Sunday, August 24, 2014

Substance Dualism undercuts Fine Tuning

I wanted to throw this up as a quick blog post after a tweet this morning.

Here's the tweet:


"@CounterApologis: Thinking on the fine tuning argument, and substance dualism is an undercutting defeater of the idea the universe is fine tuned for life."

I can't claim to be the origin of this kind of thinking.  It just kind of follows from the "Fallacy of Understated Evidence"  That you can read about via Jeff Lowder's blog, where he largely draws from Philosopher of Religion Paul Draper.  If anyone reading this also follows Justin Schieber of Reasonable Doubts, then this kind of argument will be familiar. 

There's a few things to consider up front:

Substance Dualism - The idea that the "mind" is separate from the "brain", but that they interact with eachother at least while we're in our physical forms.  Theism entails that "mind" can indeed exist without a physical "brain", at least for the theist's god anyway.

The Interaction Problem - Substance dualism faces a defeater, at least for those of us who allow science to influence our metaphysics, in the interaction problem.  The problem is that we know there is corresponding brain activity for every conscious thought (and unconscious ones as well), and we know causal physical effects on the brain (alcohol, drugs, anti-depressants, etc) have causal effects on the "mind".

The problem is that there seems to be no way for a non-phyiscal mind to interact with a very physical brain.  We can be fairly certain of this given what we know about physical objects from one of our best physical theories (Quantum Field Theory).  The full argument for this is in an awesome video by Sean Carroll, but basically we can detect all sorts of physical energy fields, quite a lot of them.  In fact we're so good at it we've been able to map out the kinds of fields we know we can't detect yet.  The problem for dualists is that any field strong enough to interact with the stuff in our brains to cause the kinds of effects we see are in the range we can detect.  The only fields we can't detect are the ones that are too weak to have any kind of effect on our brains to cause the physical effects we do see (they're either too weak or they work over such short distances to have their effects be meaningful at even the neuron level).

Effectively, to maintain the Substance Dualism position, theists are forced to appeal to some kind of miraculous interface that otherwise defies the laws of physics as we understand them (and they've proven to be immensely successful at predicting things).

Forget how silly it may seem to require a miracle (or a set of supernatural-laws) every time any person has a thought, let's just go with the "Miraculous Interface" solution to the interaction problem.

Back to Fine Tuning

There are two major objections to the fine tuning argument that I think are relevant here (this isn't to say that there aren't other objections). I think they follow into one another once we consider the Miraculous Interface solution to dualism.

The first objection to the fine tuning problem is that we have no idea what other kinds of life could exist.  Changes to the constants we find in nature (if they are indeed ultimately constants) could indeed result in another kind of "life" that we are simply unaware of being able to exist in the vaious combinations of nature.  

One theistic response to this is that the fine tuning argument is not about life simpliciter.  It's trying to talk about specific kinds of life, namely ones like us.  It does no good to say that other forms of life like bateria or other microscopic forms of life could exist, it needs to be something akin to a human being.  

But what exactly does this mean? Does the fine tuning argument stay that the universe if finely tuned to produce a bipedal species that has all of the contingent properties that make up a human being? I don't really think so, I think it's appealing to the fact that human beings have mental lives. 

If that's the case, then the problem here is two fold, the first is the other major objection to the fine tuning argument:

The second objection is that the universe certainly doesn't appear to be finely tuned for life.  In the immense amount of the universe that we have now observed, Earth is the only place we've found that has any life on it at all.  This makes the percentage of the universe that is hospitible to "our kind of life" is somewhere well below the 1% range. 

The third problem is that given the "Miraculous Interface" between physical forms and "the mind/soul", there's nothing that would prevent "other forms of life" from being just as morally significant as we humans, or really from having as active a mental life as we do now. To be honest, I'm not even sure if the physical form would even have to qualify as "living" or "biological", the miraculous interface could provide consciousness to almost anything that has a limited life-span at the macro level (ie. stars, etc).  This hinges on the simple fact that given substance dualism and the miraculous interface, there is nothing specific about our kind of brain that is really required for a mental life. 

This robs the fine tuning of predicting much of anything, since given substance dualism any physical universe that has life would appear finely tuned for the kind of physical entity that the "miraculous interface" attached itself to in order for the mind to appear.  It seems to me that this fact undercuts any appeals to the fact that constants in nature must be "finely tuned" in order for beings with a mental life to appear.


  1. With all due respect, it seems your three objections attack a straw man. The actual goal and thrust of the fine tuning argument is robust to the three challenges.

  2. If you don't mind, I'll elaborate on what I said yesterday. AFAIK, your first objection mischaracterizes because the FTA is not about whether any kind of life exists (which you acknowledge), but neither is it necessarily about *our kind* of life. It really addresses any kind of *physical* life. So, no one thinks physical life can exist without certain things: stars, planets, water, and carbon, to name a few. Also, no one thinks physical life can exist under certain environments (in the presence of ionizing radiation, at the center of a star, etc). Since it turns out that fine-tuning is necessary to get even these modest requirements for physical life, the FTA would seem to go through.

    For the second objection, it sounds like you are claiming that in order for the FTA to work, it must be based on the observation that the *entire* universe is suitable for life. As I am sure you are aware, no FTA proponent would claim that, nor would they have to in order to conclude that many aspects of our universe and local environment must fall within certain parameter ranges to permit life *anywhere at all*. Right? That just seems plain obvious to me that it's not a requirement of the FTA that the entire universe be suitable for life. Isn't it? If not, maybe I'm missing something about your point?

    Let's think about it another way. The FTA is based on the observations that not only that the physical constants and the universe's initial conditions are finely-tuned, but also that the earth's environment is finely-tuned. This "environmental" fine-tuning claim of course can only be made if we have observed that most other exoplanetary star systems are not like ours (i.e., are not fit for life). That is, if every other exoplanetary star system were just like ours, we would have no claim that ours is finely-tuned. So the FTA is partially built on the fact that life is, so far as we know, possible only on our planet. (We are in agreement here, since this is a point you yourself make.)

    The point is that the FTA requires neither that the universe be suitable for life in its entire spatial extent nor in its entire temporal extent, and, indeed, is strengthened by the fact that the portion of the universe suitable for life is very restricted.

    Well, what about the third point? The objection raised against the FTA that is the main point of your post? Well, let's go ahead an explore this miraculous interface. (Which, by the way, I think is a very apt description. Did you come up with that term? I may have to use it in the future.) One of your objections to the FTA is that such an interface could provide consciousness to rocks even.

    AFAICT, you are entirely correct that God can animate a rock. But an animated rock would not be physical life; it would be rock + miraculous interface. It would be non-life + non-physical. Such a life would be readily distinguished from physical life, of which we are (partially) composed. No one claims the FTA means that the universe must be finely-tuned for God to be able to perform a miracle on a rock. Instead, it is that the universe being finely-tuned for physical life strongly suggests a non-natural origin. In other words, this critique does not address the main point of the FTA, which is, how can we explain the existence of what appears to be a well-designed universe? Simply saying that an all-powerful creator could miraculously imbibe a non-living entity with a non-physical soul does not defeat the conclusion that it is highly improbable that the universe in which we live came about naturalistically. Am I missing something here? If so, please elaborate.

  3. Hi Gregg,

    I get your first two rebuttals. Physical life (have we ever really observed any other kind?) certainly would require some hospitable range of physical constants to emerge. Though whether our universe represents the only combination of such constraints that life could possibly emerge from remains moot. Also, pockets of life in a universe otherwise hostile to life are probably a more likely scenario than a universe equispatially hospitable to life. Though if it transpires that this planet is the only one in the universe with life (even in the galaxy), then there's a hell of a lot of redundancy to explain.....

    But what I don't understand is your leap to " can we explain the existence of what appears to be a well-designed universe?..........the universe being finely-tuned for physical life strongly suggests a non-natural origin". Does it really? I can think of a number of naturalistic scenarios that might eventually create a universe like ours, including any number of diverse universes created simultaneously or in some temporal succession, or a universe purposely created by sentient beings technologically vastly superior to us but themselves having resulted from naturalistic causation. That's just off the top of my head, I'm sure I can think of more. And is our universe really 'well designed'? How have you come to that judgement? What's your comparator? What evidence do you have that it couldn't have been better 'designed'? Surely your observation that the universe is not "suitable for life in its entire spatial extent nor in its entire temporal extent" suggests that it is not particularly well-designed, at least from the standpoint of its most interested denizens, i.e., its actual inhabitants. If there's an Abrahamic type of heaven one would hope its better designed than this.

    So perhaps, just like the life that inhabits our planet, it's just about good enough for life to emerge. Perhaps it barely scrapes through in some cosmic grading of universe quality. It might even be an embarrassment to someone. And even if some non-natural origin for the universe can be demonstrated, then surely we have just pushed the question of origin back a notch? The problem of ultimate causation would surely still remain, including the problem of how conditions happen to be so fine tuned that allows a (possibly past infinite) non-natural creator entity to successfully exist and possess power enough to create at least one correspondingly finely-tuned physical universe.

  4. OK, so I'd like to explain further, as you have invited me to, but first I want to be sure I understand what you're saying. It seems you're saying that I've overstated my case by saying the fine-tuning strongly suggests a non-natural origin. Or do you go even further by rejecting the observation of fine-tuning at all? You seem to want to blow the FTA apart by taking the position that (1) we really just don't know, and (2) it's not really all that well designed anyway. Would that be a good summary of your comment to me?

    BTW, could you re-state your last sentence? I did not follow it.


  5. Hi Gregg,

    “It seems you're saying that I've overstated my case by saying the fine-tuning strongly suggests a non-natural origin. Or do you go even further by rejecting the observation of fine-tuning at all?”

    Well, both. I don’t currently consider the universe to be (necessarily) fine tuned. I’m not saying it isn’t, I just don’t think we have enough data to make that call. I grant that superficially it appears to be fine tuned, but I think closer inspection of the data argumentation suggests otherwise. And even when it is considered to be fine tuned, I don’t follow the logic that it must have become fine tuned because of input from some supernatural agency. I can’t see how the appearance of fine tuning couldn’t result from natural processes. I’ll try to elaborate without writing a novel.

    I think the problem for me lies in that proponents of the fine tuning argument operate:

    (i) from a perspective of only having ever observed (to date in a very limited fashion) a single universe, i.e., we have nothing to compare it to so as to be able to make any judgement that it is fine tuned and;

    (ii) anthropocentrism; that the generation of life (i.e., in particular, or even exclusively, human life) is the sole purpose for the existence of the universe. The fine tuning argument thus becomes circular: if you start with the premise that there is something special about human (or even just intelligent) life, and this is what you observe, then it’s going to be difficult not to accept the conclusion that the generation of intelligent life is the purpose of the universe. And if the purpose of the universe is to generate intelligent life, then obviously there must be something special about intelligent life.........

    Once you drop that second anthropocentric assumption, does the universe honestly appear to be fine tuned? Say you had the whole extent of the universe mapped out in front of you. Now imagine you have a 1 km3 ‘pin’ that you blindly poke into the universe once every second. It would probably take you at least as long as the age of the universe itself to isolate even 1 km3 that was even vaguely conducive to life of any sort (bearing in mind that the distinction between life and non-life is almost certainly not absolute). So what is the purpose of all this universe? If it’s fine tuned, what is it fine tuned for? It can’t be life. Life can’t possibly exist there. Like I said, I get your point about some reducndancy, but it’s simply unnecessary for such a massive level of redundancy to provide a safe haven for life to exist, hence my comment about heaven/paradise.

    OK, but now we observe that the universe has got some life. Again, why would we assume this was evidence for fine tuning? Is it really so surprising that the diverse kinds of life we observe are a close fit with the physical parameters present at that place where we observe that life? What else could life forms possibly do but fit with their environment? Surely it would be more surprising if we found life forms that were not a good fit to their immediate environment, i.e., they should not be able to exist within the physical parameters we observe them to, yet they do? Now that really would be evidence for some fine tuning and would certainly knock naturalistic explanations for six!


    1. If the universe was fine tuned, wouldn’t we expect to see finely tuned life forms commensurate with the finely tuned environment? But we definitely don’t. What we observe are life forms that are just ‘good enough’ to survive in specific environments and never, ever, are they optimal for that environment. Look at human beings. Consider the size and shape of the infant cranium with the size and shape of a woman’s birth canal. It is not a well designed combination. It’s estimated that 15% of all the women who have ever lived have died in childbirth and about 60% of all the women ever born have died before their fifth year. A fifth of all the humans who have ever been born have probably died from the effect of a single parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. And that’s the figures for a species whose intelligence is unsurpassed on its planet. Imagine what the figures would be for other, less cognitively adept species. This does not sound to me like a universe fine tuned for intelligent life. Bacteria, perhaps.

      And if we have ever only observed one universe, how can we then judge that it is fine tuned? Years back, I had to develop some complex, rapidly presented (80 msec) computer based visual stimuli for my PhD. I had no experience in coding and no time to go and do a course. So I borrowed a program that was the nearest I could find and tweaked the code until, by trial and error, presented what I wanted it to, in the time-frame needed. When I showed my code to a real programmer, he laughed aloud at how “clunky”, “bloated” and “inelegant” it was. It was a long, long way from being fine tuned. Yet it was ‘good enough’. So, in the absence of any comparator universe, how can we be so sure that the universe we observe is not horrendously clunky, bloated and inelegant, yet obviously just ‘good enough’ for what we are able to observe? Of course if you view human beings as the epitome of physical life, perhaps atop some imaginary evolutionary ladder, then the fine tuning viewpoint comes easy (even if the creator of the fine tuning had malevolent intent). However, if you view human beings as one species among many interrelated species that have managed to forge some foothold on a planet orbiting one of the countless trillions of stars that make up the hundreds of billions of galaxies we have observed thus far, then surety regarding fine tuning appears to me to be a tad presumptuous.

      Regarding the final sentence (or paragraph), I wrote it late at night and maybe wasn’t as cogent as I might have been. I was extending the concept of fine tuning outward from the universe (if that is even possible). My point was that even if we came to accept that a powerful entity produced our finely tuned universe, why must we assume this entity is necessarily non-natural? I was alluding, enigmatically perhaps, to Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis or something similar. As far as I can see, there is simply no slam-dunk argument that negates that possibility and so it remains on the table. And even if a non-natural causation is preferred, I would still like to see some explanation for why some might consider that a ‘god-like’ entity (traditional God, or Tillichian ‘Ground of Being’, or whatever you might call it) is itself so necessarily finely-tuned (i.e., perfect in every way; in regard to the Ontological Argument for God). Because to me, it’s only a (flawed) logical argument; accepting it as true is therefore as equally presumptuous as a fine tuned universe. I’m aware, of course, that it’s possible to perceive the universe as finely tuned and be a theist who doesn’t buy the Ontological Argument.

      Deep subject matter. I hope there’s enough substance in my waffle to get to grips with.

  6. Big G,
    Thanks for your in-depth replies. I hope I continue to have the time and the energy to keep up with you.

    OK, so back to the subject matter. I am sorry that I am going to cut through all that deep subject matter (which was a nice read, by the way) that you posted in your last two comments, and track back to my original couple of posts. To summarize, I suggested that you were attacking straw men, and laid out why I thought they were as such. In particular, I thought I gave a good argument why the main point of your post (substance dualism being a defeater) did not in fact defeat the FTA. When you replied to that comment about the straw men, I didn't see anything in your reply that defended the main point of your post from my criticism. So, I asked you if I understood your rebuttal correctly. In your elaboration, again you didn't defend the main point of your post, which I thought I had adequate criticism of.

    So my question to you now is: are you giving up on your claim that substance-dualism is a defeater for the FTA?

    Or did you really re-defend it, but I missed it?

    To summarize my point, I was saying that God could indeed animate a rock, but that doesn't weaken the FTA at all. As far as I formulate the FTA (and I am no philosopher of science, so maybe I don't formulate it well), it basically attempts to address the question of why there would exist a finely-tuned universe. The FTA's claim is that the best explanation of such a state of affairs is that there is a supernatural (or non-natural...I know one of your criticisms is the ambiguity of the God concept, but let's fly around that for now because i can only handle one topic at a time) creator that intended the universe to be this way.

    Of course, you then gave your reasons for why (1) you don't think we can be sure the universe is finely-tuned, and (2) you don't think God is the best explanation for it. And that's fine, but that's a separate subject. My point: are you abandoning the "substance-dualism defeater" argument? I would like to know.

    Thanks G

  7. Fine tuning argument is not at all required for proving the existence of God, because it can also be proved even if there is no fine tuning. Here is a link below: