Daniel Dennett vs. Dinesh D’souza Debate (Review)

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 10, 2009 in Criticism of Atheists,Debates,Reviews

Reposted from my old site.

Christian author Dinesh D’Souza debated atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett over the idea that “God is a manmade invention.”

You can watch the debate on Youtube: part 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15. Or, download the mp3.

Here’s my breakdown of the debate, following it as it developed.

What are we debating?

Neither debater says much about the actual topic: “God is a manmade invention.” Or at least, they don’t explain how their points are relevant to that topic. Instead, both debaters merely rant.

Since their points are so disconnected, I’ll respond to each debater point-by-point.

Dennett’s opening

Dennett gives some facts about religion:

  • Christianity is not growing.
  • Islam is growing, mostly by having more babies than other religions.
  • The nonreligious are growing the fastest.

These numbers are hard to calculate and sources disagree, but they are roughly correct.

Jump. New topic. He points out that America is more religious than Western Europe, but Western Europe has better “family values.”

  • America has a higher homicide rate than Western Europe.
  • And a higher rate of STDs.
  • And a higher rate of teen pregnancy.
  • And a higher abortion rate.

That’s all true. Dinesh won’t like that.

Dennett’s proposal for education

New topic. Dennett also proposes mandatory education of world religions. He says parents can teach their kids whatever they want, as long as schools teach them the basic beliefs of major religions. Why? Because the destructive versions of religion seems to come from the enforced ignorance of children.

Dennett gives some example facts about the world religions, then asks, “Do parents have the right to keep their children ignorant of facts like these about the world’s religions?” His answer is no.

I’m all for education. But can you require these facts be taught? How do you choose which facts are required, and which are optional? Plenty of parents want their kids to get as much education as possible. If they miss out on a few things, have they deliberately “kept their children ignorant of facts”?

Dennett’s conclusions

New topic. Now Dennett says, “So, I think it’s pretty clear that religions are human inventions.”

What? If Dennett made an argument, I missed it. I agree that religions are human inventions, but I didn’t hear Dennett make that argument.

New topic. Now Dennett talks about Darwin’s great idea; that a complex and beautiful machine can be made without knowing how to make it. Things can just evolve.

New topic. Dennett points out that man’s picture of God went from specific to vague. At first, God was Yahweh: a personified, personal warlord who spoke audibly and appeared visibly to his people, got jealous, and made decisions. Now God is, for many people, a kind of “Ground of all Being.” He’s great, but he doesn’t have arms or legs, doesn’t speak or appear to us, doesn’t have emotions, etc.

Dinesh’s opening

Dinesh starts by rebutting Dennett.

He says religion is growing, worldwide. But the facts are unclear about this, and Dennett never claimed otherwise. Dennett cited numbers for Christianity, Islam, and the nonreligious.

Dinesh says, “There is Hinduism resurgent in India . . . not in [their number] but in the level of devotion.” Right. So it’s not growing.

He says Christianity is growing in Africa and South Korea. Yes it is. But it is not growing worldwide. It is only keeping up with population growth, or just barely surpassing it.

About Dennett’s proposal. Dinesh doesn’t object to the proposal, but to the “dripping, elitist contempt in which it is couched.” Okay. So Dinesh does support the proposal.

But we shouldn’t just teach religions, he says. We should also teach Darwinism, and how it influenced Social Darwinism and Nazism. I agree. (But we should also teach kids how much life-saving medicine evolutionary biology has given us.)

Dinesh points out that the Christian inquisition, crusades, and witch burnings didn’t kill nearly as many people as atheists. He is right.

Richard Dawkins said religious crimes were in the “name” of religion, but atheist crimes were not in the “name” of atheism. Dawkins is wrong. Atheist regimes specifically wanted to “create a new man, create a new Utopia, free from the shackles of traditional religion and traditional morality” (quoting Dinesh).

Dinesh’s arguments

Now to the debate’s topic. Is religion a man made invention?

Dinesh quotes Dennett as saying that religious doctrines contain no agreed-upon facts. To rebut this, he points out that a few of the Ten Commandments are “within the orbit of reason.” What? Morals are not “agreed-upon facts.”

Now Dinesh turns to the evidence for God’s existence. (What the hell are these two debating, anyway? Make up your minds.)

His first argument is that of First Cause. The universe had a beginning. Therefore God created the universe. Obviously, the argument is non sequiter.

His second argument is fine tuning. There are lots of values—the weight of a proton, the strength of gravity, etc. – that have to be just so for us to exist. Therefore, God must have set these values just right so we could evolve. Why should we assume God did it? Because we don’t know how else these values could be the way they are. That’s like saying “We don’t know how lightning works, therefore Zeus exists.”

Dinesh says we’ve been uncovering the intelligence of nature. He asks, “Who put it there?” That’s exactly what we used to ask about the intelligence of biology, until Darwin showed us that you don’t need intelligence to get complexity. Apparently Dinesh forgot.

New topic. Dinesh says the principles of science itself – that nature is lawful – is a Christian idea. False, of course. It is an ancient Greek idea. But what’s his point? How is that relevant to anything?

New topic. Dinesh agrees that evolution formed “our physical nature,” but says our mental nature must have come from God. Why? Apparently, he’s using another argument from ignorance. “We don’t know consciousness could have evolved, so it must be from God.”

New topic. Dinesh agrees with Dennett that religions are mostly man-made. They are part of culture.

What? The debaters agree on the topic of debate? I guess that’s just one more indication that this is not a debate, but two inept rants.

Now Dinesh says both he and Dennett are “agnostics” in that evidence can’t prove things like the nature of God. He uses the example of life after death. Dennett might object that there’s no evidence. Dinesh asks, “What does he want? Does he want someone to rise from the dead and give courtroom testimony?

Yes. Dennett wants evidence for such a bizarre claim as, “People continue to ‘live’ after death, without their bodies but in a non-physical ‘soul.’”

Dinesh says Dennett is like a cave man, who believes there is nothing else out there because his little instruments can’t see them. No, that’s not what Dennett is saying. Dennett doesn’t claim to have proved there is no god, only that there is no reason to believe that gods exist. We don’t have any evidence! The burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim.

Dinesh says that Dennett says “Since I can’t see consciousness under a microscope, consciousness doesn’t exist” and “Because a computer can compute like you can, it is human in a fundamental way.” Of course, Dennett claims no such things. This is an obvious straw-man attack from Dinesh.

Dinesh talks a lot about how Dennett denies free will (not true). Then he asks, “Why would anyone be attracted to a metaphysics that denies our subjective nature?” But the debate isn’t about how we want things to be, Dinesh. It’s about how things are.

New topic. Dinesh admits that he doesn’t know God exists. He chooses to believe. He says, “We are both reasoning in the dark, but [Dennett] won’t admit it!” Yes he does.

He then brings up Pascal’s Wager. He says you have nothing to lose if you bet on God, but everything to lose if you don’t bet on God. Pascal’s Wager is a terrible argument, as one of the audience members points out during Q&A.

Dennett’s response

Dennett points out that the ideas Dinesh mocked were “cartoon versions” of Dennett’s ideas. Dinesh was attacking straw men. Unfortunately, Dennett doesn’t get too specific. That’s why I was specific about Dinesh’s problems above.

Dennett points out a classic problem with the First Cause argument: “If the universe can’t create itself, how can God create himself?

Dennett is incoherant in his response to Dinesh’s fine tuning argument, mumbling something about “multiple universes.”

Dennett tries to excuse atheist murders by pointing out that their regimes had some characteristics of religion. True. But that doesn’t excuse these atheists for murder, or the influence of their atheism on those murders. Dennett even tries to say that Stalin wasn’t an atheist. That’s bullshit, Dan. You should know better.

Dinesh’s response

Dinesh rages against Dennett’s special pleading about atheist genocides, and he’s quite right.

First Cause again

Dinesh clarifies his First Cause argument:

  1. Everything with a beginning has a cause.
  2. The universe had a beginning.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
  4. That cause, we call God.

Apparently, God doesn’t need a cause because he didn’t have a beginning. But does Dinesh have any reason to think God didn’t have a beginning? No. He just invents him as a being with no beginning. I could just as well invent a being called “Ganoosh” and claim she had no beginning, therefore she invented the universe.

Finally, the fourth point comes out of nowhere. Has Dinesh ever read the first chapter of a logic book? That is not an argument.

Fine tuning again

Dinesh rightly points out there is no evidence for multiple universes.

Dennett’s second response

Dennett admits that he doesn’t know any better than Dinesh what explains the laws of nature.

He points out that an intelligent creator is not a good explanation, though, because it only leads to “What created the intelligent creator? Isn’t that even more unlikely and marvelous than a few laws?” Quite right.

Atheist murders

Dennett admits that any idea can be misused. Good. Both theists and atheists do plenty of evil, and that has nothing to do with the truth of their claims about the world.

Dinesh’s second response

Dinesh agrees with Dennett that morality does not require religion. But he doesn’t accept that morality could have evolved. It must have come from God. Sigh. This is yet another argument from ignorance.

Then he says our modern morality is better than ancient morality because of Christian ideals. Christian-influenced European nations are more charitable than non-Christian Eastern countries. Seriously, Dinesh? Christianity is among the bloodiest of all religions! Compare Christianity to Hinduism or Buddhism. Maybe one reason Western countries are more charitable is that they have more to give. They are rich.

He then says Christians “led the only anti-slavery movement the world has ever known.” Holy hell that’s bad history!

Excusing religious wars

Now Dinesh tries to excuse religion from all its atrocities. He says religious wars are about land, not religion. Sure, there are some political elements in all conflicts, but yes religions are often fighting about religion. Good Lord, Dinesh. Read your history.

Besides, Dinesh can’t force Dennett to accept responsibility for atheist atrocities, then say “But religions are excused for religious atrocities.” Nonsense.

Argument from religious experience

Dinesh closes with a brand new argument. What a fucked up debate. Makes me appreciate William Lane Craig.

Dinesh says that Christians don’t need evidence because they have experienced God personally.

A common argument against this is “So, people who experience UFOs are justified in their belief? Dinesh’s rebuttal is that millions of people believe in God. But popularity is no argument. All humans used to think the earth was flat. And besides, millions of people have experienced Allah or Krishna or ghosts. Are they all as justified in their belief as you, Dinesh?

Of course not. Personal experiences are highly unreliable. Especially when they are 100% mental, even by the believer’s own admission. Dinesh accepts this with regard to all other religions and paranormal ideas, but not with Christianity. No, those experiences are real.

Q&A

Dinesh got most of the questions in Q&A. The audience asked things like:

  • If everything has a cause, how is God exempt from that?
  • How do you get from “there is a creator of the universe” to believing the complex irrationalities of Christianity?
  • If you agree that evolution formed our physical natures, why do you deny that it formed our brains?

All good questions. Dinesh avoids answering any of them.

Summary

The debate was terrible. It seemed to me Dinesh was evasive, dishonest, and inept. Dennett was merely inept.

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{ 69 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt M March 10, 2009 at 1:55 am

Found your blog via Atheist Ethicist — Just want to say how nice it is to see a balanced take on an atheist-theist debate.

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Danny March 10, 2009 at 3:41 am

I really can’t make heads or tails of Dennett. When he’s talking about philosophy of mind, he’s at least coherent and interesting. When talking about evolution, he’s a second-rate Dawkins groupie. When talking about atheism, he is mostly inept. I say we remove him from the four horsemen and replace him with someone more incendiary. ;)

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Anselm March 12, 2009 at 6:35 am

I see a few problems with your critique of D’souza’s arguments. From what I have seen of the reaction to this debate on atheist websites, the consensus is that D’souza prevailed, and there is disappointment among atheists in Dennett’s performance (see http://tinyurl.com/3bsxv4, where D’souza provides what I believe is a summary of the reaction to this debate in the blogosphere which is consistent with what I have seen). Indeed, atheists are consistently disappointed in Dennett’s debate peformances, probably because he tends to give the same slide presentation at each debate and engages in insults over arguments (see recently here against Plantinga: http://tinyurl.com/chhhja).

On the growth of Christianity, D’souza is correct–Philip Jenkins’ work has established that Dennett’s argument for a stagnant Christianity is false. See http://tinyurl.com/boysyh

D’souza is correct that biblical injunctions against murder, theft, etc. represent the agreed-upon cross-cultural moral consensus based on reason, and are not subjective matters of taste. Indeed, one of atheism’s challenges is coming up with a non-religious foundation for this consensus that it, too, subscribes to (as I believe you have attempted to do with “desire utilitarianism”).

On the cosmological argument, D’souza is correct that if the spacetime universe had a beginning, then it had a cause outside of spacetime–you may want to refer to “the immaterial, timeless cause of the universe,” but that is generally considered to be a description of “God.” It doesn’t established Christianity in its entirety, but if true it certainly means that God is not a “man-made invention.” As for the “what caused God” argument, you are familiar with the difference between necessary and contingent being, right? (See http://tinyurl.com/df64sg)
You can call the necessary being “Ganoosh” if you want, but it would be the same concept as “God.”

On the fine-tuning argument, you seem to be unaware of the fact that precise settings of the constants in the initial big bang is considered “the biggest problem in physics” (Discover Magazine, 12/08–see http://tinyurl.com/5qwd7x). Atheists have scrambled to come up with the “multiverse” hypothesis because of the disturbing (for them) pro-theism implications of fine-tuning. Atheist physicists like Leonard Susskind realize that saying “we don’t know” is not good enough (see http://tinyurl.com/csb3vt).

Regarding Dennett’s view of consciousness, you are incorrect. He does believe that computers (if scaled up from current versions) can have the same kind of consciousness as human beings (see his interview with Robert Wright here: http://tinyurl.com/ba7cxq). So D’souza is correct here as well.

As for evidence for the afterlife, D’souza is pointing out that there can be no EXPERIMENTAL evidence of such an experience. But there can be good reasons aside from experimental evidence for believing in the afterlife.

Finally, as for Pascal’s Wager, as D’souza points out in his book, it highlights the fact that death increases the stakes of the issue and forces us to take a position–to the point that refusing to take a position also constitutes a decision when life is finite. This is a decision that cannot be escaped.

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Chris mankey March 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm

On the cosmological argument, D’souza is correct that if the spacetime universe had a beginning, then it had a cause outside of spacetime

No, it proves that if the universe had a beginning time began at the big bag and since causality is Dependant on time to exist nothing could “cause” the universe since causality wouldn’t exist either. So it’s logically impossible for the universe to have a cause.

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Anselm March 12, 2009 at 4:10 pm

“No, it proves that if the universe had a beginning time began at the big bag and since causality is Dependant on time to exist nothing could “cause” the universe since causality wouldn’t exist either. So it’s logically impossible for the universe to have a cause.”

No, the premises of the cosmological argument are as follows:

1) Whatever begins to exist, has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe had a cause

The cause of the universe is not dependent on time, since time itself came into existence with the universe. That is why the cause of the universe must be spaceless, timeless and immaterial, which conforms to the concept we call “God.”

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lukeprog March 12, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Anselm,

Christianity stagnated during the 20th century according to the most trusted source of religious demographics: the World Christian Encyclopedia.
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/paul07/paul07_index.html

You said that one of atheism’s biggest challenges is coming up with a non-religious foundation for ethics. This seems to assume that religion already has the problem solved. But “Goddidit” is no answer. An assertion is not an argument. Perhaps you can come up with some kind of essentialist divine command theory that is logically coherent, but I have never seen it demonstrated that this is the foundation of moral values for OUR universe. Where is your evidence? To simply define morality as the character of God does not help clarify the foundation of moral values, and I have never seen that solution backed up with any evidence. It is another case of Christians and The Thing That Made the Things for Which There is No Known Maker:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVbnciQYMiM

“The universe had a beginning, therefore God created the universe” remains a non-sequitur, at least as Dinesh presented it. There must be MANY hidden premises in there.

As for fine-tuning, I’ll be happy to rebut that in an upcoming post. For now, let me react to the line: “Atheists have scrambled to come up with the ‘multiverse’ hypothesis because of the disturbing (for them) pro-theism implications of fine-tuning.”

The difference between multiverse theories (say, inflationary theory or cosmological evolution theory) is that they make dozens of very precise mathematical predictions about what we should find in the universe, that they accurately predicts quarks and neutrinos and an ancient universe and other things exactly as we do find them. Compare that to “Goddidit”, which predicts nothing – certainly not quarks and neutrinos and cosmic background radiation and all the stuff we actually DO find in the universe. Compared to multiverse theories, “Goddidit” is impotent and pathetically ignorant, akin to say “Aliens in a higher dimension did it.” These hypotheses do not predict at ALL what we see in the real universe. At least two multiverse theories I know of DO predict the details of what we see in our universe.

As for computing and consciousness, it’s irrelevant to the debate, and of course Dennett’s position is nothing so simple as what Dinesh suggested. Dennett’s view of consciousness is informed by hundreds of studies in neuroscience, and centuries of development in philosophy of mind, not just computer science.

Why should we not expect evidence of the afterlife, if it exists? Also, if I said, “We would not expect evidence of reincarnation if it were true,” would that in any way take a step toward demonstrating that it IS true?

Pascal’s Wager is not saved by saying that death makes it more important. The fact of death does not help us choose between thousands of possible gods, for example.

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Anselm March 13, 2009 at 11:33 am

Since you say in another blog post that you welcome substantive criticism, I have to point out that you are incorrect when you say that the intelligent design hypothesis (which posits that the “anthropic principle” results from fine-tuning by a designer) has no predictive power. In fact, as Susskind points out in his book “The Cosmic Landscape,” Steven Weinberg made the most stunning astrophysical prediction of the last 50 years regarding the value of “lambda”, the cosmological constant, by making the assumption that the value would have to precisely be the value required to allow life to exist. He made this prediction before any experimental confirmation of lambda existed. “If the Anthropic Principle were correct, then astronomers would discover that the vacuum energy was nonzero and probably not much smaller than 10 to the -120the power Units” (p. 84). And sure enough, the later discovery confirming this “hit us like a proverbial ton of bricks” (p. 185).

But it is not just the cosmological constant that is precisely tuned for our existence. There are over 20 constants that must have the precise that they actually possess for life in our universe to exists. “The basic setup looks almost too good to be true. Rather than following a pattern of mathematical simplicity or elegance, the laws of nature seem specially tailored to our existence. As I have repeatedly said, physicists hate this idea” (p. 130).

Susskind goes on to spend the remainder of the book describing a “multiverse” theory that he admits is motivated by the strong desire to avoid the theistic implications of the anthropic principle (even though at the end he admits that it is unlikely we would ever be able to detect these other universes!)

Thus the intelligent design hypothesis has powerful predictive power. The values of the constants can be precisely predicted by simply asking the following question: “If an intelligent designer were fine-tuning the universe to allow life to exist, what would the values of these constants have to be?” And Weinberg demonstrated this predictive power in the case of the cosmological constant.

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lukeprog March 13, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Anselm,

I do appreciate your criticism, indeed! Keep it coming.

I may have to read Susskind’s book.

Just in the (admittedly brief) was you’ve explained it here, I don’t understand why “the God hypothesis” has any predictive power. What does “Goddidit” predict? Does it predict quarks? An incredibly vast and old universe? Microwave background radiation? Black holes? Neutrinos? I don’t see that “Goddidit” predicts much of anything.

I don’t understand the significance of Weinberg’s prediction. He predicted the value that would be required for the universe to create our kind of life? Wouldn’t that be based on the fact that our kind of life exists, not on the much weaker hypothesis that God created the universe to eventually evolve our kind of life?

But anyway, I’ll save the biggest problems with the design argument for its own post.

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Anselm March 13, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Thanks for the opportunity to post these thoughts. Regarding your question, the significance of Weinberg’s prediction lies in the fact that physicists had long hoped the the values of all of these constants could be derived from a master theory or formula which would show that their values were necessary. But instead they have found that there is no theoretical explanation for why the values are what they are; they could have been vastly different, and the odds against them having the precise values they do have are “astronomical” (so to speak).

Indeed, the only explanatory principle that explains the values of these various constants is that those values are precisely (“on a knife’s edge”, as they say) what they need to be for life to exist (not just our form of life, but ANY form of life, because if the constants were even slightly different, galaxies, stars, planets etc. would not even be able to form).

Now this is very eerie and disturbing to atheistically-inclined physicists, which is why they haven’t reacted with a simple “well, there’s just one universe and I guess we just got lucky in that it allows life.” Since it appears “almost as if someone has monkeyed with the physics” (as one astronomer put it), they are driven to postulate an enormous number of ACTUAL universes which are NOT life-permitting to explain why there can be ONE universe (ours) which is. The question you have to ask is: which metaphysics requires more faith? Belief that the constants were fine-tuned with us in mind, or belief in an infinity of actual universes which we will never be able to detect?

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lukeprog March 14, 2009 at 8:53 am

Okay, I was going to leave this for my post on the fine-tuning argument, but I can’t wait.

I refer to this as the Arrogant Puddle Fallacy, after a Douglas Adams quote:

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!”

If the puddle’s world was a bit different, the puddle couldn’t have existed as it did. There could have been no water, or Jello instead of water, or no hole, or lots of tiny holes, or no gravity to hold the water in the hole. But that is no reason for the puddle to think the world was fine-tuned for him. No, the puddle was fine-tuned for the hole.

Or consider poker. ANY hand you can draw is extremely improbable. But it is not impressive that we draw any particular hand. It is only impressive if we call out a particular hand as meaningful we draw the hand. But we’re not doing that. We’re calling the hand we got “meaningful” AFTER we drew the hand.

Another way to look at it is this: given that we are here, it is IMPOSSIBLE for the universe to not be life-permitting. It COULDN’T be any other way.

Likewise, let’s say the universe was some other way. Let’s say the geometry of spacetime produced a dense, swirling symphony of brightly colored gasses. As outsiders in another dimension, would we look at that universe, realize its enormous improbability, and conclude it must have been designed?

Then, I imagine, we would look at another nearby universe and see it is filled with almost nothing but black holes, continuously swallowing each other and exploding into mini-big-bangs when they got too dense. That particular universe would also be extremely improbable. Would we conclude that one, too, must have been fine-tuned to create those big-banging black holes?

The universe could have been a trillions different ways. All of them are inherently improbable. That doesn’t mean any of them were fine-tuned.

Also: scientists have NOT found out that the “fundamental” properties of the universe are not reducible. They just haven’t yet found that they ARE. But if the trend of the last 400 years continues, we should actually EXPECT that they WILL. Literally thousands of other things at every level of scientific inquiry have turned out to be reducible to more fundamental, simpler systems. Why should we expect that all to stop with the latest unsolved puzzle?

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Anselm March 14, 2009 at 10:49 am

The “Arrogant Puddle Fallacy” appears to be identical to what has been termed the “Weak Anthropic Principle.” The problem with it, though, can be seen through your poker analogy. The drawing of any particular hand is not meaningful. But the analogy to cosmological fine-tuning (in which not just numerous constants are precisely set, but their ratios to one another are precisely set) would be drawing a full house 1000 times in a row. Sure, it’s possible for such an unlikely event to happen randomly, but wouldn’t it make you suspicious that “something is up”? As William Lane Craig (whose reasoning abilities I know you respect) puts it:

“Once the central fallacy is thus removed, Barrow and Tipler’s [Weak Anthropic Principle] argument in the lengthy quotation in the text seems to amount to little more than the old objection that any state of affairs is highly improbable and therefore the obtaining of the actual state of affairs requires no special explanation. But this objection is surely misconceived. What unprejudiced and right-minded person could possibly regard a chimpanzee’s haphazardly typing out the complete plays and sonnets of Shakespeare as equally probable with any chaotic series of letters? The objection fails to reckon with the difference between randomness, order, and complexity. On the first level of randomness, there is a non- denumerably infinite number of chaotic sequences, e.g., ‘adfzwj’, each of which is equally improbable and which collectively could serve to exhaust all sequences typed by the ape. But the meta-level of ordered letters, e.g., ,’crystalcrystalcrystal ‘, need never be produced by his random efforts, were he to type for eternity. Even more improbable is the metameta-level of complexity, in which information is supplied, e.g., ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ Hence, it is fallacious to assert that since some set of conditions must obtain in the universe, the actual set is in no way improbable or in need of explanation.”

I understand your hope that physicists will find a master theory which explains fine-tuning in terms of fundamental properties. But Leonard Susskind, one of the preeminent physicists living today, disagrees with you–as does the consensus of his colleagues. As he states in his book: “As much as I would very much like to balance things by explaining the opposing side, I simply can’t find that other side. Opposing arguments boil down to a visceral dislike off the Anthropic Principle (I hate it) or an ideological complaint against it (it’s giving up).” Thus, he resorts to multiverse metaphysics (or as he terms it “the cosmic landscape.”)

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lukeprog March 14, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Right, so let’s use Craig’s language.

“What unprejudiced and right-minded person could possibly regard a chimpanzee’s haphazardly typing out the complete plays and sonnets of Shakespeare as equally probable with any chaotic series of letters?”

The difference is that in this scenario, the plays of Shakespeare have been defined as meaningful and important BEFORE the chimpanzee sets about typing. But our particular variety of complex life was not defined as meaningful and important before the arrival of the fundamental properties of the universe.

A more correct analogy to the fine-tuning argument is the following scenario: A chimpanzee types a chaotic series of letters for several years (let us abbreviate it “sjhoaifewoinawefl”), and only AFTER that, we decide that “sjhoaifewoinawefl” is quite meaningful and important, whereas “sjhoaifewoinawefe” would have been interesting but not so important, and “gjhoaifewoinawefl” would have required no explanation, and “sshoaifewoinawefl” would not have been important, etc.

This is why the Arrogant Puddle is a better analogy to the fine-tuning argument than your version of the poker story.

Or, let’s consider this another way. Random mutation and random changes in environment have played crucial roles in human evolution. If one mutation had happened different at one time or another, or if one locally major geologic event had happened differently at one time or another, etc. – then the human could have evolved into quite a different creature (or not evolved at all). If any one of these hundreds of events (variables) had been different, humanity would be quite different than it actually is.

Are we thus justified in thinking that a super-advanced alien tinkered with each local catastrophe and each genetic mutation to produce the particular kind of human life we see today? Of course not. If these mutations or geologic events would have been different, then humanity simply would have been different.

All I’m saying is that we can keep scaling this kind of argument all the way back to the fundamental properties of the universe.

One more example.

Did you know that the snowflake that just landed on my hand has a fine shape that is extremely improbable? Ah! It must have been personally designed by Allah!

But no, how silly. If I had been able to call in advance the exact mathematical shape of the type of snowflake I deemed significant, and that type of snowflake then landed on my hand, then that would call out for explanation. But it is not impressive to wait until a snowflake lands on my hand, examine its exact shape, deem that shape more significant than the others, and then assert that this amazing coincidence calls out for explanation.

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Anselm March 14, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Yes, I can definitely see where you are coming from with this post. And I commend you and your blog, particularly your most recent post stating the areas where you believe William Lane Craig is right. Your blog is a credit to atheism and to the concept of civil discourse (and stands head and shoulders above many other atheist blogs I have read, which tend to traffic in juvenile put-downs, ridicule and ad hominem arguments).

Certainly, the plausibility of the fine-tuning argument turns to some degree on whether a universe that produces life is meaningfully different from a universe that produces, say, only gaseous clouds. I think most reasonable observers would see a qualitative difference between those two that cries out for an explanation.

However, until you read Susskind’s book I’m not sure you can appreciate why he and other physicists are not comfortable accepting your line of reasoning–that the fine-tuning can be dismissed because a life-permitting universe only appears significant in retrospect. I can quote one more passage to give you a sense of the dilemma he is wrestling with, and why he is driven to embrace (and is spending the rest of his career pursuing) a multiverse explanation against all his subjective preferences (since such a multiverse explanation smacks of metaphysics, not physics, and is therefore not his ideal solution–but to him is still preferable to the God hypothesis, since he is implacably opposed a priori to any supernatural cause)—

(From p. 11-12): “Is it really true that the universe and its laws are very delicately balanced? The second chapter, “The Mother of all Physics Problems” could also be called “The Mother of all Balancing Acts.” When the laws of elementary particles meet the laws of gravity, the result is a potential catastrophe: a world of such violence that astronomical bodies, as well as elementary particles, would be torn asunder by the most destructive force imaginable. The only way out is for one particular constant of nature–Einstein’s cosmological constant–to be so incredibly finely tuned that no one could possibly think it accidental. First introduced by Einstein soon after the completion of his theory of gravity, the cosmological constant has been the greatest enigma of theoretical physics for almost ninety years. It represents the ultimate repulsive force–a kind of antigravity–that would instantly destroy the universe if it were not astonishingly small. The problem is that all our modern theories imply that the cosmological constant should not be small. The modern principles of physics are based on two foundations: the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. The generic result of a world based on these principles is a universe that would very quickly self-destruct. But for reasons that have been completely incomprehensible, the cosmological constant is fine-tuned to an astonishing degree. This, more than any other lucky ‘accident,’ leads some people to conclude that the universe must be the result of design.”

So I would be interested to see your interaction with this book in the content of your upcoming major post on the fine-tuning argument. Thanks again.

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lukeprog March 14, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Anselm,

Again you’ve quoted Susskind, while ignoring my own points. What do you say about chimpanzee, the puddle, the evolved human, or the snowflake?

“Certainly, the plausibility of the fine-tuning argument turns to some degree on whether a universe that produces life is meaningfully different from a universe that produces, say, only gaseous clouds. I think most reasonable observers would see a qualitative difference between those two that cries out for an explanation.”

Of course they do, because THEY ARE HUMAN! If the universe had been one that eventually evolved a consciousness made not of meat but of metals or gasses or particles not found in our universe, such beings would conclude that THEY are special, and the universe must have been designed with them in mind. Similarly, let’s say we could stand outside and look at a possible (and highly improbable) universe made of swirling, colorful gasses. My guess is that we’d find that universe more meaningful than a universe full of little but a rhythmic, thunderous noise. But another kind of intelligent creature could easily find the latter more in need of explanation. It seems to me we’re talking about a preference between painting and death metal. And it’s not at all surprising that humans find the universe that produced them more in need of explanation than a possible universe that produced something equally complex and improbable but not resembling humanity or even self-replicating proteins.

Again, we ARE in this universe, so the universe could not possibly be any other way! If we found a universe with little else but a particular rhythmic booming, it would ALSO have to carry all the fundamental properties that it had – however improbable.

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Anselm March 15, 2009 at 9:43 am

Regarding Craig’s chimpanzee typing example: are you really saying that you believe there is no objectively meaningful difference between a chimpanzee typing “sjhoaifewoinawefl” and a chimpanzee typing out the complete plays and sonnets of Shakespeare? Perhaps embracing such a position of radical subjectivism avoids the theistic implications of fine-tuning, but at what cost? For then the whole scientific enterprise, which assumes that certain patterns are independently meaningful (e.g., the equations of physics, etc.), is undercut, and we are just deluding ourselves if we think we are discovering objectively meaningful patterns in the universe through science.

And this ties back into Susskind, which is why I was quoting him: he doesn’t buy this radical subjectivism at all. He, and the consensus of his colleagues, clearly sees a universe which gives rise to cosmologists who can study that universe as an independently meaningful state of affairs (qualitatively different from the myriad of possible universes with different constants which would contain nothing but chaos). It is a state of affairs that cries out for an explanation. Otherwise they could just embrace your position and stop worrying about it. However, they would recoil from your position as one of epistemological nihilism.

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lukeprog March 16, 2009 at 12:24 am

Again, we are not talking about a chimpanzee typing the plays of Shakespeare. That analogy would only hold if what was meaningful was decided BEFORE the Monkey starts typing. But that is not our situation. We’ve decided what’s meaningful AFTER the fact, and – big surprise! – we’ve decided that WE are what cries out for explanation, and not any other particular arrangement of laws and forces and results.

You keep quoting Susskind, but you haven’t responded to my analogies. Once again, you sound like the man who realizes there are a million possible ways human evolution could have gone, sees the results of the way it DID happen, deems it significant after the fact, and then cries out for an explanation.

If your logic doesn’t make sense, then I shall not be persuaded because you found an atheist scientist who agrees with you on this one point. I could find theists who agree with me and disagree with you about this or that thing, but I don’t bother.

I could very well be thinking this through wrong, but then I need somebody like you to show me HOW I’m wrong.

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anselm March 16, 2009 at 7:56 am

I certainly do not expect to persuade you, since the usual result of discussions such as these is to expose each side’s first principles or presuppositions, and not the changing of minds–not that that isn’t useful! Each side comes away better understanding where the other is coming from, and any third parties reading the discussion who are “on the fence” are helped in making up their minds.

It seems to me our fundamental disagreement is whether Craig is right that there is a significant difference among “randomness, order and complexity,” and whether that difference is objective (i.e., is not dependent on whether we decided what was meaningful before or after the fact). If the difference in these categories is objective, then it doesn’t matter whether the pattern is analyzed before or after the fact in determining meaningfulness.

With regard to evolution, you are correct that we know of no finely-tuned initial conditions that would inevitably result in the life forms we see today (except in the sense that the finely-tuned cosmological constants must have the values they have for ANY life to evolve). But this is precisely why Susskind seeks to reproduce the evolutionary model of “random mutation” in the cosmos–if there are a myriad of other universes, then the fact that ours seems eerily designed to produce what appears to be the specified, complex pattern of intelligent life is not surprising, since given a multitude of actual universes, the odds are that at least one would be life-permitting.
In fact, he explicity says in the book that he is attempting to apply the Darwinian model to cosmology, since it is the only hope of a non-theistic explanation of fine-tuning.

As to whether the views of cosmologists such as Susskind are irrelevant, I guess we just disagree. The main reason I accept biological evolution and reject “young earth creationism” is not because I have had the time or talent to become an expert like Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller–it is because such an overwhelming consensus of science in favor of evolution should be given the benefit of the doubt, even though “I could find” Ph.D’s in biology who would disagree with that consensus and would embrace young earth creationism. So the fact that Susskind and his colleagues believe that fine-tuning cries out for an explanation is significant to me. Of course, maybe you are right and they are wrong to believe that it cries out for an explanation–but it is odd that on this question the Christians (who get attacked for being anti-scientific know-nothings) are on the side of the cosmologists and the atheist is not.

P.S. As a side note (since this discussion is not explicitly about evolution): your readers might be interested in the argument for God-guided evolution given by Collins in his book “The Language of God” and Miller in his book “Finding Darwin’s God”, namely that God in his foreknowledge of all possible universes chose to create that universe in which the process of random mutation acting on natural selection would result human life.

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anselm March 16, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I am saying that a universe finely-tuned to be life-permitting is qualitatively more complex than an life-prohibiting universe, and that when the odds against that universe existing are “billions and billions to one” (as Carl Sagan might put it), that cries out for an explanation.

I understand that you see no qualitative difference between the complexity of life (even intelligent, conscious life) and weather patterns, but most reasonable observers would see the conflation of those as implausible. There is a difference in kind, not just degree, between (1) intelligent life, which can contemplate and theorize about the universe which was finely-tuned to evolve it, and thus rises to the level of “specified complexity” and (2) weather patterns (which could be placed somewhere between Craig's categories of “randomness” and “order”). A universe finely-tuned to produce life clearly cries out for an explanation, as recognized by the consensus of cosmologists. As cosmologist Bernard Carr put it in Discover Magazine: “If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” (See http://tinyurl.com/co9qv4).

As for why chaos and not life-permitting complexity is to be expected in other universes with different constants, it becomes clear once you understand how delicately balanced the values in our universe are. As the same Discover article puts it:

“Consider just two possible changes. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we. If gravity were slightly more powerful, the consequences would be nearly as grave. A beefed-up gravitational force would compress stars more tightly, making them smaller, hotter, and denser. Rather than surviving for billions of years, stars would burn through their fuel in a few million years, sputtering out long before life had a chance to evolve. There are many such examples of the universe’s life-friendly properties—so many, in fact, that physicists can’t dismiss them all as mere accidents.”

Regarding Smolin, you are correct that he is a leading theorist of the multiverse, but if you are endorsing the need for such a theory then you are conceding that we should not be blase and unsurprised at the appearance of fine-tuning. Indeed it does cry out for an explanation, even if that explanation is the multiverse, which postulates a multitude of alternative universes which are by definition scientifically undetectable. That explanation will seem more plausible than the God hypothesis only to those who have already closed their minds to any supernatural cause.

Finally, you seem to be unfamiliar with the work of Collins and Miller. They are not advocates of “special creation.” They are leading evolutionary biologists who have no problem with the idea of life arising from natural processes. However, as theistic evolutionists they see that as entirely consistent with a “fully gifted creation” which a timeless God foreknew would result in the evolution of human life.

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anselm March 16, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I am saying that a universe finely-tuned to be life-permitting is qualitatively more complex than an life-prohibiting universe, and that when the odds against that universe existing are “billions and billions to one” (as Carl Sagan might put it), that cries out for an explanation.

I understand that you see no qualitative difference between the complexity of life (even intelligent, conscious life) and weather patterns, but most reasonable observers would see the conflation of those as implausible. There is a difference in kind, not just degree, between (1) intelligent life, which can contemplate and theorize about the universe which was finely-tuned to evolve it, and thus rises to the level of “specified complexity” and (2) weather patterns (which could be placed somewhere between Craig's categories of “randomness” and “order”). A universe finely-tuned to produce life clearly cries out for an explanation, as recognized by the consensus of cosmologists. As cosmologist Bernard Carr put it in Discover Magazine: “If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” (See http://tinyurl.com/co9qv4).

As for why chaos and not life-permitting complexity is to be expected in other universes with different constants, it becomes clear once you understand how delicately balanced the values in our universe are. As the same Discover article puts it:

“Consider just two possible changes. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we. If gravity were slightly more powerful, the consequences would be nearly as grave. A beefed-up gravitational force would compress stars more tightly, making them smaller, hotter, and denser. Rather than surviving for billions of years, stars would burn through their fuel in a few million years, sputtering out long before life had a chance to evolve. There are many such examples of the universe’s life-friendly properties—so many, in fact, that physicists can’t dismiss them all as mere accidents.”

Regarding Smolin, you are correct that he is a leading theorist of the multiverse, but if you are endorsing the need for such a theory then you are conceding that we should not be blase and unsurprised at the appearance of fine-tuning. Indeed it does cry out for an explanation, even if that explanation is the multiverse, which postulates a multitude of alternative universes which are by definition scientifically undetectable. That explanation will seem more plausible than the God hypothesis only to those who have already closed their minds to any supernatural cause.

Finally, you seem to be unfamiliar with the work of Collins and Miller. They are not advocates of “special creation.” They are leading evolutionary biologists who have no problem with the idea of life arising from natural processes. However, as theistic evolutionists they see that as entirely consistent with a “fully gifted creation” which a timeless God foreknew would result in the evolution of human life.

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lukeprog March 16, 2009 at 6:39 pm

So, are you saying it’s not this particular result that cries out for explanation, but any resultant complexity that does?

I thought we had learned this lesson – that great complexity does not imply guided design. Biological evolution is obviously the Great Example, but so are human language, weather patterns, and other emergent systems. In fact, every time we’ve had the tools to study natural phenomena very closely, it has turned out that it arises from very simple means, not by intelligent tinkering. Why should we expect the outcome of this scientific mystery to be any different? If anything, we should hedge our bets with the results of all past inquiry.

Moreover, why would you expect that most of the other possible universes with other arrangements of their fundamental properties would not lead to complexity? As Hume pointed out, it seems that complexity must arise from chaos, for the simple reason that chaotic systems are always breaking down, but when chaotic systems happen together into an ordered and non-chaotic way in local events, those systems do not break down as quickly because they are, by definition, not as chaotic.

BTW, I’m not sure what Susskind is working on, but Smolin’s theory of cosmological natural selection remains one of the leading candidates for a successful theory of cosmic origins being debated today.

As for evolution: Do Collins or Miller have a single positive argument for their claim, or is it the usual “This stuff is so complex it must have been designed because we don’t yet understand how it could arise from simple processes like everything else we’ve investigated has turned out to be.”

I’ve read SO many arguments for intelligent design and fine-tuning, but they ALL turns out to be of that fallacious structure. Literally thousands of arguments carry the same flawed reasoning.

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lukeprog March 16, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Working backwards…

I'm familiar with Collins and Miller, but I haven't read their books. Do they give any positive arguments for God's activity, or do they merely point out that the idea of God is consistent with everything we observe? So is the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Interestingly, what “calls out for explanation” in Smolin's theory is the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe… not for life, which would be instantly destroyed at nearly all times and places in the ultra-vast universe – but for black holes, which are fricking everywhere, and quite at home in this unforgiving universe. In fact, they pretty much dominate it, in terms of causal power and appropriated mass. Not so this fragile, insignificant speck of a thing we call “life.”

As for the other arguments, well… I'm sure we'll pick them up again when I finally make my big post on the the fine-tuning argument. :)

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lukeprog March 16, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Working backwards…

I'm familiar with Collins and Miller, but I haven't read their books. Do they give any positive arguments for God's activity, or do they merely point out that the idea of God is consistent with everything we observe? So is the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Interestingly, what “calls out for explanation” in Smolin's theory is the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe… not for life, which would be instantly destroyed at nearly all times and places in the ultra-vast universe – but for black holes, which are fricking everywhere, and quite at home in this unforgiving universe. In fact, they pretty much dominate it, in terms of causal power and appropriated mass. Not so this fragile, insignificant speck of a thing we call “life.”

As for the other arguments, well… I'm sure we'll pick them up again when I finally make my big post on the the fine-tuning argument. :)

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Anselm March 16, 2009 at 7:38 pm

I am saying that a universe finely-tuned to produce intelligent, conscious life when the odds against it were “billions and billions to one” (as Carl Sagan might say) cries out for an explanation.

As cosmologist Bernard Carr put it in Discover Magazine’s article on fine-tuning (called “Science’s Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: The Multiverse Theory”):

“If there is only one universe,” Carr says, “you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

I understand that you see no qualitative difference between the complexity of life (particularly intelligent life) and weather patterns (which would fall somewhere between “randomness” and “order” on Craig’s scale), but conflating those is just not plausible (in my opinion, of course–and in the opinion of the consensus of cosmologists, who are desperately seeking an explanation for our life-permitting universe in the multiverse theory).

The reason to expect chaos and not complexity in other universes is clear once you understand how delicately balanced are the constants in our universe. As the Discover article points out:

“Consider just two possible changes. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we. If gravity were slightly more powerful, the consequences would be nearly as grave. A beefed-up gravitational force would compress stars more tightly, making them smaller, hotter, and denser. Rather than surviving for billions of years, stars would burn through their fuel in a few million years, sputtering out long before life had a chance to evolve. There are many such examples of the universe’s life-friendly properties—so many, in fact, that physicists can’t dismiss them all as mere accidents.”

Yes, Smolin is one of the leading multiverse theorists–but I thought you were arguing that such a theory is unnecessary to explain fine-tuning because the apparent fine-tuning of the constants does not cry out for an explanation; instead, we just need to have a proper understanding of how “unsurprising” such an appearance really is. But if you now agree with the need for Smolin’s efforts then you are conceding that it does indeed cry out for an explanation–although the explanation he offers (i.e., the actual existence of a multitude of inherently non-detectable alternative universes) is going to appear more plausible than the God hypothesis only to those who have already closed their minds to any supernatural cause.

On the question of theistic evolution, it sounds like you are not familiar with Collins or Miller’s work–they are leading proponents of Darwinism and opponents of “special creation” and thus have no problem with the idea of evolution occurring due to natural processes. Their work, however, shows that evolutionary biology is consistent with theism (Collins is an evangelical and Miller a Roman Catholic).

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anselm March 17, 2009 at 6:41 am

Collins and Miller are making the latter point, that God is consistent with evolution. However, I wouldn't dismiss this form of “defensive apologetics” as insignificant–particularly since if true it refutes Dawkins and Dennett, who assert that somehow evolution disproves God's existence.

For an example of theistic affirmative (as opposed to defensive) apologetics based on evolutionary theory, a good example is Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). (see a technical written debate on this topic between Plantinga and Paul Draper here: http://tinyurl.com/d9xlq5 A “laymen's debate” on the topic can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/clllfg )

Regarding Smolin, his notion that the universe if finely-tuned for producing black holes (which then produce new “baby” universes) is a version of the multiverse theory that has been superseded by the Cosmic Landscape model.

Although Susskind (p. 362) commends Smolin for understanding '”that there was an urgent question to answer: 'How can the deepest and most powerful ideas of modern physics provide a truly scientific explanation of the apparent 'intelligent design' that we see all around us?”, he points out that research since Smolin published his idea shows that “there is no reason whatever to believe that we live in a universe that is maximally efficient at producing black holes. Smolin makes a series of tortured arguments to prove that any changes in our universe would result in fewer black holes, but I find them to be very unconvincing. We say in chapter 5 that it is a lucky 'miracle' that the universe is NOT catastrophically filled with black holes. A relatively small increase in the early lumpiness of the universe would cause almost all matter to collapse to black holes rather than life-nurturing galaxies and stars. Also, increasing the masses of the elementary particles would cause more black holes to form since they would be more susceptible to gravitational attraction. The real question is why the universe is so lacking in black holes. The answer that seems to me to make the most sense is that many, maybe most, pockets have far more black holes than our pocket, but they are violent places in which life could not have formed.” (p. 361).

I found an interesting online debate that Susskind and Smolin had regarding these issues here: http://tinyurl.com/6ufqb
(I have to admit reading from a theistic perspective is somewhat amusing, as you witness two esteemed physicists scramble and fight over the best way to avoided the dreaded God hypothesis to which the evidence of fine-tuning points).

Thanks again for the opportunity to dialogue, and I look forward to being a regular reader of this excellent blog (if only those guys over at “the Atheist Experience” were as civil!)

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anselm March 17, 2009 at 6:41 am

Collins and Miller are making the latter point, that God is consistent with evolution. However, I wouldn't dismiss this form of “defensive apologetics” as insignificant–particularly since if true it refutes Dawkins and Dennett, who assert that somehow evolution disproves God's existence.

For an example of theistic affirmative (as opposed to defensive) apologetics based on evolutionary theory, a good example is Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). (see a technical written debate on this topic between Plantinga and Paul Draper here: http://tinyurl.com/d9xlq5 A “laymen's debate” on the topic can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/clllfg )

Regarding Smolin, his notion that the universe if finely-tuned for producing black holes (which then produce new “baby” universes) is a version of the multiverse theory that has been superseded by the Cosmic Landscape model.

Although Susskind (p. 362) commends Smolin for understanding '”that there was an urgent question to answer: 'How can the deepest and most powerful ideas of modern physics provide a truly scientific explanation of the apparent 'intelligent design' that we see all around us?”, he points out that research since Smolin published his idea shows that “there is no reason whatever to believe that we live in a universe that is maximally efficient at producing black holes. Smolin makes a series of tortured arguments to prove that any changes in our universe would result in fewer black holes, but I find them to be very unconvincing. We say in chapter 5 that it is a lucky 'miracle' that the universe is NOT catastrophically filled with black holes. A relatively small increase in the early lumpiness of the universe would cause almost all matter to collapse to black holes rather than life-nurturing galaxies and stars. Also, increasing the masses of the elementary particles would cause more black holes to form since they would be more susceptible to gravitational attraction. The real question is why the universe is so lacking in black holes. The answer that seems to me to make the most sense is that many, maybe most, pockets have far more black holes than our pocket, but they are violent places in which life could not have formed.” (p. 361).

I found an interesting online debate that Susskind and Smolin had regarding these issues here: http://tinyurl.com/6ufqb
(I have to admit reading from a theistic perspective is somewhat amusing, as you witness two esteemed physicists scramble and fight over the best way to avoided the dreaded God hypothesis to which the evidence of fine-tuning points).

Thanks again for the opportunity to dialogue, and I look forward to being a regular reader of this excellent blog (if only those guys over at “the Atheist Experience” were as civil!)

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 2:23 pm

I don't recall Dawkins or Dennett saying that evolution disproved God. I think they've said that evolution makes God all the more improbable, in the same way that he got more improbable when we discovered how solar systems form (debunking one of Newton's famous reasons for believing in God despite the success of gravity in explaining so much), etc.

I don't see Plantinga's argument as positive at all. It once again takes the form of a negative argument: “We can't yet explain how this unlikely thing would have happened under Naturalism, so therefore Yahweh did it.”

I don't think Smolin agrees with you about Smolin. :) I shall link to some very recent papers about the plausibility of Smolin's theory when I write a post about it.

I think there are some weak arguments in Smolin's work, of course, but also some fairly impressive ones. Again, I'll post about that later. But I do look forward to reading Susskind; I could easily be wrong.

Thanks for linking to that debate!

A question for you:

Let's say all these fine-tuning arguments are actually sound. Let's throw in the cosmological arguments, too. Let's say all those are sound. I think ALL of them have flaws that are immediately obvious to me, but let's say they are sound.

What follows from that? The cause could be an intelligent alien race from a higher dimension. It could be the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It could be a committee of good and evil gods (which explains the real world much better than a single, all-good God, I think). Our universe could be a giant science experiment from some math student of an advanced race. It could be the work of Vahiguru, or thousands of other gods. Why on earth would you conclude that it must be the work of the ancient Israelite tribal god they borrowed from the Canaanites, the one named Yahweh?

For you to think all that it seems you must resort not to evidence, but to the claim that the revelation impressed upon YOU is correct, and the revelation impressed upon billions of others throughout history (including other Christians) by their invisible friends is mistaken.

And then, if you're like most other religious people, you claim not only to know very specific things about the god that is responsible for all this “intelligent design,” but you also claim to know his mind. What he thinks, what he wants from us. And you disagree with most of the other people who claim to know the mind of the exact same person.

I'm curious: how do you justify all this? Or, have I put too many words in your mouth? I'm making big assumptions based on the majority of Christians.

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Scott March 22, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Susskind addresses this issue directly during a Q&A session after a talk regarding his book The Black Hole War

Leonard Susskind – The Black Hole War

49:23 Question: Please comment on the lack of intelligent design of the universe.

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tinyfrog March 25, 2009 at 1:25 pm

“If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we.”

When I read this kind of thing, I actually have doubts about whether or not these types of statements are accurate. I've read a lot of Christian apologetics, and I've often seen them make inaccurate statements about how finely-tuned the universe has to be in order to support life. I can't help but wonder if (even though he is not a Christian apologist) he uncritically picked-up some false claims. On a similar topic, you should see Victor Stenger's work – he varied four of the universe's fundamental forces (the proton and electron masses and the strengths of the electromagnetic and strong forces) by 10 orders of magnitude in a computer simulation. Remarkably, in his simulation, he found that long-lived stars were surprisingly common despite the fact that we're talking about a change of 10 orders of magnitude.

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 3:23 pm

I skim-read Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape. He asserts that the layout of our universe demands explanation, and says the explanation comes from a megaverse, not God. I didn't see anything in the book that addressed the criticisms I raised of the anthropic principle, though. I also don't see much future for string theory, but that's just me. I'm no physicist!

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anselm March 28, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Sorry for the delay in responding, I only just now looked back at this topic and saw your latest comment. Regarding what the fine-tuning and cosmological argument demonstrate–I agree it does not get you to the God of the Bible in all the details, but if accepted those arguments do get you to an intelligent cause of the universe outside of spacetime which designed the universe with life in mind. All of the arguments together form a cumulative case (e.g., the addition of the moral argument gets you an all-good anchor point for objective moral values). This would eliminate atheism and agnosticism as viable options. For a theist, that is no small thing!

Regarding Susskind's “Cosmic Landscape,” the reason he believes that the layout of the universe “demands explanation,” as you say, is as he says on p. 356: “What are the alternatives to the populated Landscape paradigm [i.e., the megaverse]? My own opinion is that once we eliminate supernatural agents, there is none that can explain the surprising and amazing fine-tunings of nature.” As I understood your position, it is that we should not find a universe fine-tuned for life any more “surprising and amazing” than a universe fine-tuned for chaos, or gaseous clouds, etc., etc. That is the position with which Susskind disagrees, and which pushes him toward the view that there must be a multitude of other universes which are not life-permitting in order to explain why ours, by chance, is life-permitting. If, on the other hand, there is only one universe, the fact that it is life-permitting points toward intelligent design as an explanation.

Regarding tinyfrog's comment: I can assure you that the Discover article wasn't just uncritically picking up some false claims regarding fine-tuning from Christian apologetics. Susskind (one of the world's preeminent astrophysicists and an atheist) wrote his entire book based on the sort “amazing” (his word) fine-tuning of the constants noted in the Discover article.

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 9:50 pm

The fine-tuning argument, if successful, would you get an intelligent designer, but not necessarily anything supernatural or beyond spacetime. (Merely, beyond our universe.) The Kalam cosmological argument would get you a bit further, but only if you accepted all of Craig's arguments beyond the first 3 points. And it still wouldn't get you omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omnipresence, continuing intervention, or much else Yahweh-ish. The moral arguments that I've seen do not give an argument that God is all good, they merely assert that God is the source of all moral value (without arguing for this) and say that this is more coherent than any naturalistic account of moral values. And the evidence for the resurrection, if successful, would only demonstrate the resurrection – nothing else about Christianity, not even that this magical feat was performed by the same being that has the attributes supposedly demonstrated by the philosophical arguments.

I know Susskind thinks the precise values for the universal constants cries out for an explanation, and I know that many physicists agree. What I'm lacking is a solid rebuttal to my argument that it is not impressive to decide after the cards were dealt that the hand you were dealt is the particular improbable hand that cries out for explanation. I did not get one from Susskind, and I haven't read one yet. But I'd love to do more philosophical reading on the anthropic principle; I'm quite willing to be wrong on this or anything else! If you find a solid rebuttal to my argument, please share!

Re: tinyfrog's comment. Yes, the anthropic principle has made big waves in the community of astrophysicists. Many atheist scientists have accepted it, and taken up the challenge of finding an explanation that fits better than “Magic!” I have rejected the anthropic principle for the reasons given above, and also maintain that a scientific theory with any predictive success is (for that reason) a better theory than “Magic!” Magical thinking is no theory at all, unless you formulate it in a way such that it makes testable predictions, especially of as-yet undiscovered facts, and is capable of being falsified. All the scientific theories for cosmic origins have these features. No god theory I've read yet has these features.

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Richard March 29, 2009 at 12:16 pm

I couldn't resist jumping in to this old-ish discussion, having just read Luke's “Review” post in the RSS feed. I'm not sure why that post hasn't shown up on this page, but I'm new to RSS, and still don't fully understand how it works.

Luke wrote:

I know Susskind thinks the precise values for the universal constants cries out for an explanation, and I know that many physicists agree. What I'm lacking is a solid rebuttal to my argument that it is not impressive to decide after the cards were dealt that the hand you were dealt is the particular improbable hand that cries out for explanation. I did not get one from Susskind, and I haven't read one yet. But I'd love to do more philosophical reading on the anthropic principle; I'm quite willing to be wrong on this or anything else! If you find a solid rebuttal to my argument, please share!

If you are handed a deck of cards and find that they are in “perfect” order (Ace to King of one suit, then Ace to King of another suit, etc), I think you would be highly suspicious of the claim that the deck has just been thoroughly shuffled and turned out this way by chance. The pure chance explanation would not compare very favourably with alternatives (like deliberate manipulation).

Consider, on the other hand, being handed a deck that looks typically random, i.e. disordered. The probability of getting that particular sequence of cards is just as low as with the perfect deck, but it doesn't seem significant. The reason for the difference in our reactions is that there is a very high probability of getting a disordered deck and only a tiny probability of getting a deck as highly ordered as the perfect deck. What is it that makes one sequence ordered and the other disordered? The former sequence can be described in a few words, “Ace to King of one suit, then Ace to King of another suit, etc”, or even shorter, “perfect deck”, if that is a known term (which I think it is). The latter sequence can only be described by listing all 52 cards individually. This concept is studied under the heading of Algorithmic Information Theory, or Kolmogorov Information.

I do think the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is a fact in need of explanation, and, if the probability of getting a life-friendly universe is really as low as proponents of the argument claim, then pure chance is not a satisfactory explanation. I'm not convinced by these probability claims, as I'm sceptical that we know enough to say what sort of probability distributions (if any) the constants were drawn from. But I'm no physicist. The one thing I would say with some confidence is that between the two main contenders–multiple universes and an intelligent creator–the former is a much better explanation. It is more parsimonious to invoke additional instances of an entity we already know to exist (the universe) than to invoke a new type of entity with significant additional explanatory problems of its own. Opponents of the multiple universe explanation point to the vast number of universes that would be required (if their probability estimates are valid). I think the numbers are of little importance. We have no knowledge of any limitations on the resources available for universe creation, so why assume any limit? Vast numbers may be intuitively hard to accept. But I suggest that that is because our intuitions have been honed by the sort of numbers we encounter in everyday life.

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Richard March 29, 2009 at 12:23 pm

P.S. An explanation of my comment above about not being able to see Luke's post here. I'm having a problem with my browser (IE 7) which stops me seeing all the posts on some blog pages. I've now managed to see all the posts here by copying and pasting the whole page into WordPad. I'll have to try to find a more convenient solution.

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Regarding the attributes of God, God serves as the best explanation of the ontological anchor point needed for objective moral values, thus providing in his omnibenevolent nature the “all-good” standard necessary for distinctions between good and evil to be made (a better explanation, e.g., than Platonism; of course, if one disagrees that moral values are objective, then obviously no such explanation is required, but even many atheists recognize the objectivity of moral values and seek an explanation of that fact, as I believe you attempt to do with “desire utilitarianism.”)

Regarding the other attributes of God (although this argument would include omnibenevolence, as well), they can be demonstrated with the ontological argument, especially as revived and updated by Plantinga. A simplified summary of Plantinga's version can be found in “Philosophy in the Modern World,” by Anthony Kenney:

“Let us begin by defining the property of maximal excellence, a property that includes omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. Obviously God, if he exists, has maximal excellence in the actual world. But maximal excellence is not sufficient for Godhead; we need to consider worlds other than this one: Those who worship God do not think of him as a being that happens to be of surpassing excellence in THIS world but who in some other worlds is powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character. We might make a distinction here between 'greatness' and 'excellence;' we might say that the 'excellence' of a being in a given world W depends only upon its properties in W, while its greatness in W depends not merely upon its excellence in W, but also upon its excellence in other worlds. The limiting degree of greatness, therefore, would be enjoyed in a given world W only by a being who had maximal excellence in W and in every other possible world as well. Maximal greatness therefore is maximal excellence in every possible world and it is maximal greatness, not just maximal excellence, that is equivalent to divinity or Godhead. Anything that possesses maximal greatness must exist in every possible world, because in a world in which it does not exist it does not possess any properties. If it is possible for maximal greatness to be instantiated, then it is instantiated in every world. If so, then it is instantiated in our world, the actual world; that is to say, Godhead is instantiated and God exists.” (p. 317-318, citing Plantinga's “The Nature of Necessity”).

Kenney goes on to note that Bertrand Russell had declared the ontological argument to be definitively answered in the early 20th century, but that “Plantinga's reinstatement of the argument, using logical techniques more modern than any available to Russell, serves as a salutary warning of the danger that awaits any historian of logic who declares a philosophical issue definitively closed.”

Regarding whether resurrection validates Christianity, I know we reached an impasse on that in a discussion on another post, but suffice it to say that it is clear to me that the resurrection, viewed in its religio-historical context, can only be plausibly interpreted as God's vindication of Jesus of Nazareth and his radical claims to be the Son of God and the Messiah, which retrospectively authenticates the Old Testament that looked forward to the Messiah, and the New Testament which preserves the kerygma proclaimed by him and the witnesses to the resurrection. All other interpretations of the resurrection (assuming its facticity) are ad hoc and implausible.

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 2:11 pm

I can see whole posts just fine in IE7. Have you figured out what's going on? Can you send me a screenshot?

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Yup, I shall have posts on Plantinga's ontological argument, and even stronger versions given since then.

One big problem with the Christian moral argument is that Christian philosophers never argue for the existence of objective moral values. They simply take it as a given. If they were to argue for it, they'd say something like “Objective moral values exist because they come from God.” But then it's circular to conclude that, “Because objective moral values exist, therefore God exists.”

Craig might assert that the existence of objective moral values can be assumed because non-Christians argue for the existence of objective moral values. But wait a minute. Let's say the argument given by the Zoroastrian is that objective moral values exist because they come from Ahura Mazda. Can Craig then say, “Aha! We agree that objective moral values exist! Because the Christian God is the best explanation of objective moral values, the Christian God exists.” Of course not, for Craig's moral argument assumes that all non-Christian explanations for the existence of objective moral values are false, and thus we have no good arguments (according to Craig) for the existence of objective moral values except the Christian argument. But then we are back to the circular: “Objective moral values exist because they come from God. Since objective moral values exist, and the Christian God is the best explanation of objective moral values, therefore the Christian God exists.”

In a blog post I would explain that with better language, but hopefully you can trace my rushed logic. I'm one guy trying to respond to 20 different commenters and it's hard to keep up!

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Great post! This is the kind of thing I'm looking for. It sounds like you may know more about information theory than I do, so I hope you can enlighten me.

Of course we agree that theories which explain improbable results in terms of the known are more probable than ones that must postulate an untold number of undiscovered entities.

But, does the very nature of our universe call out for an explanation in the first place? Despite your redeployed poker analogy, I don't think so.

For simplicity's sake, let's just say we were playing with a deck of cards numbered 1-52. If you shuffled the deck and the cards came out as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… 52 in perfect sequence, I think that would call out for explanation. I would think something fishy is going on. Why? Because the order on display in these “initial conditions” is something that is significant prior to dealing the hand – they are significant from the non-contingent truths of mathematics.

But this is not what we see in the initial conditions. Instead, we have values like:

1/137.03599907 (the fine structure constant)
1836 (the proton-to-electron mass ratio)
0.3 (the ratio of the actual density of the universe to the critical density required for the universe to expand forever)
80.398 (mass of the W bozon)

But now, the argument is not about the incredible order found in the values of the universal constants themselves. I see no inherent order there. Rather, the argument lies in the order that has resulted from these chaotic values for the initial conditions of our universe.

If you want to say that intelligent life is the particular kind of highly specified order that calls out for explanation – rather than any kind of specified order – then it seems to me you are still deciding after the fact what particular arrangement of cards is significant. If you are instead arguing that any kind of highly specific order calls out for explanation, then I think you are wrong, because it is basically inevitable (and therefore not at all improbable) that order should arise from chaos, as Hume argued (we can go over this if you're unfamiliar). For example, the highly ordered Fibonacci sequence arises often in nature not because God likes that sequence of numbers, but because they naturally arise in any universe in which (1) physics obeys the laws of math (arguably, this would be all possible universe), and (2) reproducing things are selected for their tendency to efficiently pack things into a small amount of space. See here.

I look forward to your reply. I think we may actually get somewhere with this discussion. :)

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 3:10 pm

I believe Craig would argue that the existence of objective moral values can be assumed just as the existence of other minds, or the existence of the past, etc., can be assumed–our experience is nonsensical without them.

No problem with the rushed blog post–I am impressed and appreciate the amount of work you put into this blog. The only equivalent I can think of was John DePoe's “Fides Quaerens Intellectum” (unfortunately now discontinued) and he was a Ph.D candidate in philosophy (which you may be as well as far as I know!)

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Craig would argue that existence of objective moral values can be assumed? I've never seen him do that but… well of course I think that's a terrible argument. I don't think the existence of other minds should be assumed, either. It must be argued for.

Pulled from ashes, DePoe's blog does look great. He's more technical than I've been so far. I'm easing my way into the more technical stuff, since I want to communicate in plain talk. I haven't yet preached Bayes' Theorem (which is very important, I think) or even given an argument in numbered premises. I'd like to directly engage the major arguments from leading philosophers of religion without losing my general audience, and I'm still not sure how to do that!

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm

I agree with Richard that fine-tuning IS in need of an explanation, but I disagree that the megaverse is a better explanation. I believe he has confused the criteria of simplicity with familiarity. As William Lane Craig has pointed out: “The brute postulate of an indefinite collection of randomly ordered universes is definitely more complex than the postulate of a single designer, even if universes are more familiar entities to us than are cosmic designers…In any case, the proposed hypothesis is not God as such, but intelligent design; and intelligent design is not at all an unfamiliar explanation. Thus the postulate of a cosmic designer is another token of the same type.” (p. 66, “God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist”).

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 4:35 pm

To follow up on William Lane Craig's view on the existence of objective moral values, I located his explanation in his book “Reasonable Faith”:

“The way in which moral theorists test competing ethical theories is by assessing how well they cohere with our moral experience. I take it that in moral experience we do apprehend an realm of objective moral values and duties, just as in sensory experience we apprehend a realm of objectively existing physical objects. Just as it is impossible for us to get outside our sensory input to test its veridicality, so there is no way to test independently the veridicality of our moral perceptions. As Sorley emphasized, there is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. In the absence of some defeater, we rationally trust our perceptions, whether sensory or moral…Most of us think that in moral experience we do apprehend objective values and obligations. Ruse himself confesses in another context, 'The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2 = 5.' …Ethicist David Brink thinks that objectivity of moral values is thus the default position. 'There might be no objective moral standards…But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.'” )p. 180-181)

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 5:12 pm

We're talking here about Occam's razor, the principle that all else being equal, we should choose the explanation with the fewest number of unknown assumptions. Various multiverse theories postulate very few unknown assumptions, since they depend only on principles that are already known. Theism postulates a vast number of otherwise totally unknown entities and properties, for example: a disembodied mind (?!), a spaceless being (?!), a timeless being (?!), an omnipotent being (?!), an omniscient being (?!), a necessary being (?!), an invisible being (?!), etc.

That is like waking up with a bruise on your back and then postulating that the best explanation is an all-powerful (?!) alien from the 19th dimension (?!) traveled by teleportation (?!) to your room and injected your back with tiny invisible gremlins (?!) that discolored that spot on your back by vaporizing your spiritual fluids (?!), and then the alien ceased to exist by causing his own matter to be literally destroyed (?!). This story is not logically impossible, it's just incredibly outrageous because it demands that we accept a huge number of assumptions that violate or go vastly beyond anything we have ever experienced and everything we have knowledge of.

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 5:21 pm

If by “moral experience” Craig means “moral intuitions,” I agree that is a popular test for ethical theories, but it is an entirely wrong test for ethical theories, and I was just about to post an article on that.

But moral experience is not the only way we test ethical theories. For example, we test them to see if they cohere with what actually exists in the real world.

I'm not sure how David Brink argues for objective moral values but it looks like here Craig is trying to conflate the semantic question of morality with the ontological question of morality. I think it's true that objectivism about morality is the correct (I dunno about “default”) position semantically, since that fits our moral language best. But that is a long ways from establishing objective moral realism as the default position! If anything, I would think error theory would be the default objectivist position. If Brink is arguing for objective moral realism to be the default position, I am prepared to argue vigorously against him. :)

If you don't know what I'm talking about here, the perfect solution is to spend 14 enjoyable minutes listening to this.

But none of what you've quoted here gets around the dilemma I just posted.

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anselm March 29, 2009 at 6:39 pm

I'm not sure you understand how radical the multiverse hypothesis is: it, to use your words, goes “vastly beyond anything we have ever experienced and everything we have knowledge of.” Empirically, scientists have only experienced and only have knowledge of our four-dimensional spacetime universe. In fact, the multiverse hypothesis was considered absurd until evidence that the universe began to exist and is exquisitely fine-tuned forced a retreat by scientists to this purely metaphysical concept (which they admit will almost certainly be impossible to empirically verify). However, as Susskind points out in his book, it has one thing going for it: it avoids the dreaded God hypothesis, and thus its “fantasy-like” aspects (Smolin's word, as quoted by Dinesh in the debate) must be swallowed.

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lukeprog March 29, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Multiverse theories appeal only to existing physical forces, existing physical laws, and existing physical entities. The theistic hypothesis posits entirely new and unknown non-physical forces, non-physical entities, non-physical laws, and in fact posits things that barely even make logical sense (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.)

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Richard March 30, 2009 at 1:09 am

Anselm, Occam's Razor tells us not to invoke more types of entity than necessary in our explanations. So that does mean that “familiar” entities should be preferred to new ones. Physicists don't invent new types of particle if familiar types of particle will suffice. And they would rather posit more copies of a familiar particle type than invoke a new particle type. They also try to explain things in terms of simpler entities, not more complex ones like intelligent beings.

If WLC wants to make familiarity a criterion in favour of an intelligent creator, then he is limiting himself to the types of intelligent beings with which we are familiar: physical, evolved beings. He can't make the argument on the basis of familiar entities and then switch to an unfamiliar entity (God) later.

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Richard March 30, 2009 at 4:28 am

Luke, I suppose everything we observe calls for an explanation, if we don't already have one. There's nothing that we wouldn't like to have an explanation for, though sometimes we might have to accept that we'll never get one. In your Fibonacci example, what you've given is an explanation. If we're handed a disordered, random-looking deck of cards, then “it was thoroughly shuffled” is an explanation. I suppose that when we say an observation is “in need of an explanation”, we just mean that we've taken an interest in it and we don't already have a generally accepted explanation.

I think you're right that the “finely-tuned” constants are not special in quite the same way as the perfectly ordered deck. They don't appear to have high “algorithmic information”. But they're special in another way: they are the only values (give or take a tiny range) that permit intelligent life. And intelligent life is special to us.

Forget about fine-tuning for a moment. Suppose you've been magically transported to one of a trillion planets, of which you know only one has intelligent life. If you found that you had been transported to that particular planet I think you would agree that this would cast doubt on the hypothesis that your destination had been picked at random.

Returning to the perfect deck example, the explanation I gave in terms of algorithmic information depended on the existence of patterns. Patterned outcomes like the perfect deck can be described more succinctly than unpatterned outcomes. But what counts as a pattern is partly determined by our interests and experiences. A deck order may seem random to you, but someone else might see it and say “Aha! That's the exact deck order in the game that won me the world bridge championship.” That apparent coincidence would be in need of explanation. (It may or may not turn out that pure chance is an adequate explanation.)

One well-known writer on the subject of fine-tuning and the anthropic argument is Nick Bostrom. You can download the first 5 chapters of his book on the subject from here: http://www.nickbostrom.com/
I think the relevant section starts on page 32, but I haven't read it yet.

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Richard March 30, 2009 at 5:07 am

Anselm, Occam's Razor tells us not to invoke more types of entity than necessary in our explanations. So that does mean that “familiar” entities should be preferred to new ones. Physicists don't invent new types of particle if familiar types of particle will suffice. And they would rather posit more copies of a familiar particle type than invoke a new particle type. They also try to explain things in terms of simpler entities, not more complex ones like intelligent beings.

The only designers we are familiar with are evolved organisms and computers. WLC cannot argue on the basis of those and then switch to a very different and unfamiliar sort of designer (God) later. To justify this conflation on the grounds that they are “tokens of the same type” is to claim that particulars do not matter. I suppose if WLC was ever on trial he might like to try claiming that the crime was committed by an android who looks like him. Never mind that no one knows where an android could have come from. All that matters is that it's an intelligent being, a “token of the same type” as a human and therefore a familiar type of explanation.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 5:47 am

(For some reason when the thread gets too narrow, I can't see the “reply” button, so I will post my response down here):

On the multiverse and Occam's Razor: obviously we will have to agree to disagree on this issue, but I am happy to leave it to undecided observers to determine which option is most plausible now that it is a choice not between “science” vs. “faith”, but between one non-scientifically-verifiable metaphysical hypothesis (God) and another non-scientifically-verifiable metaphysical hypothesis (the multiverse).

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Richard March 30, 2009 at 5:55 am

(I'm having problems posting in highly indented threads too.)

Anselm wrote:

I agree with Richard that fine-tuning IS in need of an explanation, but I disagree that the megaverse is a better explanation. I believe he has confused the criteria of simplicity with familiarity. As William Lane Craig has pointed out: “The brute postulate of an indefinite collection of randomly ordered universes is definitely more complex than the postulate of a single designer, even if universes are more familiar entities to us than are cosmic designers…In any case, the proposed hypothesis is not God as such, but intelligent design; and intelligent design is not at all an unfamiliar explanation. Thus the postulate of a cosmic designer is another token of the same type.” (p. 66, “God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist”).

Anselm, Occam's Razor tells us not to invoke more types of entity than necessary in our explanations. So that does mean that “familiar” entities should be preferred to new ones. Physicists don't invent new types of particle if familiar types of particle will suffice. And they would rather posit more copies of a familiar particle type than invoke a new particle type. They also try to explain things in terms of simpler entities, not more complex ones like intelligent beings.

The only designers we are familiar with are evolved organisms and computers. WLC cannot argue from familiarity with those and then switch to a very different and unfamiliar sort of designer (God) later. To justify this conflation on the grounds that they are “tokens of the same type” is to claim that particulars do not matter. I suppose if WLC was ever on trial he might like to try claiming that the crime was committed by an android who looks like him. Never mind that no one knows where an android could have come from. All that matters is that it's an intelligent being, a “token of the same type” as a human and therefore a familiar explanation.

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Richard March 30, 2009 at 6:22 am

P.S. I think I may have misread the quote from WLC. His “token of the same type” remark probably refers to the multiverse and cosmic designer both being “familiar” tokens. Please ignore my use of the term “tokens of the same type” in my previous post. The rest stands.

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 11:08 am

What are you talking about? Several multiverse theories are currently undergoing the tests of scientific falsification and verification right now. These theories make explicit and precise mathematical predictions that are in many cases fully testable. Others will become testable when our instruments improve.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Did you see the chapter in Susskind's book where he makes the case that falsifiabiliy is not important for a theory to be viable (since his hope that it could be falsified is extremely thin)? I don't have the book in front of me, but he makes a similar point in this “New Scientist” interview (see http://tinyurl.com/dn5f33):

SUSSKIND: “There is a philosophical objection called Popperism that people raise against the landscape idea. Popperism [after the philosopher Karl Popper] is the assertion that a scientific hypothesis has to be falsifiable, otherwise it's just metaphysics. Other worlds, alternative universes, things we can't see because they are beyond horizons, are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore metaphysical – that's the objection. But the belief that the universe beyond our causal horizon is homogeneous is just as speculative and just as susceptible to the Popperazzi.”

I particularly like this part of the interview:

QUESTION: “If we do not accept the landscape idea are we stuck with intelligent design?”

SUSSKIND: ” I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent – maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation – I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.”

I like the interviewer's wording there: we would be “stuck with” intelligent design! The horror!

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 1:58 pm

The relevant analogies are hard to hash out, here. Thanks for sticking with me.

> But they're special in another way: they are the only values (give or take a tiny range) that permit intelligent life. And intelligent life is special to us. <

Clearly, but intelligent life is only special after the fact, after we have evolved and think ourselves to be special.

> Suppose you've been magically transported to one of a trillion planets, of which you know only one has intelligent life. If you found that you had been transported to that particular planet I think you would agree that this would cast doubt on the hypothesis that your destination had been picked at random. <

Indeed. But again, we've picked what is special before the action – the traveling to a specific planet. In the fine-tuning argument we have decided what is special after we're already on the planet. We arrive on the planet, come to feel comfortable on it, and then decide, “THIS is the planet that matters and – woah! We're on it! How improbable!”

And again in your deck example, the pattern that is chosen to be meaningful must be chosen before the draw in order for it to be significant that we drew that particular hand. That's not what's happening in the fine-tuning argument.

I'd like to read the Nick Bostrom chapters. Which download is it?

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Falsification is not the only criteria for a good scientific hypothesis, but it is an important one. The philosophy of science has quite a ways beyond Popper, but falsification has not been abandoned.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 4:48 pm

On the testability of the multiverse, physicist Paul Davies had an excellent article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24dav…) which illuminates this issue well:

“The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 5:29 pm

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

So, this is a very different attack on multiverse theories. Mutliverse theories, as attempts to explain the big bang and the particular attributes our universe has, are certainly able to be tested and HAVE been. I have an upcoming post on this when I get to this part of Sense and Goodness Without God.

Paul Davies is asking another question: why are their physical laws at all? Why is there anything at all? Why should there be a universe or multiverse at all? What caused that?

To take it this step back is not a special attack on multiverse theories any more than attacks on abiogenesis is an attack on evolution. Rather, Davies is simply giving a First Cause argument.

Science is NOT founded on “faith… in the existence of something outside the universe.” In fact, naturalistic scientists would deny there is any such thing. Rather, when asked why there is anything at all, scientists respond “We don't know.” This is not faith.

In contrast, religion answers that question with, “Oh, we do know. The reason there is anything at all is because an all-powerful, all-knowing, personal, all-good, interventionist being caused it all to exist.” I reply: “Woah there. Where did you get all that from? How do you know that?” The reply is: “Because I have faith.”

I ask: “So… how come this super-being doesn't need a first cause?”

Response: “Oh. He just doesn't. That's part of his nature.”

Riiiiiiight. Double standards, as usual.

I could give my usual responses to First Cause arguments here, but I'll leave them for a later post.

“until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus”

Once again, no. Scientists don't know why there are laws of the universe in the first place, and they don't claim to know. There's no faith going on there, just an admission of ignorance. In contrast, Christians claim to know – without evidence, that God is the cause of the laws of the universe. That IS faith.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 6:08 pm

To continue this frighteningly long thread:

DAVIES: “Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.”

If you are correct that the multiverse theory is falsifiable, then we will resolve this issue in due time. If supporters of the theory begin to argue that “well, we have decided that falsifiability is not that important after all” then we will know that they have embraced the multiverse theory simply as a metaphysical alternative more palatable to them than God. So time will tell on this issue.

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 7:14 pm

There are many other criteria by which some multiverse theories can be shown to be superior options to the “magic!” hypothesis, besides falsification. But falsification is a good one, and I will argue against those who say we should do away with it. BTW, I do not think Susskind's multiverse theory is particularly promising. Guth and Smolin, for example, advance multiverse theories that have made several previously unknown predictions that have since turned out true – a very powerful thing for any scientific theory.

However, I suspect you are right that some atheists embrace a particular multiverse theory because they think the fine-tuning of the universe demands a special explanation (I think they are wrong on this), and they want to avoid the God theory. Atheist scientists are not immune to emotional influence! In fact, I'm writing a post on some evidence I have that atheist philosophers simply don't want to accept the idea of a God because they are willing to advance arguments in other fields of philosophy that are just as bad (and many times, almost identical) as those they reject in philosophy of religion that argue for the existence of God.

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lukeprog March 30, 2009 at 7:15 pm

BTW, if you think this thread is long, you should see what else I've been up to this weekend. I practically wrote a whole book on that one thread.

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anselm March 30, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Wow! I look forward to reading that (I admit I find these “reverse testimonies” fascinating, I guess because they are so similar to Christian testimonies in structure–though of course different in outcome!) As was once said of Albert Mohler, you are eerily prolific!

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Richard March 31, 2009 at 1:15 am

Luke, I didn't choose the presence of intelligent life as being meaningful before I was transported to the planet, and I didn't choose the perfect deck as being meaningful before I was handed the deck. I simply observed the outcome and noticed that it was meaningful.

Having said that, I agree there's an important difference between these and the situation in the fine-tuning argument, and I'll say no more until I've read Nick Bostrom's chapter:
http://www.anthropic-principle.com/book/excerpt…

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Richard March 31, 2009 at 1:57 am

Hello Luke. I've really been enjoying the discussions here. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to bow out, as it's taking up too much of my time. Unfortunately, a large part of the reason for that lies with your blog comment software, which is driving me to distraction. Perhaps it would help if I switched to a different browser (I'm using IE 7), but I don't feel like doing that just now.

I long for the good old days when people used to hold discussions on well-designed forum boards. These days most discussions seem to take place in the comments sections of blogs, which are generally far less adequate for the purpose.

I would have sent you this by email, rather than make this off-topic post, but I couldn't find your email address. If you would like to reply by email, you can find my address here:
http://web.ukonline.co.uk/rwein/toppy.htm

To answer your question above, you can find Nick Bostrom's chapters here:
http://www.anthropic-principle.com/book/excerpt…

My thanks to you, Anselm and everyone else here for the interesting discussions. They've given me a lot of food for thought.

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Richard_tich March 31, 2009 at 3:09 am

Hello Luke. I've really been enjoying our discussions here, and there's a great deal that I'd still like to respond to in various threads, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to bow out, as it's taking up too much of my time. Unfortunately, a large part of that time has been wasted struggling against your blog comment software, which I find awkward to use, often fails to post my comments, and often doesn't show me all the comments in a thread. It now seems to have deleted all my comments in the “Questions about 'What is Morality?'” thread.

I long for the good old days when people used to hold discussions on well-designed forum boards. These days most discussions seem to take place in the comments sections of blogs, which are generally far less adequate for the purpose.

To answer your question above, you can find Nick Bostrom's chapters here:
http://www.anthropic-principle.com/book/excerpt…

I would have sent you this by email, rather than make this mostly off-topic comment, but I couldn't find your email address. If you would like to reply by email, you can find my address here:
http://web.ukonline.co.uk/rwein/toppy.htm

My thanks to you, Anselm and everyone else here for the interesting discussions. They've given me a lot of food for thought.

P.S. In order to post this at all I've had to register with DISQUS. Previously I was unregistered. Maybe registering would have avoided some of the problems I've been having.

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anselm March 31, 2009 at 6:10 am

Richard,

Thanks, I sympathize with your time constraints. I am impressed with Luke's productivity (although I suspect he will find if and when he has kids that his blog productivity will suffer!)

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lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 7:22 am

I sent you an email. I noticed these DISQUS problems. I'm looking for an alternative now.

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lukeprog March 31, 2009 at 7:33 am

I won't always be able to keep up this productivity.

I'll have time for kids when I'm 60. By then maybe I'll be wise enough to know how to raise them properly, and have the resources to do so.

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hannah December 7, 2011 at 8:10 am

Wonderful assessment of the debate. I was incredibly annoyed while watching it because I kept hoping Dennet would rip apart Dinesh’s terrible arguments from ignorance, special pleading, strawman attacks, false analogies and appeal to popularity.
But he didn’t. I can’t help but wonder if he just gave up at the moment Dinesh succumbed to Godwin’s law.
I cannot believe a real debater would use Pascal’s Wager. Dinesh actually appeals to it in his book too.
All around, more of a sermon than a debate.

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kenntin January 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm

So is the reviewer saying that Dennett is a bad debater or that he is an idiot?

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