Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fine-Tuned Constants

There seems to be a lot of buzz in the theological community lately about the "Argument from Fine-Tuned Constants", which is an argument for Intelligent Design that claims that a universe like ours can only exist when certain universal physical constants lie within a very narrow range. I have a lot of problems with this argument, and I argue that not only is it not very compelling, but it's an unsound argument on several fronts.

The Constants
The standard conception is that these physical constants are a fundamental feature of reality. But if you take a look at how physicists works, you get a very different picture.

The truth is that physicists really don't like constants. If a theory ends up having too many constants (or "fudge factors" as some scientists call them), then it begins to look suspicious. The main reason is that each constant is an unanswered question. There's generally a deeper reason for the value of a constant. For instance, the speed of sound in air seems constant, but it turns out to be related to the inertia of the air, so we can calculate it from other values. Scientific progress is gradually supplying answers to these unanswered questions, so positing God as the answer is a cut-and-dry God of the gaps argument.

But there's more to it than just the unsatisfied question of "why?". A physical theory with a lot of constants is like a house for sale that's filled with overpowering air fresheners: there's a lot of room for error..."overfitting" and sometimes "data dredging", in this case. With enough constants, any model can be made to fit the existing data, but theories with more constants have much less chance of predicting new data, and therefore are likely to be wrong as an abstract model. It's not always a case of foul play, but the values of any constants will be fit to existing data, which means that more constants couple a model to specific measurements and steer away from a general solution. The building blocks of our physical theories seem "undeniably real", but that's more because we've been taught about them for so much of our lives than because it's so obvious.

All this muddles the question of what the constants actually represent, and what it means to "tune" them.

How Things Might Have Been
Even if these values can be freely changed and the universe could be drastically altered, what then? The fine-tuned constants argument, like all design arguments, paints our environment as somehow "special". In this case, it's usually claimed that life could not exist in a universe where such-and-such value were different by one part in some-odd million billion billion billion.

But the same "scientists" have until now been telling us that evolution is impossible, and therefore that life should not exist in our universe. Sure, an altered universe would be different, but the salient question is "could (intelligent) life exist?". No scientist today is qualified to start with a handful of values, extrapolate out to an entire universe, and then determine that intelligent, self-replicating life won't ever exist anywhere within that universe. And certainly no scientist is qualified to do that same thing for every possible universe to determine that all or even most would be uninhabitable.

Answering the Questions
Theistic arguments take an attitude of demanding an answer for a given question. They often take the form "how else can you explain it?". That's not always a terrible approach, but it's certainly something to take in moderation, since easy answers are often wrong. It also entails the assumption that we already have all the requisite knowledge, which is especially unlikely when we're talking about metaphysics.

The common response is to take these arguments at face value and try to give an alternative explanation. To that end, many people suggest anthropic reasoning to explain why we observe such "special" conditions in our universe. I believe the anthropic principle is an excellent answer to the question, but based on the above arguments I don't believe the question itself is valid. The anthropic principle is such a neat, unconventional idea that it's easy to forget to ask if it's really necessary in this case.

Finally, it's unrealistic to expect scientific inquiry to ever finish its job and answer every significant question. The answers to questions about the "fundamental constants" will probably be incredible, but the questions themselves aren't all that special or compelling. There are volumes of unanswered questions; what makes this question of fundamental constants stand out is mostly that it's easy for laymen to speculate about.

The bottom line is that the argument from fine-tuned constants is a lot of things, but it isn't science.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Unconditional Love

I know
You love the song but not the singer.
—"I Know", Placebo

I recently read Atlas Shrugged, and since then I've been doing a lot of thinking about Ayn Rand's philosophy. One of the weirdest turns she takes in her philosophy is how she applies her "no sacrifice" tenet to love and relationships, but as it turns out, I'm starting to see more and more how it all makes sense. In a nutshell, she outright rejects the idea of unconditional love and in its place believes in loving a person for their virtues.

Since her theory of love is a close parallel to her economic theory, let me say a thing or two first about her economic theory. She believes that socialism and our modern society try to completely separate productivity from incentive, and that the direct result is that people basically can't help but stop working hard, start cheating, and as a group destroy our economy. But one of her central ideas that I missed at first is that in her ideal society, more will be produced, and that in a society of free trade, both parties benefit with every transaction. That means that Medicaid and unemployment will go down, but that wages and standard of living in general will go up.

So how does that relate to love? Well, if all love were suddenly based on virtue rather than "choice", my knee-jerk fear would be that nobody would be "good" enough to deserve love. I recognized right away that it's the same knee-jerk response I had to her economic ideas (that nobody could be productive enough to survive), so I think the analogy runs pretty deep. I realized that if we punish "conditional" love so much and make it a black mark to love someone because you want to, if we make it a virtue to love someone in spite of their faults and horribly "selfish" to love someone because of their virtues, then what we're left with is empty, devoid of emotion, and based on guilt. If we love based on virtue, then I predict that our quality of love will increase, and there will be more love to go around!

As someone who always strives for sincerity and makes it a priority to live and love richly, I find a lot of energy and comfort in that thought. It's very hard for me to answer questions like "why do you love me?" when my love is based on sacrifice and guilt, but when I base my idea of love on virtue and mutual benefit, I'm coming up with new answers to that question all the time. I think how easily such a question comes to our minds in moments of insecurity should itself be a hint that love should not be based on nothing and that love naturally goes hand-in-hand with appreciation.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Objectivity in Art

"If I could do it, it ain't art." —Red Green

There's a discussion on Kevin's and Ben's blogs about whether there's any objective standard for art. I like to watch movies, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a movie good. Some movies that I feel like I should like but don't; others I like for exactly the reasons I hate another. And while there are some movies that almost nobody appreciates, there aren't really any movies that almost everyone appreciates. Can art itself really be "good" or "bad", or is it all in our heads?

To say that art is "good" or "bad" implies a purpose to the art that it either meets or falls short of. The high-level purpose for anything we would call art is to be appreciated by somebody. To know what people will appreciate, you have to understand people, so I don't think any criteria can be universal (i.e. we have no idea what kind of movies aliens would appreciate). But if any qualities are shared by all of humanity, they have potential to become a foundation for objective artistic principles, not objective in the sense that outside observers could agree about what is artistically valuable, but that they could agree about what humans would find artistically valuable.

You might be tempted to point to brain structures we have in common as examples of "shared qualities", but the human brain is designed to be extremely adaptable. Similarities in "artistic taste" are rare, and subtle differences in taste can have a big effect on how we evaluate a particular song or painting.

If you could agree on criteria, evaluating a specimen would become a much more objective process. The subjective part is deciding on the criteria. But some things intrinsically imply a particular purpose. A metal plate on a door in place of a handle suggests a purpose to be pushed, not pulled. If something suggests a purpose and then fulfills its suggested purpose, then it is "good" in a more "objective" way than something that doesn't suggest a purpose. By the same token, something that fulfills some purpose extremely well is more "objectively good" than something that doesn't really fulfill any purpose. The very fact that it works for some purpose suggests using it for that purpose (once that purpose is discovered). That said, we can find a purpose for almost anything, but some things have so much order to them that they're nearly perfect for one clear purpose and nearly useless for anything else (e.g. computer software).

Movies and television depend very heavily on understanding the purpose. That's why TV sitcoms use a laugh track to cue the viewer in to look for a joke. A bad movie can become a hilarious joke, and then from that vantage point become a great movie (okay, maybe not for everyone).

My conclusion is that when we say some art is good, we usually mean that there's some purpose it's good for. When people disagree, they usually disagree on the grounds that they don't value that purpose, and therefore that it's no purpose at all. The criteria are subjective on some levels and objective on others. Consequently, I don't think it's accurate to call art either purely subjective or purely objective.