Exploring Ontology

It's all about the deep questions.

Theism: The Fine-Tuning Argument

Design arguments for the existence of God are perhaps the most popular among the average person. It began with the observation of biological life, which seemed to be so complex that it just had to be designed, hence Paley’s famous watch analogy. I, along with the vast majority of scientists and philosophers consider the appeal to biological design effectively dead post-Darwin. The evidence for the fact of evolution is simply too ubiquitous. Therefore, I will focus on the last argument left to the theologian, the so called “fine tuning” argument. In recent years it has been found that several physical constants, such as the cosmological constant, must all fall into a narrow range to make a life-permitting universe. Apparently, this proves god. Non theists should be very skeptical of these bold claims. After all, the theist was very wrong in the biological case.

Fine-tuning Argument

1. Fine-tuning is due to design, chance, or necessity.
2. It is not due to chance or necessity.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.

The argument is presented in various ways; this formulation captures the gist of most of them. The biggest difference is that it is presented deductively.

Criticism 1: again, does not prove theism

Besides the obvious fact that it establishes very few of the properties mentioned in the beginning of the paper (God in no way needs to be all-loving or even non-physical for example), in particular it is consistent with the simulation hypothesis (we live in a programmed simulation). This hypothesis should not be dismissed prematurely; sophisticated argument can be made in it’s favor as evidenced by Nick Bostrom’s argument. Plus, it also has the added attractiveness of not being ontologically committing. In the spirit of Occam’s razor, one can remain a physicalist with no qualms, instead of admitting something irreducibly mental, God, into one’s ontology. I am inclined to take the possibility pretty seriously.

Criticism 2: where are you getting these probabilities from?

The theist maintains that a design inference is warranted because fine-tuning is very improbable, but how does he know it is? Presumably he knows this because there are many more non life permitting values for the constants than otherwise. This reasoning is invalid, however. Think of the physical possibilities of a coin flip. It could land heads, land tails, land on it’s side at infinitely many angles, a meteor could destroy the planet and the coin would never land in tact, a hurricane could pick it up and destroy it, etc. In summary, there are infinitely many physical possibilities for the coin flip, but if someone says the probability of the coin landing heads is infinitely small, they would obviously be very wrong. Each outcome is not equally probable. What license does the theist have that allows him to assert that the values for the constants are? It’s not as if we have many universes to observe and take statistical samples from. The theist does not have, as far as I can see, any license to do so.

Criticism 3: necessity should not be dismissed too easily

Here, I just want the theist to note that it is not obviously false that the fine tuning is due to necessity; it is entirely possible that the constants had to have their specific values. After all, scientific argumentation always has a certain degree of uncertainty to it. I’m not saying it’s highly probable that the values are due to necessity, but it is certainly is possible scenario that should not be dismissed prematurely.

Criticism 4: low probability, on it’s own, does not merit a design inference.

The probability that a specific person wins the lottery is extremely low, so should the person who wins the lottery be suspicious that the lottery was rigged in his favor? Probably not. Although the possibility that we have won a kind of “cosmic lottery” is intellectually unsatisfying, that does not mean that it is automatically wrong. After all, improbable things happen all the time. If someone a million years ago had to guess the probability of me existing, it would be infinitesimally low. Yet here I am!

Criticism 5: life chauvinism is unjustified

Certain phenomena are more valued than others, one example being poker. In poker there is a value system where, for example, a royal flush is much more valuable than an ordinary hand. If a group of people just started playing poker and the first hand that Bob got was a royal flush, he would probably be extremely surprised and boast about his extreme luck for a long time to come. If he had gotten a regular hand, none of this would have ever happen. Even though any regular hand is just as improbable as the royal flush. Maybe the theist can justify his fascination with life by saying that it too is intrinsically valuable. After all, it is just as improbable, if not more, that spaghetti exists in the universe as does life. Perhaps a flying spaghetti monster is behind all of this? Given any universe, one can say that it is incredibly improbable that that a specific rock existed in that specific position in that specific orientation. Maybe the universe was designed for the rock? Everyone can recognize though that this sort of phenomena is not one crying out for explanation. How can one say that life is a phenomenon that is crying out for explanation? We, as life forms, have an unjustified bias towards life, but the universe itself really couldn’t care less about life.

Criticism 6: there is a difference between P(x given y) and P(y given x)

Everyone recognizes that P(life exists given the traditional god of theism exists) is high, if not certain. This does not mean, however that P(the traditional god of theism exists given life exists) is nearly as high. The importance of this distinction should be evident. Here is one example. What is the probability that a Hawaiian volcano explodes given that the Hawaiian god Pele exists and willed it to do so? Probably one. Now, what is the probability that a Hawaiian god called Pele exists and willed a particular volcano to explode given that it actually did explode? Way less than 1. I believe a similar case applies to theism.

Criticism 7: theism should only be considered once no scientific explanation is plausible

The plausible scientific explanation I have in mind is a multiverse. If many “bubble” universes did exist, it stands to reason that a very small subset of those universes would be life-permitting. Given that we are living, naturally we must fall into a universe that is life permitting. Not a big surprise.

Criticism 8: just as strong as a course-tuning argument

The range of values that the physical constants can take is an unbounded, infinite range of values. So even if life could exist within a huge range of the values, the probability of life would be just as improbable if life could only exist within a small range. Since fine tuning is just as strong as coarse tuning, and coarse tuning is not very strong, fine tuning is not very strong.

Conclusion: Just as the appeal to biological design fails, I think similarly the appeal to cosmic design fails. Douglas Adams has a very nice, classic quote that is very relevant. I will conclude with his quote. “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. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”


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