Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Prediction that creationists will crawl out of the woodwork

I predict (and have done so publically) that creationists will be particularly excited by an announcement that research on cockroaches in Australia indicate that evolution is (to an extent) predictable.  Of course I mean old universe, big-bang accepting creationists, not young earth creationists for whom this research might be less appealing.  I go further to suggest that this excitement on their part will be characterised by a deep lack of understanding as to how evolution works.

The research has looked at the genetics of a type of burrowing cockroach.  The ancient cockroaches that came to Australia about 20 million years ago had a similar diet to your average rural cockroach today (the German or American ones), they would forage on the forest floor among the fallen leaves.  The forest conditions would protect them from the sun.

As the rain forest retreated from Australia and the continent dried out, there was less protection from the sun and burrowing became a valuable strategy.  The processes of evolution resulted in speciation and we ended up with an Australian cockroach that burrows up to a metre below the surface.

What the research shows is that this speciation didn't happen just once, it happened maybe as many as nine times.  Now, the question is – what specific misunderstanding is a creationist going to bring to this issue?

I predict that it will be this, the notion that Dr Lo is talking about evolution happening multiple times from one species to one other species (which he isn't).

Think of this way, there is a rainforest cockroach and a dry scrub cockroach and only the latter must be able to burrow to survive.  Initially there is little or no scrub at all, so there is only the rainforest cockroach, then the rainforest retreats.  But the retreat isn't singular and total, it happens in stages, the rainforest retreats a bit, then a bit more and so on.

So, very roughly speaking, a rainforest cockroach can become a dry scrub cockroach.  Naively we might think that this is a once off and as the rainforest retreats the range of the dry scrub cockroach merely expands while the range of the rainforest cockroach contracts.  What Dr Lo is saying is that this is not necessarily the case.  The rainforest cockroaches living in an area which is becoming dry scrub can evolve into a dry scrub cockroach again.  Naively (again) this might be thought of as a repeat of the same evolution that has happened before, that the population of dry scrub cockroaches (DSC) can be increased in two ways: the normal way with DSC birth rate exceeding the DSC death rate die, and by rainforest cockroaches (RFCs) evolving into DSCs.

You can imagine a male DSC meeting a sexy new female DSC at the border between old scrub and newly ex-rainforest.  The male leaps into a standard chat-up routine: "Well, hello there gorgeous, I've not seen you around before!"  And she replies with: "Uh, hello, no you wouldn't have, I've just evolved."

Of course that's not how it works.  Dr Lo was not doing his research on one species of burrowing cockroach (the DSC) and one species of wood-feeding cockroach (the RFC).  His research involved 25 different species.

He's merely talking about how living things evolve to fill niches.  This phenomenon is well known and is highlighted by the similarity in body types between tenrecs on Madagasca and many other types of animals in the rest of the world.

Here's a tenrec:

And here's a hedgehog:

These two creatures fill the same niche and look quite similar, but they haven't merged into the same species.

In the same way, wood-feeding rainforest cockroaches may well have been put under evolutionary pressure multiple times and thus evolved strategies to survive the disappearance of their rainforest – and a clearly successful strategy is to burrow.  So there will be a range of species of burrowing cockroaches – those that evolved out of other burrowing cockroaches which had, at some time in the past, evolved out of rainforest cockroaches and those that evolved "directly" from rainforest cockroaches.  I write "directly" because a transitional process like evolution doesn't really have direct paths of evolution from one species to another, each individual in the process is its own path and species don't change in one generation.

So, basically, I think that some creationists are going to trip over what is in effect a category error.  Because we lump a whole bunch of species together as "burrowing cockroaches", they'll consider this to be an example of one species arising out of multiple speciation events – as if things were evolving according to some master plan.  People who understand evolutionary processes much better than me will try patiently to explain, but their explanations will fall on deaf ears and the creationists will unilaterally declare another victory.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

There Probably are Bayesians in Foxholes

Many years ago, I almost fell into bad company.  I frequented a philosophy channel on IRC that included a small, but very vocal band of what I like to call Randians – primarily because they didn’t like being called Randians.  These Randians preferred to be called objectivists and apparently their greatest love in life was sticking it to subjectivists.  Boy, did they hate subjectivism!

(Why Randians?  Because they were devotees of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of "objectivism".  I have, since that time, had an abiding distaste for Ayn Rand and anyone who adores her.  I do understand that in some instances a thoroughly reviled person like Ayn Rand may be misunderstood, or misjudged, and there is the possibility that, despite appearances, such a person does in fact have redeeming features.  For example, they might like puppies and kittens.  Ayn Rand, however, delighted in ripping the legs off puppies and kittens and throwing them at small children that she had cast into a deep well at the bottom of her garden.

If I were given the choice of spending eternity with Ayn Rand or William Lane Craig, I would choose laughing boy, despite being aware that the notion of spending eternity with anyone would indicate that he was right about the whole god thing and he would undoubtably spend some excruciating proportion of that eternity crowing about how he was right and I was wrong.  But at least we would both be in hell.)

The odd thing was that, at the time, when I searched for these subjectivists, they didn't seem to exist.  The Randians appear to have constructed an army of straw men to attack in their objectivistic fervour.  Sure, anyone who crossed them would get labelled as a subjectivist, but this term appeared to be more pejorative than accurate.

A similar sort of one-sided battle appears to be underway between Bayesians and frequentists.  Now perhaps the baying of the Bayesians is a little more accurate than that of those objectivists, perhaps there are people out there carrying the torch for frequentism, but I've not seen any evidence of it.  It seems to me that in some instances a frequentist interpretation of probability is appropriate and in other instances a Bayesian interpretation is appropriate.  See the second last page of this – note however, that the author is a statistician, the sort of person who uses probability all the time.  In other instances, such as the on-going cat fight between Luke Barnes and Richard Carrier, the participants of a recent probability-centred spat are not statisticians – they are a cosmologist and a historian.

What truly boggles the mind is the fact that Barnes has recently devoted an entire post to lambasting Carrier on what started out as a response to short statement from Jeff Lowder in support of a criticism from Barnes, all predicated on one word.  Carrier wrote (in his essay in "The End of Christianity"), my emphasis:

Bayes’ theorem is an argument in formal logic that derives the probability that a claim is true from certain other probabilities about that theory and the evidence.

To say that Bayes' theorem is an argument is possibly a bit of an awkward way of putting it.  It could, possibly, be written as an argument in formal logic, in much the same way as 1+1=2 was by Russell and Whitehead, whose work Carrier references, but that's not really how Bayes' theorem is thought of.  So, Carrier's claim is not worded particularly well.  No big deal.  Barnes however leapt gleefully onto that fact, spending some considerable time in savaging it and Lowder later concurred that Carrier's wording wasn't completely accurate.

Sadly, rather than 'fess up to having (at least) one sentence in his essay that was a tiny bit stilted and moving on, Carrier gracefully conceded that Bayes' theorem might not be an argument per se, but then went on to claim it is the form of an argument (after having claimed, apparently off the cuff, that one simple derivation of Bayes' theorem is the derivation of Bayes' theorem rather than a derivation).  He subsequently went on to point out that the issue is not so much the validity of Bayes' theorem (which no-one appears to be contesting) or the formulation of Bayes' theorem (which, again, no-one appears to be contesting), but rather the issue is what may be input to the equation that is the expression of Bayes' theorem.

In effect this was saying "any argument about Bayes' theorem, the derivation of Bayes' theorem or the description of Bayes' theorem is moot, because the argument isn't about Bayes' theorem itself but rather about what we bring to Bayes' theorem".

So, did Barnes pick up on this implied appeal to stick to what is relevant and not get bogged down in irrelevant detail?  Of course not.  His latest (and perhaps last) attack on Carrier is focussed, laser sharp, on Carrier's use of "the" rather than "a".  In the conclusion, Barnes challenges Carrier to release a new variant of probability or, in effect, choose a side: "Bayesian" or "frequentist".

What I find even more absurd is Barnes' statement in the comments:

(Carrier)’s not a frequentist. Frequentists don’t believe that prior probabilities exist, but Carrier does.

What?  Are alternate interpretations of probability now to be considered as competing ideologies?  Here Barnes appears to either have forgotten what he wrote in his piece 10 Nice things about Bayes' Theorem or he is accusing these mythical frequentists of being complete morons.

Prior probability is a defined term.  It's not something like climate change, free will or the Loch Ness Monster – it's not something that you can really question the existence of (complete morons aside).  Perhaps it's a term that you can, under certain circumstances, question the utility of – like the term "European" (do you mean people who have some combination of the SLC24A5SLC45A2 and HERC2/OCA2 genes or people who currently reside on the continent of Europe, or people who define themselves as members of the European Union, or something else?) – but you'd be crazy to deny that prior probabilities ever exist.

It seems completely bizarre to me that there are these mad keen Bayesians, apparently snug in their foxholes, taking the occasional pot-shots at their enemies, the dastardly frequentists, totally oblivious to the fact that – in the right circumstances – these "frequentists" would be more than happy to utilise a Bayesian interpretation.  It reminds me somewhat of those theists who become defensive at the mere mention of even the mildest expressions of atheism, as if the lack of belief on the part of one were necessarily a full-scale, frontal attack on the other.  (Note that this is a position which only encourages some of the more mildly oriented atheists to move towards the militant position.  It basically becomes a question of self-defence.)

Oh, hang on.  These people, the manic Bayesian defenders and the aggressively defensive apologists, they seem to be one and the same.  What was the likelihood of that!

Anyway, Barnes has stated that he might no longer be attacking Carrier.  I don't know if that will be the case though.  I think I identified a misplaced comma in one of Carrier's latest sentences and that could be strung out into a couple of a rants.  Don't you think so, Dr Barnes?


(Yes, I do appreciate the irony in that final comment, since I have written numerous articles sniping at Barnes, spinning dross from essentially nothing.  But I am small fry, a mere gnat, a bit-part player while Barnes and Carrier are more substantial actors.  That's not to say that my inconsequentiality renders my criticisms invalid though, even if Barnes may well choose to ignore them.

And, again, yes, I do realise that I have a sample size of one here, regarding the correlation between Bayesian defenders [or at least attackers of frequentism] and apologists.  I just provided an example, that was not intended to be conclusive evidence in support of my case.  It happens to be a nice coincidence that the anti-frequentism argument is provided here in the context of a defence of fine-tuning as an argument for god.)

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Gyroscopes and Relativity? What's that all about?

So, some people might be wondering, what was the gyroscope question about?  And why was it swiftly followed by another post on relativity?

Good questions!  In my meanderings across the internet, I occasionally stumble upon strange things and stranger people.  Most recently, I stumbled upon someone who seriously believes in geocentricity (no, spellchecker, that was not a typo - although I agree that egocentricity might well be involved).  Trinity (a prolific denizen of Craig-Land) believes that the Earth does not orbit the sun, but rather the sun orbits the earth.  And his big challenge, the one he throws out regularly, is to show how the speed of our orbit around the sun can be measured.

Now, as far as I can tell, this person is not Robert Sungenis, but rather he is a follower of Sungenis which means that he does not base his geocentrism on the Ptolemaic system with all the complicated epicycles and so on, but rather on a simpler model which approaches the Tychonic system.  Sungenis too has put out a "Heliocentric Challenge", which calls for evidence that "the Earth revolves around the Sun" – and offers $100,000 to anyone who successfully meets the challenge.

The first problem to get out of the way is terminology.  If we are going to be technical, I feel it is better to say that the Earth orbits the Sun, and more accurately the centre of the combined mass of the Earth and Sun, and even more accurately the centre of the combined mass of the entire solar system.  But if we are going to be loose with the terminology, then I guess we can say that the Earth moves in what is very close to a circular orbit around the Sun and we can call that "revolving around the Sun".

Then we need to consider the stars and the CMB.  These are important because we need to work out whether, in Sungenis' model, the Earth rotates on its axis.  According to this discussion, it would appear that everything moves around the Earth in Sungenis' view, which explains the use of the term "revolves around" rather than "orbits".  Under any reasonable and strict definition of the term "orbit", it could not be said that the CMB orbits the Earth, but it does appear to revolve around the Earth.  Why it should actually revolve around the Earth is a little unclear, but I guess it has something to do with Sungenis' god.

So, in the model that I am attempting to show to be wrong, the Earth sits fast, and everything else moves around it.

To show this to be wrong, we need only consider the gyroscope that, in a viscous fluid or when appropriately weighted, tends to point north.  We can apply other forces to gyroscopes, greater than the centripetal force imbued by the Earth's rotation, to see how the gyroscope reacts to forces in general.  Then we can see that, in the absence of any other forces, the combination of gravity and centripetal force has a similar effect on the gyro – from which we can deduce the reality of the centripetal force.  Which means that the Earth is actually rotating.

Once we have a rotating Earth, Sungenis' model begins to fall apart.  The "rest of the universe" no longer revolves around the Earth.  There will be an apparent movement of the Sun relative to the rotating Earth, and once it is all worked through, the Sun will be shown to be almost entirely stationary, with only relative movement that can be (almost entirely) accounted for by the orbit of the Earth around the Sun (there'll be minor wobbles due to the Moon and other planets).

Now that we know that the Earth orbits the Sun, it becomes relatively trivial to work out its speed.  Perhaps Sungenis (and Trinity) will quibble about the distance from the Sun to the Earth, but this will only introduce a question regarding the magnitude of the orbital velocity – not about the fact of an orbital velocity.  As soon as they accept that the Earth has an orbital velocity, their model is destroyed anyway.

Of course, it is possible that Sungenis has an argument as to why gyrocompasses work, but it would have to be convincing and it cannot be ad hoc.  "Aha, but god makes them work by means of directional magic" simply won't do.


The above doesn't explain the newest foray into special relativity.  I put that together because Trinity blandly stated that he doesn’t believe in relativity but instead believes in classical physics.  As if it were choice!

Perhaps it's entirely wasted effort, since Sungenis' website has the title "Galileo was Wrong", but I am pretty sure this is a reference to Galileo's support of Copernicus, not what later became Newtonian (or classical) mechanics.  My point is that relativity is right there, embedded in classical mechanics.

To deny it, one has to deny that light (and thus the transfer of information) has a particular speed.  Sungenis doesn't appear to do that, although he (and Trinity after him) does deny that the speed of light is a limit.  It is possible to suggest that light travels at all sorts of speeds, depending on who-knows-what, but as I point out in Galilean to Special in One Page, this won't save him.

The only escape appears to be wholesale denial of physics (or wholesale obfuscation combined with copious amounts of hand-waving).  Or maybe, just maybe, a commitment to abandon the Book of Genesis as a guide for celestial mechanics.

Perhaps we will see which he will go for.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Lucky Luke and the Twenty Royal Flushes (Another Parable)

Little Luke Junior (also referred to as "Cool Hand" Luke after that incident with the ice cream) loved nothing more than to sit at the knee of his father, the legendary "Lucky" Luke, and have him recount the story of the day he had dealt twenty royal flushes in a row.

Lucky Luke would start with rambling stories about his past adventures, how smart his horse at that time was, how stupid his dog was, how it would still be years before he and Luke Junior's mother would meet and how, even to this day, he sometimes misses the first cigarette of the day (usually accompanied by an attack of coughing and spitting blood).  Then, once warmed to his topic, he'd talk about how, all those years ago, he met a gambling man whose penchant for evil eclipsed that of Black Bart (who was actually a nice gentleman who just happened to commit a stage-coach robbery here and there).

This character, "No-Eggs" Oliver, had little going for him except his reputation of meaningless violence and OCD.  His final obsession, the one that brought Lucky and No-Eggs together, was to see 20 royal flushes dealt in a row.  He rode up and down the country, visiting saloons, bordellos and gambling dens, challenging people to deal 20 poker hands from 20 individual packs of cards.  He rode quickly and, quite frankly, had nothing else to do with his time, so he extended this challenge to millions upon millions of people.

The challenge went a little like this: "Shuffle these 20 packs of cards and deal a royal flush from each.  If you fail, I shoot you in the head.  If you don't try, I shoot you in the head.  If you cheat, I shoot you in the head."

So, naturally, they all tried, and they all failed.  Until "Lucky" Luke (who until that time was only known as Luke).  He tried and he succeeded.  No-Eggs, who was getting rather old by this time, having killed millions upon millions of unsuccessful croupiers, was so astonished that, despite a lifetime spurning eggs due to the possibility of cholesterol and the suspicion that even "free range" eggs might not really be free range, suffered an enormous cardiac arrest and died on the spot.

At this point, little Luke would pipe up, claiming that the odds of dealing 20 royal flushes in a row are so incredibly unlikely that his father must have cheated – and No-Eggs simply hadn't noticed.

At this point, Lucky Luke would say: Ah, my son, it might look to you as if I had cheated, but the whole point of this story is that if I had not dealt those 20 royal flushes, you would not be here to accuse me of cheating.  An alternative way of looking at it is that many a man (and perhaps lady) died at the hands of No-Eggs before I succeeded in dealing 20 royal flushes.  For all we know, No-Eggs, with his uncontrollable compulsion and amazing fortune in evading the law with regards to his card-related homicides, could have kept going until someone else dealt 20 royal flushes.  It's possible that someone else had already succeeded, and his son or daughter also accuses him (or her) of having cheated.  It's even possible that No-Eggs hadn't really challenged anyone before, that I was the first, and that I am merely phenomenally lucky, as my nickname suggests.  Either way, cheating or not, the result is that I survived my encounter with No-Eggs and I was thus able to meet your mother some years later.

It would appear, my son, that it is only because you are already so totally committed to the idea of my having cheated that you fixate on cheating as being the singular reason for my success in dealing the royal flushes.  But consider this:

The meeting between myself and your mother was unlikely.  There are millions of people in this country that we could have met up with, but it transpired that, one day, we just happened to be in the same place at the same time and we noticed each other and we liked what we saw and we had the time and inclination to act on that mutual attraction.  That attraction lead eventually to, ahem, shall we say "intimacy" and one sperm of the approximately 525 billion that a human male produces over a lifetime managed to make its way to one 400 (out of the 400 thousand potential) eggs produced by your mother over her lifetime – which necessitated, ahem, intimacy at precisely the right time for that particular sperm and that particular egg to meet.  Then environmental conditions had to be just right to switch on and off the genes that were needed to make you.  And this incredible good fortune stretches back over thousands of generations, hundreds of millions of generations in fact, if you include the species from which humans evolved.  So, Junior, you are an incredibly unlikely result, even if I may have cheated at cards.  Surely you aren't suggesting that these unlikely events wer all orchestrated merely so that you, "Cool Hand" Luke, would be born – or are you suggesting that we, your parents, somehow cheated to bring you about?

To this little Luke would reply that he doesn't really like the back story involving multiple attempts at dealing twenty royal flushes (although he would strenuously deny that this objection is largely due to the conflict with his preferred narrative), and that the disturbing discussion involving parental intimacy and sperm was even worse.  So, therefore, he would simply ignore it all.


What the hell is all this about?  Good question!

Look here.  Now, admittedly, Barnes is talking about sitting down and dealing 20 royal flushes in a row, the likelihood of which is staggeringly unlikely.  Little Luke is indeed justified for thinking that his father probably cheated, it's the by far most likely option in the scenario as described – even if "No-Eggs" Oliver had had the time and inclination to challenge billions of people, rather than just millions.  But the point is that the fact that Luke Junior exists at all is evidence that 20 royal flushes were dealt – even if it is true that Luke Senior didn't cheat (and so long as Luke Senior didn't just create the story out of whole cloth).

However, in this scenario, cheating is most definitely an option.  Another option is magic, if we are inclined to distinguish that from more mundane forms of cheating such as palming or counting cards.

What would be interesting to know is, if we could somehow eliminate illusionist-like cheating (say that "Lucky" Luke's feat of dealing 20 royal flushes was recorded in high definition video from multiple angles and could be scrutinised by Penn and Teller and however many other professional illusionists that are thought to be necessary), would Barnes plump for magic as being the most likely explanation?

Because, after all, this is the real equivalent to the NID option that Barnes appears to favour.  (NID means "non-terrestrial intelligent design" for those who haven't followed the Carrier-Barnes squabbles over the past couple of years or so.)

A cosmologist who puts his money on magic?  Hm, now that is a guy I'd like to play poker with.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Fine-Tuning a Return to Sweet Probability

In A Return to Sweet Probability, I argued that the resurrection does not increase the likelihood of William Lane Craig's god, largely because the credibility that you give reports of the resurrection depends very heavily on your predisposition to believe that his god (or some very similar god) exists.

I want to do something similar with the fine-tuning argument.  I'll be using a variant of it implied by my old buddy, Luke Barnes (also referring to this earlier comment):


o = intelligent observers exist

f = a finely tuned universe exists

b = background information.

NID = a non-terrestrial intelligent designer exists.

I can admit that “p(finely tuned universe | observers exist) = 1” and still conclude that
p(NID | f.o.b) >> p(~NID | f.o.b)

Now this argument between Richard Carrier and Luke Barnes was about Bayesian probability, so we know that:

P(NID | f & o & b) = P(NID & f & o & b) / P(f & o & b)

Holding f and o together (for reasons which should become apparent shortly) this eventually becomes:

If you want to see the working for this, look at A Return to Sweet Probability.

Now we need to define our terms.  I think it’s reasonably clear what the term o means, the intelligent observers in question are us.  By “intelligent”, we are not implying that the universe in question must be crammed with Albert Einsteins.  We merely need to be intelligent enough to observe the universe and note that the universe contains observers who are intelligent enough to observe their own existence.  Tick.

The term f is a little more contentious.  I’m going to use the definition that Carrier uses (see Part Deux), in part because it’s something that Barnes appears to have consistently overlooked:

If fine tuning is necessary for life, and there is no God, then necessarily life will only ever exist in correlation with fine-tuning. This is because all universes without fine tuning (sic) will thus by definition not contain life.

Note that this does not say anything about the hypothetical case in which there is a god.  A god may choose to fine tune the universe for life, or it may choose to magically create and sustain life even in universes which are not at all tuned for life, or it may choose to create a universe in which the range in which life is possible is very wide indeed.  Carrier appears to be conceding a point to apologists (such as Barnes) for the sake of the argument.  The fine-tuning argument will only work in a universe which is apparently fine-tuned for life, if there are observers in a hypothetical universe which is not fine-tuned for life then the fine-tuning argument fails (and, hypothetically, the pseudo-scientific, apologetic denizens of that universe will deploy the “non-fine-tuning argument” for whatever god they have imagined into existence).

So, in the instances in which there are observers, the universe will either be fine-tuned (either naturally or as the result of the intervention of a god) or non-fine-tuned (as the result of the invention of a god).  There is the possibility that some universes will be fine-tuned for life but, for some reason, life doesn’t manifest.  I don’t think we are particularly interested in those universes but in any event, those universes won’t have observers.  I think we can get around this scenario by strengthening the concept of fine-tuning – if a universe is sufficiently fine-tuned for intelligent life, then there will be, at some point, intelligent life.  Any tuned universe which doesn’t manifest intelligent life simply isn’t sufficiently tuned to consider it fine-tuned.  It certainly could be excluded from the set of universes that our universe fits into (also known as the reference class – that is: what is it about our universe that is pertinent to our consideration in this instance?  It would appear to be the fact that it contains not only life, but also intelligent observers).

So fine-tuning is defined as the sort of fine-tuning in our universe, that may or may not have been due to the intervention of a god, and resulted in intelligent life, life that was intelligent enough to observe that the universe is sufficiently fine-tuned to produce intelligent observers.

This is an extremely long and convoluted way to say what Carrier had been saying, P(o|f)=1 and, therefore, P(f&o)=P(f).  Or, in other words, once you have fine-tuning (as defined) you necessarily get observers, so the probability of fine-tuning and observers resolves down to the probability of fine-tuning.  This allows us to change all the (f&o) terms to f:

Perhaps you might want to weaken the definition of fine-tuning, but I don’t think that apologists want to.  If they do, I think they merely weaken their fine-tuning argument as a consequence but that can be an argument for another day is any apologist wishes to take that route.

We know that NID is the “non-terrestrial intelligent designer”.  I’m not as coy as some others, so I am just going to call this the god of people like William Lane Craig, Plantinga and (almost certainly) Barnes (but certainly many of Barnes’ adoring fans).  For the sake of the argument, let’s change NID to R as in “cReator” or “Representing god” or “what the apologists are Really arguing for”.

Fine-tuning (f) is, of course, the evidence in this argument, so let’s call it E.  If you are reluctant to roll o into f per the argument above, we could instead say that E=(f&o).

Then there’s our background, b (which we will capitalise and call B).  Background is a little vague in its definition.  What exactly constitutes background?  Fortunately, we can rely on Barnes again, who has written a piece on precisely this topic.

Background is everything we know, with the exception of the evidence that we are currently looking at, so in this case everything we know with the exception of fine-tuning (and thus observers).  However, this in effect resolves down to everything we know that is relevant.  I suspect that we have to be very careful about doing this step manually – because that which is relevant might not be immediately obvious and eliminating relevant data will skew the result.

I think we have enough to be getting on with.  We’ve renamed NID, b and f (or (f&o)) to R, B and E, respectively, so we have:

For anyone who has read A Return to Sweet Probability recently, this equation should be familiar.  On the right hand side of this equation we have four terms to consider:

P(E|R&B) – this is asking us: Given the hypothesis that there is a cReator, and our background information (everything we know, bar fine-tuning), what is the likelihood of our evidence (fine-tuning)?

P(R|B) – this is asking us: Given our background information (everything we know, bar fine-tuning), what is the likelihood of there being a cReator?

P(E|^R&B) – this is asking us: Given the hypothesis that there is not a cReator, and our background information (everything we know, bar fine-tuning), what is the likelihood of our evidence (fine-tuning)?

P(^R|B) – this is asking us: Given our background information (everything we know, bar fine-tuning), what is the likelihood of there not being a cReator?

On the left of the equation is P(R|B&E), which asks us: Given our evidence (fine-tuning) and our background information (which is, cumulatively, everything we know), what is the likelihood of a cReator?

The value of this equation relies very heavily on two questions having already been answered, namely the likelihoods of there being a cReator and not being a cReator, given what we know, apart from fine-tuning.  It also relies, rather heavily, on the assumption that fine-tuning doesn’t follow necessarily from what we already know.  If we were, in the future, to discover that B→E (if B then (necessarily) E), then B&E would equal B, so the left had side of the equation would become P(R|B).  This would naturally follow because P(E|R&B) = P(E|^R&B) = 1 and P(R|B)+P(^R|B)=1.

Therefore, there is an assumption that fine-tuning is consistent with our background (everything we know, bar fine-tuning) but our background is insufficient.

Now, we should make clear something about “background”.  Barnes’ says, of background “tell me everything” and warns that information should not be arbitrarily ignored.  So, my question is this: is it arbitrary, given that no time related caveat is placed on the cReator hypothesis, to limit “background” to that which we know now?  How extensive is this “everything” of which you speak?  Is it possible that, in the future, we will discover that the fine-tuning we observe is a necessary consequence of relatively simple, yet entirely natural laws?  It would seem that the answer to that question, according to an apologist, should lie somewhere between “maybe” and “I don’t know” – perhaps somewhat closer to “maybe” given that “I don’t know” is saying that it isn’t necessarily impossible, and is therefore possible, making the answer an unambiguous “yes, it is possible”.

So, it seems to be unreasonable to assume that our background is always going to be insufficient to explain fine-tuning.  The assumption might be valid if we presupposed an interventionist god, or if there is some natural limit on the information that we can glean about the universe.  In the case of the latter, the argument by apologists is unacceptably stacked in favour of their god (assuming the existence of god, what is the likelihood of god?)  In the case of the latter, such a limit would imply that the question of the existence of a god may never be resolved, a god may never be proved but it may also never be disproved.

This is, I guess, a wonderful conclusion for apologists.  Potential job security until the end of time!


I think that I am now ready to assign tentative probabilities to each of the terms in the equation.  I’m going to be as charitable as I can to the apologetic cause.

P(E|R&B) – we don’t know

P(R|B) – we don’t know

P(E|^R&B) – we don’t know

P(^R|B) – we don’t know

Plugging those values in, we arrive at P(R|B&E) = P(R|B) = we don’t know.

So, we could argue endlessly about how to manipulate the identities in the Bayesian calculations, and how likely or unlikely fine-tuning itself is, but at the end of the day, we merely arrive at “we don’t know”.  Sure, an apologist may immediately transmute that “we don’t know” into “god exists” via the subtle alchemy of an appeal to ignorance.  The more intellectually honest among us, however, are left with a mystery to investigate – why does the universe appear to be fine-tuned? – without any real need to worry about the superstitious wretches who continue to dog our investigative heels.


It’s vaguely possible that someone is going to be upset that there were no jellybeans in this article.  I’m sorry, but the probabilities are so nebulous that I didn’t see any point in assigning any, even tentatively.

If someone else is keen to do an analysis using the jellybean model, feel free.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Luke Barnes (Probably) Uncloaks Even More

It's not every day that you see a cosmologist unload on a historian with "righteous" indignation, but that is what has been happening over at Letters to Nature (initially in January but also stretching into February).  What a fuss about Bayesian probability! – I wonder, what was the likelihood of that?

I see this as further evidence that Barnes is (probably) uncloaking some more because he has drawn attention to the fact that, two years ago, he was arguing with Richard Carrier for an argument in favour of NID, or "non-terrestrial intelligent design".  He didn't do this unknowingly.  Here's an extract from one of his comments:

One more question. I won’t make any claims. I’ll even make it multiple choice. Just give me your main argument against fine-tuning in probability notation.


o = intelligent observers exist

f = a finely tuned universe exists

b = background information.

NID = a non-terrestrial intelligent designer exists.

Here’s the question.

1. In probability notation, what follows about the posterior probability of NID from the fact that p(f | o) = 1?

Multiple choice:

a) p(NID | f.o.b) / p(~NID | f.o.b) = 1

b) p(NID | f.o.b) / p(~NID | f.o.b) = p(NID | b) / p(~NID | b)
(Does this follow from footnote 29?)

c) p(NID | f.o.b) / p(~NID | f.o.b) = p(NID | o.b) / p(~NID | o.b)
(if o is part of b, is this option equivalent to the previous one?)

d) p(NID | f.o.b) / p(~NID | f.o.b) is independent of p(o | ~NID) – the probability that a life permitting universe would exist by chance. Thus, even if p(o | ~NID) << 1, this fact is irrelevant to the posterior probability of NID.

e) Some of the above. Please specify.

f) None of the above. Please answer in probability notation.

So, he (Barnes) is fully cognisant of the fact that his fine-tuning argument is essentially an intelligent design argument.

It's interesting that he should be so keen to faff around with Bayesian probability when his speciality is apparently star formation (or some such).  These sorts of arguments have primarily been the preserve of philosophers, and quite often apologists (and, as a consequence, anti-apologists).


On the topic of Barnes' faffing about with Bayes, he wrote a piece called 10 Nice things about Bayes' Theorem.  I too have dabbled in Bayes' Theorem, primarily because of WLC's abuse of it, which means that it relates to the resurrection thing, rather than the fine-tuning thing.

Barnes had a go at Carrier, in a comment from two years ago, in which he wrote:

* “all prior probabilities are the posterior probabilities of previous equations”.

Learn to use probability terminology correctly, please. Don’t talk about the probability of an equation.

Interestingly, in his 10 nice things piece, Barnes wrote:

Today’s posterior becomes tomorrow’s prior. Hence, Bayesian updating.

This is basically exactly what Carrier was saying, although in the eyes of a hostile witness, he was apparently talking about Pr(equation) rather than the probability that falls out of an equation like Pr(A|B)=Pr(B|A).Pr(A)/P(B) – the probability associated with that equation, perhaps, if not "of" as in common parlance.


Perhaps Barnes just doesn't like to call Pr(A|B)=Pr(B|A).Pr(A)/P(B) an equation which is still strange, because it acts precisely like an equation, with multiplication and division, and in some cases there are additions and subtractions in Bayesian calculations – just like in real equations.  Still, it does sound like he was grasping desperately at straws.

I wasn't that keen to slog through Barnes' most recent attacks on Carrier, but after noting this little own-goal on his part, I'm now a little more intrigued.


Note that Carrier has since replied, here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A Response for Charlie

Poor Charlie!  Being another one of numerous people called Anonymous, his comment was filed in the spam directory.  Never mind, it has been extracted, cleaned off and put back where it should be.  However, I am going to call him Charlie rather than Anonymous, just for the sake of the on-going discussion.  (I did toy with calling him Peewee, because he's the "Poisoning / Pimping the Well" guy, but he might have thought I was just insulting him.  We don't want that.)

Anyhoo, here's his comment:

I am the anonymous who reviewed and confirmed that this author resorted to fallacies in the previous blog post.

Since I am partially the subject of the author's blog post here, let me lay out for the reader the context of this discussion.

Everything starts with an innocuous Barnes blog post, where, in the comment section, a seemingly animated commenter going by 'neopolitan sokare', and later 'n30p0litan' investigates Barnes' background, and upon finding him supported by a Templeton grant, becomes agitated by it.

The unfortunate odor of atheist fundamentalism becomes pronounced at that point. This type of atheist, as you know, is deeply angered by and prejudiced against academic work that might possibly be construed as sympathetic to theism, and 'Templeton' is one of their dog whistles.

The more moderate atheists among us have no problem with Templeton because Templeton provides valuable support to a diverse set of initiatives and does a good job of affording research independence.

So how does n30's hostility come to bear at this point? He demands that Barnes explain himself for accepting Templeton support given his neutrality on the question of the theological value of fine tuning.

To n30 and fundamentalists like him, you're not allowed to take Templeton support if you are neutral on the theological question. That's forbidden. To do so, in his own words, is to "act from a covert position as a theist with apologetic leanings". Thus n30 demands Barnes state his public commitment to the fundie line, and promise he's not "one of them".

It's easy to see how atheist fundamentalism poisons academia with such overbearing and paranoid Orwellian demands and pressures to commit to their ideology, which is where I repudiate this kind of extremism. It hurts academia, is totally unnecessary, and ends up making atheists look like lunatics!

But the real issue here is the well-poisoning charge. Why do I think n30 is well-poisoning? Because of n30's absurd Templeton rage.

I don't think taking Templeton money on its own says anything about your allegiance to theism or atheism, nor is it, on its own, a mark against your scholarship. Plenty of atheists I know have taken Templeton money. None of them have seen or spoken of undue influence or produced compromised scholarship.

As I've pointed out, only fundamentalist atheists have this problem. Given the paucity of evidence for it, the only basis for arguing such a point is on faith (of a slightly unusual sort, given the atheism of its proponents).

I stand by the view that charging that someone's work is tainted on the basis of their funding or personal views alone, with no further evidence or engagement with their claims is well-poisoning.

Stop embarrassing the rest of us with this silly ghostbusters witchhunt. Let us, both atheists and theists, get to work in peace.

I'm not entirely sure why WordPress sometimes lists me as "neopolitan sokare" and sometimes as "n30p0litan", the latter was chosen merely because "neopolitan" wasn't available (perhaps for the same reason that it was not available at BlogSpot, hence the use of "wotpolitan", which is just a little play on words).  I have put, at the bottom of various comments, the name I go by (neopolitan) and this blog is titled "neopolitan's philosophical blog", so it should be easy to work this out.  If, on the other hand, you want to refer to me as n30p0litan or n30 or wotpolitan or wot, then I guess you can.  I even accept neo, but I must stress that I've been using this nick (and before that one similar to it) for almost two decades, well before the Matrix came out and almost forced me to abandon it.   No matter which nick you use, I'll probably know who you are talking about.

So, to the crux of your complaint.  Am I unreasonably "agitated" by Barnes' association with Templeton?  I am clearly "agitated" to some extent, although I would characterise it as "being motivated to act".  I don't think this level of "agitation" is unreasonable though, nor do I think that my "agitation" warrants labelling me as a "fundamentalist atheist", whatever that is supposed to mean.

I do have to turn the spotlight on you for a moment, Charlie.  Where are you coming from?  What's your motivation in this?  Why does Barnes deserve or need your protection?  If I have, as you seem to imply, significantly wronged Barnes, why is he hiding behind your skirts and not speaking out?  (He's currently putting a lot of effort into skewering Richard Carrier who is a much bigger fish, so either I am not important enough or he doesn't have the time, either of which is okay.  Especially if he has lapdogs like Charlie to yap at small fry like me.)

You, Charlie, seem to imply once or twice that you are a "moderate atheist", or at least to allow the appearance of such an implication – "the more moderate atheists among us" and "(s)top embarrassing the rest of us".  Which "us" is this precisely?

You make a claim that there is some sort of fundamentalist core within academia, one that demands that everyone toe the line with respect to some sort of atheist ideology.  I'd like to see evidence of that.  I agree that it's built-in as far as engineering and maths goes and, I would argue, proper physics.  You can't design a building and have the load bearing structure be supported by your god, you'll get the sack pretty quickly if you did that.  Your design must have an inherent presumption of the lack of a god.  A mathematical proof has no need of a god hypothesis.  Actual physics doesn’t call on god to explain phenomena, although it is true that some physicists (say cosmologists and astronomers, for example) call on theology to fill the gaps in knowledge that normally would be covered by the phrase "we just don't know".  NASA engineers trying to build the craft for some future manned mission to Mars won't put up with advice from an astrophysicist that includes references to divine intervention.

But none of this is ideology.  It's pragmatism.  The god that Barnes seems to believe in (and the one that I suspect that you believe in, Charlie) doesn't ever intervene.  It is effectively non-existent, and very likely actually non-existent.  Pondering this god while there are real issues to contend with is a massive waste of time.  Treating it as if it were real is worse.

Templeton is a god-bothering organisation.  We both know it.  I don't think you have even tried to deny it.  It preferentially hands out money to people who are furthering its god-bothering agenda – and note that assistance by the recipient doesn't have to be intentional.

You say you know "plenty of atheists (who) have taken Templeton money" none of whom have "seen or spoken of undue influence or produced compromised scholarship".  Hopefully, you'll forgive me if I find this apparently partisan anecdote to be unconvincing.  I don't know who you are, I don't know how many people you consider "plenty" and I don't know in which field(s) these atheists you know work.  There are plenty of people around who do object to the involvement of Templeton (Jerry Coyne, John Horgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, for example).  Note a competing anecdote from John Horgan:

One Templeton official made what I felt were inappropriate remarks about the foundation's expectations of us fellows.  She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion.  But when I told her one evening at dinner that – given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history – I didn't want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn't think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship.  So much for an open exchange of views.

As to getting to work in peace, feel free to not read what I write.  So, what sort of work were you doing again?