Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Luke Barnes Exposed

I have been on Luke Barnes' case for years, trying to get him to admit to being a believer who is using his scientific credentials to drive a theistic agenda.  He's been slippery and difficult, maintaining a vestige of plausible deniability while pushing the "god did it" conclusion to the fine-tuning problem (or at least doing the opposite of damning with faint praise - perhaps praising with faint critique).

I have been listening to his interview on Pale Blue Dot and was ready to release a careful analysis of how he gave away his theism that day, but … there is now an even better example available.

Luke Barnes and Geraint F Lewis have released a book on fine-tuning and it would appear that while both agree that fine-tuning is a thing, a phenomenon that is worth considering, they disagree on the conclusions that we should draw from it.  There was no need for me to waste money on buying the book, since Google Books provided enough data to support my case.

Geraint (continuing from page 347 which is not available, I've guessed the last word on that missing page): (To) you, the apparent fine-tuning of the properties of the Universe, the properties that allow you to exist as a living, thinking, active creature, is not an accident, not some random role of the dice in an inflating cosmology. To you, the conditions were chosen; the dials were explicitly set to allow your existence.
This universe contains good things, like free moral agents and all that they can do and learn and appreciate. The presence of these qualities is not accidental, but reflects the intent of the creator, the person who set the dials. How’s that?

Luke: That's about right. But I feel that you don’t buy the argument.

Geraint: Alas, I don't. I think that moral beliefs have arisen through our evolution and allowed us to survive and thrive in communities and clans. Anyway, all people appear to be a little amoral sometimes!

Luke: Don't confuse the question of how we got our moral beliefs with the question of what they are about. I got my eye-balls from evolutionary processes as well, but I believe them when they tell me that there's a tree over there. And certainly, knowing what is right to do is no guarantee of doing what is right. We aren't perfectly moral, but I think that we know enough to be able to think rationally about the idea of a morally perfect, necessary being.

So, after years of being coy, Luke has finally admitted to being a theist.

While I am happy about this admission, since it vindicates my suspicions regarding his motives over the years, it's a bit sad that I didn't manage to put out my claim that he had already accidentally admitted to being a theist back in 2010.  Then again, on the other hand, the piecing together of his accidental admission could easily have been waved aside by Barnes if he hadn't already tipped his hand in his book.

It is strange that Barnes, who obviously thinks that fine-tuning is an important topic, important enough to write a book about it, should give an interview for more than an hour on that topic (to Luke Muehlhauser) and then not mention that interview on his blog at all.  Barnes was mentioned in The Economist and that was worthy of a post on his blog, why not the podcast interview with Muehlhauser?

My answer is that in that podcast, 11 Responses to Fine-Tuning, Barnes accidentally admitted that he is a theist - a fact that, at the time, he did not want to be widely known.

The gaffe starts at about 60:04.

In the section prior (from 59:27), Barnes talks about a universe created by the god of WLC and says that "if that sort of universe is the way it really is", and then states that the right answer to existential musings (a long string of "why" questions, in which intention is presumed) would involve god.  Barnes claims that "this sort of idea is not an ad hoc idea" and launches into a quote from Saint Augustine; "in '(t)he ordinary course of nature in the whole of creation [will have] certain natural laws ... determining for each thing what it can do or not do'."

(Barnes had previously written out this quote in an article on the "Religion and Ethics" section of the ABC news site, a piece about the then upcoming debate between WLC and Lawrence Krauss.  The original translation of Augustine from which Barnes appears to be quoting reads: "The ordinary course of nature in the whole of creation has certain natural laws in accordance with which even the spirit of life, which is a creature, has its own appetites, determined in a sense, which even a bad will cannot elude. The elements of the physical world also have a fixed power and quality determining for each thing what it can do or not do and what can be done or not done with it.")

Then, from 60:04, Barnes says - "That's actually a quote from Saint Augustine in the 5th century AD.  So this is not an ad hoc idea that we came up with when we were faced with science.  That believers came up with."  Here he slipped up and accidentally revealed that he counts himself among the group "believers".

If only I had been aware of this earlier.  I would have been bashing him with it for years.

Oh well, at least he has finally come clean.  Will that put his Templeton at risk?

I ask this a little tongue in cheek, because it's quite interesting what authors he recommends to the podcast's listeners:

·      Paul Davies (Templeton winner)
·      Martin Rees (Templeton winner)
·      John D Barrow (Templeton winner)
·      John Leslie (Philosopher of Religion who Barnes suggests is a theist, although he's normally described as a pantheist, Leslie was involved in one event with Templeton - the same event that Richard Dawkins was involved with)
·      Barrow and Tipler (Barrow per above, the less said about Tipler the better)
·      George Ellis (Templeton winner, more recently a positive reviewer of Barnes' new book)
·      Robin Collins (theistic philosopher who has had two grants from Templeton to work on fine-tuning, also a positive reviewer of Barnes' book), and
·      William Lane Craig (not so involved with Templeton, or with fine-tuning come to mention it)

The involvement of Richard Dawkins at a Templeton workshop (Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and Its Theological Implications) is odd.  Admittedly it was in 1998, well before "The God Delusion" (2008), but well after "The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design" (1986, although the paperback edition was published in 1996), so while it was a decade before the beginning of the "Four Horsemen" idea, and "New Atheism" (and four years before the "brights" movement kicked off), it was also a decade after Dawkins had written against the notion of a god.  Why was Richard Dawkins at a workshop hosted by the immensely rich god-botherers at Templeton?  Did he not know who they were?  Did he think that he could persuade them from their folly?  Was he tricked into attending?

What is quite amusing is that, when you search the Templeton website, there are three mentions of Dawkins (only two of which are negative) but a search for William Lane Craig comes up blank, despite WLC's three exemplary essay awards and his various lectureships with Templeton, plus his attendance at the St. Thomas University Summer Seminar program together with Luke Barnes last year.  Luke Barnes gets one mention regarding the grant he got from them in 2015 to do two and a half years' work on fine-tuning.  The description of that project ends with this line:

Theology, too, has embraced fine-tuning as part of “natural theology … the pursuit of a thorough understanding of the intelligible tightly-knit structure of the world that science discerns” (Polkinghorne).

This is a strange comment, is it not, when the grant is filed under "Mathematical and Physical Sciences", rather than under the "Philosophy and Theology" category.  Well, it was odd … until Barnes revealed himself to be a theist.


  1. Barnes has never denied being a theist; I don't understand why you think he is trying to pretend otherwise.

    But if you are looking for a candid acknowledgment on Barnes' part that he is a theist, I can save you a lot of trouble:

    “If you are a naturalist, you think you are understanding the basic physical rules of reality itself, Barnes said. “Whereas for me, as a theist, what I am discovering is the way in which God runs the universe.”


    I myself am an agnostic atheist, and so not think the universe was fine tuned by an intelligent, conscious creator.

    But I've always been impressed by Barnes' ideas and arguments regarding fine tuning. His arguments have never convinced me of fine tuning, but he's done a great job of pointing out the flawed reasoning on the part of those who have attempted to deny that the apparent fine tuning of our universe is a genuine mystery for which there is as yet no satisfactory explanation.

    Where I differ with Barnes of course is where he seems to think that positing the existence of some sort of fine tuning god is a satisfactory explanation; it's not -it's ultimately just another God of the gaps.

    I first became aware of Barnes many years ago when he engaged in a very interesting and lengthy back and forth with the late great Victor Stenger.

    Barnes critiques of the arguments against fine tuning Stenger presented in his book "The Fallacy of Fine Tuning" were devastating.

    The take away point here isn't that Barnes' fine tuning arguments make a compelling case for theism - in my opinion they do not - but he definitely convinced me (and many of the members of Vic's private discussion group, which I was a member of at the time) that Barnes had successfully made his case that the *apparent* 'fine tuning' of the universe is a real mystery for which there is yet no satisfactory explanation which should not be dismissed or trivialized.

    Now Barnes is clearly a theist; what remains less clear is what sort of theist. Again, read the link I provided. He doesn't appear to adhere to or favor any particular organized religion or theology. He seems rather to be what might be called a "generic theist", who is persuaded there is a personal "higher power" who at the very least fine tuned the universe for intelligent life, but doesn't necessarily believe in any specific god or in any of the gods purported to have written books for humans.

    He seems generally sympathetic towards Christianity; perhaps he is a liberal, non-denominational Christian? I don't know.

    But he doesn't strike me as the sort of person who would attempt to hide his personal religious beliefs.

    Why not just ask him directly via his public email?

    1. He was hiding personal beliefs back when I started hounding him in 2013. He basically came out about a year ago. It's no surprise that he's come out more clearly in the past months.

      If you want to see the history, check out his Letters to Nature blog and see the efforts of arkenaten (who also commented here more than four years ago - http://neophilosophical.blogspot.com/2013/06/an-open-letter-to-luke-barnes.html). He did ask quite clearly what Barnes' position was and Barnes wriggled for a very long time.

  2. It's surprising that you do not mention Vic Stenger's book, "The Fallacy of Fine Tuning" which was written to debunk the claims of WLC and Hugh Ross that "fine tuning" proved theism. Barnes, in his bibliography refers to it as the anti-book to his. He started writing on fine tuning by criticising Vic's paper on arXiv. It was quite apparent that he was a theist at the time. But even a theist can be right sometimes. Most of Barnes book is good science. It's just his inference to theism that is fallacious.

    1. I mention Vic Stenger in A Doctor a Day - A Response, An Open Letter to Luke Barnes, Luke Barnes and his Fine-Tuning with WLC, Luke Barnes (Partially) Decloaks, Luke Barnes Decloaks a Bit More and Barnes' Objections to Fine-Tuning. Plus a couple of others (not directly associated with Luke Barnes).

      I think it's (now) clear that he was a theist at the time, but it was not clear - at the time - that he was a theist, especially as the person who induced me to look into Barnes (faithwithreason at Reasonable Faith Forums) indicated that Barnes didn't have a religious bias. I think Barnes does have a religious bias and he started with that religious bias rather than starting from a disinterested position and working forward from the known facts.

      I was interested in finding a legitimately unbiased scientist who was deeply interested in fine-tuning. I'm not sure that there are any. Not because the apparent fine-tuning isn't a curious phenomenon, but because the legitimately unbiased scientist doesn't get stuck on the fine-tuning, she begins almost immediately to consider the potential mechanisms that result in the phenomenon and it is those potential mechanisms that are of interest.


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