The Fine-Tuning Argument: A walkthrough

The Fine-Tuning Argument (FTA) is one of those standard arguments for the existence of God. The argument goes that humans can only arise when the parameters of the universe are tuned exactly right. And while it’s possible that we just got lucky, the argument goes that it’s far more likely that God did the tuning.

The standard way to talk about the FTA is delve into a bunch of math equations.  Not that there’s anything wrong with math, but here I wanted to write an in-depth overview that doesn’t talk about the math.  There will, however, be a lot of physics.  The goal here is not to refute the FTA (although refutations will occur incidentally), but to explore it, and to understand how we test hypotheses about the universe.

Outline

(Links to be added later)

1. The Fine-Tuning Argument: A walkthrough
2. Prediction distributions and inflation
3. Ignorant hypotheses
4. Anthropic reasoning

Perma-link to entire series

The parameters of the universe

The core premise of the FTA is that the universe is fine-tuned. Which is to say, the probability of life looks like this:

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The ethics of educational experiments

Rebecca Watson had an interesting article/video about the ethics of A/B testing. A/B testing is a type of experiment often performed by tech companies on their users. The companies split users into two groups, and show two different versions of their software/website to each group, and measure the results. The problem is that when scientists perform experiments on human subjects, there’s a formal ethical review process. Should tech companies have an ethical review process too?

Of course, this question is being raised as a result of a specific experiment performed by a specific company. Pearson produces educational software, and performed an A/B test where some students were shown motivational messages. They presented results at a conference, and part of their conclusion was that this was a promising methodology for future research. But is it really, if they didn’t comply with the ethical standards in science? They certainly didn’t get consent from all those human test subjects.

Watson also brought up another case from 2014, when Facebook performed an experiment that changed the amount of positive/negative posts people saw in their news feeds. They published a study, and it was called “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”. Sounds pretty bad, eh?

Watson seems to conclude that A/B tests should get consent, at least in the case of Pearson. But I think this is going too far. The thing is, A/B testing is absolutely ubiquitous. Watson says, “having worked in marketing and seen A/B tests, it’s just a normal thing that companies do,” but I think this understates it. My fiance and I were trying to figure out how many A/B tests Google has running at any time, and we thought it might be one per employee, implying tens of thousands of experiments. And most of them are for boring things like changing fonts or increasing the number of pixels of white space. If we judge A/B tests on the basis of just two tests that appear in the news, “cherry picking” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

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The construction of emotions

I recently read How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It explains the theory of constructed emotion and its implications. This is the best book of nonfiction I have ever read. Repeatedly throughout the book, I had to put it down because I was so blown away that I needed a moment to think through the implications. And since I’m a blogger, my thoughts would often drift towards how I might write about these ideas and share them. This post will be a bit of an introduction explaining the basic concepts as I understand them, and I hope to write more in the future.

Regular readers know that I believe in nominalism–I think there is a meaningful sense in which everything is socially constructed. I understand that a lot of readers disagree with this, and we may never persuade one another. But fortunately this is irrelevant. When we speak of the theory of constructed emotions, it isn’t a broad philosophical claim, it’s an empirical claim that is specific to human emotions.

When psychologists study emotions, they can record a number of objective measurements, such as facial configurations, positive/negative valence, high/low arousal, and activity in different parts of the brain. However, these objective measurements do not match up to emotional categories. A single emotional category could correspond to many different facial configurations, while a single facial configuration could correspond to any number of different emotions. Yes, there are many qualitatively distinct feelings we can feel. However, when we give a name to those feelings, and place those feelings in an emotional category, this categorization process is not purely based on the feelings themselves. It’s based on the emotional concepts that are available to us, it’s based on the context in which we have those feelings, and it’s based on what we think the purpose of those feelings are.

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Sleeping Beauty and Quantum Mechanics

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.  Note that Sean Carroll also wrote about this, and he’s an author of the cited paper.

My newest favorite philosophical dilemma is the Sleeping Beauty problem.  The experiment goes as follows:

1. Sleeping Beauty is put to sleep.
2. We flip a coin.
3. If the coin is tails, then we wake Sleeping Beauty on Monday, and let her go.
4. If the coin is heads, then we wake Sleeping Beauty on Monday.  Then, we put her to sleep and cause her to lose all memory of waking up.  Then we wake her up on Tuesday, and let her go.
5. Now imagine Sleeping Beauty knows this whole setup, and has just been woken up.  What probability should she assign to the claim that the coin was tails?

There are two possible answers.  “Thirders” believe that Sleeping Beauty should assign a probability of 1/3 to tails.  “Halfers” believe that Sleeping Beauty has gained no new relevant information, and therefore should assign a probability of 1/2 to tails.  The thirder answer is most popular among philosophers.

This has deep implications for physics.

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The felt sense model of consent

[cn: non-explicit discussion of rape and sexual consent]

I recently wrote a guide to terms relating to sexual violence, and I included brief descriptions of a few common models of consent. While I do not reject these models of consent, I do advocate a lesser-known model of consent. It’s known as “consent as a felt sense”.

This model was first described by maymay and unquietpirate, although I have serious disagreements with their framing, as I will discuss below. I would instead recommend coyote’s take, which was what first made the model click for me. If you want even more reading, Ozy has a critique of the model.

The communication vs the message

The standard narrative of consent is someone saying “yes” or “no” to a sexual proposition. This narrative isn’t entirely accurate. Studies show that saying “no” is a disfavored way to express refusal, and people commonly couch or soften their refusals, both inside and outside sexual contexts. It’s also well-known that consent can be expressed non-verbally. Once we get past the myths and legends, we see that consent isn’t about saying one particular word or another. It’s about communication, by whatever means are effective.

But the thing about communication, is that there is a message that we are trying to communicate. Perhaps the intended message is “I consent”, but this quickly devolves into recursive circle. “I wish to communicate to you that I wish to communicate to you that I consent.” Upon reflection, we come to the conclusion that “I consent” means “I am okay with this”.

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On the social construction of electrons

One interesting fact about electrons is that they are all literally identical. And I really do mean completely and literally identical, in the sense of sharing all properties. Yes, even the spatial distribution of their wavefunctions.

To illustrate how this is possible, consider a simple scenario, where we have two electrons, one at point A, and the other at point B. At first it would seem that electron 1 has a different location from electron 2. But in fact, the universe is in a quantum superposition of two states–the first state has electron 1 at A and electron 2 at B, while the second state has electron 2 at A and electron 1 at B. So even though we observe electrons at two distinct locations, the two electrons involved are actually identical.

The fact that electrons are identical has really important consequences.  One consequence is the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which states that no single state can be occupied by two electrons simultaneously. So when we have a large atom, electrons will occupy many different orbitals of the atom, instead of having all electrons occupy the one orbital with lowest energy.

Of course, it’s not really practical to think of it this way all the time. Generally we prefer to think of each electron as being at a distinct location, and then we tack on additional rules like the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

The point is that the individuality of electrons is an idea that arises from practical necessity, and not from the fundamental physics. Practical necessities arise from social context. And in principle, a different social context could have different needs that are better fulfilled by some other way of thinking about it. Therefore, the concept of individual electrons is a social construct.

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Trump’s past light cone

When Trump was elected, and for many months following, people kept on talking about why he was elected. What caused it? This conversation irritates me deeply, because people lack a base-level understanding of what causation is. But I’ve waited to say anything because I thought it might be too crass to insert a philosophical discussion into a political one, at least while it was still hot.

Cause and effect is often thought to be a fundamental part of the way the world works, but I and other physicists understand that it is not. For a brief explanation, I recommend this video by Sean Carroll. It is better to think of causality as an emergent property, more in the realm of philosophy than physics.

What does physics have to say about the cause of Trump’s election? It’s everything in Trump’s past lightcone! It was the DNC, it was Clinton, it was Comey, it was Russia, it was neoliberalism, it was identity politics, it was ancient supernovae. This answer is rather naive, but what did you expect from us? Physics can’t provide all the answers.

When we talk about causes, we’re typically just selecting a few things from the past lightcone, and highlighting those things as important. In philosophy, this is known as causal selection. Sean Carroll talks a little bit about causal selection. He says that one way of thinking about it is that a cause is something that has great leverage over the future. But that’s just one way we might think about it.

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