Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Luke Barnes and his Fine-Tuning with WLC

A little over two years ago, I took a pot-shot at Luke Barnes about his paper attacking Victor Stenger.  A little under a year ago, Victor Stenger had to the poor grace to die, leaving no-one to defend his position.  Before he did so, however, I had the good fortune to correspond with him briefly, at a very trivial level.  There was nothing earth shattering in what we exchanged, but he did say that he had “reason to suspect that Barnes is operating from a covert position as an apologist” – which aligns with my position in A Doctor a Day – A Response and my exchange with Barnes in the comments to that article.

I was able to express to him my concern, which I have raised elsewhere (obliquely in An Open Letter to Luke Barnes, for example, and more directly in A Doctor a Day), that the forces of apologetics are creeping into other areas of science – no longer being content to make trouble in geology and biology.  That is not to say that people such as William Lane Craig have not, for years, been misusing science (and scientists) to argue for god as the ultimate cause of the universe.  What I have worried about is having people dedicated to “proving” the existence of a god enter scientific fields with the express purpose of producing “scientific literature” that is supportive of the god hypothesis.  This already happens with the Discovery Institute, which is dedicated to supporting Intelligent Design.  What may be new is the arrival of bright-eyed things ready to twist all sorts of physics so that it might be used for the greater glory of their god.

I had identified Luke Barnes as a possible example of this, with his defence of the type of fine-tuning used by apologists such as William Lane Craig.  If Barnes is what I think he is, then he was careful to present his argument without appearing to favour the “god did it” conclusion and he has been reasonably careful since.  I don’t think he went far enough, if he truly wanted to be entirely non-partisan, and I conveyed as much to Barnes when I wrote that “{his} paper was poorly written in that it gives the impression that the fact that intelligent life evolved in this universe somehow implies that the universe was finely tuned -deliberately and intentionally- in order for that intelligent life to evolve. This miswording, if that is what it is, is what the apologists latch onto, so {he} might want to address that rather than leave it in the lap of philosophers (especially noting that there is considerably more interest from apologists than philosophers)”.

He didn’t reply to this, but he had earlier said “I'm only concerned with correctly presenting the science. If certain philosophical conclusions follow, then that can be debated by those philosophically inclined”.

Interestingly, and rather disappointingly, this concern of mine appears to have manifested.  Last year, my old nemesis William Lane Craig wrote in “Is Faith in God Reasonable?: Debates in Philosophy, Science, and Rhetoric” (edited by Corey Miller, who expresses a “desire to know God and to make God known” and Paul Gould, a co-author of other books with William Lane Craig):

Again, let's focus on Stenger's critique.  Stenger's objections to the fine-tuning argument have been the subject of devastating criticisms by astrophysicist Luke Barnes and philosopher Robin Collins.

So, as predicted, we have an apologist using Luke Barnes’ arguments.

Do we see Luke Barnes objecting to this?

I would suggest not.  My evidence in support of the notion that he won’t object to such use of his work is that recently Luke has shared a podium at the University of St. Thomas with … William Lane Craig.

Luke has presented at the University of St. Thomas before, back in 2011, at the St. Thomas Summer Seminar in Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology at which time he gave presentations on the topic The Fine-Tuning Argument alongside:

·      Robin Collins (a Christian proponent of fine-tuning as a teleological argument for the existence of a god, just mentioned earlier in the same breath as Barnes)
·      John Hawthorne (a Christian philosopher who, according to the ex-apologist, was not in favour the fine-tuning argument – although he has since changed his position – Hawthorne was apparently a member of a cabal together the one of with seminar’s organisers, Dean Zimmerman, and another “star” Christian philosopher, Ted Sider), and
·      Bradley Monton (the self-declared atheist who defended Intelligent Design in a book and has since been forced to resign his post at the University of Colorado due to an inappropriate relationship with a student).

Note that there are videos of four one hour lectures given by Luke on his Sydney Institute for Astronomy page (I found Barnes’ brief interaction with Robin Collins in the second hour, as to whether the nature of water was going to be covered, to be rather illuminating).  I’d be quite interested to watch/hear/read the content of John Hawthorne’s presentation, since his point of view appears to have moved between March or June 2013 and June 2015.  At the time, it could have been argued that four speakers were engaged with a spectrum of views with regard to the fine tuning argument: theist-pro (Collins); atheist-pro (Monton); theist-anti (Hawthorne); and atheist-anti (Barnes).

Anyways, in July 2015 Luke was back at the University of St. Thomas for another Summer Seminar (it was apparently lucrative gig in 2011, if the Society of Christian Philosophers is to be believed, with participants being offered a $2900 stipend above room and board, thanks to the generous support of the Templeton Foundation – the Grand Pixie alone knows what the actual speakers got – but this year that stipend is down to a disappointing $2000 above room and board, although that might be because their star speaker may well have cost them a few arms and legs).  This time Luke was appearing, discussing the Fine Tuning Argument of course, with:

·      William Lane Craig (we all know who he is, don’t we?)
·      David Manley (seems to fly very low under the radar, the only hint of his allegiances comes from the fact that he gave a presentation on fine-tuning at Calvin College, which is dedicated to “Philosophy from a Christian Perspective”, but I could not find any indication as to the content of that presentation – nor could I find anything by him on fine-tuning)
·      Neil Manson (gave doctoral dissertation under the Christian Philosopher Peter van Inwagen on why fine-tuning must be explained in which he claimed that “god did it” is a tidy explanation, while an article of his I found on-line appears to be criticising fine-tuning a careful read reveals that it vigorously attacks Multiple Universe objections and only weakly supports a “fine-tuning is not improbable” objection against “a Bayesian argument from small probabilities”)

The bottom line of all this is that two years ago, when I told Luke Barnes that “(his) views ha(d) been co-opted by apologists”, he wrote in response: “I’m only concerned with correctly presenting the science. If certain philosophical conclusions follow, then that can be debated by those philosophically inclined”.  At that time, although I did not then know it, he had already presented his version of the science at a seminar for “Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology” at a Catholic university … to philosophers (philosophers of religion no less).  After listening to all four hours, my impression is that this presentation was couched in terms of “this can’t all be chance, hint, hint” – and he appears to be in cahoots with the philosopher Robin Collins, the Christian proponent of fine-tuning for god.  This seems strange, since Barnes was trying to give us the impression that he had no interest in what theologically inclined philosophers wanted to take from him.  (As indicated above, it’s still possible that he did it for the sweet, sweet cash – but I wouldn’t like to imply that it’s definitely the case that he sold himself so very, very cheaply.)

And now he’s gone and stood shoulder to shoulder with William Lane Craig – a fact that he is in no way hiding.  I find it increasingly difficult to credit Luke’s claims that he is a disinterested party in this and that he is not an apologetics-leaning theist who is using his scientific credentials to provide succour to people like Craig.  Especially when there was less of that sweet cash available this year.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Whole Reverse Monty Debacle

I did promise that I would try to review just how I managed to convince myself that I was right with the reverse Monty Hall problem.  Now I have the benefit of distance with which to assess what happened (because I am looking at what a completely different person did, you know, “me” but the “me” of a few months ago, who is totally different to the “me” today).

My focus here will not be on the results of my error, but rather trying to understand how I made the error – and why I found the error convincing.  (There are quite a few posts on the results already, together with some comments to those posts as well as quite a bit of activity over at reddit, largely in the “bad mathematics” area.  Admitting I was wrong has apparently still not appeased the masses.  Oh well.  Never mind.)

I’m aware that my memory may not be perfect, partly because humans forget things and partly because humans tend to edit the past to favour themselves, so this review may not be entirely “the truth”, but I will try my best to be objective.

It all started out with me thinking about inductive logic, versus deductive logic and, sort of, about black swans.  The idea was that if you spend your whole life seeing nothing but white swans (as Europeans used to), then you’d reason that if you were presented with a swan in a box, it would be reasonable to assume that it is white.  (Sherlock Holmes might have “deduced” that the very fact that the swan was presented in a box indicates that the giver was hiding some dark secret.  However, the amazing accuracy of many of Holmes’ “deductions” relies entirely on the author being in control of the world in which Holmes lives – in the real world they would be little better than informed guesses and are better categorised as “intuitions”.  There are a host of reasons why a person might present you with a swan in a box, other than to hide the possible fact that it is a black swan – they might hiding the fact that it’s not a swan at all but rather just a particularly ugly duck.)

Anyways … I came up with a scenario in which a volunteer removes, one by one, balls from an urn.  If after 999,999 white balls have been removed, I stop them and ask them the likelihood that the next ball is not white.  In the absence of any other information, the volunteer should respond that there is a 1/1,000,000 chance that the next ball is not white.  Here’s my logic:

I’ve constrained the exercise to the removal of one million balls from the urn.  Effectively, what I’ve asked the volunteer is “what is the likelihood that, out of a draw of one million balls, the only non-white ball will be in the one millionth position?”  The other, more likely outcome, from the volunteer’s point of view, is that the last ball will also be white.  This is because the volunteer is working with an absence of any other information.  There may be more balls in the urn, of which an unknown number are non-white, or the one millionth ball might be the last ball and I, as the experimenter, might know that this last ball must in fact be black.  It’s this last scenario that I had in mind.

You see, as the volunteer keeps removing white ball after white ball, she is rightfully becoming more and more convinced that the next ball will be white, following the logic of “what is the likelihood that, out a draw of X balls, the only non-white ball will be at the Xth position?”  As X increases, after X-1 white balls have been drawn, it appears more unlikely that the next ball will be non-white.  I, on the other hand, have more information than the volunteer and am aware that the likelihood of the next ball being non-white is actually increasing.  This reaches a crescendo at the 999,999th ball at which point, I know the likelihood of the next ball being non-white is 100% while the volunteer will believe that there is only a 0.0001% chance of it not being white.

It seems to me that this is a justified conclusion by the volunteer under the circumstances, but then I also know that it’s wildly inaccurate.

So, I tried to rein the numbers in a bit, all the way back to two.  Say that my volunteer reaches into an urn and removes a white ball.  In the absence of any other information, what is the likelihood that the next ball selected will be white?  It’s 50%, but this also seemed strange to me – after all, we are not just talking about the possibility of white and black balls here, there could be a huge array of hues, colours and patterns available.  Perhaps it seems reasonable to think about selecting a second pure white ball, since that’s a simple enough decoration, but if we think of a scenario in which the volunteer extracts a ball with light violet stripes and puce dots on a beige background with orange swirls, it seems somewhat less certain that there will be a 50% chance that the second ball will be of the same type.

This sort of gets us where I was initially headed.  We tend not to notice when bland things happen (like selecting a plain old white ball) and are confounded when strange things happen (like removing our tutti-frutti themed ball), it messes with our intuitions.  The likelihood of selecting that strangely patterned ball seems remote, but it won’t be if it’s also a common pattern.  If my volunteer keeps dipping her hand into the urn and removing similarly patterned balls, then the amazement of that first selection will fade and eventually her intuitions will shift to match what would be expected with an unbroken series of plain white balls.  At that point, she may reflect that back when she held only one of these balls in her hand, the likelihood (at the time) of the next one being the same was also 50%, as it would have if it had been white.  (Note that with the information to hand, my volunteer will have to reassess the post facto likelihood of the second ball being tutti-frutti themed as being higher than 50% – the exact figure depends on the number of balls available and how many balls have been selected so far.)

Compare this to an argument often run by apologetic theists: the probability of the universe being just the way it is such that it supports intelligent life (that is humans) is so remote that it is therefore inconceivable that the universe arose by chance, therefore god.  We are in the same position as my feckless volunteer, after her first selection, metaphorically holding an apparently impossible ball in our hand and being stunned and amazed by it.  However, we are not able to draw from the urn again to get a better idea about how likely it really is that such a ball should be in our hand.  So, while in the absence of any other information it may seem unlikely that our universe should be so apparently finely tuned, we simply don’t know what the real likelihood is.

I then devised a scenario to test this challenge to our intuitions, which I wrote up (at the second attempt) at Two Balls, One Urn, Revisited.  The whole idea of this scenario was to trigger the logic of “what is the likelihood that, out a draw of X balls, the only non-white ball will be at the Xth position?” in which my volunteer might say 50% where it can be shown that it’s not, it’s a wildly different figure.  In this article, I had a barrel with 2 million balls in it, two of which were white and, effectively, I artificially forced one of two balls removed from the barrel into being white (I even make that clear in the comments) and asked what the chances were that the other removed ball was white.

Here is where I made the mistake.  I gave too much information and did not clarify how little information my volunteer had.  I didn’t even notice that I had done so.

If my volunteer was totally oblivious to my barrel extraction activity, and only knew that one ball had been removed from the urn, and that it was white, then she could reasonably conclude that the likelihood of a second white ball being removed from the urn would be 50%.  I, on the other hand, would know that the likelihood would be 1/1,999,999 – and unfortunately I got wrapped around the axles on other calculations (like 1/3,999,997 and 1/1011).

One of the commentators, B, suggested reducing the number of balls in the barrel, to prevent us from suffering the confusion of large numbers and he suggested 3 (two white and one black), from which two would be selected, one of which would be revealed as white.  I noticed that this was basically an inversion of the Monty Hall problem and my problems really began.

Remember that I had in my mind a scenario in which the volunteer (now transforming into a contestant) knew nothing, other than the nature of the revealed ball (now transforming into a goat).  During the transformation process, I forgot all about that ignorance and began trying to apply my thinking (in the presence of ignorance) to the Monty Hall Problem (in which there is less ignorance).

Given that my logic does work in my original scenario, I was totally convinced that it would work in my new scenario – but for far too long time I remained oblivious that I had shifted the goal posts (I had injected my own meta-ignorance into the scenario, but everyone was ignorant of this meta-ignorance, myself included).

Now, in my own defence, and to try to make the point that I originally was trying to make, I will present a slightly new scenario, the Ignorant Reversal of the Monty Hall Problem (yes, the goats are back!)

Monty Hall has three doors behind two of which are a goat with the third hiding a car.  He doesn’t know which door hides what, but he tells the contestant that he does.  The contestant selects two doors.  Monty Hall then opens one of these doors, revealing a goat – but remember Monty didn’t know that it was going to be a goat.

(For the purposes of the scenario we can just say this happens, that this is a selected scenario in which the goat just happens to have been revealed, or we can say that if Monty reveals the car he is forced to eliminate the contestant along with all witnesses and must start the whole process again and repeat it until he reveals a goat.  Derren Brown did a version of this with horse racing, in The System, tricking some poor sucker into thinking that she was getting foolproof predictions of winning horses, but she was one of many suckers and she just happened to be the one assigned to the 6 winning horses.  Derren did not however kill all the witnesses.)

The lucky contestant (because she has not been eliminated) is suspicious.  Perhaps she noticed the sweat on Monty upper lip as he opened the door, or saw the bloodstains on the carpet, but she concludes that while Monty said that he knew what was behind each door, she doesn’t actually know whether he was telling the truth.  She makes the decision to treat the door opening as accidental.

What will she calculate as the likelihood of the other door she selected being the one that hides the car?

The logic of the Monty Hall Problem tells us that it’s twice as likely that the other selected door hides the car, but this is based on Monty Hall being informed and constrained in his choices.  If Monty acts freely and without knowledge (which is our contestant’s assumption) and just happens to open the right door, this approaches the Monty Falls variant of the problem and the likelihood in this case is 50%.

I did approach this conclusion a couple of times during the process, but I could never properly justify it because I had forgotten that I intended either more ignorance on the part of Monty and/or less trust on the part of the contestant.  (Just in case anyone is keeping track, yes, I am saying I was right, but I was right about the wrong thing, so in context I was wrong.  I happily admit that I was wrong, I’m just trying to work out why I was wrong.)

Let us take the scenario one step in a different direction.  Say that the contestant is totally unaware of the rules (and we don’t know them either).  Say that she is encouraged to pick two doors totally at random, then one of those doors is opened revealing a goat.  As far as the contestant is aware, the door is opened totally at random.  Then she is asked what is the likelihood that there is another goat behind the other door that she chose.  In the absence of any other information, she has to conclude that it’s 50%.  But if you are watching, and you know that that Monty is not selecting the door at random, but rather is just pretending to pick at random, and you know about the car/goat concept but nothing specific about locations, then you have to conclude that the likelihood is 66.7%.  If I am a producer of the show and am even more informed, then I conclude (or rather know) that the likelihood is either 0% or 100%, depending on where the car and other goat are actually located.

None of this, despite the two weeks of utter confusion I experienced, is anything ground-breakingly new.  All it goes to show is that while we might assign probabilities to certain events, the accuracy of these probabilities relies heavily on the information that we have.  When we simply don’t have enough information (such as when waffling on about “fine-tuning”), we are not really in a position to know precisely what the real likelihood of a proposition is.


Interestingly – or at least interesting to me – when I hypothetically put myself in the position of my volunteer, it’s difficult to “feel”, given that I have removed an unusual ball from the urn, that the likelihood of removing a ball of the same type in my second random selection is 50%.  I have no such problem if the first ball appears to be common.  I suspect that this is due to one of three factors:
  • I might be wrong again and either the likelihood is not 50% when unusual balls are involved or the likelihood simply isn’t 50%
  • I am being affected by a systematic bias that we could call “the psychology of the unusual”, or
  • Despite trying not to, I am being affected by my background knowledge of the world in which tutti-frutti themed balls really are unusual and white balls are not

I don’t think it is the latter, because the mathematics doesn’t seem to take unusual balls into account.  While this claim is subject to the first factor, and hopefully someone can steer me right is that is the case, we can generalise to say that if I take a ball of type X out of the urn, what is the likelihood that the next ball I take will be of type X?  Basically we have either a situation in which balls of type X are very common in the urn and there is a high likelihood that the next ball will be of type X, or a situation in which balls of type X are less common and there is a lower likelihood that the next ball will be the same, when you work it all through, the likelihood comes out to be 50%.  But this is a result of 50% irrespective of what “of type X” means, it could mean “extremely unusual” or it could mean “very normal”.

Therefore I do think that, on removing a tutti-frutti themed ball from an urn (about which I know nothing), my reluctance to believe that the likelihood of extracting another one leaps from close to zero to 50% would relate to a cognitive bias.  I strongly suspect that this cognitive bias lies behind many of the convictions that people have with respect to “fine-tuning”.

The likelihood that another universe, selected at random, were to be the same as ours – no matter how unlikely, or “fine-tuned”, our universe might appear to be – is 50%, given that we only have one universe on our hands and it’s of the sort we have.

See also (My) Ignorance Behind "Marilyn Gets My Goat".

Monday, 10 August 2015

ANT3 - A Snooker Playing God and Gametes


I’ll respond in blog format again and, again, here is the article you were responding to as context for other readers.

ANT's response:


With very minimal qualification, I agree with your assessment of deism and theism. (BTW I really enjoyed the software glitch objection to miracles).

You said, “The question I would really ask is not ‘why do you credit the theory of Theistic Evolution?’ but ‘how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?’”

This depends on how compatible the Theory of Evolution is with theism. An important question is, what features of evolution would be incompatible with theism? If any, it would be indeterminism. The opposite, determinism, would allow a deity to set the universe in motion with the intention to produce humans. It is not easy to prove that evolution is indeterministic. Some features of earth-like life are highly conserved which argues against indeterminism, and there’s also the phenomenon of convergent evolution which does the same. However, other features of earth-like life push the other way. In my last blog post, I showcased research which argues the complexity of human genome (and other multicellular animals) was predominantly generated by chance which favors indeterminism.

A fair assessment recognizes that chance mutations are constrained by varying degrees of natural selection, sometimes very highly, other times less so. Applying this to the question of theism, whether or not the Theory of Evolution is compatible with (Christian) theism depends on whether the conditions which produced humans were highly constrained (i.e., by predetermined environmental conditions) or left up to chance. Honestly, we cannot say either way without importing generalizations that, funny enough, both sides can supply.

You asked, “Is this pretty much what you mean by ‘self’ or do you have another idea of it?”
Like you, I would want to steer clear of mind-body dualism as proposed by Descartes that leads one to talk of an immaterial soul. Honestly, I’m not sure what can be said about the self beyond its existence. And now I can see we basically agree on this when you said “Clearly we exist, in at least some sense.” However, there still seems to be a problem for naturalism regarding the self.

Let me attempt to elaborate on this. Naturalism supposes the universe is composed of matter with well-defined properties moving around in space and generating fields and so on. Considering the sorts of structures that could arise, the self is strange. Counterfactuals can be used to highlight naturalism’s difficulty with the self. Why am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body? Or, why does this particular neural pattern correspond to me and not someone else? That is a question that emergentism is not equipped to address. Emergentism might explain how natural processes produce a novel complex structure, probably even whatever is “self”, but not these counterfactuals. Naturalism is great at handling counterfactuals such as why do dogs have lungs instead of gills? Or, why is Europe not in the Southern hemisphere? But, it is inadequate for answering counterfactuals of self. At the very least, unanswerable counterfactuals are a weakness, and at the most a sign of incoherence.

I’ll cut myself off here.

My response:

I want to deal with “self” first because I think it can be put to bed reasonably quickly.  When you talk about “self” in terms of naturalism and “emergentism”, you still appear to be talking about it (“self”) as a thing, rather than an emergent feature.  Take the Brad Pitt example for example, your question resolves down to “why is the emergent feature that emerges from the body that is labelled as ‘me’ not emergent from the body that is labelled as ‘Brad Pitt’?”  Clearly it’s because the emergent feature that we are talking about is a feature that emerges from specific bodies (and the chemistry / neurology / genetics / circumstances associated with those specific bodies).  We would not expect you to emerge from a brain in another body, nor would we expect Brad Pitt to emerge from the brain yours.

To think “why am ‘I’ not resident in Brad Pitt’s body?” (at least for those of us who are not Brad Pitt) is to presume some sort of portable “self” that can be somehow plugged into different bodies, so I think you are still locked into a loose form of mind-body dualism.  The “problem” that you attribute to naturalism and “emergentism” disappears when you unlock yourself from mind-body dualism.  The complaint is akin to claiming that naturalism is false because it cannot determine the weight of a rainbow, although the contributing error is somewhat less obvious.

I also think that we have to be very careful with respect to “why” questions because while we often mean “by what mechanism” we sometimes mean “for what intent” or “for what reason”.  In other words, some “why” questions are actually “how” questions and science (which is what you seem to mean when you say “naturalism”) is the right tool for addressing these sorts of questions only.  Other “why” questions are, unfortunately, little more than examples of inadvertent question begging.  (I’m not suggesting that the question begging is always inadvertent, there’s an example of what appears to be intentional question begging in a series of “who” questions that rarely fails to irritate me – in the children’s hymn Who put the colours in the rainbow? I can at least console myself with the thought of an atheist, science-minded objector responding doggedly to each line with “Well, actually …”)

I’d suggest rethinking your questions and trying to formulate them without a “why” to determine whether you mean “by what mechanism” or “for what intent/reason”.  Do you mean:

·      By what mechanism am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body?  Or,
·      For what intent am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body?

I also want to make it perfectly clear that I am not conceding that the “self” actually exists, as indicated by my qualification when I wrote “(c)learly we exist, in at least some sense”.

Now to evolution and theism.

A metaphorical snooker playing designer god that just lined all the metaphorical balls up and played a perfect metaphorical shot which resulted in humanity emerging is not, I think, a theistic god.  This would be a deist god (one that apparently had to first make the metaphorical balls and the metaphorical table on which the balls rest and the metaphorical cue used to take the shot).  A theist god intervenes.

Think of the table above as the starting conditions arranged by a snooker playing god.  If it’s a deist god with long term design intentions, it takes one strike at the white ball, then walks away from the table while, amazingly, all the balls all go in the pockets in a sequence according to the rules (as determined by the god, using physics principles which are also presumably determined by that god).  If it’s a theist god, it might get a few balls in with a single strike, but it retains the right to set itself up for multiple strikes and it might knock a few balls in by hand.  Such a god might even change its mind midgame as to the order in which balls are to be pocketed.  It could also add balls when it felt like it (WCBWJB) and remove balls from the table if they proved inconvenient.

So, is the Theory of Evolution consistent with a theist god?  It really doesn’t seem to be so.  I do think that it’s consistent with a deist god, in part because we have the hubris to think that we are the metaphorical pocketing of the black ball, the main event rather the cannoning of two balls midgame on the way to some unknown finale, and we can look back and see what must have happened for us to have come about.  We can (metaphorically and with a certain level of uncertainty) trace the path of the white ball all the way to the Big Bang and we can see that this or that must have happened – or we would not be here*.  We can even marvel that if the path of the white ball were even slightly different at the beginning, or the balls were aligned differently on the table, then we would never have been (this is analogous to “fine tuning”).

However, if it were a theist god, with the habit of committing regular, intent laden interventions, we should be able to see hints of those interventions – and we don’t.  It simply gets worse if we presume that such interventions would be aimed at either making things better or preventing unintentional evils (and that the god would never intentionally create evils).  There are plenty of opportunities for meaningful intervention in history that simply did not occur – as simple and innocuous as letting the young Adolf Hitler scrape a pass on his art exam so he could have spent his life as yet another two-bit painter.  You could argue that the death of millions in the Second World War might be a necessary element in some grander plan, but that leads to two uncomfortable conclusions: either you are one of the beneficiaries of that plan (in which case all that blood is on your hands whether you wanted it or not), or you are just more filler whose inevitable death is just one more means by which your god is callously achieving its ends.  Perhaps there is an evil-god (as suggested by Stephen Law) that is doing its level best to maximise suffering, but such a god isn’t one cherished by the average theist.

So no, I don’t see evolution being consistent with a theist god.

(I do see evolution being consistent with theism, by which I mean belief in a theist god.  However, in this sense evolution is also consistent with atheism, polytheism, pantheism and any sort of ism that any human out there has ever clung to. That is to say, the existence of theism – and other isms – is consistent with reality, even if the content of the associated beliefs might not be.)

I’m not quite sure what you are getting at with your discussion of indeterminism, nor why you think indeterminism is inconsistent with theism while determinism is consistent with it.  I can think that perhaps you are considering determinism to mean that every effect has a unique set of constituent causal conditions which are collectively referred to as the cause and that you can think of your god (or the will of your god) as being a possible causal condition in each possible effect.  However, because your god (or the will thereof) is not detectable, the consequence of that god intervening would be that, as far as humans are concerned, determinism will (at least sometimes) be false.  We’d have to rewrite the laws to say something along the lines of “any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, unless a god intervenes, in which case we simply don’t know what will happen”.  Such a universe would not, strictly speaking, be deterministic – at best it would be “mostly deterministic”.

As for indeterminism (by which I mean the physics related concept), I would have thought that this is more consistent with theism.  If indeterminate interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct (yes, there are deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics and there is even evidence for one variant), then there will be a palate of possible options for a god to choose from if it wished to intervene, at least until an observation is made.  This would, I would have thought, provided a lot of potential wriggle room in which a theist god could operate.  (Of course I lean towards a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics.)

Then you suggest that evolution itself might be indeterministic.  Evolution (at least biological evolution) doesn’t work at the level at which physical indeterminism holds sway, which leads me to think you might be talking about a lack of predestination.  If so, then I would agree that we don’t have any evidence that proves conclusively that evolution is not predestined – and we could even be sceptical of that evidence even if we had it (because, due to some ineffable plan on the part of the evolutionary predestinator, it could have been predestined that we would eventually find evidence that evolution is not predestined even if it is – it would be like programming an artificial intelligence to “know” that it is not an artificial intelligence).

My argument with respect to this is that if we have been placed in a universe which, on careful inspection, appears to be completely natural in origin with no inherent purpose and no creator, then it makes sense to treat it as completely natural in origin with no inherent purpose and no creator – even if it does happen to be a simulation or a plaything created by some sort of god.  If there’s an upgrade which imparts knowledge that we are simulations or the owner starts giving better, more convincing clues as to its existence, then I think I would be justified in reconsidering my position based on the new evidence.  At the moment the only “evidence” available seems to be testing us for gullibility, such as very sketchy reports of a resurrection by people with a vested interest in such reports being believed.  If gullibility truly were the feature most favoured by the owner-operator of the universe, then I guess I would have to accept the fact that I am a substandard product of its creation.

You appear to be overly impressed by considerations of chance, which is a common feature of the more active theists, especially apologetic theists.  If your parents had to put one egg and one sperm together, both being selected at random with the express intent of creating you then, yes for sure, the chances of them being successful would be near enough infinitesimal.  Your mother had between one and two million immature eggs at birth while your father, if within the normal human range, likely produced about a billion sperm a month, maybe more during his heyday – with average human sperm production being a little over half a trillion over a lifetime.  That means the likelihood of you being produced – given the existence of your parents, their desire to create you and the assumption that all they needed to do that was connect the right sperm to the right ovum and that they had their lifetime supply of gametes to choose from – is in the order of 1 in half a quintillion (0.5x1018) which is pretty the age of the universe when expressed in seconds**.  If your parents could tell immediately that the right combination of egg and sperm had been found just before fusing them, and could make their random selections and check each combination in one second and they were somehow prevented from retrying unsuccessful combinations, and they started just after the big bang that would mean that they would have been able to recreate you by now.  (Of course we are ignoring issues of age and fertility cycles.)

The thing is though that this scenario is rather unrealistic.  Your parents didn’t just select an egg and a sperm at random.  And they weren’t specifically aiming for you.  If any two fertile humans throw gametes at each other regularly enough without taking precautions (please don’t visualise that), then inevitably some sort of child will eventuate and no matter who that child turns out to be, it will be only one out of a truly staggeringly huge number of potential outcomes.  In other words, you need to focus more on the likelihood of a child resulting from sexual congress, which is substantially higher than on in a sextillion, and just be happy that one of those children ended up being you.

Finally, you talk about “the question of theism, whether or not the Theory of Evolution is compatible with (Christian) theism depends on whether the conditions which produced humans were highly constrained (i.e., by predetermined environmental conditions) or left up to chance”.  I guess you meant to presuppose the veridicality of theism here?  Otherwise you would be guilty of question begging to the same extent as in that execrable hymn.

And you raised this in a paragraph which was notionally addressing the question “how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?”  I don’t think you actually answered the question, unless your answer is “theism comes first, anything I consider incompatible with theism is thus untrue”.  I don’t think you mean that though … um, do you?


* This looking back to see what must have happened for us to be here is, perhaps, the most valid use of the anthropic principle.  We can’t justify presenting a scientific hypothesis if an inevitable consequence of that hypothesis being true is that it would be impossible for life to exist in this universe.  Similarly, we can factor in our existence when trying to work out what happened in the history of the universe – for example, we know that there is a lot of carbon on our planet (which is essential for our type of life) and therefore something must have produced that carbon.  Therefore, our star must be a second generation star that formed from the debris of first generation star that was responsible for all our carbon (inter alia).  We’d know that even if we hadn’t looked at the spectral lines of the sun and noticed that it contains heavier elements that a main sequence star cannot have generated.


** This is not a coincidence.  I looked for a figure that was in the order of a quintillion.  I was looking at grains of sand on the planet (estimated as 7x1018), stars in the universe, the volume of the Earth and the mass of the Earth before selecting the age of the universe in seconds figure.  I could have used the volume of the Earth’s oceans in cubic metres (about 1.3x1018), or the number of insects currently alive on the planet (about 10x1018), or the number of cells in the bodies of a crowd at Centre Court Wimbledon on slow day (one third capacity at 5,000 times 100 trillion = 0.5x1018).  Time is good for this purpose though because a length of time can be divided in a multitude of ways, allowing multiple shots at an order of magnitude that fits (seconds, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on), and if the age of the universe hadn’t fit, I could have used the age of the earth, how long ago the dinosaurs were around or any one of a number of eras selected to suit my purpose.  If the number were larger, I’d have simply talked about number of lifetimes of the universe, or used stars as my example.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

ANT2 - Theistic Evolution and Selves

Hi ANT (I hope this acronym doesn’t offend),

I was going to respond to this comment in comment format, but it got a bit long and involved, so I’ll respond in article format.  I’m more than happy to continue to tic-tac back and forth this way and perhaps you might want to do the same at your blog.

For the benefit of other readers, here is A Naive Thinker’s comment to this earlier response:

Hi neopolitan,

Thanks for the long term follow up, you brought up interesting issues to explore.

You said, “When we compare the wealth of hints against two hypotheses, we are either emergent beings from an entirely natural process or designed constructs, it simply seems to me that emergence is far more coherent (if less comprehensible) than design.”

My criticism for this thought is I don’t think it reaches far enough back. Natural processes themselves could be designed. For example, the view of Theistic Evolution is that the conditions and laws were created such that the universe would produce intelligent, free creatures. So, I wonder how do you rule out the view of Theistic Evolution?  You would probably ask me the same in reverse, so I’ll give it a go in a minute.

You said, “To know if our selves actually exist, we’d have to slow down and painstakingly make the effort to actually observe ourselves – and when we do that, as in meditative practices, the experts queue up to tell us that the self doesn’t actually exist.”

I reject this criterion for knowledge of self-existence because I think observing oneself is logically impossible. This is because observing is by definition taking in data external to oneself. I submit to you Descartes’ criterion: “I think, therefore I am.” Or, we could conjure up other criteria such as experience. To have experience necessarily entails that one exists.

It’s not just that nonexistence of self is contrary to common sense, it is flat out absurd. Learning that, say, taking showers causes cancer would fly against common sense, but learning that I don’t exist dissolves everything into absurdity. I mean who is reading this? Who is typing this? That’s the reason I think we can only talk about this as an abstract theory and no one truly believes it. The naturalist denying self-existence is conveniently avoiding a very difficult feature of reality. And at the high cost of nihilism which is probably why orthodox naturalism cannot tolerate denial of self.

So, I said I would take a swing, I’ll make it fast. I think self-existence, the desire for good outcomes, conscience, freedom, love, beauty, hate of evil, are among features of reality and experience that are better explained by us existing and living for a purpose. The purpose seems to be a gift to us from a creator deity who has in mind to save those who love life. Add this with scientific theory of evolution and you get Theistic Evolution.

My response:

I don't rule out Theistic Evolution in entirety, by which I don't mean to be so flippant as to simply dismiss the word "Theistic" from the concept without any justification.  I believe we have good reason to dismiss the theism.  As I said before, I am willing to grant (for the purposes of the argument) a deist god, and such a god might well have either designed the universe such that the natural processes we observe would manifest or designed the natural processes themselves - it's a subtle difference, but I consider the natural processes of the universe to be the universe, rather than to be something running on a separate substrate that you might call "the universe".  We also have to be careful when talking about "laws", since all we really have are observations from which we intuit consistencies within the universe - again it's a subtle difference, this time between one situation in which someone says "this is the way things shall work" and another in which someone else says "this is way things appear to work".  Laws are "created" in a theist paradigm but not in mine.  If you wanted to posit a god that set up the conditions for the universe, got the requisite processes running and left no later than a few fractions of a second into the commencement of the Big Bang, then I have to grant that to you as a possibility with the proviso that, as an explanation for how the universe commenced, I consider it entirely equivalent to a hearty refrain of "we just don't know".

But the "Theistic" version of this is more problematical, because the god of the theists is an interventionist and we don't seem to have any convincing evidence of the interventions that would reveal the presence of a theistic god.  Everything seems to work just fine on the basis of natural processes (which we could put down to a deistic god, if we were so inclined).  So far as I know, no-one is pointing to any event in natural history and saying "Look here, this event is not just unlikely or unexplained, it's known to be utterly impossible, therefore god".  (Even if they did, it's still possible for some objections, such as "No, that's not proof of god, that's evidence of a software glitch and is a strong indication that we are operating within a computer simulation.")

Think about that possibility for a moment (the god proof version).  If it did happen, what would it mean?  It would mean that this god, which is purported to be perfect, made a mistake, or was restricted in its design efforts thus necessitating the miracle to achieve its inscrutable objectives.  I doubt that any theists are seriously looking for errors committed by their god, but are there?

(I'm aware that some claim to have "evidence" of intervention in the form of their bible.  But then again, there are plenty of holy books around which they likely consider to be works of fiction while I include the bible in that corpus.)

The question I would really ask is not "why do you credit the theory of Theistic Evolution?" but "how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?" (if indeed you do).

And then selves.  This all comes down to what we mean by "self" and what we mean by "existence" in respect to "self".  When I say that the self is an illusion (and I think this is what the contemplation experts mean by “self” in a similar context) I am referring to some sort of independent, discrete unit that is “me”, perhaps akin to a “soul”.  Is this pretty much what you mean by “self” or do you have another idea of it?

There’s a problem with experience, you say that experiencing necessarily entails that one exists - which I read as meaning that there is no experience if there is no self.  But what is this experiencing? And how, from our viewpoint, is this distinguished from existing?  It seems to me that they are basically the same thing, which makes your claim that "(t)o have experience necessarily entails that one exists" true, but only trivially so.  Do you have a way to eke out the difference between "existing" and "experiencing", as it is known to us?  I’m fully aware that we ourselves can observe other things to exist, while being aware that they don’t experience anything at all – such as rocks – I am trying to limit this to consideration of the existence of self and self-dependent experience.

That in mind, I am not suggesting total non-existence which is, as you point out, absurd.  Clearly we exist, in at least some sense.  But in what sense is that claim to existence unassailably true?  For example, I don’t think that asking the question "who is writing this?" necessarily mandates that there really is a "who" in the sense that I suspect that you might be considering it – that is that some form of homunculus or soul might be thought to be sitting inside my head guiding the actions of my body (and indeed my brain).  Instead, I think that it is possible that there are a whole bunch of processes going on (natural processes), two ramifications of which are that some words are being typed out on this computer and that I have an (emergent) sense that I exist as a "self" – excusing the inevitable confusion brought about by referring to myself as "I" (and as "myself").

I do think that naturalism is denying "self" as "soul", but not "self" as "process" (or emergent feature).  Would you not agree, or do you have a different perspective?


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

ANT1 - House of probability: a puzzle

First some context:

A Naive Thinker (his own self-deprecation, not any deprecation forced on him by me) has a “puzzle” on his blog in which there are five rooms, but only four that really matter.  In the first, there is a black bag with a known number and distribution of coloured balls and you are asked to say which colours are the most and the least likely to be selected at random from the bag.  In the second, you are asked to select a ball at random from a similar black bag and encouraged to assess the likelihood the colour you picked is the most or the least common.  In the third, you are asked to assess the likelihood that the most or the least common colour in a black bag (that this time you get to rifle through) happens to be your favourite colour.  In the fourth, there is yet another similar black bag, this time with a golden ball removed from it, on display, and you are asked to assess whether the golden ball – which you are told “came from inside the bag” – is among the most or the least common within the bag.

The conclusion reached by A Naive Thinker is that we don’t know, because we are specifically not told what is in the bag, nor are we told how the ball was selected from the bag (for example, it could have been selected at random, or it could have been removed precisely because it is considered special in some way, favoured).

A Naive Thinker then uses this lack of clarity to argue against the Principle of Mediocrity, which he characterises thus: “(t)he (Principle of Mediocrity) states that humans represent a random sample, therefore are likely to be common”.  Note that Wikipedia expresses it slightly differently (grammar polished): “if an item has been drawn at random from one of several sets or categories, then it is more likely to have come from the most numerous category than from any one of the less numerous categories” but it does go on to say that “(t)he principle has been taken to suggest that there is nothing very unusual about the evolution of the Solar System, the Earth, humans, or any one nation.”

Then the preceding correspondence:

neopolitan | February 15, 2015 at 4:16 am

This is quite an interesting argument, but … I think that you have problems when trying to apply it to the Earth. The major problem you have could be highlighted by considering the two selection scenarios – random and favoured. You are suggesting that there is no indication whatsoever as to what sort of selection was made, but if we were to compare that to the question of whether the Earth is random or favoured, then your scenario should include a wealth of hints as to the method of selection – just as there are hints on this planet that indicate that we are either here as part of a natural (undirected) process or as part of a divine plan. We just need to think very carefully about the hints to see if there is something conclusive one way or the other.

We should also be looking at those hints before trying to assess the likelihood of our existence. I note that we could make predictions based on the divine plan theory, but I suspect that these predictions would often fail and this won’t upset the predictor since he or she will simply put that down to not really knowing the divine plan.

And that, I suppose, is another problem. The divine plan, if there is one, is so sprawling and unpredictable as to be indistinguishable from undirected developments. Perhaps there is actually some cosmically obscure divine plan, but we will never know it in this lifetime, and the existence of such a divine plan is totally useless for the purpose for which it is normally employed – proving the existence of a god. The best we can really say is that we don’t know whether there is a divine plan or not (and consequently we don’t know whether there is some sort of god or not), even if I personally suspect not.

anaivethinker | February 15, 2015 at 9:15 pm

Hi Neopolitan,

Thanks for your comment. My conclusion in this blog post was neutral towards the naturalism versus theism debate, but I do agree with you that this is a major problem for the contemplative person.

You said, “. . . the existence of such a divine plan is totally useless for the purpose for which it is normally employed – proving the existence of a god.”

I agree with you. Despite the inability to reach any certain conclusion, you still “personally suspect” that naturalism is true which intrigues me. I personally suspect the opposite – that theism is true. So, it makes me wonder, what exactly is our difference?

Judging by your comment, I think we would agree science cannot adjudicate the question of the existence of every type of divine plans. There is no experiment that rules out all divine plans, nor is there an experiment to rule in a particular divine plan. This means any sort of conclusion about the existence of a divine plan will necessarily stem from phenomenological experience or a priori reasoning. I would also bet that you give more weight to a priori reasoning here, as experience can be marred by hallucinations, illusions, delusions, and so on. Then, my question for you is what reason do we have to think that such a divine plan is unlikely?

To me, a priori reasoning at the very least shows that naturalism is unlikely. In more technical terms, naturalism is incoherent because it cannot reasonably account for certain features of reality. At the moment, my favorite example is the question, why do you exist? This is not a question of consciousness which is a property of you. Suppose that naturalism is correct that you are fundamentally an electrochemical reaction in your brain, this supposition merely alters the question: why is this particular electrochemical reaction you? There is no conceivable way to reduce the connection between you and this particular electrochemical reaction to more fundamental natural law or principle, so one move naturalists can make is to say the connection is an illusion and that self-existence is an illusion. In other words, you do not exist. But, I am more certain that I exist than anything else. This means naturalism is incoherent. Theism provides a coherent answer to the question: God placed you in a certain body at a certain time in history so that you may have the gift of life and to see if you would choose to enjoy this gift for eternity. This makes theism more coherent compared to naturalism, but this does not mean theism is more coherent compared all other worldviews.

neopolitan | February 16, 2015 at 11:06 pm

I do appreciate that your conclusion was neutral, it’s a refreshingly honest position for a theist (unfortunately, I tend to discuss these sorts of things with a bad crowd – you know the sort, amateur apologists).

As to why we don’t agree, I do have a piece on my world view as well as one on where I come from, which might help (here and here). If you look there, I can save some typing time and some space in your comments feed :)

I don’t actually give more weight to a priori reasoning, although I do agree that we are subject to all forms of delusion and error. To me, the key is to identify those experiences that are common – those which lie behind our personal delusions and mistakes. And I don’t think that naturalism is incoherent. I’ve been pondering that for a few weeks, and trying to come up with a clear explanation as to why. This was based on the common claim that there is no empirical proof to the naturalist’s claim that empirical proof is better than all other proof. I think there might be proof, but I need to ponder it a bit more.

Oh, and I do think that our selves are largely imaginary. In other words, I don’t really exist in the way that I seem to exist from the perspective of being inside my head. Or … consciousness is a similar illusion to the illusion of free will.

anaivethinker | February 17, 2015 at 6:04 am

Thanks. I just “followed” your blog. I’m not sure if it matters that there is empirical proof for empirical proof. It does not seem to be a weakness of naturalism to me at all. Naturalism by definition is informed by science, but it is really a philosophical position grounded in ideas like the causal closure thesis. There are plenty of versions of theism that are also informed by science which simply reject the philosophical grounding of naturalism in favor of others. We can count Young Earth Creationism out of this group, but you get the idea. :)

I see that you seem to have adopted eliminativism (i.e., consciousness and freewill are illusions). Honestly, at the moment I think this is the most coherent version of naturalism. :) But, since I know with more certainty that I exist than, well, anything else, eliminativism becomes less coherent than a worldview which could somehow account for self-existence. Also, if freewill is an illusion, then there is no such thing as morality. You could never meaningfully bring up the problem of evil in a debate. Personally, when I was a naturalist I could never accept freewill as an illusion. That’s too much nihilism for this guy. I was more into emergentism or some other science-of-the-gaps.

neopolitan | February 19, 2015 at 6:44 am

I haven’t forgotten you, but I am involved in a battle royale elsewhere. I’ll keep your reply here unread and will get back to you if there is ever a lull in hostilities :)

And then, finally, my actual response:

Hi A Naive Thinker.  

The battle royale mentioned in my last comment a few months ago is over and, while I lost comprehensively, reason won the day against (my) ignorance and I did learn a couple of things (a tiny little bit of humility for example).

Re-reading your puzzle, I am struck again about how while the idea is instructive, the simplicity of it is also deceptive.  Your analogy is that living on this planet is the golden ball and the universe above (and below and all around) us is the black bag containing an unknown number and distribution of balls of undisclosed colours.  However, living on this planet is a far richer experience than gazing at a golden ball (however exciting the idea of a golden ball might be to the more material among us).  There are plenty of hints in nature that can guide us towards a conclusion as to our provenance - whether we are random or favoured products.

That leads me neatly to why I consider naturalism to be the stronger argument than its competitors.  When we compare the wealth of hints against two hypotheses – that we are either emergent beings from an entirely natural process or designed constructs – it simply seems to me that emergence is far more coherent (if less comprehensible) than design.  As I explained to a religious friend of mine a couple of decades back, without a designer, things don't have to make sense.  But as soon as you start looking for things to make sense, which the theist is does because sense is a feature of design, it doesn't take long before you have to appeal to inscrutability.  When that happens, I think that the theist has lost, because there's little functional difference between a plan that no-one can observe, know or understand and no plan at all.  (Using similar logic, I am often willing to grant a deist god to those arguing for it.  I don't deny that the universe is here and shoring up that otherwise inexplicable existence is the only thing for which the deist god seems to be responsible.)

This might seem a little nihilistic, but it's only because we are pattern seeking creatures (read as "animals", not "created beings").  We seek patterns irrespective of whether there are patterns that exist, and we find patterns even when they don't (the face on Mars and Pluto on Pluto being examples of this phenomenon).  You considered that my position regarding consciousness and the self as being nihilistic as well.  Hopefully the preceding paragraph gives you pause in that I point to emergence.  I'm very much of the opinion that our illusions of self, consciousness and free will are emergent features of our brains and the culture/language/experience laid down on those brains.  There is a little bootstrapping going on, of course, as in the "being" experiencing the illusion of being a "being" is the illusion itself.  This might offend common sense but we have plenty of examples of findings in psychology where common sense doesn't get much of a look in.  I look here at the findings of researchers such as Daniel Kahneman who shows that our quick intuitive thinking is efficient, but not always effective (ie sometimes it's quite wrong because we are fundamentally lazy), while our slow thinking is more effective but much less efficient (and we tend to avoid it because it usually represents too much of a cognitive load).  To know if our selves actually exist, we'd have to slow down and painstakingly make the effort to actually observe ourselves - and when we do that, as in meditative practices, the experts queue up to  tell us that the self doesn't actually exist.  It's for this reason that I have to dismiss your certainty (and indeed my own certainty) of personal existence, on which you build your conclusion of a non-randomly selected golden ball (in so much as it represents some form of rational design behind the universe and ultimately theism).

While putting the context together for this, I note that in your third room, there’s no real need to search through the bag.  Perhaps you had another intent but if so, it’s unclear what this intent was and the ability to view the balls and select your favoured colour appears to be no more than a distraction.