Monday, 28 September 2015

The Absence of Meaning, and Penguins

Sometimes, when discussing my world view with a theist, they will (metaphorically) look at me with a quizzical expression and say "But in your world view, everything is meaningless!"

Then they might say "I can't believe in a universe without meaning."  And that, for them, is it.

This is a curious point of view.  Perhaps the universe does have some sort of inherent meaning that isn't generated by us humans.  But perhaps not.  Our wanting the universe to have intrinsic meaning doesn't affect the nature of the universe one wit ... and the meaning seems to be pretty light on the ground, even if one posits a god.

I see this as being rather similar to me showing them photos from my visit to Arizona and the Grand Canyon.  With each image, my theist friend says "Nice, but there's no penguins, so I don't believe that you went to Arizona."  I didn't actually expect to see penguins in Arizona and similarly I don't expect to see meaning in the universe, so the singular lack of it in my world view simply isn't a problem.

The discussions between theists and non-theists are, therefore, a bit like we're on a bus on our way somewhere, but we can't agree as to the destination.  The windows of bus, for some obscure reason, are entirely coated on the inside with paint.  The non-theists are suggesting that we might be on our way to the Grand Canyon, on the basis that some of the more scientific among them have been scraping off bits of paint in order to see outside and all the evidence, so far, points to the destination being the Grand Canyon. The theists, on the other hand, are refusing to accept any evidence that suggests that we are not going to Percival's Penguin Paradise (but if any evidence might be compatible with that notion, they seize upon it very quickly).  In fact, any evidence provided that indicates a lack of penguins is summarily rejected as "not containing evidence of penguins".

You might think that it is going to be a very sad holiday that we are going on with no penguins at the end of it, but personally I think it's not so much the destination that is the problem, but more that I am stuck on a bus with far too many theists, some of whom are hellbent on preventing me from scraping off enough paint to see the reality outside.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Best and Worst Arguments

A common pair of questions asked in apologetics and counter-apologetics circles are “what is the best argument for god from the perspective of an atheist?” and “what is the best argument against god from the perspective of a theist?”

I don’t want to consider this particular couplet, but another related one, namely “what is the best argument for god?” and “what is the worst argument for god?”

Of course, I need to be able to provide an answer myself, so here goes:

Best argument for god

From my perspective, that would have to be personal experience.  I wrote a series of responses to WLC’s various logical arguments, but I didn’t respond to his occasional appeals to personal experience.  If a theist truly believes that he has interacted with the divine, then no amount of logical wrangling or rhetoric is likely to shift him.

Worst argument for god

From my perspective again, that would have to be the threat of death.  By this I don’t mean “if you don’t believe in god then you will not be rewarded with eternal life”.  I mean something like “if you don’t believe in my god, particularly if you previously believed or claimed to have believed, then I will kill you”.  If you threaten me with death if I don’t believe in flying monkeys (and I believe that your threat is credible), then I am likely to assure you that I do in fact believe in flying monkeys.  I won’t actually believe, of course, but if you are so obsessed with flying monkeys that you want me to believe in them and are willing to kill me, you possibly won’t notice my deception.  If I am an external observer, and I notice that your supposedly faithful disciples are actually just in fear for their lives, then I am going to be rather dismissive (albeit quietly) about the likelihood that flying monkeys exist.

What does this say about me?

I think that this is possibly the most interesting aspect of the exercise.  What I consider to be the best argument can be characterised as “coming from within” while what I consider to be the worst argument is imposed from without.

Despite my love of dismantling the so-called “logical” arguments of theists, logic doesn’t seem to play a part in what I consider to be the best and the worst arguments.  Equally, effectiveness of the arguments doesn’t seem to matter, since I don’t think that “best” argument would be effective for me – even if I experienced what could be considered a brush with the divine, since I’d be likely to consider it an aberration rather than anything veridical.  No-one who is not crazy, so far as I can tell, has a constant impression of being in contact with a god.  The “worst” argument could be highly effective, as far as I know – through a form of “fake it until you make it” or Stockholm syndrome (note that it seems that proselytising acts to lock people in to a belief-set, so “Recruit or die” might be more effective than “Believe or die”).

It’d be interesting to see what the axis of best and worst is for other people.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Another Open Letter to Luke Barnes

Hi Luke,

Re your latest at Letters to Nature (15 September 2015), I was struggling to find a previous mention of your imminent book deal, so I went snooping around.  What I can find is that you and Geraint and another astronomer, Pascal Elahi, are linked via a grant detailed on each of your University of Sydney web pages.  A grant titled "Galaxy Formation and the Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life".

I'm astounded to see that this grant has, as its source, Templeton World Charity Foundation/Research Support.  I researched this a little and found that this organisation does not list you among its grantees, but I accept that they might be a little behind in their update cycle.  What worries me a little more is the basis on which this organisation issues grants.  For example, on their "What we do and do not fund" FAQ page, they state that "TWCF supports projects that aim to discover new spiritual information".

Their core funding areas are Humility in Theology (>60% of funding) and Individual Freedom and Free Markets, Genetics and Genius, Character Virtue Development and Other Charitable Purposes (less clear on the division of funding, but your area doesn't seen to fit into these categories neatly either).  It would appear that you are being funded from the Humility in Theology area since the page on this funding says:
"Theology reflects Sir John Templeton’s overriding vision for encouraging progress in spiritual information. The term “theology” is used because Sir John considered information about the fundamental structures and laws of the universe, and also about human capacities and character, to be central to illuminating our understanding of the divine."
So, as a person who has previously claimed to be neutral on this issue (how fine-tuning relates to apologetic efforts to prove the existence of their god), could you please explain what is going on here?

Also, I was curious about how a line of funding could be extracted from Templeton and, from what I can find, it appears that you have to apply in a multistage process - although admittedly that was from a web page on how to obtain funding from the John Templeton Foundation, not Templeton World Charity (which doesn't have an equivalent web page).  I think we'd also be interested to know how you managed to end up with this funding.

If you are not acting from the covert position as a theist with apologetic leanings, perhaps it's time to make that clear.  (On a related note, would denying that position put your funding in peril?)


PS: This may be of interest to you

Barnes and the Templeton

While doing research for Luke Barnes and his Fine-Tuning with WLC, I came across another interesting titbit.  My complaint in the referenced article is that Barnes’ arguments are being used by what could be called “old universe creationists” or “big bang creationists”.  The example of this happening, rather unsurprisingly given the rubric, involves William Lane Craig (WLC).  However, the phenomenon of using Barnes’ work to support an apologetics-style argument for god is not restricted to our old friend WLC.
Eric Hatfield of The Way 21st Century uses Barnes, for example, as does Eric Hatfield (aka UnkleE) of Is there a God? (blog), Barry K Arrington of Uncommon Descent, Dr Jonathan D. Sarfati from Creation Ministries International, Dr Quirino Sugon Jr. from Monk’s Hobbit (Rebuilding the Faith and Nation) – and yes that is his real name, I’m not making this up – and Ashly Camp of True Origin (in his list of “1342 Articles Supporting Biblical Creation” – of which Barnes wrote two).

And then there are his mentions in the news.  Barnes was recently happy to note that one of his images was used in a quite reasonable article at The Economist.  And he was actually quoted in one at Inside Science.  He mentions this on his blog, but I didn’t find my way to the article via that particular mention (which I only found when I went looking for it).  I found it (via a search engine, I hasten to point out) at Uncommon Descent, a website dedicated to serving the “Intelligent Design Community”.

Remember that my concern is that some people might be entering academia with the intent of supporting forms of creationism.  Luke Barnes may or may not be one of them, but he certainly doesn’t seem to put any effort into explaining his position in such a way as to prevent misuse of his conclusions (and this might be because he considers the god conclusion not to be misuse – or maybe another reason that I’ll get to below).

Uncommon Descent is maintained by a Christian bankruptcy lawyer, Barry K Arrington, and has an article on pretzels – or rather the “pretzels people make of themselves to deny fine-tuning of the universe for life”.  It is in this article that Barnes is mentioned.  This article just happened to be the one that popped up when I was snooping around, trying to ascertain whether Barnes had links to creationists.  However, the folks at Uncommon Descent have mentioned Barnes quite a few times, with one contributor (Salvador Cordova) even professing to be a fan.
This is a rabbit-hole that is worth ducking down for a moment.

When waxing lyrical about Barnes, Cordova mentioned something that Barnes wrote in response to something Rob Sheldon wrote that was the subject of an article at Uncommon Descent.  (It’s rather difficult to establish whether Sheldon is a contributor to Uncommon Descent or just someone they quote regularly.  On this page, however, he is listed among friends of Intelligent Design and on this page it appears that he has an MA in Religion, which he got before his PhD in Physics.)

Cordova quoted Rod Sheldon on the topic of curvature of the universe and the content, to me as a non-expert, appears to be rather uncontroversial.  Sheldon just says that the universe looks remarkably flat when triangulation is carried out using sufficiently distant objects (bright ones, like quasars and galaxies) and that some observations suggest features of the universe for which Dark Matter has subsequently been theorised to explain.  If anything is particularly controversial in what Sheldon has to say, noting that he says it all in rather layman-like terms, it is the suggestion that inflation creates more problems than it solves – but Barnes doesn’t even mention this in his response.  However, it’s not really the content of Barnes’ reply that interests me, nor whether Sheldon’s comments are truly worth worrying about.  In modern parlance, it’s not the data but the metadata that is interesting.

Cordova posted the Sheldon piece on 30 January 2014.  Barnes posted his comprehensive response to that article on 1 February 2014.  The question this raises is why Barnes should be so interested in an article posted on a website dedicated to serving the Intelligent Design community?  Interested enough to read that article, presumably within a day of it being posted, and respond within two days.

Now I am of the impression that Arrington and his crew are loopy, and that almost certainly includes Sheldon.  I get that impression from their “About” page:

Uncommon Descent holds that…

Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins. At the same time, intelligent design (ID) offers a promising scientific alternative to materialistic theories of biological and cosmological evolution — an alternative that is finding increasing theoretical and empirical support. Hence, ID needs to be vigorously developed as a scientific, intellectual, and cultural project.

However, their personal loopiness is irrelevant given that the mention of Barnes by Uncommon Descent (in the pretzel instance) was embedded in a quote taken from an article at “RealClearScience”.  RealClearScience is an organ of RealClearInvestors and Crest Media, who own RealClearPolitics and RealClearReligion and a few other closely linked news aggregators.  The RealClear group might also be a bit loopy, being dedicated to addressing the “bias in media against conservatives, religious conservatives, [and] Christian conservatives” – and noting that their science feed includes a recent blog listing “Great Theological Quotes on Science” – but they are mostly just aggregators, or perhaps “filters”, providing the sort of news that they think their target audience might like.  The article they aggregated in this case came from Inside Science, the same one that Luke Barnes mentions at his blog.  One could wonder why the folks at Uncommon Descent mentioned RealClearScience at all and didn’t just refer to the original article, but perhaps there are some kudos involved in mentioning an article that has made its way through the “anti-bias” filtering process.

Gabriel Popkin’s article at Inside Science is in reference to a paper by Ulf-G Meissner, “Anthropic considerations in nuclear physics”, which is available at either Science Bulletin (for which you might need a subscription) or arXiv (no login or subscription seems necessary).  The key tract in this article appears to be the one which describes the Anthropic Principle (take a deep breath before attempting to read this):

The Universe we live in is characterized by certain parameters that take specific values so that life on Earth is possible. For example, the age of the Universe must be large enough to allow for the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. On more microscopic scales, certain fundamental parameters of the Standard Model of the strong and electroweak interactions like the light quark masses or the electromagnetic fine structure constant must take values that allow for the formation of neutrons, protons and atomic nuclei. At present, we do not have a viable theory to predict the precise values of these constants, although string theory promises to do so in some distant future. Clearly, one can think of many universes, the multiverse, in which various fundamental parameters take different values leading to environments very different from ours. In that sense, our Universe has a preferred status, and this was the basis of the socalled anthropic principle (AP) invented by Carter. The AP states that “the observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirements that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so”. There are many variants of the AP, but this definition serves our purpose quite well. At first sight, one might think that it is a triviality, as the statement seems to be a tautology. However, we can move away from the philosophical level and ask whether the AP can have physical consequences that can be tested? This is indeed the case particularly in nuclear physics, as I will argue in this review. But it is worth mentioning that anthropic reasoning has been used in some well cited papers, I name here Weinberg’s work on the cosmological constant and Susskind’s exploration of the string theory landscape. The influence of the AP on string theory and particle physics has been reviewed recently in [A. N. Schellekens, Rev. Mod. Phys. 85, no. 4, 1491 (2013)]. But let us return to nuclear physics. A prime example of the AP is the so-called Hoyle state. In 1954, Hoyle made the prediction of an excited level in carbon-12 to allow for a sufficient production of heavy elements (12C, 16O,...) in stars. As the Hoyle state is crucial to the formation of the elements essential to life as we know it, this state has been nicknamed the “level of life”. See, however, [H. Kragh, Arch. Hist. Exact Sci. 64, 721 (2010)] for a thorough historical discussion of the Hoyle state in view of the anthropic principle. Independent of these historical issues, the anthropic view of the Universe can be nicely shown using the example of the Hoyle state, more precisely, one can understand how the abstract principle can be turned into a physics question. The central issue is the closeness of the Hoyle state to the threshold of 4He+8Be that determines the resonance enhancement of carbon production. In Fig. 1 I show the possible response of this resonance condition to the change of some fundamental parameter, here called g. If for a wide range of this parameter, the resonance condition stays intact (left panel), more precisely, the absolute energies might shift but the Hoyle state stays close to the energy of 4He+8Be. In such a case, one can hardly speak of an anthropic selection. If on the other hand, the two levels split markedly for small changes in g as shown in the right panel, this would correspond to a truly anthropic fine-tuning. In Nature, we cannot investigate which of these scenarios is indeed fulfilled as all fundamental constants take specific values. However, with the powerful tool of computer simulations this has become possible and this issue will be discussed in the remaining part of the review.

Also of interest is that a paper by Luke Barnes is referenced in Meissner’s paper.

What is this hugely unwieldy paragraph actually saying?  One of the problems is that the author is not a native English speaker, so it’s possible that some wording can be a little off-kilter.  Like, for example, the first sentence which infers design intent.  The problem is that while I might be willing to accept that Meissner didn’t intend to make this inference, this largesse on my part doesn’t prevent those who want to read such inferences into scientific literature from doing so.

I’m certainly not the first person to react to this, for instance the Sensuous Curmudgeon has reacted to a different strand of this story, which came via PhysOrg.

What I find to be salient here is not so much that what Meissner is saying is wrong (if generously interpreted), but how it can be misused (if, shall we say, “creatively” interpreted).

What exactly is this anthropic principle that Meissner is talking about?  If you follow the link to Wikipedia or do a little digging on your own, you will find that there is not just the one anthropic principle.  There are at least two weak anthropic principles, at least two strong anthropic principles, a modified anthropic principle, the strong self-sampling assumption variant, the final anthropic principle, the participatory anthropic principle and the completely ridiculous anthropic principle.

It seems to me that we can look at the “anthropic-ness” of the universe in two basic ways.  The first is to do the same as Luke Barnes’ creationist friends (be they intentional friends of his or not) – look at the universe and say “wow, if things were only slightly different, then we would not exist” and then draw your preferred conclusions from that.  The second is to consider the fact that when we are trying to work out what happened in our cosmological or biological past, the only theories we can seriously entertain are those theories which don’t preclude our existence.  In other words the anthropic principle can be used as a filter to exclude those theories which would make the existence of intelligent life in this universe and the development of humans impossible (while noting that such a filter will not exclude theories in which such outcomes are only very highly unlikely rather than impossible).

It’d be great if Luke Barnes could clarify precisely what perspective he is taking on this issue, but it might affect his longer term aspirations.

And, you might wonder, what exactly might those aspirations be?  Well, in doing my research I began to notice something that kept cropping up with Barnes.  Templeton.  He has now attended at least two seminars funded by Templeton and he has repeatedly indicated a leaning towards Templeton winners – for example he refers to Martin Rees (2011) quite a bit and also Paul Davies (1995).  Of course, one could be generous and say that these are esteemed members of the scientific community working in Barnes’ area; Rees is an astronomer like Barnes and Davies is a physicist who is linked to cosmology.  It’d be a surprise if such Barnes never mentioned such notables, but they just seem to pop up quite a bit in Barnes’ world.
My suspicion, as ungracious as it might be, is that Barnes has hit on the idea of winning a Templeton prize.  This is, in fact, a great idea – even for a non-theist or atheist, so long as you have no self-respect – because the Templeton prize is intentionally more rewarding, at least financial terms, than the Nobel prize – and possibly much easier to win as a scientist.  All you need to do is ostentatiously support the efforts of apologists and theologians, while maintaining the mantle of serious scientist, all the better if you can look like you might be an unbeliever, and all that sweet, sweet cash could soon be flowing your way.

Of course, I don’t claim to know that this is Barnes’ plan.  But, if in the future he does win the prize, remember that you read it here first.


Heading down another rabbit-hole, I also found it interesting that Barnes should take it upon himself to respond to Jeffrey Shallit after he (Shallit) wrote a piece criticising a creationist.  Less than four hours after the article was posted, Barnes was already responding in defence of Joseph Esfandiar Hannon Bozorgmehr.  Another amazingly swift response.  Why so eager to leap in, Luke?

This was of course, not his first foray into biological creationism.


I am now kicking myself that I did not post this article a week ago, or two weeks ago.  While I've had this on the boil, I've been regularly checking Barnes' site to see if he has posted links to his presentations at the Templeton-sponsored St. Thomas Summer Seminar in Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology.

Today when I checked, however, I saw his latest post (15 September 2015) which encourages people to check out a piece written by his co-author, Geraint Lewis. Co-author of what, I hear you ask?

Presumably a paper, together with a third astronomer, Pascal Elahi, that will emerge from a grant titled Galaxy Formation and the Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life.

Ah, same old same old, I hear you say.  But no, that's not my point.  My point is that this grant, as detailed on their pages at the University of Sydney (Luke Barnes, Geraint Lewis and Pascal Elahi), is sourced from Templeton World Charity Foundation/Research Support.

Yes, that Templeton.


Let me just add John Barrow to the list of people mentioned off-hand by Barnes  who have co-incidentally won a Templeton Prize.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

ANT5: No Explanation Necessary for the Lack of a Reason

ANT's first comment on ANT4:

Hi neopolitan,

The distinction between doxastic and epistemological is important, so I’m glad you brought that up. I thought you might be introducing doxastic uncertainty about self-existence through questioning the veridicality of your ‘selfhood experience’. But it seems this is not what you intended. You intended to introduce doxastic uncertainty with regards to the nature of self which I think is perfectly reasonable.

So in our last few exchanges, I have been asking a question like this – what explains how specific selves associate with specific biophysical conditions? You have interpreted this as presuming substance dualism. This question stems from abstract ideas in my head which are translated rather imperfectly to the world of words and sentences. And it was intended to be neutral towards theories of mind. It assumes that self is core feature of the mind. Therefore, we could replace “associate” with “emerge from” (emergent physicalism), “supervene upon” (supervenient physicalism), and so on. Suppose we tentatively agree on emergent physicalism. The inquiry, at least by intention, assumes that there is a reason why I (self) emerge from these biophysical conditions. What reason could be provided according to naturalism?
I am flirting with the idea that the naturalist could argue the reason is these occurrences are necessary. This would go along with necessitarian views of Laws of Nature. However, it raises a significant problem for the naturalist. The Laws of Nature may be entirely mathematical, but a Law of Self-emergence would add qualitative complexity to the universe, which may extend to infinity. This is rather inconsistent with the simplicity and elegance desired by the naturalist, and rather a bit like wizardry.

Another answer might be there simply is no reason because it is random. Barring the problems with randomness (i.e., may not exist, may require substrate), this solution is problematic. The addition of arbitrary qualitative complexity to the universe potentiates the fine-tuning problem. The stench of fine-tuning is so strong that some have gone as far as to reject Karl Popper’s demarcation criterion and adopt other criteria in order to upgrade multiverse from pseudoscience to science.

Finally, invoking uncertainty about the answer is intellectually humble, but it misses the point of the inquiry. The point is to find at least a hypothetical solution which is consistent with naturalism. The inability to find a hypothetical solution would be a deficiency of naturalism.


My response:


I'm not limiting myself to a presumption of substance dualism (on your part).  This is certainly one valid interpretation of your argument (at least from my perspective), but my major issue is the presumption of some sort of overarching metaphysical structure to the universe.  By this I mean an assumption that there is a meaning to everything that exists outside of our ability to create such a meaning.   This assumption is inherent in your use of the phrase "(this) assumes that there is a reason why I (self) emerge from these biophysical conditions".

I'm all for the idea of an investigation or inquiry to establish the mechanisms by which our sense of self emerges from our associated biophysical conditions, but seeking a reason for this emergence seems to be begging the question.  Even if we were to retreat to a less charged term, say we seek an "explanation" as to why our sense of self emerges from our associated biophysical conditions, this explanation will (generally) still be interpreted as "reason" by the theists and "mechanism" by everyone else.

Note that with any phenomenon or event we could ask for both an explanation (mechanism based) and a reason (intention based).  For example, someone could ask why there is damage to the back of my car.  I could provide an explanation, describing how a vehicle in reverse can be rammed into inanimate objects and going into detail about crumple zones, and I could provide a reason, that I have decided to not fully repair the damage because it's mostly cosmetic.  The thing is, however, that there while will always be an explanation (even if we might not know what it is), there are many cases in which there is no reason.  Is there a reason why the Hoba meteorite fell in Namibia and not in Iowa, or Lincolnshire?  No, there's no reason, but there's an explanation (based on the timing of the rock hitting the atmosphere and it's composition).

It might surprise you, but I don't actually worry too much about categories like "necessary" and "contingent" because I associate the distinction with the antics of apologists.  When in a more generous frame of mind, it occurs to me that that the choices of an intentional being are, by definition, contingent (otherwise no possibility of choice would exist), but even when there is no intention or choice made, I'm not absolutely convinced that any result is necessarily necessary.  (As a rather strong determinist, I am somewhat convinced though.  The doubt creeps in at the quantum level, if the universe really is indeterministic at that level, then if rewind the clock on apparently necessary results and rerun things, we might find that they are not fundamentally necessary.  This would still leave a sort of physical consequentialism: if these conditions and rulesets obtain, then this result will necessarily follow.  Conditional necessity, if you like.)

I don't understand your statement that "(s)elf-emergence would add qualitative complexity to the universe, which may extend to infinity".  I understand that "self-emergence" refers to the emergence of the sense of self from our associated biophysical conditions, but I don't understand what you mean by "qualitative complexity", how it would matter when we are talking about an entirely mathematical universe and what impact such a subjective take on things would have on the worldview of the naturalist.  I do think that the naturalist has no issue with the apparent messiness of, for instance, a tornado, even though that the macroscopic tornado emerges from quite simple and elegant interactions at the microscopic scale.  I don't think that's wizardry at all.

Similarly, I don't understand what you mean by "(t)he addition of arbitrary qualitative complexity to the universe potentiates the fine-tuning problem".  There are differences between indeterminism (which may be the negation of either hard or soft determinism), randomness and arbitrariness.  To me, arbitrary simply means without a reason, without an intent.  An arbitrary decision can be made randomly, but it's not necessarily the case - it can be a personal whim or the decision could be made on the basis of an irrelevant, but not random factor.  Nevertheless, you refer again to "qualitative complexity" and you've brought it in as your objection to both possible lines of reasoning that you ascribe to the naturalist.  By that aside, what do you mean by "potentiates the fine-tuning problem"?

Then you raise the issue of a "hypothetical solution".  A hypothetical solution to what?  The problem of "qualitative complexity"?  The "stench of fine-tuning"?  The lack of an answer to the question "why" in this instance?  Without knowing what our hypothetical solution is supposed to solve, I really don't think that the lack of such a solution is a deficiency on the part of naturalism.

ANT's second response on ANT4:


I agree with you that “a true gift would be the provision of evidence that would support a belief. . .” Also, I totally agree with you that it is important to distinguish between beliefs and knowledge, and we could further subdivide based on the level of uncertainty as you stated.

What is imposed upon me is not the belief itself, rather a kind of internal evidence which must be weighed like all other evidences. This means intelligence is indispensible. So what I meant to contrast were two processes that lead to belief. One is dominated by acquiring data and analyzing it to make the best conclusion. It is meritocratic and favors the curious, wealthy, and socially apt. The other is dominated by provision from outside forces wherein the individual’s abilities are not a major factor. The important factor is the individual’s acceptance of provision. This is the difference between merit and grace in Christianity.

If the imposition were belief itself, I think we would run into the problems you raise. It would be strange discovering within oneself a new belief!

“I agree that a good belief would not lead to harm, but I note that ‘harm’ here is undefined. . .” and “What I am aiming at here is that belief as a good gift would not only be good in the moral sense, but it would also have to be veridical. . .”

All good points.

“I don’t really understand why this faith, which is the problem we started with, should be rewarded – because ‘faith’ appears to be no more than belief with insufficient evidence.”

By faith, I don’t mean doctrinal belief, rather faith defined as trust. Bottom line, if the Christian deity is as far reaching as they say, and demonstrating trust is important, there must be opportunities to demonstrate trust for all people of all worldviews.

“I could stomach the idea that your deity might reward people for what good they do in their lives, irrespective of what faith they have or whether they have faith at all, but as soon as you admit that as a possibility, the whole motivation for being a theist drops away. . .”

I don’t think this kind of belief will save anyone. This does dissolve the motivation to adopt religion in order to gain salvation. Or does it? I think it depends on what exactly God is calling the individual to believe. We all have unique life situations, and maybe some are called to be lifelong skeptics. For some, perhaps a good version of Islam. For some, perhaps a good version of Judaism. I don’t think this scenario diminishes the value of truth, rather it is a fact of living in an evil world with deceptions and yet God knows what to expect of individuals and can call us in unique ways.

My response:

Hi again,

I must admit that I don't comprehend this internal evidence if it isn't belief.  In your Letter to Atheists, you wrote:

"one night I was listening to a debate about the resurrection of Jesus and was somehow convinced Jesus really did rise from the dead and this event led to the rise of Christianity. Given the degree of skepticism that I had developed, a deep questioning of everything, I was greatly surprised by being convinced! This new belief in Jesus created a spirituality in me. On top of this, to make sense out of Jesus I believed in God. I partook in this spirituality unencumbered for some time."

Now you might say that this is "conviction" rather than "belief", but I don't think there is a huge difference between the two terms and it nevertheless sounds like you are relating a tale in which you had a belief (or conviction) imposed on you.  Perhaps I have misinterpreted your testimony here.

The grace you are talking about is pretty much precisely this imposition of belief that I question while noting that I don't actually believe that it is truly an imposition of belief at all.  I also note that some theists, or perhaps more accurately some Christians, tie themselves into knots about this grace concept - believing that even their belief in god, their faith, is itself a gift from god and that it is not belief that gets you into heaven but the grace of god.  (Danny was the proponent of this idea during a discussion one Friday evening.  I put to him that it was therefore possible that he, the believer, might possibly not go to heaven and I, the non-believer, might be taken instead.  He considered it technically possible, but stated blandly that he knew he was going to heaven.  Why?  Because he has faith.  Back then I just decided that there was no point in any serious attempt to progress the discussion and that I should be polite, resisting my urge to label this type of thinking appropriately.  Nowadays, I would point out that the point of theology that he had failed to mention was that faith in god is generally considered necessary but not sufficient to get into heaven, so infidels like myself can still be excluded.)

In a similar vein to my response to your first comment, the type of faith that you referring to is a major question beggar.  In Atheists are Evil, I took the unusual step of translating and transcribing the lyrics from a Swedish song, Du Måste Finnas ("You Must Exist" or "You Must Be There"), from the musical Kristina från Duvemåla.  In it Kristina is undergoing an existential crisis by proxy, a crisis of faith.  Something that strikes me in this song is that Kristina has placed her faith, your sort of faith - trusting faith, in a god.  A god that she is now starting to doubt the existence of.  This seems terribly back to front to me.  I have your sort of trusting faith in certain people on this planet, but I am pretty certain that they exist.  To have this sort of faith in your god, however, is secondary to what I consider to be the more standard sort of faith, doctrinal faith as you put it.  First believe that your god exists, then you at least believe that you have something to trust.

I understand the allure of some sort of universalism, in which believing a form of theism (does it have to be Abrahamic, or can we include Hindus and others in this club?) qualifies you for posthumous rewards.  But we are right back at the nature of a good belief again.  You noted that I made a good point when I said that "belief as a good gift would not only be good in the moral sense, but it would also have to be veridical", but a short while later you were tentatively espousing the benefits of non-veridical belief (because not all of Judaism and all of Christianity and all of Islam can be true simultaneously).

And, finally … an evil world?  Once more, I struggle with understanding you here.  What sort of god do you have in mind, one who is capable of making a perfect world but has failed to make it?  Or one who is not capable of making a perfect world?  As you have written elsewhere, the problem of evil is no small problem for the theist (although you see it as a challenge to the moral character of your god while I see it as evidence of the non-viability of the very concept of your god, in part because I think that your god fails the moral character challenge).

I resolve the problem of evil by removing intent from the consideration.  All the suffering in the world could only be evil if there were a divine being who is capable of preventing it yet doesn't.  With no god in my calculations, there is no evil.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Weisberg's Prisoners - Using Fine-Tuning as a Defeater for Theism

In Hawthorne’s Prisoners, I discussed how John Hawthorne has used and possibly abused an analogy originally presented by Jonathan Weisberg.  I say “possibly abused” because Hawthorne’s version of the analogy doesn’t fully match Weisberg’s.  Perhaps Hawthorne only meant to borrow the general idea and had no intention of misrepresenting Weisberg’s argument.

Based on his 2013 presentation, Hawthorne’s version goes a little like this (in the 2015 version he swaps the blocks around and uses a higher overall number of prisoners, which has the effect of making the results more favourable to his pro-theism argument, he also walks away from the idea of having a prison in which half the inmates are innocent):

There are two cell blocks in a prison from which a prisoner is about to be released.  In one block, A, there are 99 innocent prisoners and one guilty one.  In the other block, B, there are 99 guilty prisoners and one innocent one.

The decision as to which prisoner is to be released is to be made by one of two officials, Mr Random, who will just pick a prisoner at random (irrespective of whether he or she is guilty or not), and Miss Justice, who will only release a prisoner if that prisoner is innocent.

We don’t know who makes the decision to release the prisoner, and we don’t know any details regarding how they make their decisions, beyond what has been revealed.

We do know that the prisoner who is released happens to have been innocent.  What can we say about the likelihood that Mr Random or Miss Justice released the prisoner?

I have already discussed the ramifications of Hawthorne’s version, but here I want to point out the differences from Weisberg’s version and investigate that version a little.  Weisberg’s analogy goes a little like this (I have changed the numbers to more closely align the analogies, but this does not detract from Weisberg’s point):

There are two cell blocks in a prison from which a prisoner is to be released.  In one block, A, there are 99 innocent prisoners and one guilty one.  In the other block, B, there are 99 guilty prisoners and one innocent one.

The released prisoner will be chosen on the basis of either a lottery or a determination from a judge.  If a judge makes a determination this will result in the release of an innocent.  We have no reason to believe that the judge cares about the accommodation arrangements of the prisoners.

Suppose we are told only that the prisoner released was from cell block B.  According to Weisberg’s treatment, this fact militates against a hypothesis that a judge made the selection (because of the 100 innocent prisoners, only one was housed in that cell block).

The point made is that despite our not having any reason to believe that the judge has any preference as to housing arrangements, we can still glean something from the housing arrangements of the selected prisoner.

The analogies are slightly different with respect to what they are modelling.  In Hawthorne’s case, innocence is life (or “life-permitting” characteristics of our universe) and Miss Justice is an intelligent designer.  In Weisberg’s discussion, there is no indication as to whether the prisoner is innocent or not, and it is only where a prisoner was housed that matters (post facto).  That information is analogous to the stringency of the universe with respect to life – picking the only available prisoner out of 100 is “stringent” while a choice out of a possible 99 is “lax”.  Weisberg goes on to argue that if the laws, constants, initial conditions and so on of the universe are stringent (or fine-tuned) then this may actually be considered as evidence against a designer.

I previously pointed out that Hawthorne criticises Weisberg for suggesting that there is “no reason” to believe that Miss Justice would not use the selection method assumed in his (Hawthorne’s) version of analogy.  I went on to argue that there actually is a good reason to believe that she would reject any method which incorporates random chance.  Nevertheless, Hawthorne’s criticism fails because Weisberg specifically mentions “no reason” in the process of setting up the scenario and the whole point is that despite the fact that the cell block does not feature in the judge’s decision, the cell block from which the prisoner is released can contribute to our assessment as to whether the judge was in charge or not.

As soon as Hawthorne ignores the stipulation that there is no consideration on the part of the judge with respect to cell blocks, he’s not talking about Weisberg’s analogy anymore.


I believe that Weisberg’s actual argument aligns quite closely with something I had already planned to argue, or maybe could be said to support that argument, so I was quite pleased to read his article on Divine Indifference.  I’ll try to sum up that argument:

The “life-permittingness” (my use of the term, not his) of a universe is limited by the stringency of the laws that pertain to the universe.  The more stringent the laws, the less likely life is to arise, because even small tweaks of the control knobs (which notionally modify initial conditions and the values of constants) will have catastrophic consequences.  If the laws were more lax, then a wider range of control settings could result in life.

In other words, the likelihood of life is inversely proportional to stringency.

A key plank in the design theorist’s fine-tuning argument is that the conjectured intelligent designer has a preference for life, but neither we nor they have any reason to believe that an intelligent designer should prefer stringency over laxity.  Therefore, it is actually more likely, given a preference for life only, that our universe should be lax rather than stringent.  An intelligently designed universe would be biased against fine-tuning, so therefore fine-tuning militates against an intelligent designer.

My argument is less strictly Bayesian than Weisberg’s, but is also based on relative likelihoods.  I thought of it this way: in the history of humanity, and in the pages of fiction, there have been a wide range of ideas with respect to how the universe might work.  As we have learnt more, the vast majority of these theories and hypotheses have fallen away, because they are not consistent with reality.  However, this does not mean that, for an intelligent designer of the sort being postulated by theists, creating a universe based on some version of these earlier hypotheses would be strictly impossible.

Let’s start with intelligence which, for the purposes of this argument, I will correlate with consciousness and self-awareness and “humanity” (as in the essence of being human as opposed to being a beast).  For the most part, ideas about intelligence have involved some form of dualism.  Prometheus stole fire, for example, and gifted it to humanity, metaphorically imbuing us with the spark of intelligence.  Possibly the most enduring conception of intelligence is that of the soul, but this is merely one of many stories in which intelligence (etc) is some additional element or substance that is found in humans, but not other animals.  Fiction – particularly as seen in animated movie form – and mythology do not limit this largesse to humans, assigning intelligence to animals, plants, otherwise inanimate objects (Toy Story) and even emotions (Inside Out) and colours (Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  An intelligent designer could conceivably just plug intelligence into inanimate objects, or processes (like a waterfall), if it so chose.

If we were to presume that an intelligent designer was somehow limited to slotting intelligence into living beings, then there are options as to how these living beings might be manifested.  The traditional Abrahamic god simply formed a shape out of mud and breathed life into it, while golems could be animated by giving them a word (literally, written on a piece of parchment).  According to some, life depends on a sort of field that can apparently be seen as an aura.  An intelligent designer could use any one of a wide range of methods to achieve living beings in its universe, and then simply plug intelligence into whichever of them it so chose.

But perhaps this intelligent designer was further limited and needed a sort of chemistry similar to the sort that we find in our universe.  We can think of chemistry in two ways, firstly as a ruleset and secondly as the interactions of various elements and compounds.  In terms of a ruleset, the world of gaming and RPGs (role playing games) in particular gives us examples of how rulesets could otherwise have been set up in our universe.  Rather than leaving categorisation up to the intelligent beings in its universe, an intelligent designer could build the categorisation into objects in that universe.  Each intelligent being would therefore not be so much an arrangement of atoms but more of a checklist of attributes and stats:

(Note that in most computer games, the ability to tweak attributes and stats is limited.  The full range of attributes and stats that pertain to each character – when unselectables are also considered – is often far richer than a screenshot like this would imply.  And I don’t know what game this was grabbed from, but many other games give you much more latitude.)

Alternatively, we can think of chemistry as how elements and compounds interact.  In many appeals to fine-tuning, such as by Luke Barnes (and also more recently), much is made of the need for carbon in living beings.  Again, however, an intelligent designer need not have used fusion in stars to create carbon.  It could have simply made a batch of stuff which had the characteristics of carbon (perhaps by tweaking the stats of a generic starting element).  So, you want an element that forms organic chains, fine, I’ll bring up the “forms organic chains” attribute and put a tick in the check box.  What else do you want it to do?  You want water that floats when it freezes?  Sure, I can create an attribute for that.  There you go, I’ve selected “forms a lattice on phase change from liquid to solid” and set things so it starts to come into effect at 4°C.

All of the scenarios so far have assumed that intelligence needs to be slotted into something, but that is far from certain.  Fiction and mythology abounds with ideas of incorporeal intelligences – spirits, ghosts and disconnected souls.  An intelligent designer who is not bound by the rules of this universe could conceivably choose to populate its universe with such intelligences and dispense with the need for chemistry altogether, if there is nothing particularly special about life per se.  (Within the framework of theism, it is actually a given that there is nothing special about life per se, since all the important stuff apparently goes on after the cessation of life.  Some theists could argue that there is something precluding their intelligent designer from cutting to the chase, but such theists would be abandoning the notion of omnipotence in the process.)
Of course, none of these alternative universes are realistic in terms of our universe.  But this fact does not prevent a super-intelligent, super-powerful intelligent designer, one given the task of designing a universe from first principles and who therefore has an entirely free choice as to what sorts of laws will apply, from choosing any method it likes to create a universe with life or intelligence in it.  And there are many more “unrealistic” possibilities than are to be found within the stringent range asserted by a design theorist with a fine-tuning fixation.

I think that Weisberg is nodding in the direction of all these other possibilities, along with universes in which the initial conditions and fundamental values are not quite as constrained as in ours (but would nevertheless be recognisable), and classifying them “lax”.  If there were a god then, the aspirations of intelligent design theorists aside, we don’t have any reason to believe that that god would choose a “stringent” universe over all the other possibilities – we certainly don’t have any good reasons.

An inherent idea here is that many of the more “lax” universes would almost certainly stand out as designed (imagine for example one in which there literally was a Prime Mover and inertia didn’t apply), meaning that if we lived in such a universe then we’d have no reason to lack faith in a creator.  The universe we live in, on the other hand, can quite easily be mistaken for a universe which is not the result of intelligent design and it can be argued that the nature of universe actually militates against an intelligent designer (as Weisberg does).

This situation, although it is apparently not recognised by apologists, apparently leads some to feel obligated to consider “divine psychology” (which is key to Hawthorne’s argument).  But as soon as we start seriously considering “divine psychology” we must also wonder why, if there were a god, that god would be going out of its way to pretend that it did not exist – to the extent that it has selected for stringency, in a universe with an arguably narrow value range for constants and an apparently precise requirement with respect to initial conditions, that so accurately mimics a universe with no intelligent designer.  Why did the intelligent designer not choose a lax set of laws that would give clear evidence as to the existence of a god?

The mental gymnastics of the sort performed by Hawthorne while considering divine psychology are only required to shore up a contention that the god of theism exists despite the wealth of evidence against the hypothesis.  And part of that negative evidence, when properly thought through as demonstrated by Weisberg, is the stringency (or “fine-tuning”) of our universe.