#425

June 07, 2015

Is “Fine-Tuning” Question-Begging?

Dear William Lane Craig,

I am a philosophically unsympathetic fan of yours. I very much admire your philosophical learning, your rhetorical skills and your ingenuity in defense of your faith; at the same time, I reject both your faith itself and the apologetic project at the center of your work in philosophy. I'm sure this is a combination you're already familiar with.

What interests me at the moment is something in your recent podcast on Tim Maudlin and the fine tuning argument, and I hope you don't mind considering these short comments.

You state on your podcast that the "fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe requisite for human life" is not in the first instance a fact about God's intentions, it's simply a neutral report of probabilities. You insist that the fine tuning argument has two stages: a determination about facts and probabilities (fine tuning properly speaking), followed by an inference to the best explanation (God). But I find this quite incredible. Both connotatively and denotatively, the very concept of fine tuning is inherently about purposes or intentions. To start with the connotative, "fine tuning" is quite clearly a metaphor taken over from fields of human endeavor such as music or engineering. (An online etymological dictionary specifically talks about radios made in the 1920s.) Whatever the etymological trajectory, violin strings, car engines or factory machines don't "fine tune" themselves; they are "tuned" by humans with particular purposes in mind. The very term here strongly connotes the action of a directing hand or mind in a context of (human) purposefulness.

Moreover, the concept of fine tuning in the sense in which Christian apologists use it has the notion of an Aristotelian "final cause" built into it from the get-go. It's not simply about ascertaining value-neutral data or probabilities. This is easy to see if you consider that everything at all that occurs in the natural world is, on some background calculus, impossibly improbable. Every event is the product of a probabilistically fantastic train of previous events--an idea that informs, say, the "butterfly effect" in the Ray Bradbury story. To move from saying that "given the range of probabilities, a universe like ours is very unlikely" to "our universe is fine-tuned to be the way it is" involves a hidden or explicit value judgment about why our universe is something that some one (or thing) would or should desire in the first place. "Fine tuning" on the face of it is about probabilities relative to *specific desiderata*, whether or not these are made explicit. A radio is only fine tuned to the station I like to hear if it is, in fact, the one I want to hear. Otherwise, the radio just happens to have landed on whatever station it landed on, period. It's no different, of course, for the initial conditions of the universe and their hospitality to "embodied intelligent beings". In both cases, fine tuning is only fine tuning if it's "for" something; that is to say, it is teleological.

To be frank, it just baffles me that you try to argue this away.

Of course, I understand why you want to argue against this: because the neo-Aristotelian implications of the fine tuning argument are what give the game away. They're what tell us that the "fine tuning argument"--in my view, like many other theistic arguments--is simply question begging on a cosmic scale.

If you have the time and inclination, I would love to get a response. I'm open to being shown why what I've written here is incorrect.

Respectfully yours,

Matt


Germany

I do find that I have a lot of “unsympathetic fans,” as you put it, Matt, and I must say that I’m genuinely touched by that fact! I see you’re from Germany. I hope you’ll be able to attend my debate “Gibt es Gott?” with Prof. Dr. Ansgar Beckermann in Munich, October 29. We’ll be discussing, among other things, the fine-tuning argument for a cosmic Designer.

Properly understood, the term “fine-tuning” is a neutral term and is therefore commonly used in cosmological discussions, even by those who do not think that the universe is a product of design. Otherwise, those, like Beckermann, who attribute the fine-tuning of the universe to sheer chance would be guilty of incoherence. Similarly, those who attribute the fine-tuning to physical necessity would be self-referentially incoherent. But those are live options for explaining the observed fine-tuning, as is design.

“Fine-tuning” with respect to nature’s fundamental constants and quantities means that small deviations from the actual values of the constants and quantities in question would render the universe life-prohibiting or, alternatively, that the range of life-permitting values is exquisitely narrow in comparison with the range of assumable values.

Now I agree with you that “fine-tuning” has connotations of design. But you need to appreciate that scientists often use terms that have connotations that are contrary to the technical meaning of such expressions and are therefore grossly misleading to the layman. A notorious example is “Big Bang,” which carries connotations of an explosion, as well as terms like “black hole,” “colors” and “flavors” of quarks, “random” mutations in evolutionary theory, and so on. Some of these terms are overtly metaphorical. Taking such terms literally is a mistake.

Used denotatively, “fine-tuning” refers to the property which the fundamental constants and quantities of nature exhibit of falling into the life-permitting range. It does not refer to their being designed. In order to infer design as the best explanation of fine-tuning, one has to argue against the explanations of physical necessity and chance. To infer that the universe was designed for man would require even further argument and is no part of the argument from fine-tuning, since we have no idea what other forms of interactive, embodied life in the universe the Designer might have had in mind in designing the cosmos.

So fine-tuning does not include the Aristotelian notion of final causality. Those who attribute fine-tuning to chance do not deny that nature’s fundamental constants and quantities fall into an incomprehensibly narrow range of life-permitting values—that would be the claim of those few scientists who think that the universe is not fine-tuned—but rather they deny a final cause of the fine-tuning. This, indeed, seems to be your own suggestion. You would write off the fine-tuning by saying that whatever the values of the constants and quantities are, they are all equally improbable. That just is to explain the fine-tuning by the hypothesis of chance. The proponent of the design hypothesis will have to counter by explaining, for example, that it is not just the high improbability that tips us off to design, but high improbability plus conformity to an independently given pattern.

Now there is a half-truth, Matt, in what you say:

To move from saying that "given the range of probabilities, a universe like ours is very unlikely" to "our universe is fine-tuned to be the way it is" involves a hidden or explicit value judgment about why our universe is something that some one (or thing) would or should desire in the first place. "Fine tuning" on the face of it is about probabilities relative to *specific desiderata*, whether or not these are made explicit.

The proponent of design does not “move” from the one statement to the other; rather the meaning of the second statement is given by the first. To say that the universe is fine-tuned to be the way it is just is to say no more than that given the range of assumable values, a life-permitting universe is very unlikely. One could with equal justice say that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of zebras or flatworms. One could truly say that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of planets. In order for such things to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an exquisitely narrow range of values.

The truth in what you say is that we probably wouldn’t care that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of planets or flatworms. But when we learn that it is fine-tuned for our own existence, that is something we care about. Because our lives are something we value and desire, the fact that the universe is fine-tuned for our existence evokes an interest that the fine-tuning of the universe for flatworms does not. So we wonder why it is so fine-tuned.

This truth does not smuggle teleology into the meaning of fine-tuning. Don’t confuse being relative to something with being for something, Matt. Of course, the fine-tuning is relative to something: conscious embodied life, flatworms, planets, etc. There are some features of the universe relative to which it is fine-tuned; but that doesn’t imply that it was for the purpose of those features. The universe is fine-tuned for flatworms, but that doesn’t imply that it was created for the purpose of flatworms.

You’re quite mistaken in divining my motives for saying what I do. Mine is the standard usage in the literature. After all, if the term “fine-tuning” really were question-begging, as you think, then one could just drop the term and adopt some other term like “improbably life-permitting.” Then one could go on to inquire as to the best explanation of that fact.