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December 09, 2006

Fine-Tuning: The New Creationist Strategy

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

If you're interested in the fight to keep creationism out of the public schools, you'll want to read Sahotra Sarkar's article in the American Prospect on the next creationist strategy.  Sahotra (who teaches philosophy and biology here at UT-Austin, and who often engages in big public debates against creationists) thinks that the recent Pennsylvania court ruling against Intelligent Design will be a major obstacle to their attack on biology textbooks.  He sees them switching to a new strategy, just as they moved from Young Earth Creationism to Intelligent Design after a devastating 1987 Supreme Court ruling.

This new strategy involves "fine-tuning" arguments, according to which we have evidence for God's existence in the fact that the constants that figure in the laws of physics are set just right to make possible the existence of life.  If gravity were weaker or reversed, for example, all the particles from the big bang might have just flown apart and not come together to make stars, planets, and living things.  That the laws of the universe are set up in one of the few ways that supports life is supposed to be evidence of the existence of a divine creator who set everything up just right.  The creationists will try to get this argument into physics textbooks and thus force religion into physics classes. 

It's a Prospect article, so Sahotra focuses mainly on the political issues and doesn't go into philosophical responses to fine-tuning arguments.  The most powerful philosophical response, as I see it is the problem of evil.  If God went to all the trouble to set all the physical laws exactly right for a life-supporting universe, why didn't he bother to avert hurricanes, tsunamis, and all sorts of horrific diseases?  Even if there's some cool stuff going on in our universe, there's plenty of really bad stuff too.  A universe designed by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being surely wouldn't look like our world.  If it were a law of nature that the innocent were always protected from calamities, or that evil people would always fail in their plans, that might be a sign of a divine creator.  But if somebody created this universe, he either did a sloppy job or had some really intricate and bizarre preferences for how things should go. 

I've come up with another, much more technical response to fine-tuning arguments.  In this response I'm assuming that what really strikes us as miraculous about our universe and provides the force behind fine-tuning arguments is the presence of minds.  A universe with mindless life (maybe, a bunch of bacteria) wouldn't count as especially different from a universe with no life at all. 

Now suppose dualism -- the view that minds are non-physical -- might have been true.  I'm not asking you to suppose that dualism actually is true, but only that there's an alternate way things could've been, perhaps very different from the way things actually are, in which dualism is true.  If the non-physical minds that dualists talk about might have existed, there's a variety of different possible psychophysical laws (laws governing how minds are attached to physical objects) which could have obtained.  Even if we had different physical laws which don't allow for the large-scale physical phenomena that support minds in our universe, we could've also had different psychophysical laws which allow other sorts of physical matter to have minds. 

The resulting picture makes the existence of minds seem like a far less miraculous thing, and eliminates the impulse to posit a Creator who set things up just right.  Sure, it's kind of interesting that our universe is one in which the physical laws do so much work in making minds possible.  But there's a huge variety of other possible arrangements of laws -- in particular, arrangements involving psychophysical laws which allow for an abundance of minds -- that would do the same thing.  So there's no reason to think our universe really is fine-tuned by a divine creator after all.

December 9, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Wow, from a physicist's perspective, those creationist arguments are just entirely backwards. The way we typically understand the anthropic principle is to say "Since we exist, the physical laws of the universe must be such to permit life to exist in its current form at the current location". It's most definitely not a statement about humanity being inherent in the process, it just reflects the fact that since we're here, and natural laws apply to the universe, the end product must be a possible product of 12 billion years of post-big bang physics.

In many ways, this argument is a very dangerous one for creationists. Anthropic arguments almost always assume standard big bang cosmology (12 billion years of it), as well as 5 billion years of Earth's chemical and biological evolution. It explicitly contradicts young earth creationism, and rejects the miraculous processes that most old-earth creationists hold dear. Simply put, creationists only make fools of themselves when they try to combine their arguments with science; their arguments just don't work in the system.

Posted by: jfaberuiuc | Dec 9, 2006 3:19:19 PM

Anthropic arguments almost always assume standard big bang cosmology (12 billion years of it), as well as 5 billion years of Earth's chemical and biological evolution.

Yup, and they certainly don't account for the existence (not potential, but simultaneous with ours) other universes where conditions for life--or at least our form of life--don't obtain (as discussed here).

Posted by: Karl the Grouchy Medievalist | Dec 9, 2006 3:28:45 PM

If that's all the creationists can come up with, I give their new strategy about two months of life. In fact, creationism attached to some kinda reverse-anthropic principle is *so* easy to refute I find it hard to believe it's truly up for consideration.

Posted by: episty | Dec 9, 2006 3:37:10 PM

One thing I should make clear here -- the creationists I'm talking about aren't all (or aren't all officially) Young Earth Creationists. They've given up that position because the courts made it untenable. They may be doing the same with ID. Their plan, I think, is to concede the 12 billion years of the universe and the 5 billion years of the Earth to modern scientific cosmology, but try to sneak God in as well with the fine tuning argument.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 9, 2006 4:19:31 PM

Their plan, I think, is to concede the 12 billion years of the universe and the 5 billion years of the Earth to modern scientific cosmology, but try to sneak God in as well with the fine tuning argument.

Yeah, but at that point, the 'fine tuning' argument renders the practical difference between God/NoGod small enough to make me wonder what they're actually fighting for. At that point, they've pretty much already conceded everything. I'd be telling them that arguing now is like arguing over favorite colors.

Posted by: episty | Dec 9, 2006 4:34:36 PM

I too feel that they've retreated pretty far, episty. But the biggest danger here isn't necessarily what's sitting in the textbooks, but what anti-science science teachers might feel permitted to do in the classroom if it's time to do the "fine-tuning" section of the textbook.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 9, 2006 4:55:12 PM

...just as they moved from Young Earth Creationism to Intelligent Design after a devastating 1987 Supreme Court ruling.

What Edwards v. Aguillard changed was the terminology -- from "Creation-Science" to the more nebulous "Intelligent Design." But evolution-deniers are continuing to demand the "equal time" that Edwards undid. Now they just want time for alleged flaws with evolution rather than alleged evidence of special creation. (Note that outright bans on teaching evolution were tossed out with Epperson v. Arkansas in 1968, so "equal time" is already a modified strategy.)

"Fine-tuning" is, in a way, a throwback to the alleged evidence tack. But I wouldn't call it a diversion away from ID; indeed, "fine tuning" is supposed to be part of ID. If anything, actually presenting an affirmative argument for the ID case, instead of attempting to tear down evolution, is a more honest strategy.

Even if it's still nonsense.

Posted by: Grumpy | Dec 9, 2006 6:02:45 PM

I never get this stuff. Why is it important one way or the other that the universe we happen to inhabit supports us? We couldn't very well inhabit a universe that didn't, could we? It doesn't prove anything one way or the other.

It's like saying "fish live in water, so obviously God created water for fish to live in." No, fish live in water, end of story. God may have made water for fish, or he may have simply made water and fish, or he may not exist. It doesn't change the fact that there are fish and they live in water, and nothing about that fact implies the existence or not of God.

Our universe exists. We exist in it. If it were different, we wouldn't. It wouldn't mean anything. Why wouldn't God want to make different sorts of universes?

Really, the whole idea that God is specially invested in us and created this universe and only this universe just for us is just so limiting and, well, demeaning to God. Why would you want to lower your deity in such a way?

Posted by: Adam Piontek | Dec 9, 2006 7:34:29 PM

Hopefully they'll fine tune themselves until they're arguing for a completely secular approach to science. ;)

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Dec 9, 2006 7:59:49 PM

May I live to see that day!

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 9, 2006 8:09:34 PM

I don't see how your argument from Dualism works.

If the psychophysical arrangment of matter and non-physical minds in the hypothetical universe is indeed arbitrary, then there is certainly no reason to eliminate a Creator from the scene. In some sense, a decision could have been, so why couldn't someone have made it? Parsimony doesn't really help. I don't see (but I'm not very clever) why the same analysis of a non-dualist universe doesn't let a Creator slip in here unless you assume that the Creator's decision are strongly constrained a priori or that each of the Creator's decisions should invariably seem miraculous or correct.

(On the other hand, it seems to me, the psychophysical arrangment could be entirely canonical or uniquely determined. In this case, there is no room for a Creator's decisions in this aspect the universe's construction, but the existence of non-physical entities at all returns you, I suppose, to the possibility of divine agent(s).)

Posted by: Cameron Hill | Dec 9, 2006 9:00:36 PM

If this is their new strategy, they are almost dead then. The Big Bang and astrophysics aren't taught in your beginning physics classes. Not in high school and not in college. So, basically they'll be addressing college sophomores at the earliest. By then, they'll probably be fairly skeptical.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope | Dec 9, 2006 9:04:47 PM

Posted by: Adam Piontek | Dec 9, 2006 4:34:29 PM Really, the whole idea that God is specially invested in us and created this universe and only this universe just for us is just so limiting and, well, demeaning to God. Why would you want to lower your deity in such a way?

Because lowering your diety to a concept that the pastors of big churches{1} are comfortable with is what puts food on the table and keeps the mortgage paid?

Just guessing, but that's a common reason for people to keep pushing nonsense ideas.

{1. For different sets of nonsense ideas, substitute different people in charge of channeling funds from large numbers of people.}

Posted by: BruceMcF | Dec 9, 2006 9:56:57 PM

I'm not seeing how your points hook up to the argument, Cameron. Let me try explaining some features of the argument again and maybe this'll clear it up.

The fine-tuning thesis depends on a thought like this: "When you look at all the possible ways a universe could be, ways in which there are minds are pretty rare. So if things are set up so that minds exist, it's evidence that some mind-loving deity set things up that way. How else do you explain this weird fact?"

The argument from the possibility of dualism basically says this: "Actually, minds aren't as rare across the space of possibility as you think. Sure, given our restrictive psychophysical laws, you only get minds under a very narrow set of physical laws. But if dualism is possible, much more permissive psychophysical laws could have obtained. So possibilities where there are minds aren't that rare after all. There's nothing weird about there being minds, and no need for a deity to fine-tune things."

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 9, 2006 10:06:53 PM

I understand your point, I think, but I was hoping also to point out that the fine-tuning points to the existence of God exactly as much as it points to the non-existance of God, so fine-tuning is entirely beside the point except politically perhaps. (I scored so many points in that last sentence.) I think we're all clear and in agreement on that. I was just saying that an actual dualist might (somehow) not permit many possible non-isomorphic psychophysical arrangements; then, noting the existence of minds, he claims that the physical universe cannot be other than it is. That aside, the weirdness or non-weirdness of minds is neither here nor there because acts of God need not be either weird or non-weird. Oh well.

Posted by: Cameron Hill | Dec 9, 2006 11:54:08 PM

I agree that the "fine-tuning" argument is pretty stupid. It's horrible science and even worse theology. If God's role is to just fine-tune the stuff that's already here, then Neil's examples of hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. make God sound more like a Terry Pratchett creation than something worth worshiping.

But we shouldn't be too quick to celebrate the victory of science. These arguments can sound very reasonable, which is the point. The RR is backing away, in certain quarters, from big pronouncements about ultimate truth. Rather, they're just quietly making some very reasonable statements, raising eminently reasonable questions, and asking for reasonable concessions.

They've actually been doing it with reproductive rights, after a fashion. I mean, "partial-birth abortion" sounds awful, doesn't it? Isn't is more reasonable to get rid of that practice? And what mother and father wouldn't want to know if their underage daughter is getting an abortion? And of course, since it's so important that no one have to compromise their religious beliefs on anything, it's perfectly reasonable for pharmacists to individually decide if they will fill prescriptions for birth control pills or Plan B.

They're flirting with this strategy. Every time they get their way with it, they'll employ it more. Every time they overstep, like with South Dakota, this strategy will look even better.

We could probably do with a bit more paranoia on this issue.

Posted by: Stephen | Dec 10, 2006 12:08:21 AM

"So possibilities where there are minds aren't that rare after all. There's nothing weird about there being minds, and no need for a deity to fine-tune things."

now that the murkiness surrounding the argument from the possibility of dualism has been cleared up i feel that i can hazard a brief response to it.

even if dualism allows for a host of exotic minds it does not follow that minds are not rare, merely that they are less rare than suspected. to know how rare (o r not) minds actually are is well beyond the borders of the human epistemic landscape. further, i fail to see how the presence of exotic minds necessarily precludes divine fine tuning.

Posted by: todd | Dec 10, 2006 12:21:38 AM

an actual dualist might (somehow) not permit many possible non-isomorphic psychophysical arrangements; then, noting the existence of minds, he claims that the physical universe cannot be other than it is.

Okay, I think I see what the point is here. It's going to be hard for the dualist to find a principled way to rule out other non-isomorphic psychophysical arrangements, though. It's a problem for Mooreans in metaethics that they can't explain the metaphysical necessity of the supervenience of moral properties on natural properties. If the moral properties and the natural properties are really distinct, why is it that no two situations can have all the same natural properties but different moral properties?

In the philosophy of mind, dualists generally regard the supervenience of the mental on the physical as only nomologically necessary. In other words, it's possible for minds and bodies to be hooked up differently, if you're willing to look at worlds with different psychophysical laws. Chalmers' zombies are examples of the people you might find in those worlds.

(I'm getting all technical here, but judging by your comments, I'm guessing you're in the same business as me.)

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 10, 2006 12:29:20 AM

I'm not sure the problem of evil is a powerful response to the fine tuning argument; it's a powerful response to the assumption by many who use this fine tuning argument that God is perfectly good, or is interested in the happiness of his creatures, or the like. None of those assumptions, though, are necessary when arguing for intentional fine tuning.

A further thought on allegations of fine tuning: it should be remembered just how tiny a fraction of the universe is conducive to life as we know it. You might, for example, have expected a God interested in life to have created a plain, stretching infinitely in every direction, dotted by plenty of water holes and topped with just the right atmosphere. My point simply being: it's very easy to conceive of a universe much more finely tuned for life than this one.

Posted by: Aaron Baker | Dec 10, 2006 1:30:01 AM

Creationism and Christianity, and Christians, who promote such a thing are exposing their simplistic tribal underpinnings. It reduces them to little more than any other religion anywhere. Yes, it's interesting to think about where we came from and how it all came together but hey, you christians, get real - nobody knows - not you not me, nobody. To say you do is a fools game. Remember you are also the guys who say virgins can give birth. That the dead can rise again. That one guy, dying in a blood sacrifice ritual, can atone for all sins for all time (if you only join the tribe). Yes, magic is magic ia magic and making it the centerpiece of your practiced relgion for the sole purpose of validating your religion is transparently tribal. Mark Twain said it better:

What is God's greatest work? Man.
Who found this out? Man.

I'd love to see Christians start acting like the early days christians - taking in orpans and widows, treating all beings as if they were Christ. Even Jesus chided the disciples to do what he said, not worship him... "why do you call me lord and not do what I say?" Why? Instinctual, species level survivalism - tribalism.

Why do things like the creation matter when we can enter the Kingdom of God, the land of peace and joy in our lives, by simply being kind to one another - and then work on expanding that circle as far as we can, including as many others as we can, rather than closing it down with arguements on unknowables?

Ed D.

Posted by: Ed D. | Dec 10, 2006 10:31:55 AM

Besides...

The creationist arguements really boil down to:

What else could it be, QED.

Science - NOT!!!

ed

Posted by: Ed D. | Dec 10, 2006 10:34:08 AM

" You might, for example, have expected a God interested in life to have created a plain, stretching infinitely in every direction, dotted by plenty of water holes and topped with just the right atmosphere."

Just to play God's advocate - one could argue that in such a setting, we'd be far less likely to conceive of a universe not conducive to life, without the example of all those other bits to extrapolate from. Although I think the entire argument is pointless to begin with . . .

"It's like saying "fish live in water, so obviously God created water for fish to live in.""
Noses and spectacles.

". . . . make God sound more like a Terry Pratchett creation . . . "
Hang on, you mean He isn't? Huh. Well, that explains a lot. I always thought Pratchett must have been having a rather off day . . .

But anyway if the [term d'jour] creationists adopt this, it would be a very clever approach, like Stephen is saying. After all: 1) it's much easier to (msisre)present as being part of mainstream science; 2) it seems like such a small, abstract, reasonable thing - what's the harm -with no obvious and harmful absurdities like creation science or ID to rally people against; 3) it's even easier to cast any opposition as a bunch of strident atheists fanatically bent on removing any talk of 'spiritual things' [or whatever seemingly neutral term they'll use] from the schools, even though real physicists are always talking about God . . . [etc.]

And in fact, the harm it can cause is pretty hard to see for the untrained eye - yes, it serves the movement's core mission of overthrowing secular science even better, in some ways, but that's not immediately obvious.

Oy.

Posted by: Dan S. | Dec 10, 2006 11:17:11 AM

I think that if this strategy is true the point is not what you all are talking about, but rather it would be this - to try to change the basic definition of what "Science" means. It doesn't matter if these folks "give up" 13 billion years, God of the gaps, or anything like that. If they can get people to say that talking about a "creator" is part of a scientific arguement, say the strong anthropic principle, then bang, they win. They can now bring up God in the context of evolution, in the context of geology, in the context of "fine tuning" by creating everything 6000 years ago, and it's all ok - talking about a creator IS now science. That, I think, is where they are coming from. I don't fully buy this point anyway, but I think it could be nasty.

Posted by: Markk | Dec 10, 2006 12:14:48 PM

Cameron, the idea of Neil's arguments isn't to exclude the possibility of God, only to show that it isn't necessary to explain things. He's arguing against an argument for God's existence rather than arguing that God doesn't exist (though the points are indirectly related).

Since I don't regard religious belief as inherently or generally more harmful than other ways of understanding things, this isn't a topic I worry about as much as many do. I think the ordinary processes of science should decide what goes into science texts, and when that doesn't happen, then it should be corrected on that basis as much as possible. I'm not worried about swarms of creationists overcoming the separation of Church and State, even though many would like to in ways I wouldn't support.

As Aaron points out, the argument from evil, while an important argument against some kinds of theism, isn't a proper argument against the argument from design as such. The argument from evil is also a much bigger can of worms than most people on either side of it recognize, even if we assume God's interest in our welfare. A lot of Judeo-Christian-Muslim believers in God don't believe that God can accomplish logical or metaphysical impossibilities, and this limit on omnipotence serves as part of the basis for some promising if still difficult responses. For example, if God desired, from love, to give people a freedom and a true appreciation of life, that might make evil inevitable in pretty much all its permutations. Without the ability and option to choose evil we can't be sufficiently free, and without the experience of evil in many forms we can't sufficiently appreciate the good. This kind of response is hard to refute in the abstract, and may actually not be refutable, but working it all out gets complicated and murky. I think the initial impression one gets from an examination of the problem of evil tends to be misleading, whichever conclusion one initially draws about it.

The other argument, if I understand it, seems better suited. A simple related idea is this: If things had to be one way or another, there's no reason to think this particular way any less likely than any other particular way. But even if it were less likely, nothing follows from that about design without a load of questionable premises. If you try to work out the implicit premises of the fine-tuning arguments, they require controversial views of some rather confusing stuff, for me, at least, which is yet another reason such arguments are weak to start with.

I personally think the "stuff evolutionary theory can't explain" arguments are more promising, since there are still some real puzzles waiting for explanation, but they're subject to the general point that this kind of argument keeps losing ground to scientific advances.

I'd be interested in seeing Sarkar and Rob Koons discuss this. Koons impressed me as a very bright, honest man, who seems to believe in some version of the argument from design, based on ideas related to information theory.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 10, 2006 2:24:56 PM

On Markk's point, there are a couple main ways to talk about what is science and what isn't. One is just to refer to what is typical of science in terms of content, and given the ways things are in science now, that excludes talk of God. Simple enough. The other way, which is at least equally important, is to refer to the basic methods of science that set it apart from other ways of inquiry. In this sense, there is nothing in principle wrong with introducing God into a hypothesis, as long as the hypothesis can be tested empirically. This is a controversial point that gives many people, including many scientists, hives, but the logic is clear and simple.

A quick example. Suppose Apollo was in fact carrying the sun across the sky in a real chariot. This is something we could, at this stage of science, verify pretty easily, and, were it true, it would simply be part of science. It isn't the fact that God is religious or even immaterial (by some common beliefs) that matters; the reason God doesn't show up in science is that the evidence isn't there.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 10, 2006 2:31:47 PM

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