There was an interview in the New York Times a few days ago with Tim Maudlin. The topic was the relation between religious ideas and modern cosmology. Since Maudlin is a professor of philosophy at New York University, and the author of a book on the philosophy of physics, readers might have expected some keen insights, but what they got instead was very shaky reasoning.
The interviewer then mentions that some have argued that the universe's fundamental constants seem to be fine-tuned (as discussed here), and that may suggest that the universe was designed by some intelligence interested in having intelligent creatures exist. Here is Maudlin's reply:
These statements are a combination of misinformed falsehoods and irrelevancies. Very far from being “part of what we don't yet know rather than what we do know,” the fundamental constants are some of the more well-understood aspects of nature. We pretty much know everything about them except why they have the numerical values that they have. We know the fundamental constants of nature (things such as the gravitational constant, the proton charge, the proton mass, and the speed of light) so well that we have measured their values to six decimal places or more, as shown in the table below. Maudlin's claim that the constants of nature are “not part of any well-established physical theory” is hilarious. The constants of nature are, in fact, fundamental parts of the most well-established theories in modern science: Einstein's theory of special relativity, Einstein's theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of Physics. We also know with a very high likelihood that the constants of nature have varied by almost no amount over the course of billions of years. Studies of quasars and isotopes typically produce a result such as a variation of less than 1 part in 100,000 over a billion years. Whether they vary by a very tiny amount over billions of years is irrelevant to discussions of whether such fine-tuned constants support the idea that the universe was purposefully created.
“Trying to figure out the effect of changing just one [constant] and leaving the rest alone” is not a game, but a perfectly serious scientific task which quite a few scientists have engaged in over the past five decades, publishing their results in scientific papers (100 examples can be found here). Far from being “not well founded,” such results are numerically rigorous and as well-founded as any other scientific results. In short, almost everything Maudlin says on this topic is off-base.
Fundamental physical constants
Maudlin also reasons as follows:
One thing is for sure: If there were some deity who desired that we know of its existence, there would be simple, clear ways to convey that information. I would say that any theistic argument that starts with the constants of nature cannot end with a deity who is interested in us knowing of its existence.
This argument is irrelevant because whether a creator wants us to know of his existence is a separate issue from whether such a creator exists. It is entirely possible that there exists a creator who is not particularly interested in whether tiny small-brained bit-player creatures such as us are certain of that creator's existence at this point in our development. A theist could also argue that the creator has left signs of his work in nature (the Big Bang, the exact equality of the proton charge and electron charge, the extreme fine-tuning of the cosmological constant, the improbable smoothness of the universe, and so forth), and that the gradual unveiling of such signs over decades (with the help of science) is ultimately more uplifting than some one-shot affair of seeing something like a “God exists” sign in the sky.
Discussing whether the Big Bang (the sudden origin of the universe about 13 billion years ago) may support the idea that the universe had a creator, Maudlin says, “I think we don’t know enough to make any plausible guess about even whether there was an initial state, much less what it might have been. This goes beyond what we have good evidence or theory for.” Most cosmologists would disagree with that statement. Such scientists say that we do have good evidence that the universe suddenly began about 13 billion years ago in the event called the Big Bang. The evidence includes the cosmic background radiation and the expansion of the universe (“rewinding the tape” on a universe in which galaxies are all flying farther and farther apart from each other leads inevitably to a point of sudden origin in a state of incredible density).
Schematic diagram of Big Bang and expanding universe
There is abundant evidence that something like the Big Bang was the beginning of our universe, which is why Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize. There may be some small degree of uncertainty in regard to this beginning, a little wiggle room for doubt, but it is not accurate to claim as Maudlin does that “we don’t know enough to make any plausible guess about even whether there was an initial state.” We do have enough not just to make a plausible guess, but to make a high-probability conclusion: the evidence very clearly indicates us that there very probably was a sudden beginning 13 billion years ago. It also indicates that the initial physical state of the universe had "an enormous amount of fine-tuning," in the words of a recent scientific paper on the topic, discussed here.
Maudlin also states, “As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act.” But, in fact, modern scientists do grant an explanatory role for things for which there is no direct experimental evidence, even when they don't have any details about such things or how they act. Two such things are dark matter and dark energy, both of which are completely mysterious, not understood in any detail, and not things that have been confirmed by any experiment. Scientists are willing to adopt completely vague ideas of the likely existence of dark matter and dark energy, without any details, because they find postulating such things useful in explaining certain hard-to-explain characteristics of our universe. So by requiring a “lot of detail” about an explanatory factor before making an explanatory assumption, Maudlin is setting up some artificially high hurdle for the hypothesis of a divine creator, one that scientific assumptions are not required to meet.
Postscript: A huge team of scientists (the Planck satellite team) has just released a paper finding that two of the fundamental constants of nature (the fine structure constant and the electron mass) have changed by less than 1 percent since the beginning of the universe.