Friday, April 01, 2011

Jerry and Jerry's Kids are all Tuned Up

Jerry has again ventured from his narrow area of expertise. Thankfully this time, in a post entitled When Theology does Cosmology he merely introduced a subject and then let his erudite followers do the dirty work. On this occasion he is sly, like the sheriff in Mississippi Burning.

Jerry mentions several subtopics for his readers to mangle, but the one most interesting to me, no surprise, is the topic of fine tuning. His readers manage to display most if not all of the misconceptions about fine tuning.

Here is fine tuning explained in a stone cold, unsexy manner:

The Big bang produced a universe with hydrogen, helium, and a small amount of lithium. Immediately the density of the universe decreased and the temperature dropped. At first blush this would end the naturally occurring periodic table, because the conditions needed for fusion include high density and high temperatures. Nevertheless the universe did manage to synthesize the heavier elements such as carbon, oxygen and iron. The furnaces the universe used to carry out this synthesis are found only inside stars. Yet the conditions under which stars were formed appear to be highly sensitive to the values of the physical constants and the strengths of the fundamental forces. This sensitivity is known as "fine tuning".

Misconception 1: The term "fine tuning" was invented by religionists and is a loaded term implying an intelligent fine tuner.

No—the term was invented by scientists and merely reflects the apparent sensitivity of the universe’s ability to synthesize heavy elements on the physical constants and basic forces. It meant to convey only this sensitivity—not a designer. It is disingenuous (so right up Jerry's alley, eh?) to blame this term on religionists.

Misconception 2: The term denotes a misplaced anthropocentrism

No—the definition says absolutely nothing about man. It doesn't say that the universe is fine tuned for producing a habitat suitable for man. It doesn't even say the universe is fine tuned for producing life. What it really says, in nontechnical terms, is that the universe is fine tuned for producing rocks.

Misconception 3: The fine tuning is "carbon chauvinistic". That is it assumes that life like ours is the only kind of life possible.

No it doesn't. While it is certainly arguable that life like ours (carbon based) is the only kind of complex life possible, due to the richness of carbon chemistry, the fine tuning argument makes no such claim. The fine tuning implication for life is second order: life of any kind, not just carbon based, requires complex chemistry and complex molecules to store information. That requires the synthesis of heavy elements. As a byproduct of the universe being able to produce heavy elements, it can also potentially produce life. But that's merely a hypothetical byproduct—the fine tuning is all about synthesizing heavy elements. Making rocks.

Misconception 4: The science fiction writer Douglas Adams debunked the fine tuning argument with his puddle analogy:
imagining a sentient puddle who wakes up one morning and thinks, "This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!" See Wikipedia.
No—once again the fine tuning argument is not related to life at all let alone dedicated to life like ours. The puddle argument might have a place in arguing against the Privileged Planet view—which says that the earth is perfectly fit for life, but is completely irrelevant when it comes to the question of cosmological fine-tuning.

Variants of this misconception don't mention Douglas Adams—they say things like "of course since this is our universe and we evolved here it naturally appears fine tuned." Which misses the boat that nothing would have evolved if the universe couldn’t make heavy elements.

Misconception 5: Victor Stenger has debunked the fine tuning argument.

No—Victor Stenger argued that perhaps the universe is not really fine tuned—that is perhaps its ability to synthesize elements it is not really sensitive to the constants or the forces. A legitimate idea—and one that someday, someone might demonstrate. But Victor Stenger did not. I can't tell you how many times people have provided a link to this nascent, surface-scratching, speculative, disgrace of a paper—not peer reviewed, not published, close to ten years old, sitting stale on a University of Colorado philosophy web site as "proof" that Victor Stenger has debunked fine tuning. Rarely does someone surpass Victor Stenger in getting heaps of credit for producing (in this case) garbage.

Misconception 6: Ikeda and Jefferys debunked the fine tuning argument.

No—they produced some philosophical woo which—like Stenger's rebuttal, is stale and available only on a web site. This is an impenetrable Bayesian argument—which should already set off alarms—that contains, in its introduction, the following paragraph:
In this article we will show that this argument is wrong. Not only is it wrong, but in fact we will show that the observation that the universe is "fine-tuned" in this sense can only count against a supernatural origin of the universe. And we shall furthermore show that with certain theologies suggested by deities that are both inscrutable and very powerful, the more "finely-tuned" the universe is, the more a supernatural origin of the universe is undermined.
Science certainly has a place, don't you think, for Ikeda and Jefferys to quantify "sufficiently inscrutable deities" and prove that the more fine tuned the universe is, the less likely such deities exist.

Misconception 7: The fine tuning argument depends on small probability for the constants, but nobody knows what the a priori probability of the constants is.

No—the fine tuning argument says nothing—absolutely nothing about the probability of the constants.

Misconception 8: Maybe someday there will be a theory of everything that explains the constants. Maybe they must have the values they have.

No—again, the fine tuning argument says nothing—absolutely nothing about the probability of the constants. It not only doesn't require the probability to be small (misconception 7) but also is unaffected if the probability is unity. It only depends on the sensitivity of the heavy element synthesis to the values. Now, from a philosophical standpoint it will be a win for theists if the constants have unit probability—because then we can argue that the necessary conditions were built into the fabric of spacetime. From a secular standpoint is is better if the constants are a random draw (small probability) because that is consistent with the multiverse. But the fine tuning argument is agnostic when it comes to the probability of the constants.

Now let's see what comments Jerry's kids made regarding fine tuning.

Eric Macdonald wrote:
Stenger also has a new book almost out entitled The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us.
I'll wait until this book comes out—but notice how stupid the title is. The fine tuning argument has nothing to do with us. It has to do with producing rocks. (Misconception(s): 2, 3, 5 )

Cody wrote:
What really bugs me about the fine tuning argument is that it implicitly claims that the finely tuned constants could have been something other than what they are, but we have no theory as to why they are what they are. It could be that in the future we discover a deeper reason for them to be that way. (Misconception(s): 7, 8 )

The other part that really bugs me is that it only applies to life as we know it. Calculating which fundamental physics results in a life-supporting universe is an intractable task, we can’t even simulate quantum mechanical systems on a macroscopic scale, let alone the enormous systems that could all potentially ‘grow’ life. (Misconception(s): 2, 3)
Deen wrote:
It also implicitly assumes that the purpose of the universe is to support human life – which is kind of begging the question, isn’t it? (Misconception(s): 2)
Kevin wrote:
The universe is fine-tuned for “no life”. If it were fine-tuned for life, then life would literally be everywhere we look. And yet, everywhere we look, there is no life other than there (so far).
It’s again a part of our human narcissism. We’re just SOOOOOO special that everything must have been built with us in mind.
No, the fine tuning argument is not that the universe is fine tuned for life, but fine tuned for synthesizing heavy elements. (Misconception(s): 2, 3)

In addition to the good rebuttals to the “fine-tuning” argument posted upthread, I take issue with just the name of the argument. The universe wasn’t tuned at all. This is just the way it is. If the universe wasn’t like this, it would be like something else. It’s not amazing that the universe is like it is!
Also, saying it’s “fine-tuned” implies agency of some kind. (Misconception(s): 1, 4)

There are plenty more nonsensical comments more, but I’m tiring.


  1. Dr Heddle

    I wonder if you have seen the debate between Dr Lawrence Krauss and Dr Lane Craig at the North Carolina State University recently.

    Her's the link

    You being a physicist, is it possible if you can unpack it for us.

    Thanks a lot.

  2. Thanks for this. You stirred me to do some reading on Fine Tuning again.

  3. I always struggle with this topic; I had thought it was somewhat accessible by non-physicists, but I have trouble seeing what the 'problem' is if probability has nothing to do with it. 'Heavy element synthesis' has been selected amongst many things that are sensitive, granted not without cause. The functioning of my body is very sensitive to the amount of cyanide in it... so? If things were different, yep, they'd be different.

    Even if I take the most important line from your explanation, "Yet the conditions under which stars were formed appear to be highly sensitive to the values of the physical constants and the strengths of the fundamental forces.", I'm not seeing why this is noteworthy if there is no probability involved. Were you expecting it to not be so sensitive, and if so, on what basis? Is it inconsistent with something else in science? It sure seems like this sensitivity is remarkable, and I'm not sure how you determine that sans probability.

    But yes I understand that all my points can be squashed by the fact that physicists do study this and recognize it. The only attack I think I can reasonably wage given my physics-ignorance is that big assumptions seem to be being made about what the universe would be like if these constants were different. For all we know, certain combinations of adjustments to these constants may result in new highly sensitive phenomenon in other universes specific to that value set.

  4. Anonymous11:36 PM

    Run and fix wikipedia, its aparently all wrong (or maybe you are wrong).