Monday, October 13, 2014

Not a finetuning argument

In The Impiety... (1624), as part of the 6th argument for the existence of God, Mersenne writes:

The proportion found between all the bodies of the world also shows that there is a God who has made all the universe in weight, in number and in measure: for the earth has no other ratio with the sun than 1:140, with the moon than 40:1, ... (pp. 98-99)
(I don't know off hand what the ratios are exactly meant to be; if they are ratios of volume, the moon is within 25% of the truth but the sun is off several orders of magnitude; if they are ratios of diameter, the sun is within an order of magnitude of the truth but the moon is an order of magnitude off.)

Mersenne's argument is full of such numerical (claimed) facts (the sun goes around the earth in 365.241 days, the moon traverses the Zodiac in 27 days, etc., etc.) and claims that God is needed to explain these facts. Now, I'm right now teaching on the fine-tuning argument, so I am sensitized to seeing such numbers in an argument for the existence of God. But it's striking that nowhere can I see Mersenne saying why these numbers are at all better than others, especially since surely some tuning facts seem very close at hand--surely, for instance, if the sun were much bigger or much smaller than it is, it would be too hot or too cold for life.

Mersenne explicitly insists that the numbers aren't explained by the essential natures of the objects, just before the above quote:

For the sun wouldn't be any the less the sun if it were closer or further from the earth, just as the stars could still be stars if they absented themselves from us by more than 14,000 earth radii.
Mersenne's argument seems to be a pure application of the idea that all contingent facts need explanation, and the arbitrariness of the numbers in the numerical statements seems to be cited precisely in order to show the contingency of the numerical statements. The argument suggests a strikingly strong commitment to a Principle of Sufficient Reason for contingent facts: all he needs to argue for a cosmic cause is to argue that there are contingent cosmic facts. Mersenne is confident that God has "many reasons" (as he says in the case of one of the numerical claims) for making the numbers be what they are, but these are reasons "which we aren't going to know except in Paradise" (101-102).

Mersenne's argument isn't a design argument--it doesn't advert to value-laden features that a God would have good reason to actualize. I think it's a kind of cosmological argument, but an eccentric one. Rather than arguing from generic features like motion or causation as Aquinas did, it focuses on very particular features.

The focus on these very particular features seems to have two benefits. The first is that it makes any appeal to necessity as the explanation implausible. Maybe it's necessary that there is motion, but it is incredible that it be necessary that the ratio of the diameter of the earth to that of the moon have to be 3.665:1 (to use modern numbers). So we get contingency very easily. The second feature is one I didn't notice right away. The astronomical features cited by Mersenne are ones that would reasonably be thought to be permanent features. They are thus prime candidates to be dismissed by it is so, as it has always been so. Mersenne's focus on the seeming arbitrariness of these features makes it very clear that would be no explanation. Thus Mersenne's cosmological argument works whether or not the past is finite. It is not disturbed by an infinite regress but does not need one either.

Of course, we no longer think that these particular features are permanent in the same way--the earth and sun changed in size in the formation of the solar system. But impermanent features are no better explained by an infinite regress than permanent ones--the permanence of the features in Mersenne's argument is only heuristic (and I don't see him explicitly drawing the reader's attention to the permanence). Plus we could run the argument on the basis of the apparently permanent but seemingly arbitrary elements in the laws of nature, such as precise values of constants.

The downside of Mersenne's argument, however, is that unless it is explained why the features are desirable, it is difficult to show that the cause of these features of the universe must be intelligent.


Austin said...

So the argument seems to be that all these ratios appear not to be necessary, and the PSR is valid, therefore they were designed? Or am I misunderstanding?

If I have it right, it seems open to charges of ignorance-- how do we know a physical law will not be discovered which explains these ratios? Of course, we would then still have to explain said laws, but that's another argument.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure, you have to make a judgment about how likely it is that all the ratios will be explained by law. But people make such judgments all the time. They are fallible judgments, but good nonetheless.

Austin said...

Yes, I see your point. I guess that's why I tend to shy away from empirical arguements like that. Not because I think they fail, but because there is an easier response from skeptics.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yet in real life we feel very happy to make all sorts of judgments about what kinds of things won't be explained by law. For instance, we are very confident that no law (without further empirical input) predicts that the accused's fingerprints will be found on a bloody knife.