We were left at an impasse on the episode regarding the part of the argument from design referring to the fine-tuning of the universe to support life. Dawkins didn't give enough detail about this for us really to understand, much less critique it, yet it seemed like a lot of what we were concerned about hinged on this argument. You can read about it on Wikipedia.
Prominent in the Wiki article is one of the lesser known among the new atheists, Victor Stenger. The video below shows him talking about this issue. The fine-tuning discussion starts runs from around minutes 16-38. Before getting into the technical details of what fine-tuning amounts to, he first makes the point that if the universe was designed for life, we should expect to see a lot more life in it (less lifeless space and time without intelligent life). We'd also expect more accessible planets to be conducive to life than just Earth (the point being that most of them sure aren't, and even if there are any, we couldn't get to them in a lifetime of travel). Neal Degreasse Tyson makes the same point more energetically here.
The values that allegedly, if different, would prevent life include the speed of light, Planck's constant, the ratio of electrons to protons, ratio of electromagnetic force to gravity, expansion rate of the universe, mass density of the universe, and the cosmological constant). I'll let you watch the video for the details of Stenger's response, but the upshot is that the most important of these constants are self-regulating, meaning they'd approach that rate regardless of where they started. According to Stenger, everything looks exactly as it would if the universe came from nothing.
Personally, I don't feel comfortable enough with the physics either before or after this lecture either to actually see that there's a problem and to see that Stenger has solved this for us. I don't have a sense of the scientific consensus, and Stenger says that some of what he's saying is still a matter of debate among physicists. In conclusion, I sympathize with Dawkins's seeming inability to thoroughly describe this problem or what's wrong with it.
For me the fine tuning argument is about as persuasive as saying: If things were different things would be different.
It assumes a central place for life in the cosmos, why we make this assumption I do not know. Given that the tiniest nth to the nth of a percent of the universe appears to be actually habitable, and even on this planet the so called higher creatures who have some interest in thinking themselves special get to exist only at certain tiny boundary areas. It all seems a bit counterintuitive to say it is here for us or for life.
A short review of stenger’s recent book is available here:
Daniel Horne says
The Tyson video was sweet!
David Buchanan says
Tyson’s argument was compelling; If there were a designer he wouldn’t have put the sewer system right next to the entertainment center. Well, it wasn’t compelling so much as it was hilarious.
Dylan Casey says
I like how Stegner essentially faults fine-tuning advocates for cherry-picking constants and assuming that the ratios themselves were engineered. I wish he’d gone further in articulating other stabilities in physical processes that just seem less controversial. For instance, the freezing point of water or the angle between the electrons in H20. Both those things have specific values born out of the activity of their constituents. One might even go further and say that stabilities themselves are transistory consequences of interacting activities or processes. (Maybe we should do some A.N. Whitehead at some point to examine some “process philosophy.”)
As pointed out by Dylan Casey in the previous post the “fine tuning” is not evidenced solely by the much vaunted physical constants.
There is a wealth of evidence, particularly within the field of chemistry, which provides strong support for the notion that that the observed directionality in the evolution biological life is predicated by the unique and special properties of the elements. Notably, carbon, hydrogen an oxygen.
But it does not stop there.
Because a similar evolutionary pattern is observed for the development of technology and similarly, as I argue in my latest book “The Goldilocks Effect” the unique and special properties and abundances of certain elements, in this case most prominently silicon, iron and copper, are such as to enable, and perhaps make inevitable, this later phase of what can be considered to be an on-going life process.
So does this imply any kind of creator or “intelligent design?
In my view the answer is a resounding No!
There is a much better interpretation which is based on our best empirical evidence but requires us to step outside the comfort zone of our usual anthropocentric standpoints.
Rather than considering individual humans as inventors or creators, and recognizing, rather, that science and technology EVOLVE within the collective imagination of our species.
I wonder how many of you would not agree that, for instance, we would still have the microscope without Lippershey, without Newton or Liebnitz we would still have the calculus of variations, the printing press without Gutenberg, radio without Marconi or relativity and quantum mechanics without Einstein?
Once we realize that the concept of “design” is a mere artifact of human imagination – all too often projected to the various deities we have dreamed up in earlier times – we are able to see the life process more concretely as simply the functioning of an ongoing evolutionary “machine”.
“The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” is a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website.
Mason Colbert says
I have my own objection to the fine tuning argument that I think undermines the force of the argument.
The key premise of the fine tuning argument is that the various constants of the universe HAD to fall into a narrow range of values in order for life to exist within the universe. This, according to the fine argument is necessarily true.
Firstly, I think the data fine tuning arguments appeal to is much too, shall we say, under-developed for any major conclusions to be drawn. We know that our current theories in physics are incomplete and we know that additional work must be done within the context of quantum gravity and unification theories. Ultimately, I think fine tuning suffers from “jumping to conclusion” from data we know to some extent is tenative and in need of further explanation. To dismiss these efforts out of hand in favor of “God did it” I think is simply special pleading.
But that aside, I find it odd that proponets of theism would find much to value in this kind of argument. My objection to theistic explanation of fine tuning (aside from the fact that no explanations are actually offered, only problems pointed out with naturalistic alternatives) is that this requires we reject a large number of other claims about God.
Take for example the belief in miracles or the Resurrection of Jesus. I myself remain highly skeptical of such claims (as a naturalist) but suppose I granted them for the sake of the argument. If we accept miracles a possible explanation then my question would be: Why does God need fine tuning to achieve these goals (i.e. life).
Couldn’t God have created any non-fine tuned universe and nonetheless used his (or her) powers to create and sustain life anyway? I mean, if God can violate the basic principles of biology and Resurrect a three-day dead person, why couldn’t he have made the existence of life, in the face of contrary principles, work in much the same way?
Basically, my objection is this. if you believe in a God who can violate the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology, it seems incompatible to say that God MUST have fine tuned a universe in order for life to exist. In other words, that key premise I mentioned above, I see no reason to accept it as true if I were to assume theism. Thus, theism itself, ironcially, undercuts much of the force behind the fine tuning argument.