Puddle Thinking

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 7, 2010 in Design Argument,Funny

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher December 7, 2010 at 10:39 am

Douglas Adams was an excellent writer. It is a shame that he died before he was 50. I am sure he had even more clever quotes to give us douche bags to say in religious arguments.

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juhou December 7, 2010 at 10:57 am

I think the whole quote is better:

“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 alright, 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.’”

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Martin December 7, 2010 at 12:28 pm

But to make a better analogy to fine-tuning, the puddle would find out that his pothole (or whatever he is in) is very unlikely to exist at all. That the chances of the road being flat and unable to even have any shape of puddle is the likeliest situation by far.

And he would be correct to then puzzle about that fact.

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Kyle Key December 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm

@Martin:
That’s a far worse analogy. Adams captured it perfectly. A bunch of humans looking around and saying “Wow! Look at these physical values, constants and ratios! I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these particular things. They must have been set just so I could be here!” I find it to be rather amusing. Of course, your analogy might be able to get off of the ground–just provide some evidence that whatever physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to could actually be different. Being able to conceive of the mere possibility won’t do.

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Rob December 7, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I love this quotation. It exposes the anthropocentric conceit at the heart of the fine-tuning argument. It seems to me the inability to shed the anthropocentric conceit is a major reason some smart folks stay floundering in theism.

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Scott December 7, 2010 at 4:02 pm

I keep a small hand towel pinned to my backpack in honor of this man.

On another note, Luke, I think you’d like this show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ul-FqOfX-t8

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Reidish December 7, 2010 at 6:24 pm

Hi Kyle Key,

You wrote:

A bunch of humans looking around and saying “Wow! Look at these physical values, constants and ratios! I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these particular things. They must have been set just so I could be here!” I find it to be rather amusing.

To identify what you wouldn’t be able to observe is not the same as explaining why you observe what you do.

Of course, your analogy might be able to get off of the ground–just provide some evidence that whatever physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to could actually be different. Being able to conceive of the mere possibility won’t do.

Just so I understand your position: you think either (a) the actual world is necessary, or (b) it is possible to produce scientific/physical evidence of counterfactuals? It seems one or both is implied by your “challenge”.

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Hermes December 7, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Another person that I will miss is Terry Pratchett; he’s been dealing with Alzheimer’s for the past couple years, but is still writing and still promoting his new work.

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Hermes December 7, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Martin, if you were as insightful as Douglas Adams was on a bad day I’d engage your corrections concerning Adams’ puddle analogy.

Like me, though, you simply aren’t.

His puddle analogy is one of his best bits of writing in his entire career. If you want to get some traction, I suggest more care in your approach. To start with, it would be nice if you understood why what he wrote was insightful before you attempt to correct it and show that understanding as a part of your correction. That might even be enough to be worthy of some consideration.

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bossmanham December 7, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Course this totally misses the point about specified complexity. Any event is unlikely, but not any event is unlikely and specifically complex. There’s nothing specifically complex about a puddle in the road.

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Kyle Key December 7, 2010 at 7:32 pm

@Reidish:
I didn’t assert any position; I merely implied that there’s no evidence that the supposed fine-tuned values could be different from what they are, and that someone saying that they can imagine them differently isn’t convincing.

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Reidish December 7, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Hi Kyle Key,

I didn’t assert any position; I merely implied that there’s no evidence that the supposed fine-tuned values could be different from what they are, and that someone saying that they can imagine them differently isn’t convincing.

Well, unless you want to argue that such evidence is impossible (an incredibly strong claim) or non-scientific/non-physical (which I take it is not a good position for you), then you’re stuck with accepting option (b) that I posed: “it is possible to produce scientific/physical evidence of counterfactuals”.

Now since you apparently deny (b), you must either think such evidence is impossible, or you are willing to admit the existence of non-physical/non-scientific evidence to support the claim that the universe need not be the way it is. So which is it?

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Larkus December 8, 2010 at 5:07 am

Voltaire wrote in Candide, Chapter 1:

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.”

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Larkus December 8, 2010 at 6:10 am

@Reidish
Since we have no other universes to compare our universe to, we have no way to determine, whether it is possible or impossible for the relevant “physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to” to differ significantly in any universe from what they are in our universe.

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Kyle Key December 8, 2010 at 8:43 am

@Reidish:
Regarding A, given determinism, I strongly incline toward the necessity of the actual world. Regarding B, from my infinitesimal experience with quantum mechanics, it seems that science can experimentally answer some counterfactuals, (e.g. Elitzur–Vaidman bomb-tester). I would make no definite claims regarding B because it’s beyond my grasp at the moment.

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Reidish December 8, 2010 at 10:14 am

Larkus,

You wrote:

Since we have no other universes to compare our universe to, we have no way to determine, whether it is possible or impossible for the relevant “physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to” to differ significantly in any universe from what they are in our universe.

You’re opening up the debate about what counts towards figuring out such a fact, and again I fall back to my disjunction posed to Kyle Key: either you’re committed to the idea that such physical evidence is possible to obtain, or you think the actual world is necessary. Well, there is another choice, which is that non-physical / non-scientific evidence can count in the discussion. But I assume you, like Kyle Key, would not take that position.

Kyle Key,

Why do you think that determinism, if true, implies the necessity of the actual world? Maybe I’m misunderstanding how you are using those terms.

…it seems that science can experimentally answer some counterfactuals, (e.g. Elitzur–Vaidman bomb-tester).

No, the assumption of such reasoning is what allows meaningful results to be obtained from the Elitzur-Vaidman bomb-tester. But the counterfactual case is never observed, by definition, in applications of counterfactual definiteness (of which the E-V tester is one).

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Joshua December 8, 2010 at 10:37 am

I find this is a deeply flawed analogy. Water will of course fit any shape hole – the fit between the hole and the water can be explained wholly by reference to the nature of water. However, life will not fit any environment. The fit between our universal environment and intelligent life cannot be explained wholly by reference to the nature of intelligent life.

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Larkus December 8, 2010 at 10:52 am

@Reidish
There is yet another possibility. I can remain agnostic about “whether it is possible or impossible for the relevant “physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to” to differ significantly in any universe from what they are in our universe”.

What do you think? Is it possible or impossible for the relevant “physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to” to differ significantly in any universe from what they are in our universe and what is your evidence for the possibility or impossibility?

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Hermes December 8, 2010 at 11:06 am

Joshua: I find this is a deeply flawed analogy.Water will of course fit any shape hole – the fit between the hole and the water can be explained wholly by reference to the nature of water.However, life will not fit any environment.The fit between our universal environment and intelligent life cannot be explained wholly by reference to the nature of intelligent life.

You missed the point of the analogy.

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Kevin December 8, 2010 at 11:31 am

“I find this is a deeply flawed analogy. Water will of course fit any shape hole – the fit between the hole and the water can be explained wholly by reference to the nature of water. However, life will not fit any environment.”

But alas, the water has been fine-tuned to fit in that hole. Had the circumstances been slightly altered (it could have been a solid if its atomic particles were arranged differently, it could have fallen as snow and then been uneven across its surface, had the laws of chemistry been slightly different), then the puddle would not have fit so snugly. Surely, this is evidence that it was designed for the pothole (presumably by a hydophilic deity).

Lets conceive of what would have happened if the road was flat, the water would not have fit anywhere, this would represent a scenario where life is not possible, but where ever there is a chance of a hole, water will fit snugly and ponder why it fits so well, just as life will propagate where it fits well and ask the same question. Is it chance that the water has the characteristics that allows it to snugly fit in any hole, or was it designed to fit any hole? Given that it is too improbable to occur by chance, the best explanation is that it must have been designed…

Also, lets not forget to ask the most fundamental question, why is there a hole rather than no hole? It sure seems that to have no hole is a lot more simple than this complex concavity in an otherwise orderly structure. So, the most reasonable conclusion is that a loving hydrophilic deity created this hole for the water’s flourishment, which is more probable than the chance hypothesis.

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Kyle Key December 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm

@Reidish:
Because at the moment I don’t accept the inference from conceivability to metaphysical possibility. If determinism is true, and every particular state of the universe unfolds as a direct causal result of particular physical laws and the interactions of the various forms of matter-energy according to those laws given some initial conditions, then I don’t see how the idea that things could have been different makes sense in anything except our conceptions of possible worlds. We can imagine alternate states to what occurred in the actual world, but nowhere along the deterministic chain does it seem that any proposed alternate state of affairs was actualizable.

I’ll readily admit that I don’t have much experience in this however. This post sums up my current thoughts on the matter: http://www.philosophyetc.net/2005/04/real-possibilities.html
Although unlike where Chappell leaves off, I don’t think that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is relevant for dissolving the issue: the metaphysical existence of other worlds with states that we conceive of as being logically possible in our actual world does not affect the nomologically antecedent states of our actual world.
This is largely pragmatic for me; though I think it’s fun to imagine what could have been, it holds no practical value for me outside of the immediate pleasure that pondering it brings.
Hopefully this elucidates my current thoughts on the matter for you. I’m also happy to concede that my original post in this thread was unwarrantably douche-y.

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Reidish December 8, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Larkus,

There is yet another possibility. I can remain agnostic about “whether it is possible or impossible for the relevant “physical constants/ratios/values you’re referring to” to differ significantly in any universe from what they are in our universe”.

Quite right, but that is simply a statement of your frame of mind. Your original position, if true, implies the truth of one of the disjuncts I mentioned (again, unless you take some other position that is, shall we say, “uncomfortable”, within metaphysical naturalism).

What do you think?

I have an accommodating metaphysical stance. Prima facie, I see no reason why the constants and initial states couldn’t be different, and so accept that they could be different. I also have a strong intuition to this belief. This is a very easy position to be in. Contrast that with what I take to be your position: you demand evidence (and only a certain kind!) that they could be different, otherwise you’ll maintain that they couldn’t.

Kyle Key,

If determinism is true, and every particular state of the universe unfolds as a direct causal result of particular physical laws and the interactions of the various forms of matter-energy according to those laws given some initial conditions, then I don’t see how the idea that things could have been different makes sense in anything except our conceptions of possible worlds.

I agree that if determinism is true, then everything unfolds in a pre-determined fashion, and every future state of the universe can be predicted according to the laws of physics (with the associated constants), and the initial conditions. But by no means does that imply that the constants and the initial conditions themselves are necessary. Yet, you are committed to that very belief if you deny any meaning to counterfactual statements.

I’ll take a look at the blog post you offered, thanks.

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Reginald Selkirk December 8, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Joshua: Water will of course fit any shape hole – the fit between the hole and the water can be explained wholly by reference to the nature of water.

That’s not true. Will water fit in a hole on the bottom of a horizontal surface (ceiling) ? How about a hole in a horizontal surface (wall)? One also needs to know about things other than the nature of water, such as the nature of gravity. The temperature and pressure are also things you might need to know.

But thanks for playing, and enjoy your consolation prize.

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Hermes December 8, 2010 at 4:30 pm

To add to Reginald Selkirk’s comments; depending on temperature, pressure, or gravity, or … . There are a great number of places water wouldn’t be capable of duplicating what the puddle did. Nearly all of those places are places we’d die instantly in as well.

The scrap of land we humans occupy is the dirty crust on the top layer of a metallic core. It’s about as large as the skin of an apple. Keep in mind what Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy;

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.

To put this in perspective, we can only ‘see’ about 14 billion light years in any direction, but the universe is over 150 billion light years wide. Our little viewable piece is like a marble lodged in a grapefruit. Some fine tuning.

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Larkus December 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm

@Reidish
You wrote:

“Your original position, if true, implies the truth of one of the disjuncts I mentioned”
“[...]either you’re committed to the idea that such physical evidence is possible to obtain, or you think the actual world is necessary.”
Unfortunately I am no philosopher. Could you explain, why I have to be committed to one of the disjuncts you mentioned?

You wrote:
“Contrast that with what I take to be your position: you demand evidence (and only a certain kind!) that they could be different, otherwise you’ll maintain that they couldn’t.”
Actually my position is, that you can’t know either way.

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Rob December 8, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Can someone explain how the fine-tuning argument is any different from all the other god of the gaps arguments? So we have these constants, and we don’t know why they have the values they do . . . so therefore . . . god did it?

How is that any different from explaining thunder by saying Thor makes it? Or saying psychosis is caused by demon possession?

It seems that a lot of folks take this argument semi-seriously, so I must be missing something.

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Adito99 December 8, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Rob

It boils down to the idea that there are a lot of objectively valuable things in the universe and it’s more likely that God would make them (because He values such things) than that they would just happen by chance. There are other variants but the majority hinge on the idea such valuable things exist.

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Rob December 9, 2010 at 5:12 am

Thanks Aditto99, that helps a little. (Except “objective value” makes no sense.)

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Reidish December 9, 2010 at 9:27 am

Hi Larkus,

You asked:

Unfortunately I am no philosopher. Could you explain, why I have to be committed to one of the disjuncts you mentioned?

Here’s how I see it from your perspective:

You haven’t argued against the existence of other universes, you’ve only said that we have no access to them (of course, given the current state of science). I’m also presuming (correct me if I’m wrong) that you are a metaphysical naturalist. So if other universes exist, or if it’s even possible other universes exist, and if metaphysical naturalism is true, then it is broadly logically possible to obtain physical evidence that a universe could have different initial conditions and physical constants. So that’s the first option.

On the other hand, if you want to argue that it’s impossible for other universes exist, then it follows that the actual universe is the only possible one. I take it that if an entity of a certain type is actual, and no other types are possible, then that entity is necessary. So that’s the second option.

I don’t see it as a tenable position to argue that we have no way to determine whether or not other universes are possible or impossible. In fact I don’t even see this utterance as a meaningful proposition.

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