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Rigging the Cosmos 2

As promised this is part two of an academic paper I’ve been working on. Last week I thought it would be good to take a detour into current events as it’s a completely different style of writing than many are used to. Without further delay here is part 2:

Calibrating the Cosmos Machine

Cicero’s argument consists of two branches which both come together to make an argument substantively similar to the premises for the teleological argument. The conclusion of the “straw contest” is essentially that the conditions in which the Earth and the Cosmos were created, against the odds, for the express purpose of generating sentient life.

Van Inwagen’s argument begins with the identification of what is known as the “Fine Structure Constant.[1]” This constant also going by the label “a” governs the electro-static charge between elementary particles such as protons and electrons. Van Inwagen wonders “what features would the Cosmos have if the fine-structure constant had twice its actual value?[2]” This question is answerable: a change of a 4% increase  of   and stellar fusion would be unable to produce carbon an essential element of life. If the constant were > .1 stellar fusion would be impossible.[3] Without the fusion of H à He all of the other elements which make up our day to day interaction with matter would not be possible. We can also theorize that if the gravitational force were stronger then the universe would be full of masses compressed into singularities forming only black holes. Too weak, and material attraction falls apart causing not only planets failing to obtain orbits but atoms whose nuclei fail to “stick” together. This list can go on, we can posit everything from electromagnetic wavelengths being inhospitable to organic compounds, laws of thermodynamics which operate in reverse, etc. However in keeping with the theory we will stick with “a.”

What’s problematic with the example though is that a is not merely conducive to life, but rather conducive to matter. We can leave the dial on the machine at 7.2973525 x 10­­-7 and never achieve sentient life. In fact, all of the physical constants of the Cosmos could remain in the machine and human life is still not necessary. Changing a changes the nature of matter, which would affect a change in sentient life, but that is not the immediate effect. By drawing the “death straw” it’s not just that Adam3 dies, but all other contestants go with him as well. Perhaps that is the point, the odds may not go up but the stakes are certainly higher. Despite that, there is still the glaring omission of evidence that these constants exist for a purpose. In claiming that the features of the Cosmos are such that they are purposefully directed toward producing sentient life, Van Inwagen is merely rewriting an older argument given by Cicero, through the Stoic Balbus. It’s a deviation of the standard formulation of the Design Argument, which I am terming the “Climate Argument.”

While appearing in roughly the same portion of “De Natura Deorum” as the more popular Design Argument the “Climate Argument” is thematically different. All formulations of the Design Argument follow the same pattern: they use a natural object and compare it to the most complicated artifact that the day provides.[4] By making this comparison, the arguments seek to compare the object of human invention with the natural world to show the lesser against the greater. If small human artifacts are the products of reason and design then the natural world, which is thought to be greater, must also be the product of reason and design. Chaos cannot produce more magnificent feats than order. The teleological argument does not do this: it instead diverges by postulating a hypothetical machine that would be needed to construct the Cosmos. It’s a subtle difference but in the fine-tuning of a we have no earthly parallel. We can’t use an ex gratibas[5] argument since we have to direct our travels downward. The machine produces a Cosmos specifically designed for us, because the Cosmos is habitable and we are in it.

The Stoic argument through Balbus is that there is an inborn conception in the minds of all people for the existence of some divine being. He admits that the various details may differ among the races of men but that conception is universal[6] and arises from four causes, “Second was the one which we (Romans) received from the magnitude of the benefits which we get from temperature of climate, the earth’s fertility, and the vast array of other advantages.[7]

The climate argument is deeply flawed, presenting the position that one group of people is favored by the gods and is thus granted a favorable location. In this respect it puts in reverse cause and effect. Rome enjoyed a favorable location, but that is probably the reason the city was founded there rather than divine influence changing the climate of a region to accommodate a particular group of people based on their piety or the gods’ favor. It also implies that people in less than favorable climates would deny the existence of the gods simply because their climate was bad, or perhaps consider that their gods disliked them for some reason. Other civilizations would ascend to empire with vastly different climates, some of which were considerable less comfortable than the Romans.

In either case the Stoic argument is raised because it bears an obvious parallel with the “Fine-Tuning Argument.” The claim that the Cosmos has been specifically created, adjusted, and then fine-tuned specifically to create what we know as sentient life is no different than saying the climate of the Italian peninsula was such for the specific reason of creating the Roman Republic. However, it is easy to imagine a situation where perhaps the gravity is a bit stronger and sentient life is just a bit shorter. This is easier to imagine when we consider that sentient life is certainly possible in other areas of the universe. While we typically feel that conditions such as our planet are those that are the only ones that can produce life being within what is known as the “goldilocks zone”—being neither too far nor too close to its central star. However extra-terrestrial life could exist on the ice moon of Europa, for instance, which would normally be thought of as too far and thus too cold from a stellar body to be hospitable. The view that our type of sentient life is the only one is far too narrow.

An objection might be that I am asking too much of the argument. That’s just because the claim that sentient life is the goal of the features of the Cosmos that the argument is disavowing other forms of life, but I don’t think I am going too far. The idea that it is only the features of the Cosmos ignores that our existence is also the result of a series of chronological events. Various extinction level events, meteor impacts, extreme climate changes have also contributed to our evolution into what we are now. This sequence of events is only second to the physical features in that this sequence emerged from the physical properties. It stands to reason that our existence is the result of catastrophic events that were in no way conducive to life on this planet and only by what could best be described as fortune that life at all exists on this planet. While this is also a result of the Stoic argument, the Stoics were hard determinists: they don’t have to consider free will issues.[8] Their omni-benevolent deity has ordained the actions of the Cosmos through the machinations of fate including our actions. The proponents of the teleological view might be unsettled by the idea that this kind of purpose implies a control of natural events that scuppers ideas of total free-will.

A Puddle Rebuttal

The ultimate problem with the teleological argument is that it plays on predispositions to thinking. If the person is already of the opinion that they the game is rigged or that the machine has been calibrated for the purpose of creating their existence then the argument is going to be found compelling, but that reduces the argument to a reliance on a vague circular logic: I believe the argument therefore it confirms my belief. Adam3 may feel the game favored him, but that’s only because the result worked in his favor.

A person without such a disposition may view the argument differently. Rather than coming to the conclusion that the Cosmos was designed to support sentient life, they would take the view that sentient life came about in a Cosmos where it was possible. The difference is subtle but let’s take our straw contest winner Adam3 and say that he’s walking down the street and sees a puddle in the sidewalk. Now he can come to one of two conclusions, the first is that the depression in the concrete and the soil below it, as well as perhaps the shoddy job that the person who poured the concrete, as well as the material strength of the substance itself were all done with the intent of one day creating that specific puddle which Adam3 is now stepping over. We can add all of the other factors to it as well: the meteorological events which made it rain that day, the tree whose branches grew in such a way that the leaves didn’t shield the depression from the falling water, all of this with the intent of creating the puddle. That, however, is not the reasonable conclusion; what is more reasonable is to think that the puddle merely formed because the depression in the sidewalk was there, and that the rain merely filled it in.[9]

In the cosmic scale, sentient life is such a puddle. When the Cosmos created a gap in its chronology that allowed any life at all to exist, life began which then ultimately led to sentient life. It is not reasonable to say that the entire history of the universe has been driving at the goal of producing the brief period of time that the known sentient life has been in existence. To claim that we are the ultimate result of history is anthropocentric and unjustified by this argument. Not to mention that the vast majority of the Cosmos is inhospitable to any form of life. Like the objection to Cleanthes we exist because the conditions allow it, but the conditions do not exist for us.

[1] Pg 172 Van Inwagen

[2] Pg. 173 ibid

[3] Barrow, J.D. “Cosmology, Life, and the Anthropic Principle” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 950 139-143

[4] This does not necessarily mean the most advanced artifact. The example of the armillary sphere in Cicero might have been both, but the idea is that in complexity we see the grandeur of the device’s construction. Pocket watches have a beautiful complexity in their operation, which is why Paley chooses it for his version but the pocket watch is debatably not more advanced than say the atmospheric steam engine.

[5] (Hunter, 2009)

[6] LS 54 C 1-2, The Hellenistic Philosophers, ed. Long, A.A.; Sedley, D.N.; Cambridge University Press ©1987

[7] LS 54 C 4

[8] LS 46, LS 52, esp. LS 55

[9] I have to give credit to comedian Ricky Gervais from whom I first heard this analogy.

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