"Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science." -Georges Seurat

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Fine-Tuning of the Universe (the "Goldilocks Enigma") and Why It's Wrong

Recently, I've been noticing the Fine-Tuned Universe argument popping up in various popular media outlets, and being used as "evidence" in support of various poorly-reasoned arguments. A History Channel special entitled "Proving God" used this argument to claim that the universe was intelligently-designed by a Creator of some sort. And a series of wild articles at Psychology Today relies on the same argument to claim that human observers create the universe just through the act of observing it (the pseudo-scientific new-age philosophy underlying "Biocentrism"). In this post, I explain what this argument is, why it's wrong, how it's being misused, and why it doesn't prove that some god created the universe or that we humans create the universe just by our existence...

The Fine-Tuned Universe is basically the idea that the conditions that allow life to arise and thrive in our universe are so improbable and unlikely that they appear to be "finely-tuned" or precisely adjusted by someone or something we don't understand (things are "just right" for life; this is also called the "Goldilocks Enigma"). The assumption then is that life or the universe was obviously tuned by an "All-Mighty Tuner" or supernatural deity that did the appropriate tinkering just for life to arise. Or alternatively, that things in the universe are so improbable and unlikely that there must be something mystical or magical or wonderful going on, needing a fancy philosophical explanation. As we will see, neither of these assumptions are logical, necessary, or appropriate.

The existence of life, and various other special features of our universe, are apparently only possible when certain fundamental physical constants have the particular and precise values that they have. Roughly speaking, we can think of most of these physical constants as governing the strength of gravity, the speed of light, the masses of particles, the rules governing their interactions, etc. Any slight modifications to any of these values, then, will result in a vastly different universe that does not have the properties conducive to the formation of stars, galaxies, planets, atoms, molecules, and ultimately, life. Even the illustrious physicist Stephen Hawking observed "The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers...the remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life." Computer and mathematical models of alternative hypothetical universes in which these values are slightly modified usually do not result in a universe that looks or behaves anything like our own. Scientific research seems to be fairly clear on this issue, and it is not in great doubt.

What IS in doubt is the idea that any one of these physical values could possibly be anything other than what they are. We only have one universe to look at and observe; but with no basis for comparison, and no way to calculate the probabilities that one physical constant value might be any greater or lesser than what it already is, what can we really conclude? There is absolutely no reason to think that, say, the value of gravity could be anything other than what it is. How would we even assign a probability to an alternative value of gravity, in order to claim that its value in our universe is "unlikely" or "improbable"?

Let's assume for fun that I'm nine feet tall. We can calculate various probabilities about observing this particular value (say one in fifty billion) only because we have billions of other people of various heights to compare against, using physical measurements and then applying the appropriate statistics that all rely on comparative samples. But we have no such luck with the universe's physical constants. We have no other universes for comparison, and no one has ever seen the physical constants of our universe take on any other values than the ones they already have, despite extensive research. So we have absolutely no grounds to assume that such variation is even possible, let alone provide a statistical calculation regarding their probabilities. The Fine-Tuning argument, then, is wrong and fallacious because it assumes that variability exists in physical constants when there is no reason to make such an assumption.

In regards to "Proving God" and other related intelligent-design arguments based on Fine-Tuning, we can now see why the apparent fine-tuning of the universe does not prove what their proponents think it does. "Apparent" fine-tuning does not mean there actually is any fine-tuning going on; this is just a poor assumption and misinterpretation of logic and statistics. Maybe there is a god or an intelligent designer of the universe, and maybe there isn't, but the fact that physical constants in our universe have precise values is not proof of this.

Even if such evidence existed, it wouldn't imply a deity involved in the everyday lives of people, that cares about us, that there is a heaven or hell, or that souls exist, or anything mystical at all, as interpreted by most religions. Such evidence would only be suggestive of a hands-off "clock-maker"-type deity that set things in motion at the start of the universe and let things run from there (thinking that was popular during the Enlightenment). If people want to believe in an all-powerful creator or some version of intelligent design, they are going to have to look elsewhere for their "proof," as the Fine-Tuned Universe argument is full of holes.

In regards to Dr. Lanza's (and Deepak Chopra's) new age "scientific philosophy" of Biocentrism, in which the Fine-Tuning argument is used to claim that the universe is created by the simple acts of observation by humans, we again can see the obvious weakness in their arguments. Fine-tuning is only an apparent phenomena, not an actual one. It is not suggestive of anything mystical or magical going on, or really of anything in need of an explanation.

I won't go any deeper into explaining why Biocentrism is silly misguided thinking, as that has already been done (here and here and elsewhere by many others). I'll just add that my repeated attempts to politely point out Dr. Lanza's erroneous thinking in the comment sections of his articles at Psychology Today have resulted in virtually all my posts being deleted, and I'm not the only person to have complained about this problem. Apparently, he does not appreciate any form of criticism (valid, constructive, or otherwise). Unfortunately, Dr. Lanza doesn't seem to understand that while criticism isn't fun, it is very important, and one of the hallmark features of modern science. Ideas that can survive brutal criticism and empirical testing are a primary reason modern science is so spectacularly effective in whittling away at the truth.

Back to the Fine-Tuning argument. I think a major reason that this argument is so commonly used is that its logical problems are hidden behind layers of fancy words. Language can often be imprecise, sloppy, illogical, and misleading. We can naively ask "why does the universe have these particular values for physical constants?", but just because we can ask the question doesn't imply that it is a meaningful question, or that it has an answer, or that religion or new-age pseudo-scientific babblings are the answer. We might just as well ask "what does a square circle look like?" or "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" or any trillions of silly combination of words ended by a question mark. Just because we can string words together to form grammatically-correct questions doesn't mean the questions have any value or answer to them. These questions simply reveal the short-comings and imprecision of language, rather than being suggestive of a higher mystery to be solved by philosophy or religion. In any case, the Fine-Tuning argument just does not support the existence of a god or serve as proof for new-age pseudo-scientific philosophies, as suggested by their proponents.

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