Tag Archives: Discovery

MIT physicist Alan Lightman on fine-tuning and the multiverse

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Here’s the article from Harper’s magazine.

The MIT physicist says that the fine-tuning is real, and is best explained by positing the existence of an infinite number of universes that are not fine-tuned – the so-called multiverse.

Excerpt:

While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine-­tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for “man,” is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.

If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…. [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”

Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.

I thought I was going to have to go outside this article to refute the multiverse, but Lightman is honest enough to refute it himself:

The… conjecture that there are many other worlds… [T]here is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

The multiverse is not pure nonsense, it is theoretically possible. The problem is that the multiverse generator itself would require fine-tuning, so the multiverse doesn’t get rid of the problem. And, as Lightman indicates, we have no independent experimental evidence for the existence of the multiverse in any case. Atheists just have to take it on faith, and hope that their speculations will be proved right. Meanwhile, the fine-tuning is just as easily explained by postulating God, and we have independent evidence for God’s existence, like the the origin of biological information, the sudden appearance of animal body plans, the argument from consciousness, and so on. Even if the naturalists could explain the fine-tuning, they would still have a lot of explaining to do. Theism (intelligent causation) is the simplest explanation for all of the things we learn from the progress of science.

We need to be frank about atheists and their objections to the progress of science. Within the last 100 years, we have discovered that the physical universe came into being out of nothing 15 billion years ago, and we have discovered that this one universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life. I don’t think it’s like that the last 100 years of scientific progress on the origins question are going to be overturned so that science once again affirms what atheists believe about the universe. Things are going the wrong way for atheists – at least with respect to science.

See it in action

To see these arguments examined in a debate with a famous atheist, simply watch the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, and judge which debater is willing to form his beliefs on scientific progress, and which debater is forming his beliefs against the science we have today, and hoping that the good science we have today based on experiments will be overturned by speculative theories at some point in the future. When you watch that debate, it becomes very clear that Christian theists are interested in conforming their beliefs to science, and atheists are very interested in speculating against what science has shown in order to maintain their current pre-scientific view. That’s not what rational people ought to do when confronted with evidence.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Robin Collins lectures on fine-tuning for discoverability from particle physics

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Here’s the lecture:

This lecture is 29 minutes long, the Q&A is 15 minutes. I highly recommend this lecture to all audiences of all levels of ability, for the simple reasons that apart from the content, this lecture is a how-to clinic in the tone, body language, slides and so on for you to use when trying to be persuasive when making your case. Science is king in this lecture. The scientific method is defined and applied in a winsome way. Making science understandable should be the bread and butter approach to Christian apologetics, and this lecture rivals the Mike Strauss lecture at Stanford University and the Mike Strauss lecture at the University of Texas – Dallas as the ideal lectures for showing that. It’s not just the scientific material that makes this lecture by Collins work, it’s the narrative and the style that make the lecture work.

About Robin Collins:

Robin Collins (PhD, University of Notre Dame, 1993), is professor of philosophy at Messiah College, Grantham, PA specializing in the area of science and religion.  He has written over twenty-five articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics, such as the fine-tuning of the cosmos as evidence for the existence of God, evolution and original sin, the Doctrine of Atonement, Asian religions and Christianity, and Bohm’s theory of quantum mechanics.  Some of his most recent articles/book chapters are “Philosophy of Science and Religion” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, “Divine Action and Evolution” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (2009)  “The Multiverse Hypothesis: A Theistic Perspective,” in Universe or Multiverse? (Cambridge University Press), and “God and the Laws of Nature,” in Theism or Naturalism: New Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).  He recently received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to finish a book that presents the case for design based on physics and cosmology,  tentatively entitled The Well-Tempered Universe: God, Cosmic Fine-tuning, and the Laws of Nature.

His thesis in one slide:

Fine-tuning for discoverability
Fine-tuning for discoverability – the DLO thesis

Summary:

  • Thesis: the universe is more intelligible than we would expect it by chance
  • The regular fine-tuning argument says that complex embodied observers are very rare
  • But the number of highly-discoverable universes that have complex embodied observers is rarer still
  • Why do we exist in a highly-discoverable universe?
  • Can we quantify and test discoverability?
  • Yes: by varying fundamental parameters and seeing how it affects discoverability
  • Conclusion of his calculations: The Discoverability-Liveability Optimality range is an even smaller range within the Liveablity Optimality range of the standard fine-tuning argument
  • Fine-tuning #1: the fine structure constant, governs the strength of the electro-magnetic force
  • If larger, wood-burning fire becomes impossible because fires won’t stay lit, and therefore forging metals becomes unlikely
  • If smaller, wood-burning fires won’t go out, e.g. – from lightning strikes, so that wood would be less accessible
  • Other constraints: smaller value decreases effectiveness of light microscopes, drastically lowers efficiency of transformers and motors
  • Fine-tuning #2: the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), radiation left over from the Big Bang
  • humans need to discover the CMBR in order to confirm the Big Bang creation out of nothing, and it depends on baryon/pothon ratio
  • his calculations show that the actual value of CMBR is exactly at the peak for detectability by humans
  • if baryon/photon ratio larger, CMBR is less discoverable
  • if baryon/photon ratio smaller, CMBR is less discoverable
  • Fine-tuning #3: parameters related to subatomic particles are fine-tuned for their discovery and usefulness, e.g. – the bottom quark, the charm quark, the tau lepton and the Higgs Boson
  • the lifetime of the particles affects their usefulness to scientists who want to investigate the Standard Model of physics
  • decay rates of these subatomic particles are related to several of the finely-tuned parameters
  • for example, the mass of the bottom quark is finely-tuned for its discoverability by scientists
  • the tau lepton and the charm quark are similarly fine-tuned for disoverability
  • the mass of the Higgs boson is finely-tuned for discoverability and for making further discoveries
  • Conclusion: the DLO thesis is strongly confirmed – this is an even greater degree of fine-tuning that the already astonishing probabilities of the fine-tuning for complex, embodied intelligent beings
  • The formalized version of the philosophical argument based on this evidence is impervious with some of the traditional objections to the standard fine-tuning argument
  • #1 multiverse/selection effect: it is not subject to multiverse / observer selection objections
  • #2 normalizeability: it is not subject to the McGrew-Vestrup objection because the range of possible values is finite not infinite
  • #3 falsifiability: it makes falsifiable predictions, and in fact Collins’ earlier calculations of the CMBR discoverability contained an error that falsified the thesis – until he found the error and corrected for it
  • #4 usefulness: it gives clues about the Creator’s purpose for us, namely that the universe was created for us to be able to do science and find evidence of the Creator’s existence – there is no expectation for us to exercise blind faith, trust in God is meant to be a plausible deduction from the progress of experimental science

Sample slide:

Fine-tuning of the bottom quark for discoverability
Bottom quark lifetime is finely-tuned for discoverability

And another:

Higgs boson mass is finely-tuned for discoverability
Higgs boson mass is finely-tuned for discoverability

Earlier, I blogged about a Robin Collins lecture on the fine-tuning that allows complex, embodied life to exist. Another must-see lecture. If you are looking for something to study in university, and you have funding, then physics, mathematics and philosophy are the best places to be for a Christian scholar.

Study: the early Earth’s atmosphere contained oxygen

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here’s a paper published in the prestigious peer-reviewed science journal Nature, entitled “The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere”. This paper is significant because it undermines naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life.

Evolution News explains what the paper is about.

Excerpt:

A recent Nature publication reports a new technique for measuring the oxygen levels in Earth’s atmosphere some 4.4 billion years ago. The authors found that by studying cerium oxidation states in zircon, a compound formed from volcanic magma, they could ascertain the oxidation levels in the early earth. Their findings suggest that the early Earth’s oxygen levels were very close to current levels.

[…]Miller and Urey conducted experiments to show that under certain atmospheric conditions and with the right kind of electrical charge, several amino acids could form from inorganic compounds such as methane, ammonia, and water. Several experiments have been done using various inorganic starting materials, all yielding a few amino acids; however, one key aspect of all of these experiments was the lack of oxygen.

If the atmosphere has oxygen (or other oxidants) in it, then it is an oxidizing atmosphere. If the atmosphere lacks oxygen, then it is either inert or a reducing atmosphere. Think of a metal that has been left outside, maybe a piece of iron. That metal will eventually rust. Rusting is the result of the metal being oxidized. With organic reactions, such as the ones that produce amino acids, it is very important that no oxygen be present, or it will quench the reaction. Scientists, therefore, concluded that the early Earth must have been a reducing environment when life first formed (or the building blocks of life first formed) because that was the best environment for producing amino acids. The atmosphere eventually accumulated oxygen, but life did not form in an oxidative environment.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it is based on the assumption that organic life must have formed from inorganic materials. That is why the early Earth must have been a reducing atmosphere. Research has been accumulating for more than thirty years, however, suggesting that the early Earth likely did have oxygen present.

[…]Their findings not only showed that oxygen was present in the early Earth atmosphere, something that has been shown in other studies, but that oxygen was present as early as 4.4 billion years ago. This takes the window of time available for life to have begun, by an origin-of-life scenario like the RNA-first world, and reduces it to an incredibly short amount of time. Several factors need to coincide in order for nucleotides or amino acids to form from purely naturalistic circumstances (chance and chemistry). The specific conditions required already made purely naturalist origin-of-life scenarios highly unlikely. Drastically reducing the amount of time available, adding that to the other conditions needing to be fulfilled, makes the RNA world hypothesis or a Miller-Urey-like synthesis of amino acids simply impossible.

So here’s where we stand. If you are a materialist, then you need a reducing environment on the early Earth in order to get organic building blocks (amino acids) from inorganic materials. However, the production of these organic building blocks (amino acids) requires that the early Earth atmosphere be oxygen-free. And the problem with this new research, which confirms previous research, is that the early Earth contained huge amounts of oxygen – the same amount of oxygen as we have today. This is lethal to naturalistic scenarios for creating the building blocks of life on the Earth’s surface.

Other problems

If you would like to read a helpful overview of the problems with a naturalistic scenario for the origin of life, check out this article by Casey Luskin.

Excerpt:

The “origin of life” (OOL) is best described as the chemical and physical processes that brought into existence the first self-replicating molecule. It differs from the “evolution of life” because Darwinian evolution employs mutation and natural selection to change organisms, which requires reproduction. Since there was no reproduction before the first life, no “mutation – selection” mechanism was operating to build complexity. Hence, OOL theories cannot rely upon natural selection to increase complexity and must create the first life using only the laws of chemistry and physics.

There are so many problems with purely natural explanations for the chemical origin of life on earth that many scientists have already abandoned all hopes that life had a natural origin on earth. Skeptical scientists include Francis Crick (solved the 3-dimensional structure of DNA) and Fred Hoyle (famous British cosmologist and mathematician), who, in an attempt to retain their atheistic worldviews, then propose outrageously untestable cosmological models or easily falsifiable extra-terrestrial-origin-of-life / panspermia scenarios which still do not account for the natural origin of life. So drastic is the evidence that Scientific American editor John Horgan wrote, “[i]f I were a creationist, I would cease attacking the theory of evolution … and focus instead on the origin of life. This is by far the weakest strut of the chassis of modern biology.”3

The article goes over the standard problems with naturalistic scenarios of the origin of life: wrong atmosphere, harmful UV radiation, interfering cross-reactions, oxygen levels, meteorite impacts, chirality, etc.

Most people who are talking about intelligent design at the origin of life talk about the information problem – how do you get the amino acids to form proteins and how do you get nucleotide bases to code for amino acids? But the starting point for solving the sequencing problem is the construction of the amino acids – there has to be a plausible naturalistic scenario to form them.

Robin Collins lectures on fine-tuning for discoverability from particle physics

Here’s the lecture:

This lecture is 29 minutes long, the Q&A is 15 minutes. I highly recommend this lecture to all audiences of all levels of ability, for the simple reasons that apart from the content, this lecture is a how-to clinic in the tone, body language, slides and so on for you to use when trying to be persuasive when making your case. Science is king in this lecture. The scientific method is defined and applied in a winsome way. Making science understandable should be the bread and butter approach to Christian apologetics, and this lecture rivals the Mike Strauss lecture at Stanford University and the Mike Strauss lecture at the University of Texas – Dallas as the ideal lectures for showing that. It’s not just the scientific material that makes this lecture by Collins work, it’s the narrative and the style that make the lecture work.

About Robin Collins:

Robin Collins (PhD, University of Notre Dame, 1993), is professor of philosophy at Messiah College, Grantham, PA specializing in the area of science and religion.  He has written over twenty-five articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics, such as the fine-tuning of the cosmos as evidence for the existence of God, evolution and original sin, the Doctrine of Atonement, Asian religions and Christianity, and Bohm’s theory of quantum mechanics.  Some of his most recent articles/book chapters are “Philosophy of Science and Religion” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, “Divine Action and Evolution” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (2009)  “The Multiverse Hypothesis: A Theistic Perspective,” in Universe or Multiverse? (Cambridge University Press), and “God and the Laws of Nature,” in Theism or Naturalism: New Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).  He recently received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to finish a book that presents the case for design based on physics and cosmology,  tentatively entitled The Well-Tempered Universe: God, Cosmic Fine-tuning, and the Laws of Nature.

His thesis in one slide:

Fine-tuning for discoverability
Fine-tuning for discoverability – the DLO thesis

Summary:

  • Thesis: the universe is more intelligible than we would expect it by chance
  • The regular fine-tuning argument says that complex embodied observers are very rare
  • But the number of highly-discoverable universes that have complex embodied observers is rarer still
  • Why do we exist in a highly-discoverable universe?
  • Can we quantify and test discoverability?
  • Yes: by varying fundamental parameters and seeing how it affects discoverability
  • Conclusion of his calculations: The Discoverability-Liveability Optimality range is an even smaller range within the Liveablity Optimality range of the standard fine-tuning argument
  • Fine-tuning #1: the fine structure constant, governs the strength of the electro-magnetic force
  • If larger, wood-burning fire becomes impossible because fires won’t stay lit, and therefore forging metals becomes unlikely
  • If smaller, wood-burning fires won’t go out, e.g. – from lightning strikes, so that wood would be less accessible
  • Other constraints: smaller value decreases effectiveness of light microscopes, drastically lowers efficiency of transformers and motors
  • Fine-tuning #2: the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), radiation left over from the Big Bang
  • humans need to discover the CMBR in order to confirm the Big Bang creation out of nothing, and it depends on baryon/pothon ratio
  • his calculations show that the actual value of CMBR is exactly at the peak for detectability by humans
  • if baryon/photon ratio larger, CMBR is less discoverable
  • if baryon/photon ratio smaller, CMBR is less discoverable
  • Fine-tuning #3: parameters related to subatomic particles are fine-tuned for their discovery and usefulness, e.g. – the bottom quark, the charm quark, the tau lepton and the Higgs Boson
  • the lifetime of the particles affects their usefulness to scientists who want to investigate the Standard Model of physics
  • decay rates of these subatomic particles are related to several of the finely-tuned parameters
  • for example, the mass of the bottom quark is finely-tuned for its discoverability by scientists
  • the tau lepton and the charm quark are similarly fine-tuned for disoverability
  • the mass of the Higgs boson is finely-tuned for discoverability and for making further discoveries
  • Conclusion: the DLO thesis is strongly confirmed – this is an even greater degree of fine-tuning that the already astonishing probabilities of the fine-tuning for complex, embodied intelligent beings
  • The formalized version of the philosophical argument based on this evidence is impervious with some of the traditional objections to the standard fine-tuning argument
  • #1 multiverse/selection effect: it is not subject to multiverse / observer selection objections
  • #2 normalizeability: it is not subject to the McGrew-Vestrup objection because the range of possible values is finite not infinite
  • #3 falsifiability: it makes falsifiable predictions, and in fact Collins’ earlier calculations of the CMBR discoverability contained an error that falsified the thesis – until he found the error and corrected for it
  • #4 usefulness: it gives clues about the Creator’s purpose for us, namely that the universe was created for us to be able to do science and find evidence of the Creator’s existence – there is no expectation for us to exercise blind faith, trust in God is meant to be a plausible deduction from the progress of experimental science

Sample slide:

Fine-tuning of the bottom quark for discoverability
Bottom quark lifetime is finely-tuned for discoverability

And another:

Higgs boson mass is finely-tuned for discoverability
Higgs boson mass is finely-tuned for discoverability

Earlier, I blogged about a Robin Collins lecture on the fine-tuning that allows complex, embodied life to exist. Another must-see lecture. If you are looking for something to study in university, and you have funding, then physics, mathematics and philosophy are the best places to be for a Christian scholar.

Can naturalism account for the origin of the 20 amino acids in living systems?

Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?
Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?

The origin of life

There are two problems related to the origin of the first living cell, on naturalism:

  1. The problem of getting the building blocks needed to create life – i.e. the amino acids
  2. The problem of creating the functional sequences of amino acids and proteins that can support the minimal operations of a simple living cell

Normally, I concede the first problem and grant the naturalist all the building blocks he needs. This is because step 2 is impossible. There is no way, on naturalism, to form the sequences of amino acids that will fold up into proteins, and then to form the sequences of proteins that can be used to form everything else in the cell, including the DNA itself. But that’s a topic for a separate post.

Today, let’s take a look at the problems with step 1.

The problem of getting the building blocks of life

Now you may have heard that some scientists managed to spark some gasses to generate most of the 20 amino acids found in living systems. These experiments are called the “Miller-Urey” experiments.

The IDEA center has a nice summary of origin-of-life research that explains a few of the main problems with step 1.

Miler and Urey used the wrong gasses:

Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere,11, 12 however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing).15, 16 The only amino acid produced in a such an atmosphere is glycine (and only when the hydrogen content is unreasonably high), and could not form the necessary building blocks of life.11

Miller and Urey didn’t account for UV of molecular instability:

Not only would UV radiation destroy any molecules that were made, but their own short lifespans would also greatly limit their numbers. For example, at 100ºC (boiling point of water), the half lives of the nucleic acids Adenine and Guanine are 1 year, uracil is 12 years, and cytozine is 19 days20 (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments19).

Miller and Urey didn’t account for molecular oxygen:

We all have know ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life from harmful UV radiation. However, ozone is composed of oxygen which is the very gas that Stanley Miller-type experiments avoided, for it prevents the synthesis of organic molecules like the ones obtained from the experiments! Pre-biotic synthesis is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The chemistry does not work if there is oxygen because the atmosphere would be non-reducing, but if there is no UV-light-blocking oxygen (i.e. ozone – O3) in the atmosphere, the amino acids would be quickly destroyed by extremely high amounts of UV light (which would have been 100 times stronger than today on the early earth).20, 21, 22 This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years,23 and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.15

And there were three other problems too:

At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,”24 destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years.20, 25 This severely limits the time available to create pre-biotic chemicals and allow for the OOL.

Chemically speaking, life uses only “left-handed” (“L”) amino acids and “right-handed” (“R)” genetic molecules. This is called “chirality,” and any account of the origin of life must somehow explain the origin of chirality. Nearly all chemical reactions produce “racemic” mixtures–mixtures with products that are 50% L and 50% R.

Two more problems are not mentioned in the article. A non-peptide bond anywhere in the chain will ruin the chain. You need around 200 amino acids to make a protein. If any of the bonds is not a peptide bond, the chain will not work in a living system. Additionally, the article does not mention the need for the experimenter to intervene in order to prevent interfering cross-reactions that would prevent the amino acids from forming.

Usually when you hear the origin of life debated, they sort of skirt about the problem of where the amino acids come from, but there is no reason not to make that an issue. The naturalist has to explain how the first living cell could come about naturalistically.

Positive arguments for Christian theism