Friday, March 13, 2015

Craig’s Eight Arguments for God, Part V: “God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life”

This is the fifth installment in a series of blog entries which I am posting in response to a set of theistic arguments published by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. The first four installments can be found here:
In the present installment, we will look at Craig’s defense of the so-called “fine-tuning” argument (I’m tempted to call it the “fine-tooning” or “fine-cartooning” argument, in honor of the cartoon universe premise of theism which it is intended to smuggle into intellectual circles). Craig’s case in the present installment is supposed to seal an affirmative verdict on behalf of the claim that “God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.”

As a variation on the design argument, the fine-tuning argument essentially reduces to yet another example of tape-loop apologetics. Tape-loop apologetics trades on the attempt to explain some phenomenon by pointing to something which itself (either actually or supposedly) instances the phenomenon in question. For example, consider the apologetic approach which claims that one can only “account for” so-called “immaterial entities” (he might very well have abstractions in mind) by appealing to a deity which is itself supposed to be “immaterial” in nature. In such a case, no explanation has actually been achieved, for the apologist is just pointing to yet another thing that possesses the attribute which he demands we explain.

The fine-tuning argument presents itself as an example of this, for in it the apologist demands that an explanation for the conditions of life be presented, and yet his “solution” is to point to something that is (according to his own worldview) itself living. Pointing to a living being does not explain how life came to be, nor does it explain how the conditions of life came to be; it simply moves the problem back a step without addressing it. How did that living being come into being, and how did the conditions of its life come into being? Of course, that’s where the apologist stops cold in his own tracks: he can offer no explanation for either assumption. Satisfied with arguing in an inexplicable loop, the apologist apparently doesn’t recognize the problem, at least until it’s been pointed out to him (and even then, maybe not). It’s as if the apologist does not take into account that his intended explanation for life points to something that is itself supposed to be something that’s living. Haplessly, no progress towards an explanation has been made.

And of course, the apologist can be expected to respond to this by insisting that the existence of his god does not rest on any prior conditions at all. So his “solution” is to posit a living being whose life has no conditional requirements whatsoever. The believer’s god is always presented as an exception to whatever problem supposedly necessitates a god in the first place.

But if life is possible without any conditions, then what’s the problem? Yes, human life – indeed, all real life – is delicately dependent on certain conditions being met and sustained. But we do not come one fraction of a millimeter closer to explaining life on earth, or in the universe, or the conditions that are in place which support life, by positing a condition-free life-form which (a) is said to have “created” all life (a tape-loop), and (b) is accessible to the human mind by no means other than the imagination.

In fact, the argument from design generally suffers from the informal fallacy known as a weak analogy. For some insight on this problem in the design argument, see Anton Thorn’s Common Fallacies Atheists May Encounter When Dealing with Religionists, sv. ‘weak analogy’.

Does Craig’s version of this argument do any better? Let’s take a look.

Craig writes:
In recent decades scientists have been stunned by the discovery that the initial conditions of the Big Bang were fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent life with a precision and delicacy that literally defy human comprehension.
Notice how Craig sets this up: some unspecified scientists (one might suppose all scientists given what Craig says here) “have been stunned” by some discovery that is described in rather vague terms. Craig does not tell us who these scientists are or what specifically they have stated. In fact, he offers no citations whatsoever, though no doubt he could cite at least somebody (e.g., Deepak Chopra perhaps?).

Implicit in Craig’s characterization of what “stuns” these anonymous scientists involves assumptions about “the initial conditions of the Big Bang,” but in fact many scientists who affirm that a “Big Bang” happened explicitly caution thinkers to reserve judgment about what preceded this cataclysmic, inceptive event. For example, Alan Guth, whom Craig himself cites in defense of his own theistic argument, famously states (Alan Guth: What made the Big Bang bang):
The Big Bang theory says nothing about what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged.
So depending on what specifically Craig means by “the initial conditions of the Big Bang,” it’s not clear that the leading thinkers in the field (whom Craig himself treats elsewhere as a leading thinker in the field) would be fully on board with what Craig has stated here. At any rate, characterizations of the Big Bang suggest that it was so apocalyptically violent that whatever conditions may have preceded it would have been radically altered as a result anyway. Or, are we to suppose that the most cataclysmic explosion event conceivable somehow resulted in this highly delicate, fine-tuned orderliness? How are we to suppose that an explosion could assemble a skyscraper right to the minutest of design specifications, let alone order an entire universe for life?

But even more broadly, I sense that the real flaw in the fine-tooning argument involves a fundamental reversal. Essentially, this argument treats the universe as though its purpose is to conform itself to life’s conditions, as though life’s conditions were in place first and the universe had to be ordered accordingly to suit those conditions. This is like saying a sweater fits Jim so perfectly that Jim must have been designed to fit into the sweater. But we know that’s not the case; the exact reverse is the case.

We know from countless observations that life is adaptable to a wide variety of conditions without implying that every type of organism can survive any kind of change in the conditions of its environment. Rather, what this implies is that living organisms, to varying degrees, can adapt to different kinds of conditions rather than needing those conditions to be changed to suit their needs. So why can’t we say: existence exists, and life “fine-tunes” itself to adapt to the conditions that exist in its environment as best it can, come what may (which is what we find in evolution)? To put it somewhat metaphorically, life is a natural phenomenon which actively seeks opportunities for itself, and when it finds those opportunities, it establishes a foothold and seeks to thrive and flourish. Of course there need to be certain conditions for life as we know it; and if there are different kinds of life forms which can exist and thrive in conditions that are hostile to life as we know it, those life forms too would face certain conditions as well. But we cannot extrapolate from this the notion that, because life has conditional requirements, therefore a conditionless form of life must have designed it all. That’s a most egregious non sequitur! But in essence, that’s what we find snake oil salesman Craig trying to pawn off.

Speaking to the conditions of life as we know it, I read an article in USAToday some time ago which adds some important context to this discussion in particular. Titled Earthshaking news: There may be other planets like ours by Doyle Rice, the article points out a rather elementary fact about the conditions of life (again, as we know it):
Like Goldilocks tasting the porridge, temperatures must be "just right" for life to develop: Planets must have a so-called "habitable zone" with "lukewarm temperatures, so that water would not be frozen into ice or vaporized into steam but instead remain a liquid, because liquid water is now understood to be the prerequisite for life," said Geoffrey Marcy, a professor of astronomy at Berkeley.
The article includes an illustration showing this “habitable zone” in relation to a planet’s orbital distance from a star. The range of that habitable zone will of course depend on the size and power of the star in question as well as the size of the planet itself, since the issue is whether or not the surface temperature of the planet can allow for water to remain in a liquid state. It would also depend on the atmospheric conditions on the planet itself; for all I know, it may be possible that Venus may be in a habitable zone, but since its atmosphere is so dense and full of poisonous elements, its surface temperature is supposed to be some 800 or 900 F, which means that any water on Venus could not exist in a liquid state. So of course there are conditions, but in spite of these conditions, the article suggests that those conditions might not be as rare as Craig implies. The article states:
"Planets like our Earth are relatively common throughout the Milky Way galaxy," said astronomer Andrew Howard of the University of Hawaii, who estimates the number at about 40 billion.  
In fact, the nearest Earth-like planet may be "only" 12 light years away, which is roughly 72 trillion miles.  
In all, about 8.8 billion stars in our galaxy have planets that are nearly the size of Earth and also have a surface temperature conducive to the development of life. But many more stars (those not similar to our sun) also have planets where life could form, which is where the 40 billion-planet figure comes from.
When we realize that Andrew Howard is talking only about our own galaxy, this discovery is truly astounding, since there are supposed to be “billions and billions” (hat tip to Carl) of galaxies throughout the universe.

Craig does not discuss the implications that this research may have for his fine-tuning argument, and I don’t think we should be surprised by this. Craig is only going to cite scientific research when it support his case; if it does not support his case, or even worse, if it undermines it, he will ignore it. If confronted with it, he might dismiss it as some fringe position which some scientist or two reject.

Craig continues:
This fine-tuning is of two sorts. First, when the laws of nature are expressed as equations, you find appearing in them certain constants, such as the gravitational constant. The values of these constants are independent of the laws of nature.
What exactly does it mean to say that “the values of these constants are independent of the laws of nature,” who exactly has said this, and why have they said this? What data generated this assessment? And what precisely does Craig mean by “the laws of nature”? The first natural law is the law of identity: A is A. What does it mean, then, to say that the constants Craig is referring to are independent of the law of identity, and how would anyone determine this to be the case? Does it mean that the law of identity does not apply? That would mean that the constants in question have no identity to begin with. But if that’s the case, how can we be talking about them in the first place? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when contemplating Craig’s words here. But he offers no explanations. Either he thinks these are just obvious points or common knowledge (which they are not), or he simply expects his readers to accept what he says on his presumed authority. That’s not going to happen here. If Craig were constrained by a word limit (which very well may be the case), then he probably should not have raised the matter to begin with if it means he’s going to leave all these matters unexplained in his effort to show that his god is “the best explanation” to the issues he raises.

Craig goes on:
Second, in addition to these constants, there are certain arbitrary quantities which define the initial conditions on which the laws of nature operate – for example, the amount of entropy (disorder) in the universe.
This just sounds like more theoretical chalk-board eye science: “Wow, look at all those amazing formulas!” This is how mystical naval-gazing creeps into the science classroom. “Don’t you dare fiddle with my equations!”

All joking aside, implicit here and throughout Craig’s treatment of the issues relevant to the fine-tuning argument is that the universe has to conform in some way to academic formulations and pedantic theorems, rather than the other way around. And this has been a habit in physics in particular for many generations now, thanks to the influence of Kantian metaphysics and its offshoots. With the rejection of induction and the law of causality, and the adoption of “elegance, symmetry, internal coherence and beauty” as standards for truth (cf. here), one can argue anything without ever moving any closer to a true understanding of the universe.

Craig continues:
Now these constants and quantities fall into an extraordinarily narrow range of life-permitting values. Were these constants or quantities to be altered by less than a hair’s breadth, the life-permitting balance of nature would be destroyed, and life would not exist.
Again, Craig is treating the universe as though it were subservient to meeting a pre-existing set of conditions required by life rather than understanding life as a phenomenon that arose within the universe and adapts itself to whatever degree possible to the conditions that exist in the universe. Let’s face it: the vast majority of the universe is utterly inhospitable to life as we know it, so it’s difficult to see how one can seriously entertain that the universe was tailored to suit the conditions of life as we know it. As one critique of the fine-tuning argument suggests, it seems that the universe has been better fine-tuned for black holes than for life.

Craig’s argument essentially reduces his god to a knob-turner seated behind a huge control panel (I have in mind those huge consoles they have in professional recording studios), adjusting settings of any and every type (how many millions would there be?) in order to achieve just the right mix so that life can exist. But again, this is just another expression of the same reversal pointed out earlier: it presupposes that the conditions which life forms must meet were predetermined before the universe existed and that the universe therefore must have been designed or “fine-tuned” in order to meet those conditions… somewhere… at some point in time. (Sorry, dinosaurs, Craig’s god doesn’t always come through apparently).

Craig then introduces his infamous trichotomy:
There are three live explanatory options for this extraordinary fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design.
Why are these the only “three live explanatory options” for the existence of intelligent life? Indeed, what does “physical necessity” even mean? Why can’t one option be: existence exists independent of conscious activity and life adapts itself to its environment as best as it can to meet the conditions of its existence? I can surmise why Craig does not include this in his “live explanatory options,” but seriously, what exactly is wrong with this option?

Let us also not forget the fact that living organisms, including man, are composed of elements which are naturally found in materials which are not living organisms. Biological organisms are not some phenomenon that is inherently alien to the universe in which they exist. In fact, organisms are made of the very same stuff that exists naturally in the universe. Contrary to what Craig wants to argue, it is the universe itself, not some invisible magic being, which dictates the conditions of life. If we begin with the fact that existence exists, then there’s no need to look outside existence for explanations. There’s no such thing as “outside existence” to begin with.

But Craig thinks it’s rational to start with a bunch of contending proposals and see what’s left as a result of a process of elimination, and whatever’s left prevails by default as “the best explanation.” And, predictably, he’s going to stipulate what those proposals must be and – surprise, surprise – he’s going to discard everything until he gets to his theism, which is what he’s been aiming to do all along. Notice how he does this. He writes:
Physical necessity is not, however, a plausible explanation, because the finely-tuned constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature. Therefore, they are not physically necessary.
Notice how Craig has packed a number of unseen assumptions into his terms here, with the express purpose of eliminating one of the options – one which would put his god-belief out of the running – so that he can protect his confessional investment. It is not clear that the “option” that I would go with – namely that existence exists independent of conscious activity and life adapts itself to its environment as best as it can to meet the conditions of its existence - is the same thing as “physical necessity,” a term that Craig never comes out and defines. But we can ask whether the “finely-tuned constants and quantities” (note the question-begging there) which Craig asserts to be “independent of the laws of nature” (without any argument whatsoever!) are incompatible with the fact that existence exist and life forms adapting themselves as best they can to the conditions of their existence, and I see no reason why we should assume that these are incompatible. So either Craig has deliberately packed an incompatibility into one of the proposals which he wanted to eliminate from the running all along, or he has overlooked a “live explanatory option” – for whatever reason, or both.

Now that he’s got the more plausible representative out of the way, Craig predictably pits his theism against “chance” – again, a term he does not define. He writes:
So could this fine-tuning be due to chance? The problem with this explanation is that the odds of all the constants and quantities’ randomly falling into the incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range are just so infinitesimal that they cannot be reasonably accepted. Therefore the proponents of the chance explanation have been forced to postulate the existence of a ‘World Ensemble’ of other universes, preferably infinite in number and randomly ordered, so that life-permitting universes like ours would appear by chance somewhere in the Ensemble. Not only is this hypothesis, to borrow Richard Dawkins’ phrase, “an unparsimonious extravagance,” it faces an insuperable objection. By far, the most probable observable universes in a World Ensemble would be worlds in which a single brain fluctuated into existence out of the vacuum and observed its otherwise empty world. So, if our world were just a random member of the World Ensemble, by all probability we ought to be having observations like that. Since we don’t, that strongly disconfirms the World Ensemble hypothesis. So chance is also not a good explanation.
Could it be that “chance” might denote probability instead of “causelessness”? In a video titled Debuking “Fine-Tuning” Arguments for God, which addresses many of Craig’s points specifically, the following point is made (8:57 – 10:00; italics mine):
Next we have ‘chance’ which is the notion that the universal constants are little more than random variables distributed uniformly across some arbitrary interval. Then, in an apparent game of cosmic blind darts, our universe just so happened to pick out the one set of life-permitting constants by pure dumb luck alone. It’s actually not as crazy as it sounds, given that nature does this sort of thing all the time. For example, consider Earth’s fortunate orbit within the narrow habitation zone of our sun: a little too close and life dies out as the heat eventually boils off all liquid water into the atmosphere; a little too far and life abruptly freezes solid due to the withering cold. But so what? There’s three-hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. With odds like that, it should really come as no surprise at all if there turned out that there are millions upon millions of planets landing well within the respected habitable zones. Again, the so-called “fine-tuning” is really just an expression of probability acting over large numbers.
The point here harkens back to the USAToday article, cited above, which documents one astronomer estimating there to be some 40 million earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. If just one of those planets gets “lucky” enough for intelligent life to develop in the play out of probability over several billions of years, we must be it, and here we are contemplating that very fact of nature.

The video also presents the following list of summary points (beginning around 7:42):
1. Even if we concede a designer outright, the idea produces no empirical predictions that we can potentially test or falsify.  
2. The fraction of total universe actually capable of sustaining life is miniscule [sic] in comparison with the grand ensemble. A universe made “just for us” is naively egotistical and indicative of an incompetent designer.  
3. Cosmic fine-tuning technically applies equally well to black holes as it does to life, even though black holes represent the utter antithesis to life.  
4. Many instances of apparent fine-tuning were later discovered to either have natural explanations or were technically ever “fine-tuned” to begin with.  
5. Life adapts to its environment, not the other way around.
This last point is what I find most damning to the “fine-tuning” argument, vis-à-vis the reversal that I had mentioned earlier.

In regard to the second point, I’m reminded of a line from the movie Contact that’s repeated a couple times, saying: “it is just us... seems like an awful waste of space.” And yet, according to Craig’s argument, the entire universe was finely tuned just so that we could exist here on planet earth, a micron lost in some tiny scratch on one grain of sand lost in all the sands on in the world, so that we could wage wars, enslave various tribes and races, serve dictators and do all the other wonderful things that Craig’s god determined in advance that we should do. Pardon me if I’m not convinced!

Also, isn’t Craig’s god supposed to be both an intelligent and a living being? So if Craig’s god is a form of intelligent life, do the three options which he stipulates here apply to his god as well?

Once Craig has finished his dismissal of the first two “live explanatory options” which he considers, he then writes:
Wait a minute! Isn’t Dr. William Lane Craig, a world-renowned “professional philosopher,” going to present any positive reasons to go with his preferred “live explanatory option”? No, in fact, he does not. Yes, folks, Craig clearly thinks that his “explanation” wins by default. He doesn’t need to argue for it, for he has arbitrarily narrowed the options for consideration in advance to just the three that he wants to consider, and he already had stock objections to the first two (objection, as we saw, which were not at all convincing in their own right) just so that he could say, “See, my theistic explanation must automatically be true!”

Does anyone suppose that, if Craig really had any good reasons to support his preferred “best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life,” he would not use this opportunity to present some indication of what those reasons might be at this point in his paper? That he does not only screams that he has no good reasons to support his theistic “explanation.”

Instead of presenting positive reasons in support of his “design” option, Craig immediately moves on to the summary of his case:
1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
So here he makes crystal clear the method of his approach: invent a false trichotomy, eliminate two from the running, and declare victory on behalf of his preferred position by default. In spite of his objections against the first two, Craig offers no reason to suppose that an objective explanation should not be adopted, namely that existence exists independent of conscious activity and life adapts itself to its environment as best as it can to meet the conditions of its existence. Nothing in what Craig has stated vies against this “live explanatory option.”
2. The fine-tuning of the universe is not due to physical necessity or chance.
See, there you go. I’m not making this up!
3. Therefore, the fine-tuning of the universe is due to design.
And there we have it: Craig assumes that there’s no need to argue for the existence of an invisible magic being so long as it can be accepted by default. No need to show that consciousness is possible apart from biological structures, nerves, sense organs, and the like; no need to argue for the ability of a consciousness to create matter or conform existents to its wishes; no need to explain any epistemological process so that we can confirm that a mistake has not been made along the way; no need to distinguish what Craig calls “a cosmic Designer” from what is merely imaginary, etc., etc., etc.

Why can't we do similarly and propose a more direct approach, namely that either the so-called "fine-tuning" of the universe for intelligent life is the product of an extra-universal magic consciousness, or it isn't, and then dismiss the first horn because all objective evidence shows that (a) consciousness is naturally existing; (b) consciousness is biological; (c) consciousness therefore depends on physical structures; (d) consciousness does not have the ability to wish matter into existence; (e) consciousness does not have the ability to revise the nature of objects by sheer force of will, etc., etc., etc.?

Craig closes this section of his paper with the following:
Thus, the fine-tuning of the universe constitutes evidence for a cosmic Designer.
With all due respect (however much that may be), Dr. Craig, BLOW IT OUT YOUR EAR.

Yes, I got a little carried away there. Well, Craig’s smarmy adolescent tactics are utterly disgraceful, and I’ve been quite patient wading through his muck. It’s really amazing that this guy gets away with so much baloney. He’s Christian apologetics’ counterpart to Hillary Clinton.

But there are still four more arguments! So far Craig is 0 for four. The trend does not look good. But let’s keep going and see if Craig can do what a blind squirrel can do, and find a nut.

by Dawson Bethrick


praestans said...

It never ceases to amaze me that if a certain constant is .5, then as if Jesus* is unable to create a universe with a .4 or .3 or .2 constant. Are the finely tuned constants already finely tuned or does Jesus do the fine tuning? Or perhaps the constants reflect his nature [pace euthyphro]

*ie the ego eimi deity - whose followers btw have marcionite OT=bad cop; NT=good cop insensibility ie it's the same cop throughout.

btw way it's minUscule...and standard american/british spelling.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi praestans,

Thanks for your comment.

The way I read it, theists have a habit of proclaiming anything that has identity to be a constant of sorts (cf. the uniformity of nature) which can only be "accounted for" by appealing to a magic consciousness. If gravity has a constant of 10, -10, .5030392, 648.7, or whatever, they will characterize that as an example of "fine-tuning" and thus it's too regular or too delicate to be a product of "chance" or, as Craig puts it, "physical necessity." Essentially, some form of wishing must be the cause behind it.

This is simply another expression of the primacy of consciousness. The assumption that existence is caused by and conforms to some magic consciousness's whims is never questioned or validated; it's never acknowledged explicitly in those terms, but it's resting underneath all the same. Craig never attempts to validate the primacy of consciousness; of course, he'd never be able to since it's philosophically self-refuting.

Regarding miniscule vs. minuscule, I think you're 100% correct. When I was transcribing that screen from the video I started to write minu... but then "corrected" it to "mini..." as that was what appeared on the screen. But MS Word did not call it out as a spelling error.

When I saw your comment this morning, I googled the issue and found this:

<< The original form of the adjective meaning very small is minuscule. It comes from the Latin minusculus, which in turn is a diminutive of minus, so using u in the second syllable of minuscule is unassailable from an etymological perspective. Still, miniscule, with an i instead of a u in the second syllable, has been so common for so long that it is now considered a variant of the original word. It is listed in dictionaries and even appears fairly often in edited writing. Some people still consider it incorrect, though, and the original form is undoubtedly the safer choice. >>

Source: here

So even though ‘miniscule’ with an i seems to have become more acceptable, I will add a ‘[sic]’ at the offending point in my transcript. How’s that?


praestans said...

Thanks very much Dawson -

Forgive me as I've only recently and happily come to IP. Is there a reason you've eschewed other media eg youtube, TV, even print - when the likes of WL Craig ply us with benighted kerygma and desolate diakonia from all pores?

(Exeter, UK)

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi praestans,

No need to be forgiven just for asking a question. And yes, I think it's a reasonable question that you ask.

The short answer: I love writing; I think writing allows those thinkers who are truly interested in a topic to take their time to digest what's stated in writing; I can penetrate a topic far further in writing than I can in any other medium; writing allows me to work on my schedule and at my pace; I have a terrible speaking voice; I'm extremely ugly, which would turn off even sympathetic viewers; my writing is not about me, but the ideas I'm trying to spread; blogging allows readers to ask questions and interact with what's written, etc., etc.

Also, I enjoy coming back and reading things I wrote years ago. I doubt I would get such pleasure from a video or any other medium. I'm a firm believer in the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. And being rather old-school, I resist giving in and placating the impulse that feeds on sound-bites and flashy mediagenic hype.

Well, that's just me. But meanwhile, think of it this way: I'm doing my homework. Maybe one day, if I get the opportunity, I will step in front of a live audience and begin to roar. I might find some satisfaction in that, but that remains to be seen.

But thanks for the query. I take it as a compliment of sorts!


David Barwick said...

One of my "favorite" things that Craig says is that when you offer an explanation, you don't need to explain the explanation. Oh, really! I suppose any old "explanation" will do, then. You know what, I created the universe -- and I don't need to explain how!

praestans said...

Hello Dawson

Then do keep writing. I hope you'll write a book - I'm a specialist academic librarian so would like to add anything of yours.

Got me thinking about beauty. Is it an 'existent' - or is it in the eye of the beholder...

I 'see' beauty in a lass but my friend can't. I wonder where objectivism and beauty meet... (Peikoff does an introductory talk on Objectivism, and does laud the 'functionality' of art. But is beauty functional?


David Barwick said...


Although lacking in Dawson's clear and forceful style, this page might be helpful: