The twelve basic arguments for god #4: The Fine-Tuning Argument
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The fine-tuning argument is old, but its modern form usually comes from Lee Strobel and looks like this:
The physical constants of the universe are perfectly tuned to allow life, this could not happen by chance, therefore the universe must be intelligently designed.
Where do these arguments come from?
These arguments of fine-tuning are typically dredged not from the canon of scientific literature, which has been subjected to the full critical force of the community of experts in that field, but rather from web sites that are allowed to publish whatever they wish without penalty for error. When a scientist writes a paper that survives the tribulations of peer review to eventual publication in a peer-review journal, it enters into our collective scientific battery of knowledge. Web sites, however, have no such checks against sloppy science. It should reveal quite a bit about those who bypass the scientists and go straight to the web sites.
The problem is that many web sites pretend to such standards while failing miserably – many of them on purpose. The goal for several such sites is to arm people with sciency sounding arguments that the reader doesn’t really understand, but that they can throw out in an attempt to cow their opponents who are equally unfamiliar with those arguments.
Other times the creationist will cite people like Francis Collins or Michael Behe, who have degrees in science or math, to defend their position. It is easy to point out that no papers on proof for god’s existence from such people has made it into peer-review (if such papers have even been submitted, which I doubt). Whether by web site or by referencing the individual, the theist is purporting to place their trust in the hands of an expert: which is an excellent and necessary step in forming a coherent world view (go here and read the section “Should we defer to experts?”). However, when we are deferring to experts it’s important to make sure that’s what we’re actually doing. So often we confuse deferring to experts with ignoring the consensus of experts in order to accept an unscrutinized opinion from a lone-”expert” that conforms to a position we are emotionally attached to. It is here that we need to refine our understanding of acceptable sourcing.
What if I was arguing that a Flying Spaghetti Monster existed? Here are some experts assessing the likelihood of His Noodley existence:
“However, my views have been swayed by the substantial evidence that the earth and universe was actually created relatively recently by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). I am firmly convinced that the evidence supporting this depiction of the origins of life, the universe, and everything has many of the trappings of science” ~ Sebastian Wren, Ph.D
“ One of the most exciting developments in fundamental physics in the last twenty years has been the development of so-called “String Theory.” In String Theory, all fundamental sub-atomic particles are visualized and described mathematically as microscopic vibrating strings. Although as yet unproven, many physicists believe that String Theory has the potential to become the long-sought “Theory of Everything,” through which the fundamental physical nature of all matter and forces will become understood. Obviously String Theory IS correct, although misnamed (a secular humanist conspiracy perhaps?). As NOODLE Theory clearly unambiguously reveals, He has created the fundamental subatomic particles that form all matter in this universe in His own quivering image! You, me, the Earth, the stars…everything in the universe…are all built of trillions of tiny jiggling noodles, microscopic copies of our Divine Saucy Maker.” ~ Steve Lawrence, Ph.D
So why don’t we believe these people, even though they’ve got schnazzy letters after their names? Well, for starters we don’t believe them because the only place we can find their assessment of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s existence is on a web site that has no culpability for error. With no scrutiny, you can say anything you want on a web page or similar medium.
Consider these claims:
Why shouldn’t a sane person buy either of them? There are many reasons.
1. Vague crediting
If you simply say, “Here’s what a scholar said,” I have no means to go and check the source’s validity. Your source may be some wacko with a web page. Consider the first example above, the 100 proofs that the Earth is flat from a scholar. That scholar was geologist William Carpenter, who wrote a book back in the 1800s that even then was eviscerated by the scientific community. You can see who wrote it because I linked to the article, but what if I’d just quoted the article, attributed it to “a scholar” and called it good?
Recall my opening in which I express my frustration at having to point out the obvious. This is a mistake that a freshman should not make.
2. Sources with no scrutiny
The process of peer-review determines the consensus of the experts. Nothing survives the grueling process but the best and most well-supported ideas. This is the reason we shouldn’t buy anything off sites like Answers in Genesis, since they are posting their ideas in a medium that allows even the most ridiculous of things (like a Flying Spaghetti Monster), rather than submitting them to the sharpened fangs of experts on the subject.
Consider the second example above where I cite a “peer review journal”, but don’t tell you what the journal is. Had I not included a link, you would not have seen that the journal was Creation Science Quarterly, a dubious publication to give it’s owners the impression of submission to peer-review, but which has been ignored by the scientific community as a waste of time for its shoddy science (if you have an academic search engine such as EBSCOhost, try finding an article from it).
There are several more easy ways to make sure that when you’re deferring to the experts that you are actually doing so, all as easy and common sense as the above.
It does no good to get into a link-war when there is no scrutiny paid to the scholarship of the links. I could easily have a link-war defending the position that the Earth was flat, if that were the case. So when the theist utilizes poor scholarship, simply point out that they are on their way to a good academic conclusion: they are realizing that experts, not laymen like us, should be the deciding force in what science says. Then simply point out that if they were to really listen to the experts, as they are insisting they are, that the experts in peer-review are saying something completely different.
The universe does not look fine-tuned to produce life. We exist on a teeny piece of dust that has an atmosphere and orbits within our star’s habitable zone. 99.9999999999999999 (and on and on, you get the picture) percent of this universe is positively lethal to life. If the universe was designed to produce life, the designer did a piss-poor job of it. Moreover, even our little spec of dust is contaminated with disease, natural disasters, and toothy animals who would love to have us for dinner. This is awful design.
However, black holes thrive in a vacuum, and most of the matter in this universe goes toward feeding them. There are far more black holes in the universe than grains of sand on the Earth. If you want to talk about what this universe appears designed to do, it appears designed to produce black holes. In this sense, it is as though mankind were a fly trapped in an air bubble on the bottom of the ocean. We’re going to die in short order due to the environment around us, unless we take matters into our own hands. In the mean time, we can look at all the enormous fish floating around. It is at this point we must ask ourselves for whom Neptune created the sea; for the fly or for the fish?*
We don’t know what the universe would look like under different conditions
Nobody gets to say what could exist if the constants of the universe were to change because they are all derived from each other. We don’t, for instance, know what the fine-structure constant would look like if even one of the variables were altered – the strength of the electromagnetic charge would be almost impossible to predict. If the electromagnetic charge is impossible to predict, then we can’t know what chemistry would look like under these different conditions. If we do not know what chemistry would look like, it’s impossible to predict whether or not life would be possible. People who make the fine-tuning argument, who say that life or whatever would be impossible, are claiming knowledge they do not have. That is not good science, and it is something you will be punished for with a tremendous amount of shame if you try it in peer-review.
Even under different conditions, the universe would still look like something. It doesn’t matter what the odds are for this current configuration, some configuration is inevitable. Imagine if you could lay out plastic cups all across the state of Nebraska and toss a ping pong ball out of an airplane as you flew over. Whichever cup it landed in, I’m sure the odds would be astronomical…but somebody has to “win the lottery” in this case.
Consider gravity. Often you’ll hear the claim that if gravity were even slightly more or less powerful that life could not exist. This is ludicrous. Gravity is about 10^-39 (a thousand billion billion billion billion) times weaker than the electromagnetic force, so you have a lot of wiggle room here. In fact, the force of gravity is so weak that it is irrelevant in determining molecular dynamics in all of our equations. In computer simulations dealing with such material, we just leave it out.
They will also say that if any of the three remaining forces (electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force) were altered in the slightest that life would be impossible. Recent work in peer-review has produced proof that a universe without the WNF, the second strongest of the fundamental forces, would look very much like the one we currently live in.
Would life be impossible?
Careful wording in “life would be impossible” arguments usually refers to life as we know it. To say that “life” would be impossible if any of the universal constants were different assumes that life could not exist in any other configuration, which is knowledge that we do not have (why not silicon-based life, rather than carbon?). We do have an undeniable mountain of evidence establishing that life conforms to the environment around it over time (natural selection), but we have never once seen the environment mold itself to accommodate life. As we understand it, the universe and the Earth existed long before life and therefore could not have been molded to accommodate life, so this observation makes sense. The point here is that assuming the universe was fine-tuned to us and not the other way around is probably not the best starting point.
Moreover, as I showed in the previous section, life as we know it would be possible in universes with varying physical forces.
Science is full of mysteries. There is so much we do not know about this gloriously complex universe. But in science we acknowledge our mysteries for what they are: unknowns. Beautiful unknowns, but unknowns none the less. In science we would never invoke a mystery as an answer, that would be foolish. Yet this is precisely what the theist attempts to do with fine-tuning arguments. Even if science had nothing to say about the formation of life, the appearance of the universe, etc, what does that mean? That god did it? Of course not. It would just mean we didn’t know.
Cases for the truth of a claim are not built by disproving (or in the case of creationists, impotently ragging on) other ideas. They are built on positive evidence for that claim, like the kind you will universally find in peer-reviewed science.
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* This argument is paraphrased from Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God.