Sarkar on Stealth Creationism

Be sure to have a look at Sahotra Sarkar’s essay at The American Prospect. He describes the recent shift of emphasis on the ID side away from biology and towards physics instead. Sarkar writes:

Initially largely unnoticed by their critics, creationists began to co-opt the fine-tuning argument when, in their book Rare Earth (2000), paleontologist Peter T. Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee emphasized that complex life is very uncommon in the universe. Though their claims were subsequently subjected to scathing criticism by David Darling in Life Everywhere (2001) as well as other astrobiologists, they were picked up by astronomer Guillermo Gonzales (who had been a consultant for Rare Earth) and Jay Richards from the Discovery Institute.

Together, Gonzales and Richards published The Privileged Planet in 2004, which has since become the sacred text of the new stealth creationism. According to Gonzales and Richards, conditions on Earth have been carefully optimized for scientific investigation in such a way that it is “a signal revealing a universe so skillfully created for life and discovery that it seems to whisper of an extraterrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we’ve been willing to expect to imagine.” The evidence for creation, in other words, now comes from physics, not biology.

A while back I did a post in which I described the “fine-tuning” argument as design’s last stand. It represents the last desperate hope of the design argument. In Paley’s day virtually everything in the natural world served as evidence of design. More recently, design proponents gaze at the back-side of E. coli to find evidence of God’s glory. Now they have retreated all the way to the basic constants of the universe.

It’s a very weak argument. Proponents of biological ID could argue that we know so much about the basic principles of biology that we are entitled to point to unexplained phenomena as evidence of design. In physics, by contrast, we know virtually nothng about how universes get created. If you change certain constants of the universe in isolation then life as we know it is not possible. So what? Do the values of fundamental constants get set independently from one another in the moments after the Big Bang? Is ours the only universe there is? Could other sorts of life develop under different values of the fundamental constants? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.

The fine-tuning argument is so blatantly an argument from ignorance that it is a wonder so many otherwise intelligent people thinks it proves anything. It is barely an argument at all. In reality it is little more than bald assertion.

Comments

  1. #1 Karl
    December 12, 2006

    I know that we – us intelligent Darwinists and non-deists,
    like to use the analogy of the puddle in the pothole for this. But isn’t there a rhetoric label for that kind of argument (like ad hominem or reductio ad absurdem, etc.)? Is it Post Hoc reasoning, reasoning backwards?

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    December 12, 2006

    The problem with “fine tuning” arguments go back to Hume’s takedown of teleological reasoning. In terms of the Paley watchmaker scenario, it goes a little like this:

    Say you find a pocketwatch ticking on the beach. You might reasonably infer that a complicated process was necessary to produce the watch, and if you put a human face on that complicated process, then you’ve deduced yourself an Intelligent Designer. However, putting that human face on the process is just not warranted. You can’t conclude that the watch was made by a master craftsman — perhaps it was made by an apprentice, or a committee of mediocrities working together to imitate a singular genius. Above all, you certainly can’t deduce anything about the morality of your supposed inventor, whether the watchmaker wishes you to wage war or make love. When you demand that the cause behind a complex phenomenon be itself deeply complex, then you can’t even employ Occam’s Razor. All of your possible explanations are equivalently complicated, and you’ve put yourself in a real bind.

    The solution, of course, is to realize that if watches could breed, we would have no need of watchmakers.

    In more Goedel-esque terms:

    OK, say the cosmological parameters of the Universe were “fine-tuned”. Then, the argument goes, there had to be a Fine Tuner. But the Fine Tuner does not — indeed, cannot — live within the Universe we know. Ergo, intelligence can exist in a realm which is not at all like our Universe. Yet the whole argument was based on the idea that all the peculiarities of our Universe are essential for intelligent life!

    All fall down.

    I saw this point made in Pharyngula’s random quote file. According to that document, it can be found in Theodore Drange’s “The Fine-Tuning Argument” (1998), and it probably has a longer pedigree than that.

    Carl Sagan pointed out — I believe in Pale Blue Dot — that it takes the same laws of physics to make a rock as it does to make a human being. If rocks could philosophize, he opined, Lithic Principles would be at the forefront of their theology. Clearly, the Cosmos was hand-crafted to benefit basalt, for if any of the fundamental parameters were tweaked in the slightest, basalt could not be. Those who claim that God had obsidian in mind instead are heretics and should be treated as such.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    December 12, 2006

    The link in PZ’s quote file is broken, but here is a working pointer to Drange’s “Fine-Tuning Argument“.

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 13, 2006

    Karl:

    About rhetoric label. The fine-tuning argument is a variant of the design argument, but I have a slightly different take on the fallacy than Blake. (Not that the implied infinite regress isn’t a fallacy, too.)

    In the setting of physics, to point to fine-tuning as evidence for a designer is to make a common mistake in probability. It relies on “taking the outcome of a random process which has already happened, and treating it as if you were predicting it in advance”. The probability to get a particular hand of cards is small. But the probability to get any hand was 1. Mark Chu-Carroll discuss this routine error with kooks ( http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/08/messing_with_big_numbers_using.php ) and calls it a “perspective error”.

    This is applied specifically for the fine-tuning argument as shown by Ikeda & Jefferys. “The “fine-tuning” argument then reasons that if P(F|N)< <1, then it follows that P(N|F)<<1. In ordinary English, this says that if the probability that a randomly-selected universe would be life-friendly (given naturalism) is very small, then the probability that naturalism is true, given the observed fact that the universe is "life-friendly," is also very small." ( http://quasar.as.utexas.edu/anthropic.html ).

    As a fallacy it seems related to the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy”. “The name comes from a story about a Texan who fires several shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_sharpshooter_fallacy ) “Post hoc” sounds like a better name though.

    Oh, and the relation to ordinary design arguments becomes clear when one asks if creationists prefer a theory of everything that would fix all parameters (classic reasoning) or one that would set them at random (anthropic reasoning). They would take neither but ask for a gods-in-the-gaps designer. Precisely as Dembski does in his ‘explanatory filter’, or as Paley did in Blake’s story.

  5. #5 C.W.
    December 13, 2006

    But the Fine Tuner does not � indeed, cannot � live within the Universe we know. Ergo, intelligence can exist in a realm which is not at all like our Universe. Yet the whole argument was based on the idea that all the peculiarities of our Universe are essential for intelligent life!

    Couldn’t the Fine Tuner live in another universe that’s exactly like ours, but “outside” ours (whatever that means)?

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    December 13, 2006

    C.W.:

    Then were did the Fine Tuner’s home universe come from?

  7. #7 C.W.
    December 13, 2006

    Blake:

    Oh.
    I feel stupid now;-)

  8. #8 C.W.
    December 13, 2006

    No wait! I forgot that omnipotence trumps all. Do you think it’s beyond God’s superpowers to work around a little logical problem like that? ;-)

    A divine being that’s infinitely smart is smarter than any finite smartness, so any human argument can’t be smart enough and is therefore wrong by definition.

    Ha-ha!

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    December 13, 2006

    Those who invalidate reason, ought seriously to consider, “whether they argue against reason, with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle, that they are laboring to dethrone;” but if they argue without reason, (which, in order to be consistent with themselves, they must do,) they are out of the reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.

    — Ethan Allen, Reason: The Only Oracle of Man (1784)

    That which we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.

    — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

  10. #10 C.W.
    December 13, 2006

    Oh but my argument doesn’t even pretend to be based on reason. It’s an emotional appeal: “You don’t *really* think you are as smart as God, do you? Oh the arrogance!”.

    I’ve actually heard an adult(!) Jehova’s Witness make that argument once. But enough of this. I can’t remember what level of sarcasm I’m at.

  11. #11 David Heddle
    December 13, 2006

    Karl,

    Some general (that is, not directed at you) comments on the puddle-in-the-pothole argument.

    The puddle analogy is probably the worst argument against cosmological fine tuning. It says nothing more than “of course our environment appears fine-tuned for our existence.” But nobody disputes that.

    The privileged planet argument is secondary to the cosmological fine tuning argument, the latter of which states: it is surprising that the universe can support any kind of life, not just life as we know it. So the puddle analogy breaks down. A universe with no galaxies, stars or planets has no puddles for life to find itself in that just-right habitat. You have to have learned all your science from Star Trek to believe that consciousness might arise in a universe that is only hydrogen gas–and then you have to explain the apparent absence of such life in bulk of our universe which looks just like that.

    The privileged planet argument is weaker, but still not trivially defeated by the puddle analogy. Here the claim is that intelligent life (of any kind) would require things that we find on earth, like liquid water, an orbit -stabilizing large moon, and a relatively radiation free environment afforded by our “backwater” location in the milky way and our magnetic field, etc., The PP argument is that these unlikely necessities demonstrate that life is going to be extremely rare in the universe. Here the puddle analogy has a little traction, but there is still somewhat of an onus on the naysayer to argue, convincingly, that earth’s conditions are either (a) not so special or (b) by no means a requirement for complex life. Merely arguing, via the puddle analogy, that we are being chauvinistic doesn’t quite cut it.

  12. #12 Fred
    December 13, 2006

    What I find funny about the claims of “fine tuning” is that this planet may, for all we know, be the WORST example of life in the entire universe. Here we are with some people saying that the perfection of fine tuning has allowed us to be here and be so great, but we might be quite pathetic compared to other life in the universe. Maybe other beings don’t die, or maybe they just live much longer, maybe they have additional senses, maybe they’re not susceptible to radiation or other problems, etc. Maybe they arose much faster.

    This goes back to a general problem I have with people saying that life is too complex to have arisen naturally, and that we can see that life must have been designed: what are you comparing it to? What example of non-designed life, or of a non-fine-tuned world or universe can you offer? Since what we see is all we know, how can we tell what is designed? For example, most people would say that rocks that you find here and there aren’t designed (as opposed to Mount Rushmore). But I’ve SEEN rocks that I know were designed. So have all of you– as props in movies. So there’s no way to tell if even a lowly rock was designed or not.

    What we see as hallmarks of design are really hallmarks of *human* design; the only examples of design that we can absolutely 100% confirm are things that were designed by humans. How do we know what God or alien design is? Why is Mount Rushmore considered to be designed but not Mount Hood? I have seen Modern art whose design intention completely eludes me, yet it was definitely thought out and worked out intentionally and makes perfect sense to the artist and lots of other people. Design is DEFINITELY not something you know when you see it.

    Sorry for getting off the privileged planet thing, but it’s still all related.

  13. #13 C.W.
    December 13, 2006

    How do you fine-tune a fundamental physical constant, by the way? Isn’t that an even more difficult question than how an Intelligent Designer might engineer a genetic trait? The question the ID crowd have so desperately been trying to avoid. Since the ID strategy to pretend to have an “alternative theory” doesn’t seem to be working so well, is the Fine Tuning approach going to be all arguments from ignorance and false dichotomies?

  14. #14 Robert O'Brien
    December 13, 2006

    Blake Stacey:

    You make a fine pez dispenser for cribbed quotations but when it comes to argumentation I think you should stick to helping Peezee pick on highschoolers, since that is more your intellectual speed.

  15. #15 Robert O'Brien
    December 13, 2006

    Karl,

    Some general (that is, not directed at you) comments on the puddle-in-the-pothole argument.

    The puddle analogy is probably the worst argument against cosmological fine tuning. It says nothing more than “of course our environment appears fine-tuned for our existence.” But nobody disputes that.

    Not only that, Dr. Heddle, but argument by analogy is the weakest form of argumentation.

  16. #16 Tyler DiPietro
    December 13, 2006

    You make a fine pez dispenser for cribbed quotations but when it comes to argumentation I think you should stick to helping Peezee pick on highschoolers, since that is more your intellectual speed.

    Robby,

    You make a fine excrement dispenser (quiz time: what orifice am I referring to here?) for vacuous one-liners and blogspam. I however remember that you somehow felt it appropriate to get involved in the dispute that was going on between PZ’s daughter and a bigot that publicly ranted about deported an entire segment of the population to Canada, making a pathetic attempt to intimidate the former, no less. Don’t throw stones when you’re in a glass house.

  17. #17 Robert O'Brien
    December 13, 2006

    Robby,

    You make a fine excrement dispenser (quiz time: what orifice am I referring to here?) for vacuous one-liners and blogspam. I however remember that you somehow felt it appropriate to get involved in the dispute that was going on between PZ’s daughter and a bigot that publicly ranted about deported an entire segment of the population to Canada, making a pathetic attempt to intimidate the former, no less. Don’t throw stones when you’re in a glass house.

    Greaseball:

    I did not “intimidate” Peezee’s daughter. (Reread my post; or, even better, have it read to you.) And I only entered the fray because Peezee unleashed the losers who infest his blog (like maggots infest a corpse) on a highschooler.

  18. #18 Jon S
    December 13, 2006

    The fine-tuning argument is neither weak, an argument from ignorance, nor bald assertion. It’s simply an observation. Sure, you can criticize it, use sarcasm, perhaps come up with just-so stories to explain away the “appearance” of design or fine-tuning, or use silly analagies, but none of those weakens the argument since it’s simply an observation of what is. Further, if God did the fine-tuning, and he’s spirit, then it’s not a problem for him to be “outside” the universe (or inside for that matter).

  19. #19 Tyler DiPietro
    December 14, 2006

    Greaseball:

    Graceful, I’m sure that this particular insult has nothing to do with the racial heritage implied by my last name.

    I did not “intimidate” Peezee’s daughter. (Reread my post; or, even better, have it read to you.)

    True, you did not succeed in the effort (because you’re a nerd with no life and a shitty blog that no one reads), but you came in, accused her of “tattling” (because, you know, informing the principle that the primary representative of the student body publicly ranted about deporting an entire segment of the population to another country because of their sexual preferences happens on elementary school playgrounds all the time), and derisively referred to PZ as “daddy”. Get a life, no one gives a shit about your pathetic one liners.

    And I only entered the fray because Peezee unleashed the losers who infest his blog (like maggots infest a corpse) on a highschooler.

    Newsflash to Robert O’Brien: you’re on shaky ground calling anyone a loser when you have nothing better to do with your utterly unnecessary existence than troll the blogs of those who are better than you.

    And PZ just made a note of what his daughter was doing (opposing rank bigotry in her school), and why should the fact that the idiot is a high-schooler affect how he is treated on the matter?

  20. #20 Torbjörn Larsson
    December 14, 2006

    Is it Post Hoc reasoning, reasoning backwards?

    That is a good decription. Mark Chu-Carroll (“Good Math, Bad Math” blog) calls it a “perspective error”, since it relies on “taking the outcome of a random process which has already happened, and treating it as if you were predicting it in advance”. The probability to get a particular hand of cards is small. But the probability what any hand was dealed was 1.

    Ikeda & Jefferys analyses this thoroughly and finds that the creationist argument is reversed by that:
    “The “fine-tuning” argument then reasons that if P(F|N)< <1, then it follows that P(N|F)<<1. In ordinary English, this says that if the probability that a randomly-selected universe would be life-friendly (given naturalism) is very small, then the probability that naturalism is true, given the observed fact that the universe is "life-friendly," is also very small. This, however, is an elementary if common blunder in probability theory. "( http://quasar.as.utexas.edu/anthropic.html )

    It seems this is as a fallacy is called the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy” “The name comes from a story about a Texan who fires several shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.” (Wikipedia)

    If one removes the fallacy I&J finds that any fine-tuning reasoning according to the weak anthropic principle (WAP) supports a naturalistic universe. P(N|L) ? P(N|L&F). N = Naturalistic universe, L = contains Life, F = life Friendly; equality only applies if assuming a designer; assumes N&L =? F (WAP). Assuming a fine-tuner only results in no new information.

    The puddle analogy is probably the worst argument against cosmological fine tuning.

    If you don’t have a probability distribution you can’t say what sensitivity to changes in parameters mean. So you effectively end up with a tautological anthropic principle situation. The puddle analogy illustrates this.

    The privileged planet argument

    This is a related basic probabilistic fallacy. Chu-Carroll calls it the big number argument. It is using our difficulty in really comprehending how huge numbers work to say that beyond a certain probability, things become impossible. Shuffel two decks of cards together. The likelihood of the resulting deck of shuffled cards having the particular ordering that you just produced is roughly 10^-166. It seems impossible that something so unlikely just happened.

    The universe is large. Really large. So with parameters conducive to life and planet formation, it isn’t surprising to find lots of planets fitting the requirements for life.

  21. #21 Torbj�rn Larsson
    December 14, 2006

    Is it Post Hoc reasoning, reasoning backwards?

    That is a good decription. Mark Chu-Carroll (“Good Math, Bad Math” blog) calls it a “perspective error”, since it relies on “taking the outcome of a random process which has already happened, and treating it as if you were predicting it in advance”. The probability to get a particular hand of cards is small. But the probability what any hand was dealed was 1.

    Ikeda & Jefferys analyses this thoroughly and finds that the creationist argument is reversed by that:
    “The “fine-tuning” argument then reasons that if P(F|N)< <1, then it follows that P(N|F)<<1. In ordinary English, this says that if the probability that a randomly-selected universe would be life-friendly (given naturalism) is very small, then the probability that naturalism is true, given the observed fact that the universe is "life-friendly," is also very small. This, however, is an elementary if common blunder in probability theory. "

    It seems this is as a fallacy is called the "Texas sharpshooter fallacy" "The name comes from a story about a Texan who fires several shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the hits and claims to be a sharpshooter." (Wikipedia)

    If one removes the fallacy I&J finds that any fine-tuning reasoning according to the weak anthropic principle (WAP) supports a naturalistic universe. P(N|L) ≤ P(N|L&F). N = Naturalistic universe, L = contains Life, F = life Friendly; equality only applies if assuming a designer; assumes N&L ⇒ F (WAP). Assuming a fine-tuner only results in no new information.

    The puddle analogy is probably the worst argument against cosmological fine tuning.

    If you don’t have a probability distribution you can’t say what sensitivity to changes in parameters mean. So you effectively end up with a tautological anthropic principle situation. The puddle analogy illustrates this.

    The privileged planet argument

    This is a related basic probabilistic fallacy. Chu-Carroll calls it the big number argument. It is using our difficulty in really comprehending how huge numbers work to say that beyond a certain probability, things become impossible. Shuffel two decks of cards together. The likelihood of the resulting deck of shuffled cards having the particular ordering that you just produced is roughly 10^-166. It seems impossible that something so unlikely just happened.

    The universe is large. Really large. So with parameters conducive to life and planet formation, it isn’t surprising to find lots of planets fitting the requirements for life.

  22. #22 TheFallibleFiend
    December 14, 2006

    This is not a new thing. A primary and very strong tactic of creationists is to bring an argument into scrutiny that they perceive few people will have the background to understand, or intellectual capacity to critique.

    This is why they used to bring up the 2LOT argument – which is still brought up on occasion. This is why they bring up String Theory and Information Theory.

    A standard delivery making use of this technique would present a comic-book version of the scientific method and follow it with a grossly simplified explanation of a scientific principle that, for example, conflates specific scientific terminology with the lay definitions of those terms. Then would come an assertion about what evolutionary theory predicts which is often something that is completely false and generally based on a gross ignorance of what evolutionary theory actually is.

    They then set about mocking evolutionists for believing in something so obviously wrong. If the evolutionist ignores this crass display of stupidity and malice, the creationist bleats about how evolutionists can’t come up with a response to their staggering intellectual argument. If the evolutionist tries to be polite, the creationist misrepresents the encounter and continues to misrepresent evolution, evolutionists, and science itself. If the evolutionists says the truth, “Look, you really need to go back and do some real homework on this subject,” the creationist starts bleating about how he’s being defamed for having “merely questioned” evolutionary theory. The evolutionist says, “Uh … well, I’m not criticizing you for asking a question about evolution. I’m pointing out that you have made a number of false assertions about evolutionary theory and about science, and that those falsehoods are so so perverse, so profound, and so systematic, that it appears you need to sit down and carefully try to understand what the theory is, before continuing this discussion.

    “You calling me an idiot???”

    “Well, no. You might be very brilliant about dog training, database administration, dancing, or web page design; but you really don’t understand the theory of evolution.”

    “So you’re just afraid of questions so you say I’m ignorant!”

    “Again, we’re not saying that you are any more generally ignorant than any of us; only that you’re ignorant of evolution. And we’re not criticizing you for asking questions, we’re pointing out that your criticisms of evolution are based on a gross misunderstanding of the subject. Ask as many questions as you wish – in fact, criticize evolution as you wish, but First try to understand the subject you’re criticizing.”

    “Ah, you’re just name-calling! You’ve already lost the argument!”

    “sigh.”

  23. #23 Robert O'Brien
    December 14, 2006

    Graceful, I’m sure that this particular insult has nothing to do with the racial heritage implied by my last name.

    Actually, it has to do with the fact that you look like you dove into a fry bin and ate your way out. (I am also of Italian descent, but I am not vulgī, which makes all the difference.)

    True, you did not succeed in the effort [to “intimidate” Peezee’s daughter]

    Generally, one does not succeed in an effort one does not make in the first place.

    (because you’re a nerd with no life and a shitty blog that no one reads)

    How much traffic does your blog receive, greaseball?

    �but you came in, accused her of “tattling” (because, you know, informing the principle [sic] that the primary representative of the student body publicly ranted about deporting an entire segment of the population to another country because of their sexual preferences happens on elementary school playgrounds all the time), and derisively referred to PZ as “daddy”.

    Right.

    Newsflash to Robert O’Brien: you’re on shaky ground calling anyone a loser when you have nothing better to do with your utterly unnecessary existence than troll the blogs of those who are better than you.

    Yes, the greatness that is 9-10 ignorable publications and an associate professorship in Podunk, Minnesota really gnaws at me.

    And PZ just made a note of what his daughter was doing (opposing rank bigotry in her school), and why should the fact that the idiot is a high-schooler affect how he is treated on the matter?

    �Adult� readers of his blog have no business piling on a highschooler.

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