From my blog: Foxhole Atheism

 

One of the most popular arguments for theism is the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA). The FTA is generally formulated something like this:

  1. The “constants” of the universe either arrived by chance or design
  2. The chance is overwhelmingly small
  3. Therefore, they must have arrived by design

 

There are a lot of things we could discuss about the FTA. It poses a particularly intriguing problem due to all the unknowns involved. However, I want to focus on a single aspect. If it is correct that the past is beginningless, then chance actually poses no problem.

 

The biggest hurdle to people accepting the possibility of a beginningless past, at least in my experience, are a strand of arguments regarding actual infinites. The thing about actual infinites is they grate against our intuitions as they are presented in the aforementioned argument. They are, in a sense, a completed infinite or an infinite set of things. This tends to bring about questions like, “How can an infinite ever be complete?” It’s a good and difficult question, but I hope to offer a different perspective on these arguments that may give you something to at least think about, even if you aren’t convinced.

 

So how might we respond to this difficulty? To start, the proponent of the FTA will often not have a problem with a potential infinite. They will likely grant the possibility of a potentially infinite future – namely, Heaven. I question whether this is really so different than asserting a beginningless past. One states that for any moment chosen in the future, there will be a later moment. The other says the same, but for the past. This symmetry can be seen in the following figure:

It does not seem clear at all why we should accept one, but not the other. Confronted with this, the proponents will often turn to another sort of argument that seemingly applies to past events.

 

So, what are these arguments? I’ll give a few varieties and you should see their basic form:

You cannot create an infinite set through successive addition (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4 … ∞).

If you knock down the first of an infinite set of dominoes, you will never knock down the entire set.

If you start filling an infinite hole with an infinite amount of dirt and an infinite amount of time to shovel, you will never fill the hole.

 

The gist of the arguments is that we would never reach “now” given an infinite past. I initially found these arguments very persuasive. But after seeing them in a different light, I came to realize they don’t actually address the idea of a beginningless past head on enough to be convincing. You’ll see that these arguments all rely on starting somewhere. You begin adding, you begin the dominoes, and you begin filling the hole. But who has asserted that we are beginning anything? The dominoes have always been falling. If the concern is that we  can never reach the present, you can say, “Ok, choose any moment in the past and it will be countably far away from the present.” Their argument, though, doesn’t rely on counting from a past moment to this one – it relies on counting from the first past moment. But that is precisely what the beginningless past theory says we will not find.

 

I propose that the popular arguments against a beginningless past merely seem to have force because we aren’t framing the issue correctly. And, if a beginningless past is an option, what do we make of the “chance” problem presented in the FTA?

Views: 21

Comment by Alan Goldstein on July 20, 2011 at 12:58pm

Most people just can’t grasp the concept, but if you look at it logically, nothing else makes sense.

If it had a beginning, what caused it? What caused the cause? Even the “Big Bang” suffers from this problem, and is itself losing support (Don’t take my word for it. Look it up.) A beginingless past (or the god fairy tale) is the only answer. 

As for the FTA. It’s not that the universe is fine tuned for life, it’s that life doesn’t violate the laws of physics. Couple this with an infinite, eternal universe, and it would be surprising if life didn’t exist.

 

Comment by Kairan Nierde on July 20, 2011 at 2:42pm

I've never seriously contemplated the possibility of an infinite existence but it makes enough sense than once one sets aside preconceived notions.

 

Thanks for making me aware of the counterarguments and your solution.  Reading this was a like retaking History of Calculus and Philosophy 202, so it did hurt quite a bit to squeeze my mind into the perspective of the counterarguments.  The exercise ultimately seemed both very rewarding and entirely pointless, because: duh!  It is good to know people reason in this manner but my brain, my poor brain.

Comment by Michael Gage on July 20, 2011 at 5:11pm

Alan, I agree. It's just kind of a logical extrapolation from everything we observe.

 

Kairan, I'm glad you found it helpful. Apologists will often try to claim the Big Bang is the beginning of time, but this really isn't supported. In modern cosmology, there are several theories which support the multiverse extending prior to the Big Bang and probably into an endless past.

Comment by Ed on July 20, 2011 at 5:51pm

When considering  FTA what criteria is used by the theist to conclude that "chance" had a small role in the arrival of physical constants?

Comment by Michael Gage on July 20, 2011 at 6:53pm
Ed, are you asking how they come up with the probability? As far as I know, they just take factors like "the so and so force could only be within a range of 2% of it's current state and support life." they take all those percents and multiply them together.

There are some problems I have with this approach, but that appears to be the method.
Comment by Ed on July 21, 2011 at 12:44pm

Mike, I don't follow "so and so force and it's range." How could you apply probability to gravity which is 

one of the largest physical constants in the universe(s). Bear with me as I am not a learned person with any formal background in mathematics or the physical sciences. We still don't fully understand what causes gravity but it has certainly been a physical constant for a VERY long time.

Then again i may be off base in what is meant by physical constants.

Comment by Michael Gage on July 24, 2011 at 10:27pm
Gotcha. Let me say it a little more clearly. So, let's say that if the strength of gravity had been different by a fraction of a percent, then the universe would not have supported life. There are a bunch of things like that that theists will point to and say they are improbable. Now, we could pick on their conclusion here or even challenge how they can determine such probability (they can't). But I thought it would be interesting to say that it doesn't really matter if it's improbable as long as the past is long enough or infinite. Sorry, I know that's not a ton of info to help clear things up but I'm on my phone so hard to type.

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