Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 3: Fine-Tuning

You can find part 1 here.

As I said in the first post, my friend UnkleE gave me a series of questions recently that he believes present difficult problems for an atheist’s worldview. I had forgotten, but we’ve actually had similar discussions before, and you can find them here, here, and here (thanks for the reminder, Howie).

Now that the preamble’s out of the way, UnkleE’s third question was this:

Is the “fine-tuning” of the universe caused by design, chance or necessity?

Many people have written reams about this topic, so I won’t belabor any of the points unnecessarily. To keep things very simple, the fine-tuning argument boils down to this as I understand it:

There are certain fundamental qualities to our Universe that, had any of them been the slightest bit different, our Universe would have been so fundamentally different that matter could not have formed together, stars could not have formed, etc. Thus, life, especially as we know it, could not have existed.

What accounts for these specific values? The short answer is that we don’t know. Some people find the situation too convenient to be the result of mere chance, so fine-tuning becomes the backbone for their belief in a creator of some kind. Others suggest that just as there isn’t just a single planet, a single star, a single solar system, or a single galaxy, there’s no reason to think there’s a single Universe. If our Universe is just one of many, then it stands to reason that a Universe such as ours could form randomly. Others still point out that there’s an awful lot we don’t know about these fundamental forces — perhaps their values can’t be different from what they are. Or even if they can vary, perhaps the range is small. Or perhaps they depend upon one another to some degree so that if one changes, others must change to compensate. Because we can only observe one Universe, it’s hard to make definitive conclusions about any of this.

Some experts also argue that we shouldn’t be so quick to insist that this Universe is so perfectly attuned to us. After all, we can’t currently reach any planets beyond our own that would be capable of sustaining human life. Furthermore, the majority of our one planet is uninhabitable to us as well. We can’t breathe under water, and we can’t survive in outer space. From that perspective, it’s hard to argue that this Universe is so perfectly suited to us when the vast, vast majority of it would kill us in moments.

Personally, I find the fine-tuning argument interesting, and I’m curious about what ultimately accounts for our Universe having the conditions that have allowed life to form. But like the two previous questions, I feel like this one treads too closely to an argument from ignorance. And for a moment, let’s say we discovered that the Universe was actually fine-tuned with us in mind. We would know nothing about the agent that did the fine-tuning. There’s a huge gap between the fine-tuning argument and any specific deity.

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Some interesting (brief) videos on the topic:

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11 thoughts on “Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 3: Fine-Tuning”

  1. In my mind, this may be a bigger “problem” for the believer. If God or gods created everything in the universe, with man as its special creation, and the earth as his singular abode, then why is there so, so much of everything else?

    100 Billion Galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, and most stars with their own solar systems… I mean, if God were behind it all and man was his biggest focus, then creation is the craziest Dr Seuss invention ever conceived… how is that perfect or precise? It’s the opposite of it.

    Now, if energy, or matter or information can never be created or destroyed, essentially eternal, and the laws of physics are just a matter of fact, and not a subject of creation, then a vast universe beyond earth and man make much more sense, in my mind.

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  2. For me the question of fine tuning is more like being only aware of the solution that worked and not seeing the solutions that didn’t. Like walking up to a craps table where some people have all their money on 7, and then 7 is rolled and they win, then walking away and thinking “Well since 7 is the only number that could have won those people money, it must have been rolled intentionally. Not having any other idea of how much money they already lost in the past, and how much they will lose in the future, I am just going to assume they are winners and the roll was just right.

    For all we know the universe tried to form countless number of times before the right random roll of the dice came up and we had winner. But I also agree with your assessment that it’s also possible that there is more than one lucky combination as well, and it’s not exactly possible to conceive of those combinations, because such a universe looks quite different, with different laws. Maybe there is a universe where for every action there is a disproportionate reaction, or that entropy can quite happily reverse. Universes that don’t seem plausible under our physics, might be be plausible with different physical laws that we can’t possibly guess at.

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  3. When Unklee sees this he is very likely going to cite Luke Barnes as an authority for F.T. It took me endless comments a while back for Barnes to even admit to a creator deity and then he qualified it by hinting at his god.

    He is a Christian, ( which is why Unklee loves to cite him when the opportunity arises) but he is so cagey about it that it was very difficult to get a handle on what he was trying to explain, quite apart from the fact the science would simply bounce off me.

    This argument will inevitably spiral down to, ”I don’t know” ( no matter how smart the individual) and this is where the god-botherers will leap for the gap and declare … ”Ah ha!”
    Enter William Lane Craig.

    It is a dishonest approach that is ultimately based on an a priori assumption along the lines of: Jesus the Nazarene did it ( while moonlighting in his Yahweh disguise).

    Nice to see you back, Nate.
    Hope all is well in your neck of the woods?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Okay, first if the laws of this universe didn’t support life, then this conversation would be very, very weird. So, the fact that the laws of this universe support life, proves exactly nothing.

    I’ll tell you what this universe was designed for … vacuum. There is more of it than anything else and it is inimical to life. The second largest component of the universe is stars and they are inimical to life. As for fine tuning, this is fucking pathetic.

    Not only is the universe set up to create vacuum, but it is being made in ever larger quantities. The universe is expanding, apparently now in an accelerated fashion. If this continues, we will be so far away from other galaxies that telescopes will show a night sky that is mostly black!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Things are good here, Ark — just busy. 🙂 You’re doing well?

    And I agree with you wholeheartedly. We likely can’t conceive of all the possibilities surrounding this topic, and when it comes to hard science, that’s just not my field. I’d be taking a letter opener to a nuke fight. So while I might look stupid against someone like a Luke Barnes, I do know that this is not a settled issue among the experts. It’s just a whole bunch of “I don’t know.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Swarn Gill, thanks for the comment! I totally agree, and I really liked your craps table analogy. 🙂

    I don’t believe I’ve seen you around before, so welcome to the blog!

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  7. Thank you for that craps table analogy, Swarn Gill. It places a lot of issues (i.e., multiverses) into perspective.

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  8. I very much agree with Williams observation that the immense size of the universe with its billions of suns does not sit well with Christian theology that implies ‘God’ is only interested in life on this planet. Jesus is said to be “God’s” only son and was said to die on earth so that makes it tricky for any folk on other planets. If there is no life on other planets then why make the universe so large? If Jesus died on many planets it rather makes a mockery of the Biblical story.

    It is so refreshing to hear folk like Sean Carroll. I really like how he is able to logically look at the fine tuning argument and I also appreciate how he is able to put forward his arguments in non confrontational manner. Whilst I find that Lawrence Krauss has much to offer, his more confrontational approach sours things a bit from my perspective, though I suspect that Ark would prefer Krauss’ more robust debating style.

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  9. Just a few minutes ago, I posted a comment on Holy Koolaid’s video about a particular mistake he made. I’m pasting it here below, if anyone’s interested.

    Holy Koolaid, at 7:20, that’s not how probability works.

    Let p = the probability that a universe generates (or is capable of generating) life. (You used p = 10^-24 for this.) And assume that p for each universe is independent of p for all others.

    Let n = the number of universes. You used n = 10^24.

    Then the probability of life occurring in at least one universe = [1 – pNoLife], where pNoLife = (the probability that life occurs in none of the universes). The probability that life doesn’t occur in *a particular* universe is (1 – p), so pNoLife = (1 – p)^n; that is, the product of the probabilities that every particular universe does not generate life.

    So, the probability that *at least one* universe generates life is *not* p*n (which you show as 10^24 * 10^-24 = 1). It is = [1 – (1 – p)^n], which is less than 1. If both my calculations and Wolfram Alpha’s are correct, using the numbers you gave, it looks to be about 63%.

    http://m.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=1+-+%281+-+10%5E-24%29%5E%2810%5E24%29

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  10. I think that the fine-tuning argument has the potential to be a compelling argument for design. But I also agree with the observations raised so far, and see two additional fundamental issues which haven’t been mentioned yet:
    1) How do we assess probabilities for the free parameters? The whole arguments rests on the improbability of our universe’s configuration but there is no background information by which to identify a scale and probability distribution, and it is impossible to define a uniform probability distribution with infinite bounds. Apparently Luke Barnes recently took a swipe at this. Looks like something I’ll have to take a closer look at.
    2) The values under consideration are numbers that maximize the accuracy of predictions made by models. To treat them as tunable quantities is to assign them a sort of ontological realism when the only thing we know is that they’re the values which happen to make the model’s math work. In other words, it seems quite possible that those numbers don’t actually map to anything concrete – unless you’re Max Tegmark and the universe is made of math.

    I think that both of these considerations might point us toward a fourth option to Eric’s (and WLC’s) question of “Is the fine-tuning of the universe caused by design, chance or necessity?” I find it quite possible that the answer is none of above, and that the observation of fine-tuning is a cognitive artifact of our attempt to describe the universe with mathematical models.

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