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I’ve written before on this blog about the problems with the fine-tuning argument, and last time, I took some criticism for failing to address the anthropic principle. I did say right off the bat that there are many ways to demonstrate why this argument is wrong, and rather than attempt to present an exhaustive list, I was only going to write about 3 of my favorite counters, which I did. I agree with my readers, and with Richard Dawkins as well (as discussed in The God Delusion), that the anthropic principle is also an easy way to show why fine-tuning doesn’t hold water, and it could have well made it into the top three. I’m very grateful to my readers for your honest criticism, and agree with you that this counter-argument deserves attention, which I will address now.
If you’re not familiar, fine-tuning is simply the idea that, because conditions sufficient for life to arise are (it is claimed) so narrowly specific, they MUST have come about by intelligent design. First of all, claiming certainty on this point (“must have”) introduces an epistemological problem, the problem of induction, so at best deists/theists can argue that, based on available evidence, they believe that intelligent design is the most probable explanation, not that it MUST have been intelligent design (although you will rarely hear them admit this). This is an example of the fallacy of a false dilemma, also known as black-and-white thinking, i.e. failing to recognize other possible alternatives (in this case, that the universe created itself, which is also in better accordance with Occam’s Razor; see my previous article about parsimony here).
The idea that fine-tuning is the best explanation for the conditions of our universe has been thoroughly discredited by many qualified physicists, among them Vic Stenger, Brian Cox, and Stephen Hawking, and this information is readily available on Google. However, it’s important that we continue to address the topic because I still hear this hypothesis from believers literally every time we do our Ask an Atheist table on campus. Usually their information comes from theologians, or youth pastors, or at best, mathematicians, chemists, etc, not qualified astrophysicists or cosmologists. I’m convinced it’s just a matter of ignorance and confirmation bias, which are fortunately fixable things.
Aside from the fact that the universe is not actually fine-tuned for life (quite the opposite!), the ultimate problem with this line of reasoning is that it’s backwards—it reverses the order of things. The universe was not set up the way it is with us in mind, but rather, we are the type of thing that our universe grows, given enough time. This is even more obvious when you consider that the universe was here WAY before we grew out of it. As the ancient Buddhist proverb goes, “We are the universe experiencing itself.”
So, on to the subject of today’s article: the Anthropic Principle. Simply put, the anthropic principle is the idea that the universe is set up the way it is in order that we could exist here (rather than the idea that we are set up the way we are and indeed exist all because of the way the universe is set up). There are some other, more-specific versions of this argument, but that’s the basic idea. Douglas Adams famously said in a 1998 speech:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say.
Or, put another way:
I should hope that I don’t need to spell this out, but in the interest of curing ignorance—the reason we run this blog—I want to be absolutely sure the point is made clearly: The deer about which Tim Abbott is complaining do not cross the street where they do because the deer-crossing sign is there, as if it were a crosswalk; rather, we put the sign there because that’s where the deer already tended to cross the street. The order here is important; the deer were there long before the highway, freely moving across that area. When we humans built the highway, the deer continued to move across that area, incidentally crossing the highway as they went and causing traffic accidents, and so, we put up a sign to warn drivers that deers cross there. It’s not a crosswalk, and deer don’t know or care about the deer-crossing sign—they crossed there before the highway was around, they crossed there before the sign was added, and they would continue to cross there whether we moved the sign or not.
Similarly, to the best of our knowledge—and we emphatically have no good reasons thus far to suspect otherwise—the universe does not know or care that we happened to have developed in it. The universe does not “know” or “care” about anything; the universe is not an intelligent entity capable of knowledge or feelings.
To assign human qualities like the capacity for knowledge or feelings to an object is what’s called anthropomorphism. This is incredibly common in human cultures, but it’s erroneous—other examples include thinking things like “My car hates me” or saying “Thank you!” to your computer when you are able to recover a file you thought you lost. Computers and cars, even though some people might give them personal names for fun, are not intelligent agents—they are inanimate objects (from the Latin prefix in- meaning lacking or without, and the Latin word anima meaning breath of life/life-blood).
Michael Shermer writes about this in The Believing Brain: When lightning strikes your house, it’s not because anyone is angry at you, gods or otherwise; it’s (very predictably and avoidably) because your house doesn’t have a lightning rod and is the tallest conductive thing nearby. This is why church steeples get struck by lightning so often; it has nothing to do with the Devil and God battling it out in the heavens. It’s just physics. But that’s awesome! Physics is amazing and interesting stuff, and by learning how our world works, to paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson, we can improve our lives.
Until next time!
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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