I’ve just about finished by series of responses to various views on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life that I have encountered. Here I will respond to the work of Hector Avalos, who is professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University. In 1998, he wrote an article for Mercury Magazine entitled “Heavenly Conflicts: the Bible and Astronomy.” While most of the article pertains to the cosmology of the Bible and it’s (shock horror) apparent contradiction with modern cosmology, he spends five paragraphs near the end discussing the anthropic principle. He writes:
Attempts to relate the Bible to astronomy are often intertwined with the search for the meaning and purpose of human life. In particular, discussions by John A. Wheeler, John Barrow and other cosmologists concerning the so-called anthropic principle – the idea that the physical constants of the universe are finely tuned for human existence – have attracted interest. The anthropic principle would assert, for example, that if the charge of the electron were other than what it is or the weights of the proton and neutron were different, then human existence would not be. But do these precise quantities necessarily indicate that human beings were part of some intelligent purpose?
The primary assumption of the anthropic principle, which is really a new version of the older “divine design” or teleological argument, seems to be that the “quantity of intelligent purpose” for an entity is directly proportional to the quantity of physico-chemical conditions necessary to create that entity. But the same line of reasoning leads to odd conclusions about many non-human entitles.
… let’s use the symbol P to designate the entire set of physico-chemical conditions necessary to produce a human being … Making a computer requires not only all the pre-existing conditions that enable humans to exist but also human beings themselves. In more symbolic terms, making a computer requires P + human beings, whereas only P is needed to make human beings. By the same logic, garbage cans and toxic pollution produced by human beings would be more purposed than human beings. So measuring the divine purpose of an entity by the number of pre-existing conditions required to make that entity is futile.
This response to the fine-tuning of the universe is confused on many levels.
1. He confuses the anthropic principle with the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. The anthropic principle, originally defined by Brandon Carter, states that “we must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.” In other words, the (weak) anthropic principle is the somewhat tautological statement that, given that we exist, we must observe a universe which is compatible with the existence of observers. The fine-tuning of the universe, on the other hand, is the claim that in the space of possible universe (with other laws, constants and initial conditions), the set of life-permitting universes is very small. The anthropic principle is a necessary truth that functions as a selection effect, while the fine tuning of the universe is something that we have discovered about the universe. Confusing these two is a common misunderstanding, but should not be so for anyone who has actually read the literature. For example, Barrow and Tipler very carefully discuss the different forms of the anthropic principle. Our suspicions should be raised about anyone who seeks to comment on these issues but does not know the definitions of the words he is using.
2. He misunderstands the “anthropic” part of the anthropic principle. Avalos constantly refers to “human life” and “human existence”. But the anthropic principle isn’t about human beings, in spite of the name. Carter himself has pointed out that the word “anthropic” was a poor choice, because it conveys the misleading impression that the principle involves humans specifically, rather than intelligent observers in general. Once again, this point would be known to anyone who has actually read the literature on the anthropic principle.
3. He confuses the fine-tuning of the universe with the teleological argument. The claim that the universe is fine-tuned for life is not the same as the claim that the universe has a supernatural “fine-tuner”. It is entirely possible that our universe is fine-tuned but that natural processes did it, or that it was just chance, perhaps with some help from the multiverse. At most, the fine-tuning of the universe is the first premise of a teleological argument. This is precisely the confusion that leads some religious believers to claim that the fine-tuning of the universe is automatically proof for God, and non-believers to dismiss the scientific evidence for fine tuning as mere theology. Neither position is tenable, even if the teleological argument were successful.
4.He criticises a misrepresentation of the teleological argument,which confuses the evidence for design with the purpose of the designer. Avalos tells us that the teleological argument, in pseudomathematical form, goes like this:
divine design of an entity physical conditions necessary to create that entity
Avalos calls this the “primary assumption” of the teleological argument, though I have never seen it presented in this way, and Avalos gives no references. Certainly, its a rather crude version of the argument. Both sides of the above “equation” are ill-defined – what exactly is the amount of purpose or design? How are the physical conditions being quantified? It is just the number of constants?
In any case, Avalos’ counter-example fails. Suppose that we could quantify the amount of fine tuning needed to make the proposition “universe A has been designed by an intelligent agent” more probable than its negation. (The agent need not be any sort of God. It is possible that future human beings could design and create new universes.) Suppose, further, that the existence of intelligent life in a universe was reason enough to believe that said universe met the design standard.
Now, suppose we inspected a region of another universe (Universe B) and found that it contained a computer and a garbage can. We would conclude that this universe contained intelligent life, and (ex hypothesi) was thus designed. Would it follow that the agent that designed Universe B was more interested in garbage cans than the intelligent life that made the cans? No. And even if that were true, would it in any way affect the conclusion that Universe B was designed? Of course not.We can know that something is designed even if we do not know it’s purpose. The fact that a Ferrari is a necessary condition of the exhaust fumes from a Ferrari doesn’t mean that the exhaust fumes were the purpose of the designer. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the Ferrari was not designed.
(Note that all of this is completely independent of whether any teleological argument is successful.)
In conclusion, Avalos’ thinks that the human beings are the focus of the anthropic principle, that the anthropic principle is the fine-tuning of the universe, that the fine-tuning is the teleological argument, and can’t produce a cogent version of the teleological argument. In just a few brief paragraphs, he has managed to present a near-perfect catalogue of how not to think about this topic.
Postscript: All this would be somewhat excusable for a historian, but for a particular incident that first brought Avalos’ article to my attention. In 2007, the astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University. There were allegations that he was denied tenure because of his support of the intelligent design (ID) movement. I won’t comment on that – there seem to be legitimate concerns about his record of attracting grants, and publication record. Of more importance is the fact that it was Avalos who was a driving force in the opposition to ID at Iowa State. When pressed on his scientific credentials, he cited the above article:
I may not be an astronomer, but my article, “Heavenly Conflicts: The Bible and Astronomy,” passed the editorial review of Mercury: The Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 27 no. 2 (March/April, 1998), pages 20-24. There, I critiqued fine-tuning arguments before I even heard of Gonzalez. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific is the SAME organization that has published, via a sister publication (Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific), some of the work of Guillermo Gonzalez. (From Here)
[Against those who claim that ID lies outside his field of expertise …] Apparently, they disregard the fact that I have also published my views on Intelligent Design in a very respected astronomical journal—“Heavenly Conflicts: The Bible and Astronomy,” Mercury: The Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1998). (From here).
This is bollocks on so many levels.
- Mercury is not a “very respected astronomical journal”. It is a popular astronomy magazine. It happens to be published by the same organisation that publishes the academic journal “Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific”, and even that isn’t a particularly prestigious journal. The magazine isn’t the “sister” publication of the journal in any meaningful sense. From their website: “The [Astronomical Society of the Pacific] serves the professional community by publishing the technical journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, as well as conference proceedings. In contrast, Mercury serves the Society’s broader goal of communicating astronomy to the general public”.
- Note that Avalos only claims to have passed editorial review, not peer review. What are the editor’s standards? From their website: “We encourage writers to be innovative and forceful, to devise clever metaphors, to walk out onto a limb. The ASP does not endorse anything our Mercury contributors say, but we believe in challenging readers and making Mercury a vigorous part of the marketplace of ideas”. Note the part in (my) italics. Passing editorial review means absolutely nothing in terms of the astronomical credentials of the article. It only means that the editor thinks it might be of interest to the kind of person who reads popular astronomy magazines. Note that most astronomers do not fall into that last category.
- The article contains almost no astronomical information. (It doesn’t even contain references of any kind.) He has one table that lists literally 22 words on modern cosmology. He mentions a few theories on Joshua’s missing day and the identity of the Star of Bethlehem, but his only comment is that these theories may be misguided as the star may just be a “literary motif”. He doesn’t defend this contention, let alone provide assessment of the astronomical issues. Quite simply, the article is not about astronomy. In fact, the article contains only five paragraphs on the anthropic principle, which is less than 15% of the article. So it’s not really about that either. It’s an article about history.
The moral of the story is quite simple: being accepted by astronomers (in fact, by one astronomer acting as the editor of a popular magazine) as an expert on biblical literature does not give you credentials as an astronomer! It doesn’t even add to your credentials as an expert on biblical literature. Dr Avalos would do well to note that scientists do not take kindly to those who imply that their discipline is “easy”, that even a non-specialist (like a historian) can get published in a scientific journal.
And finally, Dr Avalos’ conclusions on the history of the last two thousand years of astronomical research (which is outside his expertise as an Old Testament scholar) are at odds with historians of this era. Avalos says: “For most of the last two thousand years, any research on astronomy had to follow the biblical interpretation of the Church … Accordingly, many scientists would argue that for modern astronomy to be born, biblical cosmology had to die.” It’s worth noting that for most of the last two thousand years, the vast majority of Christendom believed the cosmology of Aristotle, as opposed to what Avalos presents as the Biblical cosmology. Contrast, then, Avalos’ views with the following quote (from this wonderful lecture) from Dr Allan Chapman, historian of science at Oxford University, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, president of the Society for the History of Astronomy, author of “Gods in the Sky: Astronomy from the Ancients to the Enlightenment”:
Very often, we get the popular impression – and certainly this persists in much of the popular literature – that you have the golden age of the ancient world, you have the Greeks, the philosophers, you then have late classical antiquity, and then you have the long dark sleep. Europe shuts shop for a thousand years. European intellectual life is dominated by men in black cloaks with tridents and red hot irons, and if you dare so much as whisper an original idea, they have you locked up, tortured and burned. And then suddenly comes the renaissance, where everything is put right again. You have a combination of Martin Luther, Nicolas Copernicus and Galileo, and then we’re all ready to get into the modern world. Tragically, this still is a common perspective – not within the learned world, for most of the 20th century, and certainly from the 1920’s and 30’s onwards, professional scholars have been systematically unpicking that idea. Certainly unpicking the idea of the church as a persecuting organisation in the Middle Ages. But amazingly, still in 2009, it’s alive and kicking in popular literature, popular assumption and in the automatic use of phrases like “the dark ages” for anything that happens before the time of the renaissance … [In reality] there was an intense amount of scientific and philosophical activity in this period.
More of my posts on fine-tuning are here.