Fine tuned universe

The idea of a fine tuned universe is put forward as a teleological argument for the existence of God. It should be acknowledged straight away that, like the cosmological arguments, it doesn’t necessarily argue for God in the Abrahamic sense, but simply for a creator of some kind. There are some good arguments out there, and I’m not sure all can be countered by theists.

A key characteristic of the fine tuning type arguments is that they attempt to provide odds against the universe forming with all the correct information (I use this loosely meaning physical constants and laws) for intelligent/advanced life to form. The first problem here confronts all types of design arguments, the odds are against randomness, not for design. While we can easily phrase the argument as a designer vs no designer argument and avoid risking an either or fallacy, it still leaves a problem on making a positive argument for a designer. Here’s why, the assumption seems to be (perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve heard the argument many times) that the probability of there being a creator is the same as the probability against there not being a creator (p[universe|~no creator]=p[universe|creator]). This is possible but unlikely to be an empirically supportable case, since we’d have to build the case both ways and prove the probability of a creator is actually higher than the probability of not having a creator, given what we know. So the argument seems to begin with a crutch.

I’ve heard this idea being used in an interesting way. If there is an omnipotent God, then He could create any universe, which would be an infinite number given His omnipotence, therefore the odds against getting this universe in light of an omnipotent God are infinite. This argument does have a flaw though, an omnipotent, omniscient God would be making a choice on which universe based on complete knowledge, in order to apply some kind of decision theory statistic to it, we’d have to have all the same knowledge to work with (we’d be omniscient), and if we had that, we wouldn’t be arguing about whether there was or wasn’t a deity. So while this argument should get you thinking, I doubt it is an effective counter to fine tuning.

RiandouglasHavok had some interesting sounter arguments in the comment post on my original post on telelogical arguments.

– We don’t know that the constants actually can take different values (we don’t know that there are knobs for our putative fine tuner to tune).
– We don’t know that our form of life is the only form of life possible.
– It appears that changes to one parameter can be compensated for by changes to other parameters.
– Many of the so called finely tuned parameters aren’t as impressive when presented as “natural units” rather than the units we use everyday (ie. speed of light becomes 1 rather than 300,000,000m/s, strength of gravity becomes 1, etc).

The first point is okayish, but since we’d expect the state of singularity at the beginning of the universe (given the Big Bang theory), to not have meaningful physical laws, so there’d be no reason to assume that only one value was possible. This no physical laws issue comes back to bite later.

The second point is very valid, a different setup could form a different life form, then one could use the anthropic principle and say that we’d expect the kind of life we observe to be found where the physical laws make it possible. The problem with this is that I don’t see it as really eliminating a creator/designer, since it would be the case if there were or weren’t a designer.

The third point may be true, but even if it is, it would probably have to be within reason. It could reduce the odds, not eliminate the fine tuning argument completely.

Presenting fine tuning parameters as measurements of themselves is less problematic for fine tuning the more you think about it. Things like speed of light is a measurement of comparison, other things move, they move in relation to each other, and thus speed hardly seems to be something you could say: the speed of a tortoise is one speed of a tortoise, and the speed of light is one speed of light.

So far, I don’t think that much has been said to properly refute the fine tuning argument, perhaps it’s not as strong as it’s presented at an evangelistic meeting, but it isn’t lost completely.

So, what if we assume everything theists are saying is right (I used to really like the fine tuning argument, until hearing this argument). If there were no physical/mathematical laws, and the values behind those physical/mathematical laws could take on any value, then how can we apply the laws of probability to the situation, since probability is a law that wouldn’t have existed at the moment in question, if those making the argument are correct.

I do see possible chinks in this, which I’ll blog about once I’ve ordered my thoughts on it, but until then, I’d like to know what you think, since I’m not seeing huge hope for salvaging the fine tuning argument. So, what are your thoughts?

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10 thoughts on “Fine tuned universe”

  1. I’m not sure I’m ‘getting’ the gist of this piece – could you summarize what it is you set out to say? What point did you intend to make?

    Also – could you please expand a little on what you mean by:
    “the speed of a tortoise is one speed of a tortoise, and the speed of light is one speed of light.”
    Are you saying there is variability in velocity of light? (as there is in tortoises) Or are you suggesting that a tortoise is moving relative to the speed of light at the speed of light… I’m confused by that

    1. It was in response to the criticism that the constants could all be measured as one, I suppose a tortoise was a bad example, let use sound. Speed is a measurement of something, it would be nonsensical to have the speed of light, and the speed of sound both measuring one. Then we couldn’t compare speed, since we’d have to be able to measure sound in lightspeed units, or light in soundspeed units. The speed of light is a measurment of how far it travels over a particular time frame, like any other speed, so it isn’t 1 lightspeed, measured in distance and time.

      If you’re really that concerned, I made it pretty clear that I can’t see the fine tuning argument coming back from the statement that no probability laws existed when there were no physical laws or constants, so the probability that the physical constants would be just right without a designer just right is, well, just a non-starter.

      1. so the probability that the physical constants would be just right without a designer just right is, well, just a non-starter.
        I’m not sure if you meant to, but this statement seems to allude to another criticism of the fine tuning argument – that of the fine tuning of the designer.

        It seems reasonable for a proponent of the fine tuning argument to have to explain just what aspects of the designer resulted in the constants being exactly what they are, and not some other value.

        I think this argument results in a designer that is far more finely tuned than we find the parameters of the visible universe to be 🙂

  2. Hmmmm… I’m a bit confused still Smid… Let me try sort it out:

    Anthropic discussion – I’ll keep the light speed discussion as a separate.:

    1) You’re saying there must be a designer because the probability of the anthropic principle throwing up a hospitable universe is too unlikely?

    2) You’re citing in support of 1) above that no ‘probability laws’ (laws of physics) existed before they existed…?

    1. No, I’m saying that 2 makes the fine tuning argument useless, it doesn’t mean there is no designer, it means there’s no real point in Christians using fine tuning, or atheists trying to make comparative units all be one of themselves. You don’t really need any elaborate arguments to beat fine tuning, all you need is to agree with everything theist says, and then point out the laws of probability wouldn’t have existed either, thus the argument has nothing at all to work with. There is no fight here, I’m not supporting the fine tuning argument any more than I support the cosmological argument.

    2. Sorry, I went to reply to your last to comments and I hit the delete button (it’s right above the reply button on a Blackberry) twice, I feel really stupid, I’d like the stuff about light speed again, since I didn’t really get how it fitted in with the discussion.

      I agree that theists import a supernatural source into the cosmological argument. I don’t agree that the supernatural entity would need a cause, since, if that entity created time, it would be nonsensical to talk about there being a before that entity. 😉

      Be careful with responses regarding Big Bang as first cause, they often work both ways. First cause is a futile argument for both sides, too many unknowns.

      1. Sorry… been a hellish busy day… gonna stay this way into night. Did you delete the piece about time dilation? I can write it again, but it will take a bit.

      2. Yes, it was that one, I’m really sorry, I don’t delete comments unless they’re obviously spam (I don’t check the spam folder much either). If you could redo, no rush, I just wasn’t sure how it fitted in. I’m familiar with the concept, I just found how you put it quite interesting.

  3. The first point is okayish, but since we’d expect the state of singularity at the beginning of the universe (given the Big Bang theory), to not have meaningful physical laws, so there’d be no reason to assume that only one value was possible. This no physical laws issue comes back to bite later.

    The initial state of the universe would still likely had had physical laws. It’s just that the “fine tuned” parameters would not be “set” in any meaningful sense, since many of them result from the breaking of a symmetry, and the initial state of this visible universe wouldn;t have had those symmetries broken (the unification of a single force into the 4 forces of nature is an example of symmetry breaking in the early universe).
    This symmetry breaking can serve as a problem for the theist, since symmetry breaking is likely to be spontaneous, meaning that a putative designer could not have forseen the result of this breaking, and therefore could not have “chosen” this universe in any reasonable sense.

    The problem with this is that I don’t see it as really eliminating a creator/designer, since it would be the case if there were or weren’t a designer.

    The fine tuning argument is usually presented as there being very few possible values and combinations of parameters under which life could form, and so the chances of getting one of these is too small to consider. The point about there being the possibility of other types of life opens up the combinations which could result in some sort of life (or some sort of intelligent life), and therefore blunts the force of the initial argument.

    It could reduce the odds, not eliminate the fine tuning argument completely.

    If it opens up whole swaths of “possible universes” to the possibility of life, then it can provide reasons to think the fine tuning argument lacks force.

    Things like speed of light is a measurement of comparison,

    No it’s not, since it is constant, while the speed of other things is relative to the reference frame of the observer.
    Since the speed of light is an absolute, regardless of the reference frame of an observer, it makes sense to view it as a unit speed.

    If there were no physical/mathematical laws, and the values behind those physical/mathematical laws could take on any value, then how can we apply the laws of probability to the situation, since probability is a law that wouldn’t have existed at the moment in question, if those making the argument are correct.

    As I pointed out above, the early universe, prior to symmetry breaking, would still have been governed by some regularites (quantum mechanics, for instance). The physical laws are really just codified observations of the regularities of the universe. Fine Tuning, as I’ve generally seen it presented, tends to be more about the dimensionless parameters we have to add to our theories in order to apply them to reality – numbers which are (currently) only found through experiment rather than being derivable from the theory itself.

    One of the major problems I see with the fine tuning argument is that it assumes a uniform probability distribution, but gives no reason to think that this is actually the case. This is a broader version of my earlier item 1 – that we don’t know the parameters can take other values.

    One other critique I’ve seen of the fine tuning argument, which I find quite interesting, is the observation that under naturalism, life could only exist in a universe that had parameters that allowed life to exist, which under theism, life could exist in any universe, regardless of how hostile to life the universal parameters might be. This turns the argument on it’s head, and now the theist needs to explain why it is that this specific universe was chosen, out of the infinite or near infinite alternatives (including things like Idealism, radical departures from the universe as we know it, such as matter being continuous rather than discrete, etc).

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