October 03, 2007
Fine-tuning arguments for god
Religious people sometimes complain that scientists do not take their arguments for god seriously. I think that the opposite is true, and that scientists have gone out of their way to argue within the narrow framework set up by religious believers, when it is the whole premise that should be rejected.
Take, for example, the so-called anthropic principle/fine tuning argument that goes roughly as follows: We know that the conditions on Earth are conducive to the creation of life. Small changes in initial conditions of the universe would likely have made life impossible. Furthermore, the laws of physics and the associated fundamental constants seem to have just the right values to enable life to exist. Such 'fine tuning' is highly unlikely to have occurred by chance and thus points to the existence of a god who must have chosen those values in order to allow for life as we know it to come into being.
Some scientists have argued against god while staying within this framework, saying that fine-tuning does not imply the existence of god. After all, we don't know whether other and different forms of life exist on undiscovered planets in this vast universe. Changing the laws and constants may simply mean that different forms of life have come into being that were suitable for those constants on other planets. Others have pointed out that the fine-tuning argument rests on what happens when you change only one parameter slightly while keeping all the rest fixed. Victor Stenger points to studies (God: The Failed Hypothesis, p. 148) that show that if you allow all the constants to change simultaneously, even by orders of magnitude, then you can still construct cosmologies in which stars, planets, and intelligent life can plausibly arise.
The willingness of scientists to do all this work shows how far they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate religious arguments. So rather than scientists disrespecting religion, people like Stenger and Dawkins are actually granting it excessive respect by to treating these technical questions seriously when the big conceptual questions expose the silliness of the whole premise.
I have never understood the appeal of the anthropic/fine-tuning argument for god. Think for a moment what it requires us to believe. We are asked to believe that god first created humans (or at least had the idea of what humans should be like), an organism that needed very special conditions (such as oxygen and water) in order to exist. God then had to solve the problem of how to create a planet that had the ingredients to support the existence of the preplanned humans, and then had to fine tune everything else in this vast universe to enable that planet to come into being a long time after he triggered the big bang. We are being asked to believe, in effect, that the entire universe was reverse-engineered by god to meet the needs of humans as currently exist.
Reverse engineering is what we mere mortals have to do because we have no choice. We have to take the universe and life on Earth as given, and the best we can do is try and figure out how they got to be that way. But why would god have to do this? If he was the original designer, present right at the beginning, surely it would have been easier for him to design humans who were robust enough to be able to survive in all kinds of environments. Why would he needlessly box himself in, as the anthropic/fine-tuning seems to imply?
As Stenger astutely points out (p. 154) "In fact, the whole argument from fine-tuning ultimately makes no sense. As my friend Martin Wagner notes, all physical parameters are irrelevant to an omnipotent God. "He could have created us to live in hard vacuum if he wanted to." "
POST SCRIPT: George Bush, comedy writer
Some time ago, President Bush famously asked: "Is our children learning?" Well, he now has the answer.