Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Do not adjust your set

One of the more interesting responses I got to yesterday's post was the following:
In arguing against Dinesh D'Souza's claims that physics suggests the existence of an afterlife, you bring up yet another thing that supports belief in God. That is the fine-tuning of the conditions of the universe to support life. You mentioned Martin Rees' book Just Six Numbers, about the way physical constants are set perfectly to make the universe hospitable.  Don't you find this at all suspicious?  To me this is one of the strongest proofs of God's existence -- that if any one of these constants was just a little different, we wouldn't be here.
I've heard this claim before.  It's called the Strong Anthropic Principle -- that the "fine-tuning" of the physical constants of the universe implies a Fine Tuner.  Far from finding this "suspicious," I simply respond that it's hardly surprising that we live in a universe that has hospitable conditions; without them we would never have come to be.  (This is called the Weak Anthropic Principle -- that human existence is contingent on benevolent values for a variety of physical constants, not the other way around.)

Think, for example, of going outside on a warm, June day, and a friend of yours asks, "Why is the weather perfectly comfortable for humans today?"  There are a variety of possible answers:

1)  Because god wants to be happy, so he made today's weather nice.
2)  Because a divine being fine-tuned the conditions on Earth to mostly create weather which humans will find congenial.
3)  Because if the conditions on Earth were outside of a reasonable range of temperatures and chemical compositions, life could never have arisen here.

These three answers correspond to the three most common responses to the same question writ large (Why does the universe have conditions that support life?):  (1) god as micromanager; (2) the Strong Anthropic Principle; and (3) the Weak Anthropic Principle.  I find it interesting that no one seems to find it very odd that the Earth has (mostly) human-friendly climates, and most people see no need to ascribe that to god's direct intervention -- while Christians with a scientific bent go gaga when they find out that if (for example) the amount of energy released by hydrogen fusion was 5% less, stars would not exist, and therefore neither would we.  The fact that there are many such initial conditions (Rees identifies six, but there are probably others) is seen as admitting only one possibility; god made the universe with us in mind.

Well, I'm not convinced.  There is no underlying reason that physicists have found for why the fine structure constant is equal to 1/137 -- yet.  The big deal Rees makes over the "six numbers" in the title is that they can't be derived from first principles; they seem arbitrary, empirically measured, to have no particular reason that they are what they are.  I wonder very much, however, if this is necessarily true.  It is entirely possible that all of the universal constants will turn out to be derivable, and therefore consistent with an overarching theory that simply hasn't been discovered yet.

However, my arguing from the standpoint of a Grand Unified Theory that may not exist is weak at best, and I'm not going to put too much weight on it.  To me, the only thing that is proven by the values of the universal constants is how dependent the universe's existence is on physical conditions I barely understand.  The Weak Anthropic Principle is fine by me; just as no one wonders why the weather is pleasanter on the Earth than on the surface of the sun, it's no great wonder why we live in a universe that has conditions congenial to the formation of matter, stars, complex compounds, and life.  If any one of those conditions didn't exist, we wouldn't be here to ask the question.

In any case, I highly recommend Rees' book.  It's well-written, and if not exactly an easy read, is at least approachable by the layperson.  And even if the deliberate fine-tuning of the Strong Anthropic Principle doesn't appeal to me, I am still in awe at the delicate sensitivity of matter and energy to the settings on dials we have just begun to understand.


  1. While I would not disagree with much of what you are saying here, Gordon, there are components of the fine tuning argument which seem to be consistently overlooked.

    Firstly, the physical parameters are but the tip of the iceberg. There is actually a much greater body of evidence to support fine tuning to be found in fields of science far better established than cosmology. Geology, biology and particularly chemistry provide many examples of “just right” prevailing conditions that enable and, indeed, make virtually inevitable, the strong directionality we observe in evolutionary processes.

    The most recent part of this evolutionary continuum is that most familiar to us and of which we have the best knowledge: The automonous evolution of technology within the medium of the collective imagination of our species.

    Secondly, that the assumption that IF fine tuning is a valid phenomenon THEN it favors theism is flawed.
    Because it predicated by the very common and entirely intuitive belief that it suggests a “designer”.

    But it can be very plausibly argued that, except in a very trivial sense, the concept of a “designer” is but an anthropocentric conceit for which there is no empirical basis.

    An objective examination of the history of science and technology bears this out.

    To quickly put this counter-intuitive view into focus, would you not agree that the following statement has a sound basis?

    We would have geometry without Euclid, calculus without Newton or Liebnitz, the camera without Johann Zahn, the cathode ray tube without JJ Thomson, relativity (and quantum mechanics) without Einstein, the digital computer without Turin, the Internet without Vinton Cerf.

    The list can. of course be extended indefinitely.

    The broad evolutionary model, extending well beyond the field of biology is outlined, very informally in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” which is a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website.

    Posted by Peter Kinnon

  2. I remember reading the first time about the Anthropic Principle and thinking "OMG! They have a name nowadays for something I'd thought was a startlingly-original and personal insight." This was age 12 or so, after my bath-tub water-walking experiments had already by themselves de-bunked the God-Mythicists for me.

  3. Yes, jsolberg, a good example of the evolutionary processes within collective human imagination to which I referred above.
    I too, have, in earlier years, come up with ideas that I thought were a startlingly-original and personal insight.
    One was the production of muscle tissue in vitro as a better food source than farming whole animals. This was hailed as a very cool/wild/original concept by my peers. It was only several months ago that I discovered that it had been suggested two decades before by, of all people, Winston Churchill!

    Now, of course, it is on the verge of becoming a reality.

    Again, in the course of my career I have taken out a number of provisional patents, none of which I followed up on. But when the Internet had evolved to a state when it became very easy (and free) to search patents, just as a matter of interest I checked to see if any had been taken up. Some, indeed had, but the most interesting feature was that there was invariably a rash of rather similar patent applications around around the time of mine.
    All of us just picking the low hanging fruit of the prevailing state of collective human imagination, if you get my drift.

    Posted by Peter Kinnon

  4. 'I draw no conclusions' about the simultaneous invention facts, other than that the problem 'came to a head' in more ways and places than one. It *would* be peachy to posit a collective intelligence though. The mob mentality proves that possible, at least on the negative half of the graph.
    Nice to read your thoughts here,Peter