April 30, 2009

A Short Response to the “Fine-Tuning Argument” (thanks, Siamang)

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Creationism, The Universe tagged , , , , , at 12:14 pm by Andrew

I think I was less than clear in my previous post on Francis Collins using creationist rhetoric to argue for the fine-tuning of the universe. That post was not really about the merits of Collins’ argument (which I think are dubious), but about Collins employing tactics that are indistinguishable from those trotted out by the garden-variety creationists against whom Collins still seeks to distinguish himself, including misappropriation of scientific credentials and intentionally misleading language.

With respect to the so-called “fine tuning” argument itself, I’ve noted that the universe is, to 37 significant figures, completely, 100% uninhabitable by humans. It strikes me as a very strange view of the facts when Christians characterize “100% uninhabitable” as “fine tuned for our unique benefit!”

Commenter Siamang makes another terrific point: the fine-tuning argument is vacuous because if the facts were exactly the opposite of what they are, creationists would be able to make the exact same argument! If the constraints of the universe were such that life was incredibly likely, that stars and planets would always form, then the very same Francis Collins-style creationists who declare that the universe is finely-tuned “on a razor’s edge” could make the exact same claims about divine providence in establishing a universe that would always be able to support us. But here, I’ll let Siamang say it, because he’s much pithier than I am:

What I want to know is, if the universe is fine-tuned, Who decided what settings the Tuner had to set the knobs to? I mean, if God was really God, couldn’t He create life in any kind of universe, not just the tuned ones? If God was merely following a recipe, then who wrote the laws that God was following?

I see these as fundamentally flawed competing claims:

[1.] The universe is fine-tuned for life. Therefore YAY GOD!
[2.] The universe is NOT fine-tuned for life, but life exists anyway. Therefore REALLY YAY GOD!

In any universe where life existed, beings using this argument are only extrapolating a God from the fact of their own existence. You don’t need to run this supposition through physics to come to this conclusion. That’s running around the barn to get a tool you’re already holding.

I don’t see a way, in principle, to rescue the “fine-tuning” argument from this criticism.

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44 Comments »

  1. Facilis said,

    Alright first of all fine-tuning is a technical definition and you are using it in a colloquial sense. Fine-tuning has nothing to do with the volume of the universe that is habitable, it deals with the constants and laws that govern the universe.
    If you want to see what proponents mean when say “fine-tuning” go to
    http://www.fine-tuning.org
    (Read the last paper called “How to rigourously define fine-tuning”)
    And I have no idea what that criticism was meant to imply. Can I reverse engineer it?
    “1) the universe is fine-tuned for life. However I postulate some extravagant metaphysical multiverse; /superstring scenario. Therefore no god
    2)The universe is not fine-tune. God would fine-tune it if he did exist. So NO God.”

  2. Andrew said,

    Facilis,

    I understand that creationists cherry-pick the observations in order to construct their fine-tuning argument. My point is that when you observe the entire universe, you don’t see “evidence of fine-tuning.” You see a universe that is 100% hostile to human life, everywhere and for all time, to 37 significant figures. And incidentally, you see a universe that looks nothing like the one described in the Bible.

    • Facilis said,

      But the argument theists make is not that the universe is specially designed for humans or highly biophilic anything like that.
      They merely argue that the universe is life permitting and this is highly improbable.
      “Fine-tuning” is a technical term used to describe constants and values that fall into the “life permitting” range

  3. Siamang said,

    Facilis said: “Can I reverse engineer it?”

    Please for your own purposes. But don’t reverse-engineer it to insert assertions that I do not make.

    I do not assert multiverses or superstrings. I also do not assert that this universe is either “fine tuned” or “not fine-tuned”, for whatever definition of fine-tuning you want to use.

    What I’m asserting is that the “fine-tuned universe” argument for God fails on two different points. One is the simple point that if God had to tune the universe, then He is constrained by physical laws not of His own creation.

    The other point is that whether or not this universe is “fine tuned”, life exists in it, for whatever definition of fine-tuning you want to accept. If God were capable of miracles, any universe could have life, whether fine-tuned or not.

    For whatever definition of “fine tuning” you want to assert, there are only two options:

    [1.] The universe is fine-tuned for life. Therefore YAY GOD!
    [2.] The universe is NOT fine-tuned for life, but life exists anyway. Therefore REALLY YAY GOD!

    Since ‘Yay God’ is the result whatever definition of “fine tuning” you want to use, Cosmology adds no evidence one way or the other. So all that’s occurring is that people presenting the “fine-tuning” argument for God are asserting evidence for God that relies solely on the fact of life’s existence.

    There is no requirement to walk this argument through cosmology to get there. Which makes me suspect that the venture into cosmology is nothing more than slight-of-hand and a desire to dress the teleological argument up in a lab coat.

  4. Siamang said,

    And thanks for the shout-out, Andrew.

  5. Phil said,

    A little too short. No premise of the fine-tuning argument is committed to the assumption that all or even a great number of spacetime regions should be inhabitable by human life. To the contrary, the very constants they claim are finely tuned imply that most of the universe would be uninhabitable, but nevertheless life-permitting. Andrew, perhaps you’d care to tell us which particular “fine-tuning” argument you’re targeting, and why it’s committed to such an assumption.

  6. Phil said,

    Siamong seems not to recognize that the term ‘life’ is being used in its broadest biological sense. If the universe were not life-permitting in this sense of ‘life’, there would not be any theists and atheists debating the fine-tuning argument. So, trivially, his claim that theists would point to a non-fine-tuned universe as evidence for God is false; consequently, his accusation that the fine-tuning argument is “vacuous” is itself vacuous.

    • Siamang said,

      “If the universe were not life-permitting in this sense of ‘life’, there would not be any theists and atheists debating the fine-tuning argument.”

      I think I’m quite aware of that.

      “So, trivially, his claim that theists would point to a non-fine-tuned universe as evidence for God is false;”

      If you are linking those two above sentences causally, then you are a priori assuming that any universe with life is indeed fine-tuned.

      In which case you are begging the question.

      If you are not linking them, I would rebut your second claim with two words: William Dembski. He believes that the universe is not fine-tuned for life to arise, evolve or self-order. In short, for at least one definition of a fine-tuned universe, he believes that that universe requires continual intervention from a being outside of the constraints of that universe to create, maintain and support biological life. Therefore: REALLY YAY GOD!

      • Siamang said,

        For clarity, let me rephrase this sentence:

        If you are linking those two above sentences causally, then you are a priori assuming that any universe with life is indeed fine-tuned rather than “in-tune” and lacking a Tuner.

        Would clarity also benefit from this rephrasing?

        [1.] The universe is IN-TUNE for life. It must have been FINE-TUNED by Someone! Therefore YAY GOD!
        [2.] The universe is NOT IN-TUNE for life, but life exists anyway. Therefore REALLY YAY GOD!

      • Facilis said,

        No fine-tuning is used to describe things that fall into a life permitting range.
        Designing an animal and then placing it in a universe that is not fine-tuned would be like you placing your pet goldfish in a point of boiling water.

  7. Phil said,

    “most of the universe would be uninhabitable, but nevertheless life-permitting.”

    Just to avoid ambiguity: The very constants referred to in fine-tuning arguments imply, if anything, that most of the universe would be uninhabitable, but the constants would nevertheless make for a life-permitting universe.

    Again, it is unclear which premise of recent fine-tuning arguments is committed to the assumption that most or all of the universe should be inhabitable by humans.

  8. Siamang said,

    Facilis said,

    “No fine-tuning is used to describe things that fall into a life permitting range. Designing an animal and then placing it in a universe that is not fine-tuned would be like you placing your pet goldfish in a point of boiling water.”

    What about designing an animal, then worrying that it might go extinct without a flagellum… so you have to add one? Assuming you were a God, and assuming you made an environment that was continually hostile to the long-term survival to that life, which is unable to evolve on its own. And assuming you made the laws of mathematics in this universe such that no new information could emerge naturally from randomness plus natural selection.

    Wouldn’t that be like your goldfish in the bubbling water, if you had to continually “intelligently design” tougher scales and anti-boil blood?

    That would be a universe hostile to long-term biological survival, in which life is continually being saved from extinction by the ongoing miraculous intervention of a deity.

    That’s what I call the “REALLY YAY GOD!” option. Classic Deism is the “YAY GOD” option…. also just the teleological argument. Theistic evolution is somewhere in between… as far as I can tell it’s YAY GOD, except for some aspects of personality and morality, which are REALLY YAY GOD after-market add-ons.

    In either universe, you are inferring God’s existence from the existence of life, and no other data points. In that case, you are excluding the possibility of an undesigned life-permitting universe.

  9. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew writes:

    [T]he universe is, to 37 significant figures, completely, 100% uninhabitable by humans.

    Here we sit, snacking high on the food chain and swapping comments with people from around the globe. Obviously the universe is perfectly habitable by humans, and lots of them. You just have to be in the right places. Any brand of theism worth discussing will cover that (whether from divine benevolence or simply from divine non-idiocy). Any brand of atheism worth discussing will also cover that (since life could not have emerged anywhere that it could not survive). So this observation gives us no traction in the theism-atheism debate.

    As for Siamang’s analysis that Andrew is touting:

    I see these as fundamentally flawed competing claims:

    [1.] The universe is fine-tuned for life. Therefore YAY GOD!
    [2.] The universe is NOT fine-tuned for life, but life exists anyway. Therefore REALLY YAY GOD!

    There is simply an ambiguity on “fine-tuned for life” here. Stipulatively define

    (1) “The universe is FT1 for life”

    to mean “The universe is fine tuned so as to permit life as we know it to exist,” and

    (2) “The universe is FT2 for life”

    to mean “The universe is fine tuned so as to make life as we know it virtually inevitable.”

    Then (2) entails (1), but not vice versa. We cannot read Siamang’s use of “fine-tuned” in [1] and [2] in the sense of FT1, for then [2] is ruled out as a possibility, as Phil pointed out above, so the contrast Siamang is trying to draw would not make sense. It is possible to read Siamang’s use in the sense of FT2. But a quick look through the literature (Leslie, Manson’s anthology, etc.) discloses that most discussions of the fine tuning of the universe are not about the universe’s making life virtually inevitable but rather about its making life possible.

    So in the sense of FT1, Siamang’s contrast makes no sense, and in the sense of FT2, it does make sense but isn’t what most people are talking about when they use the term “fine-tuned.”

    • Phil said,

      Siamang, before we proceed, I’m waiting for you to let us know what you mean when you use the locution “the universe was fine-tuned for life.” (Per Nathaniel’s post above.)

  10. Steven Carr said,

    Who created these rules that God was following? A good point.

    What happened to the allmighty God who is not constrained by any rules?

    Why did God create constraints on what sort of natural laws support life?

    The argument seems to run.

    There are all sorts of constraints about how strong you can make gravity and the speed of light etc etc and still have a inhabitable universe.

    If you tried to make the universe, these constraints are like having one hand tied behind your back.

    But if it is like having one hand tied behind your back, that proves there must have been a hand of God creating the universe. After all, who else was there around to have his hand tied behind his back when the universe was made?

    What happened to the allmighty God who is not constrained by any rules?

    And the idea of fine-tuning removes the idea of Heaven as a place where living beings can exist.

    How can living beings exist in Heaven, when fine-tuning proponents claim living beings can only exist in our universe and that there is zero evidence of any other realms where things can exist.

  11. Yair said,

    Not a very good treatment of the fine-tuning argument, I’m afraid.

    As others have said, fine-tuning is a technical term in modern cosmology, which is not related to how common is life in the universe but rather to whether life is possible at all in it.

    Now, I don’t really like Siamang’s original phrasing of the points either, but I do agree with his expanded description. His expanded description says that the first point means that “if God had to tune the universe, then He is constrained by physical laws not of His own creation”; that is indeed very correct. It is an argument from god’s omnipotence, arguing that an omnipotent god is not consistent with the fine-tuning argument.

    The other point, in the expanded phrasing, is essentially saying that if the universe was not permissable to life yet life would exist anyway, that would be evidence of something supernatural, so that the God-hypothesis is consistent with all outcomes and hence not falsifiable. While true, this point misses the whole thrust of the fine-tuning argument. Fine-tuning is NOT the find that the universe supports life, but rather that it does so in a fine-tuned way. The question is therefore whether fine-tuning points to god, not whether life-permissability points to god.

    Perhaps the strongest case against the fine-tuning argument is that it isn’t even an argument, it’s an argument-in-waiting. IF the constants of nature really have one set of values that supports life (we don’t know), and IF it is possible to have other values (we don’t know), and IF only a one (or a few?) universe exist (we don’t know), and IF it is possible to artifically set the values in principle (which is not at all clear), and so on, THEN there may be something special here worth explaining. Right now, we just don’t know enough for all those IFs to be taken seriously.

    Another contender for the stronger counter-argument is that it doesn’t really addres the finding itself, FINE tuning. It is an argument from the “fact” that the constants of nature were chosen to allow life, NOT from the fact that a choice of values that are even slightly different would not have resulted in life. Since the universe is obviosuly going to support life regardless of the fine-ness of the tuning found, the argument is a non-starter – having values that support life signifies nothing, and having fine-tuning isn’t explained.

  12. Carl Blansfield said,

    Is “fine tuning a technical term in modern cosmology?” I thought the phrase originated with Barrow and Tipler, who, although not theists in the traditional sense, certainly had some crazy epistemological views (and are typically quote-mined by creationists).

  13. toweltowel said,

    I think a lot of people are missing Siamang’s point.

    Facilis and Phil keep focusing on Andrew’s point concerning how much of the universe is inhabitable. Nathaniel thinks it has to do with whether life is merely permitted/possible or instead inevitable. Yarr and Steven Carr basically get it, I think.

    Here’s the basic point: since God is omnipotent and therefore not limited by mere physical law, he has the power to create life even in universes which are ‘life-prohibiting’ (seeing as how whether a universe is life-permitting or life-prohibiting is at most a matter of mere physical law).

    There are different ways of running with this basic point, but that’s the basic point.

    • Facilis said,

      @towel
      I fully agree that God could have created a different universe operating under different physical laws of constants. The variation in constants is for our sake because we have a range of theoretically possibe values so we can assign an epistemic probability to the value of the constant in reasoning.
      I don’t think anyone argues that God was “constrained”.

  14. Nathaniel said,

    toweltowel,

    For God to create life in a universe that prohibits life would not be a miracle; it would be a contradiction. This does not fall under the scope of divine omnipotence.

    • toweltowel said,

      No, because the ‘prohibition’ in question is not a matter of absolute impossibility, it’s merely a matter of physical law. That places it within the scope of omnipotence.

  15. Nathaniel said,

    toweltowel,

    Then it wouldn’t be “life” in the sense in which we know it, which is directly sensitive to its physical environment.

    • Phil said,

      YES! I think by ‘life’ toweltowel (and siamang) must mean something entirely different than what’s meant in the relevant literature.

  16. Phil said,

    Toweltowel,

    he has the power to create life even in universes which are ‘life-prohibiting’

    When you say “a universe that is life-prohibiting,” do you mean

    (a) A universe in which, given its initial constants, there can’t be any life (in the broadest biological sense),

    or

    (b) A universe in which, given its initial constants, there is not a lot of life, but nonetheless some life is permitted here or there?

    If (b), you are not using ‘life-prohibiting universe’ in the same sense it’s used in the relevant literature.

    If the sort of life-prohibiting universe you have in mind is the one described in (a), it would be a contradiction for God to insert life into such a life-prohibiting universe — unless he created the constants differently so as to allow life, in which case the universe by definition would not be ‘life-prohibiting’.

    As a sidenote, you seem to not realize that nomic possibility can be nested in a broader sense of possibility. It would be impossible for God to create life in a universe that, given its constants, makes life impossible. (Again, the constants themselves would first have to be different, but then the universe would be life permitting.)

  17. Phil said,

    Toweltowel and Siamang, I assume your proposal for a new definition of life is forthcoming in the Journal of Biology.

  18. toweltowel said,

    Phil, Nathaniel, Facilis:

    Phil,

    By “life-prohibiting universe”, I mean what I think everyone else means: a universe in which life (or anything close to life) is nomologically impossible due to the values taken by the cosmological constants.

    I don’t think I am proposing a new definition of “life”. I think my use is in agreement with everyone else’s and I am happy to use whatever notion you think best (or even, as above, generously extend the discussion to “anything close to life”).

    The important point, I think, is that we are dealing with merely nomological impossibility: not metaphysical impossibility, and certainly not strict logical impossibility. The connection between the values and the conditions for life (and the connection between those conditions and life) is merely nomological: it holds only due to laws of nature which are themselves perfectly contingent.

    And that means it does not place any limitations on an omnipotent God. For God is not bound by the laws of nature, and indeed he was the one who decided to institute those laws in the first place.

    Nathaniel,

    If you think dependence on an environment is definitive of life, that’s no problem. For the dependence relations between an environment and an organism living in it are a matter of contingent physical law. Thus an omnipotent God could, by instituting different laws of nature, create lifeforms precisely like those in our universe which depend on an extremely different environment—indeed, the sort of environment that, given the actual laws of nature, would prohibit life.

    Facilis,

    The point Siamang was making is not just that God could have set the values of the cosmological constants differently. It was that God could have set them to life-prohibiting values and nevertheless created life in them—thanks to his omnipotence.

  19. Nathaniel said,

    toweltowel,

    I think you’re just juggling terms. The organisms we actually know about are dependent on their environments. To say that a universe renders life as we know it nomologically impossible is to say that there are no conditions in that universe in which such organisms as we are talking about can survive. If, therefore, you saw something X that was enduring in those conditions, you would have the best of all possible reasons for saying that X is not life as we know it. That’s the whole point about the fit between conditions and organism.

    How could anyone try to use that as an argument for the existence of God? The non-theist could simply respond, “Why do you think it is an argument for the existence of God that X exists in this universe? Just look: X abounds. You’re just wrong to say that the universe renders X nomologically impossible — what possible grounds could you have for saying that when X is flourishing in this very environment?”

    If the line you’re pressing is really what Siaming was trying to say, it’s much less interesting than what I thought it was. Though it would be too much to hope that no theist would be dumb enough to push that line, certainly no intelligent theist would do so.

  20. Phil said,

    The important point, I think, is that we are dealing with merely nomological impossibility: not metaphysical impossibility, and certainly not strict logical impossibility. The connection between the values and the conditions for life (and the connection between those conditions and life) is merely nomological: it holds only due to laws of nature which are themselves perfectly contingent.

    Please see my sidenote above.

  21. Phil said,

    toweltowel,

    To recap. “Given the initial constants of the universe, there can’t be any life in it.” This is what you mean by a “life-prohibiting” universe. The sense of “can’t” is nomological impossibility. Fine.

    But you add that, because this is a “merely nomological impossibility,” God could have changed it.

    Response: Yes, by most accounts an omnipotent person could change the initial constants to permit life since it’s just a matter of nomological possibility, but (and this is key) then the universe would no longer be “life-prohibiting.”

    On the other hand, it would be metaphysically impossible to put life in a life-prohibiting universe (in accordance with our definition of “life-prohibiting” universe) if the constants weren’t changed appropriately, in just the same sense as it would be metaphysically impossible to put red in a colorless universe.

  22. toweltowel said,

    Nathaniel, Phil:

    Nathaniel,

    Yes, actual lifeforms are dependent on their environment, but the hypothetical lifeforms under discussion are equally dependent on their environment. I mean, I see how if we were discussing something that wasn’t dependent on its environment, it would be perhaps be misleading to call it life, but since I’m talking about things that do depend on their environment, I think that point is moot. Perhaps we’re misunderstanding each other?

    You seem to be suggesting that anything surviving in such a universe (the kind we would call ‘life-prohibiting’) could not possibly be life. But I think this is the precise point of disagreement. To begin, we all of course agree that actual organisms count as life. But my view is that actual organisms from our universe could easily survive and prosper in a ‘life-prohibiting’ universe—just so long as the laws of nature were different. After all, I don’t see any metaphysical or strictly logical necessity linking these organisms to their actual environments; it seems to be a mere matter of contingent physical law. So just because something is surviving in a ‘life-prohibiting’ universe, I don’t think it follows that it isn’t life as we know it—for even the very clearest and least controversial cases of life as we know it (viz., actual organisms) could possibly survive in such a universe.

    The rest of your comment is about how to run with the basic point. I can’t speak for Siamang here, though I think a distinction between epistemology and ontology might help respond to your objection. As for me, I’m partial to the following point: given that an omnipotent God could create life in any of the universes, then he would have no reason to prefer (what we are calling) ‘life-permitting’ to ‘life-prohibiting’ universes—which makes it unclear how fine-tuning could serve as a confirmation of theism.

    Phil,

    I think the term ‘life-prohibiting’ might be getting in the way of the substantive issues.

    Given the actual laws of nature, we’re all agreeing, some combinations of values of cosmological constants prohibit life and others permit life. Call them A-combinations and B-combinations. Now, the fact that A-combinations prohibit life is (as I’ve been saying) a contingent fact: a mere matter of physical law. And given different laws of nature, A-combinations would permit life or even make it inevitable. So it’s possible for A-combinations to prohibit life or to permit life—it all depends on the laws of nature. And that means God could put life in a universe set to an A-combination: all God would have to do is institute laws of nature on which that A-combination is conducive to life, and then set the values to that A-combination.

    The point, of course, is that which combinations go with which biological outcomes is entirely up to God.

    Indeed, I think the colorless universe example works the same way. To be sure it would be a contradiction to put red in a colorless universe (i.e., a universe that is really bereft of color). But there is no contradiction in putting red in a universe that would be lack colors given the actual laws of nature but that would have colors given different laws of nature.

  23. Nathaniel said,

    toweltowel,

    You seem to be suggesting that anything surviving in such a universe (the kind we would call ‘life-prohibiting’) could not possibly be life.

    Not quite: I’m saying that if a type of thing X — right down to the last token of X — exists without any problem in environment E, then it’s baffling to see how one could substantiate the claim that E nomologically prohibits the existence of X.

    Suppose someone were to try the following argument for the existence of God:

    A: “Wow, look around you. Isn’t it amazing! I mean, we live here in the universe, even though it’s impossible for any life to exist in our universe!”

    B: “Huh? What do you mean, impossible?”

    A: “I mean nomologically impossible — just goes to show you the power of God, doesn’t it?”

    B: “I still don’t get it. Why do you say that life is nomologically impossible? It seems to be flourishing here.”

    I don’t see that A has left himself any room to give a decent answer to B’s question.

    And that’s my point.

    • toweltowel said,

      I think the problem is just that talk of nomological possibility is indexically tied to the laws of nature in the speaker’s world.

      So when you or I talk about whether life could possibly exist in an environment in which life is nomologically impossible (or in a ‘life-prohibiting’ universe), we are asking whether life could exist in an environment that, given the laws of nature obtaining in the actual world, would prohibit all life. And so when I go on to say that life could exist in such an environment, if the laws of nature were different enough from those obtaining in the actual world, I hope the claim is clear enough: I’m simply saying that its physical laws and its constants make for a life-permitting universe even though those very constants would make it a life-prohibiting universe given our physical laws.

      And then of course when the speakers in your dialogue talk of nomological possibility, they are talking of the laws of nature in their own world (as opposed to the one’s which obtain in the actual world), which is what gives A’s claims their implausible ring.

      In any case, I think the main point is clear enough: whether a set of values for the cosmological constants prohibits life depends on the laws of nature in place, which is in turn a perfectly contingent matter under the control of an omnipotent God. And that means that we have no reason to expect God to prefer one set of values over another (not unless we first have reason to expect God to prefer one set of laws over another).

      • Nathaniel said,

        toweltowel,

        I think the problem is just that talk of nomological possibility is indexically tied to the laws of nature in the speaker’s world.

        I don’t see this; if anything, it seems that life is the term indexically tied to our world. Specify any set of laws you like, any set of constants. There will, then, be a fact of the matter as to whether life, as we know it, could exist subject to those natural laws. Of course, this leaves open the possibility of there being something else in a nomologically distinctive universe that plays a role there functionally similar to the role played by carbon-based life in our universe. That, takes us outside the scope of what is usually discussed in fine tuning arguments.

        So when you or I talk about whether life could possibly exist in an environment in which life is nomologically impossible (or in a ‘life-prohibiting’ universe), we are asking whether life could exist in an environment that, given the laws of nature obtaining in the actual world, would prohibit all life. And so when I go on to say that life could exist in such an environment, if the laws of nature were different enough from those obtaining in the actual world, I hope the claim is clear enough: I’m simply saying that its physical laws and its constants make for a life-permitting universe even though those very constants would make it a life-prohibiting universe given our physical laws.

        There are two problems here. First, it isn’t clear what it means to speak of an environment in which life would be nomologically impossible, except that it is not, because the laws of nature in that environment are quite different from those in the actual world. It sounds like we’re transplanting life as we know it into some alternative world W with different laws and/or constants. But there’s no guarantee that, say, carbon would even exist in W, so the transplantation may not even be intelligible. Nor is it clear what would be meant when we say that the environment would render life nomologically impossible. We know well enough what we mean by cyanide here in our world; but over in W, where there are different physical laws as well as different constants and carbon may not even exist, in what sense can we speak of cyanide? If you drop a bunny over into W and it hops around nibbling on lumps of stuff and seems just fine, would it make sense to say that it was nibbling on cyanide?

        Second, if we could make sense of that claim, then Siamang’s original complaint would fall flat: there is no contrast between his 1 and 2, since the universe in question is life-permitting in both cases. “Cyanide” would not be poisonous in W, so as far as that’s concerned, W would be perfectly life-permitting in a straightforward sense.

        And then of course when the speakers in your dialogue talk of nomological possibility, they are talking of the laws of nature in their own world (as opposed to the one’s which obtain in the actual world), which is what gives A’s claims their implausible ring.

        This strikes me as the wrong diagnosis of what is wrong with A’s claims. The problem is that A is claiming that the very life all around him is nomologically impossible in the very universe he inhabits. Anything less than this won’t generate Siamang’s 2. The situation is no different than it would be if I were (perversely and idiotically) to say to you, here in our actual world, “Look, it’s amazing – we can breathe oxygen! But that’s nomologically impossible! God must be doing it! Just goes to show you there’s a God.” You would have every right to say, “How can you say it’s nomologically impossible? Every mammal on the planet breathes oxygen. There’s nothing nomologically impossible about it.”

        In any case, I think the main point is clear enough: whether a set of values for the cosmological constants prohibits life depends on the laws of nature in place, which is in turn a perfectly contingent matter under the control of an omnipotent God. And that means that we have no reason to expect God to prefer one set of values over another (not unless we first have reason to expect God to prefer one set of laws over another).

        I grant the thrust of your claim, though the distinction between laws and constants isn’t quite so neat as it sounds. But we’re pretty far now from Siamang’s original criticism and moving in the direction of the McGrew, McGrew, and Vestrup paper.

  24. jaki said,

    It seems pointless to argue that the specificity of the constants (of the universe) point to God, because no matter what the constants were, and whether or not there were ANY constants, or ANY universe, God could still, logically, exist. No?

    • toweltowel said,

      I think the idea is not about which constants allow for God’s existence—as you point out, God could exist with any set of values for those constants. Instead, it’s about which constants allow for life. The assumption is that God has strong reason to want life to exist, which means he has strong reason to do what it takes to make life possible. So then the (apparent or alleged) fact that things are fine-tuned to make life possible counts in favor of God’s existence.

      Or are you making the following point? God has no strong reason to want life to exist, since he could instead make godlike beings which don’t depend on any physical environment. If so, I think it is a point that deserves consideration, as we can’t simply assume that there is anything particular valuable about life per se. I believe Richard Swinburne tries to address this point, by giving reasons for God to prefer life, but I can’t remember his reasons.

  25. Phil said,

    Toweltowel,

    You really are juggling terms here, as someone else pointed out earlier. Nobody seems to be arguing with your claim that it’s nomologically possible for the constants to be changed. That’s been granted, so there’s no need to reiterate it in your replies.

    Here’s what you seem to be neglecting: a universe in which constants were adjusted to allow life would not be said to be “life-prohibiting” — unless, of course, you are misusing the term ‘life-prohibiting’. (To go back to the color scenario, if you found the color red in a universe, it wouldn’t make sense to say that the constants of that universe make the presence of red impossible. After all, there’s red!)

    In the sense of “life-prohibiting” being used here, it would be metaphysically impossible for there to be life in a life-prohibiting universe (just as it would be metaphysically impossible for there to be red in a colorless universe).

  26. toweltowel said,

    Phil, Nathaniel:

    Phil,

    I think we have a pretty serious misunderstanding. I am not merely claiming “that it’s nomologically possible for the constants to be changed”, and I haven’t been reiterating that point. My point (and, I take it, Siamang’s) is that the laws of nature can be changed, and that sets of constants that would prohibit life given the actual laws of nature will permit life given different laws of nature.

    I apologize if my use of ‘life-prohibiting’ has caused any confusion. But I think the substance is unchanged by the terminological issue. This is expanded on below.

    Nathaniel,

    I’ll go point by point.

    Notice I said “the speaker’s world”. That’s why if I (in the actual world with the actual laws of nature) say x is nomologically impossible, and my counterpart (in some other world with other laws of nature) says x is nomologically possible, we aren’t really disagreeing with each other.

    For the record, I would never speak of “an environment in which life would be nomologically impossible, except that it is not [due to different laws of nature]”. I would only speak of an environment in which life is nomologically impossible, except that life could exist in it anyway given different laws of nature.

    As for the presence of carbon, I’ll agree to a metaphysically necessary connection between carbon and life as we know it. But I’d think the connection between constants and carbon depends upon contingent physical laws. Likewise for cyanide.

    As for when a universe is ‘life-permitting’, I agree that there’s a good sense in which any universe with life is life-permitting (barring, perhaps, the occasional miracle). But I think the standard way of talking about universes as life-permitting or life-prohibiting holds the actual laws of nature fixed. And in that sense, there could easily be a life-prohibiting universe with life in it, given different laws of nature. But I don’t mind using your sense or being told that what I think is standard is in fact not: it’s merely a matter of terminology.

    It looks to me like we are in complete agreement about the diagnosis of A’s claims: A is saying the laws of nature in his life-saturated universe rule out life.

    In the end, I think we might be in agreement on everything of substance. All I need is some sort of metaphysical gap between a given set of constants and habitability, something that needs to be filled in by (e.g.) laws of nature which are metaphysically contingent. And then it gets brought under the scope of God’s omnipotence.

  27. Nathaniel said,

    toweltowel,

    I would only speak of an environment in which life is nomologically impossible, except that life could exist in it anyway given different laws of nature.

    But if the laws of nature were different, then it wouldn’t be that life-debarring environment, would it? This is the point Phil keeps hammering on, rightly, I think.

    I’ll agree to a metaphysically necessary connection between carbon and life as we know it. But I’d think the connection between constants and carbon depends upon contingent physical laws. Likewise for cyanide.

    Cyanides are built of carbon and nitrogen, so they’re in the same boat; either the laws + constants of universe W rule out carbon (a fortiori cyanides) or they don’t.

    I agree that there’s a good sense in which any universe with life is life-permitting (barring, perhaps, the occasional miracle). But I think the standard way of talking about universes as life-permitting or life-prohibiting holds the actual laws of nature fixed. And in that sense, there could easily be a life-prohibiting universe with life in it, given different laws of nature.

    I follow all of this except the last bit: talk of a life-prohibiting universe with life in it still makes no sense. You can’t mean that the laws + constants of W nomologically rule out life and yet life flourishes there unless you’re supposing that God works a universal set of miracles in W to overcome the nomological problem. But what is the empirical difference between a world in which the laws + constants do not prohibit life and a world where the laws + constants would, except that they never do, because a perpetual array of miracles annuls the problem? You find yourself in a world where life flourishes (in the proper corners): what could conceivably induce you to describe it as a universe where life is impossible? Yet the distinction you are making seems to indicate that this would make sense.

    So I’m having difficulty seeing this as a way of rescuing Siamang’s criticism.

  28. philwblack said,

    Nathaniel,

    But what is the empirical difference between a world in which the laws + constants do not prohibit life and a world where the laws + constants would, except that they never do, because a perpetual array of miracles annuls the problem?

    And of course if the inhabitants of the latter world had evidence of such miracles, they presumably would, at that point, have a strong natural theological argument for theism, which finally goes along with Siamang’s [2], but not in the way Siamang had planned. Otherwise his point would boil down to: if theists lived in a world W in which they thought there was evidence plausibly pointing to the existence of God, they’d cite such evidence in their theistic arguments. But if they lived in a world W* such that W* had vastly different cosmic conditions than W, but such that W* still had some different kind of evidence that they thought plausibly pointed to God, then they’d cite that evidence for God in their arguments. Well, duh.

  29. Phil said,

    The May 3, 2009 at 5:44 PM post was mine.

  30. Phil said,

    toweltowel,

    My point (and, I take it, Siamang’s) is that the laws of nature can be changed, and that sets of constants that would prohibit life given the actual laws of nature will permit life given different laws of nature

    Again, if life were permitted given those different laws of nature, then it wouldn’t be a “life-prohibiting” universe. I have to confess I’m baffled why you still don’t recognize this after three or four rounds of posts now.

  31. Phil said,

    Nathaniel,

    Another thing.

    a world where laws + constants would [prohibit life], except that they never do, because a perpetual array of miracles annuls the problem?

    Even then, I’m not sure it’d make sense to say that such a universe would be life-prohibiting. It would seem more sensible to say that the universe is life-permitting but not in virtue of its constants, which are life-prohibiting.

  32. Phil said,

    I wish these comments had an “edit” feature. Nathaniel, here’s what I meant to say: It would seem more sensible to say that the universe (the one with the array of miracles) is life-permitting but not in virtue of its constants, which, if allowed to generate the universe without God’s intervention, would make the universe life-prohibiting.

  33. Nathaniel said,

    Phil,

    I think we’re in pretty near complete agreement. If someone tried to say to me that universe W was created by God to be life-prohibiting, but then God worked a perpetual string of miracles to permit life to flourish in W, I would just shake my head: I don’t see the difference between that world and a world created by God to be life-permitting.


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