Is the Universe Fine-tuned For Life

fine-tune1The fine-tuning argument is an argument from design or purpose (aka teleological) just like biological irreducible complexity is.

If I was rating arguments for God in previous years I would have initially put this argument at the top of the list, but after doing some more research it has fallen way low on the list and has even fallen below irreducible complexity (which is already low due to the fact that consensus among experts in the relevant fields of study is that irreducible complexity has no basis scientifically.)  It turns out the fine-tuning argument suffers from way more than just the possibility of the multiverse, and I was surprised to find out that some of the most coherent arguments against it are explained by evangelical Christians, and most skeptics are not even aware of those arguments.

First the facts: there are several constants in the equations of physics that if modified by very small amounts would cause a universe that would be dramatically different from our own.  The claim is that those universes would not be life permitting, but there are some who contend that this second claim is not actually a proven fact.  If you want the details for the positive claims you can hear them very clearly in practically any debate on God with William Lane Craig in it.

Do We Know The Probabilities?bell-curves

The first and probably the toughest issue for fine-tuning is explained very well by mathematician William Dembski (a Christian apologist who believes design can be found in biological irreducible complexity):

In layman’s terms, the issue is that even though the constants might sit within a tight range we have no way of figuring out what the probability distribution of those constants are because we don’t have empirical access to universe generators.  As a result we have no way of finding out what the probability is of the constants being in that tight range.  For all we know the probability that they sit in the range they do could be high.  Without access to universe generators we cannot know.  The discussion with Dembski goes longer and he explains himself more – you can see it here.

This along with other probability issues are explained in mathematical terms in this paper by Timothy McGrew, Lydia McGrew, and Eric Vestrup, all of whom are Christian apologists.  Eric Vestrup is a mathematician and the McGrews are epistemology philosophers.  It gets a little technical but overall it’s not too bad, and if you truly want to understand the issues involved with fine-tuning you need to understand their paper.  Lydia McGrew explained some (not all) of the issues described in the paper starting at time “51:00” in this interview with Luke Muelhauser.  Here is a very short clip of Lydia expressing her misgivings about the concession:

A short summary of the paper in my own words:

– Page 203: If we assume a uniform probability distribution, since the range of values for the constants are infinite, no matter how we break them up into pieces the sum will always be infinite.  However, for probabilities to make sense the sum of all possible alternatives must add to 1 (i.e. 100%).  This is called the “normalizability” problem, and it means we have no way of assigning probabilities to the range of the constants.

– Page 205, paragraph 2: The above assumes a uniform distribution, so to get around it we can assign a different kind of probability distribution.  But what distribution do we pick?  This is exactly the problem that Dembski described.  There is currently no valid way to know what to pick.

– Page 206, paragraph 1: Here they allude to important questions related to fine tuning that I have always wondered about.  How do we know that there cannot be other constants or forces in possible universes?  Put another way, we are so fixated on varying the constants that are in the equations we’ve found, but what about varying the equations themselves?  What is the evidence that causes us to think that the constants can be changed while the equations cannot?  It seems like the only reason for this very well may be psychological – the constants seem to be the easiest thing for our brains to ponder varying.  In summary, given this infinite possibility of varying equations, “we may not be in any position to speak of the life-friendliness of universes”.

– Page 207: They essentially say what Dembski said.

This direct quote from the article summarizes things well: “The point of the argument was supposed to be that objective results in modern cosmology virtually compel disbelief in a chance origin of the Universe. If, at a critical point, the argument turns on a subjectively variable sense of which assessments of probabilities are reasonable, a sense that cannot be adjudicated in terms of any more fundamental criteria, then the FTA is effectively forceless. To retreat to the point where the argument rests on unargued intuitions is to deprive it of anything more than devotional significance.”

SC_WLCAn Enlightening Debate

This debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll was very educational:

Craig gives his pitch for fine-tuning starting at 38:48, and Carroll gives his response at 54:17.  It comes up several other times in the debate (at 1:12:12, 1:21:47, 1:42:31, and 2:35:28).  Here are some issues that Carroll brings up:

– The conditions under which life can exist, and what life is, have not been clearly defined enough to prove the fine-tuning argument.  While our human form of life may not be common after varying parameters, some kind of conscious minds could exist in many other different universes.  While he may very well have a point I believe he is currently in the minority on this point, perhaps because varying some of the parameters often results in very short-lived universes not allowing for complex beings to arise.  I’m not sure about this one, but I think it’s at least valid to question how thoroughly this has been defined.

– The next objection is a bit more philosophical in nature and while I find it a bit confusing to think through it may very well be a valid objection.  Carroll says: “in theism life is not purely physical, it’s not purely a collection of atoms doing things like it is in naturalism.  I would think that no matter what the atoms were doing God could still create life.  God doesn’t care what the mass of the electron is, He can do what he wants.”  (please don’t say something silly like “I thought Sean didn’t believe in God, but now he is talking about Him”).  This is an interesting conundrum for the fine tuning argument itself.  Theism posits a certain view of God, but then the argument doesn’t seem consistent with that view.  Sean’s final statement here may also shed some light on this: “the only framework in which you can honestly say that the physical parameters of the universe must take on certain values in order for life to exist is naturalism.”  I’d like to add here that Lydia McGrew also mentions this as an issue in her interview with Luke Muelhauser (above), and apologist Hans Halvorson (see link below) concedes it as well in his debate with Carroll.

– The third objection is more technical and I believe is a valid one: the “apparent” fine-tuning of some constants actually disappear on closer inspection.  The example Carroll gives is the common example of the early expansion rate of the universe.  Claimed to be fine-tuned to 1 part in 1060.  But after doing a correct, rigorous derivation of the probability using the equations of general relativity you find that the probability is 1.  You can read further on this example here.  Craig used to use this example in his debates and took Hawking’s statements out of context.  To be fair he has corrected himself and no longer does that.  It’s important to keep in mind the following statement from Carroll to get some balance to this objection: “I can’t say that all parameters fit into that paradigm, but until we know the answer we can’t claim that they’re definitely fine-tuned.”  The debate over this objection that I’ve seen usually lies in questioning that last sentence of Carroll’s – the claim is that many cosmologists have thrown their hands up at this point and given up on getting answers that explain the apparent fine-tuning of many of the constants.  A lot of cosmologists do seem to indicate this but I’ve seen some interviewed who have not given up.  Either way though one could argue that this is still a God of the gaps argument because as we’ve seen many times in the past, not having answers to tough problems does not mean they are unsolvable with naturalistic explanations.

– 4th is the most common explanation among naturalists – the multiverse.  I think this is a perfectly valid objection to fine-tuning and none of the responses to it have moved me.  The idea is that there are many universes out there with many different constants and we just happen to be living in one of them.  The perfect analogy is that we used to think the conditions of our planet were finely tuned for life to exist, but once we became aware that there are tons of planets in the universe this conundrum was gone.  This is known as an “observer selection effect”.  Craig’s response is that universes with boltzmann brains are more likely than universes with embodied living beings, so he claims that means the observer selection effect is nullified.  But it is still agreed that with a multiverse there could be universes that have embodied living beings, and so the selection effect is still valid – we happen to be in one of those universes.  Just because there are lots of other universes with other types of observers doesn’t nullify that.  Also, Craig seems to misrepresent the hypothesis by saying “in order to rescue the alternative of chance it’s proponents have therefore been forced to adopt the hypothesis that there exists a … multiverse” (40:47), and then “now comes the key move” – as if it’s some sort of tactic.  My understanding is that the multiverse is actually a prediction of physical theories (mainly inflation).  And as I’ve seen written by some cosmologists, this is “indirect” evidence for the multiverse.  The hypothesis is not created as a “rescue” for an objection to fine-tuning.  And frankly even if it was I don’t see why that would really be an issue anyway.  This could be a valid hypothesis on it’s own.  Where is the need to add ideas of supernatural when cosmologists have never had any confirmed empirical evidence for that?  Carroll responds to other objections to the multiverse here.

– His last objection is that even if we grant that the constants are fine-tuned theism is a poor explanation.  I’ve gone way too long, so you can watch at (59:38).

Links to More Objections

– Hans Halvorson (Christian apologist) explains why he agrees with Carroll that the fine-tuning argument is not convincing – at time 28:41 in their debate.  It’s worth a listen.

– While inconclusive, Don Page (an evangelical Christian) has a paper explaining that different values of the cosmological constant would have produced universes which were way more life permitting than the one we are in.  It is at least another hint at the fact that the constants may not be tuned for life.

Keith Parsons describes a good philosophical point that comes up a lot.  It is the same objection that I have to the Cosmological Argument (mentioned here) and I haven’t figured out a good reason why the objection does not make sense.

– This is a link to a long list of objections to fine-tuning which is worth looking over.  It is important to note that the strength of these objections span the map and several of them are very poor.

Links in Support of Fine Tuning

Luke Barnes (agnostic who who seems to lean toward theism) is one of the better expositors for fine-tuning.  You can also listen to an interview he had with Luke Muehlhauser here.

Robbin Collins is another educated proponent for fine-tuning.  His form of the argument is more polished than William Lane Craig’s but it’s also a weaker form of the argument.

I give more links in support as well as criticism of the argument on my companion page.

Summary

Given all of the issues, some of the strongest of which are even brought forth by theists, the fine-tuning argument does not look to me like a very convincing argument.  And it surely cannot be claimed that those skeptical of it are doing so only because they don’t want to believe in God.  While I would never say that everyone should give up trying to find out if this argument can really fly (certainly further research and study could possibly resolve objections), it seems to me that this one is a bit of a dead-end.  On my companion page to fine-tuning I give references both for and against the argument so people can research further to try to form their own conclusions.

Afterlife Debate Review

Debate Results

First a copy of the debate results from Sean Carroll’s post-debate review (click on images to enlarge):

death-crosstabsdeath-piesThe winner was the team whose numbers changed the most and the first chart shows that Carroll/Novella won.  The second chart is just interesting because it shows that they won not by changing minds of the undecided, but rather more people who started out “For” the proposition changed their minds to be “Against.”

My Own Views

As far as my own views go, I’m doubtful that there is life after death but not with very high confidence because while I have read more about it than the average person I still am a layperson to the topic.  At any rate while the topic is certainly of interest to me I definitely believe that it is not worth worrying about.  No need to worry about things that are very uncertain and even unlikely.  But if science can shed light on this question then I feel it is worth the effort, so I was very glad to see this debate.

I was hoping for more references to controlled experiments that have been done related to the topic, but there was only generalities and not a lot of specifics in this debate which is kind of par for the course in public debates.  I was definitely not persuaded by the “For” team.  In my opinion Alexander and Moody did a poor job and it was mainly mistakes in strategy.  The “Against” side did better but again I was hoping for more specifics so I wasn’t moved dramatically.

Opening Statements

Alexander’s main thrust throughout the entire debate was the story of his own NDE.  In fact, that was practically his entire opening statement.  Only in the last 30 seconds did he add that he has read and heard of many NDE stories and has found that the similarities far outweigh the differences.  I thought it was a mistake to base most of his case on an anecdotal story.

Carroll’s opening statement was typical of his style – a non-technical Bayesian type approach detailing what we would expect if there was an afterlife and what we would expect if there wasn’t and then comparing those expectations to what we all see.  There was nothing earth shattering there.  All points that most people like myself are familiar with but a lot of people probably don’t systematically list them out.  A very important and common point that he brought up was that the NDE stories tend to match with the cultural biases of the individual (Christians see Jesus, Hindus see Hindu gods, a young girl met Santa).

Moody’s opening statement and his entire strategy was a poor choice in my mind.  His main argument was that this is not a scientific question, but rather that critical thinking and logic will solve this problem.  He also conceded that parapsychology is a pseudo-science.  Obviously I’m all for critical thinking but when it comes to questions that involve evidence that can be analyzed, logic alone cannot make a strong case.  Nevertheless Moody did contribute a little more later in the debate.  He also mentioned the common features of NDE’s (feeling outside of the body, and seeing a light, a panoramic view of life and deceased loved ones), and further added that sometimes bystanders of dying loved ones have identical experiences.  More on this later.

Novella’s opening statement and entire performance was the best of the four.  He claimed that science is very sure that mind is a process of the brain.  (Of course anyone can claim whatever they want, and it would be nice to see polling on this but I don’t anticipate that happening).  He then went on to form a hypothesis that “mind is entirely the brain”, and listed what we would expect if that were the case: (1) if we change the brain then the mind will change, (2) if we damage the brain then the mind would be damaged, (3) if we turn off the brain then the mind will turn off.  He didn’t detail any experiments showing that these things have been demonstrated but I don’t believe it is hard to find data to back these statements.

As far as (3), I was immediately reminded of my “conscious sedation” in my outpatient surgeries.  After the surgeries I had absolutely no memory of what had happened.  Where was my “soul” during that period?  Sure enough doctors have drugs that interact physically with our brains that can “turn them off”, and they are utilized daily.

Then Novella went on to talk about natural explanations for NDE’s:  there can still be brain activity during a coma, vivid memories could form while coming out of a coma, reality module in our brain could be malfunctioning.  Finally, an important point for me was the claim that every element of an NDE can be duplicated with drugs, anoxia, lack of blood-flow, or by turning off circuits in the brain (later he mentioned 2 others: hypotension and electromagnetic brain stimulation).

Highlights in the Exchange

The rest of the debate was interactive followed by short closing statements.  Here are some highlights:

  1. (48:37) Moody explained the “mind body problem”, mentioned epiphenomenalism, and then actually said “my answer is, I don’t know”.  (!!)
  2. (49:40) An interesting exchange between Novella and Alexander ensued for a while:
    1. Alexander asserted that his neocortex was non-functional during his NDE and that there were memories he had that he knew had to have happened during that period.  I agree with Novella that there is no way that he could tell that those memories formed during that period.  They could have very well have been formed in recovery.  A very interesting point Novella made was that the parts of the brain that construct our sense of time could also have been malfunctioning.  Novella also noted that no fMRI, Petscan or EEG was taken to document zero brain activity during the coma.
    2. (53:35) Alexander noted that there are cases of people getting information they could not have gotten by any natural means.  Novella’s response was clear-cut: the cases he has read like this are just like cold readings from psychics, and are not controlled experiments.  He also mentioned there are attempts at controlled experiments that have failed; e.g. cards on a shelf only viewable if the patient was actually floating above – “and by the way, we can make you float above your body!”.
  3. (57:04) Moody claims respect for physics but says it doesn’t rule out another dimension, and that it is conceivable.  Carroll’s response at 58:00 is spot on, stating that it is conceivable that angels are in the moon guiding it around the earth, but we don’t take that seriously as an idea because there is no need or evidence for it.  Moody also ends up conceding the falsifiability problem.
  4. (1:00:13) Great quote from moderator to Moody: “What you’re saying sort of reminds me of the editorial to Virginia about Santa Claus written in the 19th century in which Frank Church who wrote this editorial said to the little girl, ‘do you see fairies dancing on the front lawn, no of course you don’t but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there'”.  That link is well worth the read by the way.
  5. (1:01:12) Moody describes a story of a dying patient (from a car accident), his doctor, and scrub nurse all having similar feelings of the presence of the patient’s dead wife (who died in the car accident).  It’s these kinds of stories that is at the heart of the whole afterlife topic so it’s worth listening to.  While some people have their beliefs because of indoctrination, there are definitely others who honestly believe because they think these stories are good evidence for the afterlife.
    1. Another quote from the moderator: “we are talking about ghosts now, and I’m sorry that sounded pejorative but we are talking about something that a lot of people would challenge as incredibly implausible…”  This is exactly the kind of point I’ve tried to make before – why are skeptics clearly judged for doubting afterlife and gods when many people find it quite acceptable to doubt the existence of ghosts?  I believe it’s because historically we’ve gotten morality all wrapped up in the question of afterlife and gods.  I don’t believe they need to be wrapped up and there are certainly many eastern religions and liberal western ones that would agree.
    2. Novella said that these stories could be constructed after the fact and that we have this similar level of evidence for UFO’s, bigfoot, and many other paranormal phenomena.  To be consistent you would have to accept all of those if you accept this kind of evidence for the afterlife.  This is a good point, but I’m not sure it’s that easy to clearly compare the level of evidence between all of these types of claims.
  6. (1:04:28) Discussion about the fact that scientists don’t understand the mechanism by which the physical brain creates consciousness.  I appreciate this mystery as well, but I don’t believe it a strong case for the afterlife.
  7. (1:12:15) I was glad to hear from Novella that there are currently some ongoing bigger controlled experiments to test out remote viewing, but no references.
  8. (1:21:30) Telepathy, remote viewing, OBE’s, past life memories:
    1. Novella: 100 years of parapsychology hasn’t come up with compelling evidence.  He didn’t give specifics, but I think the Stargate Project is relevant here.
    2. Alexander: evidence is overwhelming, and he gave 2 references: Irreducible Mind, and The Afterlife Experiments.  Novella strongly questioned the methodology of the second and said the writer allowed himself to be bamboozled.
  9. doh(1:26:27) Alexander saved the best for last.  A clear distortion of Carl Sagan’s views on past life memories in children.  Alexander said: “Carl Sagan admitted that past life memories in children, the evidence for that is overwhelming…he said that in his book The Demon-Haunted World on page 302; he says exactly that, {applause} period.” -> well I own the book and this is what was written: “At the time of writing there are 3 claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.  I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true.  The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support.  Of course, I could be wrong.” [bolding is my own, but italics is not]  Alexander was clearly stretching the quote beyond reasonable on this one – apropos in my mind, because it is a hint at the kinds of things that could be going on with some of these “beyond coincidental” stories.  Also apropos is the second part of Sagan’s book title: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”.

Summary

I actually don’t judge others for having a difficult time accepting that some of these surprisingly coincidental stories don’t have some “higher” explanation to them, but I don’t appreciate the lack of respect toward skeptics who don’t believe that these stories rise to an acceptable level of evidence – because they believe they are being consistent with the expectations of evidence in other fields of investigation.  My own educated guess is that Carroll and Novella are correct that all of these claims only rise to the level of anecdotal and pseudo-scientific, and that once a sufficient amount of scientific experiments are performed in this arena, consciousness is better understood, and the more the public is educated on that, belief in afterlife will slowly fade away much like alchemy, astrology, and young earth creationism.

Afterlife Debate This Week

This Wednesday (May 7th) there will be a debate called “Death is Not Final”.  It will be live streamed from New York City at 6:45pm Eastern Time from this link.

Participants are:

  1. Eben Alexander (For)
  2. Raymond Moody (For)
  3. Sean Carroll (Against)
  4. Steven Novella (Against)

This should be a very interesting debate, given that all of them are either scientists or medical doctors.  I am always open to listening to objective scientific reasons for any point of view even if they differ from my own current beliefs.  This particular topic is one I’d love to listen to because there doesn’t seem to be enough education to the layperson on this topic other than anecdotal stories.  While debates should always be just an introductory starting point to further research they are a great way to see both sides of an issue right away.

Oh, and by the way, I’m still working on that fine-tuning post I mentioned before.  I’m about 75% done with it.  If I don’t complete that post in this lifetime I’ll probably complete it in the next. 😉