Saturday, 19 September 2015

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.

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