May 12, 2009

A Question of Order

This is part 2 of a 10 part series. The introduction can be found here, and the prior post can be found here. I will add two more blog responders at this point in the discussion. They are from:

The next question relates to the kind of universe that was produced by the creation event discussed in the first question.

2. Order

The past several decades have added profoundly to our knowledge of chemistry, physics, and cosmology. It has become increasingly clear that we live in a universe finely tuned for the support of complex life. This fact is so universally acknowledged that even secular scientists have coined the term "Anthropic Principle" to describe it.
How is it that we live in such an exquisitely fine-tuned universe? Even assuming that the universe could have popped out of nothingness, why should it have been such an orderly and hospitable one? Is there a scientific, testable answer for this question that does not simply appeal to imagination?

Faithlessgod offers this objection to the very idea of fine-tuning:

I disagree with Pruett's supposition here, it certainly does not look like an orderly and hospitable universe, since as far we can tell the range where the type of life we know could occur and survive is an incredibly minute portion of the universe.

Randall says it this way:

I don't think the universe is fine tuned for life at all. As far as we know there is only one planet in this one little solar system that can sustain complex life.... most of what's out there is space.

I wouldn't expect to have to go into great detail on this, since it has already been so heavily addressed by cosmologists. Those like Barrow & Tipler, Rees, Davies, Susskind, Bostrom, Smolin, and others have written volumes on this issue. The fine-tuning of the laws of physics (or Anthropic Coincidences) that permit the support of life in the universe is largely undisputed data. It is the conclusions drawn from that data where the true controversy lies.

Since there appears to be a misunderstanding of what I mean by finely tuned for the support of complex life I'll try to clarify the point. I do not simply mean that our own little planet happens to be hospitable to us, and I don't mean that the whole universe is a tropical paradise. I mean that the very laws of physics make things like galaxies, stars, and warm little planets possible at all.

Just two examples:

1) The electrostatic force repels protons (each being positively charged) while the strong nuclear force binds them together. The strong force is stronger than the electrostatic force, but only at short range, while the electrostatic force dominates at larger range. So, in order for nuclear fusion to occur, as it does in stars, there must be a certain amount of energy applied to propel one proton against another in order for it to overcome the electrostatic charge and stick via the strong force. I liken it to putting superglue on two plus-ended magnets and then forcing them together.

Since the universe originally consisted almost entirely of hydrogen, we would not have the abundance of heavier elements if it were not for the ability of stars to fuse atoms (and then spew them out in explosions). But if the strong force were too strong or the electrostatic force too weak, then fusion would be too efficient. Matter would more easily ignite and we would have fewer planets and more stars. Stars would burn out much faster and the lighter elements (being just as desirable as the heavier ones for molecule building) would be quickly depleted. Conversely, if the strong force were weaker or the electrostatic force stronger, then we would have fewer and larger stars, and less of the heavy elements. In fact, if fusion were too inefficient, then the large masses that might otherwise form stars could actually collapse into black holes before they would even have a chance to ignite.

2) The quantity, expansion rate, and distribution of the material of the primordial universe all have a part in determining the nature of its resulting cosmology. If there were not such a mysteriously large imbalance of matter over anti-matter, we would not have the material to form cosmological structures. Various factors seem to work together (e.g., inflation rate and dark energy) to determine the expansion of the universe. Minute differences in these factors would affect a number of things, including whether the universe recollapsed upon itself before anything interesting could be produced or whether it expanded too rapidly for the material to coalesce into structures like galaxies and stars.

It seems to me that a universe that survives its genesis, forms complex structures, and supports the generation and assembly of complex, diverse molecules is something we might even objectively value over a hiccup universe, or one that was filled with nothing but diffuse hydrogen gas. And even though there are more empty, hot, or cold places in the overall universe than there are just-right stars and just-right planets, it takes this kind of universe to be able to support such things.

If I were to accept the substance of Faithlessgod and Randall's complaint, I might just as well say that even our planet is not so great for humans because of all the hot, frigid, or wet places it contains. All these are either necessary for a life-sustaining climate/ecology (like an abundance of water) or they are simply byproducts of physics and geometry (like cold polar regions).

Tremblay takes issue with the idea that the Anthropic Principle has any relationship to the fine-tuning point that I raise:

LifeWay apparently does not know what the anthropic principle actually is. The anthropic principle does not support the fine-tuning argument at all. What the anthropic principle actually says is this: we live in a universe compatible with our own existence.

Yes, "LifeWay" understands the Anthropic Principle and its various permutations, such as the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), which will be discussed later. The very fact that there are even flavors of it is witness to my point that there is something of interest being discussed in the scientific community.

Of course the materialist would think the fine-tuning question does not support the role of a designer (else he would not be a materialist), but the Anthropic Principle is certainly born of the observation that the Anthropic Coincidences are necessary to the existence of observers. If the Anthropic Principle were nothing more than a tautological statement, like saying that coldwater fish are found in cold water, then I would not expect to find so many physicists and cosmologists writing books for the purpose of wrestling with its implications. Why try to explain away or rationalize an entirely meaningless observation?

A common rejoinder I've heard is that we shouldn't be so presumptuous as to think the universe is designed for us; it might have been some different way that would result in another species asking the same question. Self offers a form of this argument as follows:

To say the universe was fine-tuned just to permit life is backwards; what is more nearly true is that life is fine tuned to exist in the universe as it is today.

Anath makes the point this way:

It's like claiming your life is somehow miraculous and special because YOU were the specific result of your parent's copulation. Had a different sperm reached the egg first, or had something interrupted your parents before transfer that particular time, a totally different person would be saying the EXACT same thing.

It should be understood that I am not simply arguing for an egocentric view that the universe is fine tuned for humans or even for "life as we know it." If some member of a nebular squid species were to ask the same question, then I would grant his right to do so, because the Anthropic Coincidences would apply equally to him. I am arguing that the laws of physics are fine tuned for the support of life of any kind, which depends upon things like a universe, diverse materials, and the ability to form complex chemical structures.

Since there are so many other ways that the universe might have been that would not support life, stars, or even a persistent universe, and if there is anything noteworthy about complex, sentient, biochemical systems, then it seems that the least we can say is that this kind of universe is remarkably improbable.

At this point I have often heard the comment made: "Well, you wouldn't be here to wonder about it if it hadn't happened!" This is a hackneyed paraphrase of the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP). To all my responders credit, I didn't see this voiced (in so many words). However, I think it is worth addressing, which I will do by simply paraphrasing the Swinburne/Leslie parable:

Suppose you are dragged before a firing squad. There are 100 trained marksmen all intent upon your demise. The command to fire is given. The guns blaze, but a moment later you discover that you are still alive, untouched by the bullets. You laugh out loud and marvel at your good fortune, but an annoyed captain of the guard simply growls at you, "There's nothing remarkable here, fool. You wouldn't be alive to remark about it if hadn't happened." And then he executes you himself with his own sword.

Even if the captain had killed you before you could ask the question, "How did I survive that?" it still would be legitimate for some observer to ask it. The WAP seeks to negate the observer's question by depending upon his existence. If he exists, he can't ask the question because he wouldn't be here to ask it otherwise. If he weren't here, then there's no one to ask questions so the problem is forfeit. It seems a hollow victory for the materialist to win on a technicality, but surely it is a more remarkable thing to have observers who ask questions than to have cold, dead space. I guess it is like a 3D stereogram. You either see it or you don't.

Faithlessgod goes on to raise a good point about other possible universes:

We have no idea what type of universes could occur with different constants, only that they would be radically different from ours, but this tells us nothing about whether the equivalent of life is more or less likely in those other universes.

The Anthropic Coincidences applicable to this universe suggest that of the kind of laws and materials that we are dealt, this particular arrangement adds up to something special. Perhaps some other dramatically different mix could add up to a recipe for success, but that would be another island in a vast sea of improbability as well.

To use a card analogy, which one of my responders employed, our universe's order may be compared to throwing a deck of cards up in the air and having them all come down in neat, numerically sequenced stacks by suit. There are certainly a large number of other ordered ways that the cards may come down, like numerically sequenced stacks of four-of-a-kinds, but they would be no less probable than the nearly infinite number of other chaotic arrangements that might result.

And to suggest that other radically different universes might help us here is to suggest that there might be a way that any old arrangement of its materials would yield order. This is like saying that in another universe made of dice instead of cards, that most rolls of the dice will come up all sixes, or in stacks. Perhaps there could be some universe where the laws are so rudimentary that there's no possible "variation," or any variation would yield the same assembly capability, but even that kind of universe surely would be less probable than all the other more dependent kinds, like the one we happen to occupy.

Interestingly, Tremblay makes an objection that would call this into question:

Implicit in this argument is the belief that the parameters of the universe could take any quantity. . . .

Just because we can imagine the gravitational constant being, not 6.674×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, but rather 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, does not mean that it can actually be 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2. Just because we can write it down and make calculations based on it doesn’t mean it’s actually possible.

This is certainly a valid argument, but why think that the values could not be different? What meta-laws exist to constrain the amount of matter over anti-matter or the expansion dynamics entailed in the Big Bang? Even if the laws and events inherent in this universe where somehow necessary or predetermined, then this only pushes the question back a level. Why should the "necessary" laws be so remarkably configured? Why would the brute laws of physics have to favor order? How very fortuitous!

A popular theory among cosmologists involves the idea that we exist in just one of a number of bubble universes. While I will not attempt to psychoanalyze the motivation for such a theory, I will note that I have usually seen the theory employed as a response to the Anthropic Coincidences. As the argument goes, we just happen to live in a jackpot universe that is just right for life. Unlike Tremblay, these cosmologists don't seem to have a problem with the idea that the universe-barfing device may have different settings. Nor do they seem to agree with those who argue that there just isn't anything special to be explained or they would not make appeal to infinite universes for that explanation.

Tremblay closes with this conversation stopper:

As for the question "why should [the universe] have been such an orderly and hospitable one?", it should be obvious that the use of "why" presupposes teleology, and therefore a Creator. So this question is entirely circular. There is no purpose for the universe to be the way it is, any more than there is a purpose for the sky to be blue instead of green. We can explain how it came to be hospitable, or how the sky gets to be blue, but there is no "why."

Perhaps we should break the news to those like cosmologists Bernard Carr and Martin Rees, who once stated in the journal Nature, "Nature does exhibit remarkable coincidences and these do warrant some explanation." Perhaps we should simply think of them as philosophically naïve to require explanations, but it seems to me that science is all about the "whys."

Tremblay suggests that explanations should extend only to the reason for the physical condition (like, the sky is blue because of short wavelength light diffusion), but not to any deeper meanings (like, why should physics have to work in such a way that it yields lovely blue skies?). Perhaps this is a good rule of thumb for science proper, but it is a castration of the human spirit, which, for some strange reason always wants to go the extra mile in its understanding.

Materialists would apparently say to us, "Just get over it! There's no meaning to this or any other aspect of existence. Everything just is what it is." For my point in question, this means that even if it actually is the case that the universe is fine tuned for complex life (of any kind), and it is a genuine statistical improbability, then we are disqualified from having stray thoughts of wonder because they presume something to wonder about that does not exist: teleology (purpose/design/meaning).

It is true that this, and many of my questions, depend upon teleology. In fact, teleology is part-and-parcel to the worldview I am advocating. But surely teleology cannot be ruled out a priori any more than we could meaninglessness. I might just as well claim, "the atheist can't say the universe just is what it is, because that's a circular argument: it presupposes that there actually is no meaning to the universe." How, then, is one to demonstrate the need of a designer if one cannot point to anything as evidence merely and precisely because it supports his thesis!

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