Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Can You Bind the Chains of the Pleiades?

In my review of the controversally controversial1 film The Privileged Planet, I mentioned the problem about speaking of the "difficulty" of getting universal constants into the small range needed to allow for intelligent life.

I recalled the next day that this line of argumentation is one that I originally opened with Steve Meyer when the Discovery Institute (DI) he, Dembski, and Behe spoke at Cooper Union while I was in grad school in New York, in 1998 (I believe). I had difficulty explaining my reasoning then, but seven years have matured my thinking.

So this discussion re-sparked by the film (and book) is the resumption of a long-standing concern.

The Problem(s)

The initial problem—the one I discussed in the full review—is that we don't know what it actually means to set the value of a universal constant, even a single one. (The film and the book skirts around this difficulty by imagining a cosmic-tuning machine.)

The second problem, which illuminates the first, came to mind from reading the book:

So for instance the strong nuclear force must be set to certain narrow limits for stars to produce carbon and oxygen in comparable amounts.... The range for these parameters each of these parameters is narrow. The range within which all of them are satisfied simultaneously is much smaller, like the bull's-eye in the middle of an already tiny target. Add the required range for the weak force strength and the bull's-eye becomes smaller still, and so on for the other forces. Add the specific requirements for simple life (water and carbon chemistries) and it becomes even smaller, and more so for advanced and then technological life. (206)

In other words, when you combine all the small probabilities for achieving a viable value for each cosmic parameter, the resulting probability is infinitesimally smaller still.

The difficulty with this argument is that since we don't know where these parameters come from (who or what sets them) we have no idea how they may be correlated with one another. For example, it is possible that the respective strengths of the strong and weak nuclear forces have a common origin in a deeper physics; such a fact would increase the combined probability of achieving a viable, habitable universe.

It's not difficult to extrapolate this argument to encompass all of the universal constants.

Some scientists, such as Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, hope the problem will be resolved by collapsing the fundamental forces, and everthing they entail, into a single Grand Unified Theory. Given such a theory, the various forces that now seem fined tuned relative to one another will be, he supposes, the inevitable outcome of some single overarching law. While this might resolve the appearance of fine-tuning between independent variables, it would inherit the same problem it was supposed to fix, for any such unified theory would posit some particular value, or number, or formula. While all the actual laws of physics might follow necessarily from it, the higher-level formula would not be necessary. The fine-tuning, it seems, would simply get moved up one level. In fact, it seems that the situation would get worse. Instead of multiple variables, there would be a single, grand one, from which the array of sublaws would produce our habitable universe. It would be like a billiard play on a table with a countless number of balls that sinks every ball in one shot. (263-264; boldface added)

The books assumes the absence of any intrinsic relationship between parameters. But what if hitting one ball made hitting the next ball unavoidable? The Privileged Planet ignores the possibility that the parameters are linked organically.

To understand what I mean better, imagine the small probabiliy of picking the number 10 out of all the positive real numbers from zero to 1000: 1/1000. Now imagine the much smaller chance of picking in addition these numbers: 60, 80, 99, 120, 200. The chance of each individually is 1/1000, so the chance of all combined is 1 in 103(6) = 1018—incredibly small indeed.

But notice that this probability is based on our utter ignorance of what these number represent and how they arise. Achieving these numbers doesn't look quite so improbable once I tell you these numbers represent human vital signs (viz. 10-Hz brain waves, 60 heart-beats per minute, blood pressure 120/80 (mmHg/mmHg), body temperature 98.6 deg F, cholesterol 200 mg/dL). Cholesterol and blood pressure, for example, are correlated. (Please pardon my medical ignorance: you'll have to use your imagination as far as further correlations are concerned.)

The point is that once you have a healthy human being, these numbers aren't improbable at all. Similarly, the ID argument treats the universal constants as complete abstractions of irrelevant provenance. Our present ignorance of their deeper interconnections may merely mask their relative likelihood once the universe exists.

Wolfgang Smith's metaphor may better explain the integrity of creation:

If you break a clay pot, you will find that the resultant shards fit together perfectly so as to consitute the pot in question; and obviously this 'fine tuning'—which seems quite miraculous so long as one does not know the true provenance of the shards—is the result neither of chance nor of design. In short, the physical universe is fine tuned because the corporeal world demands as much. (222)

(I hope to have more to say on the wholeness of the universe in future posts.)

Materialists Still on the Hook

While my reasoning uncovers a flaw in the universal ID argument, it doesn't by any means vindicate materialism. These numbers aren't improbable once you have a universe: that's the big question materialism begs.

I've boldfaced the truest phrase in the last quotation from The Privileged Planet: "the higher-level formula would not be necessary." When it comes down to it, no formula can explain itself: that's inescapable difficulty of the idolatrous goals of some Grand Unified Theory scientists. (Somehow all these bright physicists are able to don blinders opaque enough to ignore Goedel's incompleteness proof.)

Materialism is completely inadequate to facing up to the fundamental question of

Why is there anything at all?

(The simple sound of the question is misleading. Ponder that one for a while....) The issue is one of being: modern science only assumes the existence of things: it can't explain being. Explanation of being is properly philosophical or metaphysical.


The universal ID argument applies modern science with all its limitations to a properly metaphysical question—like using a screwdriver as a hammer. This misapplication sadly results in the same fundamental philosophical errors that sterilize modern science's ability to ground a truly human culture.2

But the argument is not without value. The universal ID argument can for the sake of argument grant the assumptions of modern science to manifest materialism's self-defeating nature.

But ID-advocates need be aware that implicit pre-suppositions have a way of (de)forming their adherents' beliefs. And there's also the embarrassment factor: the argument may sway some opinions in the short term, but in time its lack of integrity will become evident. Sooner or later, the materialists will find the flaw and (mixed with their own mistakes) exploit it.

For ID-advocates to hold as truth the universal ID argument based on modern science's premises is to forfeit the battlefield to the enemy.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?


"Can you bind the chains of the Plei'ades, or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Maz'zaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?3


1. Whether it should be a cause for controversy is controversial.

2. Like too many modern physicists, Gonzalez and Richards assume implicitly that being is just another characteristic of a thing, like redness or legibility or being upside-down or being an uncle, that is to say, that whether the thing has it or not, it's basically the same thing. Wrong. Without being, a thing is not a real thing—it is nothing: it has no standing in reality, but is just as well pure imagination. One delusion of modernity is to give mental things the same status as objective realities. Sure an equation may describe how everything works, but who put the fire in that equation? (Hawking's phrasing).

3. Job 38

Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004).

Wolfgang Smith, The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology: Contemporary Science in Light of Tradition, (Oakton, VA: Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2002). [reviewed here]


Lawrence Gage said...

Some context of the Hawking phrase I mentioned in note 2:

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 174.

Chris HH said...

I love that quote! I remember when A Brief History of Time came out. It was hailed as a triumph of atheistic reason over religious belief. Hawking thought that by postulating spherical space-time he could remove the need for God [The idea was you could no longer ask what was before the big-bang any more than you ask what was north of the North pole.] Yet buried away near the back of the book, was this gem of a quote. By far the most profound thing Hawking had to say, yet so rarely quoted. So pleased to see it again.

It shows that no matter how hard you try, you cannot remove God from the equation. (Pardon the pun!)