March 09, 2008

Catholic Men's Conference in Worcester Gets an Earful of Anthropic Fine-Tuning

I miss out on all the good conferences. I also miss out on some that come across sounding a bit silly to me. Not being Catholic myself, I was unaware that the eighth annual Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men's Conference was being held at the DCU Center yesterday until I read about it in today's Worcester Telegram and Gazette. Bronislaus B. Kush gives us the lowdown on the conference in general, but makes special reference to a talk given by Russell Stannard of the London Open University advocating for the anthropic principle and cosmological fine-tuning. Yes, someone is still trotting that stuff out. Kush's article starts right off with a rather egregious error and never looks back, though, so I'll assume he's simply unaware of not only the inaccuracies in his article but of the fact that the anthropic principle itself is both scientifically unsupported and logically fallacious.

Science fits well in God’s plan
Day focuses on Catholic men


Modern science has made such a thorough and compelling case for explaining the universe’s origins that renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, in his best-seller “A Brief History of Time,” bluntly asked, “What place then for a Creator?”

Had the renowned British theorist, known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, been at the DCU Center yesterday, he may have gotten a satisfactory answer.
And we're off. In fact, Hawking does address the anthropic principle at some length in A Brief History of Time. For example, he talks specifically about the Strong Anthropic Principle:
According to this theory, there are either many different universes, or many different regions of a single universe, each with its own initial configuration and, perhaps, with its own set of laws of science. In most of these universes the conditions would not be right for the development of complicated organisms; only in the few universes that are like ours would intelligent life develop and ask the question, 'Why is the universe the way we see it?' The answer is simple: if it had been different, we would not be here.
Reporter Kush seems to be unaware of Hawking's several refutations of the fine-tuning argument even though he himself quotes from A Brief History of Time. Perhaps it's been awhile since he read Hawking's book and he's forgotten that Hawking had already considered the answer put forth by Stannard and found it to be quite unsatisfactory.
According to Russell Stannard, a high-energy nuclear physicist from England who lectures around the world about religion and cosmology, God fits in nicely, along with the big bang theory and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary discourse, in explaining how the universe was formed...
The good news here is that nobody is trying to turn these Catholic men into Biblical literalists and that a Catholic conference had no problem with someone advancing real science, even if he does go on to get things wrong by positing supernatural influence based on logical fallacies shortly.
Mr. Stannard is among a growing number of scientists and researchers who theorize that the initial conditions of the universe and the physical constraints alluded to in the basic physical laws might have been fine-tuned to allow for intelligent life.

Believers of the so-called “anthropic principle” hold that the world was preplanned and designed for sentient beings.

That’s because life, as most understand it, could not have come about had there not been an almost perfect confluence of scientific conditions. Advocates of the principle believe that there’s a supreme being in the mix because of the high improbability that such a combination could be attained...
Here's where the fallacies begin. Leaving aside that there really aren't a growing number of scientists who posit supernatural origination for the universe, I'll look instead at the argument regarding probability. It's a common fallacy that the prior probability for the universe being exactly the way it is is a significant condition. We can use a simple analogy with dice to demonstrate in a thought experiment.

Lots of dice needed here...First, we need 100 fair dice. We'll number them sequentially from 1 to 100 and then roll each one to generate a sequence of 100 results, each of which we know beforehand will be between 1 and 6, inclusively. At the end of the process, we'll have a unique sequence of 100 digits. The odds of obtaining that sequence is about 1 in 6.5 x 1077. That's an incredibly tiny probability, far smaller than that of winning the lottery or even of selecting a particular atom from all of the matter in the universe. Nonetheless, there's our sequence of 100 digits staring us in the face. We didn't start out with the intention of getting that sequence, we didn't weight the dice to produce a particular result, and the odds of that sequence existing at all are infinitesimal.

Still, we had an advantage to begin with because there was really a limit to our results based on knowledge of our starting conditions. We know that each digit in our sequence had to be an whole number between 1 and 6. We don't expect any of our dice to come up as an 8 or a 3.4. When it comes to calculating the prior probability of the universe existing as we see it in reality, though, we have no such advantage. We can compare our dice to other dice, but we can't compare our universe to other universes, so to say that gravity could have been different, for example, is meaningless. We don't know that it could have been different, although we might be able to imagine any number of possibilities — and the fact that we can imagine an infinite number of possibilities itself demonstrates that this is a meaningless criterion for consideration in calculating anything about how the universe could have been different. Moreover, even if we did know somehow a way to constrain the prior probabilities, this doesn't necessitate including supernatural causation; we could say how things would be different in this case, but that doesn't give us a teleology, a reason why they would be different based on some intentional act. Now take into account all the other events, all the other physical constants that go into making up a universe and it becomes clear that the chance that we could predict a prior probability correctly makes the result of our dice experiment look like a sure thing. When you get right down to it, there's no way of calculating anything about the probability of the universe being what it is. To do so, as Stannard and other advocates of anthropic design do, is more an exercise in the fantastic than anything mathematically, or even logically, meaningful.

Additionally, since we can't say anything about how things would have turned out differently if things had started from a different set of circumstances at the very beginning of time and space, we certainly can't assume that a different set of physical constants would have resulted in a universe without any intelligent life in it, let alone one without life at all. The fact is that we can't really know that at all; it's not a testable hypothesis because there's no way for us to sample other universes with other physical laws. Just a couple of galaxies out of the billions out thereTo go back to the dice experiment, it would be like trying to calculate the probability for a result without even knowing how many dice were being rolled and how many sides the dice had. If I handed you a very heavy bag and told you that it was filled with dice but didn't tell you how many there were or what the possible results of a roll of each die were, how would you even begin to calculate the probability of getting a particular result from rolling even two of the dice? That's exactly what the anthropic "fine-tuning" argument is attempting to do, though, and that's why it has been so thoroughly discredited. Victor Stenger wrote a very good and much more thorough explanation of the problems with this argument entitled The Anthropic Coincidences: A Natural Explanation in The Skeptical Intelligencer in 1999.

That Kush, and probably a number of the men attending this conference, are impressed by the fact that a physicist is delivering this argument is a little telling on its own. I'm sure Dr. Stannard is a very smart man and good at what he does, but in this case he's just wrong. It's important to examine the content of the argument itself rather than falling victim to an appeal to authority which, I think, may be part of what's going on in Kush's article.
For example, Mr. Stannard argued that the big-bang explosion was of such a magnitude that life could develop on Earth. He said things would have been far different had the explosion been more or less violent.

Many other factors, such as the right degree of gravity and the ability of carbon to form, added to the successful formula of life.

“Everything is so beautifully fitted,” said Mr. Stannard, professor emeritus at London’s Open University, in noting that cosmology studies aren’t necessarily a threat to one’s religious beliefs...
Nothing is a threat to one's religious beliefs if those beliefs are formulated in a way that can accommodate new evidence that might contradict former beliefs. The problem between religion and science, as it were, really boils down to this. Religion as it is commonly formulated in modern America relies on the existence of a set of immutable ideas while science is designed from the outset to change and go wherever the evidence leads. If one applies religious belief to physical phenomena and then refuses to change those beliefs, of course there's going to be a conflict for the believer at some point. Sooner or later, we're going to find out that the earth isn't a disk beneath a hemisphere of stars. The question is whether that matters in the first place, of course. One shouldn't expect science to be an exercise in confirming anyone's beliefs — not even the beliefs of scientists themselves.

When I did an undergraduate study of the relationship between an insect and a fungus, I went in with the belief that there would be some mutually beneficial relationship between the two. Everything I observed superficially seemed to me to indicate that this would be the case. When I performed experiments on the system, however, I couldn't find anything that indicated that the fungus was deriving any benefit at all from the presence of the insect that exploited it. At best, all I could say was that the fungus probably wasn't being significantly harmed in terms of its ability to reproduce. It was a direct contradiction of my belief, but my belief wasn't supported by the evidence that came from reality and so I had two choices: I could have ignored the evidence in favor of maintaining my belief, or I could revise my belief in light of the evidence. Granted, this is a small matter in the grand scheme of things (unless, of course, you happen to be a fungivorous beetle or the fungus that it eats; I don't expect that either group reads this blog), but the principle at work is absolutely no different from making judgments about any physical phenomenon, up to and including the origins of life and the universe itself. There have been cultures in which both beetles and fungi have had religious connotations (the scarab in ancient Egypt, for instance). So what? We're quite certain now that the sun isn't a glowing ball of dung being rolled across the sky by an enormous Coleoptera. The belief that this was the case was revised when evidence came to light that said it wasn't in keeping with reality; at some point, it began to seem more likely that a fellow in a chariot was hauling the sun across the sky. Later, that belief was revised and the idea became prevalent that the sun was a sort of artificial bulb hung in the firmament by a deity with the purpose of lighting up the world for the benefit of humanity. Still later, new evidence forced the revision of that belief and we came to know that the sun is essentially a big hydrogen-based nuclear reactor and that the earth is just another result of the same process that formed it — a by-product, really, since the sun could well have existed without there being an earth or any other planet in our solar system. Stannard's contention, when we cut to the chase, is really a step backward in the process; he's asserting, at least indirectly, that the sun was placed where it is, and the earth where it is, by an intentional act meant to benefit humans. We don't have evidence for this, though, just the contention that if things had been different then, well, things would have been different.

Heck, I'm not a lecturer in physics and I could have told you that. It's just a tautology. There is nothing to tell us, though, that the fact that things could have been different means anything at all. From everything we have actually come to know about the universe, it appears that it's a coincidence that things are the way that they are and that our attempt to insert some meaning involving, even culminating, in our own existence is an example of humankind's phenomenal ability to find patterns in randomness. As Hawking himself pointed out in A Brief History of Time, if things had been different, we wouldn't be here to contemplate it, at least not in the way we are now. At worst, this argument can be part of a larger agenda intended to pull the wool over our eyes in order to control our behavior. I don't know much about Stannard, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and guess that his case is the former rather than the latter. The Catholic church, on the other hand, certainly has a lot of rules intended to govern the behavior of its adherents, and I'm inclined to believe that theirs is the second case and that Stannard's talk was given as evidence to legitimize a basis for their social controls based upon, again, an appeal to authority. After all, a religion that posits the infallibility of its leader in "spiritual" matters is certainly based upon such an appeal. I'm unaware of any evidence that following the dictates the Pope increases the chances of getting into heaven. Has anyone come up with a good way of counting yet?

Stannard wasn't the only one who spoke, though.
Ray Guarendi, a clinical pyschologist [sic] and radio show host, said belief in one’s faith is important because everything else in life, including youthful prowess, and strength, is fleeting.

He said he’s amazed that his atheist friends are taking a chance that there is no God...
Ah, Pascal's Wager. I'm almost sorry I didn't go to this conference. So many logical fallacies in so small a space! Guarendi doesn't realize that he's really taking the same chance as his "atheist friends." I mean, I'm amazed that Guarendi is taking the chance that Vishnu won't send him to Raurava (that's a Hindu hell, folks) for his misguided belief in Jehovah! Or maybe his belief in Jesus will land him in the clutches of Angra Mainyu. Sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca NOW!Perhaps by failing to sacrifice the hearts of enemies slain in battle, Guarendi will suffer eternal flaying at the claws of Tezcatlipoca. Pascal's Wager has been around a long time, and it's always the same; it starts with the assumption that one religion is correct and all the other religions, belief systems and philosophies are wrong. Outside the context of a given religion, why should one expect that this is the case? All belief is a matter of personal preference unless it is conditioned by empirical evidence so, in the end, I'm amazed that Guarendi is willing to risk the distinct possibility that his religion is the wrong one. The only other solution to this ramification of Pascal's Wager (Pascal's dilemma?) is to follow every single religion that has ever existed and to embrace every possible belief simultaneously — which is impossible. We'll have to satisfy ourselves with examining hard evidence, then, and hope that if we're wrong about everything that whatever deity turns out to be the right one(s) isn't as vindictive a son-of-a-bitch as Guarendi thinks it must be. Even allowing for the existence of one or more deities, after all, doesn't necessitate that they aren't nice beings who don't spend all their time worrying about beliefs.

I mean, if they went to all this trouble to arrange an entire universe for our benefit, they'd have to be pretty nice beings, wouldn't they? Why even bother in the first place if not? Then again, we might well ask them about the whole human birth canal problem, why female hyenas have a pseudo-penis, and any number of other design flaws we see in this grand scheme of things. If they did indeed create analytical intelligence, they must have meant for it to be used. Perhaps the gods just got bored with each other and needed somebody new to talk to. That in itself would get boring in a hurry if we simply agreed with them on every point. Pascal's Wager seems a bit of tediously dull thought in comparison to the limitless possibilities that I can dream up while sitting in a chair somewhere in Worcester, MA.
The Rev. John Riccardo, a Detroit priest who has a nationally syndicated weekly radio show, offered some reflections before participants were invited to confess their sins. About 50 diocesan priests were on hand to hear confessions, according to an organizer of the conference.
"Forgive me father. It has been over a month since I sacrifice the hearts of my enemies to the Smoking Mirror."
"I think you want the Mayan Warriors Conference, my child. Down the hall, make a left..."

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