Several bad reasons to dismiss fine-tuning

I've been doing a series on Greta Christina's laughably bad reasons why we shouldn't believe in God. In my most recent post I examined her claim that all religious arguments are 'ridiculously weak', and noted that she linked to certain posts on her own blog where she examines some of those arguments in more detail. I'm going to take a break from the regular series and look at some of these, starting with her post on fine-tuning.

Things are not off to a promising start with her description of the fine-tuning argument:
The Universe is perfectly fine-tuned to allow life to come into being. The distance of the Earth from the Sun, the substance and depth of the atmosphere, the orbit of the Moon, the nature of matter and energy, the very laws of physics themselves… all are perfectly tuned to let life happen. If any of them had been different by even a small amount, there could not have been life on Earth. And the odds against this fine-tuning are astronomical. Therefore, the Universe, and all these details about it, must have been created this way on purpose. And the only imaginable being that could have created the universe and fine-tuned it for life is God.
The problems begin with her description of the Universe as 'perfectly' fine-tuned for life. She apparently thinks that when fine-tuning proponents say the Universe is fine-tuned, they mean that it is perfectly hospitable to life, a veritable cocoon of mild, pleasant conditions which allow life to flourish. Thus she sarcastically subtitles the second section of her post "Bitter Expanses of Cold and Blasting Chaotic Heat-The Perfect Vacation Spot!" She then goes on to object:

The overwhelming majority of the universe consists of unimaginably huge vastnessess of impossibly cold empty space… punctuated at rare intervals by comets, asteroids, meteors (some of which might hit us, by the way, also negating the “perfectly designed for human life” concept), cold rocks, blazingly hot furnaces of incandescent gas, the occasional black hole, and what have you. The overwhelming majority of the universe is, to put it mildly, not fine-tuned for life.
However, the fine-tuning argument does NOT include the claim that the Universe is perfectly hospitable to human life or any other life for that matter, if by hospitable we mean that conditions are comfortable for humans or other life forms. Rather, the claim is that the Universe is set up to permit the emergence of life at all. The claim is that, of all the possible ways a world could be, in terms of its fundamental constants and physical laws, the number of life-permitting ways is vanishingly small. As Paul Davies has noted, "'anthropic' reasoning fails to distinguish between minimally biophilic universes, in which life is permitted, but only marginally possible, and optimally biophilic universes, in which life flourishes because biogenesis occurs frequently ..." Never mind whether the Universe is hospitable to human life; that it allowed human life to evolve at all is what is so surprising and in need of explanation, given that the vast majority of combinations of constants and physical laws do not allow any life to evolve. To take just two examples: 1) if the gravitational constant were just a little larger than it currently is, any stars that managed to form would burn out quickly and form black holes, preventing the formation of stable solar systems in which life forms could evolve; 2) if the strong nuclear force were just 2% stronger than it currently is, all of the initial hydrogen formed after the Big Bang would have fused into diprotons, thus short-circuiting the formation of heavier elements required to create planets on which life could evolve. 

Thus, Christina's stock recital of the vastness and coldness of the Universe is beside the point, as is her complaint that the conditions which enabled the emergence of life on Earth are only temporary in the grand scheme of things. It is no objection to the fine-tuning argument that the Universe is inhospitable to life.

(NB: This lack of hospitality can be exaggerated, however, and there are plenty of atheist physicists who affirm that the Universe is not just minimally biophilic. For example, Leonard Susskind says that "Our own universe is an extraordinary place that appears to be fantastically well designed for our own existence.")

The fact that the fine-tuning argument only rests on the claim that the Universe is minimally biophilic also rebuts Christina's invocation of Douglas Adams' puddle analogy:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “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!
The idea is that the Universe seems to have been fine-tuned for life, but really the correct way to think about this is that we have evolved to fit our habitat, instead of our habitat having been designed to fit us. But this is where the above discussion becomes relevant. Once again, the basic claim upon which the fine-tuning argument is based is that the number of life-permitting universes, compared to the total number of possible universes, is vanishingly small. The idea is that the other universes would not allow ANY sort of life to evolve, not even life with a different physical basis. These other universes do not allow for the formation of complex chemical and biological structures, are incredibly short-lived, are permeated with high-intensity radiation, etc. Now there are indeed cases, of which Douglas Adams' sentient puddle would be one, of things being adapted to circumstances rather than the other way around. The fact that Tarzan, for example, grows up to become very lean, muscular and athletic, does not imply that his jungle habitat was intentionally designed to fit his muscular figure, but rather that he himself adapted to that environment. But fine-tuning is not one of those cases. It is by all accounts, even that of most atheist cosmologists (see here for more examples), a case of the circumstances seeming to fit the object.

Another objection Christina makes to the argument is that vastly improbable events happen every day which we take no notice of, because one or another equally improbable event was bound to happen, so there is no reason to demand a special explanation of fine-tuning, even if it is improbable:
Here’s an analogy. I just rolled a die ten times (that’s a six-sided die, all you D&D freaks), and got the sequence 3241154645. The odds against that particular sequence coming up are astronomical. Over 60 million to one. Does that mean that this sequence was designed to come up? Or think of it this way. The odds against me, personally being born? They’re beyond astronomical. The chances that, of my mom’s hundreds of eggs and my dad’s hundreds of millions of sperm, this particular sperm and egg happened to combine to make me? Ridiculously unlikely. Especially when you factor in the odds against my parents being born… and against their parents being born… and their parents, and theirs, and so on and so on and so on. The chances against me, personally, having been born are so vast, it’s almost unimaginable. But does that mean I was destined to be born? Does that mean we need to concoct an entire philosophy and theology to explain The Improbability of Greta-ness?
Once again, however, she misunderstands the point fine-tuning proponents are making when they claim that the improbability of fine-tuning demands an explanation. It is not just the improbability itself that is noteworthy, but the significance of the outcome as well. 

Let's use her own example for a minute. Suppose a gambler is rolling a die and is betting that he can guess the outcome in advance. Suppose he predicts that the sequence will come up 3241154645, and it comes out exactly as predicted. Would the other betters simply shrug their shoulders and dismiss the outcome, reasoning that some such sequence was bound to come up? No, they would quite reasonably suspect that something more than chance was involved in determining the outcome. Or suppose you owe loan sharks $26,650 and unless you give them the money by tomorrow they will come for you. Then suppose the morning the debt is due you find an unmarked envelope on your porch containing exactly $26,650. Would it be reasonable to dismiss the exactitude of the amount and its timing as mere coincidence? Or should you rather conclude that someone meant for you to have that money in response to your plight?

On the other hand, we don't stop to wonder if we roll a die ten times in a row and get the sequence 3241154645, if the roll is not connected to any independently significant outcome. We begin to suspect intentionality only when we have more to go on. The moral of the story is that we must distinguish between improbable events for which there is no reason to suspect intentionality (or at least, an overarching intentionality), such as Greta's coming to be born, and improbable events which do suggest an overarching intentionality, as in the case of your receiving exactly the amount of money you need to pay off the loan shark. Because Greta fails to make this distinction, this objection also falls flat.

My examination of Greta's 'arguments' is beginning to sadden me. How can anyone rest content with being so obviously intellectually lazy?


Nicely done rebuttal.

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