philosophy science

polkinghorne on fine tuning

Interesting article (with video) here.

14 replies on “polkinghorne on fine tuning”

He mistakenly presumes that the universe could be different that what it is, in the same way we make a thinking error when we presume the lottery winner against such staggering odds must be preordained and thus is evidence of an interventionist agency.

Does not M-Theory propose the same thing? That ‘local’ universes are not constrained in the same way? That there are no necessary qualities for the nature of a given universe?

((I also have mused in the past that whether or not one emphasizes chance or necessity with the world, it is still compatible with a creator, who would be either the one that brought about the ‘chance’ result or that fixed the constraints to produce the ‘necessary’ result.))

Inserting a creator without good evidence to do so is simply an unnecessary complication and an incompatible assumption that directly impedes any method of honest inquiry that follows the evidence before assuming any kind of answer.

As for m-theory, I have no idea if “proposes the same thing.” But I am willing to listen to Krauss and Hawking who criticize its lack of testability and absence of predictive power to be a significant weakness.

No. Inquiry into mechanism and inquiry into intent are distinct and not hindered by each other.

And yes, I also utterly resonate with those criticisms of M-Theory. Though doesn’t Hawking’s lastest book (the grand design, co authored w/ Leonard Mlodinow) make use of (and otherwise affirm) M-Theory?

It certainly does make use of the notion (Just as Darwin and Alfred Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit.) But as for affirming it? I don’t think so… it’s merely an intriguing avenue of investigation that has some inherent weaknesses.

Assuming intent assumes agency. Assuming agency assumes some means of mechanism to cause effect (unless it’s the sophisticated theology of an Armstrong that keeps the real god as the god behind the god). As such, mechanism and intent are directly related. Such assumptions absent of strong supporting evidence remain incompatible hindrances to the method used for honest inquiry because it merely assumes the conclusion to be true. That’s not inquiry; that’s faith…. held only by the religious to be a virtue of character but a sign of intellectual dishonesty in any other facet of life.

Again, inquiry into mechanism (i.e. evolutionary biology – the ‘how’) is not hindered by inquiry into intent (i.e. the classic – and apparently permanent – philosophical/metaphysical questions about ‘why’). A description of the rotation speed, weight and average results of a throw of dice, for example, is not hindered by inquiry into why a ‘random’ result was desired for the particular game being played.

The agency is assumed in your example is not revealed by people who believe that they are players in some cosmic game but by the assumption that there is an actual creator of what is presumed to be the game itself. If there is no game designer, however, there is no intent. Intent presumes agency. A ‘why’ question presumes intent, which presumes agency. That leaves us the disturbing result I address: what possible honest method of inquiry can there be to determine the answer to any such ‘why’ questions… except by assumption/assertion that assumes intent, assumes agency, but that provide us with no reliable method available for verifying any such agency? Of what use – practical use – are such ‘answers’ that are inherently unknowable because they are unverifiable?

Sure, assign these questions to the metaphysical realm of theology but understand that there is no possible means available for us to determine any meaningful difference between such assumed/asserted ‘answers’ to these questions and ‘made-up stuff’. By assuming that these ‘answers’ to the ‘why’ questions actually have merit beyond ‘made-up stuff’, one is committing an a priori fallacy of using the conclusion to verify the premise!

Any inquiry into intent presumes agency yet offers us no way to verify whether or not this agency is actual. Any pronouncements about the intent of such an assumed agency is therefore synonymous (as far as we are able to tell) with ‘made-up stuff’. I fail to see how one can work around this glaringly obvious problem unless one pretends that such made-up stuff is something more than made-up stuff. But we know better than to make any such pretensions. And that is where intellectual dishonesty makes its entrance in the world of theology and sets up permanent residence within all such ‘answers’: they are unknowable if it involves agency beyond the natural.

First, I don’t think Polkinghorne is trying to go down the road of logical proofs. I think he’s presenting an analogy which speaks of the ‘lucky’ circumstances we appear to be in, which – like the criminal surviving the firing line – is compatible with notions of intent and purpose, or something more than just pure luck.

Next, we must admit that if we are going to have a verificationist epistemology, then we cannot presume the presence or absence of intent/agency. Indeed, as far as physically verifiable or ‘testable’ methods are concerned, agency or intent cannot be tested anymore than you can listen to the colour red. It’s a category mistake.

I do think logic and reason can give the natural theologian or the metaphysician some ‘hard’ guidance, though. For example, one can logically see that polytheism (and pantheism) is less reasonable (and less ‘elegant & simple’ re Ockham’s razor) than monotheism in its most general form.

This argument always astounds me for its oblivion to the obvious.

You came from a fertilized egg that was entered by a single sperm. The chances of that single sperm are incredibly small… nearly zero. It’s like that sperm won the lottery. The slim chances – the randomness – of that single sperm being the winner to fertilize that egg in no way, shape or fashion, suggests any evidence AT ALL for any outside interventionist agency. And just because the chances of that single sperm were so infinitesimally small does not mean that we can legitimately cast doubt based on this element of chance that it could be a strictly natural yet highly unlikely process … we are literally surrounded by billions of such lottery winners!

Polkinghorne fails to grasp the obvious: that the universe is. Everything here is ALREADY the lottery winner. To assume that low chances and the infinitesimally small probabilities of the universe being what it is – this randomness of improbable occurrences – somehow indicates interventionist agency is a starting position of obliviousness. In the same way that calculating backwards from the sperm that won the lottery of life to create each of is completely unhelpful in providing evidence for some divine interventionist agency, so too is calculating backwards from the universe that is completely unhelpful in providing evidence for some divine interventionist agency. The existence of all these lottery winners – be it people or planets or gravitation – proves beyond any reasonable doubt that infinitesimally low probabilities of random occurrences HAPPEN ALL THE TIME! It is nothing if not very strong evidence for it being about as natural as anything can be!

Again – a coin toss, distribution of aggregate in concrete (or chocolate chips in cookie dough) and a host of other examples demonstrate the quite simple point: the randomness –either ‘common randomness’ (people, planets, gravitation) or ‘rare randomness’ (existence, regularity, cosmo-constants) of an occurrence does not mean it cannot –for very good reasons– be the instrument of intent.

Polkinghorne attempts to argue that fine tuning in spite of overwhelming odds against such an occurrence indicates interventionist design and therefore agency. I’m trying to show that any actuality that is – no matter how extraordinary its randomness – in no way suggests interventionist design as evidence for agency. And that proof is all around us. What is IS. The probability is 100%, actual, established, REGARDLESS of how unlikely such an establishment may be. And this fact should be obvious to all, as obvious as the nose on our faces. The unlikeliness of what is plays no part adding anything to or taking away evidence for intervention by some designing agent.

Playing peek-a-boo reasoning that such proof does NOT indicate that there may NOT be a design (and therefore doesn’t DISprove a designer) reveals a basic truth: an argument FOR agency because of ‘fine tuning’ (based on incredibly long odds of establishing what IS) remains nothing more than a STARTING assumption – a premise – and cannot be justified as a conclusion based on what IS. And I can argue that successfully because we have ample evidence that all kinds of things – some incredibly complex – have also come about and been established against incredibly long odds without having any necessary interventionist design agency whatsoever.

If you want to argue intent, you need to show agency. Assuming that such an agency exists is not a sound starting position, either, without evidence to lend it merit. Pointing to what is and claiming long odds as evidence of some necessary agent of intervention fails to provide any evidence for the merit of such a premise.

Fine tuning, then, adds no merit to either the premise or conclusion of an interventionist design agency.

All Polkinghorne or anyone else needs to do to prove this to one’s self is to look no further than the nose on one’s face: there is NO evidence FOR the belief that some intervention agent was necessary to select the one sperm out of tens of millions that helped shape the unique nose you have. All it required to become what you now have on your face was maturation of cells and their arrangement by a biological process we can understand. We don’t need some divine interventionist agency to help us to understand how our individual noses have come to be in spite of incredibly long odds of its actuality on our individual faces at this time. Your nose – no matter how lovely a proboscis it may be – does not add evidence for any such interventionist agency.

And it’s a very silly argument that is presented to support a design and designer conclusion to suggest that the nose you have does NOT DISprove some interventionist agency. It doesn’t DISprove chicken demons or flying piglets or the third shooter on the grassy knoll, either. But it doesn’t add any merit to either the premise or <i.conclusion that there is a necessary interventionist designer just because you have a nose. Agency remains an assumption and this fine tuning argument fails to alter that.

First, you need not marry the terms ‘interventionist’ and ‘design’. Design can happen not in spite of (‘intervening’) but exactly through a given natural process.

Second, any calculation of ‘probability’ of our universe’s existence OR characteristics (‘tuned’-ness) is impossible. It remains that seeing the universe as ‘on purpose’ is consistent both with what we see and our inference of what we do not see: namely, other universes unlike ours – or our universe with different characteristics and history).

Then you are changing the notion of what design means in the sense of adding anything of value arguing for a creator.

Of course design happens: as one example, Dawkins calls if scaffolding based on genetic information. But the religious do not mean design it in this way: you mean it to refer to directed design through some agency other than natural, random, evolving processes.

And you prove my point about the inherent weakness of the ‘fine tuning’ argument: it cannot be calculated as anything other than what it is where the probability is 1. That’s why I wrote that the argument is based on a calculation from the wrong end, of what could have been without any means to establish this supposed baseline.

The argument of ‘fine tuning’ is a terrible one and offers us nothing of substantive value towards empowering any reasons whatsoever for believing in a creator agency.

“the religious” (whom you appear to know better than themselves!?) do not all think of design in the anti-natural way you describe.

And hopefully you can see that arguing (or calculating probabilities) based on how the world ‘could have been’ is just as assumptive as your dismissals based on assumption that the world ‘could NOT have been’ any different – hence your continued reference to ‘probability is 1’, which is simply inappropriate.

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