Monday, September 30, 2013

Random thoughts and links: fine tuning, global warming, insurance

Massimo Pigliucci writes about an audiobook he listened to and suggests a thought experiment about the fine-tuning argument. This has lead me to realize that I am sometimes using two arguments that might appear inconsistent. On the one hand I hold that arguments from fine tuning or other such intelligent design are non-starters because the entity they invoke as an explanation for some presumed design (the intelligent designer) would need even more explaining than the appearance of design itself. In other words, where does god come from?

On the other hand, I have repeatedly argued in other discussions that I actually do not believe that intelligent design is, as such, a non-scientific idea. My favored thought experiment would be a human spaceship encountering an alien planet with life but no fossils older than, say, a few hundred thousand years; no phylogenetic structure to the life; no "bad design" comparable to the laryngeal nerve etc; genetics that indicate that no species may have had any genetic disorders a few hundred thousand years ago. And so on. Of course in such a case the hypothesis that life on that planet was created by some currently unknown alien intelligence would be a reasonable one. So in my eyes it is not the case that intelligent design is not a scientific explanation but that for our own planet the theory of evolution is a much better explanation given fossil, geological and genetic evidence.

But is it not inconsistent then of me to argue in one case that design is a possible explanation but to reject it for fine tuning of physical constants because it merely raises a bigger question? Is that not the same situation?

I do not think the two situations are the same. For me, questions about gods and the supernatural in general are never about golden bullet arguments on the lines of "ha, you cannot explain this so god must have done it" or, conversely, "ha, this is incompatible with Christian belief therefore there are no gods". Instead, I take a whole evidence view which depending on how you look at it could be seen as Bayesian reasoning or model fitting.

To put it in terms of the latter, we can formulate two models, one of a universe arising purely from a combination of chance and natural law and another of a universe designed by a powerful intelligence with some kind of motivation and plan (that is usually by most religious people assumed to involve us in some fashion). And then we go and tally up all the information we have about the universe. Everything. What we know about deep time and space, what we know about natural history on this planet, what we know about genetics, what we know about natural disasters, what we know about human history and psychology, and so on. Really everything.

And then we consider which of the two models fits those data better. I believe I do not necessarily have to spell out which I consider to be the better fit. Let's just say that if the universe was designed by a powerful intelligence with a plan then that plan must revolve mostly around massive amounts of cold, empty space*.

And this is why the invocation of a designer god for supposed fine tuning does not fly. Given everything we know, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that there is a designer for the universe and lots of evidence against it, meaning that even coincidence would be a better explanation for the values of the physical constants. (The best reply is still "we don't know", of course.) On the other hand, we do know that there can be intelligent life in this universe because we know about ourselves, and so we can reasonably extrapolate that another alien intelligence could potentially advance to the point where it could terraform a planet and engineer some lifeforms to colonize it. That is why such an explanation would suggest itself for such a planet. On yet another hand, a universe with lots of evidence in favor of the existence of gods is imaginable but it would look very different from ours.

*) The argument can be extended to standard creationism: If life on this planet is a creation, then the creator can be inferred to care mostly about viruses, bacteria and beetles.


Steven Andrew at Freethought Blogs presents his thoughts on why so many Americans reject the scientific consensus on global warming. I find his idea interesting but would add that - utterly regardless of the issue - one of the major problems I noticed even when I was in high school is that people find it very hard to change their mind once they have publicly taken a position on an issue. While those who have not yet spoken may still be able to come around, those who have argued for one side of a controversy tend to stick to their guns no matter how clearly that side has been refuted. Many people appear to consider it a humiliating loss of face to admit that they have changed their mind. I wish it would instead be considered brave to do so.


A family member urges me to get insurance for dental work, which is not included in Australian Medicare. I am skeptical how that is supposed to work. Insurance against fire, accident, injury, all those can work to everybody's advantage even in a free market because they happen so rarely. That means everybody can pay a negligible amount of money to the insurance company but it can still make a profit. In contrast, everybody basically gets caries all the time. Is there actually any significant number of people who do not need the dentist to do something every three years at a minimum? So how would that work economically? Because every customer regularly needs payments, the only insurance a company would be able to offer is one that costs the average customer more than they would pay out of pocket anyway.


  1. Found this blog yesterday which has some nice thoughts on fine tuning, multiverses and so on.

    As for insurance, my colleague has just had a tooth out for £150 as opposed to £1,000 for root work, capping etc. We know we're going to die, but it doesn't invalidate life insurance. So long as there's sufficient variation, someone can start a book on it and call in the actuaries.

  2. Here is a link about a short story about humans being planted on earth. I had a physical anthropology course taught by the author.

    Reading "The Grand Design" by Steven Hawking, and a coauthor, the idea put forth is the reverse of how I have been thinking. Our existance constrains the universe to have had exactly the characteristics and history to have us here today. I had thought of it that the nature and history of the universe constrains our nature. Hawking, as best I understand, argues that quantum mechanics shows that the Big Bang created 10^500 universes, so one like ours was pretty likely just by chance.

  3. pabloredux,

    But my point is precisely that commercially insuring against rare events such as death or fire make sense but insuring against things that happen very regularly doesn't. Also note: commercially. Having dental as part of a non-profit government run health insurance system so that the less prosperous do not have to walk around with lots of gaps where teeth had to be pulled is one thing; but an insurance company has to finance profits and advertising on top of the payouts, and they will simply not offer deals that don't produce profit.


    I have so far, perhaps to my loss, avoided trying to get my head around the arguments for multiple universes. It is possible that I would not be able to arrive at a conclusion even if I tried, and perhaps not even understand the arguments. But even assuming that there is only this universe the argument from fine tuning does not appear very convincing...