O Pangloss!

Can I tell you how boring I find the fine-tuning argument? Paul Davies is the latest to use it and in the NYT no less. Davies’ argument depends on whether you believe his initial assertion that science fundamentally rests on faith:

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

So let me get this straight, science is a system that accurately describes the order in physical world. So far every finding of science points to a rational universe based on physical laws. Therefore it’s faith on our part that we will continue to find rational explanations? I’m not trying to be dense or anything, but isn’t it the evidence that has pointed towards rational explanations rather than faith?

Davies then goes on to propose the fine-tuning argument:

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

Almost certainly not exist? How does he know? Why is this axiomatic? Maybe our type of life would have difficulty under different physical laws, but how can one positively assert that life could not possibly exist with different building blocks or different rules? I think if anything the diversity of life on this planet, and its ability to penetrate into so many different niches proves the incredible versatility of living things. I even feel the requirement of liquid water as a prerequisite for life is presumptuous. How do we know that no other physical materials could possibly sustain heritable transmission of information?

Part of the justification for SETI, with which Davies is himself is intimately involved, is that life as an organization principle is a powerful force in its own right. On our own planet we’ve found life at the bottom of the oceans, and deep within the earth’s crust, feeding on radiation no less. I don’t think we should underestimate its potential to confound our expectations.

Now Davies goes on to assert that the only way to dismiss the explanation that we exist because of some kind of divine provenance is to believe in a multiverse. After all, in a multiverse why would anyone be surprised to find the preconditions for our existence so neatly arranged? I again dismiss this argument out of hand. You don’t need to believe in a multiverse to justify life coming into existence in this universe. It is based on this false axiom that life can only come into existence with one set of rules, and one set of materials. We simply do not know that this is true, and I believe significant evidence on our planet points to a great deal of creativity in the ability of life to problem-solve.

From these false axioms Davies concludes:

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

Actually no. Monotheistic religions have explanations – but they are just fabricated and not very likely. Talking snakes and a sky-daddy who made the universe in 6 days. Science is an intellectual system with the integrity not to assume it has all the answers in the absence of any data. Further, why should science have to provide a complete account to be without faith? It works! Beyond that, why should we care if it is incomplete? Why does lack of completion of scientific understanding of the universe (if such a thing is possible), indicate faith on the part of those who use science because it’s such an effective tool and process for understanding the world around us?

I do not buy any of these axioms that Davies presents to make his case for faith in science. The worst of which is this fine-tuning argument that I think Voltaire addressed adequately 250 years ago with Candide:

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed implicitly, for he thought Miss Cunegund excessively handsome, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that next to the happiness of being Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh, the next was that of being Miss Cunegund, the next that of seeing her every day, and the last that of hearing the doctrine of Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

O Pangloss! This is indeed the best of all possible universes, for we are in it!