Monday, 14 September 2015

Weisberg's Prisoners - Using Fine-Tuning as a Defeater for Theism

In Hawthorne’s Prisoners, I discussed how John Hawthorne has used and possibly abused an analogy originally presented by Jonathan Weisberg.  I say “possibly abused” because Hawthorne’s version of the analogy doesn’t fully match Weisberg’s.  Perhaps Hawthorne only meant to borrow the general idea and had no intention of misrepresenting Weisberg’s argument.

Based on his 2013 presentation, Hawthorne’s version goes a little like this (in the 2015 version he swaps the blocks around and uses a higher overall number of prisoners, which has the effect of making the results more favourable to his pro-theism argument, he also walks away from the idea of having a prison in which half the inmates are innocent):

There are two cell blocks in a prison from which a prisoner is about to be released.  In one block, A, there are 99 innocent prisoners and one guilty one.  In the other block, B, there are 99 guilty prisoners and one innocent one.

The decision as to which prisoner is to be released is to be made by one of two officials, Mr Random, who will just pick a prisoner at random (irrespective of whether he or she is guilty or not), and Miss Justice, who will only release a prisoner if that prisoner is innocent.

We don’t know who makes the decision to release the prisoner, and we don’t know any details regarding how they make their decisions, beyond what has been revealed.

We do know that the prisoner who is released happens to have been innocent.  What can we say about the likelihood that Mr Random or Miss Justice released the prisoner?

I have already discussed the ramifications of Hawthorne’s version, but here I want to point out the differences from Weisberg’s version and investigate that version a little.  Weisberg’s analogy goes a little like this (I have changed the numbers to more closely align the analogies, but this does not detract from Weisberg’s point):

There are two cell blocks in a prison from which a prisoner is to be released.  In one block, A, there are 99 innocent prisoners and one guilty one.  In the other block, B, there are 99 guilty prisoners and one innocent one.

The released prisoner will be chosen on the basis of either a lottery or a determination from a judge.  If a judge makes a determination this will result in the release of an innocent.  We have no reason to believe that the judge cares about the accommodation arrangements of the prisoners.

Suppose we are told only that the prisoner released was from cell block B.  According to Weisberg’s treatment, this fact militates against a hypothesis that a judge made the selection (because of the 100 innocent prisoners, only one was housed in that cell block).

The point made is that despite our not having any reason to believe that the judge has any preference as to housing arrangements, we can still glean something from the housing arrangements of the selected prisoner.

The analogies are slightly different with respect to what they are modelling.  In Hawthorne’s case, innocence is life (or “life-permitting” characteristics of our universe) and Miss Justice is an intelligent designer.  In Weisberg’s discussion, there is no indication as to whether the prisoner is innocent or not, and it is only where a prisoner was housed that matters (post facto).  That information is analogous to the stringency of the universe with respect to life – picking the only available prisoner out of 100 is “stringent” while a choice out of a possible 99 is “lax”.  Weisberg goes on to argue that if the laws, constants, initial conditions and so on of the universe are stringent (or fine-tuned) then this may actually be considered as evidence against a designer.

I previously pointed out that Hawthorne criticises Weisberg for suggesting that there is “no reason” to believe that Miss Justice would not use the selection method assumed in his (Hawthorne’s) version of analogy.  I went on to argue that there actually is a good reason to believe that she would reject any method which incorporates random chance.  Nevertheless, Hawthorne’s criticism fails because Weisberg specifically mentions “no reason” in the process of setting up the scenario and the whole point is that despite the fact that the cell block does not feature in the judge’s decision, the cell block from which the prisoner is released can contribute to our assessment as to whether the judge was in charge or not.

As soon as Hawthorne ignores the stipulation that there is no consideration on the part of the judge with respect to cell blocks, he’s not talking about Weisberg’s analogy anymore.


I believe that Weisberg’s actual argument aligns quite closely with something I had already planned to argue, or maybe could be said to support that argument, so I was quite pleased to read his article on Divine Indifference.  I’ll try to sum up that argument:

The “life-permittingness” (my use of the term, not his) of a universe is limited by the stringency of the laws that pertain to the universe.  The more stringent the laws, the less likely life is to arise, because even small tweaks of the control knobs (which notionally modify initial conditions and the values of constants) will have catastrophic consequences.  If the laws were more lax, then a wider range of control settings could result in life.

In other words, the likelihood of life is inversely proportional to stringency.

A key plank in the design theorist’s fine-tuning argument is that the conjectured intelligent designer has a preference for life, but neither we nor they have any reason to believe that an intelligent designer should prefer stringency over laxity.  Therefore, it is actually more likely, given a preference for life only, that our universe should be lax rather than stringent.  An intelligently designed universe would be biased against fine-tuning, so therefore fine-tuning militates against an intelligent designer.

My argument is less strictly Bayesian than Weisberg’s, but is also based on relative likelihoods.  I thought of it this way: in the history of humanity, and in the pages of fiction, there have been a wide range of ideas with respect to how the universe might work.  As we have learnt more, the vast majority of these theories and hypotheses have fallen away, because they are not consistent with reality.  However, this does not mean that, for an intelligent designer of the sort being postulated by theists, creating a universe based on some version of these earlier hypotheses would be strictly impossible.

Let’s start with intelligence which, for the purposes of this argument, I will correlate with consciousness and self-awareness and “humanity” (as in the essence of being human as opposed to being a beast).  For the most part, ideas about intelligence have involved some form of dualism.  Prometheus stole fire, for example, and gifted it to humanity, metaphorically imbuing us with the spark of intelligence.  Possibly the most enduring conception of intelligence is that of the soul, but this is merely one of many stories in which intelligence (etc) is some additional element or substance that is found in humans, but not other animals.  Fiction – particularly as seen in animated movie form – and mythology do not limit this largesse to humans, assigning intelligence to animals, plants, otherwise inanimate objects (Toy Story) and even emotions (Inside Out) and colours (Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  An intelligent designer could conceivably just plug intelligence into inanimate objects, or processes (like a waterfall), if it so chose.

If we were to presume that an intelligent designer was somehow limited to slotting intelligence into living beings, then there are options as to how these living beings might be manifested.  The traditional Abrahamic god simply formed a shape out of mud and breathed life into it, while golems could be animated by giving them a word (literally, written on a piece of parchment).  According to some, life depends on a sort of field that can apparently be seen as an aura.  An intelligent designer could use any one of a wide range of methods to achieve living beings in its universe, and then simply plug intelligence into whichever of them it so chose.

But perhaps this intelligent designer was further limited and needed a sort of chemistry similar to the sort that we find in our universe.  We can think of chemistry in two ways, firstly as a ruleset and secondly as the interactions of various elements and compounds.  In terms of a ruleset, the world of gaming and RPGs (role playing games) in particular gives us examples of how rulesets could otherwise have been set up in our universe.  Rather than leaving categorisation up to the intelligent beings in its universe, an intelligent designer could build the categorisation into objects in that universe.  Each intelligent being would therefore not be so much an arrangement of atoms but more of a checklist of attributes and stats:

(Note that in most computer games, the ability to tweak attributes and stats is limited.  The full range of attributes and stats that pertain to each character – when unselectables are also considered – is often far richer than a screenshot like this would imply.  And I don’t know what game this was grabbed from, but many other games give you much more latitude.)

Alternatively, we can think of chemistry as how elements and compounds interact.  In many appeals to fine-tuning, such as by Luke Barnes (and also more recently), much is made of the need for carbon in living beings.  Again, however, an intelligent designer need not have used fusion in stars to create carbon.  It could have simply made a batch of stuff which had the characteristics of carbon (perhaps by tweaking the stats of a generic starting element).  So, you want an element that forms organic chains, fine, I’ll bring up the “forms organic chains” attribute and put a tick in the check box.  What else do you want it to do?  You want water that floats when it freezes?  Sure, I can create an attribute for that.  There you go, I’ve selected “forms a lattice on phase change from liquid to solid” and set things so it starts to come into effect at 4°C.

All of the scenarios so far have assumed that intelligence needs to be slotted into something, but that is far from certain.  Fiction and mythology abounds with ideas of incorporeal intelligences – spirits, ghosts and disconnected souls.  An intelligent designer who is not bound by the rules of this universe could conceivably choose to populate its universe with such intelligences and dispense with the need for chemistry altogether, if there is nothing particularly special about life per se.  (Within the framework of theism, it is actually a given that there is nothing special about life per se, since all the important stuff apparently goes on after the cessation of life.  Some theists could argue that there is something precluding their intelligent designer from cutting to the chase, but such theists would be abandoning the notion of omnipotence in the process.)
Of course, none of these alternative universes are realistic in terms of our universe.  But this fact does not prevent a super-intelligent, super-powerful intelligent designer, one given the task of designing a universe from first principles and who therefore has an entirely free choice as to what sorts of laws will apply, from choosing any method it likes to create a universe with life or intelligence in it.  And there are many more “unrealistic” possibilities than are to be found within the stringent range asserted by a design theorist with a fine-tuning fixation.

I think that Weisberg is nodding in the direction of all these other possibilities, along with universes in which the initial conditions and fundamental values are not quite as constrained as in ours (but would nevertheless be recognisable), and classifying them “lax”.  If there were a god then, the aspirations of intelligent design theorists aside, we don’t have any reason to believe that that god would choose a “stringent” universe over all the other possibilities – we certainly don’t have any good reasons.

An inherent idea here is that many of the more “lax” universes would almost certainly stand out as designed (imagine for example one in which there literally was a Prime Mover and inertia didn’t apply), meaning that if we lived in such a universe then we’d have no reason to lack faith in a creator.  The universe we live in, on the other hand, can quite easily be mistaken for a universe which is not the result of intelligent design and it can be argued that the nature of universe actually militates against an intelligent designer (as Weisberg does).

This situation, although it is apparently not recognised by apologists, apparently leads some to feel obligated to consider “divine psychology” (which is key to Hawthorne’s argument).  But as soon as we start seriously considering “divine psychology” we must also wonder why, if there were a god, that god would be going out of its way to pretend that it did not exist – to the extent that it has selected for stringency, in a universe with an arguably narrow value range for constants and an apparently precise requirement with respect to initial conditions, that so accurately mimics a universe with no intelligent designer.  Why did the intelligent designer not choose a lax set of laws that would give clear evidence as to the existence of a god?

The mental gymnastics of the sort performed by Hawthorne while considering divine psychology are only required to shore up a contention that the god of theism exists despite the wealth of evidence against the hypothesis.  And part of that negative evidence, when properly thought through as demonstrated by Weisberg, is the stringency (or “fine-tuning”) of our universe.

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