Thursday, 9 October 2014

Objections against the fine-tuning argument-III

Objection: The key thrust of the argument from fine-tuning is that it is very improbable that the universe's conditions be "just right" to allow for our existence, and as such it calls out for an explanation. However, according to the weak anthropic principle, the universe's basic features must be conducive for the evolution of observers in order for them to observe the universe. In other words, were the basic features non-conducive to our existence, our existence wouldn't even be possible. But here we are. The fact of our existence entails that the initial conditions of the universe would be able to accommodate our existence in it. That's why the fine-tuning of the universe needs no explanation.

Response: This is one of the most common responses to the fine-tuning argument out there, popularized by (among others) Barrow & Tipler and Elliot Sober. I'm sure there are smarter formulations out there, but the basic thrust of the objection is completely, completely wrong-headed (although I've had to think quite a bit about the objection to understand it (and the response)). According to the objector, the fine-tuning proponent believes that it is the mere conduciveness of a universe to the observers' existence that requires explanation. But it is trivially true that it doesn't! This is the objection formalized:

1. If we exist, the universe's basic conditions would be such that allows our existence.
2. We exist.
3. Therefore, the universe's basic conditions would be such that allows our existence.

Everyone will agree with this. But once again, the mere "fit" between our existence and the universe's basic features is not what the fine-tuning argument holds to be surprising and requiring explanation. Rather, it is the peculiar way in which the fit occurs. Put differently, the conditions could be conducive of life in an infinite number of different ways. Of all these ways, a very peculiar, precariously improbable set of conditions is what yields life. Isn't that fact surprising? The laws and conditions could have been such that even if one were to vary them, it would have little or not effect on life. But that's not how things are- the conditions are very peculiar, such that even if you vary them a little, we would not have existed. The mere conduciveness is not what should surprise us as the objector things, but the peculiar nature of the conduciveness that should.

To understand this, consider the following illustration borrowed from Richard Swinburne:

Suppose that a madman kidnaps a victim and shuts him in a room with a card-shuffling machine. The machine shuffles ten packs of cards simultaneously and then draws a card from each pack and exhibits simultaneously the ten cards. The kidnapper tells the victim that he will shortly set the machine to work and it will exhibit its first draw, but that, unless the draw consists of an ace of hearts from each pack, the machine will simultaneously set off an explosion that will kill the victim, in consequence of which he will not see which cards the machine drew. The machine is then set to work, and to the amazement and relief of the victim the machine exhibits an ace of hearts drawn from each pack. The victim thinks that this extraordinary fact needs an explanation in terms of the machine having been rigged in some way. But the kidnapper, who now reappears, casts doubt on this suggestion. ‘You ought not to be surprised’, he says, ‘that the machine draws only aces of hearts. You could not possibly see anything else. For you would not be here to see anything at all, if any other cards had been drawn.’ But of course the victim is right and the kidnapper is wrong. There is indeed something extraordinary in need of explanation in ten aces of hearts being drawn. The fact that this peculiar order is a necessary condition of the draw being perceived at all makes what is perceived no less extraordinary and in need of explanation.

The conditions set by the kidnapper is analogous to the fine-tuning of the universe. It's true that the victim's survival entails the fact of conditions for her survival, but that's not what the surprising thing is- the surprising thing is that those conditions for the victim's survival is so peculiar and improbable in the first place. That's what requires explanation here.

I understand that the objection cannot be treated on its own, it opens up other important questions like:

1. Anthropic principle or no anthropic principle, why is the conditions being fine-tuned surprising at all, since every single outcome is equally probable?

2. What if the anthropic principle was conjoined with the existence of infinite (or at least a very, very, very large number) of universes? Surely that would render the fact of fine-tuning unsurprising, since someone has to win the lottery.

As for the first question, I will deal with it in a future post in sha Allah. As for the second, I sympathize with the objection. The response I've provided only works if the number of actual universes is just one (or a few). If there are an infinite or very large number of universes, then the anthropic principle objection becomes relevant again. The only way to deal with this problem is to deal with the multiverse, which I plan to do in a future post as well.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Objections against the Fine-Tuning Argument-II

Objection: The fine-tuning argument states that a universe with just-right conditions for life is extremely, extremely improbable- almost like balancing a planet on a razor's edge. But we could only make probability judgments based on more than one event. We can only say that a fair coin has equal probability of landing on either side because we have observed countless coin flips. Surely we cannot make that judgment when it comes to the universe, simply because there is only one of it. As Hume argued, we can only know if the universe was improbable or not if we had multiple universes to observe. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask questions like "How (im)probable is it that the cosmological constant would have the exact value that it does?"

Response: The objector is equivocating between "statistical probability" and "probability in general". Statistical probability is the type the objector has in mind- when we make probability judgments based on induction and the past data available to us. However, and this is a crucial point- this is not the only sort of probability. Clearly, in modern scientific practice we have many events that are non-repeatable. Cosmology and evolutionary biology are filled with events that happened in the past only once. Does that mean we cannot draw scientific conclusions about, say, what happened immediately after the big bang, or how the dinosaurs went extinct? The entire enterprise of historical science deals with such one-time events.

Even without appealing to scientific practice, one can intuitively know that the objection is wrong. Consider this example (borrowed from John Leslie's book Universes)- you are given a large urn filled with a million balls, and you are told that the balls are either all white, or all black, or a mixture of the two of an undefined ratio. You are then asked to randomly pick one ball. If you observe the ball is black, it gives you strong reason to believe that the rest of the balls in the urns aren't all while. This is because it is very unlikely that you would "happen" to pick just that one black ball among a million white ones. Note that you can come to this conclusion even without repeating the procedure.

Finally, the objection proves too much. Even if the stars were arranged to explicitly spell out MADE BY GOD, the objector's logic would still have us say that since we have only one universe to observe, we can't really say if this is improbable or not. Or consider a more relevant example, this too borrowed from Leslie: Let's say scientists find that the ratio of the strengths of the strong and weak nuclear forces is exactly 0.0200102002010000121102020002221002200000102022000. Now it is clearly unlikely that working with the decimal system, the entire ratio would be made up only of 0's, 1's and 2's. So the scientists, suspecting the existence of a hidden message, converts the 0's, 1's and 2's into dots, dashes and spaces, upon which the ratio spells out the famous Qur'anic verse: "So which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?" (don't try this with the number I gave above, I pulled that out of thin air) Would it be at all sensible to say that we don't know how probable or improbable such a universe is? Certainly not.

To conclude: Statistical probability, which the objection hinges on, is just one type of probability, and we can clearly draw conclusions based on other conceptions of probability. We do this in scientific practice and everyday reasoning all the time. Additionally, strong reductio ad absurda can be provided against the objection, which demonstrates the reasoning of the objector is wrong.

One last question might be: What is the exact nature of this other kind of probability that I mentioned? The technical aspects of it have been discussed in some detail in the Robin Collins essay here. This short excerpt from the essay illustrates not only the need but also some basic concerns as regards the justification of epistemic (non-statistical) probability:

Now that we know what we mean by epistemic probability, it is time to consider how it is justified. In science, many times epistemic probability is determined by an appeal to intuition, such as many of the epistemic probabilities considered in the last section –for example, those arising in conjunction with the Thesis of Common Ancestry, continental drift theory, and atomic theory. These probabilities clearly were not justified by an appeal to statistical improbability – for example, we have no statistics regarding the relative
frequency of life on a planet having those features cited in favor of evolution either under the evolutionary hypothesis or under some nonevolutionary hypothesis. Indeed, these judgments of epistemic probability were never rigorously justifi ed in any way. Rather, after (we hope) doing their best job of looking at the evidence, scientists and laypersons made judgments of what kind of world we should expect under each hypothesis, and then they simply trusted these judgments. This sort of trust in our judgments of epistemic probability is a pervasive and indispensable feature of our intellectual life.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Objections against the Fine Tuning argument-1

Objection:

Like 99.999999% of the universe is completely uninhabitable. Even on the sole habitable planet (earth), the vast majority of its surface is saltwater, volcanoes, arid deserts. Where is this "fine-tuning" you refer to?

Response:

The objector has equivocated "fine-tuning" with "perfection". The argument doesn't state that the universe is "perfect" for habitability, but just that it is enough for complex life to evolve. It's like saying the light bulb isn't designed because it gets too hot to hold, or that the wristwatch isn't designed because it doesn't cook me supper. The objection, therefore, is a complete straw man.
Additionally, one can think of adequate motivations on the part of the designer to create the universe the way He did. "Efficiency is the cost of regularity"- goes the engineering principle. So in order to create a regular, law-governed, understandable universe, some patches of it must display inefficiency. Now creating a regular, self-sustaining (to an extent) universe is a great engineering virtue. As the old parable by Henry Ward Beecher goes: If an oriental rug is evidence of the crafter's skill, then isn't the power-loom- which creates beautiful rugs of infinite lengths constantly- an even greater evidence of design? "Design by wholesale is greater than design by retail"- summed up Beecher. Think about how grand the system is- an entire universe based off of just a few fundamental laws of physics, which could be written down on just one page. Isn't that a great design achievement over a non-regular universe, where the Creator had to intervene every now and then to keep order? This is why Leibniz laughed at Newton's cosmology- which posited God as an efficient principle who would have to intervene in His creation in order to keep the planets in orbit. This is not an argument against Divine Intervention proper, however, just against the idea that an ideal Designer should constantly intervene in His creation to keep it from going off the rails.
There is another very significant motivation to maintain a seemingly self-sustaining universe on the part of the Designer- which is traditionally known as the doctrine of Divine Hiddenness. In a universe where God constantly interfered, His creative action would be so obvious that everyone would be compelled to believe. The "test" aspect of belief would be gone- which requires sincere seeking on part of the believer. No matter how virtuous or vicious, everyone would believe in God with the same certainty. In revealed theology as well, we see Prophets not performing miracles too explicit that the people will have absolutely no choice but to believe. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), for instance, while gifted with a number of miracles, never gave in to the desires of the people who asked for the desert to become green, or their dead ancestors to be resurrected, or mountains to be turned into gold (the major exception was the splitting of the moon). All of this is to preserve Divine Hiddenness, which allows for a coherent test to be attached to belief. This is why God most commonly acts through the instrumentality of nature, keeping His creative action veiled and non-obvious, as opposed to intervening all the while to break the regularity of the universe. Of course, the idea is that the sincere, contemplative seeker would be able to look beyond the veil and discover God.
In conclusion, the argument that the universe isn't "perfect" and therefore there is no fine-tuning is just misplaced, since the argument doesn't even make that claim to begin with. Even apart from that, we have independent reasons to believe why God would make an ostensibly "imperfect" (note scare quotes) universe. The objection is dead in the water.