The Discussion is Evolving

A reader with the ancient yet aquatic name of Nereus writes as follows:

Having read your recent posts on fine tuning, I would like to offer you a challenge on your summary of the fine tuning argument, or else a refinement if you will. I offer this in good spirit as a fan of your much of your writing. (I own about 2/3 of the books you’ve authored, read your entire Everyjoe series of columns, and several of your political columns on your blog have greatly benefited my thinking.) I am also a fellow Christian, but I do not have any of the accounts needed to join the comments on your blog. Unfortunately, I’ve only been following your work since shortly before you were published by Castalia, when someone in the comments on Vox’s blog referred to you as the G. K. Chesterton of our day, a moniker I find suited to you more often than not.

I am not a statistician or a PhD scientist, but I am comfortable with hard science due to work in nuclear and engineering fields, and the Fine Tuning argument is one topic of subject matter I’ve examined in depth, particularly in experienced application against men like you once were. I call my offer a refinement or challenge (however you prefer to take it) because I see your synopsis akin to something like “right horse, wrong barn.”

You have many correct points, but your coup de grace is misplaced. So, because I greatly enjoy your thinking, I am finally moved to write in the hope that my comments would be worthwhile for the refinement of your own arguments.

Rather than a point-by-point analysis, I’ll offer my own summary and invite you to see the similarities and differences.

I concur with your description of probability as per the coin, just before you shift to argument from design. Probability is a fancy way of saying “We don’t know” or else “It’s too complicated to accurately identify the result in advance.”

But the Fine Tuning argument did not result from philosophers or apologists; it proceeded from new observations by physicists in the 20th century accepting the assumption that things randomly occurred that way. If things randomly occurred, then it is odd they occurred with such precision, and a tautological response does not explain the oddity. How then shall they explain it?

Your most recent contention is that we don’t know how many sides are on the coin or die. That depends on our knowledge of natural law. The key is that if you approach from the atheist’s corner of secular naturalism, then everything is governed by natural law, and natural laws are based on mathematics. Even at our most complex modeling, the model is still greatly simplified from reality.

For example: there are no chemical laws controlling the sequence of DNA. So, simplifying down to looking at one side in one direction with only one possible start location, we have four possible letters, each of which is equally randomly likely to bounce into place (assuming that they did randomly bounce into place).

What is the simplest protein known? I can’t tell you off the top of my head, so let’s say it is made from 10 building blocks, each of which has three DNA letters. A strand of that length has 4^30 possible combinations. The odds of getting the specific necessary combination are 1 in 4^30. We don’t need to run 100 trials to discover this probability, because it is based on exhaustive mathematical possibilities. This is the greatly simplified model. More complex (and realistic) models are even less likely to randomly succeed.

[I know I said “equally likely” but to call this slovenly speech is to trash quite a bit of scientific and mathematical discussion. In similar manner “sunrise” and “sunset” are not heliocentrically accurate words, but as long as all parties in the discussion understand the simplification involved, it is an appropriate phrase.]

So how many sides are on the coin, or die, or cards in the deck? We don’t know and we don’t need to know. What we need to know are the assumptions in play.

The point of the Fine Tuning argument is that it turns the secular naturalist’s own probabilities and iron-clad belief in ‘natural law alone’ against him. This is what led Anthony Flew to reject atheism.

Circling back to your most recent metaphor. The two men are not arguing over whether the die would show “1.” They observe the die showing “1” because they observe the world that exists and are arguing whether it fell that way or was placed that way.

The naturalist says perhaps it is a chiliagon and could have landed that way with only one toss, despite being unlikely. The theist argues that it is more likely a myriagon and probably did not land that way, and so had to be placed that way. And this is not mere bald assertion. The theist would be pointing at observable indicators the naturalist also observes, and arguing that by the naturalist’s own reasoning he is incorrect in his chiliagon assumption.

But the die is too simple. One data point does not represent a sequence.

In the cards example, the hand is only dealt once, but naturalists have argued that the probability of the result is “1” because some hand had to be dealt, and you appear to accept this assumption in your die discussion (“some face has to land face up”). The problem is that a specific sequence is required. There is only one sequence that will make human insulin for use in the human body. There is only one sequence that will build an ATP synthase motor. If monkeys are trying to type Shakespeare, we are assuming a judge who understands English, or at least has eyes to compare results. In order for WWII Germans to try guessing the correct Navajo phrase to break our codes, they would have first had to assume that Navajo is being used and there is a Navajo-speaking individual on the receiving end. The specific sequence matters for the results that obtain.

To Anthony Flew’s point of conscience: if monkeys getting merely one sonnet right by chance are 1 in 10^690, whereas there are only about 10^80 atoms in the universe, then believing in the power of random chance to have worked things out just right is a taller order than believing theism. The Fine Tuning argument shot down belief in the power of random chance to bring about everything.

Does that mean Fine Tuning is the best argument to use? Depends on the individual, but I’d say probably not, and we appear to be in agreement there. More powerful is the observation that there is zero chance of natural law violating itself. Clouds of gas don’t suddenly collapse in on themselves in violation of ideal gas law and turn into stars and planets. Amino acids in a water solution don’t suddenly concentrate into chains in one spot in violation of chemical equilibrium. Thus, exceptions are imagined as corollaries to explain how the world we see naturally got here in violation of natural law at certain points.

In summary, I agree with many of your points about fine tuning, but it is not as useless an argument as you indicate.

It might be classified as a minor argument for design due to overlap with specified complexity, but design arguments can reach much higher with irreducible complexity and information theory and others. Ultimately, fine tuning hinges on granting the secular naturalist assumptions about the power of chance, and then showing that those assumptions fall far short of reality, if true. Fine tuning as an opening argument for theism or intelligent design would be weak, unless the other party were a man like Dawkins who places great faith in the power of random chance.

I confess this counter-argument seems to me to be somewhat misplaced, perhaps due to the unclear nature of my analogy.

The “Argument from Fine Tuning” I have heard discussed had nothing to do and said nothing about biology. It was an argument about physics and astronomy.

It was based on the premise, not that “random chance” (in this sentence, the phrase means unexpected motions of matter and energy) happening inside the universe led to the creation of life on Earth rather than (for example) on Mars, but that “random chance” (in this sentence, the phrase is entirely meaningless to the point of absurdity) is what led to the gravitational constant G, the speed of light c, the Planck constant h having their observed values rather than some other value.

The reason why the phrase is meaningless to the point of absurdity is this: those values do not change. They are formal laws that particles and waves of matter and energy follow. They are not objects themselves. The Planck constant h is not a tetrahedron made of carbon painted blue.

The thing that makes the Planck constant h have the value is has and not another value is a conclusion of formal reason, not empirical reasoning. No empirical event can change the value — or, to be precise, if we ever build a warp drive that alters the value, then the value we thought represented an unchanging ratio is in fact a local condition, and not a law of nature. Local conditions (say, the acceleration of gravity on Earth’s surface) depend on conditional realities (the mass of the Earth). But laws of Nature (Newton’s Second Law of Gravity) is true for all bodies in all times and places and conditions, or else it is not a law.

In fact, this did happen, and quite recently. There are conditions under which the results predicted by Newton’s laws of gravity (such as the precession of Mercury’s perihelion) do not obtain, due to Relativistic effects caused by solar gravity. What we thought was a law of nature is a local condition. The law of nature is the value for the speed of light, c, is and must be the same for all observers. That is why we call the speed of light a constant.

So, then, while we may be mistaken as to what is or is not a law of nature, what is or is not a constant, it is a tautology to say that laws of nature do not change. By definition, it is not a law if it is dependent on local conditions.

The fine tuning argument, as best I understand it (and I welcome correction here if I am misquoting it) is that the physical constants, if they were other than they are, we not give rise to a universe were stars and planets would form in such as way as to give rise to life.

The same is true for geometry, as far as I can see. If triangles had five sides, they would not be triangles.

The Fine Tuner then says it is possible for the physical constants to be other than they are. This statement is false, or else is a statement of faith about the process of universe creation beyond human knowledge.

The Fine Tuner then says that if he can imagine a constant, such as the speed of light or Planck’s constant, having another value than the observed value, it is a possibility equal in percent chance with the current universe.

By the same logic, I can say that since a triangle might have been created at the dawn of math with five, seven, nine, one thousand, or one billion sides, the percent chance that triangles could have exactly three sides, no more, no less, is less than a billion to one!

To which I say, sew a button onto a note of music. The whole argument exists at all merely because no one takes the time to define his terms. If the word “universe” means “universe” there is only one, and hence the chance that in another universe the Demiurge made different natural laws is nonsense.

If the word “universe” means “local conditions” that is, the events within timespace continuum formed by the lightcone of the Big Bang, outside of which other conditions obtain, fine. The argument then is that what we take to be constants are variables, and that the speed of light, etc., differ in other timespace continua.

Even granting this assumption, the next assumption, which is that the local physical constants vary according to purely statistical random chance is unsupported. You do not know how many faces are on the buried die. You do not know if the die is rolled or has always stood still. You do not know if the die is loaded. You do not know if the Creator placed the die just so as a deliberate act.

And, sorry, statisticians, every die no matter how many faces it has must come to rest with one number upward. After the die is thrown, the chance that a die showing one pip will show one pip is one hundred percent, if you take my meaning.

If someone were to run around saying, “the chance that I rolled a one on a six sided die is only one in six! The die must be loaded! That chance is too high to not be the produce of deliberate intent!” we would all laugh.

But, again, if someone were to run around saying, “the chance that rolled a one on a trillion sided die is only one in a trillion!” the conclusion “Therefore the die is loaded” does not follow in the first case nor in the second. If a trillion is not high enough, substitute the number of atoms in the universe. It does not matter what the number is: the conclusion still does not follow from this premise.

And, again, even if events of unearthly complexity are involved, since the sequence has never been observed (we were not there at the creation of the timespace continuum) and cannot be replicated, we do not know if all other possible continua are precisely the same down to the last jot and tittle as our universe, differ in nothing except they do not have the letter j, differ in nothing except that the speed of light is higher, and the galaxies never formed properly, differ in nothing except that birds build nests but fill them with colored pebbles while carrying their eggs on the knuckles of their feet.

In the continuum where the speed of light (or whatever) is different, the conclusion that stars and planets would not form in that universe is unsupported. Stars and planets such as they are when operating under our laws of nature might not form, to be sure. But this is another continuum, with different laws of nature. The gravity constant might be high enough to overcome the difference in Hubble expansion which the speed of light threw out of wack, so that galaxies, stars and planets form nicely.

Also, this continuum might not bring forth planets. It might bring forth other things, such as symphonies of an energy that does not exist in our universe, and be more filled with life than ours.

Finally, the idea that the purpose of a universe can be deduced by observation alone is folly. We say it was to create life. The energy beings who are not biologically alive inhabiting the Hercules Nebula disagree. The angels, who are also not alive, point at the vast wastelands of lifelessness, the majestic storms of Jupiter, or the rainbows in intergalactic gas clouds, and say that these things are for purposes beyond human understanding.