In “Why the universe wasn’t fine-tuned for life” (New Scientist, 08 June 2011), Marcus Chown tells us that Victor Stenger’s new The Fallacy of Fine-tuning “dismantles arguments that the laws of physics in our universe were ‘fine-tuned’ to foster life.”:
If the force of gravity were a few per cent weaker, it would not squeeze and heat the centre of the sun enough to ignite the nuclear reactions that generate the sunlight necessary for life on Earth. But if it were a few per cent stronger, the temperature of the solar core would have been boosted so much the sun would have burned out in less than a billion years – not enough time for the evolution of complex life like us.(You have to pay to read the article.)
Some, including some atheists, consider fine-tuning evidence for God (though not necessarily sufficient evidence). But not Stenger apparently. Determining whether you think he “dismantles” fine tuning, you might like to consider mathematician George Ellis’s “Toy Universe”comments on the question:
Stenger is making a double `existence’ claim – life could exist with another physical base than organic chemistry, and life could also exist if the laws of physics were substantially different than they are. Normally a scientist making such a claim is expected to give some scientific reason why it should be believed. Stenger denies that he has any such obligation, justifying this by citing a new philosophical principle: he is making a more economical claim than those who do not accept his view, and therefore he has no need to provide supporting scientific evidence.I don’t accept this philosophical principle. I also don’t agree that he is making the more economical claim. And I don’t think his overall argument takes the physical nature of life seriously.
Firstly, as to the philosophical principle suggested: If a particle physicist or astrophysicist tried such a ploy in their professional fields, they would be laughed out of court by their colleagues. If you want to make an existence claim (a new class of stars, a new particle of some kind, gravitational waves) you are expected to give positive reasons as to why this is probable. To say `It must be so because I don’t know any reason why it should not be true’ will not suffice, if we are working in usual scientific discourse. The proposal seems to be that less rigorous standards will suffice when talking about the existence of life. I do not accept that position.
Of course Occam’s razor has always been an important tool in choosing between competing theories to explain the same evidence. The problem comes in the attempt to extend this principle not only to situations where there are no observations to compare with theory, but where there is not even a proper theory that could be compared with observations, and the attempt is made to use the principle to justify not developing any such theory.
Secondly, Stenger claims his position is more economical than mine. Here we enter the world of rhetoric and personal opinion. Why should it be `more economical’ if there is more than one family of solutions (one carbon based, the others not) to the underlying physical equations, each with the extraordinary properties of living systems? I don’t buy it: one set of solutions is clearly more economical. Again, contrary to his stated view, it is obvious that existence of one universe is very much more economic than existence of a multiplicity of universes. He seems to believe in a strange form of economics.
Thirdly, underlying my own position is an assessment of the extraordinary engineering feat involved in the successful functioning of a single living cell, with its hundreds of thousands of feedback control loops and deployment of massive information systems, all working in harmony with each other, and then in organising 10^13 such cells to work harmoniously together in a symbiotic hierarchically structured system. It is this complexity that makes the existence of even a single family of such solutions to the underlying equations so astonishing. The computer `toy models’ employed by many, including Stenger, don’t remotely begin to capture the complexity of what is going on in the real world of biology (see e.g. “Biology” by N A Campbell). These models might have something to say about the processes leading to the start of life; they do not in any way begin to capture the complexity of a functioning living being, and hence have no persuasive power in that regard. .
Taking this into account, to make a serious scientific (and philosophical) case for the view put by Stenger one would need to show some alternative solution exists, at least in principle, to at least some of the central issues facing the physical existence of life. In particular, existence of alternative kinds of life depends critically on existence of alternative physical systems that have the capability of storing and meaningfully processing the huge amounts of information required for a living being to function (see e.g. Paul Davies’ book: “The Fifth Miracle”). Indeed one can identify this as a fundamental law for living systems: Without reliable information storage and replication, life is impossible.Under the rhetoric of Stenger’s reply lies his silence as regards any proposal for such a mechanism. He apparently does not have a way of satisfying this fundamental law for existence of living beings. This means that instead of solid scientific argumentation, his strongly made claim is just another `Just-So’ story. Good science fiction, but not good science.
Some point to the growing significance of the fact that, despite all these problems, Stenger is thought to represent “science” in some way – and this other guy Ellis, not so much.
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