Paper Review: From a Cosmic Fine-Tuner to a Perfect Being

Many arguments for the existence of God face the gap problem. In general, the gap problem is the problem of moving from some premiss of the form “there is a being with some perfections” to a conclusion of the form “there is a being with all perfections”.

Justin Mooney, following an approach by T. Ryan Byerly, argues that this gap can plausibly be bridged in a number of cases.

***The original paper can be found here.***

Following Mooney, first I will summarize Byerly’s proposal to solve the gap problem in the case of a cosmological argument for God’s existence. Then I will look at how Mooney thinks this gap-bridging strategy can extend to other cases.

According to Mooney, the general form of the cosmological argument is the following:

  1. Show a necessary being exists.
  2. Use 1. to show that a perfect being (God) exists.

The gap problem in this form of argument is how you actually use the premiss that a necessary being exists to show that a perfect being exists. The idea is that even if you have a necessarily existing being, it is not immediately clear why this being must posses all other perfections—omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, etc.

Byerly’s strategy is to make an abductive inference from a being with some perfections—in the case above necessity—to one with all perfections. Mooney explains the intuition behind this strategy as follows:

Once we’ve established that there is a necessary being, we can go on to ask why it has the property of necessary existence. Byerly contends that the best available explanation is one that makes use of the intuitive thought that universal generalizations can explain their instances. Just as there is a sense in which the universal generalization all ravens are black explains why that raven over there is black, Byerly suggests that the universal generalization the necessary being has all perfections explains why it has the perfection of necessary existence. In short, the necessary being is necessary because it is perfect.

p. 1

I’m going to try to keep this post more in the “summary” category than the “review” category, but I do want to note here that I find the above intuition surrounding explanation and inference quite suspect. I think there is too much inferential distance here for me to give a detailed account of why I find this kind of intuition suspect, but I’ll point to at least three things. The first is that, in general, our intuition is not a great guide to things. Most of our intuitions were forged through evolution or inculturation, and it takes real effort and careful analysis to figure out in what new domains (e.g. reasoning about bacteria or spacetime or God) our intuition is tracking anything real. Second, given the vast philosophical literature on explanation, this kind of intuitive reasoning about what the best explanation is or why we should make an inference to the best explanation in the first place seems very fast. Finally, I think the Bayesian account of inference and evidence is the best we have, and I think we should use the rich precise Bayesian epistemology in lieu of this more informal abductive approach. For the rest of this post I’ll ignore these issues, and instead try to understand the reasoning pattern used in this paper.

So, we have seen that Byerlys strategy is to use this kind of abductive inference to use step 1. to do step 2. Mooney thinks this can be extended to another argument for God’s existence—the teleological argument.

Mooney gives the following summary of the teleological argument and the associated gap problem:

Teleological arguments attempt to demonstrate that God exists by showing that there is a being that designed the natural world. Contemporary versions of the argument tend to be based on discoveries of modern cosmology such as the fine-tuning of the initial entropy of the universe and physical constants such as the cosmological constant. Now, a being capable of creating a fine-tuned universe would have to have an impressive amount of knowledge and power, not to mention at least some interest in creating life, but it’s not clear that we can know much more about this being simply by making inferences from the fine-tuning data. So, at this point, the teleological argument is confronted with a gap problem…Suppose we grant that our cosmos was designed by some agent. Why think it was a perfect being? A being with the knowledge and power to create our cosmos might still fail to be omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, eternal, necessary and so on. In short, how do we get from a cosmic fine-tuner to a perfect being?

pp. 1-2

We see that this is a similar structure to the gap problem in the cosmological argument. if we can establish the claim that there is a being with some perfection/feature—in this case a lot of knowledge and power—how do we bridge the gap to get the rest?

Byerly’s strategy is supposed to help us here. Let’s see how it is meant to work:

A designer of our cosmos would have to have the knowledge and power requisite to create a fine-tuned universe. And if we construe perfections in the right way, e.g. as positive properties, or as properties which are intrinsically better to have than to lack etc., then it is intuitively very plausible that the knowledge and power to make a fine-tuned universe are perfections. So – following Byerly – we can ask: why does the designer of the universe have these perfections? And we can answer: because it has all perfections. The instances can be explained by positing a corresponding universal generalization. And obviously, positing that the designer has some, but not all, perfections would be a weaker explanation.

p. 2

Okay, so I know I said I would try to make this more of a summary than a review, but I do want to point out that it doesn’t seem right to say, even on an intuitive level, that “the knowledge and power to make a fine-tuned universe are perfections” — for all we know there are plenty of very powerful entities making universes all over the place. Maybe we are some young entity’s early science fair project. Maybe we are a simulation created by a powerful AI to simulate its early history. I’m not saying these things are likely, I’m just saying that as far as this is supposed to seem all intuitive goes, this doesn’t seem right to me. We don’t need perfection to create a universe.

Having said that, if we accept that these are perfections, and if we accept Byerly’s argument pattern, then we see how we can close the gap.

Mooney does bring up consider another counter argument to the reasoning in the above quote:

One might object that this reasoning would license all sorts of absurd inferences. For example, suppose I hear about some object, x, that can lift 50 pounds, and I know virtually nothing else specific about x. It doesn’t seem rational to infer that x is perfect. But I submit that the inference only seems poor because we have so much evidence from ordinary experience that all sorts of objects in our world are imperfect. The cosmic fine-tuner/perfect being inference seems stronger, perhaps because a cosmic fine-tuner is so far outside of our ordinary experience, and perhaps because, once we arrive at the gap problem, we have already established that the fine-tuner has a much, much greater degree of perfection than any object in ordinary experience.

p. 2

At this point I want to ask, does the cosmic fine-tuner/perfect being inference seem stronger? It doesn’t seem that way to me, for the reason I sketched earlier. My hypothesis space for causes of the universe, even if we assume a designer, is pretty well-populated with all sorts of different designers, only some of which look like a perfect God. Furthermore, I claim that the fact that a cosmic fine-tuner is “so far outside of our ordinary experience” should give us pause about applying our intuitions, as opposed to strengthening this form of reasoning.

Mooney ends by concluding that Byerly has given us a bridge to close the gap in many different forms of theist arguments. I expect that I would have a similar reaction to these other arguments as I had to those here. However, I do still think it is interesting to explore the kind of reasoning patterns deployed by people, especially if they seem counter-intuitive to us. It can help us better understand how other people are thinking, and can serve as a check on us to see if we have missed anything.

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