Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Assumptions, Assumptions

So, I pointed out my FTAN (Fine Tuning Argument for Naturalism) to Alexander Pruss of Prosblogion, who was kind enough to respond in the comments of his post on fine tuning vs. the problem of evil. Alexander is not just some random blogger. All the folks at Prosblogion are Genuine Sophisticated Theologians - philosophy professors, no less. So, I was glad to get the opinion of an expert on my version of the fine tuning argument. Here's what he wrote (in part, I think I am fairly representing his responses with my excerpts here, but see the original post for his full remarks):

The FTA needs an assumption that there is a significant value to a universe that with very few exceptions, if any, follows orderly and elegant mathematical laws of nature. Such an assumption is compatible with miracles.
Now, this is exactly the sort of thing I was complaining about in my Purple Pachyderm post, and that Carl Sagan was complaining about in his Dragon in the Garage, and so on. For any argument against the existence of God, the theist simply introduces an arbitrary and unfounded assumption in answer.

So I pointed out that in a universe with any miracles at all, my FTAN would still work. For instance, on an earth that was too close to its sun for life to exist, God could prevent the excess radiation from reaching earth, thus allowing life to exist. The exception to energy conservation would be localized, satisfying the "few exceptions" assumption.

Alex responded:

Leibniz argued against Newton/Clarke that it would be inappropriate for God to rely on on-going miracles for the ordinary operation of the universe.
One way to defend this is to say that God has reason to avoid miracles. This reason can be overridden, of course.

OK, so now we have a new assumption: that miracles should not be on-going. Dragon in the garage once again.

 Unfortunately for Alex, this new assumption still doesn't answer the objection. Even with one-time miracles, there will still be infinitely more possible life-containing universes if there is an omnipotent God than if there is not. One example I pointed out was if the laws of chemistry don't allow for chemical evolution of life, but do allow for the existence of life. Then a single miraculous intervention by God could get life started. But there are infinitely many ways God could make this intervention, so there are infinitely many more possible life-containing worlds under the theistic assumption. So my FTAN still works.

Also, this new assumption flies in the face of an argument that theists have been making for centuries:  that it takes God's on-going miraculous intervention to sustain the universe. Here, for example, is Pope John Paul II discussing proofs of God's existence  (emphasis added):
Without such a supreme Cause, the world and every movement in it would remain "unexplained" and "inexplicable", and our intelligence would not be satisfied. The human mind can receive a response to its questions only by admitting a Being who has created the world with all its dynamism. and who continues to maintain it in existence
The theist wants to have it both ways. On-going miracles? Proof of God! No on-going miracles? That's proof of God, too!

Alex answered:

  • 1. Dougherty and Poston in the paper I linked to argue that one can't consistently run both the FTA and ID-type biological design arguments. Your point is similar, though not the same.
  • 2. I think both your and their point is somewhat weakened, but not destroyed, on the supposition that God would have good reason to minimize the number of miracles, subject to other desiderata.
  • 3. But in any case, I think many of the proponents of the FTA would say that a number of the constants going into the FTA are such that not only need the values be "just right" (tough making sense of that rigorously, but there is an intuition there that many theists and non-theists find compelling) for life to begin, but for life to persist.
In (2) Alex is saying, I think, that God would prefer to create a life-containing universe without using miracles rather than one that requires miracles.Yet another new assumption. But Alex recognizes that that even this assumption does not "destroy" my point.

Anyway, isn't God supposed to want us to know about him? Wouldn't these miracles be evidence of a God? So why would God want to avoid them?

In (3), Alex is just saying that you can run the FTA (for God) on those parameters that allow life to persist. But this is irrelevant to my argument, which takes precisely the fine-tuned nature of those parameters as an argument against God.

So I have to say, I'm not too impressed with the Sophisticated Theologian's response to my counter-argument. Of course, with enough additional assumptions you can neutralize any argument. But the very need to make those logical contortions reveals how weak the theist's position is.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

RP: Fine Tuning Supports Naturalism

The following seems worth re-posting, as some folks still seem impressed with the fine tuning argument. It seems like a fairly obvious point, yet I haven't seen it mentioned much in the fine tuning discussions I've read. I'd be grateful if anyone can show me the glaring flaw in the argument that I'm missing. At the Prosblogion link, Alexander Pruss kindly responded to my remarks; I'll have some comments on his response soon.

I should say again that I don't think the following is a very good argument for naturalism - it's just a way of showing why the fine tuning argument for God is hollow.

Garren's comments on the previous post got me thinking more about fine tuning. There are lots of reasons to dislike fine tuning arguments for God, but it occurred to me that we can turn the fine tuning argument around and show how it actually supports naturalism, not theism. Let me explain.

The usual fine tuning argument goes like this: Our universe is governed by natural laws that involve certain numerical parameters - the cosmological constant, the strength of the nuclear force, etc. Some of these parameters must lie in a very narrow range in order for life to exist:

PU = Possible Universes
FTU = Fine-Tuned Universes

So, given a naturalistic hypothesis (N) and general background knowledge (K), the probability of a fine-tuned universe is small:

P(FTU|N&K) = Area(FTU)/Area(PU)  << 1

On the other hand, given the theistic hypothesis (T), we would expect the universe to be suitable for life: P(FTU|T&K) is not small, or at least not as small as P(FTU|N&K).

One of the (many) problems with this argument is that we can't assert that the probability is given by the ratio of the areas without making many additional assumptions: that the values of parameters 1 and 2 are randomly chosen from the space of all parameters, for instance. But that's not the objection I want to pursue. Rather, I want to point out that the probability envisioned in the fine tuning argument is a sort of prior probability that ignores some of our background information: namely, the fact that life actually exists. That is, we have to take (K) to mean "general background knowledge not including the knowledge that life exists."

But we actually do know that life exists (L), and it is perfectly legitimate to include this knowledge along with our other background knowledge. If we add this knowledge back in, then trivially P(FTU|N&K&L) = 1: under the naturalistic hypothesis, the only way that life can exist is for the universe to have parameters that allow the existence of life.

But that is not true if God exists! Indeed, under theism, there is no reason to expect that the universe will be fine-tuned.

Remember that God is, by hypothesis, omnipotent. That means that God could  have caused life to arise by miraculous means, even in a universe that was not fine-tuned. Say, for example, that the universe had a value of the cosmological constant that caused it to expand too fast for galaxies to form. God could have prevented a galaxy-sized region from expanding in order to allow our Milky Way to form. Or God could have inserted a pre-made galaxy. Or he could have inserted an additional force that operated only within our galaxy and that countered the effects of the expansion. Or any number of other possibilities, because God can do anything.

So, under theism, the diagram looks like this:

That is, the probability of a fine-tuned universe under the theistic hypothesis is:

P(FTU|T&K&L) = Area(FTU)/Area(PU)  << 1

Conclusion: given that we know that life exists, the probability of discovering we are living in a universe with parameters fine-tuned for life is much higher under the naturalistic hypothesis than under the theistic hypothesis.