Fine-tuning fallacies

In Fiddling with “fine-tuning” I discussed the way theologians and philosophers of religion have used claims of fine-tuning of the cosmological constant erroneously. That they have taken the fact that the value of the measured cosmological constant is 120 orders of magnitude different to the value of vacuum energy used to explain it. This has been described as the “worst calculation in physics history.” But never mind, these apologists have just utilised the huge mistake to claim that the cosmological constant is fine-tuned to 1 part in 10120! So there god must be responsible.

This is what happens when you use scientific knowledge opportunistically. Like a drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination. Because the problem with the theological approach is that there is no interest in understanding the world around us – just in using science to support any argument they can drag up to “prove” the existence of their particular god.

Mind you, some non-theists also find the fine tuning concept beguiling. And they can also uncritically accept some of the fine-tuning claims that circulate. The idea that many of the physical and cosmological constants in our universe are extremely delicately balanced to values necessary for life to exist. The so-called anthropic principle.

So, Victor Stenger’s new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us will be very useful for anyone attempting to check out these arguments by actually considering the science. He describes the physical and cosmological background to the constants, or parameters as he prefers to call them, usually used in fine-tuning arguments. And then he considers, one by one, just how valid – or invalid – the fine-tuning arguments are.

Here I will just deal with two “fine-tuned” constants – the “Hoyle resonance” for carbon nuclei and the “nuclear efficiency.” I think they illustrate two common mistakes made in estimating the degree of fine-tuning.

Hoyle resonance

This refers to the 1953 prediction of astronomer Fred Hoyle that the reactions necessary for the nucleosynthesis of carbon in stars would “not occur with sufficient probability unless that probability was boosted by the presence of an excited nuclear state of C12 at a very specific energy. Hoyle proposed that this previously unknown state must exist at about 7.7 MeV. The existence of such a state was quickly confirmed experimentally.”

Although Hoyle did not connect this resonance with the existence of life (and therefore an example of the anthropic principle) it has often been quoted by theists as a miraculous example of fine-tuning. And they like to quote Hoyle himself:

“A commonsense 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.”

But Stenger points out that many physicists question how fine-tuned this excited resonance state of carbon really is. He demonstrates this in the following figure from his book.

Here (a) shows two energy levels: (1) the amount by which the total rest energy of Be8 + He4 exceeds that of the C12 nucleus, which is 7.3367 MeV; (2) the excited state of C12 predicted by Hoyle and observed at 7.656 MeV. On this scale, the ground state of C12 is zero.

And (b) shows the range of values this excited state could assume and still produce that same amount of carbon in the universe. That is 7.596 – 7.716 Mev. So this excited state is not as fine-tuned as often claimed. The “miracle” is disappearing.

But the fine-tuning really evaporates when we acknowledge that while the existence of life like ours requires the presence of carbon, it does not necessarily require the exact amount of carbon that exists in our universe.  As (c) shows, an excited state anywhere from 7.933 Mev down to near the minimum energy would produce adequate carbon!

In this case the fine-tuning argument has been fallacious because recent work of the required values has been ignored. And it has been unnecessarily assumed that life requires exactly the same amount of carbon as present in the current universe.

Nuclear efficiency

Martin Rees describes “nuclear efficiency” in his book Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe. It refers to the fact that in the synthesis of helium from protons and neutron in stars the mass of the original particles and final nuclear differs – 0.007 of the mass is converted into energy. He defines this as the “nuclear efficiency,” Є, and the value of this depends on the forces holding nuclei together determines how long stars can exist. Rees concludes that “any universe with complex chemistry requires Є to be in
the range 0.006-0.008.”

“If the nuclear ‘glue’ were weaker, so that Є were 0.006 rather than 0.007, a proton could not be bonded to a neutron and deuterium would not be stable. Then the path to helium formation would be closed off. We would have a simple universe composed of hydrogen, whose atom consists of one
proton orbited by a single electron, and no  chemistry. Stars could still form in such a universe (if everything else were kept unchanged) but they would have no nuclear fuel. They would deflate and cool, ending up as dead remnants. There would be no explosions to spray the debris back into space so
that new stars could form from it, and no elements would exist that could ever form rocky planets.”

“But we couldn’t have existed if Є had been more than 0.008, because no hydrogen would have survived from the Big Bang. In our actual universe, two protons repel each other so strongly that the nuclear ‘strong interaction’ force can’t bind them together without the aid of one or two neutrons (which add to the nuclear ‘glue’, but, being uncharged, exert no extra electrical repulsion). If Є were to have been 0.008, then two protons would have been able to bind directly together. This would
have happened readily in the early universe, so that no hydrogen would remain to provide the fuel in ordinary stars, and water could never have existed.”

But these estimates assume that other physical constant remain constant. Stenger argues that this is unrealistic because if the value of one parameter could be randomly selected during formation of a universe, so could the values of others.

In particular he considers the effect of just varying one other constant – the electromagnetic strength α. The figure below demonstrates the situation.

If α remains fixed at its current value of 1/137 then Є must take a value between 0.006 and 0.008. Higher and all hydrogen would be converted to helium. Lower and no nuclei would form. But as shown in the figure - if  α varies between 1/191 and 1/107 then Є can vary between 0.004 and >0.01.

So, in this case the fine-tuning fallacy has relied on the unwarranted assumption that the value of only one parameter is varied at a time in the calculations,. In reality this is unlikely.

This particular fallacy will be common to most of the physical and cosmological constants that are usually quoted as examples of fine-tuning by religious apologists.

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11 responses to “Fine-tuning fallacies

  1. Pingback: Review of “The Black Cloud” « cartesian product

  2. While sharing Stenger’s underlying stance and finding some of the arguments in this book to be interesting, I would not say that his case against fine tuning is very convincing, even within the domain of the physical constants.

    And the great wealth of evidence of seemingly inevitable directionality and “just right” conditions to be found downstream, especially in the areas of chemistry and biology is barely touched upon.

    Particularly the way in which the the properties and timely abundances of the chemical elements and their compounds not only allow, but make inevitable, the observed evolution of technology in the medium of the collective imagination of our species.

    This persistent and pervasive pattern is not to be ignored or swept under the mat by the very unparsimonious artifice of positing multiverses with infinitely varying physical properties.

    Nor does it require for interpretation any kind of “designer” or “creator”, which are, after all, notions derived merely from the hearsay of mythology.

    A broad evolutionary model of the kind outlined in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” will suffice to account for these patterns on a straightforward empirical basis. At the expense of swallowing a few human conceits!

    The book is avaiable as free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

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  3. Surely, cognosium, the “the great wealth of evidence of seemingly inevitable directionality and “just right” conditions to be found downstream, especially in the areas of chemistry and biology” and “the way in which the the properties and timely abundances of the chemical elements and their compounds not only allow, but make inevitable, the observed evolution of technology in the medium of the collective imagination of our species” – are arguments that our species is fine-tuned for existence in our particular part of the universe rather than the other way around.

    In other words this is hardly surprising given our understanding today of the evolutionary process.

    And you don’t say why you find Stenger’s arguments unconvincing “within the domain of the physical constants.”

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  4. “Surely, ……….are arguments that our species is fine-tuned for existence in our particular part of the universe rather than the other way around”.

    But, would you not agree, Ken, our particular part of the universe is all that we have empirical evidence for?

    I believe that, until such time as evidence to the contrary comes to light, science should be concerned with interpreting established knowledge rather than conjectures that invoke such notions as deities, multiverses, real world dimensionalities greater than three of space and one of time.

    These speculations are fine for philosophy. Indeed, I am myself not averse to the basic idea of a certain kind of multiverse. But, for the time being, at least, these concepts are mere fantasy and should not be represented as science.

    Or even the interpretations of current scientific understandings such as those presented in my writings.

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  5. cognosium, I think you misunderstand my post and Stenger’s book. His arguments are based on established physics and cosmology. He stresses that he is not utilizing a “multiverse” argument at all.

    His comment on the “multiverse” concept is that it is not an invention to deny god’s as theist apologists claim. It is a proposition arising naturally out of inflation cosmology. There has not been any empirical verification so remains as a scientific speculation. Mind you there are some frustrating evidences which could support the idea.

    Science does not concern itself with god’s – because there is no structured hypothesis which can be tested. However it must concern itself with things like “multiverse” concepts and extra dimensions because they are ideas that come out of scientific theory and speculation. They do suggest predictions which may be testable in the near future. Hence the interest in details of the cosmic microwave background and some of the ideas being tested at the LHC.

    Science does concern itself with these ideas and is ideally positioned to do do. I see no evidence that philosophy has anything credible to say on such ideas, and it certainly does not involve itself in testing such ideas against reality.

    But to return to my question – why do you find Stenger’s arguments on “fine-tuning” unconvincing? After all, they are based on established physics and cosmology. They don’t rely on any “multiverse” argument.

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  6. Udaybhanu Chitrakar

    “Science does not concern itself with god’s – because there is no structured hypothesis which can be tested”
    It is not true that there is no structured God-hypothesis that can be tested. God is said to be one, and He is spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, all-pervading. God-hypothesis is testable because from God-hypothesis we can draw the following conclusions:
    1) Existence of a spaceless, timeless being in this universe implies the relativity of space and time.
    2) God is said to be timeless. So if God is really there, then somewhere in this universe there will be timelessness. And if there is timelessness, then we will have to admit that time can become unreal by some means or other. So God-hypothesis implies that time must have to be unreal by some means or other.
    3) As God is said to be immortal, so in this case God-theory implies that immortality must be found to be written somewhere, in some scientific theory, or law, or equation.
    4) God is said to be spaceless as well as all-pervading. This implies that volume of the entire universe must be found to be zero.
    5) God is said to be one, and everything has originated from that one God. This implies that everything in this universe must be ultimately reducible to one-thing.
    So, in total five predictions can be made from God-hypothesis, out of which first three predictions have already been found to be correct. Scientists have shown that space and time are relative. They have also shown how time can become unreal at the speed of light. It can logically be proved that a timeless being can never die. i am very much alive at this moment. But I may die at the very next moment. But in a timeless world this very next moment will never come. So a timeless being can never die. So scientists while showing how time can become unreal have at the same time shown how one can be immortal.
    All the above arguments are taken from the book “God and modern science” by an author Himangsu S. Pal and can also be read from the following links: http://scigod.com/index.php/sgj/article/view/50, 62, 63, 76.

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  7. Pingback: Going beyond the evidence | Open Parachute

  8. Pingback: Going beyond the evidence | Secular News Daily

  9. Atheists were using the same biased reasoning when a Catholic physicist pointed out that Einstein fudged his equation to allow for an eternal universe.
    This is EINSTEIN we are talking about. This genius knew what a beginning meant. This genius knew an eternal universe was IMPOSSIBLE..as all stars woukd have burned out by now and an infinite past is patently incoherent as we could never arrive at today.

    This is the power of BIAS. Its doesn’t matter how smart one is…bias destroys logic. They fought the beginning and even mocked it..calling it a big bang as a joke. They also:denied the fine tuning for decades even the when the fact that you can do science at all had already showed what the Christians who started scientific exploration were saying all along…the universe has a beginning and it will make mathematical sense because it is designed so we could use the world.

    Now, when pathologically biased people like Victor make bold pronouncements that fly in the face of the obvious….all you do is weaken the beliefs you have when you repeat his nonsense.

    Science has moved to multiverse. Its done. Its over. You either believe what just about every human that has ever lived thinks is blatantly obvious or you believe in the magical infinite e erything maker that just happens to pop out the exact thing you need to deny God….Universes. How quaint. Bias destroys reason

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  10. Christopher Atkinson

    “You either believe what just about every human that has ever lived thinks is blatantly obvious”

    Really?

    “…the universe has a beginning and it will make mathematical sense because it is designed so we could use the world.

    All about us then?

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  11. Atheists were using the same biased reasoning…..

    What atheists?

    … when a Catholic physicist pointed out that Einstein fudged his equation to allow for an eternal universe.
    This is EINSTEIN we are talking about.

    You mean EINSTEIN or Einstein?

    This genius knew an eternal universe was IMPOSSIBLE..as all stars woukd have burned out…

    What are you tal…(sorry) What are you TALKING about?

    This is the power of BIAS. Its doesn’t matter how smart one is…bias destroys logic. They fought the beginning….

    Huh? Is THERE a point you are trying to make? Or do you just like the noise of the clacking of your own keyboard?

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