Atheist Luke Muehlhauser interviews well-respect cosmologist Luke Barnes about the fine-tuning argument, and the naturalistic response to it.
Luke M. did a good job explaining the outline of the podcast.
In one of my funniest and most useful episodes yet, I interview astronomer Luke Barnes about the plausibility of 11 responses to the fine-tuning of the universe. Frankly, once you listen to this episode you will be better equipped to discuss fine-tuning than 90% of the people who discuss it on the internet. This episode will help clarify the thinking of anyone – including and perhaps especially professional philosophers – about the fine-tuning of the universe.
The 11 responses to fine-tuning we discuss are:
“It’s just a coincidence.”
“We’ve only observed one universe, and it’s got life. So as far as we know, the probability that a universe will support life is one out of one!”
“However the universe was configured, evolution would have eventually found a way.”
“There could be other forms of life.”
“It’s impossible for life to observe a universe not fine-tuned for life.”
“Maybe there are deeper laws; the universe must be this way, even though it looks like it could be other ways.”
“Maybe there are bajillions of universes, and we happen to be in one of the few that supports life.”
“Maybe a physics student in another universe created our universe in an attempt to design a universe that would evolve intelligent life.”
“This universe with intelligent life is just as unlikely as any other universe, so what’s the big deal?”
“The universe doesn’t look like it was designed for life, but rather for empty space or maybe black holes.”
“Fine-tuning shows there must be an intelligent designer beyond physical reality that tuned the universe so it would produce intelligent life.”
Download CPBD episode 040 with Luke Barnes. Total time is 1:16:31.
There is a very good explanation of some of the cases of fine-tuning that I talk about most on this blog – the force of gravity, the strong force, etc. as well as many other examples. Dr. Barnes is an expert, but he is also very very easy to listen to even when talking about difficult issues. Luke M. is very likeable as the interviewer.
You might remember Peter Millican from the debate he had with William Lane Craig. I ranked that debate as one of the 3 best I have ever seen, along with the first Craig vs Dacey debate and the second Craig vs Sinnott-Armstrong debate.
Science has revealed that the fundamental constants and forces of the cosmos appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to allow a universe in which life can develop. Is God the best explanation of the incredibly improbable odds of the universe we live in being a life-permitting one?
Robin Collins is a Christian philosopher and a leading advocate of the argument for God from cosmic design. Peter Millican is an atheist philosopher at Oxford University. They debate the issues.
From ‘Unbelievable?’ on ‘Premier Christian Radio’, Saturday 19th March 2016.
As usual when the atheist is an expert, there is no snark or paraphrasing in the summary.
Brierley: What is the fine-tuning argument?
Collins: the fine-tuning is structure of the universe is extremely precisely set to allow the existing of conscious, embodied agents who are capable of moral behavior. There are 3 kinds of fine-tuning: 1) the laws of nature (mathematical formulas), 2) the constants of physics (numbers that are plugged into the equations), 3) the initial conditions of the universe. The fine-tuning exists not just because there are lots of possibilities, but there is something special about the actual state of affairs that we see. Every set of laws, parameters and initial conditions is equally improbable, but the vast majority of permutations do not permit life. The possible explanations: theism or the multiverse.
Brierley: How improbable are the numbers?
Collins: Once case is the cosmological constant (dark energy density), with is 1 part in (10 raised to 120th power). If larger, the universe expands too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form after the Big Bang. If smaller, the universe collapses in on itself before life could form. Another case is the initial distribution of mass energy to give us the low entropy we have that is necessary for life. The fine-tuning there is 1 part in (10 raised to the 10th power raised to the 123rd power).
Brierley: What do you think of the argument?
Millican: The argument is worth taking very seriously. I am a fan of the argument. The other arguments for God’s existence such as the ontological and cosmological arguments are very weak. But the fine-tuning argument has the right structure to deliver the conclusion that theists want. And it is different from the traditional design argument tended to focus on biological nature, which is not a strong argument. But the fine-tuning argument is strong because it precedes any sort of biological evolution. Although the design is present at the beginning of the universe, it is not visible until much later. The argument points to at least deism, and possibly theism. The argument is not based on ignorance, it is rooted in “the latest results from the frontiers of science” (his phrase).
Brierley: Is this the best argument from natural theology?
Collins: The cosmological argument makes theism viable intuitively, but there are some things that are puzzling, like the concept of the necessary being. But the fine-tuning argument is decisive.
Brierley: What’s are some objections to the fine-tuning argument?
Millican: The argument is based on recent physics, so we should be cautious because we maybe we will discover a natural explanation.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: The cosmological constant has been around since 1980. But the direction that physics is moving in is that there are more constants and quantities being discovered that need to be fine-tuned, not less. Even if you had a grand unified theory, that would have to be have the fine-tuning pushed into it.
Millican: Since we have no experience of other laws and values from other universes, we don’t know whether these values can be other than they are. Psychologically, humans are prone to seeing purpose and patterns where there is none, so maybe that’s happening here.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: It is possible to determine probabilities on a single universe case, for example using multiple ways of calculating Avogadro’s number all converging on the same number makes it more probable.
Millican: Yes, I willing to accept that these constants can take on other values, (“principle of indifference”). But maybe this principle be applied if the improbability were pushed up into the theory?
Collins: Even if you had a grand theory, selecting the grand theory from others would retain the improbability.
Brierley: What about the multiverse?
Millican: What if there are many, many different universes, and we happen to be in the one that is finely-tuned, then we should not be surprised to observe fine-tuning. Maybe a multiverse theory will be discovered in the future that would allow us to have these many universes with randomized constants and quantities. “I do think that it is a little bit of a promissary note”. I don’t think physics is pointing to this right now.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: I agree it’s a promissary note. This is the strongest objection to the fine-tuning argument. But there are objections to the multiverse: 1) the fine-tuning is kicked back up to the multiverse generator has to be set just right to produce universes with different constants, 2) the multiverse is more likely to produce a small universe with Boltzmann brains that pop into existence and then out again, rather than a universe that contains conscious, embodied intelligent agents. I am working on a third response now that would show that the same constants that allow complex, embodied life ALSO allow the universe to be discoverable. This would negate the observer-selection effect required by the multiverse objection.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Millican: I don’t see why the multiverse generator has to be fine-tuned, since we don’t know what the multiverse generator is. I’m not impressed by the Boltzmann brains, but won’t discuss. We should be cautious about inferring design because maybe this is a case where we are seeing purpose and design where there is none.
Brierley: Can you negate the discoverability of the universe by saying that it might be psychological?
Collins: These things are not psychological. The selected value for the cosmic microwave background radiation is fine-tuned for life and for discoverability. It’s not merely a discoverability selection effect, it’s optimal for discoverability. If baryon-photon value were much smaller, we would have known that it was not optimal. So that judgment cannot be explained by
Millican: That’s a very interesting new twist.
Brierley: Give us your best objection.
Millican: I have two. 1) Even if you admit to the fine-tuning, this doesn’t show a being who is omnipotent and omnisicient. What the fine-tuning shows is that the designer is doing the best it can given the constraints from nature. If I were God, I would not have made the universe so big, and I wouldn’t have made it last 14 billion years, just to make one small area that supports life. An all-powerful God would have made the universe much smaller, and much younger. 2) The fine-tuning allows life to exist in other solar systems in other galaxies. What does this alien life elsewhere mean for traditional Christian theology? The existence of other alien civilizations argues against the truth of any one religion.
Brierley: Respond to those.
Collins: First objection: with a finite Creator, you run into the problem of having to push the design of that creature up one level, so you don’t really solve the fine-tuning problem. An unlimited being (non-material, not composed of parts) does not require fine-tuning. The fine-tuning is more compatible with theism than atheism. Second objection: I actually do think that it is likely that are other universes, and life in other galaxies and stars, and the doctrine of the Incarnation is easily adaptable to that, because God can take on multiple natures to appear to different alien civilizations.
Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate evolution and intelligent design. (See below for link to video)
Michael Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania and the founder of the modern Intelligent Design movement. His book “Darwin’s Black Box” ignited the controversy 14 years ago when it claimed that certain molecular machines and biological processes are “irreducibly complex” and cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.
Keith Fox is Professor of biochemistry at the University of Southampton and chairman of Christians in Science. As a theistic evolutionist he believes that Evolution is the best explanation going for the complexity we see and that ID is a blind scientific alley and theologically unappealing to boot.
They debate whether micromachines in the cell such as the “bacterial flagellum” could have evolved by a Darwinian process of evolution. When inference to design is and isn’t acceptable in science. Whether random mutation can mathematically stack up to complex life, and whether God is reduced to a divine “tinkerer” by ID.
Here’s the debate:
Note: the following debate summary is rated “S” for Snarky. Reader discretion is advised.
ID is not Biblical creationism
ID is not religion
ID is a scientific research program
People refuse to discuss ID because of personal philosophical assumptions
ID is like the Big Bang – it is based on evidence, but it has broad religious implications
ID is not Biblical creationism, but it isn’t science
ID is compatible with common descent
ID is only opposed to unplanned, unguided evolution (Darwinism)
ID is not necessarily opposed to long periods of time
Behe’s first book – the bacterial flagellum
Here are a couple of papers that show how parts of the flagellum evolved
They are possible pathways
No, those are studies that show that there are similarities between bacterial flagella in multiple organisms
Similarities of proteins between different organisms do not necessarily imply a developmental pathway
The problem of having the instructions to BUILD the flagellum still remains
Maybe parts of the flagellum had other functions before they were used in the flagellum
Maybe you can use the parts of the flagellum for other purposes
Maybe, one can imagine, it’s possible that!
No, parts have to be modified and re-purposed in order to be used for other functions
But maybe the proteins can be used in other systems for other things
I re-purpose parts from of designed things to other purposes in my house when I do maintenance
Uh, yeah – but aren’t you an intelligent designer? What does your home maintenance have to do with Darwinian evolution?
Is ID another God-of-the-gaps argument?
Well consider the Big Bang… there was a build-up of scientific evidence for that theory
Just because a theory has religious implications, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true
You really have to look at the specific evidence for a theory, and not decide in advance
Keith Fox: (I’m paraphrasing/inventing/mocking from now on)
But the Big Bang is based on discoveries, and intelligent design is based on gaps in our scientific knowledge
What if I did have evidence of a step by step pathway (which I don’t right now)? Then I would win the argument – what would you do then?
Well, if tomorrow you do manage to find expiremental evidence of a pathway, which you don’t have today, then I would be wrong
ID is falsifiable by experimental evidence
But what about your your view? Is that falsifiable by experimental evidence?
Lenski has presided over 50,000 generations, (millions of years of evolution)
The bacterium did evolve and they did get better but not by evolving features, but by disabling features
But those are just LAB EXPERIMENTS! What do lab experiments prove?
What if? What if? What if? You don’t know, it happened so long ago, and you weren’t there! You weren’t there!
(clutches Flying Spaghetti Monster idol tighter and sobs pitifully)
See, the thing is that I have actual experiements, and here’s some more evidence that just got published last week
So I’ve got evidence and then some more evidence and them some other evidence – experimental evidence
And all the evidence shows that adaptation is done losing traits not by gaining traits
And the published observations are what we see in nature as well
But doesn’t Darwinism explain some things that we observe?
Well, I am not saying that micro-evolution doesn’t explain some things – it explains bacterial resistance, and other micro-evolution
it just doesn’t explain macro-evolution, and that’s what the experiments show
But ID is a science stopper! It stops science! You can’t produce experimental evidence to falsify Darwinism – that would stop science!
Well, you have to understand that the Big Bang postulated a non-material cause to the entire physical universe and yet the experimental evidence was allowed to stand because it was testable and verifiable evidence, even if the theory does have religious implications
All explanations in science are design to settle a question and it stops rival explanations that are not as good at explaining the observations
Finding the best explanation stops further study because it is better than rival explanations
Well you have to come up with a materialist explanation because that’s the only kind that a functional atheist like me will allow
Well, what if the best explanation for an observed effect in nature is non-material, as with the Big Bang?
But I have to have a material explanation because I am a functional atheist! (i.e. – a theistic evolutionist = functional atheist)
Well what about the cosmic fine-tuning argument? Do you accept that?
That’s an inference to design based on the latest scientific discoveries
Well I do accept that argument, but I don’t accept design in biology
When you apply it to biology, somehow it’s bad and you can’t do that or you losing research money and get fired
Anyway, your argument is based on a gap in our current knowledge
No, back in Darwin’s time we had a gap in our knowledge – we didn’t know what the cell was – we thought it was jello
Now, we know what the cell is really like, it’s irreducibly complex, and you can’t build up those molecular machines in a step-wise manner
The inference to design is based on the progress of science revealing the increasing levels of complexity
In experiments, Darwinian mechanisms cannot build anything useful, instead genes are disabled or dropped
You guys don’t have the evidence to prove your view that naturalistic mechanisms can do the creating
You keep issuing promissory notes
Well, you’re just seeing design subjectively, because you are a non-scientist
I’m being objective when I tell you that we will discover a materialist explanation later on – really really soon now, maybe even tomorrow, yeah
You won’t accept my speculations and you insist on these published experiments
You’re subjective and I’m objective
Just give me more research money so I can hide the decline better
Uh, you’re the one who is subjective – I cited evidence, and you are the one who is speculating
You have arguments from credulity, and I’ve got the lab experiments
You refuse to be skeptical, I am the one who is being skeptical
Maybe, maybe, maybe! Maybe tomorrow! Maybe in a parallel universe! Maybe aliens from Planet 9 from Outer Space!
Who knows! I certainly don’t know! And that somehow means you don’t know either! See?
Well, to prove me wrong, go into the lab, and run experiments and evolve some new genes (using Darwinian mechanisms) that have new useful functionality
Are there limits to what evolution can do?
You need multiple changes in the genome to get a new helpful feature (let’s say two specific mutations)
One specific change is possible
the odds are against getting multiple beneficial changes are really really small – you need two SPECIFIC changes to occur in order
Well, lots of things are really unlikely – any permutation of dice rolls is as unlikely as any other
Well, we are talking about TWO SPECIFIC mutations that are needed to get a beneficial function – lots of other mutations are possible, but we are looking for a specific outcome that requires two SPECIFIC mutations out of the whole genome
You aren’t going to get useful outcomes unless you direct the mutations