Is the Universe "Fine Tuned" for Life and Mind? Is that question a mistake?

This week we will talk about a few philosophical concepts that I think can help us with considerations such as the "Fine Tuning" meme which is currently popular in some circles.  There are people who seem impressed that, "The laws and constants of physics are on a 'knife edge', finely tuned to create a universe that can support 'life' and 'consciousness'."  They claim to think that, "If any of these quantities or laws were altered in the slightest degree the universe as we know it could not exist." etc.  

My current opinion is that this entire line of thinking is deeply flawed, to the extent that I find it curious that "smart" people could be impressed by these considerations.  Presumably some of you disagree with this position.  So this week we will talk about a small list of philosophical concepts that I think are important for thinking in general, and we  will use the "Fine Tuning" debate as an entry point and a touchstone for the discussion to anchor an understanding of the following: 

Counterfactual reasoning: "It is not the case that x, but if it were the case that x then..."

Ceteris Paribus: "All (other) things equal..."  

Mutatis Mutandis:  "With only the necessary modifications...", "Changing only those things which need to be changed..."  

The map/territory distinction: To "confuse the map with the territory" would be to treat the contents of models as though they were contents of the real world.  

Anthropic Principle + Universal Darwinism: If one finds replication, heredity, and scarcity one will find an evolutionary process.  

Additionally you can expect some talk of the concepts, "identity", "uniqueness", "analogy", and more.  

For an example of a "smart" person speaking in a way that I find objectionable about the topic of fine tuning, check out the video below.  We can discuss whether or not Susskind and others who have been impressed with "fine tuning" considerations may be making some philosophical errors.  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cT4zZIHR3s

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  • Rowena K.

    Dear Michael: Sorry I responded to something you were writing to Dave. Whether universal constants are or, or not, fine tuned, I don't think it was all done for us. That seems unduly egocentric.
    Anyway, I think it's time for me to move forward, read Sam Harris, and, go finish making Deviled Eggs.

    1 · October 17, 2013

    • Steve S.

      What's this? Rowena's in the Kitchen cavorting with devil embryos? God/creator/designer forbid.

      October 17, 2013

    • Rowena K.

      Tasty little devils, aren't they? I could rename them. How about Beelzebub's Cackleberries? Or Lucifer's Seed? Or Satan's Spawn? Nah! Most people know them as Deviled Eggs. (Instead of "The Devils' in the details", in this case, it's the mustard.)

      October 17, 2013

  • Steve S.

    Yo Michael - The Antropic Principle a la wiki: "i.e., only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life will go unbeheld." My reaction to this is: "Well duh." Or, "Only a table capable of supporting a cup could there be a fancy cup on the table, while a table less capable will be cupless." I think my generalized A.P. adequately captures these propositions, which I consider scientific and/or philosophical flapdoodle.
    Praise be to those that can find hope that someday the A.P. will be found righteous.

    October 17, 2013

  • Dave D.

    So if fine-tuning would NOT imply a god, then what would it imply? Luck? Who cares if we were lucky?

    October 16, 2013

    • Michael J F.

      It could imply any number of things, including a "non-godly' creator of some sort. The observation and ideas that flow from it could imply that our constants are not constant at all in the larger universe (our universe). I tend to think it implies multiple universes, and I think it is defeatist to suggest that that might not be testable at some point in future. I wouldn't be surprised if we found the constants are not constant through time and space, something that has been hinted at with some recent observations.

      October 17, 2013

    • Dave D.

      I don't know what "non-godly creator" means. I think even Deists (who don't consider that God still meddles in our affairs) still call their Creator a God. Regardless, the whole fine tuning argument is that this Creator didn't just randomly toss things together, but did so in a way to get us: So who cares if you call it God or Creator? (Believers tend to use the terms interchangeably anyway.)

      I DON'T think the fine-tuning argument applies to finding the constants non-universal (i.e. in our own universe) -- at least, I didn't see that in Suskind's analysis. That question would be just a standard scientific one, of observation and experimentation.

      October 17, 2013

  • Rowena K.

    Dear Michael (continued):

    3. I don’t think it has been suggested that “…it is not worth investigating further...” “…features of the universe that we can’t adequately explain yet...“ This is the precise realm of science. Since there’s so much we don’t know yet (and, much of what we think we know that eventually may be proven not to be so,) science should be around as long as we are.
    4. Religionists who don’t try to impose their beliefs on others are welcome to hold those beliefs. Religions are to be feared when used to circumvent science or used to impose one sects’ belief system on others. Fundamentalists of whatever religion can be very dangerous.
    5. What is “evidence and truth” for you, may not be for others.

    October 16, 2013

    • Michael J F.

      Rowena I was responding to Steve. I don't agree with generalizing the anthropic principle. But the original question posed by Harland for that meetup is what I'm really getting at. I don't think the question is a mistake.

      1 · October 17, 2013

    • Michael J F.

      Neither science nor religion should be feared, only those who would use either to impose their will. It's a subtle but important distinction. I see both some atheists and extreme fundamentalists as being motivated primarily by fear. Fear leads to irrationality.

      October 17, 2013

  • Rowena K.

    Dear Michael:

    1. “Words” are the method through which humans communicate ideas and “truth”. “Playing with words” has been and, is, done by most of humanity; whether using words from older ideas to connect with and/or describe newer ideas or, in telling a joke. “Evidence and truth” cannot be shared without language. One needs to be careful in the choice of words to convey the meaning of what one intends to convey.
    2. Whatever rational people intend when they say “fine tuned universe”, there are numerous religionists who will presume that this is scientific evidence for a deity/god/superhuman force they have believed in heretofore without evidence. “Intelligent design” scientists may have important positions in our government that impacts the rest of us. Our NIH director, Francis Collins, is one. Politicians also: Michele Bachman. Ted Cruz. Rand Paul. Etc. See recent Scientific American articles about the far right GOP government shutdown’s impact on science.

    (to be continued)

    October 16, 2013

    • mary

      "Evidence and truth" can be shared, in fact, without language. One needs to be careful in the choice of senses to privilege over others.

      October 16, 2013

    • mary

      And I'm not comfortable with rejecting a descriptive conclusion based on the fact that some will use same to justify that for which we [and, yes, include yrs truly] we find no credible basis.

      October 16, 2013

  • Dave D.

    We are powerless to experiment in this case, but that's hardly reason to jump to supernatural explanations. Our models (maps) were built in/for this universe, and we have no information on whether they would help to describe others. About the only statement that can accurately be made is: IF other universes are described by the same laws/equations that we use now for this one, except (perhaps) in constants which are used in them, and IF the values of those constants could (in different universes) run randomly over a large domain, and IF there is no underlying relationship between those constants (constraining them relative to each other) which is not apparent to us (due to our lack of experiment), THEN we're pretty lucky to have those constants hit the values they did. That's a pretty worthless observation, and certainly different than the unqualified antecedent which "fine-tuners" seem to prefer.

    October 16, 2013

  • Steve S.

    Analogous to my generalized Anthropic Principle, The Fine Tuned Principle states that anything is fine tuned to be exactly what it is. Thus I see both principles as empty tautologies.

    October 15, 2013

    • Larry K.

      Steve, as we know, the anthropic "fine-tuned" or "designed" universe is a major argument, used by theists, for proving the existence and power of an overarching supernatural entity. Last Saturday, Rowena and I went to the Richard Dawkins event. One audience question was what is the most powerful argument for the existence of a god. He responded by citing the anthropic model of the "designed" or finely-tuned" universe. He said that argument is defeated by asking how the intellect/power deity was created, if everything has to have a creator. No response is available there. We can answer that we don't know enough yet, but that isn't an adequate response because it lacks sufficiency, as well as any evidence. Logically, the affirmative of the anthropic principle could only be adopted, without evidence, if the alternative hypothesis to the null hypothesis were to be credited with validity. This idiocy is why we insist on falsifiability of propositions in science.

      October 16, 2013

    • Michael J F.

      I guess the part I disagree with is all of your statement. I don't get into the playing with words thing much. And I'm certainly not suggesting that it suggests a creator. By the way a creator need not be a deity or resemble in any way the gods humanity has come up with over the millennia. But when there are features of the universe that we can't adequately explain yet, it is defeatist to suggest it is not worth investigating further. That isn't science, at least to me it isn't. Otherwise I don't really have much of an opinion. As I say, we don't have tested theories yet. But I do know this: the fact that some people use fine-tuning to appeal to a godly creator means very little to me (other than they are entitled to their opinions). Fear of religion doesn't motivate me on this or any other scientific problem; only evidence & truth does.

      October 16, 2013

  • Rod M.

    Dawkins @ psu 2morrow

    October 10, 2013

    • Rowena K.

      Most gods that man has created are pretty flaky and, in many cases, downright mean. Sort of like a little child stirring up an ant colony with a stick.

      October 13, 2013

    • Steve S.

      To fine tune the gods they should be given a physic.

      October 15, 2013

  • Rowena K.

    Mary: Please don't bother with sending me the source of your quote. I found it in Wikipedia under "Subject (grammar)".

    Thanks,

    Rowena

    October 10, 2013

  • Rowena K.

    Please provide the source of your quote. It looks like it's from Wikipedia, but which topic? I'd be happy to go look it up in context.
    Unfortunately, there are gaps in my knowledge.

    Also, thanks for the PS. Larry and I did not say or, imply, that denotations and connotations are synonyms. When he said "connotations", that's what he meant. When I mentioned both words together, my intent was to indicate two different kinds of meaning.

    October 10, 2013

  • mary

    With regard to Larry's assertion, well, perhaps it's possible philosophically to be tuned or designed, but not logically or grammatically. The source verbs, by definition, do imply agency.

    "According to a tradition associated with predicate logic
    & dependency grammars, the subject is the most prominent overt argument of the predicate. By this position all languages with arguments have subjects, though there is no way to define this consistently for all languages.[3] From a functional perspective, a subject is a phrase that conflates nominative case with the topic."
    Nonetheless -- PLEASE! -- that doesn't justify a conclusion that the subject need be an emotional or supernatural construct. Meanwhile, it sometimes feels as if we have "progressed" to questions along the line of "Why are people arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin when we all know, for certain, that pins don't really exist?"

    MaryMac
    PS -- "Connotation" & denotation" are not synonyms, by the way.

    October 10, 2013

  • Rowena K.

    When naming a phenomenon or concept, what one chooses to call it is significant in that it has connotations as well as denotations, is not only intellectual but, can be emotional. That is specifically why the far right and the evangelicals have co-opted words that normally mean something less malign, like "intelligent design". Either Susskind intended to imply a "tuner" or, Susskind intended to make it possible for others to interpret a "tuner". Either way, it's objectionable from a scientist who should be more precise than "regular" human beings. If you look at the recent New York Times article on the Koch brothers and the organization charts showing the interconnectedness of their web(s) of charities, you will see a great many examples of this. It is intentional and misleading.

    October 10, 2013

    • Rowena K.

      Thanks for the response. I wasn't trying to politicize the discussion; just pointing to an example of using words to name things they are not. It is done all the time. It is good that you have the ability to investigate the verbiage and to determine what the named thing actually is. Not everyone can or, will, do this.

      October 10, 2013

    • Rowena K.

      I also meant to mention that there are words with large numbers of denotations, not to mention connotations.

      October 10, 2013

  • Larry K.

    Enjoyed the discussion about universe constants. Unfortunately, "fined tuned" implies a tuner.

    October 9, 2013

    • Larry K.

      Yes, when others use the terms "fine tuned" and "well designed", I do think they may be implying a tuner or designer. And when used in conjunction with development of the universe, I think that, perhaps, they intended to indicate a supernatural designer/builder. Either that, or they don't quite understand the import of their language. I rejected the messages of creationism and intelligent design over a half century ago, even though these connotations weren't labeled as such then. Leonard Susskind goes to the edge and then, sort of, backs away from the designer statement with randomness of a possible infinity of universes. This concept begs the question of what preceded his megauniverses.

      October 10, 2013

    • Michael J F.

      The fine-tuning, to me it's pretty obvious, allows a tuner/designer but certainly does not necessitate one.

      October 10, 2013

  • Gretchen

    Oops! I forgot about the meeting.

    October 9, 2013

  • mary

    Want to (and think I will) still make it. Alas, have been ill. Feeling better today, but can't make any promises about tomorrow and don't want to be chalked up as one of the pesky no-show folks -- so would like my "yes" to be counted only as a "maybe."

    Mary

    October 8, 2013

  • Rod M.

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/08/nobel-laureate-peter-higgs-boson-elusive

    If it wasn't for the Higgs field, planets and life would be impossible. What luck that we live in a universe designed for us!

    October 8, 2013

  • Michael J F.

    Man oh man I'm unhappy to miss this one. I like the way Paul Davies discusses it. Sort of an open-minded attitude. But I approach it as merely a curious set of scientific discoveries that may or may not have any real significance for our ultimate origins. I don't think it's flawed at all to look into it, that's just science. But many conclusions that are being drawn from it are likely flawed. We just need to know more about the universe before we can say much more is all.

    October 8, 2013

  • Tom R.

    Susskind seems to be saying that once we discover a useful concept like the Universal Constant, it is now not merely descriptive, but a part of the universe itself, and what's more, a finely tuned parameter in some kind of "creation function". Functions, parameters, and Universal Constants exist only in human minds, and to attach metaphysical significance to parameter change sensitivities in our models strikes me as a kind of human-science-centered arrogance. It's like invoking a supernatural force to explain why bacteria evolved before apes, in spite of the alphabetical order of their names.

    1 · October 7, 2013

  • Larry K.

    Susskind's mathematical model apparently permits different universes to have various sets of "constants", some of which might permit types of life. I referred to this notion as "their probable diversity". Proving the hypothesis of a designer starts with recognizing that we have to show that the null hypothesis, that there is no designer, could be rejected. I think that no one has figured out how to do this. Even if some hot shot thought she/he had done so, it wouldn't prove that there is a designer, only that it is likely that the "no designer" hypothesis, as tested, is not valid. Replication and peer review might reflect badly on such a conclusion.

    October 6, 2013

    • Steve S.

      Permits ≠ probable. All the universes could be the same, it's all empty speculation. BTW "Who ordered that?" is a famous quote by Rabi, I had no designer in mind.

      October 6, 2013

    • David B. H.

      Larry, I don't think the "null hypothesis" is appropriate here. To abbreviate the arguments, the burden of proof is on the positive, that god exists. To try to prove that god does not exist leads to an unending series of "Is god under that rock?" questions. Believers can always find another rock to hide their god. There is no need to prove god does not exist. What is lacking is a proof that there is a god.

      1 · October 7, 2013

  • Larry K.

    Probabilities may include O%. In addition, Susskind has indicated that he and others are exploring their models to evaluate such differences. As you are aware, the "fine tuned" universe is one of the staples of creationism arguments for the existence of a grand designer. My comment was intended to be consistent with exploration of our topic.

    October 7, 2013

  • Ryan S.

    I'd love to hear a strong pro argument. One that didn't appeal to incredulity, centrism or solipsism. The classics that I'm familiar with are among the worst philosophy I know of. Douglas Adams has the best short retort I know of. With his story about a mud puddle who is astounded and grateful to have found a pothole that fits him so perfectly.

    October 6, 2013

    • Gretchen

      That's marvelous! Thanks a bunch!

      October 6, 2013

  • Larry K.

    Comment on Susskind video: He seems to go towards the Strong Anthropic Principle, but then moves away by referring to the huge number of megaverses and their probable diversity of characteristics. He says that these megaverses could hardly avoid producing life as we know it. In other words, in this manner he avoids the cosmic designer of creationism and Intelligent Design. His notions are built on a mathematical model of the characteristics of this universe. In following his model, does he foretell future discoveries of other universes, or will future discoveries preclude such realities? He certainly presents himself well, both in his videos and in his writings.

    October 5, 2013

    • Steve S.

      "Their probable diversity" Who ordered that?

      October 6, 2013

  • Steve S.

    Thoughts on the video:

    My Generalized Anthropic Principle: Things are the way they are because if they were different they wouldn't be the way they are.

    Susskind seems to be living on a knife edge. Just the slightest difference in his DNA and he would already be dead.

    The gravitational constant would be much larger number if we just change units.

    Black holes are a reproductive conscious life form. Prove me wrong.

    October 5, 2013

  • Steve S.

    Harland, I find your last sentence a bit convoluted; could you break it up or somehow fix for me?

    October 5, 2013

    • Harland

      Sentence changed. Better?

      1 · October 5, 2013

    • Steve S.

      thank you

      October 5, 2013

  • Tom R.

    I think there is a "cart versus horse" issue here. I look forward to discussing!

    October 5, 2013

  • Larry K.

    Steve, it may help if you put a comma after the last "indicates" in the sentence. I had to read it twice before it made sense.

    October 5, 2013

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