Does science imply God? Harvard astronomer raises fine-tuning argument in Washington Post, suggesting a theistic explanation for human intelligence

Howard Smith is a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Astronomy as well as an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He’s also a religious Jew who spends his time reconciling science with the mystical tenets of the Kaballah. The website for Smith’s 2006 book, Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kaballah: A New Conversation Between Science and Religion, describes the author as “a traditional and observant Jew,” and adds this:

The power of the scientific method is that every single person will see and hear exactly the same thing.  Mistakes of interpretation will be found and fixed; cumulative wisdom grows, and as it does, we gain in understanding about God’s “Book of Nature.”  In contrast, our relationship with the holy is communal and personal, and is sanctified.  Together, our mind and our spirit, our shared and our personal experiences of the Divine, enable us to live in the natural world both aware of and grateful for its blessings. The psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, celebrates the universe that was completed with Shabbat: “How amazing is Your Creation, oh Lord, and how subtle are Your thoughts! …. An ignorant person can’t understand it; a simple-minded person won’t get it.”   Thanks to the revolution in science and religion we are reaching for new highs of awareness.  May we also reach new levels of wonder, gratitude, and holiness.

So what we have here is a religious scientist. But the religion part is completely missing from Smith’s op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, “Humanity is cosmically special. Here’s how we know.” Or rather, the religion is implied, but is only implicit for reasons we can guess: instead of confessing his beliefs at the outset, Smith tries to use science to show that humans are “special”, and that, perhaps, there’s a Higher Intelligence behind the presence of humans on Earth.

To make his argument, Smith makes a number of discredited claims, including the “fine-tuning” argument. I’ll excerpt a few passages, all of which are wrong:

There was a time, back when astronomy put Earth at the center of the universe, that we thought we were special. But after Copernicus kicked Earth off its pedestal, we decided we were cosmically inconsequential, partly because the universe is vast and about the same everywhere. Astronomer Carl Sagan put it this way: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Stephen Hawking was even blunter: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”

An objective look, however, at just two of the most dramatic discoveries of astronomy — big bang cosmology and planets around other stars (exoplanets) — suggests the opposite. We seem to be cosmically special, perhaps even unique — at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.

The first result — the anthropic principle — has been accepted by physicists for 43 years. The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life.

The weak anthropic principle, that we happen to live in a Universe that allows our existence, and thus our pondering that existence, is not at issue here. That’s just a tautology. The rest of the piece makes clear that Smith is talking about the strong anthropic principle (SAP), in which physical laws were devised by some higher power to permit human life. And that argument has not “been accepted by physicists for 43 years”.

There are, of course, alternative explanations to the SAP, five of which are mentioned by another physicist, Sean Carroll, in the video below. I needn’t reprise them, but I urge you to listen to the 9-minute video to refresh your knowledge of the issues.

There’s more wrong stuff (my emphasis in the excerpt below):

The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life. The frequent response from physicists offers a speculative solution: an infinite number of universes — we are just living in the one with the right value. But modern philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and pioneering quantum physicists such as John Wheeler have argued instead that intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.

Carroll takes care of the “big bang creation” argument in the video at 2:15 in the video, showing Smith’s ignorance of the very physics he teaches. As for Nagel, who claims that evolution can’t account for consciousness (Nagel doesn’t mention God but nevertheless suggests some unknown teleological force), my colleague Allen Orr has dispelled that view in his review of Nagel’s ideas in the New York Review of Books.

Then Smith proceeds to a biological argument:

It seems likely that exoplanets could host extraterrestrial intelligence. But intelligence is not so easy to produce. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee summarize the many constraints in their book “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe ” and show why it takes vastly more than liquid water and a pleasant environment to give birth even to simple (much less complex) life. At a minimum, it takes an environment stable for billions of years of evolution, plus all the right ingredients. Biologists from Jacques Monod to Stephen Jay Gould have emphasized the extraordinary circumstances that led to intelligence on Earth, while geneticists have found that DNA probably resulted from many accidents. So although the same processes operate everywhere, some sequences could be unlikely, even astronomically unlikely. The evolution of intelligence could certainly be such a sequence.

In fact, intelligence has evolved independently several times on Earth, unless you confine the definition of intelligence as “human-like” intelligence. Octopuses are intelligent, crows are intelligent, cats are intelligent. These are all independent evolutionary events. So what does that say about the “likelihood” of evolving intelligence? Simply that it’s not “astronomically unlikely”! One can easily see how the evolution of reasoning and foresight could confer enormous adaptive advantages to individuals, probably explaining the convergent evolution of intelligence in many species.

Further, it doesn’t take “billions of years of evolution” to evolve “even simple life”. The first strong evidence for life we have on Earth is about 3.4 billion years ago: bacteria that were already quite complex. And to get that degree of complexity you’d need substantial time. Other evidence suggests that there was life about 3.7 billion years ago—less than one billion years after Earth formed as a molten ball. Smith needs to read up on biology and evolution. What he’s getting at here, of course, is that some Intelligent Force was necessary to force the occurrence of such an improbable phenomenon.

Smith then bangs on about how the finite speed of light prevents us from even knowing about distant but intelligent beings. From that he somehow concludes that we are not only alone in “our cosmic neighborhood,” but “probably rare” and “not ordinary.” Well, surely the conditions for the evolution of life surely aren’t common in the Universe, but we simply have no idea how rare they are. Smith has no evidence that “the bottom line for extraterrestrial intelligence is that it is probably rarer than previously imagined.” Well, lots of people have “previously imagined” the rarity, and made calculations; but all those calculations are speculative, based not only on data we don’t have, but on our solipsistic view that extraterrestrial life must resemble that on Earth.

Smith gives away the game in his final paragraph, where he clearly implies some intelligence behind humans. When I read this, without knowing anything about the author, I immediately thought, “Smith is religious.” It turned out I was right. The bolding below is mine:

Some of my colleagues strongly reject this notion [that “we”–humans–are not ordinary]. They would echo Hawking: “I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.” Yes, we all have beliefs — but beliefs are not proof. Hawking’s belief presumes that we are nothing but ordinary, a “chemical scum.” All the observations so far, however, are consistent with the idea that humanity is not mediocre at all and that we won’t know otherwise for a long time. It seems we might even serve some cosmic role. So this season let us be grateful for the amazing gifts of life and awareness, and acknowledge the compelling evidence to date that humanity and our home planet, Earth, are rare and cosmically precious. And may we act accordingly.

What on Earth does it mean that we “serve some cosmic role” and are “cosmically precious”? Those very phrases imply that there’s a playwright behind our evolution, and for Smith that’s surely Yahweh. Note that he uses the word “unique” in the first excerpt from his op-ed.

So what we have here is an op-ed in a prominent newspaper that uses dubious and erroneous arguments to claim that humans were designed. But those arguments don’t stand up in light of what physicists and biologists—at least those not already committed to a religious explanation—understand about our cosmos. There is no compelling argument that we serve any cosmic role, or that any Designer is behind physical law and human evolution.

What galls me about Smith’s article is that, in light of his known views, he’s trying to hide his argument for God, all the while leading the reader to think that there must be a god running our Universe. His piece is deliberately misleading—indeed,  duplicitous.

Finally, I’d point out to Smith that invoking Yahweh is a nonstarter, for then he’d have to explain the existence of the designer. Where did he come from? How did he act? And those are surely harder to explain than is the existence of intelligent life on Earth.

I’m surprised Smith hasn’t yet been funded by Templeton, but he has talked on these issues at an event sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, under their DoSER (“Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion”) program, itself funded by Templeton. (That program, by the way, is a blight on the AAAS.)

I’ll add a link to this post in the comments after Smith’s article.

h/t: Rodney

124 Comments

  1. Jenny Haniver
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Someone “who spends his time reconciling science with the mystical tenets of the Kaballah.” Ha ha! That’s really all I need to know.

  2. Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this explanation of Smith’s argument. Does it really reply on his assertions about what happens if we tinker with one parameter and imagine that resulting universe? Is he really imagining that these parameters are all unconnected, rather than flowing out of physical laws? That is horribly bad physics.

    • aljones909
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      I think most leading physicists agree that fine tuning is “real”. See Steven Weinberg here:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQU3AETF64g It’s not just that a variation in the parameters would give different kinds of universes that could possibly harbour life. Any slight variation would give very “unsuitable” universes. e.g. A universe that lasted picoseconds before imploding. Or perhaps a universe that inflated to enormous size instantly. No matter, no stars, no galaxies. Just widely separated photons. “Multiverse” is the most popular explanation for “fine tuning”.

      • Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        And it isn’t necessary (though so-called multiuniverses are just a consequence of other principles reasonably well established). The probability, given naturalism, for the constants to be right (assuming random distribution, which is not in evidence either, but …) is *1*. There’s not a problem here, and this has been written about and (IMO needlessly) debated for a few decades now – the late Vic Stenger played wack-a-mole for years with these guys.

        • aljones909
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          Here’s what Stenger was proposing: “I was simply trying to show that, based on well-established physics and cosmology (no speculations about strings, etc.), even for a single universe the constants of physics cannot be shown to be so tightly constrained that no natural explanation is viable.”
          I don’t think that view is shared by any of the top physicists

          e.g. Alan Guth: “I would add that I find the explanations that you mention in your chapter on the subject, other than the multiverse explanation, to be very unconvincing. None of them comes close to having a solid mathematical formulation. Thus, I consider the cosmological constant problem to be a significant piece of evidence for the multiverse.”

          • Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

            No, but the constants *still have to be suitable for us with probability 1* assuming naturalism. Note the conditional probability here. A god, who supposedly can do anything, can presumably set the constants and miraculously keep us alive or the like. So the probability that the constants are suitable for life given supernaturalism, is *at most* 1. So the “fine tuning” is actually (a) nothing of the kind and (b) given our situation, actually an argument *against* supernaturalism.

            (This is due to Jeffreys and Ikeda, with Stenger repeating it at nauseam. J-I never wrote a book about this, IIRC.)

            • aljones909
              Posted November 29, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

              Maybe I’m misunderstanding. We could say: the probability the Moon follows the EXACT orbit we observe is ONE. That seems non explanatory. We needed Newton’s to explain the Moon’s orbit.

              • Posted November 30, 2016 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                Yes, except we’re talking about something else: we’re talking about whether or not the parameters (if they are such) are more plausible given naturalism or supernaturalism. The answer is that one has to “condition” on total evidence. We are here, and that’s what does the difference. The supernaturalist thinks that somehow is special: when it isn’t. Suppose you were a slime mold. Then the constants have to allow for slime mold, given naturalism. If you were an iron atom, formed by nucleosynthesis in stars, the parameters have to allow you, given naturalism. If one observed (somehow) that the parameters were *not* suitable for your existence that would be very bizarre (and ultimately maybe an argument for the hubble volumes not being isolated – call that supernatural if you wish). But that has *never* happened.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 30, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                Keith, all you’re doing is restating the weak anthropic principle. Given that we’re alive (and assuming naturalism), we must live in a life-compatible universe. That much is obvious.

                But that’s not the question fine-tuning enthusiasts are addressing. They assert that the unconditioned probability of life-compatible universes is infinitesimal. I don’t think we know enough to answer that question definitively one way or the other, but I don’t think you can dismiss it as an illegitimate question.

                Consider a lottery in which each ticket has a one-in-a-million chance of winning. If they sell a million tickets (the multiverse), then it’s no great surprise to see the winner being interviewed on TV; it’s not like they’re going to interview the losers (the anthropic principle).

                But if they sell only one ticket, and you still see a winner being interviewed on TV, you’d be justified in wondering whether the game was rigged somehow (fine tuning). It’s no good saying, “Look, the numbers on his ticket match the winning numbers with P = 1”; what you want to know is how he came to possess such a ticket in the first place. Your argument sheds no light on that question.

                Merely invoking anthropism by itself won’t do. You need anthropism plus a multitude of alternate universes from which anthropism can select. That’s what Guth is getting at in the quote above.

              • Posted December 1, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

                But that doesn’t take into account all the data, which I would regard as a pretty basic principle of reasoning well.

                The “fine tuners” at least in the apologetics circles were saying: Look, we need god or “the multiverse” (and then going on wrong again by claiming the latter is an ad hoc hypothesis meant to “shore up naturalism”). Well, no, you don’t. The naturalistic explanation is no less (at best equal) in likelihood, given “the facts” we have.

                In other contexts, the physics debate itself, the matters are slightly more confusing: the *real* debate should be put this way, IMO: can the “constants” vary across various “universes”, and if so by what mechanism(s). That does not poison the well about “tuning” nor does it get the conditional inference wrong.

                Last I checked, however, the first two of those steps has not been completed.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 1, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                The facts we have are what we’re trying to explain. Invoking them as part of the explanation just leads to a tautology: “He won because he had a winning ticket.”

              • aljones909
                Posted December 2, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

                The top guys (Guth, Weinberg, Villinken, Susskind, Penrose…) all agree our universe is remarkably fine tuned. According to Guth: outside a stupendously narrow range of possibilities we get 1) a universe that implodes in 10 ** -30 secs or 2) a universe that inflates to a virtually empty void in 10 ** -30 sec.
                Steven Weinberg (link below) says the Anthropic Principle (used to explain fine tuning) only makes sense in a multiverse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQU3AETF64g&t=393s

  3. Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    It appears that a refusal to recognize the significance of one’s insignificance is becoming more significant these days.

    • Historian
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      You make a great point. Many, if not most, people can’t accept the fact that we exist for only a short time and once gone, we are gone forever and our existences are completely forgotten. The religious have a false sense of significance, but it provides them psychological support for getting through life. Likewise, Trump imparted a sense of significance to his dedicated acolytes by convincing them that they were superior to certain immigrant groups or races, who are supposedly the cause of their despair.

      I think all people crave a sense of significance or meaning in their lives. For many, how they fulfill this sense can lead them down roads that threaten their fellow humans.

      • Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Ironically, and something never conceded by Abrahamic acolytes, is that the psychological yearning for a special role in the cosmos is an *evolved* feature of human cognition titrated by culture.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        “To feel oneself so tiny, so fragile, so inherently losable, was at first spiritually crushing. But, by the same token, this realisation was also strangely liberating: if an individual human existence meant so little, if one’s actions were so cosmically irrelevant, then the notion of some absolute moral framework made about as much sense as the universal ether. Measured against the infinite, therefore, people were no more capable of meaningful sin—or meaningful good—than ants, or dust.
        Worlds barely registered sin. Suns hardly deigned to notice it. On the scale of solar systems and galaxies, it meant nothing at all. It was like some obscure subatomic force that simply petered out on those scales.” Alastair Reynolds, Absolution Gap, chapter 6

      • nicky
        Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        “The religious have a false sense of significance, but it provides them with psychological support for getting through life.”
        This is very true, and even more so for coping with imminent, untimely death.
        My beloved wife died three months ago from breast cancer at a very young age (27). She became very religious during her last few months of life. The sense of significance maybe false, but the comfort found is definitely real.
        As you can imagine, I have become much more tolerant of religion there. Not everybody is as clearheaded and courageous as Darwin was after the death of his beloved daughter Annie.

        • rickflick
          Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          Sorry for your loss. Yes, I can understand that for some religious belief can be very comforting – especially when the end of life is near. Best wishes to you and your family.

        • Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          Yes, facing death and accepting the death of loved ones is the most difficult and painful experience we all face. We have to deal with it in whatever way we can.

          Take care.

        • Historian
          Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          Nicky, I, too, wish you the best after your tragic loss. I would never criticize anybody who uses religion to provide solace when death is imminent. Life is tough and for some people believing in the unreal is the only way for them to cope.

        • Posted November 27, 2016 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

          Nicky,

          The experience you shared with your wife is meaningful precisely because of its incomparable nature in the face of an indifferent universe. What matters, as you know, was the experience of love and the unique qualities of your relationship. My condolences and I hope you are able to positively integrate those memories.

        • Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

          Condolences.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:24 am | Permalink

          OMG, nicky, I’m so sorry to hear that!

          I’ve heard hard-line atheists state their disapproval of end-of-life religious intensifying, but personally decided long ago that this was not the time to disparage anyone for taking comfort wherever they may find it.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          Nicky,

          I am so sorry to hear of your loss. Please take care of yourself.

  4. Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Scientific truth aside, I can see as how the message “humans are special” will draw a larger, more approving crowd than “humans are chemical scum.” A more uplifting compromise is needed. How about “humans are chemical scum that has figured out the scientific laws governing the universe it inhabits”?

    • David Evans
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Hawking was wrong to use the word “scum”. Scum is often the unwanted by-product of some chemical or biological process, and occurs in such insults as “scum of the Earth”. I would not concede its use.

      • Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        I think Hawking meant pond scum, i.e. algae which was the dominant form of life for billions of years, but there is no doubt scum has a multitude of distasteful meanings.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          Would ‘slime’ be better?

          No, maybe not.

          Though one only has to contemplate life for a while to realise it’s naturally slimy and messy…

          cr

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think there are scientific laws governing the universe. The universe just happens and we observe regularities that allow us to predict (mostly) the future states.

      Even if you use the ‘scientific laws governing the universe’ as shorthand people may infer that governing laws require a Governor. Similarly ’cause and effect’ imply agency and an Agent, but really there are no causes only prior states.

      • Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        Lawfulness is presupposed and confirmed by scientific research. But the laws are patterns, not “governors”.

        Causation is bit more interesting: the notion of production involved is tricky.

        • Posted November 28, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          Nitpickers. If we can use the metaphor “laws” to describe established empirical regularities, we can use the metaphor “govern” to describe the fact that events cannot violate them.

  5. Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    That quote from Psalm 92 appears to have been manipulated to say something different from what it really says. Here it is from the Complete Jewish Bible:

    “Stupid people can’t know, fools don’t understand, that when the wicked sprout like grass, and all who do evil prosper, it is so that they can be eternally destroyed, while you, Adonai, are exalted forever.”

    So I seems to me that the point of those verses, rather than to celebrate the universe, is to offer assurance that bad people will get what’s coming to them.

  6. colnago80
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I am surprised that Smith cited John Wheeler. Wheeler in his declining years proposed the participatory anthropic principal, which simply states that the universe doesn’t exist if there are no sentient beings around to observe it. There was an episode on the BBC Horizons program entitled The Anthropic Principle which discussed several of the anthropic principles, including this one, which have been proposed. It is my contention that this hypothesis is neither provable or falsifiable as either would require the existence of sentient beings.

    In addition, the strong anthropic principle assumes that the problem can be treated as a univariate one where the effect of changing the constants is evaluated one at a time. This ignores the fact that it is a multivariate problem in which a change in one constant could be compensated for by a change in another constant.



    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I remember that last bit, where one cannot change a parameter w/o changing others, was a point of emphasis from Sanger in his book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning. How has that view of Sangers’ held up? I had heard both support and lack of support about it.

      • colnago80
        Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        I think you meant the late Victor Stenger.

        An example of this is the claim that if the gravitational constant was significantly larger, the universe would have already undergone the big crunch. This was proposed before the discovery of dark energy. A larger value of the gravitational constant could be compensated for by an increase in the density of dark energy.

      • aljones909
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 6:08 am | Permalink

        Stenger was out on a limb. His position was that fine tuning was quite easily explained. All the “big guns” (Sean Caroll may be an exception) disagree.
        Alan Guth (in the waiting room for a Nobel prize) is fairly damning: “I would add that I find the explanations that you mention in your chapter on the subject, other than the multiverse explanation, to be very unconvincing. None of them comes close to having a solid mathematical formulation. Thus, I consider the cosmological constant problem to be a significant piece of evidence for the multiverse.”

    • Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      Wheeler’s “participatory universe” is *refutable*, and almost trivially, and has been since at the latest 1967. Axiomatize quantum mechanics to recover the standard theorems. No predicates for minds, consciousness, etc. are needed. So the theory is just as one can guess it should be – a theory of physics, not (disembodied) psychology.

  7. Mark Joseph
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Oh my. That video by Sean Carroll is spectacular!

    • Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Indeed! He’s a great ally in the fight against theism.

      • Luke
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        I find it disturbing that you are implying you want to forcibly remove peoples choice in what to believe. A fight usually means the defeat or distruction of your opponent no?

        • Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:24 am | Permalink

          You have no idea what you’re talking about. This is a clash of ideas, not the destruction of our opponents.
          Now you’ve been banned. Only my civility prevents you from cursing your deliberate misunderstandings.

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Sean Carroll is generally pretty awesome. I did not follow the bit that the universe expanding as it did has the probability of one. What is that reasoning?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I got the impression that he was referring to a result, probably in some paper or other, in passing, but didn’t give the details during the talk.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted December 2, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        It is an arxiv paper by himself [ https://arxiv.org/abs/1406.3057; “. Prepared for a volume of essays commemorating David Albert’s Time and Chance, B. Loewer, E. Winsberg and B. Weslake, eds” – did it get published?].

        And it isn’t all that impressive in my opinion. He invents another one of myriad measures to use over histories of systems.

        As Jerry says, selection bias (‘weak anthropic selection’) over a multiverse is the common explanation. And it is the generic solution of inflation, string theory and a theory of quantum physics (“many worlds”), so it is my preferred hypothesis.

        I saw the other day that string specialist Eva Silverstein came out and vouched for multiverses as a common choice nowadays [ https://www.quantamagazine.org/20160915-string-theorys-strange-second-life/ ]:

        “Inflationary models get tangled in string theory in multiple ways, not least of which is the multiverse — the idea that ours is one of a perhaps infinite number of universes, each created by the same mechanism that begat our own. Between string theory and cosmology, the idea of an infinite landscape of possible universes became not just acceptable, but even taken for granted by a large number of physicists. The selection effect, Silverstein said, would be one quite natural explanation for why our world is the way it is: In a very different universe, we wouldn’t be here to tell the story.”

  9. busterggi
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Of course humans are god’s special creations – that’s why we don’t get injured or get ill or die in horrible ways like the unloved creatures do.

    • Luke
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:13 am | Permalink

      That is perhaps the stupidest thing ive ever heard. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the Bible can explain that. Man rejected Gods rulership, so god removed his protection from man.

      You probably think you are incredibly clever with a comment like that, but is about as stupid as someone arguing ‘if x evolved then why does its predecessor still exist?’

      If your going to disparage something at least know what you are talking about first.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 6:14 am | Permalink

        Oh yes, thanks for reminding us what an incredibly capricious and peevish psychopath your creepy God is.

        cr

        • jeremy pereira
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          In spite of the unnecessarily antagonistic language in which Luke’s post was couched, he does have a point. Christians have heard the one about God letting the people he allegedly loves suffer before. They have a response to busterggi’s post with which many of us are already familiar.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 28, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

            As will be apparent, Luke’s language worked. 😉

            busterggi also has a point, which has been extensively covered, I think. Basically, the problem of evil, to which none of the stock Christian responses are very convincing.

            I do find it quite dismaying that most animal lives in the world will end hideously painfully. If God was going to create a world with minimal suffering He could have arranged to make all animals herbivores.

            cr

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 28, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

            Luke’s language had the predictable effect. 😉

            busterggi has a point too, which has been well covered. The Problem of Evil, I think. I don’t find the stock Christian excuses particularly convincing.

            I find it dismaying that most animals will end their lives hideously painfully. Surely an all-powerful creator God could have arranged that all creatures were herbivores? Does the ecosystem really need parasites?

            cr

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted November 28, 2016 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

              Damn. Sorry for repeating myself – thought the first comment had fallen through a hole in the Intertoobz…

              cr

      • busterggi
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Someone’s fee-fees got hurted, awwwww

      • Willard Bolinger
        Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

        I find the argument accurate for the “God” does not match the described generally reserved for it and we just point it out. Jealous is its name with a capital J. Can not do hardly anything right. What a temper! Quite likes killing in huge numbers! Loves smell of burnt flesh! Requires sacrifices to itself, why? Self-esteem problems. Can not defeat people who have chariots of iron? So many silly stories from Genesis1 through whole book. No value in thinking for yourself! Better believe everything we are told or off to Hell for eternity! What a pitiful character this “God” is when actually examined him or it! Lives in a tent and sits on a Mercy seat! Then lives on Mount Sinai, then lives in Temple in Jerusalem. Then lives in “Heaven”! Sorry he created man so destroys all but one family! Slavery is just fine with this God! Sell your daughter into slavery is fine also! Such a humanitarian! Ridiculous! Just too much!

  10. Bruce Grant
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Had the WashPost not identified Howard Smith as a lecturer at Harvard, I’d have guessed that he might be from Liberty University or the Discovery Institute. Silly me.

  11. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    “rarer than previously imagined”

    Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation stories, famously imagined that human intelligence is unique in the galaxy.

    “There is no compelling argument that we serve any cosmic role”

    I agree that there’s no reason to think we serve any cosmic purpose, but that needn’t preclude a cosmic role. Cyanobacteria played a pivotal role in oxygenating the Earth’s atmosphere and thereby enabling aerobic metabolism, though they weren’t created for that purpose.

    Similarly, if intelligent life is rare now, but becomes ubiquitous throughout the galaxy over the next few million years (as Asimov imagined), humans will surely have played a role in that cosmic transformation. I doubt that’s what Smith meant, but let’s not let our eagerness to refute his brand of religious exceptionalism blind us to the ways in which we really do wield unprecedented power to affect the natural world.

    • Historian
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Even if intelligent life becomes ubiquitous over the next few million years, how would humans play a role in this? Do you assume that the human species will survive a few million years and somehow develop the technology to travel to distant planets capable of supporting intelligent life?

      • Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        If it happens, it most likely will be our intelligent machines that radiate throughout the galaxy.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          The distinction between “our descendants” and “our intelligent machines” will likely become moot in much less than a few million years.

          • Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            I think our intelligent machines will be a new “species” capable of reproduction and evolution by design, as well as selection. And these “beings” will adapt to long distance space travel in ways that biological beings cannot, Elon Musk notwithstanding.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

              Why should our descendants limit themselves to biology? We don’t. We freely use artificial aids and mechanical components to extend our capabilities, even implanting them into our bodies where appropriate (pacemakers, artificial joints, insulin pumps, etc).

              This trend will only accelerate in the coming decades and centuries. By the time we get around to colonizing the galaxy, I suspect that the meat-to-metal ratio in any given body will be largely a matter of personal taste and operational convenience.

              • Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                Of course humans will use technology to replace and enhance our biological parts, but I do not think future space travellers will be the Borg. The remaining biological parts are too vulnerable. After all, is not a human in an EVA suit just a kind of borg? The challenges of protecting fragile biology from radiation and the enormous distances and travel times will dictate that wholly robotic explorers are better suited for space exploration. What is the advantage of the biological parts?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                Anyone who enjoys good food or good sex knows what the advantages of biology are.

                My point is that the boundary between meat and machine will become fluid and ultimately meaningless. People will have biological parts when they want them, and discard them when they become inconvenient. Passengers can be digitized for long space journeys and reinstantiated on arrival if that seems expedient. There needn’t be a line of demarcation where biology gets permanently left behind and the machines take over.

        • Willard Bolinger
          Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

          Why not some other more advanced beings rather than us. perhaps already doing just that?

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted November 30, 2016 at 1:13 am | Permalink

            Because that would be an extraordinary coincidence of timing. The whole history of human civilization, from the Bronze Age to the Space Age, is less than an eyeblink compared to the age of the galaxy. The likelihood that there’s another species out there starting their expansion just as we’re on the brink of starting ours is basically nil.

            It would be like early humans migrating out of Africa only to encounter a wave of intelligent, tool-using raccoons migrating out of North America at the same time. It’s just too improbable that two species on opposite sides of the planet would reach that point in their evolution simultaneously.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        I don’t assume that it will be humans like us that will do the traveling (it could be our machines, or our post-human descendants, or both), or even that such an expansion will happen at all. But we know of no physical law that says it can’t happen, and we can already envision a number of ways in which it might happen. Developing the necessary technology won’t take millions of years; a few centuries should suffice.

        Nor is it necessary for Earth civilization to survive for millions of years; a few thousand years suffices for the expansion to become self-sustaining with or without Earth. Millions of years is the time needed to spread all the way across the galaxy at plausible expansion rates.

        By then the creatures reaching the far edge might not bear much resemblance to us, but it will still be our ingenuity that set them on that path.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      We get pretty fixated on intelligent life – because we consider intelligence to be a worthy feature. But if humans wiped themselves out and giraffes eventually came to dominate the world would they seek out ‘long necked life’ elsewhere in the universe?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        No, because long necks are the wrong tool for the job of discovering facts about the universe.

        • nicky
          Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

          And we surmise our type of evolved intelligence is. I’m not really 100% sure about that.
          The question is: is the ‘Great Filter’ behind us or is it still looming over our heads? In the first case we’re doing fine, in the latter we’re toast.
          There might also be more than one ‘filter’.
          waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

            What is it you’re not 100% sure about? That we’ve discovered useful facts about the universe? That science, which we alone possess, provides an open-ended tool for potentially unlimited further discovery? That as a result, our ability to understand and control the natural world is orders of magnitude beyond any other known species?

            Whether or not there’s a “Great Filter” (or more than one of them) is irrelevant to these obvious facts.

        • jeremy pereira
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          Depends on how long.

    • Taz
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Similarly, if intelligent life is rare now, but becomes ubiquitous throughout the galaxy over the next few million years (as Asimov imagined), humans will surely have played a role in that cosmic transformation.

      You need to think bigger than that. Our galaxy is a microscopic speck, cosmically speaking.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 27, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        Our future light cone, then.

  12. jeffery
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    If there is an all-powerful being “running” this universe, that being must be criminally insane and immensely cruel.

  13. zytigon
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Prof. Sean Carroll also did a series of 6 good lectures starting 22 November 2016 at the University of Glasgow. See their Youtube channel titled, “The Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, 2016”: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

    The lectures are for those who like their mind boggled.
    I hadn’t picked up on that up quarks turn into down quarks & vice versa.

  14. rickflick
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s kind of wacky to say that because intelligence is rare in the universe, therefor God. Without some independent and solid argument it’s not worth proposing.

    I am, however, willing to agree with Smith on the fact that intelligence is very rare. I read Brown and Brownlee who walk through a very careful analysis of the various stages as mater evolves toward life. It is very convincing, and leaves Segan and Drakes ‘Life is Common’ idea wanting.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_Earth_hypothesis

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      My intuition (not a very reliable guide to anything) prefers the opposite of the rare-therefore-designed-by-gods argument.

      A million cars are produced by a factory each year; 100 of these cars are lemons, the rest work fine. Who would argue that the lemons – a 1/10,000 result – are the intended result?

    • darrelle
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      I thought the Rare Earth Hypothesis suffered seriously from, among other things, an underlying assumption that a history sufficiently similar to Earth-life’s is required for life to evolve. I didn’t find it convincing at all.

      There just isn’t much of any evidence to support the hypothesis. We have an example of just 1, Earth, and have yet to develop the tools necessary to look at any other examples. What this means is that the Rare Earth hypothesis is speculation based on insufficient data.

      Regarding our 1 example, nearly every new thing we discover about the emergence of life on Earth supports that it happened very quickly after the Earth formed. The more we have investigated how organic molecules that make up life as we know it are formed the more places we have found them. They can be made in a trivially easy experiment in a flask with a few common gases and an intermittent energy source. They have been found on meteorites, in the outgassing of comets and even in interstellar clouds of gas. They occur naturally in a wide variety of conditions.

      All the stuff that involves orbital mechanics is as suspect and unconvincing as the arguments involving chemistry. Let alone the example of 1, Earth, there is the history of the reliability of orbital mechanics models of planetary body interactions over long periods of time, or long in the past. Off hand I can’t think of a single instance where a model that was subject to verification by other means was reasonably well supported.

      Basically, we just can’t say because we just don’t have enough data, despite how strongly some people believe their hypotheses. It seems to me the only warranted position is, “Can’t say, too little data.” What I think is very exciting is that we are getting very close, perhaps in my life time, to developing tools that will enable us to finally gather some good data from places other than Earth.

      • rickflick
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        I pretty much agree with your comment on the Rare Earth. It is an assumption that life elsewhere would arise along similar lines as the Earth. However, this is at least a reasonable assumption to make for the purposes of establishing a baseline. Once we discover other forms of life and other modes of it’s development, we can modify the Rare Earth hypothesis. But, it’s all we have to go with right now.
        Your conclusion that we can only say that we don’t have enough data, well, that may be a bit to severe. It’s much better than nothing to be able to say there are these likelihoods given what we know.
        You may have noted that the analysis showed that each major stage of advancement after the first appearance of replicators, seems to require a billion years or so to appear. That’s because the chemistry of each change is so complex. The development of photosynthesis, for example. We can probably generalize to say that any history of development involving complex chemistry anywhere in the universe is going to show similar intervals on average.
        The significance of the long time intervals between phases is not just an indication of how hard they are to achieve, they actually put limits on life because when you put the long sequence of complexity together you will need an energy source like the Sun that lasts long enough to support the changes. Thus, many star systems which fade quickly would be excluded from consideration.
        Also, the alternative view, that life elsewhere is churned out much more rapidly and pervades the universe, doesn’t sound very likely given we have no examples of the quick transitions to complexity that would be required, and as far as I know, no theory to match.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          “It’s much better than nothing to be able to say there are these likelihoods given what we know.”

          Yes, speculation done well can be useful but the most important thing to consider is how much trust to apportion to the speculation being accurate.

          “You may have noted that the analysis showed that each major stage of advancement after the first appearance of replicators, seems to require a billion years or so to appear. That’s because the chemistry of each change is so complex.”

          Even if we grant that this is accurate there are several assumptions being made. 1) that the reason for the length of the intervals is because the chemistry is so complex, 2) That the apparent intervals regarding the history of life on Earth represent some useful average for what to expect elsewhere, 3)that the intervals are problematically long for some reason.

          “Thus, many star systems which fade quickly would be excluded from consideration.”

          Of course that is true, but it really doesn’t seem to be a problem. Even in just our galaxy there are more stars as long or longer lived than Sol than my whole family could count in our lifetimes. And planets? We have just begun to develop the tools to start seeing planetary bodies around other stars. So far every advance in observing falsifies yet another pessimistic assumption about planets around other stars. Planets very rare? Not so. Mostly hot Jupiter’s? Not so. Planet’s in habitable zones very rare? Not so. Planets can’t form in multi-star systems? Not so.

          It really doesn’t appear that there is any particularly good reason to assume that 4.5 billions years is a problem, or that it is necessary to achieve complex life. Even if you grant that complex life needs about 4.5 billion years and a history similar to Earth’s, and that is a lot to grant, there are so many possible candidates in just the Milky Way that one is left to wonder what is intended by the term “Rare?”

          I am not aware of a theory to match either, but there are plenty of criticisms of the facts, assumptions, reasoning and science behind the Rare Earth hypothesis by relevant experts.

          • rickflick
            Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

            I have not read any of the critics of Rare Earth, so I have to assume there are skeptical experts. And I’m no expert myself, so I’m simply speculating for the fun of it. That said…

            I’ll address some of your concerns.

            1. Intervals are long because of complexity or other interference like eons of snowball Earth, or secondary meteor bombardment or volcanism. Granted some exoplanets may have avoided some of these.

            2. We expect exoplanets to resemble Earth because the laws of astrophysics are common everywhere. The chances of life evolving above 100 C, or below 0 C, is probably very slim.

            3. There are something like 5 intervals and all are considered “long”. We might conclude that there is a common reason that should be complexity. Note that the analysis done was quite detailed and explained why the transformations were hard to achieve.

            4. The authors showed that sun-like stars are relatively rare. Also, the presence of a large, close, stabilizing, moon which may have influenced the situation is also rare.

            5. Yes, the number of planets in the Galaxy has been confirmed to be greater than many people had guessed. I’d agree that if there are a few billions planets “rare” might not be such a problem. “Rare” could be a relative term. What is the goal? Do we expect to make contact within our generation? Within a few hundred years? If there are a million advanced civilizations but we are never able to locate and communicate with them that might mean they are a little too rare for our curiosity.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted November 28, 2016 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

              Regarding #4, the way they justify the claim that sun-like stars are rare is by defining “sun-like” extremely narrowly, i.e. occupying an orbit around the center of the galaxy that closely matches the sun’s orbit. But there’s no good reason to think life-bearing planets are limited to such orbits.

              Similarly, the idea that life requires an oversized moon is pure speculation.

              Basically what they’ve done is to make a list of all the idiosyncratic features of Earth and its solar system that distinguish it from other planets and solar systems. Then for each such feature they invent a just-so story to prop up the claim that that feature is crucial for life. It’s all special pleading and ex post facto justification with no real data to back it up.

              • rickflick
                Posted November 28, 2016 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

                I don’t recall the star argument having to do with the position within the galaxy. The distance between stars is typically so great that they are essentially alone each in their own space. A planet is going to be affected only by it’s parent star and nothing outside it’s system (other than a very rare supernova).

                As I recall they said most stars are not of the medium yellow type and that the vast majority have very short lifetimes. But I don’t remember all the specifics.
                From a quick Google:
                stellar evolution –

                Very small stars less than 1 solar mass live 100s of billions of years.

                Stars of 1 solar mass live 10 billion years.

                Stars of 1.5 solar masses live 3 billion years.

                All classes of stars greater than 1.5 live only in the millions of years.

                So it appears that the number of stars that live the 5 billion year required for life to appear on Earth are pretty limited in size and energy output.
                You’d have to read their arguments to pick up on all the details, but I did not get the impression they were making up just-so stories.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 28, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

                rick, the Wikipedia article you linked to back at the start does talk about position within the galaxy as one of the crucial factors (f-sub-g in the “Rare Earth equation”), which they estimate excludes 90% of the stars in the galaxy.

                It’s simply not true that “the vast majority [of stars] have very short lifetimes”. High-mass stars have very short lifetimes, but they’re in the minority. Stellar populations are dominated by low-mass stars with very long lifetimes. It’s like anything else: you get a few really big specimens and whole lot of small fry.

              • rickflick
                Posted November 28, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

                You’re right. f sub g is the galactic habitable zone. Who would have guessed. Well, my excuse is I read the book a year ago when we were all half way to the restaurant at the end of the universe.😉
                Anyway, I’ll conclude by saying I found the book persuasive while others seemingly didn’t.

  15. tubby
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    When I was a kid mom told me I was special and unique too. I didn’t let it grow into delusions of cosmic importance in the grand design of all existence though. It seems like a weird break in sanity to claim that no, NO, I AM special, HUMANITY IS SPECIAL, THE UNIVERSE EXISTS FOR US AND US ALONE!

  16. YF
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Coel has a good response to the FT argument here:

    https://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/a-fine-tuned-universe-argues-for-atheism/

  17. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Even if it were true, the fine tuning argument doesn’t answer the question, which god?

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I bet the dinosaurs thought the universe was fine tuned for their life too until Whammo!

  18. sensorrhea
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Krista Tippett “On Being” guest-spot achieved!

  19. keith cook +/-
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Another scientist (astronomer and astrophysicist to boot) who’s slipped on his reality check and crippled their intelligence… to a crutch dependent buffoon.
    As the universe expands maybe Smith should try the same.

  20. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    When Barrow and Tipler proposed an even stronger FAP (final Anthopic Principle), Martin Garder called this the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (or CRAP).

  21. nicky
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    It is sad to realise that even a scientist, which should have a good sense of what good evidence is, is rehashing old, repeatedly debunked arguments. It does not promise well for those so much less advantaged.
    Why would he do that?
    – He’s been diagnosed with a terminal disease and has recourse to the sense of significance Historian referred to above.
    – He’s ‘fishing’ for a Templeton grant.
    – His ‘significant other’ is religious and he wants to impress or appease her (or him). Think Charles and Emma.
    – Early signs of Alzheimer’s.
    – Other reasons I can’t think of out of hand, ‘hypnosis’ by the Kabbalah?

  22. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  23. Jordan T Higa
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t understand about this post is why it is so abhorrent to so many people that a scientist might even appear to suggest the existence of God or creation figure. If you really think about it, it is impossible to directly prove or disprove the existence of a creator. Therefore it seems fair to give each option a statically possibility of 50 percent. So why then are people so afraid when a creator is suggested? The one sidedness of all the latest comments definitely suggests that more than 50 percent of people would like to disprove God, when the fact is that both options are based on faith not fact. This bias against one answer in and of itself represents “bad science.”

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

      If Maxwell’s equations suffice to explain the propagation of light through vacuum, we do not need to give equal credence to the idea that invisible fairies push photons along their prescribed courses. It’s not closed-minded to insist that fairy enthusiasts produce evidence for their arbitrary and unnecessary complication of the theory, nor does it require faith to reject such unprovable suppositions.

      Please watch the Carroll video again. He directly addresses your point about whether theism and naturalism are equally plausible.

      • Jordan T Higa
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        Originally I had not mentioned Carroll’s video because I simply wanted to make the point that there are many scientists like Carroll, but the moment someone seems to entertain theistic notions it causes articles like this.

        In response to Carroll’s statements though, I find his assumptions to be skewed. He argued against fine tuning, because in his scientific opinion the universe does not seem to be all that fine-tuned for life, so therefore the idea of an intelligent creator is obsolete. I am not a physicist, so I am going to be proceeding from a purely logical point of view.

        There are two major assumptions he is making here. First off, his reasoning does not answer why the universe exists, or what inherent nature allows it to do so. This is a major assumption, but moving past this, supposing the universe has some kind of quasi-infinite ability to merely exist because it does there is another assumption he is making.

        His assumption is that we as human beings have an adequate vantage point from which to judge what a natural universe would look like. This ability to judge is required in order to assume the idea of an intelligent creator obsolete. Carroll does this while at the same time embracing the idea that humans are so insignificant in the face of the universe that the universe could not have been created for us, because no matter what we do, it will have a negligible effect on the universe itself. This creates an interesting conflict of ideas.

        If we as humanity are so small in comparison to the scale of the universe, and I whole heartedly agree with this. It seems that our tiny vantage point makes it impossible for us to pass judgement on what a natural universe would look like. In fact, this point is so important I believe it makes the rest of the argument ludicrous. For the sake of an analogy if Earth and humanity by extension are like a single atom against the scale of the universe, how much can we really trust these cosmic projections of what a “natural” universe would look like? You might rightly postulate that an atom in a human body would think the universe looked like a human, but what about one in a cow, or an octopus, or even a rock? How could the limited viewpoint of such an atom give it the tools to suspect the Earth, let alone the solar system or the universe? Again, if you are looking at a mountain on the horizon, it will look small, when in reality it is enormous.

        It is simply impossible to state that the design of our universe is not intelligent, when any scientist could tell you that the amount of information we don’t know far outweighs what we do. Carroll himself asked the question, what is life? I think he should try to answer that before he makes statements about what a natural universe should look like. It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa through a magnifying glass. You might be able to see the individual strands of the canvas, but you would completely miss the effect of the portrait when taken as a whole.

        • busterggi
          Posted November 28, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

          “First off, his reasoning does not answer why the universe exists”

          Because it does.

          “what inherent nature allows it to do so”

          None, it just is.

          “It seems that our tiny vantage point makes it impossible for us to pass judgement on what a natural universe would look like.”

          Well then I guess we may as well quit trying to understand anything and go back to pre-stone-age times.

          “It is simply impossible to state that the design of our universe is not intelligent”

          The design of our universe is not intelligent.

          So much for that being impossible to say.

          You really are desperate for a sky-daddy aren’t you?

          • Jordan T Higa
            Posted November 28, 2016 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

            Busterggi, desperation has no part in a rational argument for a creator. A rational person must examine all posibilites and only throw away those that they can rationally disprove. So if you have a viable counter argument then please share. But saying universe exists because it does, is not an argument. It is a statement that requires as much faith as saying that something or someone created the universe.

            As far as understanding and learning are concerned, a rational person should pursue those things. However using a scientific equation is pointless without first understanding your assumptions. And a logical thought process is much the same. There is much that can be determined from what we have learned. However my disagreement is that with what we know now, jumping to therefore there is no creator is a gross overestimate of the evidence we have gathered so far.

            Desperation has no place in such an argument it is a simple progression from A to B.

          • Jordan T Higa
            Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            Busterggi, desperation has nothing to do with it. A rational person must accept all possibilities and only discard those that they can safely disprove. To say that the universe exists because it does is a statement not an argument and one that requires as much faith as saying that the universe was created by someone. If you have a rational argument I am open.

            As far as understanding and knowledge are concerned I believe those are things that each person should pursue, however one cannot use a scientific equation without first understanding the assumptions. Using a logical thought process is much the same. The equation/process is only as good as the assumptions. My disagreement lies in Carroll’s assumption. With what we know now, jumping to the conclusion, therefore there is no creator is a gross overstatement of human knowledge. Just because Carroll doesn’t understand why everything is the way it is or how it could be rational doesn’t mean there is no creator. Saying such a thing in scientific terms doesn’t make it a better argument. It simply suggests that if there is a creator they are far beyond Carroll’s understanding, which sounds much more believable to me as I have no conception of the mechanics behind creating a universe and I doubt Carroll does either.

            Desperation has nothing to do with such an argument; it is a simple progression from A to B.

            • Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

              There is no rational argument for a creator, any more than there’s a rational argument for fairies in your garden or Sagan’s invisible dragon. Now there COULD be evidence for a theistic God, but there isn’t any. Ergo, the most parsimonious assumption is that one doesn’t exist.

              Give up this “rationality” trope. You’re using fancy words to justify your own belief.

              • Jordan T Higa
                Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                The rational argument for a creator is very simple. There are multiple theories but it is commonly accepted that the universe as we know it is going to end at some point in the distant future. So if there will be an end it seems safe to say there was a beginning and thus a creator. Some might prefer creation event, but that event would still require a catalyst. So that is the rational argument for a creator.

                Sorry for the multiple posts above my browser crashed and I thought I lost it, the second one is better lol

              • Posted November 28, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                That’s not a rational argument for it implies that everything that comes to an end had a creator (what about a virtual particle that disappears? Did it have a creator?) You weasel out of that by saying, “well, it had to have a “creation event”, but a creation EVENT doesn’t necessarily imply a creating Sky Daddy.
                Second, who created the Creator? And don’t say that he/she/it is the ONE THING IN THE UNIVERSE that doesn’t NEED a creator, because then your whole argument falls down.

                Your argument is nothing more than the discredited FIrst Cause argument, and that’s not rational any longer.

              • Posted November 28, 2016 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

                I don’t get it. How does having an end point imply a creator? If the universe has no end would you say there is no creator? BTW, as far as we know, the universe has no end–it just gradually winds down but never really ends.

              • Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

                “multiple theories but it is commonly accepted that the universe as we know it is going to end at some point in the distant future.”

                Well, sort of, and only the local hubble volume. The universe in the etymological sense of the word is eternal.

        • Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          The universe (or the multiverse in the more fashionable terminology) can’t *not* exist.

          What makes you think there could be nothing?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted December 2, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      ” If you really think about it, it is impossible to directly prove or disprove the existence of a creator.”

      Why? It is a suggestion of magic, and we cab certainly prove or disprove the existence of magic. It has never been seen, thus it doesn’t exist. And specifically then “creator” magic doesn’t exist.

      Simple, no?

      But even of we grant your ludicrous claim, it wouldn’t help you. Such a claim is not something a scientist should entertain. The correct answer in such a case is “I don’t know”. Which here means embracing atheism: “I don’t need that hypothesis, it would need evidence”.

  24. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    So, would you say there’s a 50-50 chance that Maui (who fished the land out of the ocean) existed? Leviathan? Coatlicue? Oh, just see this lot –
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_creation_myths

    By your reckoning they must all have a 50-50 chance of being true, no?

    Your stance is quite well summed up in a tagline I once saw – “All probabilities are 50%. Either a thing will happen or it won’t”. To be fair to the tagline writer, I’m sure they were being satirical.

    cr

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 27, 2016 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

      That was, of course, a reply to Jordan T Hinga. Bl***y WordPress strikes again…

      cr

  25. Tom
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    It is annoying to see scientists who should know better, pontificating about “fine tuning” since there is no evidence that any other sort of tuning is possible.
    The “what if” argument involves a dreary eternal regression much like religious fantasies
    As for intelligence, it’s where we find it,
    certainly not confined to human beings and very much evolving.

    • aljones909
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      Do you really think that ALan Guth, Leonard Susskind, Steven Weinberg and Alexander Vilinken “should know better”. Why should they not look for explanations for one of the most puzzling aspects of nature?

      • Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        They can look for why the constants are the way they are, but to look for *tuning* is a mistake. There is no problem of the latter; necessarily, given naturalism and our existence we *must* find that nature allows us to exist. Under supernaturalism, presumably we could be sustained by a miracle. Consequently, naturalism is at least as supported as supernaturalism, because the latter has to at best *equal* in plausibility (“probability” to the Bayesians).

  26. PierreDC
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that Howard Smith repeats the flawed Hoyle’s Boeing-747 argument when he writes:

    “Biologists from Jacques Monod to Stephen Jay Gould have emphasized the extraordinary circumstances that led to intelligence on Earth, while geneticists have found that DNA probably resulted from many accidents. So although the same processes operate everywhere, some sequences could be unlikely, even astronomically unlikely.”

    First, highly organized complexity can arise in a chaotic system like the universe (Kolmogorov-Chaitin algorithmic complexity).
    Secondly, the DNA code is a metabolically efficient, compact and safe system for storing and transmitting information (see Mac Donaill for instance).
    Thus the existence of intelligent DNA-based life in some goldilocks exoplanets is (astronomically?) likely.

  27. jeremy pereira
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I have a philosophical problem with the “infinite universes” idea. If there is an infinite number of universes, then there don’t need to be physical laws at all.

    Perhaps universes just consist of vast quantities of particles milling around at random and this one is one where they coincidentally have been milling around in the same way as they would if there were physical laws. There’s an unbelievably low probability that this could happen, but it is a finite probability, therefore a certainty in an infinite number of Universes.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      The multiverse idea wasn’t invented to solve the fine-tuning problem. It’s a prediction of inflationary cosmology, which was developed to explain observable features of our own universe. It just so happens that the simplest explanation of what we see also predicts the existence of universes we don’t see.

      These unobservable universes aren’t just particles milling around at random. They’re lawful universes like ours, with the free parameters of those laws set differently. So there’s no reason to think your “lawless universe” idea is true.

      There is however good reason to think it isn’t true. If it were true, by far the most common sort of conscious observer would be a Boltzmann Brain, i.e. a disembodied brain floating in a sea of white noise and lasting only long enough to think “Oh crap!” before dissolving back into chaos. These would be astronomically more likely than the sort of large-scale, persistent complexity we observe. So why aren’t we Boltzmann Brains? It’s the fine-tuning problem all over again, but with no escape via the anthropic principle. The rational conclusion is that there’s something wrong with the theory that predicts the existence of Boltzmann Brains in the first place.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 28, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        Physics–once again putting the lie to the definition of “scientific theory” that we like to trot out when defending the TOE.
        😉

      • jeremy pereira
        Posted November 29, 2016 at 4:36 am | Permalink

        I disagree with the point on the Boltzmann brain thing. It’s the same as the lottery winner marvelling last the low probability they had of winning.

        Even if there are vastly more Boltzmann brands than persistent brains, the persistent brains can still exist and can marvel at their own improbability, but that is a form of the weak anthropic principle.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 29, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          The weak anthropic principle says you should expect to find yourself in the most likely sort of universe compatible with your existence, not the least likely sort.

          In your lawless universe hypothesis, persistence isn’t a stable property of brains or anything else; all brains are Boltzmann brains, doomed to fall apart into random noise sooner or later. Being a brain at all in such a universe is like winning the lottery; being a persistent brain requires winning it over and over again, every microsecond of every day, just to stay in one piece.

          So which explanation should a persistent brain believe? That it’s on an astronomically improbable lucky streak that will end at any moment? Or that the game is rigged in favor of persistence (i.e. lawfulness)?

  28. rickflick
    Posted November 28, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “milling around in the same way as they would if there were physical laws.”

    In any event, natural law is essentially only a record of what we observe (descriptive) and is not prescriptive. Thus, it would make no difference whether they randomly milled or corresponded to laws. The laws are just our way of describing the universe whatever the mechanisms behind it’s transformations. Finite or infinite universe would look the same to us. I’m sure Sean Carroll (official site cosmologist) would have something clarifying to say about this.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 2, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    “Other evidence suggests that there was life about 3.7 billion years ago—less than one billion years after Earth formed as a molten ball.”

    Further evidence suggest > 4.2 billion years ago. There is even a paper using the TimeTree references now, i.e. they are embraced as useful. [“Tree of Life Reveals Clock-Like Speciation and Diversification”, Hedges et al., Mol Biol Evol (2015) 32 (4): 835-845.
    doi: 10.1093/molbev/msv037, http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/32/4/835 ]

  30. Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    How would the rareness of intelligent life support intelligent design?

    If intelligence is the result of a huge number of crap shoots that just happened to fall into place here, then of course intelligent life would be absent from other places where there are different sequences of crap shoots.

    If intelligent life were abundant in the universe, wouldn’t that be a better argument that the universe was designed for intelligence? (Not great, but better… all signs point to the universe being designed for hydrogen, given how abundant it is!)

    Or is the argument that the universe is designed for intelligence so long as intelligence temporarily exists somewhere at some time?

    So if Earth were the only place in the universe where intelligent life ever developed, and in one billion years all life on Earth becomes extinct and life–but not intelligent life–springs up elsewhere in the universe thereafter (and too eventually goes extinct), would this too indicate that the universe was created for intelligent life?

    Or is this guy just dressing up his personal beliefs in scientific language? It seems that as long as intelligence exists at any time, he sees this is evidence for design. But given the existence of humanity, one needn’t look to astronomy at all to make this argument. A cave man could have made it.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] via Does science imply God? Harvard astronomer raises fine-tuning argument in Washington Post, suggestin… […]

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  3. […] “[T]he religion part is completely missing from Smith’s op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, ‘Humanity is cosmically special. Here’s how we know.’ Or rather, the religion is implied, but is only implicit for reasons we can guess: instead of confessing his beliefs at the outset, Smith tries to use science to show that humans are ‘special,’ and that, perhaps, there’s a Higher Intelligence behind the presence of humans on Earth,” Coyne writes. […]

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