October 09, 2009

Universe's Fine-Tuning vs. Anthropic Objection

APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, October 8, 2009)

Universe’s Fine-tuning vs. Anthropic Objection

Contemporary science tells us that the initial conditions of the universe’s coming into being are exquisitely fine-tuned for life, so much so that many thoughtful people conclude that this fine-tuning is evidence of a supernatural intelligent designer.

The idea is this: Because there are an astronomical number of conditions that have to be “just right” for life to exist, and because life (especially human life) has intrinsic moral worth, it very much seems that there is an orchestration of factors (instead of just a huge number of mere coincidences) aimed to bring about an end or value—and this smacks of intelligent design.

Thus, the universe’s fine-tuning for life provides one more sub-argument for a cumulative case argument for God’s existence.

However, some critics, such as Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion and professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University), object to the fine-tuning argument on the basis of what is sometimes called the Anthropic Principle.

According to this objection, it is not surprising that we observe the large number of apparent coincidences which make the universe's initial conditions conducive to life. Why isn't it surprising? Because, Dawkins and company point out, those conditions obviously constitute the set of conditions required for our existence. If those coincidences didn’t occur as they did, then we wouldn’t be around to observe them, let alone think about them.

Therefore (so the objection goes) there is no puzzle or mystery that suggests intelligent design. In fact, Dawkins asserts, the Anthropic Principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation.”

The objection sounds good and persuades many, but is it sound? That is to ask, is the objection rationally acceptable?

We should think not.

Consider the following thought experiment, set out by the philosopher William Lane Craig (in a debate at Queen’s University in the early 1990s): "You're dragged before a firing squad of a hundred trained marksmen with rifles aimed at your heart; you hear the command; you hear the roar of the guns; and you see that you're still alive, that they all missed [i.e., you see one hundred 'apparent coincidences']. You say: 'That's not surprising, because their missing is obviously required for me to be alive.'"

Now, Craig astutely points out: "The fact that you are making the observation is not surprising given that they missed. But the 'coincidence' of missing needs explanation!"

Similarly, the fact that we are observing the large (astronomical) number of "apparent coincidences" which led to life in the universe isn't surprising given that these coincidences occurred. But the incredible life-sustaining/life-generating "coincidences" themselves still call out for explanation!

Craig adds (in an academic article on the same topic, apparently not read by Dawkins): "Certainly we should not be surprised that we do not observe features of the universe which are incompatible with our own existence. But it does not follow that we should not be surprised that we do observe features of the universe which are compatible with our existence."

In other words, merely pointing to the conditions required for our existence, as Dawkins and company do, does not explain those conditions. The conditions that are favourable or “propitious” (Dawkins’ word) to our existence continue to call out for explanation. What is worse (for Dawkins and company), merely asserting that our capacity to notice these conditions is the result of some required favourable conditions doesn’t provide any explanation of the conditions themselves, let alone a “rational” explanation or a “rational design-free explanation.”

Here is the point: Dawkins and company confuse pointing to a condition with explaining that condition, but the former is not an instance of the latter.

Think about it. Yes, the conditions that are favourable or “propitious” to our existence are necessary for us to be alive and able to notice those conditions. But the question remains: Why do those conditions exist? Pointing out that the conditions are needed for life and observation is interesting, to be sure, but leaving it at that doesn’t account for their existence in the first place, which is the issue at hand.

Thus, the fine-tuning argument is untouched by the so-called Anthropic objection. The universe’s initial conditions, which are in fact exquisitely fine-tuned for life, continue to point to an intelligent designer.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

15 comments:

Dr. V said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

For an interesting lecture on the fine-tuning argument, see Troy Nunley's two-part YouTube lecture. (Dr. Nunley is assistant professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.)

Best regards,
Hendrik

photosynthesis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
photosynthesis said...

Hendrik,

This one about fine-tuning always requires a lot of patience from me.

(I erased for problems in my previous post.)

I will try to write one objection at a time:

One way I have explained this is as follows. (IF we grant that the Universe is fine-tuned, which I do not.)

Suppose a guy wins the lotto, and then the guy starts telling everybody that it is no coincidence because the odds of winning the lotto are so small that he should not have won the lotto. That he winning the lotto needs an explanation because of these odds. Would you say that the guy is right and God gave him the money, or would you point to those who did not win as proof that there was no such thing as God helping him win?

In other words. If we won the cosmical lotto, we cannot claim that there was a designer. See how many planets are inhabited within our solar system. See how many you can count out of the "close" vicinity of our solar system, how many within the thousands or millions of light-years around our solar system we can count. Do you truly think that, since we are here, we can claim that we won because of a designer? Do you truly think we can even claim that the Universe is fine-tuned for life-like-ours? If it were I would expect much more abundance. Wouldn't you?

For your person in front of a firing squad. A better analogy might be that they put thousands of people in front of a firing squad. They shoot and many prisoners fall death. There are a few survivors. Can those survivors claim that their survival deserves an explanation? That such explanation is God, rather than among so many, the gunners had to miss a few?

Of course they will claim God. But that does not mean such is a reasonable answer (but I would not tell them).

(I think I was not able to make it short.)

G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hi G.E.,

I have four replies for you.

1. I think it’s important to emphasize that the appeal to the so-called Anthropic Principle which Dawkins makes is truly faulty. He confuses pointing to a condition with explaining that condition. But, as I argued in my column, merely pointing to a needed condition for life isn’t the same thing as explaining that condition, especially when the question—What explains that condition?—is the issue. This is the main point of my column, and it’s an important point. So I don’t want it to get lost or missed in subsequent discussion.

2. As I argued in my PhD dissertation (pages 238 and following), talk of probability is out of place (see especially pages 242-243), so I think that talk of the “odds” of winning a lottery is off target. In my dissertation I argue that there is a peculiar contingency (i.e., an individually-delicately-configured set of conditions consisting of a marvelously-high degree of integrated and correlated factors) which is instantiated with the result of instantiating something that has objective moral value, and so this instantiation has deep mind affinity and thus smacks of intelligent design. I won’t rehearse my arguments here, because I suspect that you’ll simply dismiss them as more “meaningless rhetoric.” (I say what follows with no personal disrespect intended, but this seems to be a pattern: I set out some intricate philosophical work, you disagree and then you wholly dismiss my work as “meaningless” or mere “rhetoric.” Such a pattern is not a recipe for meaningful dialogue!)

But I will say this: Instead of your analogy of someone by chance winning a lottery (which, I agree, doesn’t point to a designer), a better analogy would be a “lottery” which, after we do some investigation, we see has been set up in such a way that only my number can be selected as the winner (i.e., nobody else has a chance of winning let alone an equal chance of winning). This latter scenario, it seems to me, strongly suggests that the lottery has been rigged (designed).

Replies continued below...

Dr. V said...

Replies to G.E. continued...

3. I think that whether there is or isn’t an abundance of life in the universe is not relevant to the fine-tuning argument. What’s relevant is that the universe is compatible with life (lots or not) in the first place. What I’ve gleaned from the relevant literature is that non-life-permitting universes vastly outnumber life-permitting universes.

Of course, there are some who argue that complex life isn’t abundant in our universe. See, for examples, Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards’ The Privileged Planet and Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s Rare Earth. (The DVD The Privileged Planet is very beautifully done and thought-provoking—and, whether one agrees or disagrees with Gonzalez and Richards, worth viewing.)

4. Your addition of more targets (victims) to the firing squad analogy assumes that there isn’t fine-tuning. But IF there is fine-tuning (which I think is the case and which you don’t think is the case but are willing to grant for the sake of argument), then such an analogy is faulty. IF there is fine-tuning, then to add more targets is simply to deny the fine-tuning that’s assumed for the sake of the argument at hand. Of course, one can make such a denial, but then one is changing the subject (at least in the present discussion). This is fine, as long as we are clear about what’s going on.

Well, I’ve got to stop. It’s Thanksgiving today here in Canada, so I’m looking forward to an excellent turkey dinner. G.E., I hope that you and your family have a happy Thanksgiving! Now that I think about it, I realize that Thanksgiving occurs in the U.S. sometime in November. Whenever you celebrate the occasion, I hope it’s a happy time!

Hendrik

photosynthesis said...

Hey Hendrik,

You are right. Those moral and such stuff would qualify to me as mere rhetoric. ;-)

I will try one at a time. OK? (I have many more arguments, but I want it simple so I do not have to summarize and you won't have to think that I did not read your stuff).

1. I think it’s important to emphasize that the appeal to the so-called Anthropic Principle which Dawkins makes is truly faulty. He confuses pointing to a condition with explaining that condition.

I agree that so it seems. I think Dawkins often makes things much more complicated than necessary. Other times he assumes the audience knows much more than it does.

But, as I argued in my column, merely pointing to a needed condition for life isn’t the same thing as explaining that condition, especially when the question—What explains that condition?—is the issue.

This is not what the point is. The point is that we are here, and we would not be able to not be here to make an observation. That we are here is kinda equivalent to saying that we are the de facto lotto winners (if the universe is unique in being harboring of life-like-ours). Whether we can say that it is fine-tuned or not is another story altogether. But, I know I said this.

This is the main point of my column, and it’s an important point. So I don’t want it to get lost or missed in subsequent discussion.

Whether it deserves explaining is the issue. Not that it deserves to be explained. I know you already bought into the fine-tuning thing. But well, we will see.

(Please do not answer this one. Otherwise we will extend forever. You think this needs explaining, I don't, but there is no argument yet. Not clearly.)

I hope the turkey was delicious.

G.E.

photosynthesis said...

3. I think that whether there is or isn’t an abundance of life in the universe is not relevant to the fine-tuning argument.

It is. If it is fine-tuned, then life-like-ours should be abundant. Otherwise it is just permissive. And that is a huge difference.

What’s relevant is that the universe is compatible with life (lots or not) in the first place. What I’ve gleaned from the relevant literature is that non-life-permitting universes vastly outnumber life-permitting universes.

If this is so, and there are many universes, then I suspect we would back to whether we can say that winning the lotto is God-mandated, or if we should take a look at those other universes as proof that we are here thinking about universes and fine-tuning because we happen to be at the proper universe for doing so (we won the lotto, and, after the fact, we want a supernatural explanation to explain it). Thus, no fine-tuning. We are back to square one. (I actually think that both, fine-tuning, and multiple universes are mostly semi-educated speculation.)

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

What you dismiss as mere "rhetoric" shouldn't (rationally shouldn't) be so dismissed. It looks like we will have to agree to disagree, once again.

Of course, you still owe me (at least one) expensive coffee. ;-)

All the best,
Hendrik

photosynthesis said...

Continuing ...

4. Your addition of more targets (victims) to the firing squad analogy assumes that there isn’t fine-tuning. But IF there is fine-tuning (which I think is the case and which you don’t think is the case but are willing to grant for the sake of argument), then such an analogy is faulty. IF there is fine-tuning, then to add more targets is simply to deny the fine-tuning that’s assumed for the sake of the argument at handOf course, one can make such a denial, but then one is changing the subject (at least in the present discussion). This is fine, as long as we are clear about what’s going on.

Right. actually, on second check, my whole thing I wrote was denying fine-tuning. What I had granted is the possibility that these "constants," that the believer supposes to have been "fine-tuned," can change (are not "constants"). I should have been clearer.

G.E.

P.S. I still have more. One of my many objections is actually theological (or so I think).

photosynthesis said...

V,

What you dismiss as mere "rhetoric" shouldn't (rationally shouldn't) be so dismissed. It looks like we will have to agree to disagree, once again.

While I was kidding, the sound of it seemed quite rhetorical. But of course, in all seriousness, I would have to read very slowly to know what you meant exactly by those moral-whatever universe stuff.

Anyway,

G.E.

Dr. V said...

In my experience of studying subtle carefully-crafted arguments, reading slowly is good.

photosynthesis said...

Hendrik,

I was close to secure an invitation to Manitoba, but it did not happen. Anyway, there will be other opportunities for that coffee.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

In all seriousness, I do hope that you can make it to Manitoba one day. Not just for the coffee, but to get to know you in person. I think we would have some good discussions--about philosophical stuff, of course, but also about fine coffee, food, work, family (i.e., the in-our-face important stuff).

All the best,
Hendrik

photosynthesis said...

Hey Hendrik,

Busy, busy. Anyway, this travel to Manitoba might happen next year. I will let you know.

As for my theological counter-argument:

1. If the Universe were fine-tuned, then God was limited in his choices. That would mean God is not omnipotent. (I assume that you believe in an omnipotent God.)

2. If God made it look like the Universe is fine-tuned. Then I would ask why would an omnipotent God want us to think he was limited in his choices?

So. Fine-tuning, as far as I can see, goes nowhere.

I still disagree with the Universe being fine-tuned, as it is clear that it is not. The problems with the argument occur at several levels. But too much for a single post, and a single day.

Have a great week,
G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hey G.E.,

I can relate to the busyness. I find it tougher when there’s a flu bug on the loose. (I’m at home today, a wee bit ill.)

1. Regarding your theological counter-argument, you merely assert that “if the Universe were fine-tuned, then God was limited in his choices.” Why should we believe this assertion? What grounds are there for thinking that the universe’s fine-tuning (if it were fine-tuned) would show that “God was limited in his choices.” It seems to me that an omnipotent God would be able to create a universe fine-tuned for life, if He has good reasons for doing so. If He couldn’t create such a universe, that would count against omnipotence. Maybe I’m missing something here.

2. Regarding your claim that “it is clear that [the universe] is not [fine-tuned],” I’m not sure why you think this. Maybe this will help. The Russian cosmologist Andrei Linde describes fine-tuning as follows: “We have a lot of really, really strange coincidences, and all of these coincidences are such that they make life possible.” (This is from an interview in the December 2008 issue of the popular science magazine Discover.) Linde’s interviewer (in the same article) describes “what is often called the ‘fine-tuning problem’” as this: “the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.” Please know that I’m not appealing to Discover magazine as a science journal; nevertheless, as far as I can tell from my own investigations of the likes of Linde, the initial conditions and laws of the universe’s beginning seem very much to be exquisitely fine-tuned/delicately balanced to permit life.

This is enough for me today. I have a column on multiverse or multiple universe theory coming up. I suspect that I’ll be hearing from you when it’s published.

I hope you have a great week too. And I hope there’s no H1N1 in your area.

Hendrik