December 10, 2010
I meant to post this a while back when the conversation was actually fresh, but it fell by the wayside. I found it while doing some housecleaning around here. You know, some “getting ready for next year” type of stuff. Anyways, Al Moritz is biochemist who’s written articles for TalkOrigins and also comments now and again at Common Sense Atheism. He’s also a theist, of the Roman Catholic variety. Recently, CSA’s commenters tackled some arguments of his in this post. Al wrote:
Even an atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, writes in his excellent book The Last Word, a convincing defense of objectivity of rational thought, that an evolutionary explanation of the human mind is “laughably inadequate” (his words, not mine) and he points out that the existence of rationality provides a vexing challenge to naturalism. After all, what in particular does the inherent capacity for abstract and objective reasoning in mathematics and science, which deals with the deeper, non-obvious layers of how things are, have to do with survival in the wild? Claiming that this capacity is simply a ‘by-product’ of evolution is the ultimate avoidance of an explanation.
An atheist might argue that his/her positions are scientific and objective, since they are an extrapolation from what science tells us about the world. This, however, overlooks the fact that this extrapolation, while it may claim to be based on science, is a philosophical extrapolation, not a scientific one, since it transcends the realm of strictly scientific knowledge. The atheist’s position is no less philosophical than the theist’s position – which, when it comes to a cosmic designer, can also be, as in my case, an extrapolation from what science tells us about the world (no, I am not talking about the Intelligent Design position that denies the science of evolution).
Regarding the “brute luck” explanation, Moritz writes,
However, given the huge improbability of life arising by chance, the apparent fine-tuning of the laws of nature can be seen as a strong argument for life being here because it exists on purpose, its purpose being God’s creation.
I agree, and this is so vastly beyond the simplicity of Douglas Adams’ “puddle analogy” that it’s ridiculous. I see where he’s coming from: this apparent fine-tuning is pretty much what we would expect given an intelligent, creative God. The problem I see is that this apparent fine-tuning is also pretty much what we would expect given “brute luck.” How could we, looking from the inside out, tell the difference? Unfortunately, this line of argumentation boils down to one person thinking God is “more likely” and the other person thinking brute luck is “more likely,” and we’re left without a way to objectively decide.
Regarding an argument he describes as “the necessity of the laws of nature,” Moritz writes,
What if the physical constants are immutably fixed against one another and simply could not be any other way? Then the emergence of life is a necessary, natural outcome of how nature works, plain and simple. Yet such a strict necessity of the laws of nature cannot be logically sustained.
That makes sense to me, and I don’t see that they would need to be. The term “necessity” implies a subject to have a need. If the physical constants are immutably fixed against one another, and things simply could not be any other way, this does not entail a “necessity” that they ought to be that way. At the same time, I believe Moritz is correct to note that the laws of physics could be different in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Indeed, this seems to be what The Grand Design is all about. When he continues,
…there cannot be a necessity of the laws of nature – unless one suggests that “the fabric of nothing” may only allow for certain frameworks of physical laws to arise[,]
I think he may have inadvertently addressed the previous criticism: it may in fact be that “the fabric of nothing” may only allow for certain frameworks of physical laws to arise. If so, we have no need to argue “necessity” at all. Rather, we would just say that that’s how things are. It’s interesting where all these little sub-arguments lead.
Regarding “Life as we do not know it,” Moritz writes,
Any significant detuning of physical constants, however, and any chemistry would be impossible. Just hydrogen, and possibly deuterium and helium (or equivalents), and no chemistry would exist. And even just atoms can only exist if there is not a detuned cosmological constant, which causes an expansion rate of the universe that rips even atoms apart, or if nuclei are stable which requires a great deal of fine-tuning as well. Therefore, in a universe with randomly different physical constants the chances for any chemistry and any material complexity – and thus any kind of life, not just life as we know it – would be very low.
Well, he’s the scientist so I going to respect his command of the subject here, but I’m not sure we can say that with as much certainty. I agree that significant detuning of the constants would preclude chemistry given the initial conditions of this universe, but how can a rational person do anything but remain NULL when it comes to estimating the probability of things given an infinite number of initial conditions? It could very well be that each different set of initial conditions would lead to its own unique breed of life. He continues,
The argument might be brought up, “life could theoretically occur in ways we would never imagine, or in ways we would not even think of as life at all”. Life on neutron stars based on “nuclear molecules”, or life within plasma, among others, have been proposed – yes, weird ideas do exist. How do you get reproduction based on “genetic” information, mutation, an environment for natural selection, and a communicative network of “cells” (whatever that may mean under those circumstances), thus the ability for evolution of intelligent life, out of any of this?
Why assume we need “genetic information, mutation, an environment for natural selection, and a communicative network of cells” at all? We certainly appear to need all of that given this universe’s initial conditions, but maybe under different initial conditions, we would have things like “blars” and “contens” paving the way for life.
Yet still, when he writes,
The idea of material intelligent life without any chemical complexity leads one into regions of thought that are not seriously debatable anymore, and which have no basis in our knowledge from science. Imaginative thinking is one thing, wild baseless science-fiction another.
I disagree that the idea of “material intelligent life without any chemical complexity” is not seriously debatable, but I agree that doing so effectively departs from the playing field of scientific knowledge.
Moritz and I also seem to concur wholeheartedly on the import of so-called “virtual life:”
There is a life form that can evolve on something other than the substrate of organic chemistry: virtual life developing by means of certain computer programs. Structures can evolve in these programs, they can learn and they also can acquire some sort of ‘intelligence’. Yet the processes of evolution which these programs may exhibit and the ‘intelligence’ which this virtual life may evolve are initiated by humans, even if the results may be surprising and unforeseen.
Well said. I’ve always argued that “virtual life” is a powerful argument for design, not chance.
Regarding the multiverse hypothesis, Moritz writes,
In general, even when they uphold the probable existence of the multiverse, cosmologists concede that we will likely never be able to directly observe other universes outside our own. The reason for this is the particle horizon: the maximum distance from which particles (i.e. also particles carrying information) could have traveled to the observer in the age of the universe. It represents the portion of the universe which we could have conceivably observed at the present day. Any other universe would lie outside this particle horizon.
I’m not so quick to agree here. I agree that a “particle horizon” exists, but I disagree with the assumption that any other universes would have to be “outside” ours. Our universe could very well be filled with portals to other universes, and that entails at least a possibility of some sort of transference of information, I would think. Still, this is all conceptual, and far too underdeveloped to amount to any real response to theism as an explanation for fine-tuning. Yet,
All in all, I therefore have to agree with George Ellis that the multiverse hypothesis is not science, but philosophy. It is philosophy dressed up in scientific language. Certainly, it may be called a hypothesis from science, but it hardly qualifies as science proper.
I agree, and I think that Al makes a pretty good case, one made all the more interesting by his uniqueness: a Roman Catholic theist, who is also a biochemist and writes for TalkOrigins. How’s that for smashing stereotypes?