The Little Puddlian Philosophical Society and the Fine Tuning Argument

Puddle theory, according to Wikipedia, is “a term coined by Douglas Adams to satirize arguments that the universe is made for man. As stated in Adams’s book The Salmon of Doubt:

“imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

I yield to no one in my admiration for Douglas Adams, and admire here in particular his reminder that our place in the Universe may really be rather precarious. However, on this occasion he had been anticipated.

In John Updike’s masterly Roger’s Version, bacteriology professor Myron Kriegman is steamrolling the unfortunate Christian (and soon-to-be ex-Christian) Dale Kohler, and tells him to look up a recent article in Sky and Telescope, “reprinted from some book”, in which

“a bunch of rotifers are imagined in learned conversation concerning why their puddle had to be exactly the way it was – temperature, alkalinity, mud at the bottom sheltering methane hybrid producing bacteria… deduce that the whole operation was providential and obviously the universe existed to produce their little puddle and them!

The passage has been anthologised in Walter Gratzer’s A Literary Companion to Science, and in Christopher Hitchens’ Portable Atheist. Kriegman’s exposition of current science is a dazzling display of erudition, with knowledgeable presentations of the inflationary Big Bang theory for the origin of the Universe, and my late colleague Graham Cairns-Smith’s clay gene hypothesis for the origin of life. Earlier in the novel, Dale has given an exposition of the fine-tuning argument, and of biology-based arguments for what he calls “a purposive and determining intelligence behind all phenomena” (emphasis in original). In that passage Dale, in a book published in 1986, presents all the main arguments of what, from 1990 on, Phillip Johnson and his supporters were to promote as “Intelligent Design theory”, including irreducible complexity (though Dale does not use that term), the lack of Precambrian fossils, the statistical improbability of living things, the shortcomings of the Urey-Miller experiment that generated biologically important molecules under abiotic (but not convincingly prebiotic) conditions, the structure of the trilobite eye, and the fact that Archaeopteryx does not fit comfortably into the dinosaur-to-bird family tree.1 Dale is also aware of the fine-tuning argument, of which more below, sees all this as God’s face breaking through, and sets out to discover further deep relationships between the fundamental constants of nature from which he hopes to prove his case.

Updike himself was a Christian but, importantly, one hostile to Intelligent Design and indeed to all attempts to justify belief by reference to the gaps in our scientific knowledge, and I can only admire the way in which he makes his character articulate the Intelligent Design theory more cogently than the theory’s supporters have ever done themselves, and at an earlier date And it is not only the content of his expositions that excite admiration, but the way in which they are welded to the personalities of the characters espousing them.

For good measure, I must also mention detailed descriptions of early and present-day Christian theology, supplied by Roger, the central character, and narrator. I’m in no position myself to evaluate Updike’s expositions of Pelagius and Karl Barth, but given how well he tackles the science and the anti-science, I am willing to take his word for their accuracy.

The Sky & Telescope article, A Rotifer’s Viewpoint, is taken from Life Beyond Earth, by Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro, 1980, and can be found online here. It is too lengthy for me to quote in full, so a few compressed excerpts will have to do:

R: Bdelloid rotifer, Bob Blaylock, via Wikipedia

[First rotifer2] “The environment we inhabit is optimally designed for life. Its water remains at about the same temperature at all times. The balance of acidity and alkalinity is exactly right for living things because of the small amounts of nitrates and phosphates dissolved in the water. The mud at the bottom of the Puddle contains just the right amount of sulfate essential to our metabolism. Periodic infusions of liquid contain the carbon compounds which we use in constructing our bodies. The lower forms of life that form the basis of our food supply also depend on these same conditions. How could the beneficial methane-producing bacteria exist without the mud that shields them from oxygen? Life is only possible in Little Puddle, or in other identical Puddles. The rest of the universe is barren.”

[Second rotifer] “Since that is so, it must be that the whole universe is designed to ensure the existence of our home. If water were to freeze at a slightly higher temperature, Little Puddle would ice over and the nutrient rain that fructifies it could not get down to us. By using a new idea that I call the ‘rotiferic principle,’ I can demonstrate that the laws of nature must be exactly what they are, otherwise there would be no rotifers here to know about them. For example, if the heat necessary to vaporize water were slightly lower, then after the Big Rain created it, Little Puddle would have evaporated before the many hours that were needed for the first generation of rotifers to emerge from their eggs.”

The author (from the style, I think it must be Shapiro) is criticising the narrowness of vision of those who look for “Earth-like planets,” when speculating about life elsewhere in the Universe. He is writing in 1980, eight years before the first claim to discovery of an exoplanet, i.e. one orbiting a star rather than our own Sun (there are now over  3,500 such exoplanets known, and it is suspected that there are more exoplanets than stars). Shapiro was extremely critical of the Urey-Miller approach, although he naturally regretted (private communication) the use that creationists made of his criticisms. He questioned the focus on the particular compounds that underlie our own biochemistry, since he was of the opinion that molecular self-organisation was a much more general phenomenon, underlying the emergence of life. This position was actually hinted at by Roger in Updike’s novel. For what it’s worth, I think that if progress is to be made with this most difficult of problems, it would be along some lines such as these, possibly also taking into account Cairns-Smith’s above-mentioned concept of inorganics as the earliest genetic materials. But do not expect a consensus on this anytime soon. We origins of life scientists are a delightfully contentious lot, and are trying to reconstruct what happened almost four billion years ago.

The second rotifer’s speech is a parody of the once-fashionable anthropic principle, which attaches great importance to the fact that the Universe contains beings like you and me who are smart enough to ask questions about the Universe. There are several levels of this. It is true but trivial that the laws of nature must be such as to have made our existence possible. It is perhaps remarkable that this should be the case, given the apparent stringency of the requirements; this leads to the fine tuning argument, which is really an updated version of the traditional argument from design.

In this parody, the Big Rain takes the place of the Big Bang, and the references to the tightly constrained properties of water echo discussions of the strength of gravity, compared with the other forces of nature. If gravity were slightly weaker, it is argued, the primal matter generated in the Big Bang would have dispersed without the formation of stars, heavy elements, and any complex chemistry, whereas if it were slightly stronger then the early Universe would simply have collapsed back in on itself. Similar arguments can be applied to the other constants of nature, as explained by Astronomer-Royal Martin Rees in his book Just Six Numbers. (Sir Martin, now Baron, Rees is himself a non-believer, but his work received the annual prize of the Templeton Foundation, which aims to add a spiritual dimension to scientific knowledge).

What should we make of such arguments, to which rivers of ink, and more recently ampere-hours of electrons, have been devoted? Shapiro clearly doesn’t think very much of them, and I agree. He hints at the possibility that the Big Bang (like the rotifers’ Big Rain) wasn’t really a beginning, despite its importance to us, but just one episode in a much vaster reality. Alternatively, and there are good theoretical arguments for this, our visible Universe may be a small part of a far larger whole, itself one member of a huge or possibly even infinite array, within which the laws of physics may, for all we will ever know about it, vary. If so, then of necessity, our own Universe will belong to that fraction, however small it may be, in which life is possible, and no explanation is needed. Or maybe there is only one set of physical laws, but there is some underlying and so far undiscovered constraint as to what those laws might be. Or (it seems that this would have been Shapiro’s preference) there could be other forms of life sustaining themselves in ways we cannot even imagine, living under different sets of physical laws, and imagining their own environments to be uniquely and mysteriously favoured. Or maybe we are extremely lucky. Or maybe God did it; but there is no need to imagine that this God resembles the deities of conventional religion, benign, yet strangely angry with those who disagree with them, and obsessing over what we do with our genitals.

I just don’t know, and given the shortness of life and the difficulty of the problem, I don’t think I ever will. And I find that this state of affairs doesn’t bother me in the least. If I’d been born 500 years ago, I’d have had no understanding of gravity. 200 years ago, I would have known that the Earth is old, but would have had no idea how old. 100 years ago, no one understood what holds atoms together in molecules. And the origin of those atoms,3 the nature of the genetic material, and the triumph of the Big Bang theory itself over the alternatives, are discoveries from within my own lifetime. As to what will be discovered within my grandchildren’s lifetime, provided only our civilisation continues to function, I can hardly imagine.

1] Readers may enjoy rebutting these arguments; if they want help, there’s a (2006) cheat sheet here.

2] Rotifers are microscopic or near-microscopic aquatic invertebrates with cilia, which they use to waft material into their mouths, and small brains.

3] At least atoms with atomic number greater than 3

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on March 23, 2017, in Creationism, Evolution, Fossil record, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Another gem from Paul touching on Fine Tuning and Intelligent Design. May unsettle some Christians who have all the answers

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Mark Twain made similar points a hundred years ago (showing how the anthropic physics dataset is actually an irrelevant add on to what is actually just a deep philosophical assumption issue), that the notion that all of things tailored just for us was like the splotch of paint atop the Eiffel Tower thinking the tower under it was all there just to support it.

    Like

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