Convinced by fine-tuning?

Cosmic fine tuning was one of the arguments put forward to me as evidence in favor of a god’s existence, in that epic comment thread a while back. Jojo the hun wrote,

I’m very interested in the observation that the values of a number of independent physical constants have a highly unlikely combination of values which are needed in order to support matter, an ordered universe, and life as we know it, and the associated argument that the universe has been fine tuned for our benefit. To the extent that Creation is distinct from its creator I think one should expect some evidence of this type.

I don’t find this argument compelling for a number of reasons. First is the problem of how we assess and understand what is likely or unlikely. Let’s look at an example. If shuffle a standard deck of cards and start turning them over one at a time, I’m going to get some sequence — say, a 4 of hearts, then an 8 of spades, then a king of diamonds, and so on. The probability of the cards being randomly arranged into exactly the order that creates that entire sequence is very small: 1/52! (that’s factorial), or about a 1.24 x 10-66 percent chance. In other words, if you examined 1049 (or ten trillion trillion trillion trillion) random shuffles for each grain of sand on the planet, odds are that you would get this exact sequence only once. The thing is, that’s the probability of getting any of the other possible orderings of cards, too. Yet you’re going to get one of them. In every case, the exact order that you get is almost unfathomably unlikely, and the odds of having gotten anything else is near 100%. Does that mean that some supernatural agent probably intervened to choose the way the cards shuffled? I don’t think that’s implied at all.

It’s a rather humorously understated fact that there are a lot of events that have happened over the course of the universe’s existence. Even if we restrict our view to the events in the history of our planet, or even in our individual lifetimes, there are a vast number of times that things could have gone one way (or one of a number of ways) but instead went another. Each specific sequence is incredibly unlikely to have happened, just like with our deck of cards. But there are an incredibly huge number of incredibly unlikely possibilities, so the odds that one of them might have happened is actually quite high. Looking back on it, it can seem like our one particular shuffle of the deck must have some magical significance. But some particular ordering was bound to happen.

Another issue that I have with these “calculations” is the totally ad hoc way in which they seem to be carried out. How exactly does one assess the odds of the strong nuclear force or the van der Waals interaction having exactly the magnitude that they do? I’ve read several books in which apologists state some specific number, a one followed by ever so many zeroes, as though they know, but I’ve never seen any kind of citation for where the actual numbers themselves came from. It’s kind of like the Drake equation — the factors being chosen as necessary conditions aren’t so unreasonable on face, but plugging any values into that formula just seems laughable. (I’m not saying it’s impossible. Just saying I have no clue how anyone’s been able to do it. If you know, please do comment!)

A third problem is what’s often referred to as the “anthropic principle.” From our vantage point, it’s basically impossible to distinguish the necessary conditions from the unnecessary ones. The development of sapient life in bipedal primates, or even carbon-based life in general, is not clearly the only way things could have gone. Silicon-based life forms in our position might easily look at the world around them and think, “Wow, if silicon had been much less abundant and the universe had been full of carbon instead, none of this would have happened!” Our precise circumstances will seem narrowly tailored to our very specific parameters of existence, but that’s hardly surprising. Any entity capable of observing its environment will necessarily be observing an environment in which that entity can exist. As I described in the previous paragraph, given that we don’t actually understand the full range of physical parameters within which matter, order, and/or intelligent life might come to be, it’s shaky at best to make any sweeping conclusions about what’s essentially a coincidence.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that humans are great agency detectors, and not without good reason. But just because something looks like design or intent doesn’t mean that it actually is. We’re also rather prone to imagining that everything is about us — if not ourselves as individuals, than about our family, our community, or humanity as a whole. Perhaps you are not convinced by my earlier, more mathematical arguments, and you are still amazed that we live in such an incredibly unlikely universe. Still, I would ask you: on what basis do you conclude that that unlikely universe was made for the purpose of housing us, and is therefore an indicator that there exists a god who cares for humanity? we humans might well be a side effect of a universe fine-tuned for something else entirely. (I’m very fond of Luke Muehlhauser’s suggestion that the universe might have been fine-tuned for iPads.)

Then there’s the issue raised by this super SMBC comic: if you find it inspiring to believe that the universe is fine-tuned for the good things (like human life, and puppies, and rainbows, and the sound of laughter), then shouldn’t you be equally convinced that the universe was fine-tuned for the nasty stuff as well? All of the probability sleight-of-hand works just the same.

"Just imagine how fine-tuned the universe is! Why, if there weren't just the right composition of elements in Earth, we might not have tectonic plates! And then there'd hardly be any earthquakes at all!"

So no, I’m not convinced by appeals to fine-tuning. I think they rely on distortions of probability and statistics in order to make an arbitrary appeal to a supernatural force where none is necessary. Even setting aside all the math, fine tuning is often invoked by people who still have a long way to go before they get to any evidence for their god, who they usually claim is uniquely interested in and benevolent toward humans.

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27 Comments

  1. Ubi Dubium

     /  August 10, 2011 at 9:56 am

    I can’t think about the “fine-tuning” argument without thinking of Douglas Adams’ sentient puddle:

    ” Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.”

    Actually the best argument I have seen for fine tuning is carbon 14. The radioactive isotope that has the most useful half-life for dating human artifacts is also happens to be the one that is naturally replenished in the atmosphere so it’s readily available for the purpose. Almost as if an intelligence wanted us to study science and find out about our history. (Which would certainly not be the god of the fundies!) Not that I find this convincing, but it’s better than the way the fundies pull impossible odds out of their butts with no citations.

  2. Great post NFQ!

  3. Jojo the hun

     /  August 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    An assumption of the argument that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life is that life itself, specifically human life, is important, special, and meaningful, in some objective way. If you don’t agree with that assumption then the argument is kind of pointless and not worth discussing–you could rightfully argue that the universe happens to be this way, and with different physics the universe would be some other equally improbable way, and there is really no remarkable aspect to the whole thing.

    Applied to the playing cards example: imagine you shuffle a deck randomly, then deal the cards in sequence from the top and find ace of clubs, then ace of hearts, then ace of clubs, then ace of diamonds, then two of spades, etc, the entire deck following this pattern. You’d be amazed. If you actually were to do this, and get this result, and report it here, we’d be very skeptical. We’d think you were lying (sorry!), or confused, or deceived. We’d hypothesize some pattern you’d used unconsciously in shuffling the cards. Any thinking person would doubt you, and you’d probably doubt yourself.

    Why? Isn’t the sequence you dealt as equally likely as any other? Yes, but it’s got a special pattern to it, and not just subjectively special. Are there other such special patterns? Yes, but relatively few, and the chance of dealing one is infinitesimally small. There is no way of looking at the event, no way of couching the terms, that makes it believable, even though it is entirely physically possible.

    I think this gets to the essence of the fine tuning arguments, formulated by scientists, not theologians, that imply that there is something extraordinary going on.

  4. Aristarchus

     /  August 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    The deck of cards example is almost too generous an analogy. In that example, the process in question is actually random. The speed of light just is what it is. You can believe it was chosen by God, in which case it’s not random. Or you can believe it’s not chosen by God, in which case it’s… probably also not random. Maybe there’s some deeper reason we don’t know of why it has the value it does. Maybe there isn’t. But it’s very unlikely that there’s some sort of random process that, say, picks a number uniformly between 5 and 10^15 m/s and makes that the speed of light. People like to think of things that happen for reasons they aren’t aware of as “random” or “lucky”, and that works perfectly well in everyday speech, but in this sort of case you have to be more careful. As you said, even if they were random, it’s very possible that they would support intelligent life with high probability or that the anthropic principle explains why we see only very unlikely events, etc., but there’s no reason to believe they’re random in the first place. Or that if they are random the probability distribution from which they’re drawn is wide. Remember, the idea of “picking a random number” makes no sense. You have to, say, “pick a random number uniformly between 1 and 100″.

  5. Jojo the hun

     /  August 11, 2011 at 1:09 am

    Aristarchus asks a good initial point about the randomness. Just focusing on physical constants: currently there are a few handfuls of fundamental physical constants that cannot be defined in terms of other ones, the ratio of two of them only expressible as an apparently arbitrary number. The ratio of the proton mass to the electron mass, for example, is 1836.15267245 etc. Why that particular value? The ratio of the electromagnetic force to the gravitational force is something like 10 to the 39…it’s huge, and again, why that particular order of magnitude? Here’s a respected source that uses a few constants to form a basis of units and then counts 26 independent numbers that are needed to account for all the values of known constants. A physical “theory of everything” would thus need 26 seemingly arbitrary numbers to be plugged in. I think there is a general expectation that some of these numbers will be shown to depend on others, e.g. all the quark masses may be reducible to three or even one, but it’s very speculative to suggest that the total number can be reduced to one or even zero, as many would like. Anyway this is where things stand today, and it is natural to ask where these particular numbers come from. A cartoonish yet suggestive view pictures God in a control room adjusting 26 dials and choosing all these values independently before creating the universe. A common view among many physicists is that there in fact was/is some process in which all these numbers were/are randomly set. True randomness from no apparent source is already a facet of quantum reality as we currently know it.

    The interesting point, of course, is that quite a few of the ratios between these values have to fall within narrow ranges in order for there to be things like complex atoms, stars that live long enough for life to evolve, and planetary surfaces where the weight of things is low enough that large and complex (intelligent) living things can survive.

    Assuming these constants are random, a natural question is, as Aristarchus points out: what range of values can they take? A typical way of approaching this seems to go like this: if the ratio between two particular constants were only 1% greater or 5% less, some essential process would not be able to occur, so there is a less than 1 in 20 chance that human life could exist if these constants were set randomly. Again, these coincidences are noted by scientists who are immersed in their fields. It appears to me, unfortunately, that when scientists and especially non-scientists try to compile these coincidences, there tends to be a lot of double-counting, and a lot of non-essential coincidences thrown in. And of course there is much judgement involved in calculating even a rough probability for any one of the coincidences found. Hence the difficulty in finding a reliable total probability, as NFQ notes.

  6. Aristarchus

     /  August 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Jojo, you completely missed the point of what I said.

    And this….

    if the ratio between two particular constants were only 1% greater or 5% less, some essential process would not be able to occur, so there is a less than 1 in 20 chance that human life could exist if these constants were set randomly.

    …. is complete garbage. Learn some math.

  7. Jojo the hun

     /  August 11, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Learn some manners. NFQ asked for anyone who knows to explain how it’s done.

    Why don’t you explain the point you think I missed a little more coherently? And then explain why the reasoning I mentioned is complete garbage, and how you would approach the problem yourself.

  8. Wait, what were you explaining? It didn’t make any sense to me either; I didn’t even realize it was addressing that particular question.

    I’m baffled by people who turn a vague, Drake-equation-type statement about the factors that make up our universe into some actual, specific number. Here’s an example I found just now by a Google search for “cosmic fine tuning ‘the odds are one in’”:

    Astronomers and cosmologists have calculated the odds of a planet being formed by random chance processes that just happened to possess all of these conditions which make life possible on earth. The odds are one in 10^53, which is many orders of magnitude higher than the maximum number of planets in the universe, which is estimated at 10^22.

    But in order to talk about “odds,” you need to have an understanding of the probability distribution that those events are coming from. We live in a universe where the various physical constants are what they are. What is the chance that they were something different? I don’t have any idea how you could begin to talk about such a thing, much less study it scientifically. I certainly haven’t ever heard a scientist say something like, “There was a 0.5% chance that the speed of light would be 299,792,458 m/s.” Jojo, maybe you could tell us who some of these “scientists who are immersed in their fields” are, who are able to come up with these kinds of numbers and how they do it.

  9. Jojo the hun

     /  August 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Time out. NFQ, do you want this to be a debate, or a dialectic? In other words, are we trying to win an argument, or are we trying to inform ourselves and others and get a little closer to the truth? Your post seems to be debate-like, but I think I’ve seen you indicate elsewhere that you wish people would essentially talk more dialectically about these things.

  10. Um. Can I answer “yes” to that question? I don’t think it’s an either-or. Outside the context of an actual, literal competition, I don’t debate just to win. I put forward my position because I do think I’m right, and I’ve investigated and thought through the issue enough that I don’t expect to be bowled over by some new bit of information I haven’t considered. I guess that’s why my post seems “debate-like” to you. However, if you have some new bit of information I haven’t considered, I definitely want to hear it, and I’ll hear it respectfully (and change my mind if doing so is warranted). So … I guess that means dialectic?

  11. Jojo the hun

     /  August 12, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Okay. I feel a wide ranging, deep speech about my motivations for commenting here is appropriate, but it’s late, so maybe at some other juncture. All right, time in.

    I don’t get the sense that anyone else on this thread really gets the import of the idea of the universe seeming to be “fine tuned”. Maybe Keith, I don’t know.

    Perhaps it’s your sources. Are you reading about this issue from apologists? It’s natural to be biased against an argument put forth by people with whom you have disagreements or hostilities. And unless they are scientists or have a strong science background it is likely that they’ll goof up the explication, perhaps a lot. Are you reading about this issue from evangelical atheists? Consider that they may not be putting forth the idea in its most reasonable fashion.

    I believe I first read about “fine tuning” (without that phrase being used) and the anthropic principle rebuttal, in Roger Penrose’s book The Emperor’s New Mind, pgs 433-434. When I read this book about twenty years ago I thought the anthropic principle was pretty clever. I noticed last night when I dug it out that while Penrose accepted the “weak anthropic principle” as an explanation for some kinds of fine-tuning apparent coincidences, he did not really accept the strong version as a good explanation for all the remaining ones. I also read about it in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, at about the same time. He discusses the issue with respect to the cosmological constant at length in the somewhat dated Chapter 8, and gives a clear and forceful presentation of the general idea on page 125. Neither one of these then-prominent scientists gives any citations–at the time I just accepted the premise on their authority. It wasn’t until relatively recently, when I read a science historian’s claim that the fine tuning argument turned him from atheism to theism that I did any serious thinking on this, and only in the last day that I’ve tried to nail down original sources for some of the coincidences that are at the bottom of this matter.

    I suggest you read the wikipedia article on the fine-tuned universe and the Hawking reference, if you haven’t already. It looks like Barrow and Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, is a classic on this subject.

    Regarding the probabilities: I’m getting the impression that these are mostly aftermarket items, and that they are not generally recognized as having much weight. I can see the attraction to apologists to have some kind of probabilities to make their arguments more understandable; perhaps it does more harm than help. I have found one scientist, Fred Hoyle, who actually did calculate astronomical probabilities for some of the coincidences he noticed among his own discoveries as well as those of others. I don’t see his method. The method I mentioned in the earlier comment, I’ll explain, if needed, after Aristarchus responds. It’s not a great method, but it’s not garbage, given what there is to work with. Though maybe he is right about my math, as I think I should have said roughly 6%, or roughly one in 15, in that example:(

  12. Aristarchus

     /  August 12, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Jojo, the burden of proof doesn’t lie on me. You didn’t give any reason why you made the logical leap you did. But nevertheless, here’s an example of applying your logic to something else that will hopefully make it clear why it’s bad:

    Say we were trying to figure out the chance that a school senior is 18 years old. So we pick a random high school senior and find out their age very precisely. It turns out they were born 18.1 years ago. That means they’re 18, but just barely. In fact, if they were only half a percent younger, they wouldn’t be 18. So by your logic we would conclude that we were insanely lucky. We only got what we were looking for with a half-percent margin of error, so there must be only a half-percent chance that we would have gotten an 18 year old. We must have been insanely lucky! (In reality, there was a very high chance we got an 18 year old and it’s not remarkable at all.)

  13. Jojo the hun

     /  August 12, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    Well you haven’t explained the point you think I missed, and you haven’t suggested a better way of addressing the probability issue, Aristarchus.

    As for your example: I’m not strongly interested in defending that method of estimating probabilities, but I am interested in defending clear thinking and expression. If you mean the chance that the person is at least 18, not the chance that the person is exactly 18 within a certain range of precision, then you should say so. There’s actually a great way that people have learned to express it to avoid confusion: they say “at least 18″. It seems like that’s what you mean, but in my example I gave a range, with an upper and lower value. There’s a big difference.

    Also you introduce the information that the person is a high school senior. There is no counterpart in the physical constants situation.

    It might be interesting to try to salvage your analogy, but it would need some work.

  14. All right, please forgive me for stepping into the middle of this, but I think I might be able to clarify things a bit. Let me know if I’m not helping. :)

    I believe the objection that Aristarchus is raising, Jojo, is that you don’t know anything about the probability distribution of the problem you’re talking about. It seems that you are implicitly assuming it to be uniform — that is, that there is an equal likelihood of the result having any value in the allowable range. You are also assuming something about that allowable range, though I’m not entirely sure what it is.

    Let me try to make Aristarchus’ example more explicit. We’re going to pick a person completely at random, and then determine their age. Let’s imagine people could be any age from 0 to 100. (A simplification, but a reasonable one.) Does that mean that there is a 1% chance of finding a person at any age from 1 to 100? No. There are different numbers of people alive at different ages. There’s a lower chance of finding a 98-year-old than a 5-year-old. You could imagine looking at a histogram showing how many people are alive at each given age. The height of each bar would correspond to how many people are that many years old. The probability of finding a person at that age, then, is weighted by how many people of that age there are in the population.

    If we were to pick our person not out of the general population but out of a single high school, we would be looking at a different probability distribution. The possible people would range in age from about 15 to 18, with roughly equal numbers in each year because the high school controls class size externally. (There might be somewhat smaller numbers of 14- and 19-year-olds, who are at the extremes of age ranges for their class years.) The odds of finding an 18-year-old now are not 1-in-100, and not proportional to national demographics, but something more like 25%. (Maybe more like 20% if you adjust for those younger freshmen or older seniors.)

    If we’re picking our person not out of the entire high school but instead out of the senior class, we’re now almost certain to get an 18-year-old. The probability distribution is very narrow (there are some 17-year-olds and some 19-year-olds, but not many) and it is centered on 18.

    If we were to “pick a physical constant’s value randomly” — and it’s not even clear that it is a fully random process, but let’s suppose for the sake of discussion that it is — are we picking out of an infinite range of numbers? Are we picking from some limited range? Can the numbers take only integer values, only positive values, only rational values, only real values? Is there a uniform probability of getting any number in whatever the allowed range is, or are there some possibilities that are weighted more heavily? The fact is, we don’t know any of the answers to these questions when we’re talking about physical constants — as far as I’ve heard or read, at least.

  15. Ubi Dubium

     /  August 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Yes, exactly! Thanks, NFQ.

    As for figuring out any of these rules, our data set only has a single data point in it, only one universe, so how would be even begin figuring out a probability distribution to gauge the likelihood of other values? Now if it were possible to measure a few thousand other universes, we might have something to work with. Then we could talk odds.

  16. Aristarchus

     /  August 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Jojo, before you spend a whole lot of time pointing out the difference between “exactly 18″ and “at least 18″ you should stop and think about whether a single thing in my example would be wrong if you changed it to “exactly 18″. (Hint: it wouldn’t)

    I also don’t know how to explain the point you missed. Reread my post. I can’t make it any more clear. The point is that not only do we not know the probability distribution in question, we have no reason to believe there is a probability distribution. We have no reason at all to believe that in the physical non-God model of the universe these numbers are chosen randomly at all.

  17. Jojo the hun

     /  August 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Yes, NFQ, exactly. I think your whole analysis is on the mark.

    It might be more reasonable to assume a normal distribution, centered on the one data point we know, with an infinite range, in which case it doesn’t matter whether the possible values are discrete or continuous … but you have absolutely no idea what the standard deviation is, so this won’t get you any numerical answer.

    Assuming the value can range from close to zero up to at least the known value, with a uniform distribution, at least gives you an answer, and one that could be claimed to be conservative, since the range could very well be much larger. Honestly, it doesn’t seem very satisfactory to me, and I think it would be generally better for apologists to simply describe the coincidences themselves rather than cite impressively large but shakily constructed odds against them.

    I guess that a good analogy could still be instructive. Any analogy using ages is poor because we know for a fact that it’s possible to have any age from zero to the known age, so that overestimates the odds. On the other hand we assume there is a limit, such as 100 years old, which is not the case with the physical constants, so that underestimates the odds. Also, a point that you would probably want to stress is that there has to be something convincingly special about the age (or whatever) we are singling out. Why is 18 so much more special than 19, or any other equally unlikely age?

  18. Jojo the hun

     /  August 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks for clarifying which points in that comment you thought I completely missed, Aristarchus. Again, I was briefly reporting on a common outlook and on a particular method, and not advocating or trying to justify that method of calculating probabilities. I was aware of the distribution issue before your comment, if that helps, and I think the last few comments here address the distribution issue pretty well. As to whether it makes sense to even talk about there being any kind of randomness and implicitly an associated distribution, I think that is very much part of the approach that some leading scientists take to this issue. Read some of the Scientific American articles in the last few years, such as that of Max Tegmark, on this–fairly accessible.

    I think you have the assessment about randomness wrong–the theistic view is that the constants are not set randomly, but have been intelligently chosen by God. The non-theistic view is the one that infers some random process. The view that these numbers do not require any explanation and just are what they are is one of incuriousity.

    Regarding your example: are you trying to say that since high school seniors can only be 17 or 18 that “at least 18″ means the same as “18″? If so, then yes, of course they’re interchangeable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the issue we are discussing. We don’t know beforehand what possible range of values the constants can have, and a probability we arrive at and use now has to reflect the knowledge we have now. Regarding the issue we were discussing, there is all the difference between “at least 18″ and “exactly 18″.

  19. Aristarchus

     /  August 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Ok, let’s try this one last time. The following statement from you is false:

    I think you have the assessment about randomness wrong–the theistic view is that the constants are not set randomly, but have been intelligently chosen by God. The non-theistic view is the one that infers some random. process

    The point I’ve been making this whole time is that the non-theistic view does not require the process to be random. Imagine that instead of considering why the fundamental constants we observe in the universe allow for live, we lived 3000 years ago and were asking why the earth is round. Being spherical is a pretty special shape. It’s very unlikely that if you just mash some material together you get a sphere. A sphere allows for life to live on the surface in a pretty reasonable way that weird messed up shapes wouldn’t. You could say “It’s incredibly unlikely that the earth would jut randomly be a sphere” and conclude that their must be a supernatural designer. But that would be dumb. What we know now is that the cause of the earth being round is both not supernatural and not random. Intentional design and randomness are not the only options.

    As for the age example… Yes, in this case we happen to know something about high school seniors that would modify our probabilities. But if we didn’t, we could still use your logic, and it would be wrong. My point is that in this case we don’t know the probability distribution (now assuming one even exists) and that it is not logical to therefore assume it can take any value between 0 and the known value. It’s also not rational to assume it’s a normal distribution.

    And the point here isn’t just that you can’t get an exact number. It’s not that it might be 3% instead of 1%. It’s that it might be 99%. The logic is bad. It’s not just slightly bad. It’s just bad. It’s not that we don’t know the probability exactly. It’s that we don’t even know it’s low.

    Or that it exists….

  20. Jojo the hun

     /  August 12, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    A, let’s lighten up a bit. You caught me on an over-generalization, but you made the same mistake, lol. There’s not just one non-theistic view, or only one theistic view, or one “other” view, for that matter.

    Let me probe your outlook, if you don’t mind. Do you accept that, currently, there are 26 different numbers, associated with fundamental physical constants, that are independent of one another? Do you accept that an intelligent person could categorize 26 independent numbers as in some sense random? Do you suspect that there is some underlying and undiscovered connection between some or all of the physical constants? What do you think of the multiverse idea, that there are many universes, or many large regions of one very large universe, that have different sets of values for some or all of the physical constants? Do you think there is anything at all particularly interesting and curious about this issue? Do you think it is a legitimate problem for intelligent people to work on? Feel free to re-frame the questions as you wish–I understand that the wordings reflect the way that I see things, and that you may see things differently.

  21. Aristarchus

     /  August 12, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Where did I overgeneralize? I didn’t say the non-theist view. I just said that the non-theist view (i.e., that the values weren’t set by God) doesn’t require them to be random. Of course they still could be random, but atheists in general don’t claim to know one way or the other.

    Do you accept that, currently, there are 26 different numbers, associated with fundamental physical constants, that are independent of one another?

    I don’t know if the number is exactly 26, but are there a handful of fundamental constants in physics? yes.

    Do you accept that an intelligent person could categorize 26 independent numbers as in some sense random?

    No. We have no idea how they came to be. One possibility is that they are in some way random, but we cannot assume that at all.

    Do you suspect that there is some underlying and undiscovered connection between some or all of the physical constants?

    It seems like a reasonable possibility. It seems unlikely that we don’t still have deeper physics to figure out. That said, there are only about 2000 people on earth who are smart enough and educated enough to have real noteworthy opinions on this.

    What do you think of the multiverse idea, that there are many universes, or many large regions of one very large universe, that have different sets of values for some or all of the physical constants?

    Again, it seems reasonable, but I’m not really qualified to say. Someone told me once that they thought that was very possible, and that person had a Nobel prize in physics, so I would be inclined to say it’s at least easily within the realm of possibility.

    Do you think there is anything at all particularly interesting and curious about this issue?

    Curious about why physical constants are what they are? Of course. The rate of acceleration of falling objects used to seem like a fundamental constant. Then as we tried to figure out where it came from, we ended up with Newton discovering gravity. So yes, definitely something worth investigating.

    Do you think it is a legitimate problem for intelligent people to work on?

    See above. Yes. But “work on” doesn’t mean “wildly assume particular things with no reason.” Really, at some very deep level being an atheist really is the ability to accept not knowing things. It means knowing that a lack of answer isn’t evidence for a particular answer. And people have a long history of making up particular answers to unknown questions that place those people a unique position of prominence that they turn out not to have. Early people though they lived at the center of the world. Then that the Earth was the only world. Then that there were other objects in space, but the Earth was in the middle. They saw evolution happening all around them, even using it to breed animals, but refused to believe that people could have come from that process. The list goes on and on.

    There’s no reason to believe there’s anything particular special about the universe as it exists. Maybe it’s just dumb luck. Maybe it isn’t actually that lucky and lots of other choices of physical constants would have led to universes with intelligent life. Maybe they would have led to entirely different things, but which are no less “special”. Maybe there is a multiverse and the physical constants aren’t really constants. Or maybe there’s just some deeper theory (like gravity) that explains them in some deeply logical way. And maybe there is a magical being who set them carefully so as to create a universe that would eventually create intelligent life on the earth, and then he came to those people and told them that actually he created them 6000 years before in a magical garden, just because he thought it would be fun to see what crazy stuff he could make them believe. I really have no way of knowing, but that last option doesn’t seem particularly likely to me.

  22. Jojo the hun

     /  August 13, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks, A. Looking back over the conversation, it makes your comments much more comprehensible to me.

    I find NFQ’s comments much easier to understand. Partly I think that’s because I’ve read more of her stuff, but also partly because of her writing style in her comments. She goes out of her way to give a lot of context and some redundancy. Like everyone she makes assumptions, but I find I can navigate them. Your writing style in the comments can be packed with assumptions, and without a lot of context or redundancy. Those sharing your assumptions probably find it easier to follow. Also, you use your wording very carefully sometimes. And sometimes you don’t. I try to judge how carefully someone is choosing their words in order to gauge how much time and attention I should pay in reading it, and occasionally that will lead me to miss some important nuances in meaning.

    I’m a bit surprised that this thread has revolved around, as I’ll phrase it, the framing of the existence of an issue or problem, rather around the interpretation of it.

    I wonder what you’ve read about the fine-tuning issue, or whatever you’d call it, other than what’s in this thread. Doesn’t necessarily have to be anything, as you didn’t originally bring up the subject.

  23. Aristarchus

     /  August 13, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    I’m glad the last post helped clarify things. You’re right that I don’t repeat myself much. I think you’ll find that my wording is (almost – I’m human) always accurate. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t really matter which word I use, so I just pick one.

    But you’re basically right. There are two issues here. One is whether there’s any surprising coincidence at all. The other is whether, if you believe there’s a surprising coincidence, it’s evidence of God. We’re objecting to the fine-tuning argument on both grounds. (It’s very well might not be random, so there’s no “coincidence”, etc., and even if it was random, things like the anthropic principle might explain it.)

    As for where I’ve read about it before, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve never read a book about it or anything. I have taken advanced physics classes, so I’ve had discussions about what might determine fundamental constants in that contexts. I’ve also discussed religion with friends and watched others debate it. I’ve read philosophy books and just had intelligent conversations with other people. None of these things have been focused on it, but it comes up from time to time. I’m not really repeating arguments from some other source, though. I’m just thinking about the issue and saying what I think.

  24. Well, I’m late to the post, but I had a thought about this argument that I wanted to float, so I’ll put it here.

    In brief, the argument from fine-tuning amounts to a proposal that a new fact, that life-permitting universes are highly physically improbable, should lead us to favour theism over atheism. But this fact alone does not favour theism over atheism, for neither hypothesis implies anything about the range of physical possibility that science appears to recently uncovered. So, it is not this fact alone that is being proposed as evidence for theism, but this fact with a subsequent addition of the observation that we live in a life permitting universe that would take us to the conclusion that some fine-tuner exists.

    So far, so good. But is it really true that this observation of life-permitting constants favours theism? Suppose instead that the observation of life-prohibiting constants is made – i.e. that when we construct a physical model with the constants we measure, we find that life is physically impossible, and yet we live. Wouldn’t this be compelling evidence for the existence of God, since it amounts to the observation life couldn’t have arisen without supernatural input? But if that’s right, then the opposing observation, that of life-permitting constants, can’t also be evidence of theism, and must instead be evidence of atheism. The fine-tuning of fundamental physical constants for life actually favours atheism over theism because it is only if the physical constants are life-permitting that atheism can be true, whereas theism is compatible of any values for the physical constants whatsoever, since God’s omnipotence would allow him to create life despite the prevailing conditions. Better, the probabilistic weight it gives to atheism over theism rises as life-permitting universes become more rare.

    I’d like to have an analogy to drive the point home, but it’s getting late as it is, so I’ll leave that to another day.

  25. Jojo the hun

     /  August 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Interesting point, TaiChi. If it is physically impossible for life to exist, and yet it does, that’s evidence that God performed or is performing some miracle.

    At first glance it seems that even if this were true it would be quite difficult to prove such a thing. More likely we’d find there are things that have to be the case, or that had to have occurred, that we cannot explain. Often enough some theists pin their hopes on a step that seemingly can’t be explained (e.g. evolution of the eye) and then it is shown how it could have happened naturally.

    Abiogenesis–that step from which non-life turned into life–comes to mind. Scientists have been working on this one for a long time, sixty years or so, and learning more and thus getting closer to an explanation, yet still have not explained it. The history of science suggests we’ll probably figure out a natural explanation for how it happened. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that, barring a miracle, it is impossible–we might not realize that for many years, if ever. So I’ll agree that this seems like an opportunity for compelling evidence of God’s existence, but even if the predicates were true it might be a long time before the evidence were recognized as “compelling”.

    I don’t understand the last points or conclusions you are making, TaiChi, starting with “whereas theism is compatible…”, and “Better…”. Could you explain a little more?

  26. “At first glance it seems that even if this were true it would be quite difficult to prove such a thing.”

    Maybe, but my focus is on how we should reason, given the truth of this or that premise. Perhaps it was misleading to put this in terms of observation, since I just meant to stress that given the values of the physical constants are life-prohibiting (in the sense of life being impossible without supernatural intervention), theism would follow.

    “I don’t understand the last points or conclusions you are making, TaiChi, starting with “whereas theism is compatible…”, and “Better…”. Could you explain a little more”

    Ok, so an omnipotent being can bring about any states of affairs which are logically possible – that’s the definition of omnipotence. The values of the physical constants determine the physical laws, but since these laws do not amount to logical laws, an omnipotent being can transgress them if it wants. So God could create a universe, having whatever with whatever physical constants determining the physical laws you like, and create life in it. Perhaps this would take the form of adding material to the universe that the physical laws could not account for, or perhaps it would require suspension of the physical laws for a small part of the universe (say, a planet), but the point is an omnipotent being could get it done regardless.

    That’s to say that the fine-tuning of physical constants isn’t something we should necessarily expect on theism. The physical constants are simply irrelevant to God’s purpose of creating life. On the other hand, given a wide range of physical possibilities, and the fact of life, the fine-tuning of physical constants is to be expected on atheism. There’s no omnipotent being which can ensure the existence of life, and so the physical constants have to be just right (i.e. such as to permit life without supernatural intervention) for life to exist. If they’re not, atheism is false.

    That’s enough to show that the apparent fine-tuning of the the physical constants doesn’t favor theism over atheism. The reason why I go further, and say that it favors atheism over theism is that the requirement that these physical constants be just right, given such a small margin of error, amounts to a bold prediction. And just like a scientific theory, a bold prediction which turns out to be correct stands in favor of the hypothesis from which it is deduced. Morevover, the bolder the prediction, the stronger evidence it is for a scientific theory, and so similarly the prediction of life-permitting values would be all the more impressive if there were few such values compared to life-prohibiting values.

    Is that helpful?

  27. Jojo the hun

     /  May 4, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    I had to think about this a little bit, TaiChi. Let me see if I’ve got your argument right. We assume that there is a wide range of possible values of the physical constants, and take as given that only a relatively narrow range of them could support life. Then we assume that if God created the universe with the desire that it could evolve life, He could have picked any combination of their values, one effectively being the same as another. And we assume, on the other hand, that if the universe follows strictly natural laws, that the combination of physical constants would simply have to fall within that narrow range. We now observe of course that the combination does in fact fall within that narrow range. Thus this argument favors, to some extent, the hypothesis that the universe obeys natural laws, and the smaller that range, the stronger the argument favors that hypothesis. Yes?

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