous than B (more vaguely, that the
proportion of A's is not inconsiderable). This is an altogether more speculative inference than
the first.
[1]

Andr Kukla, Extraterrestrials: A Philosophical Perspective

Other uses of the heuristic[edit]


David Deutsch argues that the mediocrity principle is not actually correct from a physical
point of view, either in reference to our part of the universe or to our species. Deutsch refers
to Stephen Hawking's quote that "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderatesized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a
hundred billion galaxies", noting that our neighborhood in the universe is not typical (80% of
the universe's mass is dark matter) and that a concentration of mass such as our solar
system is an "isolated, uncommon phenomenon". He also argues with Richard Dawkins's
opinion that humans, as result of natural evolution, are limited to the capabilities of our
species Deutsch responds that even though evolution did not give humans the ability to
detect neutrinos, scientists can currently detect them, significantly expanding their
capabilities beyond what is available as a result of evolution.
[8]