Last post I presented evidence that indicates that the scientific evidence shows that the universe is indeed “fine-tuned” – i.e. of all the possible universes allowed by theoretical physics, very, very few would have allowed life to evolve.
This post I consider objections to using this scientific evidence to argue that God exists.
The theistic argument
I have discussed the theistic argument in detail in The Teleological argument. In summary, it takes the following form.
- Science says the universe is “fine-tuned”.
- The only options are that it was due to physical necessity, or chance, or design.
- It wasn’t due to physical necessity or chance.
- Therefore it was due to design.
There are arguments supporting each of the premises:
- The science is fairly clear, as my previous posts showed.
- Either it could have been some other way or it couldn’t (physical necessity). If it could have been some other way, then either it was designed or by chance. Thus it appears that these options are exhaustive.
- No-one has been able to show why the laws could only be the way they are, and most cosmologists think this is unlikely. And virtually all cosmologists agree that the odds against a life-permitting universe are “astronomical”. 🙂
- So the conclusion follows as the most likely.
I won’t here be defending this argument (see the reference above for that), just considering the objections raised by cosmologist Sean Carroll.
Objections were, in summary:
- God doesn’t need to fine-tune anything – he could create life in any situation.
- Theism fails in many ways as an explanation, whereas naturalism provides a better explanation.
1. God doesn’t need to fine tune anything?
God is generally defined as being able to do anything that is not logically impossible, or nonsense. So it is presumably true that there were many ways he could create intelligent life. But since we don’t know his requirements, we cannot say whether there were others ways that were suitable.
But we are not discussing whether God could have created in a different way, but whether the universe provides evidence that God was its cause. We have a logical argument in front of us and the question is – where is it wrong?
This “objection” doesn’t make any of the premises of that argument less likely. It doesn’t even address any of the premises. The argument remains unaffected by this “objection”.
I conclude that it is irrelevant, perhaps momentarily persuasive in a debate, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
2. Naturalism provides a better explanation than theism?
This is a much more interesting objection. Carroll says at the start that he thinks the fine-tuning argument is the best theistic argument because it follows the scientific approach of testing which of two different models, theism and naturalism, better explains the phenomena. And so he gives a number of different facts which he believes are better explained by naturalism.
I agree with him that this is a good approach. So let’s consider the different facts he raises.
Enough tuning but not too much?
Carroll says that if theism was true, “you would expect enough tuning but not too much”, whereas if naturalism was true “a physical mechanism could far over-tune by an incredibly large amount that has nothing to do with the existence of life and that is exactly what we observe”.
This is a very strange comment. What does “over-tuned” mean? Does he mean God would have created a universe where the probability of it occurring randomly was lower than some particular number? ON what basis can he say this? Granted the physical universe we live in, this amount of fine tuning was necessary. We have already addressed arguments that God could have done the whole thing differently, and shown that they aren’t relevant to the theistic argument.
But further, on what basis would he expect an “over-tuned” universe? If naturalism was true, I wouldn’t expect “over-tuning”, but random tuning, with the odds highly favouring a formless, or short-lived universe – that’s what scientific fine-tuning has established. Carroll has substituted an extremely unlikely outcome for the likely outcome established by science, and given us no reason to believe it is the case.
Random particles and parameters?
“You would expect under theism that the particles and parameters of particle physics would be enough to allow life to exist and have some structure that was designed for some reason whereas under naturalism you’d expect them to be kind of random and a mess. Guess what? They are kind of random and a mess.”
The same objection applies. Particle physics looks random and messy (I guess – I’ll take his word for it as an expert), but the parameters (such as the masses and charges on particles) all turn out to be within the ranges required to allow the complex chemistry that is required for life. I can’t understand his point – did he expect all these masses and charges to be integer values using the units we have chosen?
Again, Carroll has overturned a scientifically established fact about the life-permitting range of parameters without offering any reason to go against the established science.
Life to play a special role in the universe?
He argues that under theism, we’d expect life to play a significant role in the universe, whereas under naturalism you’d expect it to be insignificant. Significant means “worthy of attention” or “having a particular meaning”. So what does it mean for Carroll? How does he measure significance?
It is true that life is confined to one or more small “islands” within a large volume of space, but does anyone believe that size is a measure of significance? In the film Apollo 13 (based on true events), 3 astronauts in a small spacecraft are in danger of being marooned in space without the possibility of ever returning to earth alive. Their focus, and the focus of their colleagues back on earth, is to get those three men back alive. No-one cares about getting the vast volume of space and its particles back, because it wasn’t significant.
Important to the running of the universe?
I think this may be what Carroll was meaning, but on this meaning, very little is significant. You could take away our solar system, or our entire galaxy, or even everything but one atom, and the laws of physics would go on describing what happens. The universe would be different, that’s all. And of course that’s what fine-tuning is all about – the really significant things about the universe are the laws than control it, and we know these are fine-tuned for life. This meaning of significant seems to point towards the theistic argument, not against it.
So what do we all think is significant?
The Apollo 13 example gives us the clue. We hold human life to be very significant, much more than inanimate things like planets, even galaxies. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms
the dignity and worth of the human person and declares all humans
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. It doesn’t say that about galaxies or planets or deep space.
If naturalism was true, it is hard to find a basis for this Declaration. Humans would just be smarter animals with no more than personal, subjective experience. In fact I’m not sure if the word “significance” could have any objective meaning – everything would just be random and purposeless.
Theism, not naturalism, can provide this significance. Carroll’s argument seems to open up counter arguments that are far stronger.
It’s because I was going to be here?
Finally, Carroll suggests that theists look at the universe and think: “I know why it is like that. It’s because I was going to be here or we were going to be here.” But again, Carroll fails to see that his “objection” doesn’t address any part of the argument.
Nothing in the fine-tuning argument presented above says anything about the purpose of the universe, certainly not that any individual was important to it. The argument simply points out that a life-permitting universe is unexpected, and that design is the best explanation. Humans may be a by-product, or central, we don’t know. But regardless, the fine-tuning is a phenomenon that merits explanation.
A category mistake?
If my assessment of his arguments is correct, how did Sean Carroll, a fine physicist and a thoughtful man, get it so wrong?
There is a clue earlier in the debate with William Lane Craig, when Carroll says: “If you go to cosmology conferences there’s a lot of talk about the origin and nature of the universe; there is no talk about what role God might have played in bringing the universe about. It is not an idea that is taken seriously.”
I think this is a category mistake, which the dictionary defines as “a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category”.
Cosmology is a science, meaning it seeks to understand physical processes. The scientific evidence for fine-tuning relates to physical processes, it is thus science, and it is properly discussed at scientific conferences. But the existence of God is not a scientific question, in that God is not physical.
The existence of God is a philosophical question, and is rightly discussed at philosophical conferences. Once the scientists have given their conclusion (sometimes provisional) about the science, philosophers and the rest of us (including cosmologists) can discuss the implications for theism or naturalism, but we wouldn’t be doing science at that point.
I can’t help wondering if Carroll sometimes thinks that if God isn’t useful in describing the physical processes, then theism has no value.
I can see little value in Carroll’s arguments here (I bet you weren’t expecting that! 🙂 ). It seems to me that the fine-tuning argument is strong, and there are only two ways to effectively argue against it:
Unknown future discoveries
It may be that one day scientists will discover a theory of everything that explains the fine-tuning we see (essentially contesting premise 3). It may be that they won’t. And even if they do, one may well ask why that theory of everything is true and leads to our universe. The fine-tuning argument would simply be pushed back one step, although it may be less compelling then.
This would be an argument of faith, something naturalists traditionally oppose. But it is one way to oppose the argument.
It is not surprising that the hypothesis of the multiverse – that there are zillions of universes, or domains of the one enormous universe, each with different laws and parameters, and while most of them don’t permit life, we are in one of the few that does – is the most popular response to the theistic fine-tuning argument. It has some scientific basis (though it has a long way to go to being shown scientifically to be true) and it offers a reasonable explanation that doesn’t need to involve God.
But, it isn’t yet established science, so there is still an element of faith in it. And, if the physics of a multiverse can be worked out, the fine-tuning argument may then be able to be re-formulated to relate to that physics, and ask for an explanation. It is impossible to say how this would work out because neither the scientists nor the philosophers have enough information.
The never-ending story?
Good science and good philosophy relate to what we know. Science tries to explain the processes and then philosophy and the human spirit can legitimately ask “Why is it like that?”
I can’t see that process ever coming to an end. I can’t see how science can ever explain everything, and I think we will always be left asking “Why is it so?” I think science does its job really well, but naturalism doesn’t explain why it is so nearly as well as theism does – and I think it will always be that way.
- Transcription of the Craig-Carroll debate.
- Post debate reflections by Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig.
- My previous post on More objections to the science of cosmic fine-tuning, and a full discussion of the Teleological argument.
Sean Carroll raised a number of non-cosmological arguments against theism. I think it will be interesting to examine them also. Coming soon!