Sunday, 16 November 2014

Objections against the Fine-Tuning argument-IV

Objection: A fundamental premise of the fine-tuning argument is that life is somehow special- and that's why fine-tuning for life stands in need of explanation. But what is the justification of this claim? Why would life, living beings, embodied conscious agents- however you put it- be "special" enough in order for the universe to be fine-tuned for it? If there were no life on this universe, could we still say that the universe is just-right for the stars and planets? If there were no stars, could we say the universe is just-right for subatomic particles, and so on? This shows that the argument from fine-tuning can "fit" itself around any fact one can come up with, and it's really not a good argument at all.

Response: This argument is common in the popular as well as the academic circles. Science commentator Neil Degrasse Tyson alleges the fine-tuning to be "anthropocentric" and simplistic on this ground. Bradley Monton proposes this objection as well.

The argument can be responded to in a number of ways, here are three.

1. Life's specialness isn't required for all forms of fine-tuning arguments. Even if the universe were not fine-tuned for life, one could make an argument for the fine-tuning for the existence of the universe itself. Similarly, one could make an argument based on the universe's fine-tuning for the existence of complex structures like stars and planets, the existence of chemistry which allowed these structures to come together, and so on. The point isn't life per se, but complexity and intricacy. Clearly something as complex as chemistry or stars and planets is more significant than no universe at all, empty space or a mass of subatomic particles. The more complex the universe's contents get, the more mysterious the fine-tuning for them get. If there were no universe, or just some subatomic particles with no earthly tie among them, we couldn't make the fine-tuning argument at all, and even if we could it wouldn't have been as fascinating and important- simply because they aren't much for the universe's initial conditions to be fine-tuned for. But they are complex, they are intricate, and as such if the initial conditions of the universe seem fine-tuned for their existence, it is deserving of an explanation.

2. Life is complex and intricate. This immediately suggests the next important response: living beings themselves are extremely complex and intricate, more so the embodied conscious agents (as opposed to, for example, insect life), and as such the universe's initial conditions being fine-tuned for their existence does call out for an explanation.

John Leslie, after considering this response, suggests (in his book Universes) that this is "double counting" of the evidence. Fine-tuning of the universe for life'e existence doesn't account for life's complexity, rather only permits it. The intricacy and complexity are explained either by Darwinism or biological design arguments. As such, pointing to the intricacy and complexity of life asn grounds for the fine-tuning argument seems like having your cake and eating it too- you explain life's complexity by other means (Darwinism or design), and yet invoke fine-tuning argument for it. He has a point, but my intuition says even the permission of life's complexity deserves an explanation. The fact that the universe is so ridiculously fine-tuned so that it would be possible for intelligent life to exist does seem like something that stands in explanation, whether or not we have an additional explanation for the complexity itself.

At this point, we might want to take a look back and talk about whether complexity- whether it be of life or otherwise- can serve as a basis for fine-tuning arguments at all, as I have suggested in the last two responses. There are multiple ways of making sense of it, but let's talk about William Dembski's explanatory filter just as an example- he argues that specified complexity is what requires explanation. To break it down, if the occurrence of something is very, very improbable, and it conforms to some sort of significant pattern, then we can and should invoke a designer to explain it. Of course, the initial conditions of the universe having any value at all is equally improbable, just as any run of tosses of coin is. What makes us suspicious of design is when this improbability conforms to a pattern. A hundred coin tosses landing heads is exactly as improbable as a hundred coin tosses landing a haphazard mixture of heads and tails, but the first one calls for an explanation (biased coin, for example) because it conforms to a pattern. Now extrapolate this in the case of life's existence: complexity or not, any sort of reality in the universe would have been improbable, given that the values of initial conditions of the universe are equiprobable. What makes our universe interesting, and needing an explanation, is the fact that the values result in the development of complexity and intricacy, which would not have happened on any other values. Doesn't that call out for an explanation? My intuitive understanding stands clearly with "yes".

3. God wanted to create life. This is a very interesting response made by John Leslie in his book, Universes. To understand this response, first consider this analogy: let's say someone keeps winning consistently (100 times in a row, say) in a game at a casino. The management has every right to get suspicious that he is cheating in some way, but why? Because they can glimpse a simple explanation for this data- people want money, and some people might want to cheat at casino games for easy money. Significantly, this line of reasoning yields not one, but two important facts:

a) The person is cheating,
b) The consistent winning spree has an explanation.

In other words, the management's ability to glimpse the simple explanation not only presents the explanation, but also the fact that the data in question needs an explanation, in an explanatory bootstrapping mechanism. Before we extrapolate the lessons of this analogy to the fine-tuning case, let's consider another scenario, again borrowed from Leslie: let's say Sally won in a lottery where a billion tickets were sold. No one thinks we should look for a deeper explanation here, other than that Sally got lucky. But what if we find out the following pieces of information: Sally has been going through some financial struggles and could really use some money fast, Sally's friend Mary is aware of her situation and is very much willing to help her, and Mary happens to work in the lottery company. Doesn't this tip us off that there should be a deeper explanation for Sally's winning the lottery? Absolutely. It seems more than a coincidence that Sally would just happen to win the lottery Mary had every means and motive to make it just that way. Now, apply this in the case of the universe: the initial conditions of the universe are just-right for life isn't worthy of anyone batting an eye. But let's say I add the following piece of information to the game: there is a benevolent being, God, who wanted to create life in the universe. This added fact does make it seem suspicious that the initial conditions would be just so the universe would be life-conducive- exactly what God would want. That's what makes life or the existence of conscious, embodied agents surprising and explanation-worthy.

Someone could object that this last response is way too convenient. Consider this analogy, borrowed from Robin Collins' essay on the topic in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology: I toss a coin ten times in a row, and end up with the following sequence: HTHHTTTHTH. It doesn't seem significant or explanation-worthy at all. But seeing this sequence, my friend suggests it is explanation-worthy, because a demon named Grout wanted this sequence of coin toss to come about. For all I know, I wouldn't take him seriously. However, let's say that ahead of the coin toss, my friend informed me that if I toss the coin ten times, I would end up with the sequence HTHHTTTHTH because Grout told him so in his dream last night. If the coin toss series does show that sequence, I would have much more ground to take him seriously, simply because his explanation isn't a post-hoc attempt at data accommodation. The same goes with the theism hypothesis: theists had held the belief much before the fine-tuning evidence came to light that a benevolent Creator exists and He created the universe so that we may exist. Now that the evidence of fine-tuning has become available, it makes much more sense to posit that life's existence given the bumper odds against it to be explanation-worthy.The universe's life-permitting character follows from God's motives to create life or embodied conscious agents. Robin Collins, in a footnote to this discussion, adds that there may be a difficulty to this position and suggests a remedy. To me, the argument presented seems intuitive enough.

The cumulative strength of all these considerations is sufficient enough to lay the objection to rest, I think.