X marks the whatsit

Heresy Corner quotes David Deutsch, a theoretical physicist and computer scientist at Oxford, on the ‘anthropic principle’ as an argument for the existence of god.

I do not believe that the ‘fine-tuning’ of physical constants provides any sort of argument for the existence of God or anything else supernatural. That is because if the constants had been set intentionally by supernatural entities, then the intentions of those entities must themselves have been at least as ‘fine-tuned’ when they set the constants, and that fine-tuning would remain unexplained. Hence that supernatural hypothesis does not even address the fine-tuning problem, let alone solve it.

More generally arguing for supernatural explanations on the grounds that the current scientific explanation for something or other is flawed or lacking is always a mistake. There are two main reasons for that. One is that there are always unsolved problems. But they get solved. Science continues to make progress even (or especially) after making great discoveries, because the discoveries themselves reveal further problems. Therefore the existence of an unsolved problem in physics is not evidence for a supernatural explanation any more than the existence of an unsolved crime is evidence that a ghost committed it.

The second reason is that supernatural explanations are always empty explanations. That is to say, ‘the gods did it’ is invariably a bad explanation because, as you can see, to invoke that explanation I didn’t even have to say what it is they did. It could ‘explain’ anything whatsoever and hence actually explains nothing.

That second one is very compelling, I always think. ‘The gods did it’ is an absolutely crappy explanation, because it can mean anything or everything or nothing – and as Dr Deutsch indicates, if it can mean anything or everything, then it means nothing – it’s just a gesture. It might as well be X. X did it. Okay…well that gets us precisely nowhere; now let’s try to dig a little deeper.

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