Every Intelligent Design debate ever


I’ve been in a few. I hate ’em. Here’s how they work: the ID proponent declares that the thesis of the debate is “Everything is Designed” and launches into his argument:

Cars are designed by intelligent agents. Shoes are designed. Computers are designed. iPhones are designed. My right hand is designed. Therefore, everything is designed.

The scientist who got suckered into this engagement begins to unlimber their long list of counter-examples. “We have natural mechanisms that generate complex forms without the need for a designer…wait, did you say your right hand is designed?”

Sure. It’s made of cells, and cells are designed, so of course it’s the product of design.

“You can’t just declare that everything you don’t understand is designed. That’s the whole point of contention here; you have to address the evidence for your position, not just announce by fiat that everything is designed.”

I’m ready to discuss all of the evidence.

“OK, I begin again. So Tiktaalik…”

Designed. Clearly designed.

“The entire fossil series illustrating tetrapod evolution…?”

Designed.

“The citrate metabolic pathway?”

Designed.

“Cells are…”

Great example. Cells are complicated, with lots of fiddly bits, therefore implying a Fiddler. Shall I throw some big numbers at you to show you how complicated cells are?

“No, that’s OK. I know how complex cells are. You don’t get to simply decide that all complex things have to be designed. Again, that’s what we’re debating! If I show you something of unknown origin, or even something with a well-documented history of natural evolutionary history, you don’t get to just greedily snatch it up and put it in the “Designed” category!”

Yes, I do. The burden of proof is on you, and I can refute everything you propose by pointing out any one thing that could have been designed, and that is sufficient to make it designed.

“By a mysterious invisible intelligence that operated for billions of years before the origin of intelligent life on Earth.”

Now you’re getting it! By the way, welcome to my proof for the existence of my God.

I bring this up because I listened to another Intelligent Design debate, this time between James Croft and the reliably ridiculous Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. It was interesting because I’d be one of those guys who brings a catalog of biological counter-examples to the debate; as a philosopher, Croft ignores all that and drills right down to the logic of the argument the creationists are making. I think that’s a smart approach, even if Meyer is only capable of a different flavor of evasion.

I’ve queued it up below at the start of James’ argument, because all the politeness and niceness in the introduction turned my stomach.

He starts by summarizing Meyer’s position:

Note: Meyer has turned that simple statement into three long-winded, tedious books now. If you can grasp that simple summary, there’s no reason to read any of his books, since they don’t provide any further evidence for his position.

Point 1 is false. Meyer exercises a kind of studied neglect of the actual state of the evidence in biology that allows him to pretend there aren’t any adequate explanations for evolutionary phenomena. Croft focuses on the link between 1 and 2, that Meyer is making an abductive argument while failing to support his primary premises. He points out three problems with the logic of Meyer’s claims which I won’t get into — watch the video. It’s not as painful as it looks: Croft begins at the 14 minute mark, and wraps up at 25 minutes, so the interesting part is only 11 minutes long. The rest is Meyer making noises with his mouth and frequently interrupting Croft, and then there’s the interminable period of the two of them telling each other how nice they are and what a worthy and interesting this conversation was. That bit was aggravating: Meyer is his usual pompous self, pretending that Croft’s annoyingly congenial, smiling manner was an affirmation that there was something of substance to his pretentious bullshit, completely oblivious to the fact that the cheerful fellow with the British accent has effectively torpedoed him below the waterline. He is unconcerned; he’s just going to sail off and write another tendentious, wordy tome repeating his 3 points over and over again.

Comments

  1. says

    Actually I think we need to have enough humility to acknowledge that Point 1 is not necessarily false. Note that it does not mention evolution, but only the origin of life. Science indeed has not explained that, nor has it explained the origin of the universe. The best we can do about the fine tuning is the anthropic principle, which many people find unsatisfying. We do need to be able to live with mystery; we don’t know everything and it’s reasonable to think we never will.

  2. michaelmcelroy says

    No, we absolutely do not need to concede that we are unlikely to explain things like the origin of life. Meyer is playing a shell game with the word “current”. He’s a bad faith debater. He has no justification for saying that beyond the assumption that the explanation is his supernatural being of choice.

  3. says

    That’s implicit in the scientific position. We don’t claim to know everything, but we do know some bits and pieces. And some of those bits clearly show a naturalistic process that didn’t require an intelligent designer.

    I actually agree that “current scientific theories are unable to explain…certain observed phenomena”. No problem there. It’s when they try to say their religious dogma does explain them that I get snippy.

  4. snarkrates says

    So, how do they explain the blind spot in the human eye? Clearly their designer is an incompetent boob, who 1) loves certain lower animals more than humans, because it designed their eyes without a blindspot; and 2) couldn’t be arsed to do so for humans.
    How bout the human knee and back? Clearly, their designer is incompetent.
    And then we have cancer, ALS and a whole host of ways things can go horribly wrong. Clearly their designer is both incompetent and sadistic. We can play this all day, but what it amounts to is that here as in any religious argument, the problem of evil is a fierce weapon against belief. At the very least, it forces them to abandon their pretense that their argument is scientific rather than religious.

    And last, one can bring up the problem of human stupidity–why did the designer engineer the human brain to embrace the sort of faulty logic we see with IDiots and Republicans.

  5. skeptico says

    Creationists are unable to explain, and are unlikely to explain, who designed the designer. Since they can’t explain how the designer could have been designed, it is fallacious to say “everything is designed.”

    Also, cars, shoes, computers etc do not reproduce. Living things do reproduce, and so the “therefore everything is designed” analogy is also fallacious.

  6. Matt G says

    The Argument from Analogy. The solar system is like an atom, therefore the electrons must orbit the nucleus like little planets. Except they don’t.

  7. raven says

    I actually agree that “current scientific theories are unable to explain…certain observed phenomena”. No problem there.

    No, we don’t know everything.
    That is a good thing!!!
    If we did, science would be over with and we would all have to go out and get other jobs.

    The nonlogic chain is obvious.
    We don’t know everything = the gods exist

    It doesn’t mean that.
    That we don’t know everything means that…we don’t know everything.
    Yet, anyway.

  8. raven says

    We don’t claim to know everything, but we do know some bits and pieces.

    We do know some key facts about the origin of life.
    1. It happened long ago.
    The earliest evidence we have is 3.8 billion years ago.
    2. The earliest life was simple and prokaryotic.
    Eukaryotes appear 2.7 billion years ago.
    Metazoans appear 800 million years ago.
    3. The ancient earth was anaerobic, meaning no oxygen until 2.3 billion years ago.
    Oxygen is a product of life, photosynthesis, and our atmosphere wouldn’t have any without it.

    These are key facts and way more than the intelligent design people have. They’ve got nothing.

  9. says

    @Cervantes re: fine tuning: Nah, no need for the anthropic principle. Fine tuning simply implies that we’re missing something. Look at the solar system and the different proposed models, there is a clear progression from high to low fine tuning.

  10. raven says

    @Cervantes re: fine tuning: Nah, no need for the anthropic principle.

    Victor Stenger showed that fine tuning isn’t necessary for a universe.
    There are a vast number of values for the fundamental constants that will work.

    You can change one value and then compensate by changing other values.
    Not being a physicist, I can’t really explain his work much more than that.

  11. says

    I’ve never really understood why the “fine-tuning” argument is supposed to be an argument for anything. If things were different, things would be different.

  12. consciousness razor says

    Croft’s response gets bogged down with some confusion and back-and-forth over what Meyer meant by the “logical” nature of the inference he was making. I think that’s not the main problem that Croft should’ve addressed at that point anyway….

    Meyer’s actual example was that you could reasonably conclude there’s a forest fire, if you saw smoke in the distance. (Let’s just grant for now that fire is “the only way” you would ever observe such phenomena, although it certainly isn’t.) The trouble is, this also depends on prior knowledge of the existence of fires, which is exactly the criticism Croft had been making earlier about Meyer’s argument for theism. That is, you know ahead of time that there are these things called “fires” which cause something we call “smoke” which looks like that, and then you can infer that what you’re seeing is at least plausibly the effect of an instance of that previously-known thing which caused it.

    But for the analogy to work, what we actually need to imagine is not me or you, but a person who’s never seen a fire in their whole life. The point is that this person can’t use an observation of some smoke in the distance to reason about it in the same way as we would — that it was caused by fire, a thing already known to exist (by that person, who is trying to reason about it). For them, that is a fallacious step in the argument, which is not actually based on their available empirical evidence (as Meyer incorrectly claims it is, in the theism case).

    cervantes, #1:

    The best we can do about the fine tuning is the anthropic principle, which many people find unsatisfying.

    Well, I don’t know if that’s really the best. One of the more popular options, perhaps….

    But in any case, “therefore god did it” is just a non sequitur, because fine tuning wouldn’t imply a god anyway. Some people not feeling entirely satisfied seems like a relatively insignificant complaint, compared to bad logic that doesn’t go anywhere.

  13. stroppy says

    You can’t just declare that everything you don’t understand is designed.

    Yeah, if the existence of God is an article of faith and not reason, then trying to use reason to “prove” his existence is a hypocritical exercise to begin with. But slap happy dumbasses lost in the O-zone gonna be slap happy dumbasses lost in the O-zone.

  14. evodevo says

    Yeah..I like Croft’s approach….you attack the IDers on their lack of logic, and how their central arguments don’t mesh. That way, they can’t do a Gish Gallop of irrelevant examples/factoids, like they are used to doing in their “debates”. Also, pointing out that we DO know a LOT about the early universe/earth, and throwing in a lot of evidence of this serves to point out their ignoring of known scientific evidence for an old earth/universe, which the fundies who are their target audience just HATE to hear. And when I get pushback in teaching biology from the ever-present young earthers in my fundie part of KY, I go directly to attacking the obvious Genesis1:Genesis 2 timeline and narrative conflicts instead of defending evolution, which usually stops their nonsense in its tracks…they not used to having to defend biblical contradictions, and have less to say lol.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    Stroppy @ 13
    Example: Right now, it is raining outside. I do not see anyone pouring down water from an airplane. Therefore, Zod must be creating new water droplets. Checkmate, atheists.
    Besides, you have never explained who is cranking the lever that keeps the planets circling the sun.

  16. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    missed the example I once heard: take apart your wach, throw all the pieces in an empty box. shake the box for a million years, look inside. Evolution says the watch will get reassembled by random chance over millions of years. QED! Proof evolution is false.
    tada!
    or, something similar about how stochastic processes can;t possibly produce something as complicated as a living organism
    N.B. disclaimer: I’m only relating an invalid argument I once heard. In no way am I advocating it in the least

  17. evodevo says

    @ #13 – yes…I’ve always wondered…just WHY are they so fixated on defending their Genesis view on “scientific” grounds? Why not just let it lie? One reason, I suppose, is that this is a way to worm their religious beliefs into public school curricula, in order to indoctrinate a new generation that they can’t reach via their Xtian schools. So far, they have failed spectacularly, but like wingers in general, they will never give up looking for weak spots in the armor…

  18. stroppy says

    @ 16

    It goes without saying that IDer’s idea of reasoning is flawed as well, but it’s not as though they know the difference — they think they’re engaging in scientific terms. Why they bother in the first place indicates that deep down they know they’re on the ropes, and go for the Black Knight defense:

    ARTHUR: I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight, but I must cross this bridge.

    BLACK KNIGHT: Then you shall die.

    ARTHUR: I command you, as King of the Britons, to stand aside!

    BLACK KNIGHT: I move for no man.

    ARTHUR: So be it!

    ARTHUR and BLACK KNIGHT: Aaah!, hiyaah!, etc.

    [ARTHUR chops the BLACK KNIGHT’s left arm off]

    ARTHUR: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.

    BLACK KNIGHT: ‘Tis but a scratch.

    ARTHUR: A scratch? Your arm’s off!

    BLACK KNIGHT: No, it isn’t.

    ARTHUR: Well, what’s that, then?

    BLACK KNIGHT: I’ve had worse.

    ARTHUR: You liar!

    BLACK KNIGHT: Come on, you pansy!

  19. stroppy says

    me @18

    Or instead of mixing metaphors, maybe I should have just pointed to the rope-a-dope defense.

  20. davex says

    Croft @16:00 — I’ll grant point 1 because I’m not a scientist and can’t really speak to that, but points 2 and 3 are bs because A, B, & C.
    Meyer @24:00 — But I don’t want you to grant point 1 because I prepared this long stream of [continues making BS noises….]
    (DaveX hits pause)

  21. whheydt says

    Re: (SC) Salty Current @ #12…
    It’s based on the idea that there is one and only one way to to make a working anything. One way to have DNA codons, one way to construct an oxygen transport molecule, ad infinitum. This instead of noting that out of a myriad of possible ways to get the same result, these are simply the working examples we have.

    You would think that, looking at the wide variety of actually designed (by humans) objects to do various things, they’d understand the No One True Path, but apparently not.

  22. says

    whheydt @ #22:

    It’s based on the idea that there is one and only one way to to make a working anything. One way to have DNA codons, one way to construct an oxygen transport molecule, ad infinitum. This instead of noting that out of a myriad of possible ways to get the same result, these are simply the working examples we have.

    But why does there have to be a working anything or result? Things developed as they did in a set of conditions. If those conditions weren’t what they are (or something similarly amenable), those things wouldn’t have developed. It seems like this weird way of going backward from what is and saying “The parameters had to such for what is to be,” but, like, duh. If the universe didn’t allow for life, we wouldn’t know about it, because we wouldn’t be here. I’m not trying to be dense – I genuinely don’t understand what this is an argument for.

  23. consciousness razor says

    SC:

    I’m not trying to be dense – I genuinely don’t understand what this is an argument for.

    Understandable, because ultimately it is just confused. The thought is basically that fine tuning suggests a very specific sort of “choice” was made out of a large number of other possibilities. So, when we’re talking about the whole universe, when presumably nobody else could have been around to choose anything (if they even had the power to do so), a creator god of that universe is the only thing that could have done it. Therefore, god.

    But it’s not merely that there are lots of other (logically possible) choices or parameter values or whatever you want to call them. It’s that this specific set that we actually observe could be “changed” (in some sense, at least hypothetically) by a very small amount to give a universe that doesn’t have life in it. (Because theists are talking about fine tuning for life, not for regulation basketballs or gas clouds or whatever else.)

    You should think of it as a very fragile/unstable type of rare thing, that could’ve easily been radically, importantly different with just a very slight change. (So it’s not actually helpful to respond with “it’s different, so of course it’s different” or something similar.) Mostly, if you moved around in that sort of space to pick different values, you’d get no life, and only tiny little points scattered around in it would generate life of some kind. Often, the analogy that gets used is that you have to hit exactly at the center of the bullseye on a large dartboard, but they do really mean there are many points like that and it is just a very, very large board.

    But how this is supposed to support the existence of a god is at best unclear. We don’t have a coherent reason to assume a god who wants to create life would (more likely that not) want it to be exceedingly difficult to do exactly that thing that by hypothesis it wants to do. And when you ask about all of the other ways that a god could have selected a set of such parameters and produced a universe with life in it, it seems like we run into the same problem again. Why is it that god just so happened to pick this particular one rather than any of the others? I guess we can keep going on and on like that until everyone is too bored, and theists finally admit that fine-tuning has nothing to do with why they believe theism is true anyway.

  24. says

    cr @ #24:

    Mostly, if you moved around in that sort of space to pick different values, you’d get no life, and only tiny little points scattered around in it would generate life of some kind.

    But my point is, so what? Obviously the parameters of the natural world allow for life (and everything else that exists!) to exist, since it exists. But if they didn’t, it wouldn’t. There’s no reason there has to be life. I don’t understand why this is supposed to be a problem for naturalists or something we’re supposed to “explain.”

    You should think of it as a very fragile/unstable type of rare thing, that could’ve easily been radically, importantly different with just a very slight change.

    But again, so what? It wasn’t different, and life emerged. Had it been different, that wouldn’t have happened. Even if one were to accept these bizarre speculations about rarity, improbability, limited mechanisms, and the like, I don’t see how any of this is supposed to pose any problem for naturalists or atheists. There isn’t a reality in which life didn’t exist and I was making the case for a naturalistic worldview, but this exists in theory and the case for the naturalistic worldview wouldn’t be affected one way or the other. It just doesn’t matter to a naturalistic argument whether life exists or not.

  25. garnetstar says

    I’ve never understood the “fine-tuning” argument either. It just sounds to me like “If the universe was something else, then we would see something else!” To which I can only say, so what? And, that I’ve seen piano-tuners who are a lot better at the job than the “designer” seems to have been.

    Chemistry explains the origin of life: chemicals spontaneously form organized, designed-looking, structures wholly guided by the laws of thermodynamics and kinetics, no designer. That’s all that chemicals do, actually. Then, they keep doing it, and that’s what life it. IDiots who claim complexity only by design should look at chemical reactions, where you add two reagents, shake the flask slightly, and a massive, organized, stereo-perfect material instantly falls out. Explain that!

    All the molecules of life–nucleic acids, amino acids, proteins, lipid membranes–have been shown to form spontaneously. Some (adenine) are found in space. That no one has yet tried to put all of these together and generate life is because 1) that’d take a really, really long time, and 2) there is no research money for such fundamental questions anymore. Research funding is all for more applied topics.

  26. consciousness razor says

    SC:

    I don’t understand why this is supposed to be a problem for naturalists or something we’re supposed to “explain.”

    I don’t think it is, of course. Why it’s supposed to be (according to others)….

    I guess what most are thinking is something like “it’s unlikely that life would’ve existed naturally.” In other words, that state/possibility space I mentioned has lots of nonliving volume where there’s no life. So, if you just roll the proverbial the dice in a naturalistic world, you get no life.

    But we know for a fact that there is life. So, that is deemed “a problem” that needs to be explained somehow. It looks likes naturalism has to say it’s very likely that there’s no life, which means it makes an incorrect “prediction,” one that we all know is certainly false.

    (Again: not an endorsement of any of this from me, only trying to lay out the thought process.)

    We can start at the point where you keeping coming back: we know there’s life. Why not use this evidence, since we definitely have it, right? But forget about the anthropic principle and all that, at least for now. It’s not needed.

    Given the existence of life, you can ask whether the fine-tuning of this or that physical parameter should raise or lower your estimation of the probability that there’s a god who made things this way. I don’t think it does. Like I said, my priors are not such that I think it’s more likely that a god would want to do the job that way, meaning this new information about fine-tuning doesn’t change the picture for me at all. Wherever we started with regard to the chances that there’s a god, it didn’t change (at least not significantly, for any reason I can think of) because of that.

    To me, it looks like theists are basically just very impressed with the fact that there’s life (which obviously is not a new discovery). It’s not actually the fine-tuning stuff, even though that is ostensibly the topic at issue. So that — life itself — is what is supposed to be evidence in favor of a god-who-wants-to-make-life. If that’s the case, i suppose you can just ignore the whole fine-tuning sideshow and debate that point instead. (You could obviously just concede it and say that, nonetheless, god’s still not likely, even with that slim and perhaps dubious piece of evidence.)

  27. says

    I guess what most are thinking is something like “it’s unlikely that life would’ve existed naturally.” In other words, that state/possibility space I mentioned has lots of nonliving volume where there’s no life. So, if you just roll the proverbial the dice in a naturalistic world, you get no life.

    I mean, I’m not sure where these supposed likelihoods come from, but it’s tangential anyway. It’s like this odd teleology focusing on this one phenomenon is embedded in the whole discussion. But nothing about naturalism includes, much less requires, this teleology, so I don’t really know why any naturalists ever conceded to the whole strange conversation. Astatine exists. Black holes exist. The universe had to have certain parameters for that to be the case, but it’s not presented as any sort of problem requiring an explanation. Whether or not life specifically exists is neither here nor there for naturalism.

    To me, it looks like theists are basically just very impressed with the fact that there’s life (which obviously is not a new discovery). It’s not actually the fine-tuning stuff, even though that is ostensibly the topic at issue. So that — life itself — is what is supposed to be evidence in favor of a god-who-wants-to-make-life.

    Yes, it does seem this way. But, to put it mildly, those aren’t terms I have to accept, and I don’t accept them. I find it all quite odd!

  28. snarkrates says

    Garnetstar: ‘I’ve never understood the “fine-tuning” argument either. It just sounds to me like “If the universe was something else, then we would see something else!”’

    Almost. The thing to remember is that the fine-tuning arguments and the like come in different flavors. At their mildest, they are merely pointing out that universes must have certain properties in order for intelligent creatures to evolve and observe the universe. They have to have stable matter, for instance, which constrains things like Planck’s constant and the fine structure constant, and probably the value of the gravitational constant, as well. Universes may and likely do come into being with these things different, but they’d be boring places. They may last for a femtosecond or for billions of years, but there’s no one there to observe what is going on. At this level, such arguments are almost a tautology.

    Then there are the versions that try to imply some sort of design in the fine-tuning arguments. They’re rather like Douglas Adams’s parable of the puddle:
    “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

  29. raven says

    Victor Stenger, a prominent physicist, wrote a book called “The Fallacy of Fine Tuning”.
    The tl;dr version is that our universe isn’t all that fine tuned.

    If you change one fundamental parameter you can compensate by changing another and still end up with a universe looking sort of like ours.
    If you look at the permissive for universes parameter space, it is large, not small.
    Read the pdf yourself. It’s general language and short.
    https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1202/1202.4359.pdf

    In this article he discusses and defends his work.

    I agree
    that life, as we know it on Earth, would not exist with a slight change in these
    parameters. However, there is no reason to limit ourselves to earthly life but
    consider the possibility of other forms of life, carbon-based or otherwise.
    Depending on what you count, about thirty parameters are generally
    suggested as being fine-tuned. Of these, some theists have claimed that five
    parameters exist that are so exquisitely fine-tuned that changing any single one
    by one part in 1040 or more would mean that no life of any kind was possible.
    These crucial parameters are:
    1. The ratio of electrons to protons in the universe
    2. The expansion rate of the universe
    3. The mass density of the universe
    4. The ratio of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces
    5. The cosmological constant
    3
    In Fallacy, I give plausible reasons for the values of each within existing, wellestablished physics and cosmology.
    The remaining parameters are also supposed to be fine-tuned to many orders
    of magnitude. I show that they are at best fine-tuned, if you want to call it that, to
    10-20 percent. Barnes seems to want me to reduce this to maybe 1-5 percent. But
    nowhere does he show that they should be 10-40. My essential point is, when all
    parameters are taken together the region of parameter space that should allow
    some form of life to evolve is not the infinitesimal point that the theist literature
    would want us to believe.

  30. raven says

    Physicists in general don’t get all that interested in the fine tuning claims.
    Most theories of Cosmology these days imply that we actually live in a multiverse.

    If that is the case, the one we live in reduces down to the one we live in.

    Stenger writes, “The simplest solution to the fine-tuning problem, and the favorite among
    scientific experts, is that our universe is just one in a multitude of universes and
    we just happen to live in the one suited for us. While I fully respect this
    possibility, I have limited my investigation to a single universe.”

  31. raven says

    The reason this fine tuning argument keeps coming up is because the xians keep lying about it.
    A common claim is that the probability of our universe existing is 10 exp -40 or 1/10exp40.
    A very small number.
    It’s nonsense.

  32. says

    snarkrates @ #29:

    The thing to remember is that the fine-tuning arguments and the like come in different flavors. At their mildest, they are merely pointing out that universes must have certain properties in order for intelligent creatures to evolve and observe the universe.

    But that’s basically a truism. What sort of argument is it supposed to be related to naturalism, which doesn’t require that life, intelligent creatures, or any other natural phenomenon not exist (or exist, for that matter)? What’s the relevance of any flavor of this? Why do physicists feel they need to respond to it with proposed explanations? The universe could not exist. Life could not exist. Intelligent creatures observing the universe could not exist. Anything that exists could not exist. Nothing has to exist, so there’s no requirement to explain why the conditions for what exists exist. I don’t get it.

  33. consciousness razor says

    SC, #28:

    I mean, I’m not sure where these supposed likelihoods come from, but it’s tangential anyway.

    It’s just something that you could map from the volume. Total volume → 100%

    You may not normally think “area/volume = probability measure,” but these are mathematically some shenanigans that you could pull, if you’re in the mood for it and can’t think of anything better to do, because it’s not logically ruled out as incoherent. Depending on the circumstances, maybe it’s useful or maybe not.

    (Not trying to be overly critical about that, but I don’t want to make it sound like anything more than it really is either.)

    Astatine exists. Black holes exist. The universe had to have certain parameters for that to be the case, but it’s not presented as any sort of problem requiring an explanation. Whether or not life specifically exists is neither here nor there for naturalism.

    True, but this flavor of theism, which presents itself as a viable alternative to naturalism and “solves” its supposed problem of predicting that life shouldn’t exist, proposes there’s a god which wants to make life.

    It doesn’t (necessarily) propose a god which wants to make astatine or black holes. If the deity exists, then it did happen to make that stuff too. Those may just have been among the very large number of acceptable byproducts of its efforts to create a universe with life.

    If, however, you are interested in starting your own religion involving the worship of a god who so loved astatine that it randomly sprinkles trace amounts of this gift into the world during the decay of thorium and uranium, nobody’s stopping you from doing that. Maybe it would catch on, but probably you should add some other bits that give the whole thing a warmer and fuzzier vibe, like ritual human sacrifice or whatever.

    Anyway, you “need” to jam in the teleology for this, because they’ve decided somehow that nothing else could do it. They’ve exhausted all other possibilities, by thinking really hard and looking at lots of data, so they found themselves forced into it unwillingly. (I’m honestly not sure if any of them actually believe this, but it is a story that one could tell.)

  34. Rob Grigjanis says

    raven @30:

    Victor Stenger, a prominent physicist, wrote a book called “The Fallacy of Fine Tuning”.
    The tl;dr version is that our universe isn’t all that fine tuned.

    I’m guessing you haven’t read the many critiques of Stenger’s views coming from other physicists. They cover the gamut of his claims. My view is that Stenger is one of those atheists who, in responding to bullshit from the other side, just peddles their own bullshit. I’ll stick to one topic to save on typing; his dismissal of the hierarchy problem.

    One way of posing the hierarchy problem is asking why gravity is so much weaker than the other forces. Another is to ask why the masses of the fundamental particles are so many orders of magnitude smaller than the Planck mass. Stenger’s answer is simply this; that they started off as massless particles in the early universe, and quantum corrections to the zero mass are “small”. Really, that’s it (if anyone has seen more than that, I’d love to see it).

    The problem with that answer is that, while the corrections to the masses of most fundamental particles are inherently small, the correction to the Higgs boson mass is inherently huge, requiring some as-yet unexplained cancellation. AFAIK, Stenger never addressed this.

    If you’re interested, you can read more here; https://arxiv.org/pdf/1112.4647.pdf

  35. nomdeplume says

    “unable to explain, and unlikely to explain”. Is this guy from the Middle Ages? All of this stuff we are already “able to explain” with different degrees of certainty, and at the very least have eliminated many possibilities (including divine watchmakers) and reduced them to a small number of similar variants. So in what sense are we “unlikely to explain” these things?

  36. stroppy says

    I’m out of date and not familiar with all this “fine tuning” business. Sounds like God has to finger the knobs on his cosmic radio. Radios can’t tune themselves, you know– not in 1950s Mayberry anyway.

  37. says

    cr @ #34:

    True, but this flavor of theism, which presents itself as a viable alternative to naturalism and “solves” its supposed problem of predicting that life shouldn’t exist, proposes there’s a god which wants to make life.

    It’s just something that you could map from the volume. Total volume → 100%

    You may not normally think “area/volume = probability measure,” but these are mathematically some shenanigans that you could pull, if you’re in the mood for it and can’t think of anything better to do, because it’s not logically ruled out as incoherent. Depending on the circumstances, maybe it’s useful or maybe not.

    I might be misreading you, but it seems like your interpretation is contrary to the fine-tuning argument. As I understand it, the argument, such as it is, is that the universe is structured in such a way as to permit life, and that’s a problem for naturalists, who allegedly argue that the odds of this being the case are exceedingly small. From Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture (which in my view treats this with far too much generosity, calling it “probably the most respectable argument in favor of theism,” but which does argue against it):

    If naturalism is true, what is the probability that the universe would be able to support life? The usual fine-tuning argument is that the probability is very small, because small changes in the numbers that define our world would render life impossible. (p. 303)

    First, this is weird. The probability that the universe would be able to support life is 100%, because it supports life. There’s no context within which we can determine the probability that the universe would take the form it does vs. some other form.

    In any case, if you’re not reading backwards from the existence of life to determine the conditions that had to exist for it to emerge, but rather just saying it emerged here and therefore the conditions here obviously permitted, then there’s no point in playing this odds game. Victor Stenger (quoted in raven’s #30):

    some theists have claimed that five parameters exist that are so exquisitely fine-tuned that changing any single one by one part in 1040 or more would mean that no life of any kind was possible.

    This poses no problem for naturalism whatsoever. Perfectly fine with no life of any kind existing. Naturalism just doesn’t care or rest on whether or not life exists. The problem of explaining why life (humans, intelligence,…) exists is one for theists, not naturalists. (And given the circumstances of our evolution and existence, it’s a big one for theists.)

    Carroll:

    The idea is that conditions – anything from the mass of the electron to the rate of expansion of the early universe – are fine-tuned for life’s existence. If these numbers were just a little bit different, the argument goes, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. That makes perfect sense under theism, since God would want us to be here, but might be hard to account for under naturalism. (p. 302)

    But even if this is completely true, there’s nothing for naturalism to account for, because it makes no difference to naturalism if life or we specifically exist. There’s no god wanting us to be here, and no necessary reason for us to be here, whatever our cosmic odds of existing. (SARS-CoV-2 now exists, but I don’t hear theists claiming it as evidence of the existence of any fine-tuning deity.)

    I suppose the aspect of this so-called argument I find most irritating is what appears to be an underlying sense of fate or destiny surrounding what exists, and our existence specifically. It’s anti-existentialist. The structure of the universe permits a mindboggling number of things that don’t exist (don’t still exist, don’t yet exist,…) to be, but those possibilities haven’t been realized.

  38. jrkrideau says

    @ 12 SC (Salty Current)

    If things were different, things would be different.

    That’s always been my thought. The ‘fine-tuning” argument has always seemed like a lack of imagination ( or down-right stupidity).

    It reminds me of Fermi’s Paradox. Probably the Aztecs made a similar argument about no inhabited land to the east until, oops, Cortes and the boys arrived.

  39. mynax says

    A problem for me with “fine tuning” arguments from creationists is that they don’t matter. Let’s say the fundamental constants were such that the universe could only sustain electrons, photons, and magnetic fields. An omnigod could still create intelligent life, though it might take a million years for one to say “Hello” to another. An omnigod isn’t limited by such things as constants, doesn’t need them to be just so to make life “easier” to create. The concepts of “easy” and “hard” don’t even apply! They are meaningless if you’re omnipotent.

  40. John Morales says

    Regarding the three things mentioned:
    1. origin of the universe
    2. fine-tuning of the universe
    3. origin of life

    (1) presumes the universe had an origin. Speculative, unwarranted.
    (2) presumes the universe is fine-tuned. Clearly, if it is, it’s not for life.
    (3) is an actual unknown phenomenon, in its specifics. But, clearly: chemistry.

  41. consciousness razor says

    SC, #39:

    I might be misreading you, but it seems like your interpretation is contrary to the fine-tuning argument.

    I’m not following you. Would you clarify what’s contrary to what?

    As I understand it, the argument, such as it is, is that the universe is structured in such a way as to permit life, and that’s a problem for naturalists, who allegedly argue that the odds of this being the case are exceedingly small.

    It’s not that naturalists explicitly “argue” this. It’s that according to these theists who put forward the fine-tuning argument for the existence of god, this is a logical implication of naturalism, given the various premises/assumptions baked into the whole thing which we’ve been discussing as we went through it above.

    First, this is weird. The probability that the universe would be able to support life is 100%, because it supports life. There’s no context within which we can determine the probability that the universe would take the form it does vs. some other form.

    The idea is that the hypothetical/counterfactual parameter spaces that we were talking about are playing the role of that context.

    Whether you should think of that as something that “exists” is kind of thorny problem all by itself…. It does in the same sense that other abstract/mathematical objects exist, for whatever that’s worth.

    But even if this is completely true, there’s nothing for naturalism to account for, because it makes no difference to naturalism if life or we specifically exist. There’s no god wanting us to be here, and no necessary reason for us to be here, whatever our cosmic odds of existing.

    Right on the teleology/god part. But if I claimed that there’s a 1 in 59 trillion chance that something happens, and yet it does happen despite the terrible odds, that’s a decent reason to suspect that the things upon which I based my claim were somehow wrong or inaccurate or not correctly understood or something problematic like that. You couldn’t just dismiss that sort of thing because you think somebody else’s claims about gods are false/bullshit/etc. There’s at least something that needs to be addressed there, even if it turns out to be no big deal in the end.

    I suppose the aspect of this so-called argument I find most irritating is what appears to be an underlying sense of fate or destiny surrounding what exists, and our existence specifically. It’s anti-existentialist. The structure of the universe permits a mindboggling number of things that don’t exist (don’t still exist, don’t yet exist,…) to be, but those possibilities haven’t been realized.

    Yeah, I think I can agree with that.

    And from I guess the completely opposite direction, you can also make the criticism that this whole thing is hopelessly parochial and a symptom of our own tunnel vision, because “existence in some kind of reality or other” doesn’t logically need to have anything to do with the very specific physics (in our world or ones like it) that all of this hinges upon.

    All we’re doing is toying around with a few known parameters, and the reaction is supposed to be “wow, how totally different!” And it is different. Sure it is. But there’s no reason why we need to stop there, or with multiverse theories and such. So if this the game we’re playing, you could propose that there are utterly different types of reality that have no connection whatsoever with anything that we’d recognize in this one, none of the things you could get by just fiddling around with the physics of this one somehow. No chemicals or stars or planets or any of it. Just start over from scratch and try to think of something else. Why not? There’s nothing contradictory about that, and that’s all we’ve got to work with here.

    So, when we do some kind of calculation that doesn’t even attempt to cover that whole vast range of thoroughly bizarre possibilities that are hard to even imagine much less describe much less quantify, what do we expect to get out of it as an answer? What is it supposed to tell us, exactly? I really don’t know, but it may not be what some people seem to think it is.

  42. says

    cr @ #44:

    I’m not following you. Would you clarify what’s contrary to what?

    Perhaps you could describe in your own words what you think the fine-tuning argument is. These quotes

    that state/possibility space I mentioned has lots of nonliving volume where there’s no life. So, if you just roll the proverbial the dice in a naturalistic world, you get no life. [This doesn’t necessarily follow.]

    It’s just something that you could map from the volume. Total volume → 100%

    You may not normally think “area/volume = probability measure,” but these are mathematically some shenanigans that you could pull,…

    appear to be about the probability of life in the existing universe in contrast to the probability of a universe that allows for life.

    It’s not that naturalists explicitly “argue” this. It’s that according to these theists who put forward the fine-tuning argument for the existence of god, this is a logical implication of naturalism, given the various premises/assumptions baked into the whole thing

    Oh, come on. I’m describing the argument from the theist’s perspective. It’s the perspective they’re attributing to naturalism, which forms the basis for the whole weird discussion..

    The idea is that the hypothetical/counterfactual parameter spaces that we were talking about are playing the role of that context.

    What do you mean by this? How does one calculate this probability?

    But if I claimed that there’s a 1 in 59 trillion chance that something happens, and yet it does happen despite the terrible odds, that’s a decent reason to suspect that the things upon which I based my claim were somehow wrong or inaccurate or not correctly understood or something problematic like that.

    First, there’s no one arguing this, as you just said, and naturalism doesn’t entail it. There’s no requirement for naturalists to start with some random phenomenon that’s already happened and then strangely try to determine the odds of its happening. It’s bizarre to talk about naturalism’s “predictions” or alleged claims about “chances” here – how could living beings make predictions about the likelihood of the existence of life?

    But since you’ve acknowledged that I’m “Right on the teleology/god part,” whatever. That’s the essence of the issue. As I’ve said many times, this probability business is irrelevant. And weird. The odds were somehow overwhelmingly against the universal parameters being such as to make life possible? OK. The universe allowed for life anyway? OK. It didn’t? OK. It has no bearing on naturalism.

    And from I guess the completely opposite direction, you can also make the criticism that this whole thing is hopelessly parochial and a symptom of our own tunnel vision, because “existence in some kind of reality or other” doesn’t logically need to have anything to do with the very specific physics (in our world or ones like it) that all of this hinges upon….

    Quite. But I think even within the very specific physics of our reality the range of possibilities is hugely underestimated.

  43. says

    @PZ:

    I actually agree that “current scientific theories are unable to explain…certain observed phenomena”. No problem there.

    I have a huge problem there. I would agree that

    “Current scientific theories cannot be confirmed to have explained the historical facts of certain observed phenomena,”

    but in fact the RNA world hypothesis does explain how DNA could come into being. We don’t know for sure it’s the one true explanation, but it is an explanation.

    When the argument is abductive (considering several explanations & choosing the best one, however unlikely, to represent as true) dismissing scientific hypotheses as not even explanations has huge ramifications for what comes next, where explanations are only compared against other explanations. Writing out unconfirmed scientific hypotheses that, as yet, are also not proven impossible, is functionally the same as conceding the god of the gaps argument to be sound.

    It may displease your sense of propriety or humility, but for these purposes a proposed explanation is an explanation. One of my strongest objections to Meyer in this video is the way he dishonestly wipes away the possibility of any explanation, asserting that science has “none” (rather than “none that are yet proven to very high confidence to correspond to the way things actually played out”).

    In any case, science does have explanations for the first appearance of DNA on earth. To allow Meyer to assert that science has “none” is conceding ground he does not deserve.

  44. says

    But if I claimed that there’s a 1 in 59 trillion chance that something happens, and yet it does happen despite the terrible odds, that’s a decent reason to suspect that the things upon which I based my claim were somehow wrong or inaccurate or not correctly understood or something problematic like that. You couldn’t just dismiss that sort of thing because you think somebody else’s claims about gods are false/bullshit/etc. There’s at least something that needs to be addressed there, even if it turns out to be no big deal in the end.

    Yes and no. This fails the lottery test. The odds that the balls drop in just such a way as to make my ticket the winner, well, that’s astronomically low. But the odds that the balls drop in some combination of numbers from 1 to 73 or whatever, those odds are 1/1.

    So, yes, we can dismiss this sort of thing if you don’t believe that it’s relevant that Montana Smith of Maple Valley, Quebec holds the winning ticket in the lottery, and don’t believe it’s relevant that our version of life on our version of earth won the universe sweepstakes.

    Because otherwise we have to know what the odds are that any universe contains … anything. Or any life. Or any planetary life. Or whatever. And those are odds we can’t calculate, so the question is poorly defined and ultimately unanswerable with any foreseeable tools of investigation we might have, access, or develop. Explaining the Brownian motion analog that led to Montana Smith winning the lottery is uninteresting to me, and ultimately not very productive. Some bouncing around was going to happen. Some numbers were going to be spit out.

    Likewise it’s entirely possible that in every actually possible universe some form of life would arise, and in that case how the balls bounce before the creation of the universe is ultimately irrelevant: they bounced the way that they did, and now it is given to us to understand the universe that actually exists.

  45. unclefrogy says

    none of the “arguments” that religion has come up with for a creator god make any sense to me. You either believe it or you don’t, I don’t.
    this fine tuning one is just as nonsensical and still rests on faith like all the others.
    It seems to get the cart before the horse. It is an extension of what are the odds that (any particular living phenomena) should exist or evolve. Well if you think in terms of 6 to 10,000 years pretty unlikely but we know that the earth has been here for far longer then that. So if we look around and say what are the odds that the earth should be here with these parameters and conditions that allowed life to exist maybe that is pretty long odds but if you look out into the vastness of space and see the numbers of galaxies made of stars and planets looks like you would find some things living out in all that vastness. So again the odds when stacked up against reality do not look so impossible. We are here and not somewhere else because life like ours adopted itself to these conditions. Where conditions are different we would expect life to be adopted to those conditions if possible,. Life would be different.
    The universe is not fine tuned to support it, it fine tunes itself to fit the environment it finds itself in, Life, self replicating molecules over time following the “rules of evolution” change into more complex forms able to self replicate until they become aware of being self aware Oh My!
    uncle frogy

  46. Silentbob says

    @ 49 unclefrogy

    So if we look around and say what are the odds that the earth should be here with these parameters and conditions that allowed life to exist maybe that is pretty long odds but if you look out into the vastness of space and see the numbers of galaxies made of stars and planets looks like you would find some things living out in all that vastness. So again the odds when stacked up against reality do not look so impossible. We are here and not somewhere else because life like ours adopted itself to these conditions. Where conditions are different we would expect life to be adopted to those conditions if possible,. Life would be different.

    Sorry but this is a complete misunderstanding of the “fine tuning” argument. It’s not that life adapts to the environment, that’s uncontroversial. It’s that the fundamental constants appear to need to be very finely tuned for any complex chemistry to be possible of any kind whatsoever.
    From wiki:

    The observed values of the dimensionless physical constants (such as the fine-structure constant) governing the four fundamental interactions are balanced as if fine-tuned to permit the formation of commonly found matter and subsequently the emergence of life. A slight increase in the strong interaction would bind the dineutron and the diproton and convert all hydrogen in the early universe to helium; likewise, an increase in the weak interaction also would convert all hydrogen to helium. Water, as well as sufficiently long-lived stable stars, both essential for the emergence of life as we know it, would not exist. More generally, small changes in the relative strengths of the four fundamental interactions can greatly affect the universe’s age, structure, and capacity for life.

    In other words, it’s not remarkable life adapts to the conditions, it’s remarkable there’s any complex molecules at all.

    (I’m not defending this claim, BTW, I’m just saying you’ve got the claim wrong.)

  47. John Morales says

    Quoth Wikipedia via Silentbog:
    “More generally, small changes in the relative strengths of the four fundamental interactions can greatly affect the universe’s age, structure, and capacity for life.”

    Assuming they are changeable, never mind individually so. Big assumption.

    I’m with SC @12: “If things were different, things would be different.”

    (Fine tuners: “if things were different there’d be no things!”)

  48. says

    @John #51: I agree, we don’t know enough about the origin of the constants (if that concept even applies)s to make any such claims. They could be interlinked or even just consequences of something else.

    I do “get” the argument, in their mind it’s like seeing a perfectly round stone perfectly perched on top of a perfectly pointy mountain. If I saw that I too would wonder who did it and why.

  49. says

    Erlend Meyer @ #52:

    I do “get” the argument, in their mind it’s like seeing a perfectly round stone perfectly perched on top of a perfectly pointy mountain. If I saw that I too would wonder who did it and why.

    Thanks – this seems like a really useful description of where they’re coming from. I’ve been rolling it around in my mind, and I admit I’m still having a hard time working my way into this mindset. I don’t see how notions like surprising or unexpected or improbable come into play. The physical characteristics of the universe allow for an immense number of phenomena, including life, some of which come into existence. If the universe’s parameters didn’t allow for these phenomena, they wouldn’t exist. I think life and black holes are fascinating, but nothing about their existence strikes me as uncanny in that way. Going to keep rolling it around in my mind…

  50. rblackadar says

    @JM, you don’t have to assume the strengths are changeable (i.e. in the here and now, though with some exceptions it’s good science to explore that possibility). The question is whether they are contingent, as opposed to governed by some more fundamental law. Such a law would be very nice to know, but we don’t.

    @Crip Dyke, I love what you say about the lottery (excellent!) and agree that the micro-details are probably not interesting. However, I do think it’s interesting to consider whether or not this is a lottery at all. If there’s an answer to that question and we don’t know it, our knowledge of “the universe that does exist” has a significant gap that we could perhaps fill.

  51. Nemo says

    Sagan proposed the Lithic Principle — the idea that the universe was fine-tuned for the production of rocks. And given the relative abundance of stone vs. life, it’s compelling. But if the universe is fine-tuned for anything, really, it’s vacuum. Void upon void, emptiness upon emptiness.

    Here on Earth, OK, things are fairly hospitable, for now. But Earth is one tiny spec in the vastness of a mostly empty Solar system, millions of miles from the hot, bright fireball that incidentally powers life here, while radiating the vast majority of its output towards empty space. The Solar system, in turn, looks cozy when you compare it to the distance to the next star. Which is dwarfed by the gaps between galaxies. And the galaxies cluster on the fringes of far vaster spaces that contain, as far as we know, nothing at all.

    And of course, that’s just now, here in the comparatively hot, dense Stelliferous Era. Meanwhile, the Universe is relentlessly expanding, spreading ever thinner, while the stars are burning themselves out, to be gone in the space of a few billion or trillion years, which is nothing compared to the cold, dark, empty eons to come after.

    Fine-tuned for life my ass.

  52. consciousness razor says

    SC, #45:

    These quotes […] appear to be about the probability of life in the existing universe in contrast to the probability of a universe that allows for life.

    Nope. Sorry for the confusion.

    Oh, come on. I’m describing the argument from the theist’s perspective.

    Okay, no worries. I just didn’t know what you thought was different about my description of the argument, so I figured that was one thing I could clear up, just in case that had anything to do with it.

    What do you mean by this? How does one calculate this probability?

    Often, things are presented one parameter at a time, which isn’t particularly helpful on its own. But a real “probability the universe allows for life” is supposed to be coming from some overall measure of the supposed fine-tuning of all of these different parameters at once. You can just picture that as some high-dimensional “space” of parameters (with all the values they can have), and you can treat the fraction of its volume which allows for life as the probability at issue. (Is any of this legit? Different question.) But, as far as I’m aware, this is more like a thing that they wish they had, in order to do a completely honest/rigorous calculation of that kind, not a thing they actually have.

    Anyway, it seems like we’re mostly in agreement. I’ve just been trying to describe the arguments and the thought process, so that you feel like you can comprehend where they’re coming from a little better. If you still don’t believe fine-tuning is a genuine problem for naturalism, as I don’t, then of course that’s okay with me. But I hope it’s been clear enough that I’m not endorsing every step taken along the way.

    For anyone interested, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on fine-tuning might be helpful, since it gives a pretty good overview of the issues and the many different views people have on the topic.

  53. Rob Grigjanis says

    Nemo @55:

    But if the universe is fine-tuned for anything, really, it’s vacuum

    “fine-tuned for X” doesn’t mean “there is a shitload of X”. It means that there are parameters which, if changed even slightly, would result in a lot less (or none of) X.

    So, yeah, the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of every element from atomic number 6 (carbon) upwards (so, including rocks and people!). That’s because of a particular energy level of the C12 nucleus. The three lowest excited states of the C12 nucleus are at energies 4.4, 7.65 and 9.64 MeV (see here).

    It’s the second of those levels (7.65 MeV) which result in the copious production of carbon in stars, via the triple-alpha process. If the energy was plus or minus 0.05 MeV, there would be far less carbon, and so far less of heavier elements.

    Now, what one makes of this is another matter. If you have an agenda, you will attach to it some sort of philosophical significance (or lack thereof). I just think it’s cool, and move on.

  54. unclefrogy says

    @50
    why is sensible to contemplate an existence so different that things do not exist? how is that even existence? It is very akin to Buddhist, Hindu meditation.
    Why is it any use to let the religious frame the questions? We are here now. If things were “different” then things would be different as has been stated above. the purpose of the question as stated is as a proof that there is a god which only works if you believe there is and must be a god.
    If things were different why would not there also be something that has similar characteristics to what we here and now call life, though exceedingly different from the life we see around us now.
    So what the question boils down to if existence did not exist we would not be here. how is that a useful or helpful question .
    I am not going to engage in a merrygoround argument with religious reasoning
    so I got it wrong on purpose because the question is BS faith .

  55. unclefrogy says

    for all we know the existence that is different “not fine tuned for life” is the one before the big bang. so what

  56. says

    cr @ #56:

    You can just picture that as some high-dimensional “space” of parameters (with all the values they can have), and you can treat the fraction of its volume which allows for life as the probability at issue. (Is any of this legit? Different question.) But, as far as I’m aware, this is more like a thing that they wish they had, in order to do a completely honest/rigorous calculation of that kind, not a thing they actually have.

    OK, this answers my question. My question @ #28 was “I’m not sure where these supposed likelihoods come from, but it’s tangential anyway” in response to your:

    I guess what most are thinking is something like “it’s unlikely that life would’ve existed naturally.”

    Which is correct (in the sense of the universe allowing for it), but they have no basis for this claim. I could maybe imagine the space of parameters you mention at a very abstract level, but we don’t know if it actually exists even in theory. For all we know, there was a 100% chance that the universe would have the characteristics it does, if it even makes sense to talk about probabilities in this context. In any case, the fine-tunists don’t have any values to construct this matrix of possibilities, much less to assign a low likelihood to the structure of the existing universe.

    For anyone interested, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on fine-tuning might be helpful, since it gives a pretty good overview of the issues and the many different views people have on the topic.

    I’ve never met an SEP entry that didn’t drive me up a wall, and this one is no exception.

    Philosophical debates in which “fine-tuning” appears are often about the universe’s fine-tuning for life: according to many physicists, the fact that the universe is able to support life depends delicately on various of its fundamental characteristics, notably on the form of the laws of nature, on the values of some constants of nature, and on aspects of the universe’s conditions in its very early stages.

    [I just can’t stand this phrasing – GTFOH with this backwards “depends delicately” bullshit. There isn’t some necessarily-existing life that must be delicately supported; there’s the universe with its characteristics, which allow for life.]

    A classic response to the observation that the conditions in our universe seem fine-tuned for life…

    The universe allows for life, obviously, because life exists in at least one place at one time (although we know of vast swathes of the universe that appear inhospitable to life). It also allows for a multitude of other phenomena that wouldn’t exist were its characteristics different. That’s it. That doesn’t rationally lead to an observation of apparent “fine-tuning” for life, rocks, black holes, or anything else. Physicists who aren’t making a religious argument shouldn’t use the terminology or even attempt to engage with this non-issue, in my view.

    The way it’s presented in this entry is as a sort of neutral, general observation some physicists have made, followed by the responses (including the claim of supernatural design) to it. What it should begin with is a history of the idea in the context of theistic claims about design and evidence for “god.” They mention in the section on claims about “biological fine-tuning” (ahem) that “Biological fine-tuning has a long tradition of being regarded as evidence for divine design (Paley 1802),” but then don’t situate the broader discussion within this history. The whole concept of “fine-tuning,” even if not used in a theistic argument, carries this baggage, and doesn’t make much sense if you don’t share some of its weird assumptions.

    I mean, it’s fine and interesting to talk about the physical conditions under which (our kind of) life can and couldn’t emerge. But the rest of it – the notion of “fine-tuning” itself, the claims about probabilities, the assumptions about life’s specialness and fatedness, the refusal to acknowledge that naturalism has no need for any of this,… – is useless. It’s history of theology stuff – doesn’t impinge on naturalism at all.

  57. consciousness razor says

    SC, #60:

    I just can’t stand this phrasing – GTFOH with this backwards “depends delicately” bullshit. There isn’t some necessarily-existing life that must be delicately supported; there’s the universe with its characteristics, which allow for life.

    I don’t interpret that quote the same way. Its existence, at least as far as anyone can tell, is a contingent fact, not a necessary one, and that’s why you would say that it depends (delicately or not) on something else: features or characteristics of this universe which “allow for” its existence, as you just put it yourself. If this criticism were aimed instead at the alleged “delicateness” of it all, which might be the intention, that’s one thing. But that word doesn’t imply anything to me about necessity (or fate, destiny, teleology, etc.), so I’m not sure what to make of it.

    To me, it sounds like you have a view that fine-tuning, to the extent you will even accept this as a label (maybe a poorly chosen or poorly motivated one) for the things physicists have identified as such, is just a brute fact… And also a contingent one, presumably. Near the top of that article, it’s described as a type of reaction, that this is “a lucky coincidence which we have to accept as a primitive given.” Seems to fit pretty well? Or is that not right?

  58. consciousness razor says

    Seems to fit pretty well? Or is that not right?

    I mean, the word “lucky” is obviously loaded, so I guess not that…. Just multiple things which happen to coincide or multiple facts which happen to obtain, without any of the “luck” if you want.

  59. snarkrates says

    unclefrogy: “for all we know the existence that is different “not fine tuned for life” is the one before the big bang. so what”
    This is why these discussions are fraught–there is no “before” the Big Bang. Time as we know it does not exist. Space doesn’t exist. The laws of physics don’t exist.

    The question of why the various constants in nature have the values they have is an interesting one for physicists, and there are some physicists who are enamored with various flavors of fine tuning and the anthropic principle, but most agree that unless you go completely metaphysical, it amounts to little more than a tautology.

  60. Rob Grigjanis says

    snarkrates @63:

    there is no “before” the Big Bang. Time as we know it does not exist. Space doesn’t exist. The laws of physics don’t exist.

    Check out #5 in Ethan Siegel’s list of 5 myths about the big bang.

  61. says

    cr @ #61:

    I don’t interpret that quote the same way. Its existence, at least as far as anyone can tell, is a contingent fact, not a necessary one, and that’s why you would say that it depends (delicately or not) on something else: features or characteristics of this universe which “allow for” its existence, as you just put it yourself.

    That’s not how I read it.

    If this criticism were aimed instead at the alleged “delicateness” of it all, which might be the intention, that’s one thing. But that word doesn’t imply anything to me about necessity (or fate, destiny, teleology, etc.), so I’m not sure what to make of it.

    I suppose my fundamental issue is with the larger framework which centers life from the start.

    Rob Grigjanis said @ #56:

    “fine-tuned for X” doesn’t mean “there is a shitload of X”. It means that there are parameters which, if changed even slightly, would result in a lot less (or none of) X.

    So, yeah, the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of every element from atomic number 6 (carbon) upwards (so, including rocks and people!). That’s because of a particular energy level of the C12 nucleus. The three lowest excited states of the C12 nucleus are at energies 4.4, 7.65 and 9.64 MeV (see here).

    It’s the second of those levels (7.65 MeV) which result in the copious production of carbon in stars, via the triple-alpha process. If the energy was plus or minus 0.05 MeV, there would be far less carbon, and so far less of heavier elements.

    I appreciate this framing, and this is, of course, fascinating. In this framework life isn’t the star of the show – “the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of every element from atomic number 6 (carbon) upwards (so, including rocks and people!).” Because it decenters life (and, let’s face it, us, who are the real heart of the theistic fine-tuning arguments), I don’t think “fine-tuning” should be used, since it plainly connotes a tuner and a purpose (or at least a sense of inevitability) even when the person using it isn’t intending to imply that. It’s a short step from there to a designer. [From Rob’s second link: “Some scholars argue the 7.656 MeV Hoyle resonance, in particular, is unlikely to be the product of mere chance. Fred Hoyle argued in 1982 that the Hoyle resonance was evidence of a ‘superintellect’.” This is just cranky, but it seems to be a product of our culture. And of course he extended it to biological design bullshit.] I’d prefer something like “phenomena that can exist within a very narrow range of cosmic values” or the like, but again I don’t think any such phenomena should be rhetorically privileged because of their connection to us.

    I don’t think life/we should be at the center of discussions of the nature of the universe. It would be far better to learn about the nature of the universe and what it can or can’t allow for at whatever moment of its development, and then talk about things that have existed and exist and could theoretically be imagined or predicted to exist given what’s known, and how what we do observe helps improve knowledge of the nature of reality.

    So saying the existence of life “depends delicately” on certain characteristics of nature in an entry about “fine-tuning” sort of hits all of my sore points – life at the center, with suggestions of preciousness and simultaneously both natural improbability and cosmic inevitability. I don’t think it necessarily does so intentionally, or that this is the only way to interpret it. But basically I’d like the whole thing to be rewritten in an entirely different framework.

    To me, it sounds like you have a view that fine-tuning, to the extent you will even accept this as a label (maybe a poorly chosen or poorly motivated one)

    Both. Shouldn’t be used. I get why non-theists would use it – “there are parameters which, if changed even slightly, would result in a lot less (or none of) X” – but the problems with the label are unavoidable.

    for the things physicists have identified as such, is just a brute fact…

    Yes, I think the nature of the universe…is.

    [This is all starting to remind me of Emma Goldman’s “The Philosophy of Atheism”:

    …As Joseph McCabe well points out in his Existence o[f] God: “a law of nature is not a formula drawn up by a legislator, but a mere summary of the observed facts — a ‘bundle of facts.’ Things do not act in a particular way because there is a law, but we state the ‘law’ because they act in that way.”

    The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.

    It may seem a wild paradox, and yet it is pathetically true, that this real, visible world and our life should have been so long under the influence of metaphysical speculation, rather than of physical demonstrable forces. Under the lash of the theistic idea, this earth has served no other purpose than as a temporary station to test man’s capacity for immolation to the will of God. But the moment man attempted to ascertain the nature of that will, he was told that it was utterly futile for “finite human intelligence” to get beyond the all-powerful infinite will. Under the terrific weight of this omnipotence, man has been bowed into the dust — a willless creature, broken and sweating in the dark. The triumph of the philosophy of Atheism is to free man from the nightmare of gods; it means the dissolution of the phantoms of the beyond. Again and again the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms — though whether old or new, whatever their external form, they differed little in their essence. Atheism, on the other hand, in its philosophic aspect refuses allegiance not merely to a definite concept of God, but it refuses all servitude to the God idea, and opposes the theistic principle as such. Gods in their individual function are not half as pernicious as the principle of theism which represents the belief in a supernatural, or even omnipotent, power to rule the earth and man upon it. It is the absolutism of theism, its pernicious influence upon humanity, its paralyzing effect upon thought and action, which Atheism is fighting with all its power….]

    And also a contingent one, presumably.

    I know very little about physics or cosmology, but I don’t even know if it makes sense to speak of contingency in this regard. I haven’t seen any indications that the existence or nature of the universe was inevitable or necessary. Structured as it is, would it necessarily give rise to life at some point? To intelligent life? No idea.

    Near the top of that article, it’s described as a type of reaction, that this is “a lucky coincidence which we have to accept as a primitive given.” Seems to fit pretty well? Or is that not right?

    Yes, that’s listed as one of the “Various reactions to the universe’s fine-tuning for life [that] have been proposed.” (“Reactions…proposed” seems to reveal some assumptions…) “Lucky coincidence” is weird. A coincidence of what and what? The structure of the universe allows for life, among many other phenomena, to exist (obviously), and it does. I’m not sure how lucky it is, but I, a carbon-based lifeform, find it pretty cool (of course, I wouldn’t have an opinion if I didn’t exist). (I won’t even start in about how interesting the use of terms like “brute” and “primitive” is in these sorts of contexts.)

  62. consciousness razor says

    SC, #65:

    I’d prefer something like “phenomena that can exist within a very narrow range of cosmic values” or the like, but again I don’t think any such phenomena should be rhetorically privileged because of their connection to us.

    Well, that’s just the claim that theists are making: their god wanted life (much more specifically, us) when it made the world, and there is supposed to be physical evidence to back it up. So, that’s going to be privileged in a discussion which evaluates that claim.

    But of course a part of that evaluation can come in the form of a philosophical objection against exactly this sort of thing. That feels like a pretty soft attack, though. If we were being presented with some hard clear-cut evidence and very solid arguments leading from A to B, that doesn’t seem like enough (not by itself).

    I will say that I think this is the closest thing we seem to have to a serious, empirically-based argument for the existence of a god. (Whether or not it’s “scientific”…. Frankly, I don’t care where it should be placed in the world of academic departments.) It fails, for numerous reasons as numerous people have pointed out, but at least pieces of it could belong in a valid and empirically-grounded attempt at supporting such a claim, unlike tons of other arguments for gods throughout history which don’t have anything like that in them.

    So, credit where it’s due. In that sense and to that extent, I think it’s worth taking seriously, rather than treating it like just any old theistic argument which doesn’t even have that much going for it. Some on the atheist/naturalist side of things don’t recognize or acknowledge that, which is unfortunate, because looking like a bunch of ignorant dismissive jerks is not very helpful or persuasive.

    …As Joseph McCabe well points out in his Existence o[f] God: “a law of nature is not a formula drawn up by a legislator, but a mere summary of the observed facts — a ‘bundle of facts.’ Things do not act in a particular way because there is a law, but we state the ‘law’ because they act in that way.”

    Sounds like standard, garden-variety Humeanism about laws of nature. I’m alright with that.

    A coincidence of what and what? The structure of the universe allows for life, among many other phenomena, to exist (obviously), and it does.

    Well, you can talk in terms of “the structure” as a single thing if you want, but it also doesn’t sound inappropriate to think of this instead as referring to multiple distinct characteristics that it has.

    A few examples of “fined-tuned” stuff, pulled from the first section in that SEP article: the strength of gravity vs. electromagnetism vs. the strong nuclear force, the difference between the masses of up and down quarks, the cosmological constant, the global energy density in the “early” universe, the relative amplitudes of density fluctuations in the “early” universe, the low entropy state of the “early” universe. And so forth.

    Even if you want to dispute some of this (which I’m not bothering to do here), the point is still that there are a bunch of these conceptually-distinct features, which are related to a variety of different physical laws and conditions and so on, all of which coincide in a way which allows for the existence of life.

    I mean, if it were just the one parameter in this “structure” (I don’t care which … the masses of u & d quarks, for instance) that seemed somehow surprising or suspicious or a little too convenient or what have you, then that’s painting a rather different picture than the actual one we’re looking at.

  63. consciousness razor says

    Amusing, but I wasn’t talking about a cosmological argument. (Or an ontological argument. Or others.) You don’t think that’s a better one … right?

  64. John Morales says

    Same thing, cr.

    “when it made the world”, as you yourself adumbrate the claim.

    (Whether it was made is the question, which then invites the question of what made the maker)

  65. says

    cr @ #66:

    Well, that’s just the claim that theists are making: their god wanted life (much more specifically, us) when it made the world, and there is supposed to be physical evidence to back it up. So, that’s going to be privileged in a discussion which evaluates that claim.

    But there’s no need for non-theists to accede to discussions about the nature of the universe being framed around theistic claims in the way the SEP entry presents it. Pushing back on this framing is key to the discussion. (But listen to what you’re saying: their argument is that a god wanted life/us to exist, and so our existence is evidence of the existence of said god. It’s mindnumbingly banal and circular.)

    But of course a part of that evaluation can come in the form of a philosophical objection against exactly this sort of thing. That feels like a pretty soft attack, though. If we were being presented with some hard clear-cut evidence and very solid arguments leading from A to B, that doesn’t seem like enough (not by itself).

    Not sure what you’re on about. This specific conversation was about my objection to the framing/phrasing of an SEP entry on fine-tuning.

    I will say that I think this is the closest thing we seem to have to a serious, empirically-based argument for the existence of a god.

    LOL. “Life exists, therefore god.”

    It fails, for numerous reasons as numerous people have pointed out, but at least pieces of it could belong in a valid and empirically-grounded attempt at supporting such a claim

    I don’t agree, for all the reasons I’ve put forward throughout the thread. Frankly, it seems more like some non-theists have taken it seriously for some reason and now feel like they have to justify that by claiming it deserves to be taken seriously. I’m sure there’s a name for this fallacy…

    So, credit where it’s due. In that sense and to that extent, I think it’s worth taking seriously, rather than treating it like just any old theistic argument which doesn’t even have that much going for it. Some on the atheist/naturalist side of things don’t recognize or acknowledge that, which is unfortunate, because looking like a bunch of ignorant dismissive jerks is not very helpful or persuasive.

    Ha – read this after I posted what’s right above it. As I said above @ #27:

    To me, it looks like theists are basically just very impressed with the fact that there’s life (which obviously is not a new discovery). It’s not actually the fine-tuning stuff, even though that is ostensibly the topic at issue. So that — life itself — is what is supposed to be evidence in favor of a god-who-wants-to-make-life.

    Oh, wait – that wasn’t me at all! It was…you.

    Well, you can talk in terms of “the structure” as a single thing if you want, but it also doesn’t sound inappropriate to think of this instead as referring to multiple distinct characteristics that it has.

    Thanks. Structures ordinarily do consist of multiple features.

    A few examples of “fined-tuned” stuff, pulled from the first section in that SEP article: the strength of gravity vs. electromagnetism vs. the strong nuclear force, the difference between the masses of up and down quarks, the cosmological constant, the global energy density in the “early” universe, the relative amplitudes of density fluctuations in the “early” universe, the low entropy state of the “early” universe. And so forth.

    Even if you want to dispute some of this (which I’m not bothering to do here), the point is still that there are a bunch of these conceptually-distinct features, which are related to a variety of different physical laws and conditions and so on, all of which coincide in a way which allows for the existence of life.

    Yes, obviously, since life exists the characteristics of the universe render it possible for life to exist. (All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown…) As I said above:

    “If things were different, things would be different.”

    “Things developed as they did in a set of conditions. If those conditions weren’t what they are (or something similarly amenable), those things wouldn’t have developed. It seems like this weird way of going backward from what is and saying ‘The parameters had to such for what is to be’, but, like, duh.”

    “So what? Obviously the parameters of the natural world allow for life (and everything else that exists!) to exist, since it exists. But if they didn’t, it wouldn’t. There’s no reason there has to be life.”

    “The problem of explaining why life (humans, intelligence,…) exists is one for theists, not naturalists.”

    “As I’ve said many times, this probability business is irrelevant. And weird. The odds were somehow overwhelmingly against the universal parameters being such as to make life possible? OK. The universe allowed for life anyway? OK. It didn’t? OK. It has no bearing on naturalism.”

    John Morales @ #67, hee. I have a faint memory of that.

  66. consciousness razor says

    SC:

    LOL. “Life exists, therefore god.”

    You can’t seriously think that’s what I’m talking about, or what all manner of physicists have been investigating with regard to fine-tuning (including the items you accepted and found fascinating in Rob’s comment above).

    Besides, I’ve been very clear this entire time that I don’t think it is a good argument. So … give me a fucking break? Is that fair?

    If I had said that I thought you were the closest to being an honest person in your neighborhood, you wouldn’t actually have to take that as a compliment. I bet your attention then would be directed at my implication that you didn’t actually qualify. I think you understand just fine how that works. But you somehow don’t get it in this case? That’s just silly, and I don’t buy it.

    Oh, wait – that wasn’t me at all! It was…you.

    FFS, that doesn’t mean it’s not using real, physical, empirical evidence (not scripture or faith or intimidation or some other bullshit slop cooked up by some random fraud) to try to establish facts about the world or to support theories about it. If it didn’t occur to you that this makes it stand out a little bit from the rest that garbage, okay, maybe give that one a second thought. I think it does stand out for that reason. But please don’t distort this into something completely different that I’m clearly not saying, because that’s very annoying.

  67. says

    You can’t seriously think that’s what I’m talking about, or what all manner of physicists have been investigating with regard to fine-tuning (including the items you accepted and found fascinating in Rob’s comment above).

    These are two separate things. There are physicists’ observations about cosmic parameters and what they make possible, including the things that wouldn’t be possible outside a narrow range of values for those parameters. This has nothing to do with theistic arguments about the existence of any [undefined yet somehow desirous of our existence] god. Nothing at all. The only thing they have in common is the label “fine-tuning,” which is very convenient for theists who want to claim those observations support their sad claims.

    You said:

    To me, it looks like theists are basically just very impressed with the fact that there’s life (which obviously is not a new discovery). It’s not actually the fine-tuning stuff, even though that is ostensibly the topic at issue. So that — life itself — is what is supposed to be evidence in favor of a god-who-wants-to-make-life.

    the claim that theists are making: their god wanted life (much more specifically, us) when it made the world, and there is supposed to be physical evidence to back it up.

    IOW, “Life exists, therefore god.”

    Besides, I’ve been very clear this entire time that I don’t think it is a good argument. So … give me a fucking break? Is that fair?

    You said:

    In that sense and to that extent, I think it’s worth taking seriously, rather than treating it like just any old theistic argument which doesn’t even have that much going for it. Some on the atheist/naturalist side of things don’t recognize or acknowledge that, which is unfortunate, because looking like a bunch of ignorant dismissive jerks is not very helpful or persuasive.

    You insisted not only that it’s worth taking seriously but that those of us who don’t agree with that assessment look like ignorant, dismissive jerks. It has a whiff of the Courtier’s reply (I remembered!) about it. I argued about some specific points, as I do, but I think I’ve been clear the whole time that I don’t think any of that is necessary to dismiss the basic argument, which is banal and circular and poses no problem for or challenge to naturalism. It’s fine by me if you and Sean Carroll think it’s superior to other theistic arguments, but I don’t agree and frankly don’t understand what the basis of that superiority is supposed to be. Talking about physics doesn’t make the claim any more worthwhile, any more than talking about biology makes the claims of Intelligent Design or theistic evolution more worthwhile or talking about neuroscience makes Buddhist claims more worthwhile.

    FFS, that doesn’t mean it’s not using real, physical, empirical evidence (not scripture or faith or intimidation or some other bullshit slop cooked up by some random fraud) to try to establish facts about the world or to support theories about it.

    It’s not trying to establish facts about the world or support theories about the world. It’s trying to extrapolate from observations about the natural world to make a case that the existence of life is a problem for naturalism and evidence for the existence of their god. But the observations about the natural world don’t support that extrapolation or make it a more serious argument.

    I think we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns, and I want to listen to the rest of the new Maintenance Phase episode on Oprah’s show about John of God before I go to sleep, so I’ll bow out and leave you the last word.

  68. consciousness razor says

    SC:

    You insisted not only that it’s worth taking seriously but that those of us who don’t agree with that assessment look like ignorant, dismissive jerks.

    I didn’t mean you, and I’m sorry I gave you that impression. I have in mind people who brush it off very causally, with little or no discussion or questions or anything. How much do they fucking know about cosmology or fundamental physics anyway? Not much, if they’re like most of us. But they can apparently settle things if they just make some loud noises and pound their fists on the table hard enough. That is not what you’ve been doing in this thread, obviously.

    It’s fine by me if you and Sean Carroll think it’s superior to other theistic arguments, but I don’t agree and frankly don’t understand what the basis of that superiority is supposed to be.

    I remember (and have strongly agreed with) your past comments on the epistemic/moral problems with “faith,” for example. So I know you understand that not relying on that matters a great deal. I think we can agree, if you just connect these dots, that it is at least a slight improvement, when theists are trying to engage with some real physics (not only complete bullshit, as is typical). How much they’re also fucking things up at the same time is something that I think we can set aside momentarily while we say that. And that’s really I was trying to do.

  69. John Morales says

    cr:

    … when theists are trying to engage with some real physics …

    Trying to engage with is not engaging with. Which is what SC is saying.

    And lauding that effort is not lauding the merit of the effort, which is also what SC is saying.

    In short, by taking such silliness seriously, you give it traction.

    As an aside, I’ve taken to saying ‘goddist(s)’ and ‘goddism’ instead of ‘theist(s)’ and ‘theism’. All without changing the meaning one whit, merely anglicising it.

    (I know it often irritates goddists, and I welcome their plaints about it if and when they occur. I can be very accommodating, just not in such a way… ;)

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