Saturday, October 6, 2012

James Croft on Fine-Tuning

On Saturday, October 06, 2012, an exchange between David Glass and James Croft aired on the radio program “Unbelievable.”  Glass is a lecturer in North Ireland, and Croft is affiliated with the Harvard Humanist Association of Harvard University. They were discussing Glass’ new book Atheism’s New Clothes, which is a critique of the so-called new atheism. Croft took issue with some of Glass’ analysis, and I’ve subsequently taken issue with some of Crofts. It rolls down hill, as they say. A great deal of their discussion pertained to the argument from fine-tuning for the existence of an intelligent agent behind the universe. I’ve not yet discussed this argument, although it is a popular one among many theists, because I’m not familiar enough with it to give it a serviceable defense, and I frankly have some nagging doubts about its soundness. At any rate, Croft’s nagging doubts about its soundness are, in my estimation, off-base, and here is why.

Croft thinks the theist rather than Dawkins is the one who rules God out as an explanation for the fine-tuning, because he thinks the theist has put forward an explanation that is so utterly implausible that no amount of evidence could support it. Two things: he seems to confuse the cosmological argument with the fine-tuning argument here, as he says that the theist is putting forth an immaterial consciousness that exists necessarily and outside of space and time. But the fine-tuning argument does not suppose that the agency behind the fine-tuning is necessarily existent, necessarily unembodied, and without space and time. The second thing is that Croft either begs the question or explains nothing. He says he thinks the theist rules God out as an explanation “by the nature of the God that they’re positing. It is possible to posit an argument that is so implausible that no amount of evidence could ever support it.” He then asks that we think about the nature of the argument being made, how the discovery of fine-tuning in the universe is really nothing like the discovery of an artifact or a watch because [the theist] is appealing to the existence of an unembodied consciousness that exists necessarily and eternally outside of space and time. He says it just seems to him that the theist has set himself up to fail if he is going to posit something like that to explain things. David Glass did address this, but not aggressively enough, in my opinion. Why think that an agency behind the fine-tuning is implausible? An argument is required for that. It is a separate question as to the justification for thinking that a necessarily existent, personal, spaceless and timeless entity exists, but Croft gives no grounds for thinking this to be implausible either, aside from a brief and vague mention of some logical contradictions that a being like that would entail. So basically, Croft thinks that a fine-tuner/creator is just not the sort of entity which could be supported by evidence because it is a priori so implausible that any other explanation of said evidence would be more plausible than it is. But he fails to justify his claim that such a being is a priori to be thought of as implausible.

The second big problem I noticed with Croft’s rejection of the fine-tuning argument is that he said it fails because it does not explain the mechanism of the fine-tuning. It doesn’t explain how this agency brought the fine-tuning about. I wish to clarify Croft’s statement: one should reject any explanation of a state of affairs which does not include an explanation of the process by which that state of affairs obtained. I see this as highly problematic on a number of levels. First, as Croft noted later in the debate, there are explanations and then there are explanations. There are different levels on which accounts can serve as explanations. This is accepted and relatively non-controversial even within science. For instance, we see physicists entertaining the multiverse hypothesis even though no account exists of the process by which the many universes are spawned, let alone the parent universe. So it is accepted as an explanation at least on some level without having the sort of detail that Croft seems to expect of the theistic explanation for fine-tuning.

Secondly, we can see that the issue of whether something is designed is distinct propositionally from the issue of how it was manufactured. It can be true that the Model A was designed while being false that the Model A was manufactured by robotic equipment in Southern China. But Croft’s criteria would leave us unable even to assert that the Model A was the product of the creative power of an intelligent agent without specifying the physical means by which that agent transformed the raw materials into the finished vehicle. Even if we had such an account, why should we accept it if we do not also have an account of how the raw materials were mined, refined, and sold to this theoretical Ford Motor Company? So that it seems even if we demand an explanation of the process by which some design were actualized, there are deeper levels of explanation still that we could explore, and if we are incredulous enough, we could demand that they be satisfied first. This is well-illustrated by the oft-cited teapot example. No, not Russell’s teapot. If I walk into a room and see a teapot simmering on the stove, and if I ask my wife why there is water simmering on the stove, she might answer one of two ways. She might say that heat is transferred across the copper surface exciting the water molecules and causing steam, etc… or she might say that she turned on the stove because she wanted to make tea. These are equally valid explanations, though they address different aspects of explanation and cause. And to say that the second is unacceptable absent the first is itself, in my view, unacceptable. 


  1. I am always surprised to see that those who attack the FT argument (as I do) seem to omit mentioning its "fatal flaw". Let me put that right.
    FT is all numbers and probabilities. These are quoted as absolute clinchers - which they are not.
    Let me take just one example:
    It is said that "if, for example, the strong nuclear force were 2% stronger than it is (i.e., if the coupling constant representing its strength were 2% larger), while the other constants were left unchanged, diprotons would be stable and hydrogen would fuse into them instead of deuterium and helium." That would mean no Daniel and no Richard.
    In this example, between 0% and 2% you have a HUGE range of possibilities. For example, 1.5248%.
    Accordingly , we would still have a Daniel-friendly universe!
    You and I could still exist, even if there was a 0.85266% difference.
    The FT argument seems to have a certain validity, but only because we are not used to thinking in numbers less than 1.
    We could do this same exercise for each one of the thirty-odd factors that FT piles together to make us gasp in awe and wonderment. But if we include all the 0.0000000001's and more, the probabilities argument just collapses.

    Also, I personally object to the practice of linking any form of science to to faith. Science is a delightfully unstable edifice. If one uses it to shore up or justify one's faith, then you'd better be ready to modify your faith tomorrow. Or the day after.
    As John Wilkinson points out in his delicious book, "No Argument for God" - "There truly is no argument for God that is capable of bearing the weight of his existence. Things that operate within the realm of human reason bear the fingerprints of human inventors. The stuff of God, however, doesn't just sound strange, it is strange."

  2. Richard,

    It's so good to hear from you again. The problem I see with your approach to numbers less than one, is that, yes, there is a potentially huge range between 0 and 2%, fir instance 1.5248. But for each time we extend the probabilities another decimal place out, we do so for 3-100% as well. So the improbabiliy will be exponentially greater. This is an off-the-cuff comment, and I hope it's clear enough what I am saying. Also, I'm surprised about your hesitancy to link science to faith. Faith is trust, and trust often has (very compelling) reasons. I see no problem with one of those reasons being a scientific one, and if the science should change tomorrow, then it is the specific justification of the faith, not the faith itself, which is modified. If one's trust is based solely on a scientific consideration, I agree that this is probably a bad idea. I hope you are doing well.

  3. Daniel,
    You see no problem with one those reasons being a scientific one - neither do I as long as it is recognised as being arbitrary and probably unstable. However, if one admits to the potential unreliablity and impermanence of scientific data, why refer to it in the first place? It's a bit like saying, "I'm going to buy a Ford because my mother-in-law thinks they're great cars. Yes, I'm incorporating her evaluation into the criteria for making this choice, even though I know she's always changing her mind."
    (When can we expect your next post?)