The Poorly-Tuned Universe?

Question from Alex:
Hi, this question has the intention to find if there are direct counter-examples of the fine-tuning argument, by this I mean constants that could be adjustable without impeding the emergence of life in the universe; are there such constants?

If the universe was designed by an intelligent creator, we should expect things like the fine-tunings for life we observe, but what if we find there are examples of non-fine tuning? Or have we finally found the evidence for a creator?


Answer by SmartLX:
In Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, he brings up one direct counter-example: the value of the gravitational constant could vary by up to a factor of 3,000 before it precluded the formation of stars and thus the emergence of life. Some of the other constants would throw out the balance if they changed by themselves, even slightly, but if other constants were also different it could compensate very well. If you consider only the six most well-known constants, and the idea that any of them could be any value positive or negative, that presents an enormous six-dimensional sample space of possibilities which isn’t even close to being exhausted as a source of other viable “settings”.

Even if there were no counter-examples, and every constant had to be exactly what it is for life to emerge, it wouldn’t be evidence for a creator until all other possibilities were eliminated. Contrary to the sample space I’ve described, maybe the nature of the early universe was that each constant could only have been within a small range. Maybe each constant influences the others, such that the current constants are in stable equilibrium for purely physical reasons. Maybe we’re in the one universe out of billions of billions of universes with varying constants where they all came out just right. There are also counter-arguments like the idea that if the universe were actually fine-tuned, such a mind-bogglingly huge percentage of it wouldn’t be empty and/or uninhabitable – it would likely be friendlier or smaller.

To say that the universe supports life is not to say that the universe is fine-tuned for life, because one can happen without a “tuner” and one can’t. Keep an eye out, because many arguments for God based on this idea try to pull that particular switcheroo.

Good Reasons To Believe

Question from Adam:
What is the best (in your opinion) argument that you have ever heard or had thrown at you about the credibility/correctness of the Bible? Obviously the Bible is full of crap, but, I’m trying to understand why a person would ever believe in it (logically). Not just from indoctrination, or blind faith, but an actual good reason.

Answer by SmartLX:
Who said people need good reasons to believe? For those who even consider why they believe and therefore need to give a reason at all, they just have to think their reason is a good one.

The most powerful and persuasive reason to begin to believe, by far, is an apparent personal experience of the divine. Never mind that it’s useless for convincing others and it’s objectively a terribly flawed reason. If you really think God’s spoken to you, you’re going to implicitly believe in God as the basic premise of what you think is true, and there’s little that anyone can do about it.

As for reasons that are convincing on their own merit, that you could use to convince others, I’ve been through them all in my Great Big Arguments series (tell me if I’ve missed any, of course) and each is fundamentally flawed, so I’m hesitant to call any one of them the best. That said, many of them sound very convincing upon first hearing, or else so complex that it seems pointless to try to rebut them. That first impression that the debate has already been fought and won for Christ can be all a proselytiser needs to elicit a religious experience; Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron are always talking about “bypassing the intellect”.

If there were a reason to believe in God which I thought was a genuinely good reason, I would believe in God. The fact that I don’t implies a certain upper limit on my opinion of any argument for God’s existence.

Michael Prescott Tries Theology

Question from Lukas:

First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.

Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:

(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)

1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.

2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)

3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.

4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.

5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”

6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.

7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.

If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.

Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.

1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.

2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.

3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.

4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.

5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.

6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.

7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.

So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.