Monday, September 3, 2012

Part 6: Terrible Teleology

Imagine yourself standing before a firing squad awaiting execution [1].  As an officer gives the commands to “ready” and then to “aim,” a squad of highly trained riflemen point their weapons squarely on your chest.  A moment of silent anticipation passes before you finally hear the enthusiastic shout to “fire.”  You shut your eyes and turn your head just as a deafening roar of gunfire explodes before you.  Yet, to your astonishment, you feel no impact and no pain.  In fact, once the smoke clears, you even look down to see that you're completely unscathed.  What do you make of this?

Naturally, there are several possible explanations.  For example, maybe someone happened to make the mistake of switching all the regular bullets with blanks.  Granted, it’s not a very likely scenario, but it would certainly explain the fact that you're still breathing.  It also has the advantage of being testable, since, in principle, you could examine the ammunition for yourself and check for consistency.

Now let’s suppose you do check the ammo and, sure enough, it’s real.  What’s next?  Well, maybe your assumption of "highly trained" marksmen is completely wrong, and really they're just a bunch of incompetent boobs who've never fired a weapon in their lives.  Again, not very likely, but it does have explanatory power with the potential for testable predictions.

Okay, so you test their skill and they really are competent soldiers.  Now what?  Well, maybe the riflemen don't want to be responsible for taking a human life and so they all missed on purpose.  Or maybe a gust of wind kicked sand into everyone’s face just as the order was given to “fire.”  Or maybe the whole thing is just a vivid, lucid dream, and you still need a few minutes to wake up and come to your senses.  There are any number of plausible explanations for the fact that you’re still breathing, and there are well-established rules for testing the veracity of each one.

Finally, what if someone were to suggest that an invisible, transcendent, disembodied mind happened to personally step in and save you at the last second by telekinetically deflecting all the bullets through his magical force of pure will alone?  How likely is that explanation?  How would you even test it?  Because if you’re a Christian apologist, this is supposed to be the most compelling explanation of them all.

Which brings us to a repeat of the same persistent philosophical failure of Christian apologetics:  The idea that scientific failure to properly explain an unlikely event is automatically grounds for invoking the intervention of magic.  Only this time, it’s called the teleological argument for the existence of God, and usually sounds like this [2]:
  1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
  2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.
And, of course, God is the best explanation for that design, so therefore God must exist.

Another one of those big, cosmic mysteries is the problem known as fine-tuning: the idea that the physical constants of nature need to lie within astronomically tight tolerances in order to permit life in our universe.  It’s certainly a perplexing puzzle that has a lot of really smart people completely stumped, yet Christians are again jumping in as if they have all the answers to one of the deepest mysteries in modern cosmology.  And, being true to form, they offer nothing more to the discussion beyond a tortured train of fallacious logic driven head-on into a preconceived bias.

For instance, let's suppose we're feeling generous and decide to immediately grant the entire teleological argument without contention.  Now what?  How do we follow up with it? What predictive power does it offer?  What experimental measurements can we perform to test it?  What decisions can I now make in the real world with real, empirical consequences that will manifest under the expectation of a divine, cosmic designer?  These are the ultimate arbiters of truth when making synthetic propositions, and not the ability to formulate cute, rhetorical deductions.  But of course, apologists have no answers to any of this and will even frequently argue that such challenges are unreasonable to demand of them in the first place!  It's a proof by admission that the teleological argument is little more than a glorified philosophical shoe-horn designed to conclude God without demonstrating Him.

Remember that Christians are ultimately trying to prove the existence of an entity with virtually unlimited cosmic power - literally the capacity to construct an entire universe, and all the physical laws governing it, according completely arbitrary whims.  Yet the very notion of fine-tuning itself implies a being that is fundamentally limited by a strict set of physical laws - a being whose creative potential is restricted solely to the mere tweaking of a small set of constants, scale factors and initial conditions.  And even then, the very best that this being can apparently do is construct an overwhelming void of inhospitable nothingness, dotted by the occasional ball of hot plasma and diffuse gas.  Life, in the grand scheme of things, is an insignificant cosmic afterthought; a thin film of organic chemistry squished into the surface of a tiny, imperceptible rocky dot, hiding out in some obscure galactic corner.  The very idea of a deliberately engineered universe is patently absurd when less than one part in 10^50th of the end product is actually capable of supporting the very thing it was allegedly "designed" for in the first place [3].  It would be like a multibillion dollar oil refinery that produces millions of tons of waste every day, but only one functional molecule of gasoline per millennium.  The argument itself is an argument for an embarrassingly weak and incompetent deity.

It's important to understand that whenever physicists talk about cosmic fine-tuning, it doesn’t just mean for life specifically, but virtually everything else in the entire known universe.  One slight tweak on the right fundamental constant and it’s not just life that vanishes, but also stars, galaxies, planets, and sometimes even stable atomic nuclei.  The very phrase “finely tuned for life” could just as easily be replaced with the phrase “finely tuned for black holes,” and the entire premise of the teleological argument would still be perfectly valid.  In fact, more so, because the universe definitely spends way more time and energy constructing black holes than it does creating actual life. 

Even worse for apologists is the uncomfortable fact that, piece by piece, the entire fine-tuning premise keeps getting proven wrong.  For example, the electroweak scale used to represent a classic case of apparent fine-tuning, since slight deviations in its current value would abruptly halt the fusion of heavy elements in stars [4].  However, this premise also relies on the assumption that the electroweak scale is the only parameter that one is allowed to adjust at a given time.  If other parameters are allowed to vary simultaneously, then it's actually possible to theoretically demonstrate a whole slew of perfectly functional universes in the total absence of a weak nuclear force [5].

Notice how we still have yet to even look at a proper premise of the argument itself, and already the whole thing is hopelessly wrong before it even begins.  But let's be good logicians and examine the train of thought anyway, just to see how much of a wreck it really is.  And, sure enough, with the very first premise, we see a classic logical fallacy known as the false trichotomy - a blanket assertion that fine-tuning can only be viably explained by one of three exclusive philosophical options.

Starting with physical necessity, we have the idea that the universal constants are all the product of some kind of mathematical quirk, like the area of a triangle or the value of pi.  For example, Coulomb's law has this strange factor of two contained within the exponent of its reciprocal term.  Change this to a factor of say, 3 or 1.5, and all of a sudden atoms themselves have a hard time staying together.  However, we also know for a fact that this little factor of 2 is nothing more than an expression of how surface area over a spherical shell is exactly proportional to the square its radius. The so-called "fine-tuning" is really nothing of the sort because basic Euclidean geometry doesn't allow for anything else.

Next, we have chance, which is the notion that the universal constants are all 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 time.  For example, consider Earth's fortunate orbit in 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 all life abruptly freezes solid due to the withering cold.  But so what?  There's 300 billion stars in our galaxy alone!  With odds like that, it should really come as no surprise at all if there turned out to be millions upon millions of planets landing well within their respective habitable zones.  Again, the so-called "fine-tuning" is really just an expression of sheer probability acting over large numbers. 

Finally, our last option is design, meaning that an unembodied mind beyond space and time used His transdimensional God-magic to specify all of our universal constants directly into the Big Bang singularity.  Why would He do that?  Who the hell knows?  But apparently it has something to do with a need for hot balls of glowing hydrogen to undergo stable nuclear fusion in their cores, thereby forging heavy atomic elements in their death throws and scattering the remains back out into space.  To what end, you ask?  Because obviously He then needed a tiny fraction of those heavy elements to coalesce back into a miniscule rocky planet capable of facilitating the self-replication of carbon-based molecules, which, after billions of years of inherited allele variations and the occasional mass-extinction event, would finally produce bipedal apes with an ultimate capacity for interdependent social dynamics and personal, spiritual devotion. 

Isn't it strange how we have plenty of real-world examples of the first two options occurring throughout nature all the time, but absolutely none of the third option to speak of?  And why would we?  It's a ridiculous Rube-Goldberg monstrosity with no coherent rhyme or reason to it from any engineering perspective.  But notice how this argument completely ignores all kinds of potential philosophical alternatives, like maybe a mixture of chance and physical laws working together.  For example, one cosmic theory speculates that as a black hole collapses, the result is an entirely new universe popping into existence, complete with its own unique set of physical constants [6].  Universes favorable to the creation of black holes therefore also tend to spawn even more universes and even more black holes.  Since the conditions for black holes are already necessarily similar to those required for life, then it only makes sense that people like us should eventually appear as a by-product of the whole process [7].

Or better yet, who's to say that the universal constants are even constants at all?  For example, recent observations into the fine structure constant have indicated a potential variation that spans from one end of the cosmos out to the other [8].  So for all we know, maybe nature simply takes on all possible values continuously across space and time.  Or heck, maybe fine-tuning really is the product of design, but just not a supernatural design.  Honestly, why does "design" have to automatically imply a divine agent rather than a bunch of clever aliens with really cool technology?

But who are we kidding?  Everyone knows that Christian apologists would rather tear out their own eyeballs than place faith in a transdimensional race of cosmic engineers.  So let's stop beating around the bush and just rewrite the first premise for what it is:  Either fine-tuning is a deliberate product of the singular deity of classical monotheism, or it's not.  That's the real dichotomy contained within this argument, so we might as well take it for what it is.  And you know what?  There's nothing wrong with that at all!  It's a perfectly valid proposition that logically complies with the law of the excluded middle.  All Christians need to do now is build a positive empirical case for God that reasonably warrants a rejection of the null hypothesis. 

You'd think this would be a trivial burden for the apologists to meet, given the sheer arrogant confidence they all seem to have in their shared position.  Yet for some strange reason, this is the one philosophical burden they all collectively refuse to ever meet.  You can even see it right there in the second premise.  Not a shred of effort is spent advancing the God hypothesis, but instead gets devoted entirely to the implied rejection of all naturalistic explanations.

For example, we already know that multiverse theories readily explain fine tuning by simply postulating a vast ensemble of random universes, each with their own unique mixture of initial conditions and physical constants.  However, the apologist will then rightly point out that such theories are all based entirely on purely theoretical speculations and dubious metaphysical assumptions, without even the slightest shred of empirical evidence backing any of it up.  But then, in the very same breath, apologists will immediately assert their own speculative, dubious, and untestable hypothesis as the only viable option now worth accepting - as if the mere virtue of other theories being wrong automatically means some alternative theory gets to be right.  It’s like being on trial for murder, and the only evidence the prosecution can offer for your guilt is the mere fact that other people did not actually commit the crime.

Let's not forget that in the context of synthetic propositions, it's nearly impossible to ever philosophically prove a negative claim.  Even Christians themselves will be the first to remind us all of this fact whenever some atheist dares to suggest how one can know with certainty that God does not exist.  Yet here we have one of the top five go-to arguments for the existence of God basing itself entirely on exactly that same fallacy - that absolutely no unguided, naturalistic explanation will ever be able to account for fine-tuning, so therefore God gets to win by default. 

So when all is said and done, the teleological argument for the existence of God is just that - another argument; words blathered out into the ether without any evidential basis in sense experience or coherent logic.  It again offers no testable predictions, it makes ridiculously absurd assumptions, it builds a false trichotomy, it attempts to prove a negative, it ignores precedents, it constraints its own deity, and it hypocritically rejects alternative theories for possessing the very same flaws contained within its own conclusion.  The only reason people find it compelling in the first place is because it utilizes the exact same tools of psychological manipulation that we saw earlier with Kalam.  Simply begin by exposing the subject to a deep, cosmic mystery, thereby arousing a high sense of need for cognitive closure.  This, in turn, makes the subject susceptible to primacy effects, which are then easily satisfied by blanket appeals to agenticity.  Once the subject has been indoctrinated with the desired belief, confirmatory observations are then piled on in abundant layers, while any potential falsification via testable empirical predictions is patently rejected out of hand.  It's a textbook snake-oil formula statistically guaranteed to engineer conformity with a foregone conclusion.

  1. I call this "The Parable of the Firing Squad."  William Lane Craig use this exact same analogy for his argument by falsely comparing it to our universe.  Only the way I'm telling it here is how an actual reasonable person would view the situation.
  2. William Lane Craig - Eastwooding Richard Dawkins
  3. Calculation based on volume.  The observable universe is about 10^80 cubic meters in volume.  The Earth's biosphere is about 10^17-10^19, depending on how thick you want to make it.  The disparity is therefore around 61-63 orders of magnitude.  If we wish to be generous, we can allow for a few hundred billion potentially habitable planets throughout the universe and still have 50 orders of magnitude left over to do something else with.
  4. Jenkins, A. and Perez, G., “Looking for Life in the Multiverse,” Scientific American, January (2010)
  5. Harnik, R., Kribs, G., and Perez, G. “A universe without weak interactions,” Physical Review D, Vol 74, 035006 (2006)
  6. Pourhasan, R., Afshordi, N., and Mann, R. B., "Out of the white hole: a holographic origin for the Big Bang," arXiv:1309.1487 [hep-th]
  7. Smolin, L., "The Life of the Cosmos," Oxford University Press, USA.
  8. Webb, J. K., et al, "Indications of spatial variations in the fine structure constant," Physical Review Letters, Vol 107, 191101 (2011)