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 what was in the podcast. (I wish more people who put out podcasts would do that).
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.
I thought I would turn to the atheist theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, who has previously debated William Lane Craig, to explain to us what a Boltzmann brain is, and what threat it posts to the multiverse hypothesis.
Ludwig Boltzmann was one of the founders of the field of thermodynamics in the nineteenth century.
One of the key concepts was the second law of thermodynamics, which says that the entropy of a closed system always increases. Since the universe is a closed system, we would expect the entropy to increase over time. This means that, given enough time, the most likely state of the universe is one where everything is the in thermodynamic equilibrium … but we clearly don’t exist in a universe of this type since, after all, there is order all around us in various forms, not the least of which is the fact that we exist.
With this in mind, we can apply the anthropic principle to inform our reasoning by taking into account that we do, in fact, exist.
Here the logic gets a little confusing, so I’m going to borrow the words from a couple of more detailed looks at the situation. As described by cosmologist Sean Carroll in From Eternity to Here:
Boltzmann invoked the anthropic principle (although he didn’t call it that) to explain why we wouldn’t find ourselves in one of the very common equilibrium phases: In equilibrium, life cannot exist. Clearly, what we want to do is find the most common conditions within such a universe that are hospitable to life. Or, if we want to be more careful, perhaps we should look for conditions that are not only hospitable to life, but hospitable to the particular kind of intelligent and self-aware life that we like to think we are….
We can take this logic to its ultimate conclusion. If what we want is a single planet, we certainly don’t need a hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars each. And if what we want is a single person, we certainly don’t need an entire planet. But if in fact what we want is a single intelligence, able to think about the world, we don’t even need an entire person–we just need his or her brain.
So the reductio ad absurdum of this scenario is that the overwhelming majority of intelligences in this multiverse will be lonely, disembodied brains, who fluctuate gradually out of the surrounding chaos and then gradually dissolve back into it. Such sad creatures have been dubbed “Boltzmann brains” by Andreas Albrecht and Lorenzo Sorbo….
In a 2004 paper, Albrecht and Sorbo discussed “Boltzmann brains” in their essay:
A century ago Boltzmann considered a “cosmology” where the observed universe should be regarded as a rare ﬂuctuation out of some equilibrium state. The prediction of this point of view, quite generically, is that we live in a universe which maximizes the total entropy of the system consistent with existing observations. Other universes simply occur as much more rare ﬂuctuations. This means as much as possible of the system should be found in equilibrium as often as possible.
From this point of view, it is very surprising that we ﬁnd the universe around us in such a low entropy state. In fact, the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is utterly solipsistic. The most likely ﬂuctuation consistent with everything you know is simply your brain (complete with “memories” of the Hubble Deep ﬁelds, WMAP data, etc) ﬂuctuating brieﬂy out of chaos and then immediately equilibrating back into chaos again. This is sometimes called the “Boltzmann’s Brain” paradox.
[…]Now that you understand Boltzmann brains as a concept, though, you have to proceed a bit to understanding the “Boltzmann brain paradox” that is caused by applying this thinking to this absurd degree. Again, as formulated by Carroll:
Why do we find ourselves in a universe evolving gradually from a state of incredibly low entropy, rather than being isolated creatures that recently fluctuated from the surrounding chaos?
Unfortunately, there is no clear explanation to resolve this … thus why it’s still classified as a paradox.
Naturalists like to propose the multiverse as a way of explaining away the fine-tuning that we see, and explaining why complex, embodied intelligent beings like ourselves exist. But even if the multiverse hypothesis were true, we still would not expect to observe stars, planets, and conscious embodied intelligent beings. It is far more likely on a multiverse scenario that any observers we had would be “Boltzmann” brains in an empty universe. The multiverse hypothesis doesn’t explain the universe we have, which contains “a hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars each” – not to mention our bodies which are composed of heavy elements, all of which require fine-tuning piled on fine-tuning piled on fine-tuning.
William Lane Craig answered a question about Boltzmann brains a while back, so let’s look at his answer since we saw what his debate opponent said above.
Incredible as it may sound, today the principal–almost the only–alternative to a Cosmic Designer to explain the incomprehensibly precise fine tuning of nature’s constants and fundamental quantities is the postulate of a World Ensemble of (a preferably infinite number of) randomly ordered universes. By thus multiplying one’s probabilistic resources, one ensures that by chance alone somewhere in this infinite ensemble finely tuned universes like ours will appear.
Now comes the key move: since observers can exist only in worlds fine-tuned for their existence, OF COURSE we observe our world to be fine-tuned! The worlds which aren’t finely tuned have no observers in them and so cannot be observed! Hence, our observing the universe to be fine-tuned for our existence is no surprise: if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to be surprised. So this explanation of fine tuning relies on (i) the hypothesis of a World Ensemble and (ii) an observer self-selection effect.
Now apart from objections to (i) of a direct sort, this alternative faces a very formidable objection to (ii), namely, if we were just a random member of a World Ensemble, then we ought to be observing a very different universe. Roger Penrose has calculated that the odds of our solar system’s forming instantaneously through the random collision of particles is incomprehensibly more probable that the universe’s being fine-tuned, as it is. So if we were a random member of a World Ensemble, we should be observing a patch of order no larger than our solar system in a sea of chaos. Worlds like that are simply incomprehensibly more plentiful in the World Ensemble than worlds like ours and so ought to be observed by us if we were but a random member of such an ensemble.
Here’s where the Boltzmann Brains come into the picture. In order to be observable the patch of order needn’t be even as large as the solar system. The most probable observable world would be one in which a single brain fluctuates into existence out of the quantum vacuum and observes its otherwise empty world. The idea isn’t that the brain is the whole universe, but just a patch of order in the midst of disorder. Don’t worry that the brain couldn’t persist long: it just has to exist long enough to have an observation, and the improbability of the quantum fluctuations necessary for it to exist that long will be trivial in comparison to the improbability of fine tuning.
In other words, the observer self-selection effect is explanatorily vacuous. It does not suffice to show that only finely tuned worlds are observable. As Robin Collins has noted, what needs to be explained is not just intelligent life, but embodied, interactive, intelligent agents like ourselves. Appeal to an observer self-selection effect accomplishes nothing because there is no reason whatever to think that most observable worlds are worlds in which that kind of observer exists. Indeed, the opposite appears to be true: most observable worlds will be Boltzmann Brain worlds.
Allen Hainline explained some of the OTHER problems with the multiverse in a post on Cross Examined’s blog. I recommend taking a look at those as well, because I feel funny even talking about Boltzmann brains. I would rather just say that there is no experimental evidence for the multiverse hypothesis, as I blogged before, and leave it at that. But if the person you are talking to fights you on it, you can disprove the multiverse with the Boltzmann brains.
Whenever you discuss origins with naturalists, it’s very important to get them to explain how the first living organism emerged without any help from an intelligent agent. The origin of life is an information problem. A certain minimal amount of biological information for minimum life function has to be thrown together by chance. No evolutionary mechanisms have the potential to work until replication is already in place.
Evolution News reports on a new study that makes the window for naturalistic forces to create the first self-replicating organism even smaller.
A paper in Nature reports the discovery of fossil microbes possibly older, even much older, than any found previously. The lead author is biogeochemist Matthew Dodd, a PhD student at University College London. If the paper is right, these Canadian fossils could be 3.77 billion years old, or even as old as — hold onto your hat, in case you’re wearing one — 4.28 billion years.
From the Abstract:
Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor-hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada. These structures occur as micrometre-scale haematite tubes and filaments with morphologies and mineral assemblages similar to those of filamentous microorganisms from modern hydrothermal vent precipitates and analogous microfossils in younger rocks. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks contain isotopically light carbon in carbonate and carbonaceous material, which occurs as graphitic inclusions in diagenetic carbonate rosettes, apatite blades intergrown among carbonate rosettes and magnetite–haematite granules, and is associated with carbonate in direct contact with the putative microfossils.
This new paper is interesting to compare with a paper from last year, Nutman et al., “Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures,” also in Nature, which found microbial structures that are a bit younger.
But the “microbial structures” from Nutman et al. 2016 are different from these new “microfossils” presented by Dodd et al. 2017. In Nutman et al., they only found stromatolite-type structures rather than actual microfossils. Some stromatolite experts were a bit skeptical that what they found were really stromatolites.
But the new paper by Dodd and his colleagues, “Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates,” seems to offer potential bacteria-like microfossils. They are tiny black carbonaceous spheres and “hematite tubes” which the authors think are biogenically created. We’ve seen more convincing ancient microfossils, but these aren’t bad.
According to Dodd et al., these new finds would be the oldest known microfossils, if that is in fact what they are. Very interesting. If so, that just keeps pushing unquestionable evidence of life’s existence on Earth further and further back, which leaves less and less time for the origin of life to have occurred by unguided chemical evolution after Earth became habitable.
If they are in fact 4.28 billion years old, then that would mean there was life very, very early in Earth’s history — as Cyril Ponnamperuma said, it’s like “instant life.”
Instant life is “rational” for naturalistic fideists, but for evidence-driven people who understand the long odds on generating even a simple protein by chance, it’s irrationality.
Let’s recall exactly how hard it is to make even a simple protein without intelligent agency to select the elements of the sequence.
The odds of creating even a single functional protein
Let’s calculate the odds of building a protein composed of a functional chain of 100 amino acids, by chance. (Think of a meaningful English sentence built with 100 scrabble letters, held together with glue)
BONDING: You need 99 peptide bonds between the 100 amino acids. The odds of getting a peptide bond is 50%. The probability of building a chain of one hundred amino acids in which all linkages involve peptide bonds is roughly (1/2)^99 or 1 chance in 10^30.
CHIRALITY: You need 100 left-handed amino acids. The odds of getting a left-handed amino acid is 50%. The probability of attaining at random only L–amino acids in a hypothetical peptide chain one hundred amino acids long is (1/2)^100 or again roughly 1 chance in 10^30.
SEQUENCE: You need to choose the correct amino acid for each of the 100 links. The odds of getting the right one are 1 in 20. Even if you allow for some variation, the odds of getting a functional sequence is (1/20)^100 or 1 in 10^65.
The final probability of getting a functional protein composed of 100 amino acids is 1 in 10^125. Even if you fill the universe with pre-biotic soup, and react amino acids at Planck time (very fast!) for 14 billion years, you are probably not going to get even 1 such protein. And you need at least 100 of them for minimal life functions, plus DNA and RNA.
Doug Axe’s research likewise studies genes that it turns out show great evidence of design. Axe studied the sensitivities of protein function to mutations. In these “mutational sensitivity” tests, Dr. Axe mutated certain amino acids in various proteins, or studied the differences between similar proteins, to see how mutations or changes affected their ability to function properly. He found that protein function was highly sensitive to mutation, and that proteins are not very tolerant to changes in their amino acid sequences. In other words, when you mutate, tweak, or change these proteins slightly, they stopped working. In one of his papers, he thus concludes that “functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences,” and that functional protein folds “may be as low as 1 in 10^77.”
The problem of forming DNA by sequencing nucleotides faces similar difficulties. And remember, mutation and selection cannot explain the origin of the first sequence, because mutation and selection require replication, which does not exist until that first living cell is already in place.
The term for a person who believes in fully naturalistic evolution but who also believes in God is “theistic evolutionist”.
Terrell Clemmons takes a look at one organization of theistic evolutionists “Biologos”, and makes a distinction between their public statements and the real implications of their public statements.
Here is the PR / spin definition of theistic evolution:
Evolutionary creation is “the view that all life on earth came about by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent. Evolution is a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes in creation.” This view, also called theistic evolution, has been around since the late nineteenth century, and BioLogos promotes it today in a variety of religious and educational settings.
And here is the no-spin definition of theistic evolution:
As Dr. Stephen Meyer explains it, the central issue dividing Bio-Logos writers from intelligent design theorists is BioLogos’s commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), which is not a scientific theory or empirical finding, but an arbitrary rule excluding non-material causation from the outset. “Unfortunately,” Meyer writes,
methodological naturalism is a demanding doctrine. The rule does not say “try finding a materialistic cause but keep intelligent design in the mix of live possibilities, in light of what the evidence might show.” Rather, MN tells you that you simply must posit a material or physical cause, whatever the evidence.
What this means, according to BioLogos’s own epistemology, is that God is objectively undiscoverable and unknowable—a tenet that sits squarely at odds with Christian orthodoxy, which has for centuries held that God is clearly discernible in the natural world (e.g., Romans 1:20). Obviously, this is theologically problematic, but Meyer also points out that theistic evolution faces problems from a scientific standpoint as well, as the technical literature among evolutionary biologists is moving away from the Darwinian mechanism.
Whenever I talk to theistic evolutionists, I try to stop them from talking about the Bible or their faith, because that’s not what is interesting to me. I don’t really care about their history as a religious person, or where they go to church, or who their pastor is. When I talk about origins and evolution, I only care about the science. What the ordinary process of scientific inquiry tells us about nature? Does nature have the capacity to create all of the varieties of life without any intelligent agency playing a role? Or, are there parts of nature that are similar to computer programs, blog posts, and term papers, where the best explanation of the effect is an intelligent agent choosing how to arrange the parts to achieve functionality?
I don’t accept molecules-to-man unguided evolution. This is not because I start with faith and let faith override the findings of science. It’s because I think that if you look at specific areas of natural history, there is clear evidence of intelligent agency, such as in the origin of life, or the Cambrian explosion. These effects in nature are well-studied and well-understood, and they look much more like the code that a computer scientist (like me) writes than the simplistic “order” created by wind erosion or crystalline patterns or anything the blind forces of nature could produce. Blind forces are observed to make small changes – short or long finch beaks, fruit flies with 4 wings and no balancers, bacterial resistances.
What’s also interesting is how often theistic evolutionists drop the theism but keep the evolution.
Biologist Stephen Matheson is a longtime critic of the theory of intelligent design. His extensive attacks on Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, for one, ranged from the substantive to the trivial and personal. The tone was frequently…abrasive, and we responded at the time. With Arthur Hunt, Dr. Matheson has debated Dr. Meyer in a forum at Biola University. Formerly a professor at an Evangelical Christian school, Calvin College, Matheson is still listed as a Blog Author at the theistic evolutionary website BioLogos, where it notes that he enjoys “explor[ing] issues of science and Christian faith.”
Well, his theistic evolutionary explorations have now terminated. As he reports on his personal blog page, where he took a hiatus of more than five years along with a break from his teaching, he is “happily” no longer a Christian.
OK. Now that’s just one case, but what about Howard Van Till, also of Calvin College?
In what follows I shall use the term “naturalism,” when unqualified, to represent neither more nor less than the rejection of supernaturalism. Stated positively, naturalism is committed to the belief that all events that occur within this Universe are consistent with and adequately explained by the system of natural causes. This commitment necessarily entails the additional belief that the system of natural causes is fully adequate to account for all events that transpire. Focusing on the issue of the Universe’s formational economy, we can say that naturalism—as here defined -entails the RFEP.
Now, for the big three Western monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. To deny supernaturalism IS to deny the robust theism present in the world’s big three monotheistic religions. Van Till denies theism as commonly understood now. And again, this isn’t because of the science. His heavy handed naturalistic assumption squashed out any kind of serious inquiry into areas like the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine tuning, the origin or life, the Cambrian explosion, biological convergence, so-called junk DNA, deleterious mutations, and so on. Places where you can see that naturalistic forces cannot do the creating that Van Till has faith that they can.
And for the record, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the standard Big Bang cosmology, and a 4.5 billion year Earth. My problem with evolution is not Bible-based, it’s science-based. If the science shows the need for intelligent causes, and I think it does, then I think that the naturalists need to adjust their assumptions and pre-suppositions to match the evidence. We have blog posts and computer science code, that’s evidence for a programmer. We have DNA and proteins and sudden origin of body plans, that’s evidence for a programmer, too.
The host of the Cross Examined radio show Dr. Frank Turek talks with Stephen C. Meyer and Doug Axe about a recent conference of Royal Society scientists discussing the problems with the theory of macro-evolution.
the main topic was whether naturalistic mechanisms can produce new body plans and new organ types
no one disputes micro-evolution: beaks changing size, antibiotic resistance
many of the naturalistic scientists admitted the problems with current naturalistic theories, but they don’t want to embrace the need for a designer
none of the proposals that were debated solved the real problems with macro-evolution
Problem #1: the sudden origin of body plans in the fossil record
Problem #2: the origin of information (e.g. – in protein molecule)
Problem #3: need for favorable early mutations (for body plans)
Problem #4: the problem of epigenetics
Problem #5: the universality of the design intuition
Some of these problems have actually gotten worse for naturalistic evolution as our scientific knowledge has grown.
If you want the two best books on intelligent design, get Dr. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” and “Darwin’s Doubt”. I should note that Dr. Meyer is not a young Earth creationist, and has defended the Big Bang cosmology as a solid evidence for a Creator of the universe. Being in favor of an old universe and an old Earth is compatible with being opposed to evolution – because of scientific reasons.