Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Out of Tune: Why the fine tuning argument isn't.

Why the fine tuning argument isn't a logically supportable argument.

This whole subject seems to be making the rounds more often than usual just at the moment. Let's look at it closely.

The basic line of argument is put very eloquently here by Cliff, a believer friend of mine, in the states.

To summarise his case;
"There exists in our universe approximately 30 distinct physical and chemical conditions each of which must be finely tuned within very narrow parameters in order for life to develop and prosper."
Specific examples can be given (Cliff has nice quotes from Fred Hoyle amongst others) and I don't dispute any of the evidence itself. However, I do dispute the validity of the inference that Cliff draws from them. Let's be clear, this is not an argument about whether or not any of this is a proof of god's existence. Cliff does not claim any such thing;
"While many of these evidences of fine tuning will be studied for many years to come, and we may find natural explanations for some, I am convinced that most will continue to point back to Holye’s “superintellect”, and Denton’s “special designer”. But not conclusively; it should be noted that other explanations have been suggested which might account for fine tuning. The most common of these are various multiverse scenarios. We are told that perhaps ours is just one in a chain of billions or trillions of universes; if so, the chances that one such universe would result in conditions favorable to life ultimately rise to one in one; and voilĂ , here we are!
Thus, the arguments from fine-tuning, no matter how intuitively they point to a Creator, can never prove the existence of God."
So why can't Cliff claim to have logically drawn the inference that he does? Well to start with he hasn't quite stated his case accurately, nor do the quotes he uses.

There is an error in one of the premises of the argument.

The error can be illustrated by thinking about a lottery draw. I will use this analogy but, because all analogies are limited, then I will go back to Cliff's actual claims and apply my argument specifically to his.

The lottery analogy to Cliff's claim is this;
Here is a chap who has won the lottery, the odds against him doing this are, let's take the UK National Lottery as an example, 13 million to 1. Therefore the fact this chap has won is way beyond the realms of everyday events, so we must look instead to a mysterious explanation.
Putting the fine tuning argument this way we can immediately see two main errors in reasoning. Lets call them the "many players" and the "many draws" fallacies.

The "many players" fallacy simply points out that approximately 10 million people buy a ticket for every draw and so the fact that someone wins most weeks is not really that surprising. We can happily explain the win using the natural laws of chance. We can explain our man's win without the need for supernatural intervention.

The "many draws" fallacy simply points out that our man is in fact just a rich lottery addict who has bought several million tickets over the years. Again we can see that no magic is required to explain his win.

So one error of thinking results from excluding the number of different ways there are to win whilst the other error occurs when we ignore how many chances there might be to win in a particular way.

- - -

So let's go back to Cliff's case and see how our two fallacies fit in.

In Cliff's claim he is actually talking about life as we know it. In Cliff's argument this is the case of the lottery winner who bought just one ticket and won, "Not impossible to explain by the laws of chance but wow, doesn't it make you think?" says Cliff. The existence of conditions suitable for life-as-we-know-it to exist is Cliff's winning set of numbers.

My point here is that for Cliff's argument to be logically valid then he must also be implying that no other form of life can be possible. Otherwise then another set of numbers would not mean no winner at all but would just mean a different lottery winner. In such a case we might now be discussing this in a six dimensional pure energy thought interchange, for example. Now whilst Cliff's argument needs this implication to be logically valid we have no evidence to support this.

Neither Cliff nor I nor anyone else has a clue how many different forms of life might be possible in how many different sets of laws of nature.

So it is not logically valid to base an argument on the case that none others exist. We simply don't have a clue. To draw any kind of inference based on this lack of knowledge is irrational and illogical. It's kind of a "premise of the gaps" argument really I suppose.

So to recap; Cliff claims that our lottery winning universe has bought the only winning ticket against all the odds. I simply point out that there is no evidence at all to enable us to claim that these are the only winning numbers.

My second point relates to the fact that Cliff's argument also depends upon another unstated premise. This time it is the fact that he assumes there has only been only one lottery draw. In other words this universe is the only one.

Whilst physics does in fact hint at the existence of other universes either removed from ours in higher dimensions of space or indeed by time in some form of cyclical system, we still basically don't know.

Once again the logical validity of Cliff's argument rest on an assumption that neither of these things is true. Once again we have a "premise of the gaps" situation.

Now Cliff is far from daft and he has spotted that this problem with he argument exists. His answer is to appeal to Occam's razor and to claim that an uncreated, creator is a simpler explanation than natural laws that might mean multi-verse's or a cyclical system.

Of course this claim itself is entirely unsupported. Cliff readily admits this and summarises his view as follows.
"For me and many others, however, Occam’s razor (the logical construct which says, “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best”) leads us to a strong likelihood of a “superintellect” First Cause. The alternate explanations, while plausible, are complex and lack evidence. It is my view that the simplest solution is to credit fine tuning to the hand of the Designer, Planner, and Creator of the universe."

"One God (unfathomable to you, maybe) is for me far simpler than 10 to the power of 59 universes."
- - -

As an interesting aside Cliff then says something which makes me think that, regardless of whether or not there is a god, belief in a god can be a bad thing;
"Fine Tuning is only a “problem to solve” for those who disbelieve in a Creator."
I think that human beings are at their best when they are solving problems and learning about the world.

If belief in a god means you can just stop there and say, "god did it", then the world would be a far poorer place, in every sense of the word.


  1. Psi,

    In time, I do want to respond to your contention that the fine-tuning argument is irrational, and your reasons for making that claim. But your closing statements demand a swift response from me ...

    You write, As an interesting aside Cliff then says something which makes me think that, regardless of whether or not there is a god, belief in a god can be a bad thing;
    "Fine Tuning is only a “problem to solve” for those who disbelieve in a Creator."
    I think that human beings are at their best when they are solving problems and learning about the world.
    If belief in a god means you can just stop there and say, "god did it", then the world would be a far poorer place, in every sense of the word.

    Psi, I’m surprised that you would think this about me. Surely you are aware of my opposition to the Intelligent Design movement, and god-of-the-gaps arguments, on the grounds that they stifle scientific investigation.

    Believing, as I do, in a God who works through the very laws of nature he himself set into place, I wholeheartedly endorse learning all we can about those laws and all physical, chemical, and biological processes. I endorse research into abiogenesis. I endorse evolution, and the quest to learn how incredibly complex organisms arose naturally. I endorse the quest for a theory of everything. And I endorse learning all we can about how and why the universe fits into so many tight physical and chemical restraints.

    My comment had to do, not with science, but with philosophy, and with the theistic debate. When, in the 20th century, we discovered how the universe fits into these necessary and precise parameters, a theists would simply shrug his shoulders and say, “how interesting.” An atheist, however, was backed into something of a corner. Hoyle’s own testimony was that his discovery of fine tuning “shook his atheism.”

    Philosophically, fine tuning creates a “problem to solve” only for the atheist. Atheist and theist alike, however, should work shoulder to shoulder discovering any and all discoverable data regarding the hows and whys of fine tuning.

    (These comments all presume the legitimacy of “fine tuning” in the first place, something which you reject. But that is a separate issue.)

  2. Hi Cliff,

    Thanks for clarifying. I understand what you mean now.

    It didn't sound like you but I could only go on what you had written.

    Your position is much clearly now - and much closer to mine.

    Best Regards,