Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

A Finely-Tuned Deception

William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith website released a new video, yesterday, highlighting the Fine-Tuning Argument, another extremely popular topic which is quite commonly discussed in modern apologetics circles. If you are unfamiliar with the argument, feel free to watch Craig’s video, below. You can also read the transcript for the video here, if you (like me) would like to digest its claims in a more easily referenced format.

I’m sure this won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with this blog, but I find that the video is wholly unconvincing. In fact, the entire Fine-Tuning argument is nothing more than a God-of-the-Gaps which has been camouflaged behind a screen of pseudoscience.

One thing which I immediately noticed, when reading the transcript of this video, is that it completely lacks any footnoting or linking to indicate its source material. Of course, this lack of citation is actually in keeping with the transcript for Dr. Craig’s previous apologetics video on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (a fairly terrible bit of pseudoscientific philosophy, in and of itself), but that does make things a bit more difficult when attempting to verify some of the video’s more dubious claims. For example, the very first line of The Fine Tuning of the Universe is fairly suspect.

From galaxies and stars, down to atoms and subatomic particles, the very structure of our universe is determined by these numbers:

The very structure of our universe is not determined by “these numbers,” but rather by the geometry of space-time. These numbers help to influence the way that geometry takes shape, but they do not compose the structure. In fact, the video gets things precisely backwards. For example, think of the blueprints for a house: what Dr. Craig’s video is claiming is analogous to saying that the height of the first floor, the area of the family room, and the number of stairs leading to the basement determine “the very structure” of the house. In point of fact, it is the complete opposite: the structure of the house determines allowable variances for these numbers. The geometry of space-time is similar. The mathematical constants which Dr. Craig highlights are the incidentals of the universe’s structure, not its determinants. Just as one could make two houses with the same first-floor height, family room size, and stair count, but with entirely different structures; so too can we conceive of possible universes with similar constants to our own, but wildly different structure.

Next, WLC’s video offers a list of fifteen of the constants which are so supposedly influential to the structure of the universe. Of course, there’s a fairly major problem with the list which is immediately apparent to anyone with a background in math or science. Only one of the fifteen constants actually has an accurate value listed– the speed of light. The rest of the values are approximations– some better, and some worse, than the others. Now, this might seem like a pedantic quibble, but remember that the major premise of this video is that altering these constants, even extremely slightly, would lead to disastrous effects for the universe. Given that sort of goal, it certainly would not behoove our esteemed apologist to openly admit the fact that science doesn’t actually have exact values for these numbers, and that all of the work done with these constants utilizes more or less inaccurate approximations.

This is most apparent in the video’s listing of the Hubble constant, which the transcript relates as, “Hubble Constant: 71 km/s/Mpc (today).” Why is that parenthetical and ambiguous “today” necessary, there? If these numbers truly are constants, doesn’t that mean they should remain constant and unvaried yesterday, today, and tomorrow? The reason that “today” is included is because we actually don’t have a very clear and accurate value for the Hubble constant, at all. The first decent estimate for the value came in 1958, when Allan Sandage proposed that it was somewhere around 75 km/s/Mpc. The first decent experimental determinations didn’t come until 2001, when data from the Hubble Space Telescope gave us the refined value of 72±8 km/s/Mpc. Despite the “today” in the transcript, the value which the video lists actually seems to be at least four years out-of-date, drawn from WMAP data in 2010 which was enhanced in combination with other data in that same year; and even then, the video neglects to include the ever-important error correction (the value from that data is 71±2.5, not just 71). The best data which is actually available “today” comes from 2013’s Planck results which gave a value of 67.80±0.77 km/s/Mpc. Again, this might all seem like nitpicking, but the video’s point is that changing these values by extremely tiny amounts would devastate the universe, while listing values which are changed rather significantly from the actual numbers. The very next paragraph claims that “If any one of these numbers were altered by even a hair’s breadth, no physical, interactive life of any kind could exist anywhere.” The fact of the matter is that the video lists a value which is wrong by at least 2.43 km/s/Mpc, which is quite a bit more than a “hair’s breadth.” While this doesn’t explicitly refute the overall point of the video, it does show that the video doesn’t quite have the grasp of science that it pretends to have.

Consider gravity, for example. The force of gravity is determined by the gravitational constant. If this constant varied by just one in 10^60 parts, none of us would exist. To understand how exceedingly narrow this life-permitting range is, imagine a dial divided into 10^60 increments.

As I complained earlier, this claim is not sourced, making it somewhat difficult to address. However, I do find it somewhat funny that the video decided to use the Gravitational constant as one of its primary examples, especially considering the fact that it might not actually even be a constant. Back in 2002, Mikhail Gershteyn et al published a paper which seemed to show that measurements for G varied by orientation. Still, even if it is a constant, the idea that a variance of 1 part in 10^{60} would be devastating is fairly dubious. For example, the value for G listed by the video varies from the measurements found by Terry Quinn et al last year by more than 1 part in 500. To put that in perspective, that is more than 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than the discrepancy which the video says would lead to the destruction of the universe. In point of fact, we have never known G to anywhere near the accuracy of 1 part in 10^{60}, nor any other constant.

What is the best explanation for this astounding phenomenon? There are three live options. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design. Which of these options is the most plausible?

Here’s where we get into the real crux of the argument. The video presents three possible explanations of the apparent fine-tuning problem. The first of these is “physical necessity,” the idea that the laws of the universe require that these constants have these values. After all, it seems readily apparent that the universe operates by regular processes with which these physical constants are related. It might be that the physical constants are, therefore, determined by the laws of physics. However, in discussing this option, the video points out that current cosmology offers “no reason or evidence to suggest that fine-tuning is necessary,” which is (more or less) accurate. There certainly is no strong evidence from cosmology, right now, to suggest that these constants have their values by necessity. However, the video certainly goes too far in claiming that therefore these “constants and quantities are not determined by the laws of nature.” This constitutes a fairly blatant argumentum ad ignorantium fallacy. The fact that we do not know of a reason why these quantities are determined by the laws of nature is not enough evidence to reasonably conclude that they aren’t determined by the laws of nature. There is no more evidence which eliminates physical necessity than there is which demonstrates it.

That said, there are quite a number of scientists who have seen that our current understanding of the laws of nature could possibly support a range of values for each of these constants, and that on such a view, the particular configuration of our universe would be just one amongst a multitude of possible setups. This might indicate that some chance occurrence caused our universe to have these particular values rather than others. If this is actually the case, then the video exclaims that there would be an incredibly small chance that our universe could be randomly chosen from that multitude, which therefore makes this option “well beyond the reach of chance.” There are, of course, a number of problems with this line of argument. Most problematically, it betrays a complete lack of understanding of basic probability mathematics: no matter how ludicrously small the number might be, any positive non-zero probability is, by definition, within “the reach of chance.” Something which is actually “beyond the reach of chance” has a zero probability. So, even if the odds were 1-in-Graham’s-Number, they would still not be “beyond the reach of chance.” Furthermore, the video seems to be assuming that every possible configuration has an equal probability of occurrence, without offering any reason for such an assumption. For all we know, even if the constants of our universe were randomly ascribed their values, it could be exceedingly more probable that a universe would be assigned constants close to our own than otherwise. We simply have no real way of determining what the actual probability distributions for the selection of these constants would be.

An even more direct problem, though, is that “chance” is not a mechanism, unto itself. It is a description of the manner by which a mechanism works. If I blindly stick my hand into a bag of assorted marbles and remove a red one, it was not “chance” that selected the marble. I selected the marble in a random manner. There existed some “chance” that I would select that red marble, but “chance” was not the agent which effected the selection. Similarly, when physicists posit that the constants of our universe might be due to a random occurrence, they are not saying that “chance” caused anything. For example, proponents of the multiverse hypothesis which the video attempts to ridicule do not propose that there’s just some magical universe maker that pops universes into existence at absolute random. Rather, such scientists propose mechanisms by which a multiverse operates, and while those mechanisms might perform a selection at random, it is not “chance” which does the actual selecting.

So, then, what evidence does Dr. Craig’s video offer that its third proposed option is legitimate?

Given the implausibility of physical necessity or chance, the best explanation for why the universe is fine-tuned for life may very well be it was designed that way.

That’s it (unless you count some quote-mining and arguments from authority, which follow). Here’s where the ultimate deception lies. The Fine-Tuning argument posits a false trichotomy. It presents as if one of the three options– necessity, chance, or design– must be true. However, it provides absolutely no justification as to why “design” should be included as an option alongside “necessity” and “chance.” We saw that necessity is a legitimate option, because we do have a universe which operates by regular mechanisms which are related to the physical constants. We saw that chance is a legitimate option, because our understanding of physics could support a wide range of universal configurations for the physical constants. However, why should we consider design, at all? What mechanisms are offered to support the idea that these constants could be designed by an intelligent agency? Even more, what evidence is offered that such an intelligent agency might even exist? The Fine-Tuning argument centers upon the presupposition that it is possible the physical constants of the universe could have been designed, which is a completely unsupported premise. There is no reason to include design, at all, amongst the possible explanations of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe.

The Fine-Tuning argument is nothing more than the God of the Gaps dressed up with pseudoscience. It’s the apologetics version of a kid that thinks his lab-coat-and-goggles Halloween costume makes him a real scientist.

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2 thoughts on “A Finely-Tuned Deception

  1. Brilliant! I’m keeping this for future reference.

    And the puddle of water sitting in a hole thinks: “My, this hole fits me remarkably well, doesn’t it? It’s almost like this hole was made with me in mind… Just for me!”

  2. This post definitely made me want to get back to studying mathematics on my own again!

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