Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Jazz Horse and the Big Red Button

If you remember, my last post was about how the universe we find ourselves in is very poorly suited for life, so poorly suited that it's silly to believe a god – at least a traditional god that values life in general and humans in particular – designed this universe.

Some people who claim to be theists will give scads of reasons why their god simply had to design the universe this empty. It'd collapse under its own gravity if there were so much matter, they might say. You'd never get the heavier elements if you didn't have emptiness. The universe has to be this old to give the universe time to evolve life.

Of course the people who claim this aren't really theists and aren't really answering the question. If they claim to be Christians, they're committing blasphemy. Not that it's a problem – their supposed god doesn't exist, so blasphemy is a victimless crime – but it's interesting to look at why they're wrong.

This goes back to the fine-tuning argument, which was the topic of Episode 040 of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot. If you don't know that podcast or its sister blog Common Sense Atheism they're both great. Luke Muehlhauser is doing a wonderful job and is one of my inspirations.

The guest on this episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot was an astronomer named Luke Barnes, who supposes that since he knows a great deal about astronomy and theoretical physics (far, far more than I know, to be sure), he must know everything.

While I don't want to put myself into the same category of Socrates, any more than I want to put myself into the same category as Dr. Barnes, I have to suggest that Dr. Barnes should take a step back and look at what he doesn't know. Like all people who reach the god-conclusion, Dr. Barnes is trying to extrapolate from ignorance to knowledge, and in a truly Rumsfeldian fashion, he seems to be ignorant of what his ignorance is.

First, let me also recommend Dr. Barnes' blog, Letters to Nature. I deeply admire his tone and confidence, both of which I hope emulate.

Dr. Barnes is one of the subtle and precocious theists who claims his belief in his god stems not from holy text or personal revelation but rather from his deep an complete study of physics. The holy grail – literally, the cup that holds Dr. Barnes' god – is that fine-tuning argument, which goes something like this. Some sort of non-physical person (a concept as ridiculous as a horse made of jazz) was bopping along and came upon a universe-creating machine. This machine had seven or twelve or twenty six dials (the exact number doesn't matter, as we shall see). This non-physical person, this jazz-horse, used a property it had called "omniscience" to determine the correct settings for the dials and then pressed the big red button (one has to imagine such a button would be both big and red) labeled CREATE UNIVERSE one time and one time only. Out pops a universe and (time having been created just then) 14.5 billion years later, here we are.

This is a correct and exact summation of the fine-tuning argument. I'm sure Dr. Barnes and the rest of the theists who base their superstitions on the this argument will say I've created some sort of straw man here, but I haven't. I've just removed the pious euphemisms and mathematical obfuscation. I'm sure we can all see the problem.

Where the heck did that Universe-Creating Machine come from?

This is rather like that book with the fool-proof method to become a millionaire, the one where the first step is "Get a Million Dollars." Dr. Barnes and the rest of the fine-tuning theists ignore the fact that their non-physical person must have designed the universe-creating machine, or they've answered precisely nothing. Furthermore, that jazz-horse of theirs must have created this machine unconstrained by anything besides the laws of logic (if those). If their non-physical person was forced to obey some constraints, where would those constraints have possibly come from?

This is why I say those people who think they're theists and are using fine-tuning to support their god are committing blasphemy. Far from imagining the all-powerful creator of the universe, they're actually imagining, in their ignorance, a button-pusher, a thing that exists only to carry out the wishes of the real all-powerful god, the universe-making-machine-maker.

So, let's re-work the story. The non-physical person decided (in a time before time existed) to create a universe. It made a universe creating machine with a random number of dials (since the number of dials had no constraints, it must be random), and each dial had a random sensitivity (since the sensitivity had no constraints, it must be random).

In these lights, our current situation is no evidence at all for the existence of the non-physical person. That non-physical person could have made the universe with a thousand or a million or a billion dials, each dial millions of times more sensitive than those in ours. Such a universe would be so much less likely our universe that we really can't count our universe as any sort of evidence for fine tuning.

Alternatively, it may be the case that in 50 years or 100 years that theoretical physicists find that all of those constants that we think we've found are really derived from a single constant, and that that constant has a wide range of life-permitting values. Would that count as evidence against the jazz-horse? Of course not. Dr. Barnes and the theists would just claim that it showed their invisible friend's foresight and carefulness.

It might even be the case that we find, mathematically, that those fine-tuning constants can't have values we find they have. Perhaps our universe is, at root, life destroying and we just haven't learned it yet. Of course none of the theists would think that that disproves god! It would be a miracle!

Dr. Barnes objected (to a similar argument) that in some of these worlds, scientific explanation would be impossible, but of course, scientific explanation is impossible in our world. What's more, what gods have told their people to go out and explore the world? Think of it. Jesus becomes undisputed master of Western Civilization and after only 1200 years of heretic-killing and building papal wealth, we have the beginnings of science.

Nice work, Jesus. You really got your message of "Learn Science" across there.

The apparent fine-tuning of the universe is an interesting enigma, one whose resolution we humans are currently ignorant of. One possible solution is that we're finally right and we've finally found proof of our invisible friend. Of course, we've been wrong before. And before. And before. And before. And before. And before. And before. And before.

Yeah, the invisible friend hypothesis is just silly. Considering how poorly this explanation has worked in the past, how many times we've looked at our ignorance though we saw (our) god and been wrong, forgive me if I need better proof than Dr. Luke Barnes' inability to imagine another solution.

1 comment:

  1. This is an old post, but still worth a comment. As far as I know, Luke Barnes is an atheist, or at the very most an agnostic. Perhaps your comments may need to be re-evaluated. Perhaps you need to answer what he actually says.