Monday, March 4, 2013

Somethin' Happenin' Here

Two articles in Science Daily remind me of the lyrics from the old Buffalo Springfield song from the 60s: "There's somethin' happenin' here, what it is ain't exactly clear."

In 2009 scientists were attributing the tropical climes prevailing in prehistoric epochs to massive volcanic activity which spewed millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Recently, however, scientists have been casting about for an explanation as to why the earth, despite their doleful predictions, hasn't shown any warming in over a decade, and their culprit is - volcanoes. Evidently, volcanoes also emit vast quantities of sulfur dioxide which reflects light in the upper atmosphere thus offsetting the greenhouse effects of the carbon that both volcanoes and humans are pumping into the air.

It's all very perplexing. Carbon causes global warming, volcanoes emit carbon, ergo volcanoes cause global warming. But, sulfur dioxide causes global cooling, volcanoes emit sulfur dioxide, ergo volcanoes cause global cooling. Volcanoes, we are told, are the cause of both global warming and of global cooling. What's a layman to think?

Next thing they'll be telling us that after due consideration they've concluded they don't have any idea what the heck is really going on with the earth's climate, but whatever it is, it's bad and we better stop using fossil fuels just in case carbon has something to do with whatever it is that's happening.

The Cosmic Fine-Tuning Argument

The argument for a cosmic Designer based on a phenomenon called cosmic fine-tuning is one of the most psychologically compelling and breathtaking arguments in all of philosophy. Philosopher John T. Roberts of the University of North Carolina has recently come up with a somewhat new version of the argument for a Designer based on cosmological fine-tuning that avoids some of the objections to earlier versions of the argument. VJTorley at Uncommon Descent offers a helpful summary of Roberts' argument that may be easier for readers to understand than Roberts' paper which was written for professional philosophers.

Fine-tuning is the term used to describe the incredibly precise calibration of dozens of cosmic laws, parameters, and initial conditions whose values have to be fixed within unimaginably small ranges in order for life to be possible. That these amazingly fine tolerances are both necessary for life and actually exist is something of which scientists have only become aware in the last twenty to forty years. Examples of some of these may be found here.

Roberts' argument goes like this: Life (L) exists in the universe. Life could be the result of the work of a Designer (D) or it could be the result solely of chance (C). We can represent the alternatives as (L + D) and (L + C).

With the discovery of fine-tuning and its critical importance to life, a conjunction he designates (R), we can ask whether it'd be more probable or likely that R would be found if there is life and a designer or whether it'd be more probable that R would be the case given the existence of life and chance. Philosophers express such comparisons of probability (Pr) like this:
Pr (R / L + D)
which is read: the probability of R on L and D which, translated, is "what is the likelihood that fine-tuning would exist and be necessary for life given that there is life and there is a designer?"

The question, then, is: between the two alternatives which has the higher probability? Is Pr (R / L + D) higher than Pr (R / L + C). The answer, of course, is that the exquisite precision of the cosmic fine-tuning being needed for life is clearly more probable on the assumption that it's the product of an intentional agent than that it's the product of blind chance. Thus:
Pr (R / L + D) > Pr (R / L + C)
Since we should always believe what is more probable than what is less probable fine-tuning counts as strong evidence that there is a Designer. Of course, as Roberts observes, other factors might count against the claim that there is a Designer and must also be considered.

Parenthetically, I'd add that the factors that are often cited as counting against the existence of a Designer, e.g. evil and suffering, do not count against the existence of a Designer but rather count against the claim that the Designer is omnibenevolent. After all, a malevolent designer is still a designer.

Roberts goes on to explain how this version of the argument differs from earlier versions and how it avoids objections to earlier versions. Torley summarizes these nicely.