Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

WLC doesn’t understand cosmology

Over the past few months, I have been listening to Dr. William Lane Craig’s Excursus on Natural Theology, which is a course designed to introduce an audience to reasons for accepting the positions of theism. From time to time, I find that Dr. Craig says something so egregiously wrong that I feel I should address it, here, at Boxing Pythagoras. In two previous articles, I have discussed Dr. Craig’s misconceptions in regards to the mathematical concept of infinity, from parts 9 and 10 of his Excursus. Today, I want to focus on Part 16 of the Excursus in which Dr. Craig talks about the Fine-Tuning problem of cosmology.

Unfortunately for our esteemed theologian, his understanding of cosmology seems to be just as poor as his understanding of mathematics.

The first statement which I would like to address is, ostensibly, a summary regarding the previous Part 15 of the Excursus. I neglected to address that segment more fully, because I have written a similar article previously. So, when Dr. Craig states that, in Part 15:

We saw that the fundamental constants and boundary conditions of the universe are fine-tuned for the evolution and existence of embodied conscious agents in a degree that is incomprehensibly delicate as well as complex.

…I must vehemently disagree. It is, undeniably, true that there are quite a number of constants, in our current cosmological models, whose alteration would result in a very different universe than the one which we see. However, that does not imply that these “fundamental constants and boundary conditions of the universe are fine-tuned for the evolution and existence of embodied conscious agents.” The fact that the universe would be different if we were to change its parameters does not imply that those parameters have any specific teleology, let alone that they are finely-tuned explicitly for life.

The Fine-Tuning problem, in physics, is the question, “Why does the universe have the values for constants which it has, rather than other values?” It is not, as Dr. Craig likes to pretend, “Why is the universe finely-tuned for the existence of life?”

Continuing, Dr. Craig states that, again in Part 15:

We’ve already seen that the first alternative – that this is a matter of physical necessity – is highly implausible. This is contrary to the best evidence of science. The best evidence indicates that these constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature, and that there is nothing physically that would determine that they should have the finely tuned values that they do.

Once again, Dr. Craig oversteps the bounds of reason in this claim. Had Dr. Craig simply stated, “There is no good reason from cosmology to think that these constants and quantities have their values as a matter of physical necessity,” he would have been fairly accurate. However, he instead erroneously states that, “The best evidence indicates that these constants and quantites are independent of the laws of nature.” This is absolutely incorrect. We have no good reason to think that these constants are physically necessary, but neither do we have a good reason for thinking that they are not physically necessary.

Essentially, Dr. Craig is claiming that because we do not have a good reason to believe that these constants are physically necessary, they are therefore not physically necessary. This is a rather blatant Argument from Ignorance fallacy, and should be plainly evident as such to a studied a philosopher as William Lane Craig.

From here, Dr. Craig moves into discussing whether or not our finely-tuned universe could have been as a result of chance. He claims that:

The fundamental problem with this explanation is that the chances of a life-permitting universe’s existing are so remote that this alternative becomes unreasonable.

…John Barrow, who is a Cambridge University physicist, gives the following illustration of the sense in which it can be said that it is highly improbable that a finely tuned universe should exist. Barrow said let’s imagine a sheet of paper and put on it a dot representing our universe. Now alter some of the fundamental constants and quantities by just tiny amounts. That will then be a description of a new universe. If that universe is life-permitting, make it another red dot. If it is life-prohibiting, we will make it a black dot. Then do it again, do it again, and do it again until your sheet of paper is filled with dots. What you wind up with is a sea of black with only a couple of pinpricks of red in the field. It is in that sense that it is overwhelmingly improbable that the universe should be life-permitting. There are simply many more life-prohibiting universes than life-permitting universes in our local area of possible universes.

There is a very, very glaring problem, in this model, which is immediately apparent when one begins to actually consider the manner in which probability works. The simple fact that there are vastly more ways to arrange the parameters of the universe which are “life-prohibiting” than ways which are “life-permitting” does not imply that life-prohibiting universes are therefore more probable. Dr. Craig is making the baseless assumption that any specific arrangement of universal parameters is equally likely as all the rest to occur.

Here’s a quick illustration of what I mean. Take a regular six-sided die, like you might find in a Monopoly board game. Now, if we were to roll that die, there are six possible values which can be attained: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. There are six different possibilities. The chances of rolling any particular value are equal: 1-in-6, or 16\frac{2}{3}%. It is just as probable that your roll will result in a value of 6 as in a value of 1, or of 2, or of 3, or of 4, or of 5. This would be somewhat akin to the model which Dr. Craig is explicating. Every possible value has an equal chance of appearing, so if we needed to roll, say, a 6 then it would be quite probable that our roll will fail.

Now, let’s change things up a little bit. Instead of one six-sided die, let’s look at what happens if we roll two six-sided dice. Now, the possible values we can attain are 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. There are eleven different possibilities; however, the odds of any particular value are not 1-in-11. It is absolutely not true that you have just as much chance of rolling a 2 as you do a 3, or a 4, or a 5, for example. In fact, you are more likely to roll a 7 than to roll any other specific value. The reason for this is that the value of your roll is determined by the combination of the two dice. The first die has six different possible results, and the second die also has six different possible results, and the result of each die is independent of the other. Because of this, there are actually thirty-six different possible combinations. Of these thirty-six, only one combination of the two dice will result in a value of 2 (when both dice show 1’s). Therefore the probability of rolling a 2 is only 1-in-36. However, there are six possible combinations which will result in a value of 7 (1-6, 2-5, 3-4, 4-3, 5-2, and 6-1), which means that we have a 1-in-6 chance of receiving this value. Unlike the picture Dr. Craig is trying to paint, in this case, not every result is equally likely.

Now, let’s really throw things for a loop. Instead of two six-sided dice, let’s think about two twenty-sided dice. However, these are not normal twenty-sided dice. Let’s think about dice in which the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 appear on exactly one side of the die, while the number 6 appears on the remaining fifteen sides. Just as in our last example, these two dice can attain eleven possible values: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. However, the probabilities in this example are far more skewed than before. There are 400 different possible combinations which can be rolled on the two dice. However, of these 400 combinations, 225 will result in our rolling a value of 12.

Now, let’s liken this to Dr. Craig’s example. Let’s say that a result of 12 is life-permitting, while a result of anything else is life-prohibiting. If we were to take a paper and draw one red dot for our 12, and ten black dots for the values 2 through 11, it would look like our life-permitting universe is very unlikely. However, there’s actually a better-than-50% chance that we will roll a 12!

Dr. Craig does nothing to show that every particular set of parameters for the universe is equally as probable as any other. As such, his dot-drawing example is particularly silly, and his later example of white and orange ping-pong balls suffers from the same problem.

Towards the very end of Part 16 of the Excursus, Dr. Craig discusses the manner in which some have attempted to answer the Fine-Tuning problem with appeals to a Multiverse:

Therefore, theorists have come to recognize that the Anthropic Principle will not eliminate the need of an explanation of the fine-tuning unless it is conjoined with a so-called Many Worlds Hypothesis or multiverse hypothesis. According to the Many Worlds Hypothesis our universe is just one member of a World Ensemble of parallel randomly ordered universes, preferably infinite in number. Often this ensemble is called the multiverse. If all of these other universes really exist and they are randomly ordered in their constants and quantities then by chance alone life-permitting worlds will appear in the ensemble. Since only finely tuned universes have observers in them, any observers existing in the World Ensemble will naturally look out and observe their worlds to be finely tuned. So the claim is no appeal to design is necessary in order to explain fine-tuning.

…Before I comment on the World Ensemble hypothesis, let’s just be sure we all understand it – how it is an attempt to rescue the alternative of design, and how it explains the fine-tuning of the universe that we observe.

In order to explain fine-tuning, we are being asked to believe not only that there are other unobservable universes but that there are an infinite number of these universes, and moreover that they randomly vary in their constants and quantities. All of this is needed in order to guarantee that life-permitting universes like ours will appear by chance in the ensemble. This is really extraordinary when you think about it. It is a sort of back-handed compliment, if you will, to the design hypothesis. Because otherwise sober scientists would not be flocking to adopt so speculative and extravagant a view as the Many Worlds Hypothesis unless they felt absolutely compelled to do so.

…The design hypothesis enjoys independent reasons for thinking that such a being exists whereas there is no independent reason for thinking that the World Ensemble exists. It is simply postulated to explain the fine-tuning without any independent evidence for thinking that there is such a thing.

I know that this is a rather large block of text, so I’ve added the emphasis of bold, underlined text to highlight the really important portions of what Dr. Craig is, here, claiming. Important, mind you, because they are so incredibly wrong.

Dr. Craig seems to be claiming that Many Worlds was only developed as a means of metaphysically explaining away the Fine-Tuning problem. As if “otherwise sober scientists” decided to simply make up a completely ad Hoc and ridiculous assertion for the sole purpose of being able to avoid appealing to design as a possibility. This is, of course, preposterously wrong. However, it is more than just wrong. William Lane Craig is overtly insulting both the character and the intelligence of all those who hold to the idea of Many Worlds. It is, quite frankly, rather disappointing to find Dr. Craig making use of such an abhorrent rhetorical tactic.

Many Worlds was not, as Dr. Craig infers, developed for the sole purpose of standing as a stop-gap against the idea of design in the Fine-Tuning debate. In fact, Many Worlds was not developed to discuss the Fine-Tuning debate, at all. Many Worlds is one of a number of different possible ways to interpret the mathematics of Quantum Physics, and it is for that purpose that Hugh Everett first proposed the idea in 1957. The concept stood, and was argued for and against, for decades before anyone thought to propose that the Many Worlds interpretation might offer some unique answers to the Fine-Tuning question.

The Many Worlds interpretation is certainly no more “extravagant” or “speculative” than any other interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Indeed, it is actually a far simpler explanation than a number of other possible interpretations of QM. It is for this reason that Many Worlds began to become popular among physicists. There is absolutely no reason to think that holding to Many Worlds should imply that a physicist is not being a “sober scientist” as a result.

However, Dr. Craig doubles-down on his ludicrous line-of-thought by addressing a particular sociological survey:

In fact, when I was doing the seminar on fine-tuning last summer at St. Thomas University, one of the other professors in the seminar was Neil Manson, professor of philosophy. Neil had done an extraordinary sociological survey of contemporary cosmologists about issues like fine-tuning. I think this is the first and only such sociological survey done by a reputable organization published in a peer-reviewed journal that I know of. What Manson asked the cosmologists was, “Do you think that other theorists who adopt the multiverse hypothesis do so in order to avoid the design hypothesis?” He was very clever to ask it that way. He didn’t ask “Do you adopt it for that reason?” That would make them have to confess, “Yes, I as a scientist am really trying to avoid design, and that is why I believe in the World Ensemble.” No, he said, “Do you think your colleagues who believe in the multiverse are motivated by a desire to get away from design?”

I agree with Dr. Craig that Professor Manson was “very clever” to ask the question with the particular wording quoted here (assuming that it is accurately quoted). Of course, I differ with Dr. Craig on why that particular wording can be considered clever. If I know 1000 theorists, even if I only know 3 who “adopt the multiverse hypothesis… in order to avoid the design hypothesis,” then in order to answer the question honestly, I would have to say, “Yes, I think that other theorists who adopt the multiverse hypothesis do so in order to avoid the design hypothesis.” Even if I didn’t know any such theorists, personally, but I had heard rumors that some exist, it is quite likely I would answer that question in the affirmative. Even worse, if I neither knew any such theorists nor had heard rumors of such theorists, but held an unjustified belief that such theorists nonetheless exist, I would still answer that question with a “Yes.” Honestly, this question (as presented by Dr. Craig) seems to be very poorly worded, and far too vague to be of any real use.

The fact that there may be some theorists who adopt the multiverse hypothesis in order to avoid the design hypothesis does not, in any way, imply that the majority of multiverse supporters are so biased. Nor does it imply that the multiverse hypothesis is, at all, problematic.

The next time somebody says to you, “Oh, well, it could have happened by chance!” or “The improbable happens!” or “It was just dumb luck!” then ask them, “If that is the case, why do the detractors of design feel compelled to embrace an extravagance like the World Ensemble hypothesis in order to avoid design?” The fact that they would resort to such a metaphysical hypothesis I think is, as I say, the best evidence that the chance hypothesis is in deep trouble.

I am absolutely perplexed to hear such a statement issued from the mouth of a professional philosopher. Dr. Craig is fairly clearly claiming that the “best evidence that the chance hypothesis is in deep trouble” is a rather egregious Genetic Fallacy. Even if it was the case that “detractors of design feel compelled to embrace an extravagance like the World Ensemble hypothesis in order to avoid design,” it does not therefore follow that the Fine-Tuning of the universe could not have been the result of chance. William Lane Craig should be completely aware that the origin of a belief is irrelevant to the veracity of that belief.

Dr. Craig then shows his complete unfamiliarity with Many Worlds with the following:

One way to respond to the Many Worlds Hypothesis would be to show that the multiverse itself also requires fine-tuning. In order to be scientifically credible, some plausible mechanism has to be suggested for generating the many worlds in the ensemble. But if the Many Worlds Hypothesis is to be successful in attributing fine-tuning to chance alone, then the mechanism that generates the many worlds had better not be fine-tuned itself. Otherwise, you’ve just kicked the problem upstairs, and the whole debate arises all over again on the level of the multiverse.

The Many Worlds in the ensemble are not “generated,” at all. They are parallel. There does not need to be a “plausible mechanism… for generating the many worlds” any more than there needs to be a plausible mechanism by which the X-Axis generates the Y-Axis on a Cartesian Plane in order for us to plot a few points on a graph. This isn’t like an assembly-line machine popping out new Worlds every so often, as illustrated in this cartoon from Dr. Craig on the subject. Many Worlds simply proposes that every possible state of a Quantum Wave Function represents the actual state of some real world. These worlds are not “generated.” They don’t pop into existence due to some action. This does not require any fine-tuning, itself.

Now, with all that said, even if we were to ignore everything which I said in this article, and even if– for the sake of argument– we were to accept Dr. Craig’s claims that physical necessity and chance are unlikely explanations for Fine-Tuning, he’s left with a larger problem. Simply stating that other propositions are unlikely does not imply that your preferred option is more likely. Dr. Craig still has the burden to show that Design is even a valid possibility for explaining the Fine-Tuning problem. Of course, Dr. Craig recognizes this problem and ends part 16 with this:

So what about design? Is design any better an explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe? Or is it equally implausible? That will be the question that we take up next week.

Honestly, I was very excited to hear this. Whenever I have discussed the idea of Intelligent Design with an apologist, I have brought up these very questions. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever been met with answers about the purported improbability of chance or necessity. I’ve never been proffered any answers with positive evidence for the idea of Design, nor even with a proposed mechanism by which the Fine-Tuning of the universe could be Designed. In my next article, we’ll see if Excursus Part 17 can actually answer these questions reasonably.


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2 thoughts on “WLC doesn’t understand cosmology

  1. I look forward to your next article (having not listened to the Excursus myself). However, I’d have to venture a guess that Dr. Craig will not answer those questions properly. His assertions that you quote above rely either on the assumption that design is valid or that design is a “more likely to be true” explanation.

    This is a very common misstep in Christian arguments, and these arguments habitually dance around them. To be able to satisfactorily answer the questions, Dr. Craig will need evidence and knowledge that – to date – no other human has acquired.

  2. I agree with almost every critique here, but have one quibble. In the case of the possible values for the cosmological constants, I would suggest that we are dealing with an “uninformative prior”, in which case it is appropriate to assume a uniform probability distribution, as WLC did. So I think the more appropriate critique is to point out that he has not explained the large uncertainty that comes with this assumption. Yes, we should operate under the uniform probability assumption, but with the understanding that this is due to a severe lack of information on the proper distribution, such that our results are very uncertain. The “meta-probability” is flat.

    I was also going to express shock that WLC was apparently confusing inflationary multiverse theories and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but then I found an article by Sean Carroll that proposes they they are one in the same. Even so, I very much doubt that WLC had this in mind, given that it is a relatively obscure idea. So though I am tempted to proceed with being shocked by his confusion I wish to instead give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that I have misunderstood his terminology. This does not, however, excuse him of the egregious claim that these hypotheses are simply attempts to avoid the design hypothesis.

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