Fine Tuning and Retrospective Probabilities

The fine tuning argument for the existence of God is based on the observation that there are numerous physical parameters (the mass and charge of a proton, the gravitational constant, matter-antimatter asymmetry, etc.) which appear “finely tuned” to produce a universe capable of harboring life. What fine tuning effectively shows is that, given random chance, it seems astronomically improbable that these parameters would align in such a way as to produce a universe with galaxies, stars, planets, and life.

I recently asked 23 atheists how they account for fine tuning (question #3 in the survey). Several respondents made a point that I found interesting, and wanted to address. They compared fine tuning to “winning the lottery”, and our own existence to that of “lottery winners”. For the lottery winner, the odds against winning the lottery are meaningless in retrospect…because he’s obviously already won. Thus, probability arguments like fine-tuning are worthless, because they can’t be applied to events that have already been actualized. One respondent put it this way:

“The term ‘finely tuned’ is an anthropomorphic spin on ‘it just is the way it is’. If things were any different we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. We have the power of hindsight and from our point of view, can see what looks like impossible odds of our existence. However, with any possibility of it being the way it is, no matter how small the chance is, then it’s possible. And since we are here to ask the question, the possibility was obviously realized, no matter the odds.”

The problem with this “lottery objection” is that it discounts alternative explanations, and assumes that we MUST have overcome these astronomical probabilities. But that puts the cart before the horse by presupposing a naturalistic explanation.

Imagine that your buddy Joe shows up to work one day, and starts throwing stacks of hundred dollar bills at everyone he sees. You know he’s not a rich guy, so clearly he recently acquired a huge sum of money. It’s possible that Joe just won the lottery (because even though the odds of winning are small, someone obviously has to win). Yet it’s also possible that Joe stole the money, or received it as a gift, or inherited it from a relative, or found it in a suitcase next to a dead guy in the middle of the desert.

Seems legit.

Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. The point is that none of us can really “know” with empirical certainty exactly how our life-permitting universe got here. The statistical improbability of fine tuning can’t be waved off as “inevitable good luck” unless one has already ruled out the alternative explanation to “luck”. So the fine tuning argument is effective because it (indirectly) lends credence to this “alternative explanation”: that these fundamental physical constants were intentionally and intelligently set by a Fine Tuner.

Atheist Survey Results (n=23)

Last summer, I published the responses that I’d received to my “Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist”. Since that time there have been additional answers submitted on this site, on various other blogs (here and here), on Facebook, and on Reddit.

The number of responses is now up to 23, so I’ve compiled the updated data below. It should go without saying that this is not a scientific poll. I’m sure there’s quite a bit of selection bias here, and the answers are probably more representative of “internet atheists” than they are of the general atheist population.

But I hope you find it interesting, regardless. Some of the results I found really surprising (#6), others less surprising (#3, #5, #7), and others somewhat revealing (#11, #12).

As before, my original questions will be in boldAtheist responses will be italicized, with the # of similar responses in parentheses. If you’re interested in my own reaction to these responses, check out my original summary.

1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? 

– Yes (4)
– No (3)
– Probably
– Probably not (2)
– Don’t know (9)

– No clear response (3)
– Claims the question is a fallacy

…If so, what was this cause?

– There was no cause (3)
– It was inevitable
– We CAN’T know
– P-Branes/Special Black Hole Hypothesis/Quantum Foam/Penrose Cyclic Universe
– Don’t know, not applicable, or no clear response (17)

2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?

– Yes (4)
– No (5)

– Don’t know (8)
– Kind of, since laws are still reliable on the macro-level (2)
– Claims the question is a non sequitur
– “Material” is not a coherent concept in the realm of quantum mechanics
– No clear response (2)

3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?

– Anthropic principle/multiple universes will produce one capable of harboring life (10)
– Conveniently fixed parameters don’t imply that they were fine-tuned…reason unspecified (6)
– The universe isn’t fine-tuned; it’s barely even compatible with life (5)
– The parameters are what they are out of necessity

– Claims this is begging the question

4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?

– Most people aren’t good at math (10)
– Math is merely explanatory (6)

– This fact isn’t unreasonable (2)
– We evolved to have adaptable brains (2)
– Math isn’t that effective

– Claims the question is circular
– No clear response

5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism? If so, why are rational human scientists and engineers so woefully incapable of imitating the precision and complexity of cellular machinery that (presumably) arose via strictly irrational processes?

Note: Although not explicitly stated, I infer that virtually all respondents would say “yes” to the first question. Answers to the second question:

– Science is still too young (13)*
– Evolution isn’t irrational (7)*

– Lack of knowledge doesn’t mean God is the answer (2)

– There’s no master design to understand
– Design is inferior to evolution
– Insufficient knowledge of genetics to answer the question

*Two responses included the ideas “science is still too young” as well as “evolution isn’t irrational”.

6. Do you believe free will to be illusory?

– Yes (3)
– No (11)
– Don’t know (3)
– Depends on how one defines “free will” (2)

– Sort of
– Probably not, because of quantum mechanics
– Free will is an incoherent concept

– Claims the question is pointless 

…If so, can the punishment of crimes be ethically justified (and does the word “ethical” have any real meaning)?

– Yes (9)
– No clear response, or not applicable (14)

7. Does objective morality exist?

– Yes (5)
– No (17)
– Don’t know, and it doesn’t matter

…If so, what is its source…and how do you define “objective”?

– It’s simply defined as human well-being (2)
– 
It’s innate and driven by self-interest

– Pluralistic moral reductionism is needed
– There are certain unarguable facts about what is moral

– Not applicable (18)

…If not, do you concede that concepts like “justice”, “fairness”, and “equality” are nothing more than social fads, and that acts of violence and oppression must be regarded merely as differences of opinion?

– No, morality is universal and selected for by evolution and/or social necessity (6)
– No, we can rely on an empathy-based system of morality (3)
– Kind of (3)
No clear answer (5)
– Differences of opinion, yes – but not “merely”

– Not applicable (5)

8. In what terms do you define the value of human life? Is the life of a human child more or less valuable, for example, than that of an endangered species of primate?

– It’s a personal/subjective decision (7)
– Value is based on our ability to “experience” (5)
– Human value is based on empathy for our own species (4)
– No definition is completely logically consistent (2)

– Life is precious, since it’s the only one we get

– Human life transcends value
– Our value is defined as our value to others
– Human value is self-evident
– Unsure how to respond

9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief? 

– Yes (14)
– No, or mostly no (6)
– Unsure
– No clear response
– Claims the question commits ad hominem and tu quoque fallacies

…If not, what specifically makes atheism immune to these influences?

– Lack of belief is the default (2)
– Morality is inherently autonomous
– Can’t imagine any reason someone would wish for there not to be a God

– No clear response, or not applicable (19)

10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity.

– Net positive (3)
– Net negative (11)
– Depends on the religion; net negative for the Abrahamic religions
– Unsure, or neutral (8)

…If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?

– Religious belief probably isn’t genetic, so it can’t be bred out (2)
– Religion has evolutionary benefits, despite having a net negative effect on humanity

– Religion survives through the intervention of man, particularly those who benefit from religion
– In the past, religion provided a way to preserve cultural memory
– Religion hasn’t been around very long on an evolutionary scale
– Something doesn’t have to be positive to spread through a population
– No explanation offered (5)
– Not applicable (11)

11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?

– Yes (4)
– No (5)

– Depends on the situation and/or level of risk (10)
– It’s not a question of rationality, but of terminal values (2)
– “Depends on how good she looks”
– Unsure

12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true?

– Would follow (5)
– Wouldn’t follow (6)
Might follow the teachings of Jesus, but that isn’t Christianity (2)
– It would depend on how this truth was revealed (3)
– Christianity can’t be true (3)
– No answer given (4)

…What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?

– Adjusting wouldn’t be that difficult; would eagerly welcome knowing that Christianity was true (2)
– Praying, since it seems weird, creepy, and strange
– Trying to figure out how the Bible became so corrupted

– Trying to convince myself that the God of the Bible is deserving of worship (2)
– Don’t think it would be possible to adjust

– No clear response, or not applicable (16)

C.S. Lewis on the Efficacy of Prayer

Can the efficacy of prayer be measured scientifically?

Personally, I would be a bit skeptical of any scientific study that claimed to have found a clear relationship between prayer and “desired outcome”. I’m of the opinion that this understanding of prayer (a mere tool for getting what we desire) is fundamentally flawed.

This is the same misunderstanding that Dawkins makes with his “God Hypothesis” paradigm (i.e. “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other“). This viewpoint takes a very small view of God (and, by extension, of prayer). Rather than acknowledging God as the ultimate Source of all knowledge and human experience, it seeks to detect the existence of God as an entity within the physical universe – like one might detect dark matter or alpha particles. It regards God as a variable within a system rather than the Creator and Sustainer of the system itself.

CS Lewis Not Impressed

In his book “Miracles” (buy it HERE, or check out my review HERE), C.S. Lewis offers the following commentary on free will, divine foreknowledge, and the efficacy of prayer. His model includes some important qualifiers and details that I’ve glossed over, but this excerpt conveys the basic idea:

“Suppose I find a piece of paper on which a black wavy line is already drawn, I can now sit down and draw other lines (say in red) so shaped as to combine with the black line into a pattern. Let us now suppose that the original black line is conscious. But it is not conscious along the whole length at once – only on each point on that length in turn.

Its consciousness in fact is travelling along that line from left to right retaining point A only as a memory when it reaches B and unable until it has left B to become conscious of C. Let us also give this black line free will. It chooses the direction it goes in. The particular wavy shape of it is the shape it wills to have. But whereas it is aware of its own chosen shape only moment by moment and does not know at point D which way it will decide to turn at point F, I can see its shape as a whole and all at once. At every moment it will find my red lines waiting for it and adapted to it. Of course: because I, in composing the total red-and-black design have the whole course of the black line in view and take it into account. It is a matter not of impossibility but merely of designer’s skill for me to devise red lines which at every point have a right relation not only to the black line but to one another so as to fill the whole paper with a satisfactory design…

line-man

It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, non-miraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer. Since it was non-miraculous the sceptic can always point to its natural causes and say, ‘Because of these it would have happened anyway,’ and the believer can always reply, ‘But because these were only links in a chain of events, hanging on other links, and the whole chain hanging upon God’s will, they may have occurred because someone prayed.’ The efficacy of prayer, therefore, cannot be either asserted or denied without an exercise of the will – the will choosing or rejecting faith in the light of a whole philosophy. Experimental evidence there can be none on either side. In the sequence M.N.O. event N, unless it is a miracle, is always caused by M and causes O; but the real question is whether the total series (say A-Z) does or does not originate in a will that can take human prayers into account.

This impossibility of empirical proof is a spiritual necessity. A man who knew empirically that an event had been caused by his prayer would feel like a magician. His head would turn and his heart would be corrupted. The Christian is not to ask whether this or that event happened because of a prayer. He is rather to believe that all events without exception are answers to prayer in the sense that whether they are grantings or refusals the prayers of all concerned and their needs have all been taken into account. All prayers are heard, though not all prayers are granted. We must not picture destiny as a film unrolling for the most part on its own, but in which our prayers are sometimes allowed to insert additional items. On the contrary; what the film displays to us as it unrolls already contains the results of our prayers and of all our other acts. There is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer. When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.) But this is, and must remain, a matter of faith. You will, I think, only deceive yourself by trying to find special evidence for it in some cases more than in others.”

Christianity and High Beauty (With Pictures!)

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

– JRR Tolkien, “The Return of the King”

__________________________________

I rarely re-watch movies, and I practically never re-watch documentaries. But I’ve watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” twice now, and I’ll probably watch it again. You really ought to set aside an hour to enjoy it. At the very least, watch the first 3 minutes.

This post will draw somewhat heavily from Scruton’s documentary, but will also include my own thoughts – from more of a “hey-watch-as-I-attempt-to-relate-this-to-Christianity” perspective. Starting with:

1. Beauty in Nature

As alluded to in the Tolkien quote, I find it comforting that the beauty of the natural world is ultimately beyond the reach of man’s corruption. We might do our utmost to despoil the beauty of our immediate environment, but the sprawling majesty of the universe stands by unfazed.

I sometimes talk to atheists & agnostics who point to the sheer size of the universe, and claim that our smallness and apparent insignificance is evidence against the existence of God. I’ve always thought to myself, in response, “what better way for an infinite, all-powerful Being to express Himself to us, than to surround us with mind-numbing vastness and beauty?”

aquinas_unimpressed

When we look upon the night sky…a mountain landscape…a blazing sunset…a wind-whipped prairie…we stop to appreciate these things for their mere existence. They stir something within us, drawing our attention to a craving, within ourselves, for a Higher Beauty that nothing in this universe can quite satisfy.

Glacier Ridgeline

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV)

2. Beauty in Things

If mountains are beautiful because they are created by God, then sculptures and poems are beautiful because they are created by people. Robert Frost creates beauty by describing a forest, even if the poem is, perhaps, eclipsed by the natural beauty of the forest itself.

Man is unique among creatures not only in his ability to appreciate beauty, but in his ability to willfully create beauty for beauty’s sake. In concurrence with Dr. Scruton, I would argue that for a thing to be beautiful, it cannot be created primarily for utility, or for mere self-expression. Beautiful things often possess these qualities, but they must be secondary.

“All art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.” – Oscar Wilde

sistine chapel mona lisa

Also: simply calling something beautiful doesn’t make it so! That kind of absurd relativism might be permitted in modern art museums, but not on this blog.

3. Beauty in People

At the risk of sounding repetitive, a person possesses beauty for the simple fact that they exist. This is best illustrated by the perplexing phenomenon of Otherwise Articulate Adults Making Interesting Noises in the Presence of Babies.

Infants are useless in the truest sense of the word. They’re essentially poop machines, incapable of providing us with any tangible service or benefit. Yet babies evoke an emotional response precisely because of their uselessness. When utility is stripped away, we find ourselves reveling in the mere fact of existence of another human person.

newborn infant

This also comes into play when contrasting feelings of romantic love with feelings of lust. The man overcome with romantic love desires nothing more than the flourishing and well-being of his beloved…even if it comes at his own cost…and even if he will never be able to personally take part in her life. He would gladly throw himself in front of a train, rather than see his beloved suffer pain, shame, or disgrace. He will daydream about performing acts of heroic sacrifice on her behalf (rushing into a burning building, diving in front of a bullet, etc.).

The man overcome with lust is primarily interested in how the other person can be of use to him. The object of his lust is an instrument to be used and discarded.

“Pornographic images reduce the person being lusted over to body parts only. There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.” – Pope John Paul II

I believe that the human experience of beauty provides strong inductive evidence for the central claims of Christianity (namely: the existence of High Beauty, original sin, and our subsequent inability to grasp this Beauty unaided). Three observations, in closing:

Firstly: We recognize beauty and know that it’s good…even if we have difficulty defining it.
Secondly: We perceive that our desire for beauty can be tantalized, but never truly fulfilled.
Thirdly: We yearn for Something, unseen, that can fulfill our unfulfilled desire for “more beauty”.

Three r/atheism Images in Need of Debunking

Like many people, I have a fascination with the grotesque. Every few weeks, I find myself returning to the subreddit r/atheism.

Today I’ll be responding to a few of the (non-profane) images that I encountered on my latest reddit safari.

Numero uno:

When I saw this quote, I thought it seemed a little over the top (even for Hume). I did some double-checking, and it turns out that this is taken from Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature“. The sentence originally included a qualifier: “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.”

It’s still a pretty bold claim. I give a few counterexamples.

Social Darwinism
Moral Relativism
– National Socialism
Hedonism
Anarchism
Nihilism
Opportunism
Will to Power
Segregationism

Next up:

I’ll tackle this one point-by-point.

“…every single bit of progress in human feeling…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

I’m not quite sure what’s meant by “progress in human feeling”…but one could fill tomes with the names of poets, artists, composers, and authors who haven’t been antagonized by organized churches.

“…every improvement in the criminal law…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

What about the post-Constantine Christian leaders, who reformed Roman law to prevent abuses against women and children? What about the role of the Justinian Corpus Juris Civilis in establishing an early basis for western civil law – including procedural justice and legal equality for women? What about the Judeo-Christian understanding of natural law, and the idea that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”? What about the Catholic Church’s stance against torture, suicide, and euthanasia?

“…every step towards the diminution of war…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

What about the numerous Christian contributions to just war theory? Or from another perspective, what about the admirable nonviolence of the Quakers (an organized Church, last time I checked)?

“…every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery…[has been consistently opposed by the organized Churches of the world].”

Why, then, was the American abolitionist movement spearheaded largely by clergymen? What about William Wilberforce and the Second Great Awakening? What about the many thousands of church-supported Christian missionaries who have left their homes and families to bring spiritual, material, and medical support to the most impoverished corners of the world?

This Hitchens quote is a complete non sequitur. Let’s apply the reasoning to something besides religion.

“Since it is obviously inconceivable that all [economic theories] can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”

Or imagine that I ask 100 people for directions to the nearest post office, and I receive a hodgepodge of different, often conflicting answers. It’s possible that all the directions are wrong…but it’s also possible that one or more of them are right. Dismissing all of the competing claims outright isn’t “the most reasonable conclusion”; it’s just the most intellectually lazy.

(In a previous post, I tackled this issue from the perspective of a Christian who de-converts, in part, because of the competing claims of the numerous world religions.)

Free Will and Uncaused Causes

Given the overwhelming consensus that our universe at some point began to exist, there would seem to be three explanations for its existence:

1. The universe had no cause.
2. The universe had a cause, which was impersonal.
3. The universe had a cause, which was personal.

Although there are some who may disagree (and I welcome your disagreements in the comment section), I believe the first explanation can be convincingly ruled out using the Kalam cosmological argument. This argument is widely employed by followers of the major monotheistic religions. It can be presented as follows:

– Whatever begins to exist has a cause
– The universe began to exist
– Therefore, the universe has a cause

In order to serve as a valid explanation, this cause must itself be uncaused (or at least trace its origins to a cause that was uncaused). Hence, we have the definition of God as the Prime Mover. The first domino in the chain. And this is where religious and non-religious individuals often reach an impasse. “If God caused the universe to exist,” the skeptic asks, “then what caused God to exist?” To the non-religious, defining God as a Prime Mover seems like special pleading – an attempt to dodge the implications of turtles all the way down.

As I was thinking about this issue the other day, I realized that much of this debate might actually stem from one’s views on free will.

DISCLAIMER: I’m a scientist, not a philosopher. The following is my own amateurish speculation, so I welcome your feedback and criticism. I’ll update the post if I learn something new.

Anyway, it would seem that the belief in free will actually entails the belief in uncaused causes. Those of us who accept the idea of free will believe that human consciousness stems from an interaction between the brain (a physical entity) and the soul (a non-physical entity). Our thoughts and actions are not simply the inevitable byproduct of physical events in the brain. When I decide to purchase chocolate ice cream, this decision is influenced by a variety of tangible factors (it’s 90°F outside; my parents served me ice cream as a child; etc.). Yet the decision is ultimately a byproduct of my free will, which generates the decision in a non-physical manner. This can be (clumsily) described as an “uncaused cause”, which would be unique to creatures possessing a will.

Given a belief in free will, we have grounds for believing that a timeless and spaceless Entity, possessing will, could indeed fill the role of Prime Mover. This Entity – God – provides the ontologically prior “cause” for the universe. This leads us to conclude option 3: “the universe had a cause, which was personal”.

For the determinist, free will is an illusion. All of our thoughts and actions are the inevitable result of physical events. Given this view, it makes sense to ask the question, “If God caused the universe to exist, then what caused God to exist?” The entire concept of a Prime Mover seems preposterous, because the determinist has no precedent for believing in uncaused causes.

Are Freethinkers Really Free?

The freethought movement has seen something of a resurgence lately, particularly on college campuses. With very few exceptions (and speaking strictly from personal experience as a 23-year-old American), freethinkers are marked by their progressive social and political views, their disdain for organized religion (sometimes veiled for the sake of “tolerance”…but sometimes not), and their visceral distrust of traditional beliefs and values.

So what, exactly, do freethinkers mean when they describe their thinking as “free”?

  • If they’re referring to freedom from religious or institutional bias, then they’re fooling themselves. When it comes to our thoughts, all of us are subject to social and moral biases – regardless of where they might come from. Some are influenced by religion, certainly…but even our freethinking friends are influenced by secular philosophy, education, public opinion, peers, and the media. Taken literally, nobody is a “free” thinker, since nobody is completely insulated from outside influences.
  • If they’re referring to the ability to define one’s own unique worldview, then they’re doing a poor job of it. We would expect to see some intellectual diversity within the freethinking community. Instead, they all seem to have reached almost the exact same conclusions.

This brings me to the biggest question I have for freethinkers. If our thinking is to be truly free, should we not also be free to accept the Christian narrative as being compellingly true? Because it seems that “free thought” is revealed as a sham when it eliminates the option – and even the possibility – of freely embracing traditional Christian doctrines.

Related Articles

Letter to a Free Thinker (J.W. Wartick)

Common Sense Orthodoxy (Reviewed Thought)