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Nuclear Physicist asks, “Why is PZ Myers so dumb?” and slams Victor Stenger to boot

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David Heddle, a professor of physics asks the question:

Why is P.Z. so dumb? Because he can’t grasp that fine-tuning is a metaphor. He is a afraid that it gives to much ammunition to the theists.

This had to be one of the most entertaining take downs of Victor Stenger and PZ Myers by a fellow scientist.

David Heddle points out the very people labeling climate change dissidents as science deniers are themselves science deniers of fine-tuning.

They are fine-tuning deniers.

Let me give my definition of fine-tuning.

Fine-tuning: It is the observation that the ability of the universe to synthesize heavy elements (heavy = anything beyond Helium, or “metals” to Astronomers), which are necessary for any kind of life, appears to be sensitive, extremely so in some cases, to the values of various physical constants. This sensitivity is across the board: first in the fact that there are any stars at all, then to the range of lifetimes of the stars, then to the process by which stars synthesize heavy elements, and finally to process by which some stars end their lives (by exploding) and thereby seed the universe with those elements.

Here are some facts about fine-tuning:

1. It has nothing to do with probability. It has to do with sensitivity. There is nothing in the definition that relies on any assumption of the a priori probability of the constants. They could be random draws (extremely low probability) or unit probability (from some unknown theory of everything). It only matters that the creation of the elements necessary for life is sensitive to the values.

2· It is a consensus viewpoint, especially among “in-field” scientific disciplines, such as cosmology, astronomy, particle and nuclear physics.

3· It has nothing to do, per se, with religion or “intelligent design”. Sure, it has been co-opted by some, and very stupidly by the ID crowd 2 who, without reason (and ultimately to their disadvantage) hitched their wagon to a “low-probability therefore god” argument. But ideas can always be co-opted 3, such as evolution and genetics being co-opted for eugenics. You have to evaluate the scientific idea on its scientific merits, not on its potential for use by people you don’t like.

4. It is considered a serious scientific problem/puzzle (and therefore quite interesting) by scientists of all religious stripes. Some of them quite famous for their atheism as well as their science, such as Weinberg, Susskind, Krauss, Smolin, etc.

The fine-tuning problem is even a very real part of the motivation for a push toward a multiverse theory of one form or another. It is appealing to solve the problem by confirming there are many (essentially infinite) universes with different constants, and only those (such as ours) with a fortuitous draw have intelligent life pondering their good fortune.

This is the state of affairs. It is irrefutable that many scientists, many of them famous atheist scientists, view the appearance of fine-tuning as a serious problem, one that should not be summarily dismissed because of a perceived ideological inconvenience. No, it is a problem that is screaming for a scientific solution.

Yet If you try to make this point on atheist blogs (I have tried countless times) some of the same people who legitimately attack climate-change denialism will use the same methods in their fine-tuning denialism.

1. They will disregard the scientific consensus. It suddenly won’t matter that a majority of in-field scientists think fine-tuning is a serious problem. In fact, pointing out that many scientists think so will often be “refuted” by charges that one is “arguing from authority.” But pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge global warming and pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge the fine-tuning problem is not an irrational appeal to authority.

2. Like climate-change deniers, many of the fine-tuning deniers appear to be motivated not by science, but by ideology. The reasoning, sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes front and center, is “fine-tuning→intelligent design→religion→bad→therefore it must be wrong (at all costs). It connects the evaluation of science (the reality of the fine-tuning problem) with something not scientific (it gives the “bad guys” an advantage)—and that reasoning is always wrong.

3. Most frustrating to me is that the “rebuttal” of fine-tuning is often trivial. I cannot count how many times someone has given me, in gotcha tones, the Douglas Adams puddle argument, which has no application whatsoever to the cosmic fine-tuning problem. Another kind of trivial response is the “how do we know there couldn’t be life with only hydrogen and helium?” rebuttal. This ignores the fact that you can’t make anything out of those elements, and that any life, using a non-controversial assertion, needs large molecules to store information. And, by the way, the (effectively) “I saw a creature on Star-Trek who was made of pure energy so who knows?” Stated with an assumption of moral superiority overs us matter chauvinists, is not a scientific response. Another trivial dismissal of the fine-tuning problem is to project one’s own disinterest onto the human population at large. This is the “I just don’t see it as a big deal, we are here and that’s that, just move on” argument. This implies that scientists should just shut up and listen and not consider “how is it that we are here?” to be a question of interest. Finally, some will irrationally attack it because of its name. But “fine-tuning” does not imply a tuner—it’s used a metaphor. Get over it.

4. The fine-tuning deniers have their authorities that they believe should end the argument. First and foremost is Victor Stenger. Because Stenger (who, to be fair, has a good idea, to show that the fine-tuning is an illusion) has published a popularization—well that settles it, doesn’t it? But the fact is that Stenger, in attempting to show fine-tuning is an illusion, has only done sloppy work, he has not published in peer-reviewed journals, and you do not find those scientists who consider fine-tuning a serious problem (like the atheists I mentioned) now saying: “OMG, we were worried about nothing! Stenger solved it for us!” Because Stenger did nothing more than a few back-of-the-envelope calculations and then wrote a popularization in which he claims to have solved a serious problem. He didn’t. He has a good idea that he has not run with scientifically—he has, instead, marketed it adroitly. (For a competent takedown of Victor Stenger, read Luke Barnes.)

As an example of someone who is willing to look stupid to deny science just because it bothers him ideologically, consider P. Z. Myers. He was aflutter over a piece in the New York Times that was concerned, in part, with fine-tuning. (And its close cousin, the weak Anthropic Principle, which is essentially what the multiverse proponents, in lieu of any experimental data, are invoking to explain the fine-tuning.) Myers wrote:

Alas, Davies also brings up the anthropic principle, that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism. When someone says that life would not exist if the laws of physics were just a little bit different, I have to wonder…how do they know? Just as there are many different combinations of amino acids that can make any particular enzyme, why can’t there be many different combinations of physical laws that can yield life?

Which shows complete ignorance of the subject he attempts (with an epic FAIL) to criticize. He doesn’t seem to grasp that if the constants are tweaked a bit there will be no elements to produce amino acids or any other molecules necessary for any kind of life.

Why is P.Z. so dumb? Because he can’t grasp that fine-tuning is a metaphor. He is a afraid that it gives to much ammunition to the theists.

He reveals this when he doubles down on his stupidity:

I’m also always a bit disappointed with the statements of anthropic principle proponents for another reason. If these are the best and only laws that can give rise to intelligent life in the universe, why do they do such a lousy job of it?

Forgetting that, again, it’s a metaphor, he is essentially making the irrelevant value statement that: if there is a fine-tuner, why then he is an incompetent dolt. We can ignore that criticism (which is metaphysics, not physics) and point out the obvious. The fine-tuning problem in no way, shape or form says that we are in the best possible universe for intelligent life. It says only that the habitability of our universe is sensitive to the constants,

Science Denialism

HT: Dhay, VJTorley, Mike Gene

10 Replies to “Nuclear Physicist asks, “Why is PZ Myers so dumb?” and slams Victor Stenger to boot

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    Bravo. The PZ Myers and Jerry Coynes of the world need to be cut down to size.

  2. 2
    scordova says:

    Luke Barnes (whom Dr. Heddle cited) replied to Stenger’s reply of Luke Barne’s article that replied to Stenger’s book:

    here.

    Tremendous take down:

    Stenger: “Barnes makes his usual objections to my admitted oversimplifications. Does he really expect me to simulate entire universes?”

    Barnes: No … that’s best left to real cosmologists. I do, however, expect that when a model contains 8 equations, it will not botch 6 of them. I expect it to at least acknowledge the assumptions that it makes, and perhaps even attempt to justify them, especially when in the absence of such justification the model is worthless. I expect it to identify and attempt to correct any biases in its assumptions, such as the obvious selection effect that results from taking a region of parameter space around a known example of the phenomenon in question as being representative of the entire space.

    Barnes even points out Stenger’s claims were not yet accepted (perhaps rejected) by peer review!

    Large red letters on Stenger’s homepage inform us that “No reputable physicist or cosmologist has disputed this book”. I guess that makes me a disreputable cosmologist. In the meantime, a shortened version of my paper has been accepted for publication by Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. The fate of Stenger’s paper ‘A Case Against the Fine-Tuning of the Cosmos’, submitted to the “Journal of Cosmology”, is unknown.

    🙂

  3. 3
    Eric Anderson says:

    Good to see Myers put in his place.

    But I’m not clear on this “fine tuning is a metaphor” bit.

    Is Heddle claiming that the laws and constants of physics are not in fact fine-tuned, that it is just a metaphor? Or is he just focusing on the “tuning” part as a metaphor for the idea that someone is doing the tuning?

    If the laws and constants of physics are not really “fine-tuned” (after all, it is just a metaphor), then what more appropriate term would Heddle suggest?

    Even the multiverse business was proposed in part to provide a “tuner”. In that case it was a vague, poorly-described, hypothetical, universe-creating natural process, but it was a tuner nonetheless. And our universe just happened to get lucky.

    Heddle, rightly so, doesn’t seem too keen on the multiverse idea, so I take it his current view is simply that “we don’t know”?

  4. 4
    JGuy says:

    The fine tuning argument is infinitely worse, imo, than is popularized, in my view anyway. To the point I’ve concluded that life is infinitely improbable as a result. All one has to do is start with any one of the fine tuned parameters (callit: parameter X) that are sensitive to a specific range for allowing the universe to be life permissive. Plot that range on a number line, and draw/project out values to +/-infinity (whatever is applicable).

    What you end up with is a narrow range on an range of all infinite positive and/or negative real number values. There is no reason that the life permissible ranges should exist in that range. And assuming it could possibly be any other of the infinitely wider range(s) of life prohibitive values, that simply means life is infinitely unlikely.

    I have yet to find any way to refute this.

    One can try (but will fail) to salvage the life impermissible ranges of X by compensating in other variables in the universe, but this first assumes any of those other variables can counteract the life prohibitive ranges of variable X. Secondly, for every fix one imagines, there are again infinitely more ways to break the fix. And only very limited very specified ways to counter the negatives (life prohibitives).

    This is why even String Theory can’t save the day with it’s 10^500 universes. 10^500/infinity = ~ 0

    Conclusion: Intelligent Design

    🙂

  5. 5
    Eric Anderson says:

    Also, I wish authors wouldn’t refer to “climate change deniers” or “global warming deniers” to make their point. To all the readers — and there are many — who have carefully looked into the global warming debate, it makes the author look out of touch. In most cases it is apparent the author doesn’t himself know that much about the global warming issues; rather the reference is just used as a way to say “See, I’m with the side of ‘science’ and am not one of those ‘deniers’.”

    Amusingly — no, sadly — I’ve also seen a prominent global warming skeptic use the same exact approach, but by referring to “deniers of evolution”.

  6. 6
    scordova says:

    Years ago, when I used to read the Talk Origins website and seriously study materials from internet infidels, at the time I found Stenger’s argument persuasive. I didn’t realize he was so far out of the mainstream, and Luke Barne’s really took it to him by pointing out Stenger’s paper against fine-tuning hasn’t even been accepted (maybe never).

    Since then, much of what looked persuasive on Talk Origins and Internet Infidels has since been demystified for me, especially their two brief articles on OOL and statistics.

    It has always bothered me that we might be drawing a circle around an arrow stuck in the ground and claiming, “Bullseye”, but now after a little more careful consideration and formal study, I side with fine-tuning.

    Barnes’ paper by the way is a wonderful (and quite difficult) introduction into the world of physics. His discussion of Lagrangian mechanics and Noether’s theorems was sublime.

    One thing I credit OOL researchers and Physicists, even though many are hardened atheists, by and large they have been fair to the facts about the incredible difficulty of OOL and the fine-tuning problem. They don’t pretend the problem is solved (where “solved” means find a non-intelligent explanation).

    One of the founding fathers of modern ID is the atheist/agnostic Fred Hoyle:

    An early paper of Hoyle’s made an interesting use of the anthropic principle. In trying to work out the routes of stellar nucleosynthesis, he observed that one particular nuclear reaction, the triple-alpha process, which generates carbon, would require the carbon nucleus to have a very specific resonance energy for it to work. The large amount of carbon in the universe, which makes it possible for carbon-based life-forms of any kind to exist, demonstrated that this nuclear reaction must work. Based on this notion, he made a prediction of the energy levels in the carbon nucleus that was later borne out by experiment.

    These energy levels, while needed to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:

    Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

    —Fred Hoyle[6]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle

  7. 7
    Blue_Savannah says:

    As an example of someone who is willing to look stupid to deny science just because it bothers him ideologically, consider P. Z. Myers.

    Someone rush P.Z to the burn unit – stat! 😀

  8. 8
    gpuccio says:

    Sal:

    David Heddle has done a very good job. His points are excellent.

    I especially like:

    Like climate-change deniers, many of the fine-tuning deniers appear to be motivated not by science, but by ideology. The reasoning, sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes front and center, is “fine-tuning?intelligent design?religion?bad?therefore it must be wrong (at all costs). It connects the evaluation of science (the reality of the fine-tuning problem) with something not scientific (it gives the “bad guys” an advantage)—and that reasoning is always wrong.

    He probably does not realize how much that is true also, and even more seriously, for the problem of Intelligent Design.

    And:

    This is the state of affairs. It is irrefutable that many scientists, many of them famous atheist scientists, view the appearance of fine-tuning as a serious problem, one that should not be summarily dismissed because of a perceived ideological inconvenience. No, it is a problem that is screaming for a scientific solution.

    Great. Exactly like the problem of functional information in biological beings.

    I only have some reservations about this point:

    1. They will disregard the scientific consensus. It suddenly won’t matter that a majority of in-field scientists think fine-tuning is a serious problem. In fact, pointing out that many scientists think so will often be “refuted” by charges that one is “arguing from authority.” But pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge global warming and pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge the fine-tuning problem is not an irrational appeal to authority.

    Well, yes and no. “Pointing out that most in-field scientists acknowledge the fine-tuning problem” is an appeal to authority, but an appeal to authority needs not be irrational. However, anyone has the right to ignore scientific consensus. If his arguments are good. And scientific consensus does matter. If its arguments are good. The fact that it is the consensus does matter, because it is a fact and it must be considered, but a consensus, be it in-field or not, is never a true authority. In the end, all depends on the arguments.

    So, Stenger and PZ have all the rights to ignore scientific consensus if they believe it is a wrong consensus, but if their arguments are bad, as they are, they are bad. And, to deny a consensus, no “extraordinary arguments” are needed: only good arguments, better than those used by the consensus.

    Finally, perhaps it would be good to remember that “denier” is not in itself a characterization which relegates the denier to the world of evil. It seems that today being a denier has become worse than being a serial killer.

    But to deny what is wrong should be considered a merit.

  9. 9

    But I’m not clear on this “fine tuning is a metaphor” bit.

    The reason he calls it a metaphor is because the term “fine-tuned” entails the idea of some sentient entity deliberately setting the constants at very precise values. “Highly sensitive” doesn’t imply such an entailment.

    IOW, the sensitivity of those values are used to make the case that they are probably fine-tuned by a sentient agency. We do not know that they were, in fact, “fine-tuned”; we only know they are highly sensitive wrt life.

  10. 10
    vjtorley says:

    Thanks Sal. Great article. Curiously, Heddle doesn’t think much of the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, but the version he critiques is not a particularly sophisticated one. He writes that fine-tuning “has been co-opted by some, and very stupidly by the ID crowd(2) who, without reason (and ultimately to their disadvantage) hitched their wagon to a ‘low-probability therefore god’ argument,” and adds in a footnote:

    2. From a strategic viewpoint (and from a theological one) the ID crowd is wrong to adopt a “low-probability implies god” position. A low probability universe is exactly what the scientific community argues is to be expected in the multiverse. Any multiverse theory is perfectly happy to acknowledge that our universe is mind-boggling in its rarity. On the other hand, a “theory of everything” with no free parameters (which isn’t going to happen, but let’s pretend) would be on the other end of the probability spectrum (the constants would have unit probability) and, coupled with sensitivity to those constants (fine-tuning) would make the best prima facie case for a designer. It would mean that habitability was built into the fabric of space-time. Short of God making a personal appearance, there is no better result that theists could wish for. It always surprises me that the IDers do not see this.

    But that’s not the way that Intelligent Design advocates argue, nowadays. In an article at http://philosophy.unc.edu/peop.....al-wtp.pdf entitled, “Fine-Tuning and the Infrared Bull’s-Eye” (which I blogged about at http://www.uncommondescent.com.....-argument/ ), philosopher John T. Roberts presents a more sophisticated version of the fine-tuning argument:

    On the standard way of formulating the fine-tuning argument, the fact that fine-tuning is required for life – what I called R – is treated as part of the background knowledge B. L on the other hand [i.e. the proposition that Life exists in our universe – VJT] … is treated as the new evidence we are considering. This suggests that we have known all along that fine tuning is required for life to exist in our universe, and then one day we discovered that life does exist in our universe – a striking discovery that forced us to reconsider the case for a designer. Of course, that gets things exactly backwards. We have known all along that our universe is life-sustaining (L). What comes as a surprise and makes us think that maybe we should rethink the matter of chance vs. design is the more recent discovery that fine tuning was required for life.

    This suggests that when we treat the fine-tuning argument as a likelihood argument (or more generally, when we formulate it in Bayesian terms), we should let our background knowledge include L, and let R be the item that plays the role of evidence. After all, the thing that we discovered which suddenly seemed to favor the hypothesis of a designer over the chance hypothesis in a new way was not that there is life in the universe, nor that e.g. the ratio of the strengths of the gravitational and electromagnetic forces has the value it does, but rather that the life we know to exist in the universe depended on a set of conditions balanced on the head of a pin in a way we had never suspected before. So, the crucial move in the argument is this: The precariously-balanced nature of life in our universe is far less surprising given a designer than it would be given chance, and so it evidentially favors design over chance.

    That states things better, I think. In this version of the argument, the crucial premise is that then the probability that life would require fine-tuning is higher if there’s a Designer, than it would be if everything is ultimately the product of blind chance.

    Heddle says that in his opinion, the best evidence for theism would be fine-tuning plus a “theory of everything” where the constants of Nature have unit probability. But at the very best, that would only take us to Spinoza’s God – a God Who had no choice but to make the universe the way it is – rather than the God of classical theism, Who made a contingent universe by an act of free will. And an atheist would dispense with Spinoza’s God by wielding Occam’s razor.

    I wonder if Heddle has read Roberts.

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