Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Problem with the FTA

Well, it's a problem.  There are other problems, and the problem I am about to describe might not even be the biggest problem that the fine-tuning argument has.  But it's snappy title for a post.  (Oh, and I mean the Fine Tuning Argument not the Free Trade Agreement ...)

When people like Luke Barnes go on and on about all the limitations on physics and cosmology that you'd be faced with if you were building a universe from scratch in order to ensure that (intelligent) life existed in it, they eventually reach a point in which their expertise is no longer relevant to the argument.  Basically, if we were wondering about the magnitude of the design problem, trying to come up with a figure that describes how unlikely it would be that a life permitting universe would be the result if we just threw the "randomise" switch, then Barnes has something to bring to the table.  But once we've arrived at a figure, say that there's only one chance in 10^240 that a universe like ours would result, then Barnes' training in astrophysics is no longer relevant, he's still a smart guy, but he can't wave his doctorate around anymore and pretend that it means anything.

In brief, what Barnes can do is help us focus in on whether the universe as it is unlikely, very unlikely or very very freaking unlikely.  He argues for something in the region of very very freaking unlikely.

Now, here's the problem.

To try to explain it, I am going to use an analogy.  It's not a perfect analogy and certain elements of it aren't strictly relevant, they are just there as part of the narrative to help explain the key point.


Say you are given an urn.  In the urn you see there is a little pork sausage.  This means that you have in your hands an LSU or an LPU, Little pork Sausage Urn or Little Pork sausage Urn, depending on your point of view.  These acronyms might seem completely arbitrary to some readers, but they’re not.  LSU and LPU are common acronyms in the discussion of fine-tuning and mean “life supporting (or sustaining) universe” and “life-permitting universe”.  The latter seems more common, perhaps because LSU is also used by Louisiana State University.  Let’s avoid confusion and talk about the Little Pork sausage Urn.

What is the probability that you have, in your hands, an LPU?  You could think about all the things that could possibly be in the urn: a balls, a sock, a small beaver, a cat, an alarm clock, a stone, the list of potential items is literally endless (using "literally" in sense of "not literally").  Thinking of it that way, you could say it's one in a bazillion, or one in 2 gazillion, or something like that.

However, you have already looked in the urn, you know there was a little pork sausage in there, so you've got very good reason to believe that there's a one in one chance that you are holding an LPU.

Alternatively, you could be led into a warehouse containing bazillions or gazillions of urns.  At random (problems with the term "random"aside), you select an urn.  What are the chances that the urn you selected contains a little pork sausage?  We don't know, do we?  The warehouse might specialise in producing urns with sausages in them, urns with pork sausages in them, urns with pork products in them, urns with nothing in them, urns with something random in them, or who the hell knows what.  To match the FTA, we have to specify that some relatively small number of urns must contain little pork sausages (so that LPUs are possible).

Ok, so we have two scenarios.  One in which we are holding an urn with a pork sausage in it and the other in which we are in a warehouse and know that there are pork sausages in one or more of a very large number of urns, but we don't know which.

Which is the scenario in which we find ourselves, with regard to the FTA?

It must be that we are holding the urn, because we cannot be in a scenario in which an LPU (now talking about a life-permitting universe) is not available to us because we are alive).

Here is the problem:  The FTA is always argued as if we are in the warehouse and there is a possibility that we don't have an LPU available to us.  It doesn't matter if the urn we are holding with a little pork sausage in it is the only such urn in the whole history of the universe (past and future) or how unlikely it is that we happen to have it in our hands.  Without it, we are in a completely different scenario, in which we have no LPU and, switching seamlessly from analogy to the thesis of the FTA, if there were no LPU, we would not exist.

No amount of jiggering with the numbers will affect that brute fact.  So the involvement of people like Luke Barnes in the promotion of the FTA is, at the end of the day, without any real value.


That's not to say that the involvement of Barnes is without rhetorical value, or value for anyone wanting to make a fallacious appeal to authority.  But that's about tricking you into believing that the argument has merit, not about showing that you that argument has merit.

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