Archive for the ‘fine tuning’ Category

Just in time for Christmas, I’ve had a paper accepted by the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. It’s called “Binding the Diproton in Stars: Anthropic Limits on the Strength of Gravity“. Here’s the short version.

Diproton Disaster?

In 1971, Freeman Dyson discussed a seemingly fortunate fact about nuclear physics in our universe. Because two protons won’t stick to each other, when they collide inside stars, nothing much happens. Very rarely, however, in the course of the collision the weak nuclear force will turn a proton into a neutron, and the resulting deuterium nucleus (proton + neutron) is stable. These the star can combine into helium, releasing energy.

If a super-villain boasted of a device that could bind the diproton (proton + proton) in the Sun, then we’d better listen. The Sun, subject to such a change in nuclear physics, would burn through the entirety of its fuel in about a second. Ouch.

A very small change in the strength of the strong force or the masses of the fundamental particles would bind the diproton. This looks like an outstanding case of find-tuning for life: a very small change in the fundamental constants of nature would produce a decidedly life-destroying outcome.

Asking the Right Question

However, this is not the right conclusion. The question of fine-tuning is this: how would the universe have been different if the constants of nature had different values? In the example above, we took our universe and abruptly changed the constants half-way through its life. The Sun would explode, but would a bound-diproton universe create stars that explode? (more…)

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Next month, I’ll be in Minnesota at the St. Thomas Summer Seminars in Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology, presenting the science of fine-tuning to a bunch of philosophers. I presented similar lectures back in 2011 – they’re on YouTube. I’ve got a new section this time on Bayesian approaches to the multiverse and naturalism. I found a few guinea pigs to test it out on, so if you’re in Sydney on Saturday then come along. Here’s the details:

Title: Fine-tuning and Naturalism

Abstract: Christopher Hitchens stated that “At some point, we [the New Atheists] are all asked which is the best argument you come up against from the other side. I think every one of us picks the fine-tuning one as the most intriguing.” After introducing the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, I will consider what it means for naturalism, the multiverse, and science’s quest for the ultimate laws of nature.

Time: Saturday 30th of May 2015, 4pm.

Address: St Philips Anglican Church, 402 Port Hacking Rd Sth Caringbah

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If you’re in Sydney on Monday (18th May, 2015), then come along to The Royal pub in Darlington to see A Pint of Science! It’s an international science festival, with similar events in 9 countries. I’ll be speaking on:

Universes, one after the other)
Cosmologists are considering the idea that our universe is just one of a vast ensemble. I’ll give two reasons to take that incredulous look off your face, and two reasons to put that incredulous look right back again.

You’ll also hear “Quantum origin of galaxies, stars and life”, by Archil Kobakhidze (theoretical particle physicist), and Quantum Technologies of the Future by David Reilly (quantum physicist).

And, naturally, beer. All welcome!

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Last time, I started a review of the Carroll vs. Craig debate with a (mostly historical) overview of the back-and-forth about the beginning of the universe for the last 90 years of modern cosmology. Here, I’ll have a look at fine-tuning. I should start by saying how much I enjoyed the debate. They should do it again some time.

In his speeches, Sean Carroll raised five points (transcript) against the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life as an argument for the existence of God. I want to have a look at those five. Carroll (here) and Craig (here, here and here) had a few points to make post-debate, too.

Here is fine-tuning reply number one:

First, I am by no means convinced that there is a fine-tuning problem and, again, Dr. Craig offered no evidence for it. It is certainly true that if you change the parameters of nature our local conditions that we observe around us would change by a lot. I grant that quickly. I do not grant therefore life could not exist. I will start granting that once someone tells me the conditions under which life can exist. What is the definition of life, for example? If it’s just information processing, thinking or something like that, there’s a huge panoply of possibilities. They sound very “science fiction-y” but then again you’re the one who is changing the parameters of the universe. The results are going to sound like they come from a science fiction novel. Sadly, we just don’t know whether life could exist if the conditions of our universe were very different because we only see the universe that we see.

“Interesting” Games

Is the debate over the definition of life a problem for fine-tuning? Sean and I had a brief discussion on this point during my talk at the UCSC Summer School on Philosophy of Cosmology. My response was (roughly) as follows.

Consider chess. In particular, I’m wondering whether minor changes to the laws of chess would result in a similarly interesting game. Wait a minute, you say, you haven’t defined “interesting”. In fact, different people are going to come up with different definitions of interesting. So how can we know whether a game is interesting or not?

It’s a good point, but instead of considering this question in abstract, consider this particular example. Change one word in the rules of chess: instead of “Knights may jump over other pieces”, we propose that “Bishops may jump over other pieces”. If we were to rewrite the 530 page “Silman’s Complete Endgame Course“, we would need just one page, one paragraph, two sentences: “White bishop moves from f1 to b5. Checkmate.”


My claim is that this particular case is so clear that by any definition of interesting, this is not an interesting game. The game is no more interesting than tossing a coin to see who goes first. It is too simple, too easy. (more…)

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The Conversation has published an article of mine, co-authored with Geraint Lewis, titled “Have cosmologists lost their minds in the multiverse?“. It’s a quick introduction to the multiverse in light of the recent BICEP2 results. Comments welcome!

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Following my three critiques (one, two, three) of Richard Carrier’s view on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, we had a back-and-forth in the comments section of his blog. Just as things were getting interesting, Carrier took his ball and went home, saying that any further conversation would be “a waste of anyone’s time”. Sorry, anyone.

I still have questions. Before I forget, I’ll post them here. (I posted them as a comment on his blog but they’re still “awaiting moderation”. I guess he’ll delete them.)

The Main Attraction

What is Carrier’s main argument in response to fine-tuning, in his article “Neither Life nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed”? He kept accusing me of misrepresenting him, but never clarified his argument. I’ll have another go. Let,

o = intelligent observers exist
f = a finely-tuned universe exists
b = background information.
NID = a Non-terrestrial Intelligent Designer caused the universe.

We want to calculate the posterior: the probability of NID given what we know. From Carrier’s footnote 29, introduced as the “probability that NID caused the universe”, we can derive (using the odds form of Bayes’ theorem),

\frac{p(NID|f.b)}{p(\sim NID|f.b)}=\frac{p(f|NID.b)}{p(f|\sim NID.b)}\frac{p(NID|b)}{p(\sim NID|b)}   (1)

Carrier argues in footnotes 22 and 23 that,

p(f|o)=1 implies p(f|\sim NID.b)=1,   (2)

because o is part of “established background knowledge” and so part of b. Thus,

\frac{p(NID|f.b)}{p(\sim NID|f.b)}=\frac{p(NID|b)}{p(\sim NID|b)}   (3)

Conclusion: the posterior is be equal to the prior (as seen in footnote 29). Learning f has not changed the probability that NID is true. Fine-tuning is irrelevant to the existence of God.

Question 1: Is the above a correct formalisation of Carrier’s argument? (If anyone has read his essay, comment!) (more…)

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I thought I was done with Richard Carrier’s views on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life (Part 1, Part 2). And then someone pointed me to this. It comes in response to an article by William Lane Craig. I’ve critiqued Craig’s views on fine-tuning here and here. The quotes below are from Carrier unless otherwise noted.

[H]e claims “the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range,” but that claim has been refuted–by scientists–again and again. We actually do not know that there is only a narrow life-permitting range of possible configurations of the universe. As has been pointed out to Craig by several theoretical physicists (from Krauss to Stenger), he can only get his “narrow range” by varying one single constant and holding all the others fixed, which is simply not how a universe would be randomly selected. When you allow all the constants to vary freely, the number of configurations that are life permitting actually ends up respectably high (between 1 in 8 and 1 in 4: see Victor Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning).

I’ve said an awful lot in response to that paragraph, so let’s just run through the highlights.

  • “Refuted by scientists again and again”. What, in the peer-reviewed scientific literature? I’ve published a review of the scientific literature, 200+ papers, and I can only think of a handful that oppose this conclusion, and piles and piles that support it. Here are some quotes from non-theist scientists. For example, Andrei Linde says: “The existence of an amazingly strong correlation between our own properties and the values of many parameters of our world, such as the masses and charges of electron and proton, the value of the gravitational constant, the amplitude of spontaneous symmetry breaking in the electroweak theory, the value of the vacuum energy, and the dimensionality of our world, is an experimental fact requiring an explanation.” [emphasis added.]

  • “By several theoretical physicists (from Krauss to Stenger)”. I’ve replied to Stenger. I had a chance to talk to Krauss briefly about fine-tuning but I’m still not sure what he thinks. His published work on anthropic matters doesn’t address the more general fine-tuning claim. Also, by saying “from” and “to”, Carrier is trying to give the impression that a great multitude stands with his claim. I’m not even sure if Krauss is with him. I’ve read loads on this subject and only Stenger defends Carrier’s point, and in a popular (ish) level book. On the other hand, Craig can cite Barrow, Carr, Carter, Davies, Deutsch, Ellis, Greene, Guth, Harrison, Hawking, Linde, Page, Penrose, Polkinghorne, Rees, Sandage, Smolin, Susskind, Tegmark, Tipler, Vilenkin, Weinberg, Wheeler, and Wilczek. (See here). With regards to the claim that “the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range”, the weight of the peer-reviewed scientific literature is overwhelmingly with Craig. (If you disagree, start citing papers).

  • “He can only get his “narrow range” by varying one single constant”. Wrong. The very thing that got this field started was physicists noting coincidences between a number of constants and the requirements of life. Only a handful of the 200+ scientific papers in this field vary only one variable. Read this.

  • “1 in 8 and 1 in 4: see Victor Stenger”. If Carrier is referring to Stenger’s program MonkeyGod, then he’s kidding himself. That “model” has 8 high school-level equations, 6 of which are wrong. It fails to understand the difference between an experimental range and a possible range, which is fatal to any discussion of fine-tuning. Assumptions are cherry-picked. Crucial constraints and constants are missing. Carrier has previously called MonkeyGod “a serious research product, defended at length in a technical article”. It was published in a philosophical journal of a humanist society, and a popular level book, and would be laughed out of any scientific journal. MonkeyGod is a bad joke.

And even those models are artificially limiting the constants that vary to the constants in our universe, when in fact there can be any number of other constants and variables.

In all the possible universes we have explored, we have found that a tiny fraction would permit the existence of intelligent life. There are other possible universes,that we haven’t explored. This is only relevant if we have some reason to believe that the trend we have observed until now will be miraculously reversed just beyond the horizon of what we have explored. In the absence of such evidence, we are justified in concluding that the possible universes we have explored are typical of all the possible universes. In fact, by beginning in our universe, known to be life-permitting, we have biased our search in favour of finding life-permitting universes. (more…)

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