I recently read philosopher of science Tim Maudlin’s book Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time and thought it was marvellous, so I was expecting good things when I came to read Maudlin’s article for Aeon Magazine titled “The calibrated cosmos: Is our universe fine-tuned for the existence of life – or does it just look that way from where we’re sitting?“. I’ve got a few comments. Indented quotes below are from Maudlin’s article unless otherwise noted.
In a weekend?
Theories now suggest that the most general structural elements of the universe — the stars and planets, and the galaxies that contain them — are the products of finely calibrated laws and conditions that seem too good to be true. … The details of these sorts of calculations should be taken with a grain of salt. No one could sit down and rigorously work out an entirely new physics in a weekend.
Two few quick things. “Theories” has a ring of “some tentative, fringe ideas” to the lay reader, I suspect. The theories on which one bases fine-tuning calculations are precisely the reigning theories of modern physics. These are not “entirely new physics” but the same equations (general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, stellar structure equations etc.) that have time and again predicted the results of observations, now applied to different scenarios. I think Maudlin has underestimated both the power of order of magnitude calculations in physics, and the effort that theoretical physicists have put into fine-tuning calculations. For example, Epelbaum and his collaborators, having developed the theory and tools to use supercomputer lattice simulations to investigate the structure of the C12 nucleus, write a few papers (2011, 2012) to describe their methods and show how their cutting-edge model successfully reproduces observations. They then use the same methods to investigate fine-tuning (2013). My review article cites upwards of a hundred papers like this. This is not a back-of-the-envelope operation, not starting from scratch, not entirely new physics, not a weekend hobby. This is theoretical physics.
Telling your likelihood from your posterior
It can be unsettling to contemplate the unlikely nature of your own existence … Even if your parents made a deliberate decision to have a child, the odds of your particular sperm finding your particular egg are one in several billion. … after just two generations, we are up to one chance in 10^27. Carrying on in this way, your chance of existing, given the general state of the universe even a few centuries ago, was almost infinitesimally small. You and I and every other human being are the products of chance, and came into existence against very long odds.
The slogan I want to invoke here is “don’t treat a likelihood as if it were a posterior”. That’s a bit to jargon-y. The likelihood is the probability of what we know, assuming that some theory is true. The posterior is the reverse – the probability of the theory, given what we know. It is the posterior that we really want, since it reflects our situation: the theory is uncertain, the data is known. The likelihood can help us calculate the posterior (using Bayes theorem), but in and of itself, a small likelihood doesn’t mean anything. The calculation Maudlin alludes to above is a likelihood: what is the probability that I would exist, given that the events that lead to my existence came about by chance? The reason that this small likelihood doesn’t imply that the posterior – the probability of my existence by chance, given my existence – is small is that the theory has no comparable rivals. Brendon has explained this point elsewhere. (more…)