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.

——
Some interesting (brief) videos on the topic:

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36 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?

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  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!

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  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.”

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  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.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Does this tie in with the widely held big bang theory that the whole thing started from nothing? It’s not eternal but had a beginning so we are told by the experts.

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  12. Chance ,design or necessity? I think chance is about the best bet for my philosophy . I rule out design after the Mexican Earthquake and why would any power great enough think it was a necessity to make us?

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  13. Does the big bang theory say that everything cane from nothing? Or does it say that the big bang was the catalyst that essentially spread everything?

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  14. Let me say I’m a layman with no higher education but Mr Krause a scientific expert has written a book titled Everything from Nothing. I expect the text would quickly loose me but we can only look to the experts in the hope they know what they are talking about. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion they are often grasping at straws but it all we have unless we choose to believe holy texts. I console my self with the old wives saying ‘ The truth is often stranger than fiction ‘.

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  15. I think you raise 2 great points, Travis, and I agree with you completely. In a way, the fine-tuning argument seems to just take the limits of our imagination and try to use them as evidence for a god.

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  16. Thanks for the comments, Kersten!

    Yeah, I’ve read Krauss’s book (A Universe from Nothing), and I agree — much of it was over my head. Nonetheless, I can say that a lot of confusion surrounds the word “nothing,” and in a way, he’s playing with the term a bit. He points out that “nothing” isn’t really the absence of all things that we usually think of. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, even “empty” space isn’t really empty. And that’s what Krauss argues as well (his 9th chapter is titled “Nothing is Something,” in fact). He explains how the properties of gravity, coupled with the extremely rapid expansion rate of the Universe creates a “negative pressure” that dumps energy into space, rather than the other way around (p. 150).

    Anyway, he spends the book talking about how there really isn’t a “nothing” in the way that we typically think of it. It’s an interesting book, but I’ll have to read it many times before I could say that I really “get” much of what he’s talking about.

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  17. First time post here, glad to join in the conversation . . .

    I used to find the fine-tuning argument an interesting conundrum, but I then came to the realization that the argument is actually somewhat putting God in the place of being subject to natural law or oddly enough being subject to the laws he just created (if you watched the Sean Carroll video, he mentions this). The net affect is that they are saying that it took an immensely intelligent being to actually be able to “fine-tune” the universe so we could exist. Are you really saying God is subject to natural law or any kinda of law? He’s God! To bring the cosmos into existence and then he has to fine tune it is basically a contradiction of the omnipotence of God. He created something imperfect and then had to “fine-tune” it! Really . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Turne016

    I don’t think that’s the argument: rather the contention is that a Creator deity or Supreme Being is perfectly omniscient, which means that He has infinite knowledge of the full range of logical possibilities in terms of different universes and constants. He chooses to “design” a life-permitting universe with the right parameters out of this range of possibilities – “kick-starting” a particular “universe model”. He then leaves it to its own mechanistic cause-and-effect processes after He has willed it into being with the requisite fundamental qualities (so that it will function as a logically internally consistent complexity-and-life-permitting universe).

    I don’t see how the fine tuning argument makes the Intelligent Designer “subject” to any laws.

    Unless I haven’t understood you properly?

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  19. Also, it should be noted that most religions do actually think that God created an “imperfect world” – but a finely tuned one nonetheless that enables complexity (i.e. stars, planets, galaxies etc.) and ultimately intelligent life arising from that material complexity, whereas if the constants were even slightly different this would not be the case.

    An example from one theistic faith:

    Catechism of the Catholic Church

    83 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”121

    284 The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called “God”? And if the world does come from God’s wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it? Is there any liberation from it?…

    But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature.

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  20. Travis,

    I find it quite possible that … the observation of fine-tuning is a cognitive artifact of our attempt to describe the universe with mathematical models.

    Couldn’t this fall under the “necessity” category? (Note: I haven’t read your link yet.)

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  21. @ratamacue0,

    Couldn’t this fall under the “necessity” category?

    Do you mean in the sense that the parameter could only have the narrowly defined value in order to work in a model that fits with our cognition? I suppose, but I perceive that the objections to the claim of necessity (as in WLC’s video) are objecting to the necessity of something that is mind-independent. I haven’t seen that a necessity relative to our cognition is ever in view when the trichotomy is offered.

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  22. I don’t think that’s what I meant. But let me change direction…

    On the one hand, “a cognitive artifact of our attempt to describe the universe with mathematical models” seems implausible to me, at least in this context. I don’t get how that could be possible.

    On the other, I’m not sure I fully understand the idea. So can you elaborate?

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  23. I’m not sure I fully understand the idea. So can you elaborate?

    Sure. It’s a pretty abstract line of thinking, so I apologize in advance if this doesn’t help. The underlying question is whether “quantifiability” is built into the universe or is just part of how we perceive and understand the universe. If I’m holding two stones in my hand, we can take the folk empirical approach of treating those as two ontologically distinct items or we could take a quantum approach in which they are a particular state of the wavefunction. The free parameters in a fine-tuning argument are values which assume quantifiability based on the way we dissect the world into discrete items and properties when we make observations and then use those to build models.

    I’ve grown increasingly inclined to suspect that this innate tendency toward essentialism – wherein we breakdown the world into discrete items with discrete properties (sometimes to our detriment, as with people groups) – is primarily the consequence of our brains having evolved to optimize our interactions with the world. I don’t find that mathematical platonism is particularly compelling (though I neither find it particularly dubious), so it seems reasonable to me that mathematics itself (the system we use for this quantification process) is also the byproduct of this cognitive optimization rather than a reflection of an actual feature of the universe. A mathematical approach to the universe is pragmatic as hell, but it seems questionable whether that then translates into a corresponding ontology.

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  24. Drizzel and turne016,

    Thanks or the comments — I think I understand what both of you are saying. Let me give it a shot:

    Drizzel, I think you’re right that the typical arguments are that the Universe is “imperfect” for some purpose. And that the creator made the “best possible” universe. But I also think that turne016’s point is worth consideration, because he’s saying that “best possible” should be nonsensical in the typical view of God. So if God is limited to certain options in the kind of universes he could create, does that make him subject to the laws of nature in some way?

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  25. Travis,

    Are you saying that the values we get for these fundamental forces of nature may be arbitrary in the sense of the actual values we ascribe to them? Like it just so happens that integers are the most comfortable form of numbers that we like to work with. And we feel more comfortable working in multiples of 10 vs 7, or something like that. So if we had developed differently and broke our understanding of math and numbers out in a different way, those fundamental forces of nature might not seem to have such “random” values to us?

    Am I anywhere close to what you’re saying?

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  26. Nate,
    Not really. It’s certainly true that the values would be different if our foundational units were different, but I’m saying something else – namely, that the values may not actually map to anything concrete regardless of the units we employ. I think QM has been helping reveal just how inadequate our brains are for grasping the true nature of the universe. Our current best models employ “particles” that may very well not exist, but we act like they do for their pragmatic value. So the suggestion is that the free parameters are just the quantities that we need to put into the relevant models so that our brains can systematize the predictions for observing the universe. In that case they aren’t tuned, they just have the values they do because our comprehension requires numbers and those are the numbers that work.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. If God were real, and if he did create the universe, terms we use like, “best possible,” may be misleading – like Nate said, if that’s the best God could do, but it ain’t good enough, then he ain’t perfect.

    I guess an imperfect God could still create a universe, but if the Bible God, perfect and Holy, created the universe, he could have purposely created it to be imperfect for whatever reason. If God wanted people to live only a finite amount of time, then maybe creation must appear imperfect, or else we’d live forever. Maybe the other crap is just obstacles.

    Maybe God created a starting point and let the dominoes fall, where he only intercedes in a few select areas, like grooming a Bonsai Tree – where creation is shaped here or there, but otherwise allowed to grow and evolve on it’s own.

    Really though, the problem with this isn’t the terms, it’s that it’s not measurable and comes to us from a random and unidentified guy who wrote it down a long time ago… We could be discussing the probability of divine farts creating the universe had someone wrote it down , long enough ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Hi Nate, just a brief, and somewhat repetitive (I’m sorry), comment on this statement:

    But like the two previous questions, I feel like this one treads too closely to an argument from ignorance.

    As your first video shows, this is a very carefully constructed logical argument, based on the idea that design, necessity and probability are the only possibilities. (That follows from the definitions of the concepts, and although I have seen many people argue that there may be other possibilities, I have never seen another plausible suggestion.)

    This then isn’t ignorance at all, it is the best possible cosmological science available, which says that chance is impossible, necessity isn’t likely on any cosmological hypothesis and design isn’t acceptable scientifically. So the answer must be the multiverse, which pushes the problem back to the cause of the multiverse and the same three possibilities. Luke Barnes cites literally hundreds of papers and more than 20 of the most eminent cosmologists agreeing on most of this, and Sean Carroll (your third video) is one of the few exceptions. So it is far from ignorance.

    So again I come back to me comment on your previous post – naturalism has no explanation, and probably can’t because it is hard for naturalism to explain the cause of the natural world. So until and if science can explain chance or necessity, naturalism is a hypothesis that is lacking at this point.

    To draw another parallel, imagine if you drew attention to the suffering in the world and asked “How could a good God allow all this?” and a christian said “I don’t know, but I’m not troubled by it.” Would you not think their worldview failed at that point? Again, there is a parallel. I think in these “challenge” posts you only escape the challenge by being inconsistent compared to the arguments you use against christianity.

    Happy days! 🙂

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  29. God is a basically a hypothesis, or at least an unproven claim.

    If the question was, “why is there suffering,” and someone answered, “I don’t know,” we don’t have the same problem as we would with, “Why is there suffering if God is good (or loves people, etc)?”

    The fact that we have suffering isn’t in question. God is what’s in question.

    Naturalism is real, proven and observable – how it is involved and exactly how it was in play at “creation” is the question.

    How did everything get here? what caused “creation?” God and nature aren’t on the same level as far as measurability goes. We’ve measured nature, we’ve seen it in action and we know how it works in many other instances – with God, we’re still arguing over whether he exists. He looks more like the imaginary than he does the tangible things of nature, so I think placing them on the same level in this type of questioning is misleading a fallacy.

    When engineers are designing a structure, they use known materials, with known qualities, that they can base their calculations on. They do not take a made up or an unknown material, which cannot be calculated, to use in designing things where they have to prove a certain threshold of strength.

    And if they had a new material in hand, they could run tests on it to find out it’s structural qualities so that they could utilize it next time. If they heard about a new material that they cannot get their hands on, and could not test, then suggesting the new material and the unknown/unseen material is almost ridiculous.

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  30. Hi unkleE,

    Again, sorry for the late response.

    For the most part, I’d have to answer this similarly to how I answered your comment in the other thread. I think it’s a mistake to be confident that those are the only 3 possibilities, and I think it’s a mistake to think the multi-verse poses the same problem. Nevertheless, I’ll look into this more deeply when I have some time — maybe I’m missing something.

    I do want to respond to this statement, though:

    To draw another parallel, imagine if you drew attention to the suffering in the world and asked “How could a good God allow all this?” and a christian said “I don’t know, but I’m not troubled by it.” Would you not think their worldview failed at that point?

    Yes, I would view that kind of response as problematic. The reason I see that differently than the fine-tuning issue is that we’re dealing with firmer parameters when talking about suffering: a supremely “good” god, a supremely loving god, a supremely powerful god, yet a world in which random tragedies and horrors happen all the time (kids with cancer, hurricanes, earthquakes, Trump, etc).

    However, the fine-tuning argument depends on a bunch of things we can’t know: how universes form, whether or not the constants we see in our iteration of the universe can vary, that true nothingness is the default state of things, etc.

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  31. Hi Nate, sure, suffering is quite clear, but how it can be objectively evil is complex (and without objective evil, the problem disappears). Likewise the scientific data and equations about fine tuning are clear but the possibilities are complex. I don’t see much difference in principle. And I still think a hypothesis that can explain things is better than one that can’t.

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  32. And I still think a hypothesis that can explain things is better than one that can’t.

    I have never come across a hypothesis for the creation of the universe where the basis for that hypothesis demonstrated in any intelligible way whatsoever how the biblical character, Jesus the Nazarene is the creator deity responsible.

    Liked by 2 people

  33. One of the points that seems to have been overlooked in such discussions about Fine-Tuning(sic) is the issue regarding the eventual demise of our sun, an event predicted to occur in about 5 billion years.
    This is a billion years (approx) after the Andromeda Galaxy collides with the Milky Way.
    However both of these events will go unnoticed on good ole Earth as we are due to be consumed by our own sun in about a billion years which really pisses me off as this is about the time when Liverpool will likely win the Premier League.

    I am curious if the religious contributors to Nate’s fine (tuned) blog would like to reveal, if they are willing or able, how Yahweh’s Plan of Fine-Tuning fits into this scenario?

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Ark, if you watch a little more History Channel, you’d know that ancient aliens are really what were behind the bible, other religions, and all deities.

    Obviously, when the sun swallows the earth, it will fulfill what the NT writes about the earth being consumed with fire and fervent heat. The ancient astronaut , Jesus, will return to earth prior to that event so that he can rescue the people who were devoted to him.

    He will then conscript the survivors into his intergalactic naval war fleet, with the intention of slaying and smiting his extraterrestrial foes, as his kingdom is not of this earth. Amen. Selah.

    Liked by 2 people

  35. I can agree that suffering doesn’t necessarily equate to evil, but if someone or something allows suffering, when it was in their power to stop it or prevent it, then could that demonstrate a lack of mercy or concern?

    With vaccinations or surgeries, we all agree that some discomfort and pain is necessary for a greater good or benefit.

    But a child suffering from cancer? Enduring pain after pain, surgery after surgery, only so that they can live ling enough to endure more pain and discomfort, before they finally succumb to that illness… This one is obviously harder to reconcile. It’s much more difficult to dismiss or find the benefit in…

    And then what about war atrocities? ISIS (or Israel) killing women and children, taking some of the women a slave brides?

    Are those types of suffering also subjective?

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