About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Calculating God

by Massimo Pigliucci

When I go to the gym I get easily bored, so I listen to either music or, more likely, audiobooks. Recently, I’ve spent exercise time with a couple of scifi entries by author Robert Sawyer. I started out with Flashforward, then moved to Calculating God. Both books are based on clever premises, unfold nicely, but are — in my opinion — ruined by the author’s penchant for invoking deus-ex-machina scenarios near the end. And they both preach a bit too much science, to the point of feeling like a lecture to the reader, especially Calculating God. Nonetheless, they do make the time at the gym pass significantly faster...

The reason for this post is that I wanted to bring Calculating God to the attention of my fellow atheists, skeptics and freethinkers. It will challenge you to think outside your established worldview, which I think is the type of mental exercise that can benefit everyone, at least a few times in their life.

SPOILER ALERT: I will provide a few details about the novel in order to make my points. No major spoiler is forthcoming, as the material I will be citing is presented by Sawyer very close to the beginning of the book. Still, reader be warned...

The premise of Calculating God is that an arachnoid type alien named Hollus one bright day lands her spaceship in front of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, walks to the entrance and asks the guard to be introduced to a paleontologist. [The guard, thinking this is a joke played by someone in a rubber suit, politely asks whether the arachnoid wishes to see a vertebrate or an invertebrate paleontologist, to which a puzzled Hollus replies that she thought all paleontologists on earth were humans, and therefore vertebrate...]

At any rate, Hollus begins her working relationship (and eventual friendship) with a paleontologist named Thomas Jericho, who is an atheist (like many scientists, he points out). But Jericho is stunned and disturbed when Hollus reveals the reason she and a few other aliens from two different solar systems are visiting earth: you see, their scientists have discovered that five mass extinctions have hit several inhabited planets in the sector, at the same time, and she wants to verify whether the same was true on earth (it was). Jericho is dumbfounded by the discovery, but Hollus nonchalantly explains that clearly God had something to do with the events, and that indeed the goal of the expedition is to find out what exactly God had in mind.

That’s the part of the book (still early on in the novel) where things become challenging for the atheist reader. Jericho initially scoffs at Hollus’ talk of God, genuinely surprised that aliens who are clearly significantly more technologically advanced than us are still thinking in somewhat Medieval terms. So Hollus patiently engages in a debate with Jericho, where on the one hand we have evidence of intelligent design in the universe — largely in the form of the fine tuning argument — and on the other the usual counterarguments by atheists — largely the idea of a multiverse as an explanation for the said, apparent, fine tuning (though there are other possibilities, see below).

Let’s first get both arguments straight here in the real world, then we’ll re-enter Sawyer’s parallel universe and see what happens.

The basic idea of the fine tuning argument is that too many natural constants appear to somehow have taken very specific values which just happen to be compatible with the emergence of a complex universe containing life. For instance, if the nuclear force had been just 2% stronger than it is, this would have resulted in the likely consumption (by nuclear fusion) of all the hydrogen in the universe shortly after the Big Bang, leading to a very different (and life-unfriendly) universe from the one we know.

Astronomer Martin Rees has famously written about a number of these special natural constants, which include the ratio of the strengths of gravity and electromagnetism, the strength of the force binding nucleons, the relative importance of gravity and the expansion energy of the universe, the famous cosmological constant, the ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a galaxy apart compared to the energy equivalent of its mass, and the number of dimensions in spacetime. The idea, again, is that all of the above (and a few others) could have only varied by fairly narrow margins if anything like a complex universe with life was to evolve. (Interestingly, a number of other physical constants don’t seem to make much difference to the structural characteristics of the universe, for example the properties of some quarks and of the mu and tau leptons.)

You can see the logic of the inference:

Premise 1: A number of physical constants have to have very narrow ranges if life is to evolve.
Premise 2: The chance of those narrow ranges occurring simultaneously by natural accident are extremely low.
Premise 3: The chance of those narrow ranges occurring simultaneously by intelligent design are much higher.
Conclusion: The universe was fine tuned by an intelligent designer (let’s call him/her/it “God”).

Before we consider the standard counter-arguments, let’s be clear on one thing: this is a serious challenge, not to be easily dismissed. A typical counter often heard in atheist circles is that of course we find ourselves in a type of universe that sustains life, if we were in a different one we wouldn’t exist: the fine tuning argument, therefore, gets the causality exactly reversed. This response is known as the weak anthropic principle (as opposed to the strong AP, which relies on the fine tuning argument), but it’s not convincing.

To see why, imagine yourself in front of a firing squad of, say, ten soldiers. They fire, and you open your eyes and find you are still alive. What happened? It is possible, but definitely very very unlikely, that all soldiers simultaneously just happened to miss their target. More likely, someone arranged things so that you would survive, for instance by bribing the soldiers, or by replacing their cartridges with blanks. In other words, your survival was intelligently engineered. The odds that need to be explained if the fine tuning argument goes through are much, much worse than the firing squad somehow missing its target.

That said, there are a number of reasonable, indeed, pretty compelling objections to the fine tuning argument. One way is to point out a crucial hidden assumption: advocates of the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) seem to think that the statistical distribution from which each of the above mentioned natural constants is drawn is both infinite and uniform, i.e. that there are infinite possible values for each constant, all equally likely. But that’s a huge assumption. For all we know, the distribution could be very narrow, or the likelihoods of different values very skewed. We just don’t know, at the moment.

Indeed, this is one of the major promises of superstring theory: to give us an elegant explanation for why the universe had to be the way it is. To stretch our analogy with the firing squad, if string theorists are right, then it turns out that the soldiers where constrained by the geometry of the situation to shoot in directions that would not hit you. They didn’t miss by chance, there was no chance they wouldn’t miss to begin with.

But of course the problem with this answer is that, at the moment, it is speculative. String theory is a very sophisticated mathematical treatment of the basic structure of the universe, but it has not yet been confirmed by novel empirical evidence, and there is a good chance that it never will (because its novel predictions manifest themselves only at such high levels of energy that human experimenters may never be able to replicate them under controlled conditions). In the words of some of its critics, string theory is not even wrong (which, of course, does not at all imply that the fine tuning argument is correct).

The other major rebuttal to the SAP is the idea of a multiverse. This is the suggestion, originating from certain versions of modern cosmological theories, that our universe is but one in a very very large (perhaps infinite) number of universes, each governed by different laws and characterized by different combinations of constants. (This is not to be confused with the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is a different thing altogether.)

You can easily see why the multiverse would be a good response to the fine tuning argument: while string theory says that the statistical distribution of the natural constants is very narrow, the multiverse says that even if that distribution should turn out to be very broad the chances of a particular universe (ours) existing are still very high, because a near infinite (or perhaps actually infinite) number of possibilities are encompassed by the full multiverse. If that is the case, one then only needs the above mentioned Weak AP to settle the matter, no intelligent designers need apply.

Before we proceed, I should note that there are also versions of the ID argument that do not in fact invoke Gods, for instance Nick Bostrom’s “simulation hypothesis,” according to which we are somebody else’s video game, or virtual reality research project.

So, to recap, if you are an atheist faced with the fine tuning argument, you have at least three responses available to you:

a) The universe is not actually fine tuned, because it simply couldn’t have originated otherwise (string theory).

b) The universe is not actually fine tuned, because it is one among a huge number of actually existing universes, each with different combinations of the natural constants (the multiverse).

c) The universe is fine tuned, but that’s because intelligent beings just like us (i.e., not “gods”) figured a way to simulate worlds within their computers, and they are currently either having fun with us or studying us as a way to understand how complex life evolves (the simulation hypothesis).

Take your pick, and these three aren’t the only conceivable possibilities either (for instance, Victor Stenger has proposed that a broadened definition of life would actually be compatible with a wider range of values for several of the above mentioned natural constants, though I find this less convincing than the above mentioned scenarios).

What about the discussion between Hollus and Jericho, you say? Well, early in the book the paleontologist goes through exactly the counter-arguments I have presented above (focusing on the multiverse, really), all the while increasingly puzzled by the fact that Hollus and his kind haven’t figured this out yet, despite their obviously more advanced science. But Hollus drops a game changer: she explains to Jericho that their scientists have indeed explored naturalistic explanations of fine tuning, but have actually made discoveries — yet to be made by human science — that categorically exclude the possibility of a multiverse. Indeed, Hollus insists that at this point the only logical explanation for fine tuning is a super- or extra-natural entity, and that it would be downright irrational, and certainly unscientific, to negate that conclusion.[1] Oops.

My question to my fellow skeptics / atheists / freethinkers then is this: imagine yourself as Thomas Jericho, befriended by an alien from an advanced civilization who has just demolished all your naturalistic explanations for the apparent fine tuning of the universe. What then?

________

[1] It should be noted that Hollus’ logic is no comfort to the everyday religionist, and even less so to the fundamentalist. Her “god” is more akin to the entity envisioned by deists, or to Plato’s Demiurge, and most certainly doesn’t answer prayers, was not incarnated as Jesus Christ, and so forth.

105 comments:

  1. Good post Massimo, Re option c) The universe is fine tuned, but that’s because intelligent beings just like us (i.e., not “gods”) figured a way to simulate worlds within their computers What is it about the computer operator that is not 'god'-like?

    Similar to theories positing the existence of multiple universes at the same time, one can consider the same universe rerun from T=0 conditions, re-tuned each time in order achieve a more satisfactory result, for whose benefit we do not know.

    Back in 2010, your take on the anthropic principle was that it can be argues against using either strings, multiverses, or Smolin's cosmic natural selection, all arguments with weaknesses you have pointed out. But I think your larger point was that it did not contribute towards our understanding of the way things currently are. From a scientific perspective, yes. But from a philosophical perspective, it is as you say a serious question. Who, if anyone set those dials?

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  2. I find the multiverse explanation less intuitive than the statistical one. For the latter, the SAP is claiming that fine tuning is improbable without knowing the underlying properties of the data. Isn't the burden on them to describe (with some rigor!) the data distributions from which they derive the probability of having arrived at the so-called finely tuned values? Without this, how can they intelligently assert that the values are even fine tuned?

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    1. I'd say it's strange that the values are those which allow life even if there is no probability distribution at all, i.e. the values are not contingent but necessary.

      Suppose we find some mathematical relation between the constants that means that we can derive them to whatever precision we like from our armchairs without doing any experiments. Suppose these constants are actually like mathematical constants such as Pi. That doesn't mean we ought to lose all surprise that they happen to be just right for life.

      For example, imagine that we discover that a typical simple binary encoding for the first X digits of PI results in the same string of ones and zeros as we would get from a unicode representation of the King James Bible. Those digits are mathematically necessary - they could have no other value. Wouldn't you still find this coincidence to be remarkable? Would it not demand an explanation?

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    2. I don't think I would find that remarkable, at least not without at least an implicit calculation of probability. There are many constants (PI, e, so on) and many, many books. Maybe it's no surprise at all that a small number of constants would map over like this. Would you find it remarkable if we replaced the words 'King James Bible" with the words "Clymer guide to the Kawaski KZ50"?

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    3. Hi SocPole,

      What I meant was not "King James Bible" but the full text of the KJB, to be clear.

      And yes, I would find it remarkable if they mapped to an intelligible guide to the Kawasaki. Shocking, even. Indeed it would be a great surprise if some important mathematical constants could be mapped to intelligible text of any significant length.

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    Nice article, and sounds like an interesting read!

    This kind of thinking is in large part the reason that I independently came up with Tegmark's Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, and the reason I came to believe it.

    In this view, all mathematically-consistent universes exist, not just those our physical laws but different constants but those with entirely different physical laws altogether.

    Because it's not just the constants that are fine tuned. Why should the physical laws themselves be of the form they are? For instance, why should there be anything like an electron at all? Unless we think the laws of physics might in principle be deduced from an armchair, they are contingent. In my view, we need to do experiments not only because we have limited deductive powers but because this is really the only way to know what these contingent laws happen to be.

    No doubt there are explanations from more basic physical laws, but I think we have to bottom out at a fundamental set of equations eventually, and at that point we have to ask ourselves why could those equations not have been otherwise? I think the only elegant solution is that all possible sets of equations are manifested.

    I find Vic Stenger's response as unconvincing as you do.

    I find the String Theorists response that perhaps these constants could only have these values (or similar values) to be just as unconvincing, because it seems like too much of an odd coincidence that the range of values allowed by String Theory just happen to be those which can sustain life.

    I find the alien's response to be philosophically unsound, because the idea of other universes entirely causally disconnected from this one is in principle unfalsifiable. It is my view that no scientific discovery could ever rule out the possibility of other such universes. This is a category mistake, because science is in principle limited to answering empirical questions about our reality, which consists of our universe and perhaps a family of related universes in the context of the MWI or String Theory. If there are other universes outside this domain, completely causally disconnected, (and so unreal from our perspective as we are from theirs) then science has nothing to say about them.

    Though the initial motivation for arriving at the MUH was for me an explanation of fine tuning, I think there are independent philosophical arguments for why the MUH must be true, especially given mathematical Platonism (to which you seem sympathetic) and the Computational Theory of Mind (to which you do not!)

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    1. DM,
      > I find the alien's response to be philosophically unsound, because the idea of other universes entirely causally disconnected from this one is in principle unfalsifiable

      This is fiction, after all, so that argument doesn't work - in the universe in which the story happens all MUHs are falsifiable and have been falsified. That's the cool thing about fiction (and being a GM in a old-fashioned analog RPG) ;-)

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    2. chbieck

      I understand all that, but if it's unfalsifiable in principle then there's no way I would accept that alien's argument even if I lived in that fictional setting.

      I get that you have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy a good yarn, but it rankles a little bit when the premise of the story makes no sense.

      That said, this is a relatively minor nitpick which I could gloss over by assuming that the aliens were simply wrong, and the humans not too bright or perhaps overawed by the aliens if they didn't spot the problem with the alien's statement.

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    3. DM,
      even accepting that it is unfalsiable in principle in the real world, the argument still doesn't fly for the fictional setting, as the author can simply decree that it is falsiable in that world - which he does. So what that it might violate real-world logic? The story still works pretty nicely.

      Cheers
      Chris

      P.S. If you had to base stories on premises that work in the real world, fantasy and a big part of SF wouldn't work at all ;-)

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    4. Hi Chris,

      I disagree, because logic is logic in all worlds. Neither God nor an author can just decree that a contradiction is true.

      That said, I initially made the point not to criticise the book but because I think it quite likely that there are people who see no problem with the idea that science could rule out other universes. This is more of a concern to me than that aliens in sci-fi novels are of this opinion.

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    5. "Neither God nor an author can just decree that a contradiction is true."

      But Graham Priest can!
      books.google.com/books?id=vpSxuBtQfjQC

      BTW, to posit the existence of a "actual" infinite set (e.g., N, the natural numbers) takes a leap of faith I'm not prepared to make.

      Dialetheism "yes", infinities "no" may be more rational.

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  4. As I already noted in our discussion on G+, it's not deus-ex-machina if it has been hinted at during the narrative - after all, the event in question happened before and the reader knows it. (I would also argue that the simultaneous extinctions are strong hints for the "d-x-m event"..)

    But on your question: during reading, I found Hollus' argument entirely consistent with a variant of c). For the simulation argument, do the intelligent being really have to be "just like us"? Hollus referring to the entity as "god" confuses the issue, IMO - it is extranatural, yes, but not supernatural in the earthly religious sense.

    I.e. add a c1 to the list - not a computer simulation, but more of a realistic model - and the naturalistic explanation for fine-tuning stays intact.

    Cheers
    Chris

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  5. Interesting but keep in mind the criteria of complexity. A hidden assumption is that *life* is interesting statistically, instead of let's say, the course of a meteor or an intelligent atheist or super computer. It's Anthropocentrism should be challenged as well as there appeals to ignorance they try to cover by using analogies.

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  6. So the thought experiment is that we can somehow make an experiment/calculation to rule out the multiverse theory. And that it can be shown that the statistical distribution of the constants are uniform and infinite.

    I would still not invoke a creator as the explanation for the universe.

    The hidden assumption here is that a creator would want to create a universe with life in it. I don't see why that would be the case. Maybe a creator would be more interested in fancy explosions.

    For each of the possible universes we can imagine, we can also imagine a creator that would want to design that specific universe. Why then, is the existence of _our_ universe more likely if we assume a creator? We're just pushing the fine-tunedness one step further back. "Our creator is fine-tuned to create a universe with life in it" (or, possibly, "Our creator's desires is fine-tuned...").

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  7. There are two extra counter-arguments which have not been mentioned:

    1) The fine tuning hypothesis simply shifts the odds it was required to explain, from our universe to whatever fine tuner is invoked as an explanation.

    If you need a special explanation for why we are able to do the things we do, surely someone who is able to do much more than we are needs at least as much explanation, no?

    Why, you may ask? If we take a good look at the argument, you can clearly see that what impresses us isn't the small likelihood for the constants to be as they are. It's what we can do that impresses us.

    If you think the small likelihood needs explaining, just imagine that the likelihood of the constants being any other way would have been identically small.

    So it's what we can do which we think needs an explanation. But by definition, the creator intelligence (or simulating computer etc.) can do more impressive things than we can (we can't create universes or calculate which set natural constants is required for intelligent life to emerge). So the creator is always in far greater need of an explanation then we are.

    2) The second argument applies to the omnipotent character of any god / apparatus involved. Because, if it can do whatever it wants, why would it be constrained by nature?

    The fine tuning hypothesis presupposes naturalism and acknowledges the god / computer only as some sort of tinkerer. Turn one knob here, one knob there and work within the constraints of a natural system.

    But if there is a God which can do anything, it could make intelligent life out of stinky cheese. Or whatever. It wouldn't need to fine tune anything. If any situation is compatible with the god scenario, there is no way to establish a logical link between how the world is and the intelligent agent invoked for explaining it.

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  8. Nice post!

    They "seem to think that the statistical distribution from which each of the above mentioned natural constants is drawn is both infinite and uniform". Advocates like Robin Collins specifically avoid this objection by arguing that
    a) in many cases, we can restrict the range of a parameter to a finite region by placing limits on the range over which we can reasonably predict what such a universe would be like e.g. the Planck mass for particle masses, above which we would need a quantum theory of gravity.
    b) Skewing won't help, since "If [the probability distribution] is to have an interesting structure over the relatively small range in which observers are abundant, there must be a parameter of order the observed [one] in the expression for [the probability distribution]. But it is precisely the absence of this parameter that motivated the anthropic approach." Anthony Aguirre.

    Superstring theory has “anthropic principle written all over it” (Schellekens), since it merely shifts the fine-tuning of the fundamental parameters of the theory to fine-tuning the parameters of a particular solution. As Alexander Vilenkin says, "The equations of the theory [string theory] have no adjustable constants, but their solutions, describing different vacuum states, are characterised by several hundred parameters-the sizes of compact dimensions, the locations of the branes, and so on." String theory does not say that the universe could not have been otherwise.

    More generally, Frank Wilczek (Nobel prize winning particle theorist) says:

    “It is logically possible that parameters determined uniquely by abstract theoretical principles just happen to exhibit all the apparent fine-tunings required to produce, by a lucky coincidence, a universe containing complex structures. But that, I think, really strains credulity.”

    Even if there were only one possibility within string theory, there are other possibilities to string theory. It would still be an anthropic coincidence if the only universe permitted by the ultimate laws of nature were life-permitting.

    The multiverse doesn't automatically solve the fine-tuning problem either, due to the possible existence of freak observers. Multiverse only makes probable what the selection effect (the anthropic principle) selects for. The anthropic principle selects for observers. If freak observers (fluctuations from the vacuum, Boltzmann Brains) are more common in the multiverse than biologically evolved lifeforms like ourselves, then the multiverse fails to render probable the fact that we observe a universe that permits the existence of biologically evolved intelligent life. Collins again has discussed this - see his website. This is not to say that the multiverse isn't the answer, but you've got some work to do in finding (and fine-tuning?) the right multiverse for the job.

    Stenger's book on fine-tuning fails in almost all cases even to address the problem it is supposed to be answering: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2012PASA...29..529B . For example, his "model" of the other universes botches 6 of its 8 equations.

    Apologies for the long comment…

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  9. The discussion so far is focussing on the fine-tuning argument; but as Massimo notes at the beginning of the post, in the fictional universe there are other indicators of an intelligence at work, e.g. in the five mass extinctions which happened on several planets at the same time - as a random event this pretty much needs the MUH to start with.

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    1. What do you mean by the MUH? When I say it, I mean the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, which is an idea entailing the existence of all mathematically-consistent universes. I can't relate what you're saying to this meaning.

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    2. I still don't follow you then. Why do we need multiple universes to explain five simultaneous mass extinctions?

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    3. We might be venturing too far into spoiler territory already - just read the story, you'll see what I mean.

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  10. I would challenge the notion that the universe is "fine-tuned" in any meaningful sense at all. Consider that 1) the volume of space occupied by life as compared to the volume of the known universe, 2) the time during which life has existed as compared to the past and expected future duration of the universe, and 3) the volume of life-hospitable space (ie the surface of the Earth) as compared to the vastness of completely uninhabitable space (ie almost everywhere else) and the duration of the life-friendly conditions on the Earth (currently under threat by climate change and nuclear bombs).

    To analogize, imagine an astronaut who landed on Mars, surveyed the whole planet, and found that the only life was a single cell, incapable of surviving in any place but a tiny area, and that had been around for only a few hundred years. It seems to me that the astronaut would not be justified in saying that Mars is "fine-tuned" for life. A better way to put it would be "Life exists on Mars, but only for a very short time, in small quantities, and tenuously situated."

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  11. The question was about the premise that a more experienced and superior intellect has confirmed that fine tuning is true. While we might find it difficult to accept, we can still proceed with the thought experiment, taking a number of assumptions with us, at least temporarily. Namely, that the alien is both honest and correct.
    The next most obvious questions would be about first cause. Are we capable of comprehending the existence and origin of the apparent creator entity?
    If the alien race is sophisticated enough to determine that fine tuning is true, they ought to have better insights into this problem than we do.
    I haven't read Sawyer, but I'd guess that this question would come up in the story. It seems almost obvious...

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    1. > The question was about the premise that a more experienced and superior intellect has confirmed that fine tuning is true

      Exactly - the aliens have more information than humans do.

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  12. Some think we are now obtaining astronomical data that is evidence for the existence of other universes:
    dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/06/the-dark-flow-the-existence-of-other-universes-new-claims-of-hard-evidence.html

    But maybe that data is like the fossils buried to tempt us into apostasy. :)

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  13. The universe is as simple or as complex as One makes it.
    And as for constants, there is only One true.
    As God is One, All is One.
    What will you make of it?
    Be One too.
    =

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  14. @ Massimo

    There are only two logical possibilities here: "determinism" or "indeterminism." (If there is a third way, then please share it.) If determinism holds true, then everything that happens could not have been otherwise. If indeterminism holds true, then things could have been different - vastly different. Regardless of which state of affairs holds true (and the standard interpretation of QM states that the latter - indeterminism - holds true), the anthropic principle is still something that needs to be explain. If determinism holds true, then the fact that we are conscious could not have been otherwise. That's something that needs to be explained. Why should "blind" determinism yield consciousness? If indeterminism holds true, then you have to explain the anthropic principle for the same reason you have to explain the "apparent" design of the species.

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    1. Hi Alastair,

      Contingent/necessary is a different question than deterministic/undeterministic.

      The universe could be deterministic and contingent. It could be necessary and undeterministic.

      Deterministic just means that given the state and laws of the universe at time t=0, we can in principle calculate the state of the universe at time t=1.

      Necessary means that the state and laws of the universe at time t=0 could in principle be calculated a priori, given no prior state.

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    2. @ Disagreeable Me

      > Contingent/necessary is a different question than deterministic/undeterministic.<

      I don't believe I explicitly made this association. So, what is prompting you to make this statement?

      > The universe could be deterministic and contingent. It could be necessary and undeterministic.<

      This depends on how you define the terms determinism, indeterminism, necessary, and contingent. (These terms, like most terms, have various definitions depending on their context.)

      > Deterministic just means that given the state and laws of the universe at time t=0, we can in principle calculate the state of the universe at time t=1.

      Necessary means that the state and laws of the universe at time t=0 could in principle be calculated a priori, given no prior state. <

      Here are the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary definitions of these terms:

      contingent: "happening by chance or unforeseen causes," "dependent on or conditioned by something else," or "not necessitated : determined by free choice."

      necessary: "determined or produced by the previous condition of things."

      determinism: "a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws."

      indeterminism: "a theory that the will is free and that deliberate choice and actions are not determined by or predictable from antecedent causes" or "a theory that holds that not every event has a cause."

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    3. Hi Alastair,

      Your dictionary definitions mesh perfectly with what I'm saying, although I probably misunderstood you in the first place. I don't see what determinism or undeterminism has to do with the anthropic principle.

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    4. @ Diagreeable Me

      > Your dictionary definitions mesh perfectly with what I'm saying. <

      I don't think they do. But I don't want to get into it.

      > I don't see what determinism or undeterminism has to do with the anthropic principle. <

      If determinism holds true, then everything that happens could not have been otherwise. If indeterminism holds true, then things could have been different - vastly different. Regardless of which state of affairs holds true (and the standard interpretation of QM states that the latter - indeterminism - holds true), the anthropic principle is still something that needs to be explain. If determinism holds true, then the fact that we are conscious could not have been otherwise. That's something that needs to be explained. Why should "blind" determinism yield consciousness? If indeterminism holds true, then you have to explain the anthropic principle for the same reason you have to explain the "apparent" design of the species.

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    5. Actually, you're right about the dictionary quotes. The meanings I intended for necessary and contingent are different. Again, quoting from Merriam Webster:

      contingent: not logically necessary;

      necessary: b (1) : logically unavoidable (2) : that cannot be denied without contradiction

      With regard to the rest, you've just said the same thing again. I still don't see the relevance.

      The anthropic principle doesn't need to be explained - it is an explanation. I think what you mean is that fine tuning needs an explanation?

      And as you say, either way, fine tuning needs an explanation, because determinism/indeterminism is irrelevant to the question.

      Determinism holds that we could not be other than we are given some initial state, as all events are determined by preceding causes back to that initial state. Determinism does not say that the initial state could not have been otherwise.

      The statement that the initial state could not have been otherwise is the idea that the initial state is necessary, and this goes beyond determinism.

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    6. @ Disagreeable Me

      > The anthropic principle doesn't need to be explained - it is an explanation. I think what you mean is that fine tuning needs an explanation? <

      You're right. I stand corrected. I should have said that the fine tuning needs an explanation, not the anthropic principle.

      > Determinism holds that we could not be other than we are given some initial state, as all events are determined by preceding causes back to that initial state. Determinism does not say that the initial state could not have been otherwise. <

      I agree with that. The initial state (or initial cause) could have been otherwise.

      > The statement that the initial state could not have been otherwise is the idea that the initial state is necessary, and this goes beyond determinism. <

      Okay. Now I see what you're getting at. Yes, there is a difference between necessary and determinism (at least in this context).

      Delete
  15. To answer your question, I would ask how was god created and what direct evidence there is to his or her existence. Even if all current scientific theories are not supported, and assuming you want to find a rational explanation, you need to explain god.

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  16. In number theory, Fermat's Last Theorem (sometimes called Fermat's conjecture, especially in older texts) states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.

    This theorem was first conjectured by Pierre de Fermat in 1637, famously in the margin of a copy of Arithmetica where he claimed he had a proof that was too large to fit in the margin. No successful proof was published until 1995 despite the efforts of countless mathematicians during the 358 intervening years. The unsolved problem stimulated the development of algebraic number theory in the 19th century and the proof of the modularity theorem in the 20th century. It is among the most famous theorems in the history of mathematics and prior to its 1995 proof was in the Guinness Book of World Records for "most difficult mathematical problems".

    Massimo, Do you think Fermat was just being very clever?

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  17. My answer would be skeptical. I would ask him to explain what is the evidence that allowed them to rule out the multiverse hypothesis, perhaps I would want to reproduce some of the evidence. Basically I would say to the alien: help us reach your level of knowledge, then we will see where that knowledge leads us.

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  18. 1) adding a god of unknown design to do the fine-tuning just adds an additional layer of unlikelihood
    2) fine-tuning to get life briefly on the odd planet again doesn't seem to have created a more plausible universe

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  19. Dave,

    > What is it about the computer operator that is not 'god'-like? <

    Good question. I am thinking that the computer programmer would be bound by physical natural laws, just like we are even though we can invent virtual universes inside our computers that are bound by different “laws” (the parameters of the simulation). I.e., the programmer wouldn’t be really super-natural, he would only appear to us to be that way.

    Chris,

    > For the simulation argument, do the intelligent being really have to be "just like us"? Hollus referring to the entity as "god" confuses the issue, IMO - it is extranatural, yes, but not supernatural in the earthly religious sense. <

    Agreed, see my response above to Dave.

    Mitaad,

    > A hidden assumption is that *life* is interesting statistically, instead of let's say, the course of a meteor ... It's Anthropocentrism should be challenged <

    I’ve heard that argument, and I don’t buy it. By any reasonable definition of “interesting” like truly is more interesting than meteors...

    DM,

    > all mathematically-consistent universes exist, not just those our physical laws but different constants but those with entirely different physical laws altogether. <

    This is similar to what in philosophy is called modal realism, and I don’t buy it for similar reasons.

    > I find the String Theorists response that perhaps these constants could only have these values (or similar values) to be just as unconvincing <

    I don’t. But I won’t find string theory itself convincing until (if) it will make contact with (novel) empirical evidence.

    > I find the alien's response to be philosophically unsound, because the idea of other universes entirely causally disconnected from this one is in principle unfalsifiable <

    Actually, there are some physicists who seem to argue otherwise. I’ve seen an article floating around the web about this recently.

    > imagine that we discover that a typical simple binary encoding for the first X digits of PI results in the same string of ones and zeros as we would get from a unicode representation of the King James Bible. Those digits are mathematically necessary - they could have no other value. Wouldn't you still find this coincidence to be remarkable? Would it not demand an explanation? <

    Yes, but the analogy doesn’t hold: there is no causal connection btw Pi and the KJ Bible. There obviously are causal connections btw the laws of physics and the evolution of life.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      I guess you don't want to get into a discussion about why you find modal realism implausible? I'm curious as to whether your reasons really do apply to the mathematical universe hypothesis.

      If there are physicists who think that other universes are falsifiable, I'd love to hear their arguments, because this seems preposterous to me.

      I think you miss my point about the Pi analogy. My point is that if something fantastically improbable turns out to be true of a mathematically derived constant, then that would be surprising, and we wouldn't just brush it away just because that constant could have no other value. I don't think it really matters for the point I'm making that there is no causal connection between Pi and the KJ bible.

      (Although I think an argument could be made that there is, because Pi turns up in all kinds of equations including physical calculations, so it could be said to be "causally connected" to physical law itself, and so to every object in the universe. Also, the bible alludes to Pi, although giving it the wrong value!)

      Besides if Pi did encode the bible, it would not seem to me to be unreasonable to suppose that there was some kind of hidden (divine?) causal connection between the two, as the coincidence is too improbable to countenance.

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  20. Johan,

    > The hidden assumption here is that a creator would want to create a universe with life in it. I don't see why that would be the case. <

    No, that wouldn’t be an hidden assumption, it would be the obvious inference from the empirical fact that someone had created the universe.

    > Why then, is the existence of _our_ universe more likely if we assume a creator? We're just pushing the fine-tunedness one step further back. <

    Not exactly. If it is true that the overwhelming majority of possible universes would yield no complexity or life at all, then the creator may not be interested in us specifically, but just in life and/or complexity more generally.

    Anonymous,

    > The fine tuning hypothesis simply shifts the odds it was required to explain, from our universe to whatever fine tuner is invoked as an explanation <

    But that’s true for pretty much any scientific explanation, you never “bottom out,” so to speak.

    > If you think the small likelihood needs explaining, just imagine that the likelihood of the constants being any other way would have been identically small. <

    I don’t see how that helps, unless you consider a complex universe with life just as interesting as a universe that vanishes after a few microseconds of entirely boring existence.

    > if it can do whatever it wants, why would it be constrained by nature? <

    Not all concepts of gods imply omnipotence. Plato, for instance, thought that the Demiurge did the best he could with the materials he had available when he created the world. That’s the sort of “god” presented in Sawyer’s book.

    luke,

    I don’t get why the quotes from either Collins or Aguirre help the case for the anthropic principle. If we can restrict the parameters to a finite region, then the argument begins to lose force, in proportion to how strong the restriction is. And the sentence about skeweness makes no sense to me, perhaps because I don’t have the full context.

    > Superstring theory has “anthropic principle written all over it” <

    No, it doesn’t.

    > String theory does not say that the universe could not have been otherwise. <

    Well, that actually is my understanding of the theory. Then again, I’m not a physicist.

    > Even if there were only one possibility within string theory, there are other possibilities to string theory. <

    Yes, but that’s a matter to be decided empirically.

    > The multiverse doesn't automatically solve the fine-tuning problem either, due to the possible existence of freak observers. <

    I’m not sure I know what that means. In fact, I’m sure I don’t.

    > If freak observers (fluctuations from the vacuum, Boltzmann Brains) <

    In my book a fluctuation from the vacuum doesn’t count as an “observer.”

    Person,

    > I would challenge the notion that the universe is "fine-tuned" in any meaningful sense at all. ... A better way to put it would be "Life exists on Mars, but only for a very short time, in small quantities, and tenuously situated." <

    We don’t know how widespread life is in the universe, so your objection is at the very least premature. It is also subject to the Demiurge reply above.

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    1. > If we can restrict the parameters to a finite region, then the argument begins to lose force, in proportion to how strong the restriction is.

      You argued that advocates assume that there is an infinite range of possible values. I pointed out that many of the philosophers who defend this argument are at pains to avoid infinite ranges. You need a finite "possible values" range before you can estimate a probability of a life-permitting universe, so the argument doesn't "begin to lose force" when the restriction is made.

      > And the sentence about skeweness makes no sense to me, perhaps because I don’t have the full context.

      Skewness doesn't help. For the distribution to render a life-permitting universe probable, it must have a narrow peak in the range that permits life. Which would require a parameter in the distribution that was fine-tuned to the life-permitting range. So no progress is made is solving fine-tuning. For example, if a randomly thrown dart is unlikely to hit the bullseye, then so is a randomly constructed dart throwing machine, even if the distribution of dart thrown from the machine may not be random.

      > Superstring theory has “anthropic principle written all over it” < No, it doesn’t. > String theory does not say that the universe could not have been otherwise. < Well, that actually is my understanding of the theory. Then again, I’m not a physicist.

      Well then let's ask some physicists. That's a quote from a string theorist. http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.3249 . Vilenkin is a physicist. Wilzcek is a physicist. How about one more … Susskind, one of the fathers of string theory:

      "What we are discovering about string theory is very different from what we had expected and hoped for. The original hope of string theory was that it would provide an absolutely unique set of answers to the questions such as: what is the particles’ spectrum, what are the masses of particles. It would have been a very elegant answer, a beautiful mathematical answer and extremely unique. Unique in that we would find that, basically, the world could not be any other way that the way it is. That was the hope. The reality is extremely different. The reality is that the more we study of the theory, the more possible kinds of things we discover it can describe. We discover it’s a theory with a vast number of solutions. We simply find that there are enormous numbers of possible worlds that string theory can describe." (http://georgezarkadakis.com/2013/04/27/all-about-strings-an-interview-with-leonard-susskind/)

      > Even if there were only one possibility within string theory, there are other possibilities to string theory. < Yes, but that’s a matter to be decided empirically.

      Possibilities must be decided empirically? Really? Empirical observations are of actual things. Are you claiming that only actual things are possible?

      > The multiverse doesn't automatically solve the fine-tuning problem either, due to the possible existence of freak observers. < I’m not sure I know what that means. In fact, I’m sure I don’t. > If freak observers (fluctuations from the vacuum, Boltzmann Brains) < In my book a fluctuation from the vacuum doesn’t count as an “observer.”

      Well, why not start with this marvellous post by Sean Carroll: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/08/22/the-higgs-boson-vs-boltzmann-brains/ . In certain space times, any physically possible state can fluctuate from the vacuum, given enough time. If a physical thing can be an observer, then a fluctuation from a vacuum can be an observer. Or did you have a different definition of "observer" in mind?

      Delete
  21. Alastair,

    > There are only two logical possibilities here: "determinism" or "indeterminism." <

    As usual, I find your reasoning to be both biased and unhelpful. But you are welcome to keep putting it out there, perhaps someone else will find it interesting.

    SocPole,

    > Isn't the burden on them to describe (with some rigor!) the data distributions from which they derive the probability of having arrived at the so-called finely tuned values? <

    Yes, I do think that’s a reasonable objection to the fine tuning argument. But I’m not sure the burden is entirely on that side. Seems like naturalists would also want to know what that distribution looks like and why.

    Gil,

    > Even if all current scientific theories are not supported, and assuming you want to find a rational explanation, you need to explain god. <

    Ok, but that would still be a fatal blow to naturalism, no?

    vic,

    > Do you think Fermat was just being very clever? <

    Not sure why you are asking me this, or what the relation to the post is, but yeah, I have had that sneaky suspicion from time to time...

    euclide,

    > I would ask him to explain what is the evidence that allowed them to rule out the multiverse hypothesis, perhaps I would want to reproduce some of the evidence. <

    Fine, but suppose they gave it to you. What then?

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    1. @ Massimo
      > As usual, I find your reasoning to be both biased and unhelpful. <

      Perhaps, you will find Martin Rees' reasoning more helpful. (I believe you cited him in your post.)

      "In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it." - cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees

      That seems to be very reminiscent of Berkeley's idealism which is based on his principle esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” As you will recall, George Berkeley was Bishop Berkeley, a theologian as well as a philosopher. It would appear that the theist has more viable options than the atheist. (A simulation in a computer? Please tell me you're not serious!)

      Delete
  22. Ok. I missed that we had some other empirical reason to infer a creator.

    First, I would have some existential problems (which my initial response is an excellent example of). I would also probably be angry and hostile to the creator (I am strongly anti-authoritarian).

    But after that I would try to find out what type of creator it is. Most of the current religions are not candidates for other reasons. For example, the problem of evil still works against an all-good and all-knowing creator. I prefer some sort of simulation hypothesis.

    It also opens the possibility that the universe is hackable, analogous to how computers are hackable. If someone has designed the universe, there may be overlooked corner-cases (this does not imply the computational theory of mind). This is probably the most positive effect (it opens up the possibility of faster than light travel for instance (but probably not time-travel)).

    Most religions will be able to capitalize on this (and I would be even more frustrated). It's not impossible that we'd get some economical problems. At least temporarily more people would fall for false prophets, conmen and snake-oil salesmen (I don't think we would get that many more of them). I think that we would adjust pretty quickly and society would be more or less like before. But there is a chance of religious wars that should be taken seriously.

    I hope that money went into scientific and philosophical efforts to find out more about such a creator and possibly even communicating.

    Most of the activism that atheists, skeptics and freethinkers are involved in would still be valid, so there's no big changes there.

    It would be a curious world indeed.

    Ps. I wonder what would be hardest for people to accept, the existence intelligent aliens or a creator.

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  23. For instance, if the nuclear force had been just 2% stronger than it is, this would have resulted in the likely consumption (by nuclear fusion) of all the hydrogen in the universe shortly after the Big Bang, leading to a very different (and life-unfriendly) universe from the one we know"

    While driving home work tonight if I stopped 2% later, I would have wound up on the other guy's trunk or our brains sometimes freak on numbers or perhaps the forces could have been .0000002% apart to make the universe work.

    As far as format when alto of people consider the theorem they start with a geometric proof. For a written page the four margins form four rectangles, the print is an inner rectangle and the page itself is a rectangle, so we turn the print and page into squares and try to see what makes the margins fit. Remember that Wyle was explaining that when he was working the solution it was like trying to make the rug fit into a room, pulling one side, then the other.

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  24. The analogy between fine tuning and the firing squad breaks down because we have a priori knowledge about the existence of people who could be bribed into arranging for the soldiers to miss whereas we do not have any reason whatsoever to believe that some entity exists that can twiddle physical constants.

    Ultimately, most theist arguments fall over the moment somebody asks, where does god come from? Or in other words, and no matter what else he gets wrong, Dawkins argument from TGD is correct: whatever god is invoked to explain needs less explaining than the fortuitous existence of god himself.

    Same here. And that would be my answer.

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  25. Premise 1: A number of physical constants have to have very narrow ranges if life is to evolve.
    Premise 2: The chance of those narrow ranges occurring simultaneously by natural accident are extremely low.
    Premise 3: The chance of those narrow ranges occurring simultaneously by intelligent design are much higher.

    Premise 1 should be life as we know it.
    Premise 2 cannot be calculated until you have multiple universes that you can inspect
    Premise 3 avoids calculating the probability of this designer v/s that of narrow ranges

    who has just demolished all your naturalistic explanations for the apparent fine tuning of the universe. What then?
    Its not the belief in God thats problematic so I suppose I would just shrug. I can easily imagine a universe with a creator. Its the respect and worship part that is problematic. I cant imagine worshiping a being voluntarily (Except Bill Watterson). And I cant respect a being who is responsible for the planet Earth as it stands today - unless (s)he gives me a sufficiently good reason.

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    1. Watterson:

      "I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone's expectations."

      Haha. Now that's a good argument from design.

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  26. I would respond that no Design Argument can prove a god, since they all include the premise that life is only possible given certain physical parameters. This represents a constraint on a Designer's creative abilities. Thus, even if such a Designer existed, it would not be God, since it would not be omnipotent.

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    1. Kevin, the AP argument does not prove or disprove the existence of a designing entity, it only speaks to its likelihood. Re omnipotence, one can imagine a set of gods as constrained as any other imaginable entities, and part of a larger puzzle. You can read tracts like "God is Not Great" and "The God Delusion" and so on, and agree with most of that these folks say, and be secure in disbelief of some specific thing, Assuming you keep an open mind and continue philosophical inquiry, you encounter too many bothersome questions about common scientific assumptions that may not change your beliefs, but will force you to acknowledge that these beliefs are by definition blinders.

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  27. But what is the difference between PZombies, which you think are silly, and SA, which you don't? Aren't both based on logically/mathematically plausible a priori assumptions that are unverifiable?

    Or, how would you feel about past generations hypothesizing that there must be a God due to the fine tuning of phlogiston and caloric?

    And who said design and intelligence are the hallmarks of creators? How do we know creators don't prefer chaos? Couldn't the fine tuning, which one could argue isn't all that fine (how may quarks are there? How symmetrical is the system really?) is an argument for the non-existence of a randomness loving God?

    At times, you make me long for Carnap.

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  28. If I was Jericho, I'd ask the alien to explain why does he think there can not be another naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe. If his reasoning is solid, I'd wonder if any of the world's religions was really influenced by said god, or if religions are really a cultural/neurological product, and it's all a coincidence.

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  29. Alastair,

    > Perhaps, you will find Martin Rees' reasoning more helpful. <

    Not really. Rees is looking at it from a theologically friendly perspective, and his poetic rendering of initial probabilities is just that, poetry.

    > As you will recall, George Berkeley was Bishop Berkeley, a theologian as well as a philosopher. It would appear that the theist has more viable options than the atheist. <

    You keep forgetting that the atheist does have good responses to fine tuning available, we don’t live in Sawyer’s scifi novel. Both string theory and the multiverse are very much on the table, and there are likely other possibilities.

    > A simulation in a computer? Please tell me you're not serious! <

    Oh, you think that’s more fantastic than a god??

    DM,

    > I guess you don't want to get into a discussion about why you find modal realism implausible? <

    Another time maybe. Let’s just say that I like to keep my ontology as moderate as possible.

    > if Pi did encode the bible, it would not seem to me to be unreasonable to suppose that there was some kind of hidden (divine?) causal connection between the two, as the coincidence is too improbable to countenance. <

    Yes, now I see what you were saying. But how does that help with the fine tuning argument, exactly?

    Alex,

    > Dawkins argument from TGD is correct: whatever god is invoked to explain needs less explaining than the fortuitous existence of god himself. <

    While Dawkins is correct, his argument actually goes nowhere. If we lived in Hollus’ universe (which we don’t) then we would have a compelling reason to think that god exists, regardless of the fact that we would now be faced with an even greater explanatory problem.

    Kevin,

    > This represents a constraint on a Designer's creative abilities. Thus, even if such a Designer existed, it would not be God, since it would not be omnipotent. <

    That’s only within the narrow confines of a Judeo-Christian-Muslim type god. But your objection would be useless against a Platonic Demiurge.

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    1. >But how does that help with the fine tuning argument, exactly?<

      Well, if we can be surprised by some staggering coincidence relating to an absolutely necessary mathematical constant such as Pi, then I think we ought to be similarly surprised if the physical constants are very finely tuned for life, even if it turns out that they could have no other values (or a very limited range of alternative values). Whatever the underlying reasons might be for why they take the values they do, unless those reasons have something to do with permitting life (for example if the universe were designed), then there is an improbable coincidence to account for.

      Delete
  30. OneDay,

    > But what is the difference between PZombies, which you think are silly, and SA, which you don't? Aren't both based on logically/mathematically plausible a priori assumptions that are unverifiable? <

    No, I don’t see the connection at all, sorry.

    > how would you feel about past generations hypothesizing that there must be a God due to the fine tuning of phlogiston and caloric? <

    You don’t think that modern fundamental physics is more compelling than phlogiston based physics?

    > How do we know creators don't prefer chaos? <

    Again, within Hollus’ universe, they clearly don’t.

    > At times, you make me long for Carnap. <

    Sorry to hear that... ;-)

    butthead,

    > If I was Jericho, I'd ask the alien to explain why does he think there can not be another naturalistic explanation for the origin of the universe. <

    He did, and she explained why the answer is negative (again, within Sawyer’s scifi scenario!).

    luke,

    > You need a finite "possible values" range before you can estimate a probability of a life-permitting universe, so the argument doesn't "begin to lose force" when the restriction is made. <

    I don’t get it. The more restricted the parameter range the less compelling the fine tuning argument is, because there is less and less need for tuning. What am I missing?

    > Skewness doesn't help. For the distribution to render a life-permitting universe probable, it must have a narrow peak in the range that permits life. <

    That’s what I meant by skeweness: skewed close to that range. Though it is debatable how narrow that peak really has to be in order for the fine tuning argument to lose force.

    > The reality is that the more we study of the theory, the more possible kinds of things we discover it can describe. We discover it’s a theory with a vast number of solutions. <

    Yes, good point. I was actually aware of this problem (the “landscape” issue with string theory), and you are correct, it is relevant to our discussion. However, my impression was that the landscape problem is an issue of not being able to decide empirically which of 10^500 (or whatever) different versions of the theory is correct. But assuming that *one* is actually correct, then we would have an answer to why the physical parameters of the universe are the way it is. I could be wrong about this, however, I’m not a physicist.

    > Possibilities must be decided empirically? Really? Empirical observations are of actual things. Are you claiming that only actual things are possible? <

    Who cares about what is possible? If we are talking science we are talking about what is real. So, yes, empirical evidence is the deciding factor.

    > Or did you have a different definition of "observer" in mind? <

    I did. The only one that matters in the case of the anthropic principle, which is what we are discussing after all: intelligent observers. If we are using the (highly misleading, imo) definition of “observer” you are referring to (i.e., anything can count as an observer) then it is not clear to me: a) why use the word observer to begin with, and b) what does that have to do with fine tuning and related issues.

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    1. I think you get my point about phlogiston, but you aren't taking it seriously. I mean, the Copenhagen Interpretation of QD is already falling out of favor. So all the mysticism founded on that interpretation is losing its footing. I suspect (and yes really, really hope) that Fine Tuning will go the way of quantum babble about the observer effect. And by the way, what seems to me like the best retort to observer effect idealism is not the mulitiverse, but Quantum Bayesianism. Now, like you, I am not a physicist, but I think the question of whether or not the universe is actually fine tuned is far from settled. I think it unwise to assume we are anywhere near settling that question yet. Todays Physics will be tomorrow's phlogiston.

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    2. But, to answer your actual question. An alien telling me the universe is fine tuned is about as persuasive as a physicist saying it to me today. I'm not competent to judge, even less so with an alien where I can't even guess at its ulterior motives and cognitive biases. But I'll swallow the thought experiment whole. I am forced to come to the conclusion that the universe is, in fact, fine tuned. It wouldn't change much, actually. Especially if the rest of the data on how and why it was tuned is absent. I think it's no accident that many scientists lapse into ill advised phrasings like "uncovering the will of God." The experience of a committed naturalist toiling to puzzle out the mysteries of the world is not that different from the committed theist. Both are shrouded in darkness, trying to fend off error and bias, hoping to read that data correctly. The difference is that the naturalist is more likely to make progress over time. But the sense of being a small part of a great cosmic scheme remains about the same.

      I'm going to read the book, but I think the critical piece of information is not "is there fine tuning?"; the critical question is whether or not we are an important part of the universe. And of course whether or not we can exist after death. Fine tuning would give me some hope on both questions, but also increase the possible horror and rage that would come from the answers to both questions being "no." An indifferent universe is much less an insulting than an indifferent god.

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    3. > The more restricted the parameter range the less compelling the fine tuning argument is, because there is less and less need for tuning. What am I missing?

      To get a rough estimate of the probability of a life-permitting universe, be take the range of a parameter that permits the existence of life and divide it by the total possible range of the parameter. It's like dividing the area of the bullseye to the area of the whole dartboard. To be non-trivial, the possible range needs to be finite. The strength of the fine-tuning argument is that, once we've made these restrictions, the probability of a life-permitting universe seems extremely small. (Feel free to generalise this to higher dimensional parameter spaces).

      > That’s what I meant by skeweness: skewed close to that range. Though it is debatable how narrow that peak really has to be in order for the fine tuning argument to lose force.

      OK - I had taken skewness to mean "non-uniform". My point still stands - a distribution that favours life requires the same kind of fine-tuning as a parameter that favours life.

      > not being able to decide empirically which of 10^500 (or whatever) different versions of the theory is correct. But assuming that *one* is actually correct, then we would have an answer to why the physical parameters of the universe are the way it is.

      If by "correct" you mean "correctly describes this universe, then, yes we're not sure which solution describes our universe. But that's not the relevant question for fine-tuning. Like the dart board, we're comparing the "target" to the total "possible space". Where our particular dart landed is not relevant. The relevant question is: what fraction of the 10^500 possible universes permit the existence of intelligent life? If this fraction is extremely small (as it seems to be) then the existence of this intelligent-life-permitting universe is something that might point to a deeper explanation.

      > If we are using the (highly misleading, imo) definition of “observer” you are referring to (i.e., anything can count as an observer) then it is not clear to me: a) why use the word observer to begin with, and b) what does that have to do with fine tuning and related issues.

      a) An observer is something that can observe. How it came to be an observer doesn't decide its status as an observer. Suppose we decide that the new iPhone 7 counts as an observer. Then, there is a small but non-zero probability that an iPhone 7 will fluctuate into existence from the quantum vacuum. The fact that it was born in the vacuum rather than a factory doesn't change the fact that it counts as an observer.
      b) Suppose you think that the reason a life-permitting universe exists at all, even though it is very unlikely, is that there exists a multiverse - lots of different universes + only universes that permit observers are themselves observed. If freak observers are possible, then a multiverse (as a physical model that makes physical predictions) would predict that a typical observer would observe themselves to have fluctuated into existence in a vacuum. This would then be a disconfirmed prediction for the multiverse. Thus, the multiverse does not automatically solve the fine-tuning problem.

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  31. Massimo, this is a bit unclear now.

    You appear to be saying that in a universe where we would have a compelling reason to believe in god, we would have a compelling reason to believe in god. Well, yes, but that did not seem to be the point at first. Obviously I have not read the book in question, but you seemed to be asking primarily for an answer to the argument from fine tuning, and that answer stands.

    At best one can add in favor of theism the fact that in that universe, mass extinction events happened in parallel on different planets in the same general area of space. But I can immediately think of a few simple explanations for that, such as some physical event destabilizing the orbits of meteors across the entire area at the same time. Even if we don't know how that worked exactly it would still be simpler than a god.

    But don't get me wrong. I actually don't believe that "god is an explanation-stopper" is a good argument against theism at all. I would even go so far as to say that intelligent design is a valid scientific hypothesis (the point is it is one that has been superseded by a much better one for our specific planet).

    My argument is rather based on a whole evidence approach, or perhaps you could call it Bayesian reasoning. Given the universe around us, an alien showing up and telling us that they had mass extinctions at the same time as we did would do nothing to increase the posterior likelihood of god's existence by any measurable amount because the prior would be so close to zero.

    Conversely, I can easily imagine a universe in which goddidit would be a very strong idea although it does not provide an ultimate explanation, for the simple reason that no scientific explanation has ever provided an ultimate explanation either. (You can always go one step further by asking, and why is that so? At some point it is always, we don't know, and perhaps at some point we will never be able to get any further.)

    But a universe in which belief in gods is plausible would be very different from ours and from Hollus' (and the two are virtually indistinguishable). To see what it would have to look like, open the pages of a few randomly chosen fantasy novels or consult AD&D rulebooks. Or perhaps just read the bible: miracle healings happening regularly, gods intervening directly in battles, magical spells are working, angles speaking with people, blasphemers struck down by divine fire, the sky is a firmament, the earth is flat, science infers the universe to be a couple thousand years old, stuff like that. Yes, one could still wonder where gods come from (just as one wonders why there are down quarks in our real universe), but one would hardly doubt their existence.

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  32. The list is missing a major counterargument in my mind: That the fine tuning argument is a failure of imagination.

    Sure, if the constants of the universe were even slightly different we wouldn't see organic molecules, stars, atoms and maybe even particles. But presumably there would be something *else*, and who says it wouldn't also support life?

    It is commonly said that if one described the "standard model" of particle physics to a physicist who knows nothing about our world, he or she would almost certainly fail to predict the existence of atoms (or much of anything else). In the same way, we have no idea what the universe would look like if the fundametal constants were slightly changed. It's quite possible that universe would have its own complex structure which we can't imagine. My guess is that almost all choices of fundamental constants lead to universes which support life.

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  33. Massimo said >

    Before we consider the standard counter-arguments, let’s be clear on one thing: this is a serious challenge, not to be easily dismissed. A typical counter often heard in atheist circles is that of course we find ourselves in a type of universe that sustains life, if we were in a different one we wouldn’t exist: the fine tuning argument, therefore, gets the causality exactly reversed. This response is known as the weak anthropic principle (as opposed to the strong AP, which relies on the fine tuning argument), but it’s not convincing.

    To see why, imagine yourself in front of a firing squad of, say, ten soldiers. They fire, and you open your eyes and find you are still alive. What happened? It is possible, but definitely very very unlikely, that all soldiers simultaneously just happened to miss their target. More likely, someone arranged things so that you would survive, for instance by bribing the soldiers, or by replacing their cartridges with blanks. In other words, your survival was intelligently engineered. The odds that need to be explained if the fine tuning argument goes through are much, much worse than the firing squad somehow missing its target.
    ----------

    I think your analogy is off. In the case of the firing squad, we are aware of other people's existence that could potentially bribed the firing squad. Maybe your boss, your parents, your beloved, etc... The possibility of the bribe hypothesis is thus, probable enough to give it a thought. For the universe origin question, we don't have evidence for the creator. Maybe the fine tunning by chance is little probable (except if you take the multiverse on account), but for the creator hypothesis you need to explain were did this creator came from, without resorting to "special pleading".

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  34. This 2008 conference proceedings addresses "fine-tuning" in several papers:
    evodevouniverse.com/wiki/Conference_2008

    (A Second International Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe is being planned.)

    Also, a direction of time is lurking in the way the question is framed: How did a universe at time at or near 0 get "fine-tuned" so that "intelligent life" appears at some future time. But direction of time is not a settled thing for some, like Huw Price (Causal Perspectivalism).

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  35. @ Massimo

    > Not really. Rees is looking at it from a theologically friendly perspective, and his poetic rendering of initial probabilities is just that, poetry. <

    It's not poetry. This is poetry:

    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." - William Shakespeare, Hamlet

    I suggest you take your own advice and make an honest effort to "think outside your established worldview."

    Wheeler's delayed choice experiment provides the basis for backward causation.

    "Observations do not have to happen now. Because of the backward-in-time aspect of quantum mechanics, the past can be shaped by observations at any stage in the cosmological future." (source: pg. 249, "The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life?" by physicist Paul Davies)

    It would appear that open-minded believers have many more fine-tuning explanatory options available to them than closed-minded skeptics.

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    1. You have the words "believers" and "skeptics" switched in the last sentence!

      Delete
  36. I prefer Stenger's idea. (It is also related to part of how SETI is wrong, in that it has a narrow-minded view of life.)

    If our current universe originated in some pre-quantum flux (inside the Planck time, we can't actually know if it was quantum or not, can we), all sorts of different possibilities exist.

    Seventeen different basic forces in the universe, for example.

    Or, 147 different stable elements.

    Seven dimensions, including two time dimensions, instead of four and one.

    The book actually sound pretty puerile.

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  37. The firing squad is an intelligent design. Fine tuning is achieved by deliberately interfering with its planned randomness. So it's not much of a counterargument. A better example is a sole survivor of a train crash who as a result believes in a god. Anyone who can change the future physical state of the universe could be regarded as a demiurge. Possibly there was previous intelligent life that managed to destabilize the universe, resulting in a Big Bang, at which point physics is reloaded, and so on ad infinitum. Having a separate god entity means you're always having to find something meaningful for this being to do. Coincidence is not so relevant as the lack of coherence in a god.

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  38. The people in this thread who think that our universe shows signs of being fine-tuned for anything beyond empty space and dark matter must be looking at a very different universe than the one that I have read about.

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    1. True that. It's mostly fine-tuned to waste space.

      Delete
  39. Alex,

    > that did not seem to be the point at first. Obviously I have not read the book in question, but you seemed to be asking primarily for an answer to the argument from fine tuning, and that answer stands. <

    No, I think we do have good answers to the fine tuning argument on the table. I was interested in people’s reaction to Sawyer’s hypothetical: an alien comes down and convincingly shows you that your answers are wrong, and that really is a god.

    > I can immediately think of a few simple explanations for that, such as some physical event destabilizing the orbits of meteors across the entire area at the same time. Even if we don't know how that worked exactly it would still be simpler than a god. <

    That’s getting closer to what I was looking for: so you’d rather postulate an unknown natural phenomenon than invoke the supernatural. I would probably react the same way, though the interesting question is one that Hollus herself raises with Jericho: up to what point? Beyond a certain point the “god hypothesis” does in fact become the best explanatory inference.

    > an alien showing up and telling us that they had mass extinctions at the same time as we did would do nothing to increase the posterior likelihood of god's existence by any measurable amount because the prior would be so close to zero. <

    Well, I can tell you it would raise my posteriors just a bit.

    > it does not provide an ultimate explanation, for the simple reason that no scientific explanation has ever provided an ultimate explanation either. <

    Agreed.

    > But a universe in which belief in gods is plausible would be very different from ours and from Hollus' <

    But doesn’t that depend *a lot* on what concept of god Hollus is invoking? In the novel she clearly has little patience for religious fundamentalists of any stripe, or for the idea that god would answer prayers, be concerned with individual lives, and so forth.

    > The people in this thread who think that our universe shows signs of being fine-tuned for anything beyond empty space and dark matter must be looking at a very different universe than the one that I have read about. <

    Again, this sort of argument does little against Plato’d Demiurge.

    ealloc,

    > if the constants of the universe were even slightly different we wouldn't see organic molecules, stars, atoms and maybe even particles. But presumably there would be something *else*, and who says it wouldn't also support life? <

    Actually no. My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of universes would not support life, and indeed would not even exist for long periods of time.

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  40. butterhead,

    > The possibility of the bribe hypothesis is thus, probable enough to give it a thought. For the universe origin question, we don't have evidence for the creator. <

    That’s precisely the point: if the fine tuning argument goes through then the existence of a creator becomes the best inference allowed by the facts.

    OneDay,

    > I think the question of whether or not the universe is actually fine tuned is far from settled. I think it unwise to assume we are anywhere near settling that question yet. Todays Physics will be tomorrow's phlogiston. <

    I do get your point, I just don’t find sufficiently compelling. While you may be correct about what tomorrow’s physics will look like, the price to pay for that is to raise some serious doubts about the fundamental picture of the world we think we have, or even about the ability of science itself to make significantly progress. Not ready to bite that bullet just yet.

    > An alien telling me the universe is fine tuned is about as persuasive as a physicist saying it to me today. <

    It ought to be a bit more than that if it is multiple races of aliens, all with science and technology more advanced than ours, no?

    > An indifferent universe is much less an insulting than an indifferent god. <

    Yup.

    DM,

    > if we can be surprised by some staggering coincidence relating to an absolutely necessary mathematical constant such as Pi, then I think we ought to be similarly surprised if the physical constants are very finely tuned for life, even if it turns out that they could have no other values <

    Again, I see the analogy, but I think there’s something wrong with it. At the very least we should agree that if physicists were actually able to show that the universe had to be the way it is that would take *some* wind out of the fine tuning hypothesis, in the sense that the question would have been pushed back one level (which, as Alex says, is always the case in science anyway).

    pablo,

    > The firing squad is an intelligent design. Fine tuning is achieved by deliberately interfering with its planned randomness. So it's not much of a counterargument. <

    It is *not* meant to be a counterargument. The analogy rests precisely on the idea that the only way to account for the failure of the firing squad is intelligent design. Same with a finely tuned universe. (Of course, I *don’t* think the fine tuning argument goes through, but we are playing with an hypothetical scifi scenario here.)

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      >Again, I see the analogy, but I think there’s something wrong with it. At the very least we should agree that if physicists were actually able to show that the universe had to be the way it is that would take *some* wind out of the fine tuning hypothesis, in the sense that the question would have been pushed back one level<

      You're right. Let me revise what I said. I think that perhaps I should have said that it is just as unlikely that the only values possible for these constants should be those which support life as that these values have arisen by chance, so it's not a very satisfactory explanation to posit that these values could not be otherwise.

      And if it were found that they could not be otherwise, then that would indeed only push the explanation back one level, so we would be left asking why it is that the higher level meta-laws are so fine-tuned as to allow only the possibility of life-supporting constants.

      Either way, I don't think it's a very successful explanation. I think it's much more elegant, plausible and simple to suppose that there may be a great number of universes, of many different configurations of physical laws and constants, and then the weak anthropic principle is all we need to explain fine-tuning.

      Out of curiosity, I don't think you have indicated which response to fine-tuning you find most plausible. Do you have a preference?

      Delete
    2. >the only way to account for the failure of the firing squad is intelligent design.<

      Actually, there's another way to interpret the firing squad that does not rely on intelligent design.

      If the Many World Interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, then every possible outcome of a quantum event will happen, and the universe is constantly forking into parallel realities with different outcomes.

      According to quantum mechanics, pretty much anything can happen, but events like teleportation at a macroscopic scale are so improbable as to be effectively impossible.

      But it is nevertheless theoretically possible that, for example, all of the bullets could pass through you without causing any harm.

      Now, if it is even theoretically possible that this is true, then there is one possible future, one universe where this happens.

      And you will always find yourself in a universe where you are alive. You will never observe yourself to be dead. So if you survive a firing squad, it could be taken as evidence that the many worlds hypothesis is true and not necessarily that somebody has bribed the guards.

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  41. > An indifferent universe is much less an insulting than an indifferent god. <

    Yup.

    (Not on your main topic.) But I don't get the "yup" in this at all. This seems normative and anthropomorphic. Or is that the point? I'm not contesting, just interested in your thinking. Anyway, why would one be more preferable than the other?

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  42. Lets not multiply entities beyond necessity. The facts which make up the fine tuning phenomenon, if we accept them as such, would indicate only that the Kosmos has a tendency toward complexity. Nothing is added to our explanatory capacity by positing an entity responsible for it. Also, then we need to explain the entity.

    It is quite similar to First Cause arguments which invoke God as Uncaused Cause or as Self Caused because of the supposed causal infinite regress problem. Here also its simpler to just conclude that the Kosmos itself is Uncaused or Self Caused.

    It is always going to be simpler to ascribe a property, capacity, or tendency to Nature rather than to some Non-Natural entity. And the latter method will always involve an ontological interaction problem.

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  43. Disclaimer: I haven't read all the responses, so this may have been covered.

    I'd probably assent to some notion of deism or simulationism, but one that would have little practical impact on my atheism. The chasm between atheism and deism is miniscule compared to that between theism and deism. A non-providential deity/designer that flips the switch and walks away is not that far removed from a non-existent deity.

    Given the stated purpose of the alien expedition, I would be curious as to why Hollus and her colleagues are looking for a REASON to explain the simultaneous mass extinctions in the first place. Strange, yes, but design doesn't imply agency in the functioning of a system any more than starting your car does. Naturalistic explanations of events would not necessarily be null and void simply because we happen to discover the universe had a designer.

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  44. How do you know that carbon-based life and consciousness are the be all and end all of universes? A visitor from another universe might observe the "tuning" in ours to be so off that half the particles and forces that should be there are absent and thus our universe would be one doomed to never produce beings like himself.

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  45. > But doesn’t that depend *a lot* on what concept of god Hollus is invoking?

    Yes, of course. But the god she invokes seems at a minimum to be one who has a plan for life in our area of the cosmos, and that does not appear plausible given everything else we know.

    More generally, clearly a Last Thursdayism god can never be excluded except on grounds of being superfluous to requirements; the question is, does any religious person actually believe in it? I submit that they don't. It is merely the god of annoyingly contrarian armchair philosophers and of apologists who have run out of arguments.

    The former use the concept as a mere intellectual exercise to beat atheists over the head while being atheists in practice themselves. And the moment the latter turn away from you and towards their coreligionists they will shift back to advocating a god that is incompatible with plainly available data.

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  46. If God were 2% less mischievous, she wouldn't have created the Universe. So who fine-tuned God?

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  47. The fine tuning, et al, indeed raises serious questions and puzzles, but I just don't see how any inference from all that to some sort of intelligent designer is at all plausible, absent any at least somewhat detailed theory or account about who or what an intelligent designer and how the designing is done. Example queries: Where does the (or is it a variety of designers, one for physics, another for chemistry, another for . . .?) get its intelligence? Does it (they) have a brain? Can it think? Does it make mistakes? How can we know the possible answers to any such questions?

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  48. The firing squad scenario seems like an odd way to show that fine-tuning arguments are valid. If you give a monkey a pen and wait for it to write the number 2398047230947230947293874, the odds of that happening is pretty low. But if the monkey has already written that number, the probability of that is exactly 1.

    In the firing squad scenario, the monkey has already written 2398047230947230947293874, and people are asking what are the odds of that happening, and imagine the odds are pretty low. Well, no, it's exactly 1. You can't set the target after the fact. The best you could do is ask what odds you would've given for the monkey writing 2398047230947230947293874 if you were asked the question before the monkey wrote it, given what you knew at the time.

    But that raises the question of what so special about 2398047230947230947293874. Why not 239804723094723093454545? The answer is, well, 2398047230947230947293874 thinks its the most special number there is.


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  49. I've come to the conclusion that the fine tuning argument is the best argument for god, in fact, I think it's the only good argument for god. So if the multiverse was definitively disproved, significantly reducing the chance hypothesis from being an option, we'd still have several options available to us.

    First, special relativity strongly indicates that within spacetime, past, present and future are all equally real in the ontological sense. That means the universe is eternal and it never "came into being." If the universe never came into being, how could a god have created it? It seems to me an eternal universe does not need a creator. Now a theist could still try to make the contingency argument, and ask, "Why does anything exist at all?" But this of course presupposes the principle of sufficient reason. You cannot logically prove that there aren't brute facts, you have to just assume that every fact needs an explanation. But in a way, that means you can't supply a reason why the principle of sufficient reason is true. Furthermore, it presumes that nothing is the ontological default. But how could nonexistence exist? Would there literally be nothing, not even logic? Because if there's no logic, one cannot say that everything that begins to exist requires a cause, that would be trying to appeal to logic, which is something, not nothing. So it seems to me that it is impossible that absolute nothing could ever exist.

    Second, if the god in question is described as the traditional omni-god, I find it hard that an all-good and morally perfect being would be compatible with the millions of years of logically unnecessary suffering required by evolution. And I'm talking about sentient beings such as our hominid ancestors and other mammals. There's no reason why, if a good god exists, he would have chosen a means to bring about humans that required so much suffering. The two are incompatible.

    Third, there are arguments from the scale of the universe and the precarious set of events that lead to our evolution (including 6 worldwide mass extinctions) that seem much better explained as chance rather than design.

    Fourth, there may be something in the laws of physics that makes it likely a universe like ours would have been the result. The ranges might be very narrow.

    Fifth, The Fine Tuning Argument also hints at the idea that even god must conform to the laws of physics. I imagine god fumbling over an instruction manual on how to create a universe with just the right recipe in order to allow human life to develop. If god can do anything, or at least anything logically possible, why does he have to conform to the laws of physics? Couldn't god be able to create life in a universe that wasn't fine tuned for it? If we found that our universe didn't have the properties that allow life like us to exist and it still did, I find that that would be better evidence for god.

    So there are other options.

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  50. I think mankind created God. Superman, Mighty and Micky Mouse, Moby Dick, the laws of physics, spacetime, quarks, black holes, the big bang, Jesus, and everything else, unreal and in between.. And the only thing out of tune in the orchestra called the Universe is the human section who are really destroying the rhythm, the harmony, the song. =

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  51. All,

    last round of replies from me on this one, though of course the conversation can continue!

    Thomas,

    > This seems normative and anthropomorphic. Or is that the point? <

    I don’t know about anthropomorphic, but it is certainly normative.

    > why would one be more preferable than the other? <

    Because an indifferent universe doesn’t carry moral blame, an indifferent god does.

    t-b,

    > The facts which make up the fine tuning phenomenon, if we accept them as such, would indicate only that the Kosmos has a tendency toward complexity. Nothing is added to our explanatory capacity by positing an entity responsible for it. <

    I hear this argument often from atheists and I think it’s misguided. If we had compelling reasons to believe (as oppose to postulate) an intelligent designer that *would* indeed be explanatory. Yes, then we would have to explain the designer, but this is true for pretty much any explanation we’ve devised so far, there is always a follow up question...

    > Here also its simpler to just conclude that the Kosmos itself is Uncaused or Self Caused. <

    Not if it doesn’t give us a good explanation for fine tuning.

    > It is always going to be simpler to ascribe a property, capacity, or tendency to Nature rather than to some Non-Natural entity. <

    So what? Occam’s razor is a heuristic, not a law of epistemology. Sometimes more complex explanations are true. Several examples from the history of science, and even of fundamental physics, are easy to find (see Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, for instance).

    Randall,

    > I'd probably assent to some notion of deism or simulationism, but one that would have little practical impact on my atheism. The chasm between atheism and deism is miniscule compared to that between theism and deism. <

    That’s likely what I would do, though I disagree that that would have little impact on my worldview, philosophically, if not practically. (I mean, practically speaking I also don’t care whether the universe is made of quarks or strings, but my curious self cares a lot!)

    > Naturalistic explanations of events would not necessarily be null and void simply because we happen to discover the universe had a designer. <

    Well, yes, but if the designer designed the laws themselves, the term “naturalism” would start ringing a bit hollow, no?

    dak,

    > How do you know that carbon-based life and consciousness are the be all and end all of universes? <

    I don’t, though there actually are pretty good reasons based on our knowledge of chemistry. But you are underestimating the problem: if a number of natural constants were varied randomly the majority of outcomes would be universes that don’t allow any complexity, let alone biology, to arise (e.g., because stars and galaxies would be very short lived, or everything would turn to simple elements, or no stars at all would form, etc.).

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  52. Alex,

    > But the god she invokes seems at a minimum to be one who has a plan for life in our area of the cosmos, and that does not appear plausible given everything else we know. <

    Yes, I would agree. But plausible or not, if the evidence in favor of the existence of that god is compelling enough, then the problem is to find out what the plan is and what it entails, which is of course precisely what Hollus and her colleagues are after.

    Phiwilli,

    > I just don't see how any inference from all that to some sort of intelligent designer is at all plausible, absent any at least somewhat detailed theory or account about who or what an intelligent designer and how the designing is done. <

    This is also a common atheist argument, but I think it is mistaken. It is easy to see a set of evidential conditions that would make an intelligent designer the obvious or preferred inference to the best explanation. It doesn’t follow that we would be in any position — because of our intellectual limitations, for instance — to ask any further question about the power or motives of the designer in question.

    brainoil,

    > If you give a monkey a pen and wait for it to write the number 2398047230947230947293874, the odds of that happening is pretty low. But if the monkey has already written that number, the probability of that is exactly 1. <

    This is a common response to the firing squad scenario, but I think it is mistaken. You would be utterly lacking in curiosity if you expected to die and then found out that miraculously every soldier somehow missed you.

    > hat raises the question of what so special about 2398047230947230947293874. Why not 239804723094723093454545? <

    That in one case you are dead (by design), while in the other you are alive (also by design). Seems like a huge difference to me.

    DM,

    > I think it's much more elegant, plausible and simple to suppose that there may be a great number of universes <

    I still don’t by your contention that a supersymmetry-based explanation wouldn’t be a (significant) step forward, but I also tend to like the multiverse explanation better. Not so sure, though, that invoking the existence of an infinite number of universes with different laws of nature actually counts as “plausible and simple”...

    > it is nevertheless theoretically possible that, for example, all of the bullets could pass through you without causing any harm. <

    I think you are underestimating the point of the analogy. You can invoke the (vanishingly small) likelihood of a freak quantum mechanical event to explain almost everything you like. But if I were in front of that firing squad I’d suspect bribery by someone in charge way before beginning to think of quantum loopholes...

    Thinker,

    > So there are other options <

    Indeed, and once again let me be clear that I brought all this up because Sawyer’s novel represents an interesting thought experiment for atheists, not because I don’t believe that there are good responses to the fine tuning argument. But, as you say, fine tuning is pretty much the only serious argument in favor of the existence of god (or an intelligent hyper-programmer). And remember that these discussions really shouldn’t be limited to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim concept of god. The Platonic Demiurge is far more consistent with what we know of the universe.

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    1. Hi Massimo,

      I agree that a solution from string theory would be a significant step forward, and would certainly do much to dispel the argument from intelligent design.

      I suppose I'm saying that in the absence of such a solution, an argument which posits its hypothetical existence is pretty weak, because even if there were such a solution we ought to be surprised that it turned out in favour of supporting life.

      >Not so sure, though, that invoking the existence of an infinite number of universes with different laws of nature actually counts as “plausible and simple”...<

      Well, I disagree!

      It's plausible because even a priori there is an argument that this must be the case, although it helps if you first accept naturalism, mathematical platonism and the computational theory of mind.

      If we accept naturalism, then everything that happens in our universe is explicable in terms of mathematical physical laws, meaning that the universe is isomorphic to a mathematical structure.

      If we accept mathematical platonism, then all mathematical structures exist, and at least one mathematical structure (that which is isomorphic to our universe) contains substructures which are isomorphic to conscious entities (humans) which perceive that mathematical universe as being physical. Of course, there are presumably many such universes.

      If the computational theory of mind is true, then any such substructures isomorphic to conscious entities are genuinely conscious, and not simply models or simulations of consciousness.

      As such, given naturalism, mathematical platonism and the computational theory of mind, then we would exist much as we do now even if there were no such thing as a physical universe. Indeed, this makes the concept of a physical universe incoherent, and suggests that the universe really is fundamentally a mathematical structure.

      As for whether this is a simple ontology, I really do think that it is. It can be expressed in one sentence after all: all mathematically self-consistent universes exist. Can't get much simpler than that. I think you are confusing "exhaustive" with "complex". Infinity is a simple concept. You only get complexity when you look at subsets of infinity.

      As for the firing squad, point taken. I agree that you would be foolish to think you had survived because of a quantum event.

      Delete
  53. >Because an indifferent universe doesn’t carry moral blame, an indifferent god does.<

    I fail to see a meaningful distinction here. Is this from the view of the universe, a god, or a human? It does not follow for me that indifference per se, in the sense of unconcerned or detached, entails morality.

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  54. I still don't like the firing squad analogy/defence, as it takes intelligent design as a given, while an alternative analogy would be an event that was acceptably random, such as a heavy meteor shower, but then open to opposing interpretations. Anyway.
    Enjoyed this blog http://backreaction.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/misconceptions-about-anthropic-principle.html on multiverses and the anthropic principle from a theoretical physicist.
    Fine tuning assumes that life is the purpose of the perceived fine tuning, which in a way brings you back to your firing squad.
    Demiurges or simulations are in some ways very similar, amounting to tinkering, but with what purpose? Just because we're life, and from our point of view it works, why does that make it the purpose of the tinkering? It's quite possible the being running the show hasn't even noticed.
    "Plausible or not, if the evidence in favor of the existence of that god is compelling enough, then the problem is to find out what the plan is and what it entails, which is of course precisely what Hollus and her colleagues are after."
    I guess this is what you really wanted to get at.
    At what point do we decide that it's worth considering the extinctions mean something, and then what do we do about it, if anything?
    If this is what the novel is about, that makes sense, because it brings the story back to a typical human problem (as explored by Christianity, etc).
    No idea how you calculate how compelling the evidence is.

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  55. Ah, so I really did not understand the question. And in a way, I still don't. In a hypothetical universe where there are good reasons to believe that gods exist, scientists such as Hollus would study gods, their powers and their motivations using the scientific method sens. lat. I have always argued so, in marked contrast to some here who argue that science is somehow (?) not allowed or able to do so. So what was the point of the Hollus story again?

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  57. Are there either nonmaterial or supermaterial entities? There is no compelling reason to date to think there are. Perhaps it doesn't matter at the end of the day if it turns out we can never know.

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  58. @ Massimo

    > You keep forgetting that the atheist does have good responses to fine tuning available, we don’t live in Sawyer’s scifi novel. Both string theory and the multiverse are very much on the table, and there are likely other possibilities. <

    String theory has been employed to support a variant of a strong anthropic principle; it's known as the "string theory landscape or anthropic landscape." Proponents of this variant include Andrei Linde, Leonard Susskind, and Martin Rees - the cosmologist and astrophysicist whom you have mischaracterized as speaking poetically in a previous reponse.

    Concerning the multiverse, you now have to explain how an apparently multitude (possibly an infinite number) of universes emerged from nothing. Good luck with that.

    > Oh, you think that’s more fantastic than a god?? <

    God is the most parsimonious explanation for why there is something rather than nothing; it's really that simple.

    I understand how one can envisage the universe as a quantum computer processing quantum information. But this idea is the basis for Wheeler's "participatory anthropic principle" - a variant of the strong anthropic princple that you have previously pooh-poohed.

    But Bostrom's "simulation hypothesis" - that we are somebody else's video game - is not only patently absurd, it also fails to account for the alleged programmers of this video game!

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    1. "God is the most parsimonious explanation ..."

      Oh, great. Now I'm going to have to read Gregg Braden's books ("The God Code", "The Divine Matrix", ...).
      youtube.com/user/GreggBradenOfficial

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    2. Alastair, you may find Teilhard de Chardin's writings quite interesting and to the point of these discussions. He was a Jesuit priest who drafted his ideas well in advance of systems and complexity theory (his last writings were in the mid 1950s), making a case for a brand of spiritual panpsychism.

      As is abundantly clear in the above comments, two problems with god discussions on evidence-based blogs :) are that talks of gods invoke emotional responses that cloud judgement in more extreme ways than discussions about equally controversial subjects such as climate change. Secondly, there is no hard stuff we can point to, no fact-filled history of gods which can be scoured and usefully analyzed.

      But the study of the universe with an eye on consilience - using one set of rules to explain multiple disparate processes - yields fruit. What we see is a self-organizing complex system composed of particles which may well be equally complex.

      Where spirituality kicks in, for me anyway, is not one specific god or event, but the belief that there are no coincidences - everything that happens has an explanation. So if I wake up with a vivid memory of a dream in which 90% of the actors and events in the dream could be drawn from real-world experience, but 10% could barely be described without invoking terms from the land of woo, then I feel there is something informing my sleeping life that is extraordinary. Calling those things fantasy or unrealistic may be exclusionary but not explanatory.

      It comes down to thinking of all things as simply information, and information is a carrier of meaning, no more, no less. So if a healthy percentage of people believe in a god, well then that god exists, just like for children the tooth fairy really exists. And for those who separate reality from fantasy, I would say you have got yourself a guide to social and physical survival, but the price tag is a clouded understanding of how things work due to a somewhat dated and dualistic world view. Don't you know dualism is bad?

      Maybe in 500 years there may be be a 'naturalistic' explanation of things that still does not invoke gods, but doubtless the inventory and semantics of terms we use to separate real and unreal, scientific and spiritual, will no doubt have drastically changed.

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    3. @ DaveS

      > Alastair, you may find Teilhard de Chardin's writings quite interesting and to the point of these discussions. He was a Jesuit priest who drafted his ideas well in advance of systems and complexity theory (his last writings were in the mid 1950s), making a case for a brand of spiritual panpsychism. <

      I'm familiar with Tielhard de Chardin's thought (he dubbed the term "Omega Point").

      > It comes down to thinking of all things as simply information, and information is a carrier of meaning, no more, no less. <

      Meaning for whom? or for what?

      > Don't you know dualism is bad? <

      I know that quantum information is nonphysical or immaterial. This would accord with the Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of "hylomorphic dualism" ("hyle" = matter, "morphe" = form). (In-formation is that which gives form to matter). And this would dovetail with "quantum dualism" (the duality of particle and wave).

      "The much-vaunted wave–particle duality of quantum mechanics conceals a subtlety concerning the meaning of the terms. Particle talk refers to hardware: physical stuff such as electrons. By contrast, the wave function that attaches to an electron encodes what we know about the system. The wave is not a wave of ‘stuff,’ it is an information wave. Since information and ‘stuff’ refer to two different conceptual levels, quantum mechanics seems to imply a duality of levels akin to mind-brain duality." (pg. 8, essay ""The Physics of Downwrd Causation" by Paul Davies...also reprinted in pp. 44-45, "The Re-Emergence of Emergence" edited by Philip Clayton and Paul Davies)

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    4. Ahhh this very confusing. Particle or wave? Mind or matter? Wouldnt you say in both cases we are looking at manifestations of the same thing?

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    5. @ DaveS

      > Ahhh this very confusing. Particle or wave? Mind or matter? Wouldnt you say in both cases we are looking at manifestations of the same thing? <

      It's not confusing for me. It's black and white. One is potential, the other is actual; one is abstract, the other is concrete; one is subjective, the other is objective; one is nonphysical, the other is physical.

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    6. OK - you are a realist, not a problem, so was Bohm, Reality-speed to you both. But Bohm abstracted out a layer or two so that his reality was composed of both information and stuff. His principles of soma-significance answer your questions about meaning.For whom or what? anyone, anything. Meaning needs to be twisted from common usage into something that is a property of information and for all intents and purposes, becomes your glue for all kinds of stuff what you would characterize as real or unreal. But think about this silly division between real and unreal. Don't you see how it's all social? Imagine a person born with enough sensory capacity to stay alive, but not enough to distinguish between the mental and the physical. For that person, the physical does not exist, would love to know how that person can possibly be admitted to your church of Physical Realism

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  59. "God is the most parsimonious explanation for why there is something rather than nothing; it's really that simple." Tell us what the explanatory power of simplicity if all it can come up with is the most complicated entity ever conceived by man?And with respect to Wheeler, his "it from but" was concerned with a universe that evolved from information, arguing that there never could have been a bit of "it" that came from nothing. Thus information must have always existed. Did your God then evolve from information? You haven't come close to making that the case.

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  60. @ jeremybee

    > Tell us what the explanatory power of simplicity if all it can come up with is the most complicated entity ever conceived by man? <

    You seem to be misinformed. Classical theism holds that God is simple, not complex. In theology, this is known as the doctrine of "divine simplicity."

    > And with respect to Wheeler, his "it from but" was concerned with a universe that evolved from information, arguing that there never could have been a bit of "it" that came from nothing. Thus information must have always existed. Did your God then evolve from information? You haven't come close to making that the case. <

    I would argue that Wheeler's "participatory universe" qualifies as a form of dualistic pantheism.

    "Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information, information gives rise to physics." (source: pg. 354, "Information, Physics. Quantum" by John A. Wheeler)

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  61. The fine-tuning argument is riddled with fallacies and dubious assumptions and can apparently be resolved by posing a logically incoherent supernatural entity. Has something gone wrong with modern science and philosophy?

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  62. Dak. Yes. Not so much philosophy, but science is by definition a house of cards, as made clear by Kurtl Gödel, David Bohm and your favorite or least favorite postmodernist philosopher. The possibilty of a coherent and sustainable hypothesis to exolain anything dims in worlds without objects - the order of the day

    What needs to happen is

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  63. I think people who clearly see design are all too willing to accept Multiverse as potentially answering the fine tuning because they inherently know just how absurd this comic book answer is to begin with. Knowing its crazy and obviously false they accept if true it would defeat fine tuning--so they dont fight it.

    I wouldnt be too quick to believe it answers the problem hypothetically anyway.

    An infinite universe maker machine that just happens to pop out precisely what you need to solve your problem is whole new level of freak show that goes far beyond the unbelievability of fine tuning.

    I mean come on people--really? You pick something that cant be studied to find out if it TOO is fine tuned to explain fine tuning? That answers nothing. You have essentially created your own god--something that can make anything happen.
    People need to see multiverse for what it is---the rejection of the scientific data obtained by scientists who said the universe just "appears designed"--that the parameters would be wide to a stable universe. They found out they are not just narrow--but impossible. They have their answer and wont accept it based on nothing but their atheistic bias.
    Robin Collins shows the multiverse must also be fine tuned and even if you couldnt show that--you certainly cannot prove it defeats FT if it cant be studied to see if its FT'd as well. Science is being abandoned by a bunch of amateur philosophers who've all written books that God doesn't exist and we're all suppose to forget that and pretend they're being objective? I say, throw these failures out of town and replenish the field with people more interested in solving the worlds problems than selling books and rejecting their own data in favor of protecting their worldview.

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  64. For a long discussion of the facts relating to the anthropic principle
    and cosmic fine tuning, with many links to scientific papers and quotes
    from scientists, see my recent blog post
    Cosmic Fine-Tuning Visualized

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