Monday, 15 September 2008

The Finely Tuned Universe

A few months ago, I wrote an entry where I analysed at a few of the more popular arguments for God and why they weren't valid. One argument I covered was the appeal to fine-tuning;that we are so unbelievably complex yet well-adapted to the environment that there must be a designer behind it all. While last time I talked of the logical inconsistencies of the argument, this time I want to delve into the science of it all and put the argument into a perspective with the observable facts of the universe.

The sentient matter
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. - Douglas Adams
It needs to be addressed that the environment is no more created for life than a hole is created for water. Just as a hole can fill with water, so too can life exist on earth without the earth being created for life. No matter what shape a hole is, it has the capacity to be filled perfectly by a body of water. If the water were sentient, would it conclude that the hole was created specifically so it could exist? While it's a simplistic analogy, it's appropriate to demonstrate the link between life on earth and the environment around us. Life fits so well in the environment because it was created for the environment, through the natural process of evolution.

The glaring difference between a puddle and life is the incredibly complexity of life. As complex agents, there must have been design at work in order to become finely tuned. To try to stem off a debate on semantics, it's clear that design infers intent and that is far from the truth. The use of the word design here is through lack of a better word to describe the emergent adaptation. It's in that emergent adaptation that there is the end product of design, it's in effect a trial and error process where improved designs survived over static or weakened designs. This is what Dawkins calls The Blind Watchmaker. Right now there are 6 million species alive that have been successful in emergent adaptation. Each of these 6 million species has it's own solution, each one fine-tuned to it's environment. Each one has it's own evolutionary path, but they all come back to a common ancestor.

A species becomes finely tuned as those improved designs mean a greater chance to survive. A bat with better hearing would fare better in a dark environment, just like a mole with better smell would find food more readily underground. Birds of prey with better sight would be able to spot dinner more easily from higher distances, while apes with finer motor skills could use their hands more effectively. In that sense, humans like all others are indeed finely tuned. But the fine tuning is a natural process, so it can only work on what is already there. As a result, imperfections are left as the design can only optimise what is already there. It can't rebuild an eye from scratch each successive generation, only modify the design that's already there.

The place for humanity on the tree of life is but one twig on the end of a branch, we are not the inevitable consequence rather we are just one solution to the problem of survival. There have been billions of species before us that have long since died out, some of those are the ancestors of species that are alive today, most of which are not. They all were at one time finely tuned to their environment, but the environment is never static. The climate, the food supply, the evolution of new predators, any catastrophic shift can spell the end to one of these lineages. It's important that our place in the animal kingdom be recognised because we are not above that same struggle for existence. We are finely tuned for the current environment, it could be a genuine disadvantage if the environment changed.

Pale blue dot
That iconic photograph taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 was from a distance of more than 6.4 billion kilometres away. It took the light approximately 6 hours to travel across the solar system to the satellite's camera. As Carl Sagan commentated
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
On a cosmological perspective, the earth becomes suddenly very small. The earth is one of 8 planets orbiting the sun. The sun is itself orbiting the centre of the galaxy, it's one of approximately 200,000,000,000 stars that do so. And the Milky way isn't the only galaxy either, satellite galaxies all with billions of stars orbiting it. On the fringes of our local group there is the Andromeda galaxy; a galaxy larger than ours with many more stars. Beyond us, there are an estimated 125,000,000,000 galaxies that exist in the known universe. How many of these stars have planets? How many of those planets have life? Has intelligence evolved elsewhere in the universe?

It begs the question about what is so special about this tiny pocket of the universe, and it seems the only answer is we live here. Perhaps we are more like the sentient puddle than we would like to admit. It's not like we can't see beyond the hole either, the puddle is only aware of it's own existence while we are aware of the greater environment around us. The biblical tradition of the earth being the centre of the universe has been replaced in time with the sun, then it's been realised that we are not the centre of the universe or even the galaxy we reside in. Likewise humanity is not special, we are just another organism geared towards survival with a somewhat unique (but still evolved) survival strategy.

To gauge the role of a sapient designer, it might be pertinent to ask what would a designed universe look like? To say it would look like the universe we have now would be a tautological statement, nothing more than speculation. Rather there needs to be an objective look at what role a designer would play if it was for the one species of animal on one planet. Surely a designer would not spend time making anything that is superfluous, especially given the whimsical nature of mankind as described by the bible: life is just a brief test for an eternal afterlife. Why would a designer go to the trouble of making galaxies that are 13 billion light years away? Why make species after species that would go extinct? This is not to demonstrate there isn't a designer, just that the argument from design is not a strong one. In a universe where we are just one end-product of many natural phenomena, why does a designer need to be invoked for anything other than personal reasons? There simply is no need to invoke a magic sky daddy to explain it all, there is certainly no justification as using the finely-tuned nature of reality as proof of that magic sky daddy.

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