Necessity, Chance, or Design?

Bracketing agent-causation, there are only three types of things that govern the universe: constants, quantities, and laws.

By “constants” I just mean phenomena that are universal in nature and unchanging in value. For example the speed of light in a vacuum, the Gravitational Constant, the elementary charge, etc. We can include the rate of entropy in this category if you want (and if you think it is stable).

By “quantities” I mostly just mean the amount of matter and dark matter that exist, and the amount of energy that exists (and the amount of dark energy, if any exists). Theoretically those quantities should remain constant, but if they have changed (or can), then just take their initial values. We can include the amount of entropy in this category if you want, or rather the initial amount of entropy (or zero if there was none).

By “laws” I mean things like gravity (or, more accurately, Relativity), electromagnetism, etc. Keep in mind that most of the laws listed in that link are laws describing the behavior of high-order phenomena like buoyancy and thermodynamics and others that operate on matter at a high level of description like planetary bodies, chemicals, etc. Theoretically all of these logically supervene on lower-level phenomena like the nuclear forces, that operate on matter at a low level of description like subatomic particles. Ultimately it’s probably all governed by just a few fundamental interactions (and maybe even just one), operating on just a few fundamental particles like quarks or maybe strings.

So get this though. It turns out that the values of these constants, quantities, and laws could have been anything. There is nothing about the gravitational constant that makes it logically necessary. It could have been a totally different value altogether. It seems somewhat arbitrary that it is dialed to the value that it is. There is no explanation for it. And the same goes for the amounts of the stuff in the universe, and the laws governing it all—why is energy equal to mass times the square of the speed of light? It could have been the cube of the speed of light, and the speed of light could have been different, or the phenomena could have behaved according to different rules relative to different phenomena altogether.

The possibilities are, logically, infinite.

But it gets weirder. If the values of any one of these things had been different by even a hair’s breadth, the universe wouldn’t have been life-permitting. Planetary bodies couldn’t have formed, space couldn’t have expanded or would have expanded too quickly, etc. The logically possible scenarios according to which the universe could have existed such that it could not have been able to sustain life are infinite, while the life-permitting scenarios are extremely few.

To conceptualize the situation, I like to picture a number line for each value that requires fine-tuning—so there is a number line for the Gravitational Constant, and the value for the GC could have been anything on that infinitely long line, but it needs to fall within an infinitesimal range to play its role in a life-permitting universe, the boundaries for which are marked in red on the line. Then I picture another number line below that with Planck’s Constant, with the markings, and so on. There are a quite a few of these number lines (some lists are longer than others), but even if there were only one, the possibility is equivalent to one in infinity.

Then I like to imagine a lottery, the results from which determine the values for each thing. The lottery is run once to determine each value, and there are an infinite number of possible outcomes each time. This helps me wrap my mind around how improbable a life-permitting universe is. And it doesn’t even touch on the fact that a life-permitting universe alone doesn’t necessarily yield life. You have to somehow get life into it (a topic for another post), and then you need a planet within the universe that can support the life (the specific requirements of which I’ll leave for another post as well).

And yet, here we are.

It’s obvious to me that cosmic fine-tuning cannot be due to necessity, and I explained why earlier. But by now it should be almost as obvious that it is not likely to have occurred by chance either. Like literally, mathematically, it is unlikely. So the question you have to ask yourself at this point is:

How plausible is it that this fine-tuning is due to Design?

6 Comments

Filed under Faith, Mind, Philosophy, Science

6 Responses to Necessity, Chance, or Design?

  1. Matt

    “It turns out that the val­ues of these con­stants, quan­ti­ties, and laws could have been any­thing.”

    Eh, not really. I mean just because there’s a constant in an equation doesn’t mean it could’ve been anything. I mean yeah we could do the math for what they’d be if they were different, but they’re not.

    “The lot­tery is run once to deter­mine each value, and there are an infi­nite num­ber of pos­si­ble out­comes each time.”

    I mean, I agree under this scenario the universe the way we see it seems rather…improbable. It would read “If the universe was created (once) where all physical constants were chosen at random (never mind the metric by which you choose them, which is ambiguous) then the universe is unimaginably unlikely to be able to sustain life as we know it.”

    There are, I would think, a number of obvious flaws in this reasoning. One is that who knows maybe life would be sustainable with a different set of constants? Who knows. This would be akin to saying the license plate I just saw outside was incredibly unlikely, but I don’t really stand back in awe over how improbably those numbers and letters in that particular combination are.

    But let’s say that, at the very least, fusion has to be able to happen. So that means strong coupling, gravitational constant, electromagnetic constant, and a few masses have to be fine tuned (to a few percent of their current values.) So how are we able to conclude that we’re here? I don’t really know why you dismiss physical necessity, I’m a physicist and I assure you we are nowhere near done figuring out how the world works on a subatomic scale. Shit maybe a few years down the line we’ll find a deep link between how everything interacts, similar to how we found a link between electric and magnetic fields, and we unified them and it actually constrained magnetic field constants in terms of electric field constants we had at the time. I see no reason to preemptively dismiss this and claim design, this would be the god of the gaps fallacy.

    The other obvious way out is the anthropic principle. Of course it’s not explanatory unless we allow for multiple “trials” of universes with different constants. But modern physics today is actually going towards the multiverse route. We really don’t have any reason to think that our universe is the only one, we only know that if we go back in time space and time condense to a singularity and out understanding of physics breaks down just before that point. But hell, many universes could exist with different physical constants, and in that case the answer to the question “Why does the universe permit life” is the same as “Why does the Earth permit life”, there are just a lot of universes/planets. There are even physics papers written about this kinda stuff. Who knows if it’s right, we might find out, but the fact that these alternative theories exist force me to drastically lessen my belief in a designer of the cosmos who fine-tuned the laws of physics.

    (Btw I’m a friend of Max Clark’s, nice to meet you.)

  2. Derek

    ::RETYPED::

    The most controversial hinge (according to Dembski) is the following:

    [A] “If the values of any one of these things had been different by even a hair’s breadth, the universe wouldn’t have been life permitting.”

    Which itself hinges on

    [B] If the values of any one of these things had been different by even a hair’s breadth, planetary bodies couldn’t have formed, space couldn’t have expanded or would have expanded too quickly, etc.

    In order to have *any* empirical evidence for [B], we’d have to be able to create worlds with different values and see if the consequent follows. But since Mormonism is false, such empirical evidence won’t (ever) be forthcoming.

    But perhaps the dependency of the truth of [B]’s consequent on [B’s] antecedent is conceptual. If so, could you please say more about the conceptual dependence?

    What I mean is this: Suppose I say

    [P] Had there not then been red, then there would not be purple.

    And someone asks: “For [P] to be true, purple must depend on red to be. But why think that it does?” I’d respond by saying: “Well, if you think of purple itself you’ll see that it’s essentially a mixture of blue and red—that is, red and blue are among purple’s constituents. As such, without red, purples simply wouldn’t be purple. Therefore [P].”

    Of course, I’m not asking you to make the connection between “actual values” and (e.g.) “there are planets” *that* tight. But without a significantly tighter connection between the two, I have a hard time thinking that an otherwise reasonable person would be unreasonable in being skeptical of [B].

    If something you said on your post already answered my query, I apologize ahead of time for being an idiot.

  3. Hi Matt! A friend of Max is a friend of mine. It’s nice to meet you as well, and thank you for commenting on my blog. As you may have noted, I am not a physicist. In fact, I only recently fulfilled the requirements for my bachelor’s degree—and it’s in Intercultural Studies, not science or philosophy! So frankly I think I am a bit outgunned in this conversation. Nevertheless, I’ll try to engage you on the issues you raise. Bear with me.

    I’d like to formalize my argument for the sake of clarity. Here is what I am proposing, and it’s nothing new by any means:

    1. The life-permitting conditions in the universe are either due to necessity, chance, or design.
    2. The life-permitting conditions in the universe are not due to either necessity or chance.
    3. Therefore the life-permitting conditions in the universe are due to design.

    Note that this is a logically valid argument, so that if the premises are each true, then the conclusion follows inescapably.

    But the premises need not be obvious or even overwhelmingly supported by argument and evidence in order to be taken to be true. All they need to be is more plausible than their negations. If a premise is more plausible than its negation then it can be reasonably taken as true, and used in the inference.

    I think the first premise is uncontroversial. The life-permitting conditions in the universe have to be due to something, and I know of no other options than necessity, chance, or design.

    The second premise seems to be the lynchpin, and your comments seem to be aimed at weakening my case against each. I will address your comments about necessity as a plausible explanation for fine-tuning first.

    I mean just because there’s a constant in an equation doesn’t mean it could’ve been any­thing. I mean yeah we could do the math for what they’d be if they were different, but they’re not.

    Interestingly, this comment offers no grounds for believing that cosmic fine-tuning could be due to necessity. You even grant that there is no mathematical reason why the life-permitting values are the way they are!

    At most, you seem to question the inference that because there is no mathematical reason why they couldn’t have been otherwise, that therefore they in fact could have been. But remember that my premises need not be established with absolute conclusiveness in order to be used to make a deduction. They only need to be more plausible than their negations.

    So I submit that on the basis of the facts that we don’t know of any reason why the life-permitting values present in the universe could not have been otherwise, and we do know that at least there aren’t any mathematical or logical reasons why they could not have been otherwise, therefore it seems more plausible than not that the values are not due to necessity.

    Anyway you go on to concede this very point:

    …many uni­verses could exist with different physical constants.

    What motivates this remark, of course, is your desire to bolster the plausibility of chance as the explanation of fine-tuning, by taking the possibility of a multiverse seriously. But by doing so, by claiming that there even could be an ensemble of universes, each with different constants, you grant that the universal constants could have been otherwise, and therefore that they aren’t due to necessity.

    Now let’s take a look at how you attempt to bolster the chance hypothesis. You start by granting something like that if the life-permitting conditions of the universe are narrow enough and the possible conditions broad enough, and if there is only one universe, then the life-permitting conditions of the universe are improbable:

    I agree under this scenario the uni­verse the way we see it seems rather… improbable.

    However you go on to try to undermine certainty in all three of these things. First you try to widen the ranges—or increase the number—of the life-permitting possibilities:

    …maybe life would be sustainable with a different set of constants?

    I think a more technical discussion of fine-tuning than one in which I am qualified to engage is in order here. For such a discussion, I’d like to refer you to John Leslie’s “The Prerequisites of Life in Our Universe”, and John D. Barrow’s and Frank J. Tipler’s “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle”. Both are cited by the philosopher of science Dr. William Lane Craig, just before he goes on to explain:

    The world is conditioned principally by the values of the fundamental constants α (the fine structure constant, or electromagnetic interaction), αG (gravitation), αw (the weak force), αs (the strong force), and mn/me (the ratio between the mass of a proton and the mass of an electron). When one assigns different values to these constants or forces, one discovers that the proportion of observable universes, that is to say, universes capable of supporting intelligent life, is shockingly small. Just a slight variation in some of these values would render life impossible. For example, according to the physicist P. C. W. Davies, changes in either αG or αw of only one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe. In investigating the initial conditions of the Big Bang, one also confronts two arbitrary parameters governing the expansion of the universe: Ω0, related to the density of the universe, and H0, related to the speed of the expansion. Observations indicate that at 10-43 second after the Big Bang the universe was expanding at a fantastically special rate of speed with a total density close to the critical value on the borderline between recollapse and everlasting expansion. Stephen Hawking estimates that a decrease in the expansion rate of even one part in a hundred thousand million million one second after the Big Bang would have resulted in the universe’s recollapse long ago; a similar increase would have precluded the galaxies’ condensing out of the expanding matter. At the Planck time, 10-43 second after the Big Bang, the density of the universe must have apparently been within about one part in 1060 of the critical density at which space is flat.

    -“Reasonable Faith”, pp. 158-159.

    So you can see that in the absence of this type of fine-tuning, not even atomic matter or chemistry could exist, much less planets suitable for life-forms to evolve.

    …maybe a few years down the line we’ll find a deep link between how every­thing inter­acts, sim­i­lar to how we found a link between electric and magnetic fields, and we unified them and it actually con­strained magnetic field constants in terms of electric field constants we had at the time.

    On my first reading of this remark, it seemed like your idea here is to link the life-permitting conditions together so that any chance that one life-permitting condition has of obtaining would also count toward the chance that another one would obtain as well.

    But to assume that a Theory of Everything (TOE) will be successfully postulated and serve to make the existence of the life-permitting conditions of the universe more likely due to chance than otherwise, is to commit the TOE-of-the-gaps fallacy. If there is a gap in our understanding, we are neither warranted in assuming that it is somehow due to the existence of a god, nor that it is somehow due to the existence of a TOE (all things being equal).

    Therefore in order to use a TOE against my design argument in the way I initially thought you are attempting to, you would have to first provide positive grounds for thinking that a TOE exists, and then on top of that provide positive grounds for thinking that such would make the existence of the life-permitting conditions of the universe more likely to be due to chance than otherwise.

    Anyway there are features of our most promising TOE candidate that make it unable to be used to bolster the chance hypothesis, which I will explain shortly.

    It’s possible that my first reading of your remark about a Theory of Everything was mistaken. Just prior to the remark you say:

    I don’t really know why you dis­miss physical necessity…

    This leads me to believe that perhaps you are suggesting that there just might be something about a Theory of Everything that would lend plausibility to the necessity hypothesis, in which case a response to this line of thinking belongs among my comments above, in which I respond to your other remarks on the necessity hypothesis. But let me say something about this line here.

    Stephen Hawking explains:

    Does string theory, or M theory, predict the distinctive features of our universe, like a spatially flat four dimensional expanding universe with small fluctuations, and the standard model of particle physics?… M theory cannot predict the parameters of the standard model… the parameters can have any values. So much for string theory predicting the fine structure constant… Even when we understand the ultimate theory, it won’t tell us much about how the universe began. It cannot predict the dimensions of spacetime, the gauge group, or other parameters of the low energy effective theory… It won’t determine how this energy is divided between conventional matter, and a cosmological constant, or quintessence… So to come back to the question… Does string theory predict the state of the universe? The answer is that it does not. It allows a vast landscape of possible universes, in which we occupy an anthropically permitted location.

    -“Cosmology from the Top Down”, a paper presented at the Davis Cosmic Inflation Meeting U. C. Davis, May 29th, 2003, which I’ve quoted from its quotation in “Reasonable Faith”, pp. 162-163.

    Dr. Craig goes on to cite Leonard Susskind’s “The Cosmic Landscape” in explaining that string theory allows for around 10500 different possible universes governed by the present laws of nature.

    Therefore a hypothetical “Theory of Everything” that could successfully unite gravity (or relativity), electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces into a single expression wouldn’t maximally constrain the universal constants, and so if one were successfully postulated it wouldn’t mean that the life-permitting conditions of the universe are due to physical necessity (much less mathematical or logical necessity).

    Additionally, on string theory only a negligible fraction of the 10500 or so different possible universes are life-permitting, meaning that a successful TOE could not be used to bolster the chance hypothesis either.

    Moreover, a theory unifying the fundamental forces, as string theory attempts to do, wouldn’t even touch on the quantities or initial conditions of the universe, many of which had to fall into astonishingly narrow ranges in order to render the universe life-permitting, and many of which could theoretically vary independently of each other.

    After your attempt to widen the ranges—or increase the number—of the life-permitting possibilities and your remarks about a Theory of Everything, you try to increase the number of universes that exist in order to increase the odds that at least one universe would turn out to be life-permitting:

    The other obvious way out is the anthropic principle. Of course it’s not explanatory unless we allow for multiple “trials” of uni­verses with different constants. But modern physics today is actually going towards the multiverse route. We really don’t have any reason to think that our uni­verse is the only one, we only know that if we go back in time space and time con­dense to a singularity and out under­stand­ing of physics breaks down just before that point. But hell, many uni­verses could exist with different physical constants…

    This is a curious route for you to take for several reasons. The first is one I mentioned earlier: to even entertain the idea of plurality of universes, each with different constants—to even concede the possibility—is to concede that the constants in this universe are not due to necessity. But could a successful multiverse model even be a satisfactory explanation of cosmic fine-tuning?

    I’d argue that all multiverse proposals just beg the fine-tuning question, as some mechanism for generating the universes would have to be postulated, which would itself exhibit remarkable fine-tuning that would in turn need to be explained.

    I think this philosophical problem is fatal to many-worlds explanations of cosmic fine-tuning, but how scientifically viable are these multiverse models anyway?

    Firstly, a multiverse in which each universe is spatiotemporally and causally unrelated to ours would be, by definition, impossible to detect empirically. This would mean not only that we would be unable to verify or falsify the existence of other universes, but that we couldn’t even conceivably have any empirical reasons for postulating them in the first place. This makes such multiverse proposals scientifically ad-hoc.

    Not all multiverse proposals are this way, however. According Dr. Craig, the most promising multiverse model seems to be Alexander Vilenkin’s, as put forth in “Many Worlds in One“. Vilenkin postulates eternal inflation that gives rise to island universes, each of which is divided into observable regions that are bounded by event horizons. These island universes are continuously and successively created by a Big Bang-generating mechanism.

    Aside from begging the fine-tuning question by postulating such a remarkable mechanism, Vilenkin’s model suffers from other problems that Dr. Craig points out. For starters, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) theorem itself proves that no universe or multiverse can ever be coherently modeled to be past-infinite. Therefore the number of hypothetical island universes in existence at any time T must be finite. Therefore multiverse models can do little to bolster the chance hypothesis.

    The BGV theorem also prevents oscillating models from lending credence to the chance explanation of fine-tuning. Astronomer Joseph Silk calculates in “The Big Bang” on the basis of the current level of entropy that our universe could not have gone through more than about 100 oscillations, as entropy would be conserved through each cycle, creating larger universes each time (pp. 311-312).

    For a little more thorough treatment of the BGV theorem and its application to oscillating and multiverse models, see “The Ultimate Question of Origins: God and the Beginning of the Universe” in Astrophysics and Space Science 269-270 (1999): 723-740 (available online). There is a followup blurb on exception conditions to the theorem here.

    Another problem that plagues Vilenkin’s multiverse model is that it requires eternal inflation, which would have to be governed by primordial scalar fields that would be empirically detectable. On page 61 of his own book, Vilenkin explicitly admits that there is no empirical evidence for such fields.

    After all of this, I think there are other strong objections to multiverse hypotheses—at least to their use in bolstering the chance hypothesis. Let me briefly mention three.

    The first of these objections is the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (LCA). The idea behind it is that the existence of any X raises the question “why does X exist, rather than nothing at all?” (a question that no chance hypothesis could ever answer, even in theory). In light of this, Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments reason from the existence of contingent entities to the existence of a necessarily existing, nonphysical, personal being. For a fairly thorough treatment of these types of arguments, I refer you to Alexander Pruss’ entry in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, a copy of which can be read online here. The lynchpin of Leibnizian arguments is the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). While I think that there are sound formulations of the LCA that imply the existence of God, I also think that the PSR can be fairly used to object to the use of chance as an explanation of the life-permitting conditions of the universe.

    The second of my “bonus-round” objections to multiverse and other chance hypotheses is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The idea is that the universe can be demonstrated to be past-finite on both mathematical and scientific grounds. Kalam-type arguments reason on the basis of this and that ex nihilo nihil fit, that therefore the universe must have an efficient cause that is necessarily existing, nonphysical, and personal. You can read a brief presentation of this type of argument here.

    The third in this set of objections to chance hypotheses is that I think they tend conflate sheer numerical possibility with metaphysical probability. Knowledge of the mere existence of possibilities is not enough to determine the probabilities of each possibility actually obtaining. But a fully-orbed objection of this sort deserves its own development on another day—I just wanted to mention it.

    While I think my treatment of the chance hypothesis thus far is sufficient to explain why I feel like the life-permitting conditions of the universe are unlikely to be due to chance, there remain some comments that I’d like to very briefly respond to:

    …the answer to the question “Why does the uni­verse permit life” is the same as “Why does the Earth permit life”, there are just a lot of universes/​planets. There are even physics papers writ­ten about this kinda stuff.

    I believe you’re referring to the body of literature surrounding the Drake equation. In my opinion the long list of conditions necessary for a planet to be life-permitting simply add weight to the design inference. For a brief run-down of these conditions and the probability of extraterrestrial life, I refer you to the astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross’ papers, Fine-Tuning for Life on Earth, Does the Probability For ETI = 1?, and A Spectrum of Views on ETI.

    You wrap up by concluding:

    …the fact that these alter­native theories exist force me to drastically lessen my belief in a designer of the cosmos who fine-​​tuned the laws of physics.

    However the mere existence of these theories alone ought not lessen one’s credence in the design hypothesis. The theories need to be evaluated, and I’ve attempted to introduce some approaches to just doing just that. I hope it’s been provocative, and I’d be happy to hear your response.

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  6. max

    the only comment i would add is that there is a recent history of great scientific learning in the past few hundred years. the belief in something fundamental that determines the constants seems hopeful. there’s always been design, but only recently have we come to an understanding of the physical world that we could imagine really explaining all of it from some magical initial condition, which we’ll never be able to explain.

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