The new Natural Theology dismantled

“Natural theology” is the discipline that attempts to find evidence for God in the natural world. The most famous example of this doomed exercise is, of course, the erstwhile use of animal and plant “design” as evidence for God’s beneficence.  But Darwin dispelled that in 1859. Earlier, Newton cited the regular and stable orbits of the planets as evidence for God’s intervention. That, argument, too, was refuted by science, and such is the fate of all natural theology.

But the discipline won’t die. It regularly resurfaces via people like Francis Collins and Alvin Plantinga, who claim, respectively, that intuitive human morality (“The Moral Law”) is evidence for God, and that the “fine tuning” of the physical constants of the universe was done by God to allow human life.  Last year I listed several other examples, including the supposed inevitability of human evolution (an argument for God used by Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris), the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, the very existence of physical laws, and, most bizarrely, the claim of Alvin Plantinga that humans’ ability to perceive truth could not have been instilled in them by evolution, but must reflect a sensus divinitatus given by God. (That sense, of course, has the felicitious side effect of justifying Plantinga’s belief in God and Jesus.)

A new post by Gary Marcus on the New Yorker science-and-technology website “Elements”: “Can science lead to faith?” (free online), reiterates—and criticizes—several recent and noxious eruptions of natural theology from more respectable intellectuals. (Marcus, a former student of Steve Pinker, is now a professor of psychology at New York University.)

The new Natural Theologians  don’t argue for a specific God, like the Christian one, but they do say that evidence points to Something Out There Beyond the Material, knowing very well that the public will take this as vindication of their religious belief.  These god-enabling intellectuals include (indented bits from Marcus’s column):

Jürgen Schmidhuber:

Schmidhuber, in a post on Ray Kurzweil’s A.I. blog, ”In the beginning was the code,” begins with the premise that there “is a fastest, optimal, most efficient way of computing all logically possible universes, including ours—if ours is computable (no evidence against this).” Schmidhuber further elaborates on a “God-like ‘Great Programmer,’ ” and a method by which it would “create and master all logically possible universes.” From this follows what Schmidhuber describes as “Computational Theology,” a component of which is the undeniably heartening claim that “your own life must be very important in the grand scheme of things.” Over all, suggests Schmidhuber, Computational Theology “is compatible with religions claiming that ‘all is one’ and ‘everything is connected to everything.’ ”

I’m baffled by this, and, unwilling to make the effort to master Schmidhuber’s logic (life is too short), I’ll write it off for the nonce as the usual brand of made-up stuff that comprises theology, dressed up in fancy scientific language.

David Eagleman. I’ve discussed Eagleman and his bizarre “philosophy” of “Possibilianism” before (see also here), a philosophy that seems to rest solely on “having the courage to go beyond the data”, i.e., to accept that atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism may well be misguided because there may be some Big Intelligent Forces Out There, including divine beings, aliens, and yes, perhaps even Bigfoot or Nessie. I’m not exaggerating: here’s a quote that Eagleman gave to New Scientist:

So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism – but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.

What if we were planted here by aliens? What if there are civilisations in spatial dimensions seven through nine? What if we are nodes in a vast, cosmic, computational device? . . .

Consider the enormous “possibility space” of stories that can be dreamed up. Take the entirety of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as a single point in this possibility space. The eastern religions are another point. Strict atheism is another point. Now think of the immense landscape of the points in between. Many of these points will contain stories that are crazy, silly, or merely wildly improbable. But in the absence of data, they can’t be ruled out of that space.

This is why I call myself a “possibilian”. Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.

This could have come from Chopra (note the use of the “computational” trope again). What this philosophy does is free one’s mind from the constraining leash of facts.  Let a million crazy ideas blossom! According to Marcus, Eagleman was threatening to write a book about Possibilianism four years ago, but, mercifully, it hasn’t yet appeared. Marcus comments:

Eagleman is actually dismissive of God-like Great Programmers, or at least those that he knows anything about. He writes, for example, in the New Scientist that “Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims—they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes.” His point is not that he is convinced by any existing religion, but that we should be open-minded to those that have not yet been invented.

Up to a point, there is nothing wrong, scientifically speaking, with Eagleman’s argument. There are some things we don’t know, and it could be, in principle, that some of the things we don’t know pertain to theology. But Eagleman’s argument is weaker than he acknowledges—he implies that if we learn something new about the big bang or DNA, we might somehow discover a deity we had otherwise overlooked, but he offers no specifics. More than that, Eagleman ignores something that is central to modern science: meta-analysis, a set of tools for weighing and combining evidence.

And then Marcus takes Eagleman apart in a discourse about the nature of science that, sadly, must be endlessly repeated to the yahoos who mistake logical possibilities for probabilities:

In the empirical sciences, almost everything is a matter of weighing evidence; outside of geometry, it is rare for scientists to literally prove anything. Rather, the more typical trajectory is to rule out competing theories, and accumulate more and more evidence in favor of particular hypotheses. At some level, all scientists are agnostics, and not just about religion, but about virtually everything. I can see with my own two eyes that you have two feet, but for most things that most scientists have observed, I allow that the evidence is indirect; I believe in black holes not because I have seen one, but because, ultimately, I trust that the authorities who have most carefully thought about these things have reached a consensus that black holes provide the best available explanation for a wide range of phenomena, about the distribution of stars and quasars and other matter throughout the universe. I always allow that some other data could become available, but I take the combined evidence in favor of black holes to be very strong.

Eagleman claims that he is offering something beyond the simple observation, held by agnostics for centuries, that there could be some sort of evidence that’s been left out. Agnosticism “is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true,” Eagleman writes. “But,” he boasts, “with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position.” But it’s never really clear what that new position is, or how it differs from agnosticism at a fundamental level. What is clear is that, when it comes to theology, Eagleman is shying away from a technique that forms part of the core of his day job in science: the statistical weighing of evidence.

It’s just so rare to see something like this in a respectable magazine—even the New Yorker, which is notoriously soft on religion—that I’m going to quote Marcus’s last three paragraphs in toto. I credit some of Pinker’s influence here: Steve’s produced a good student, and one who, on his own, can not only dismantle the unwarranted speculations of faith, but also discredit, those who, like Eagleman, make their living enabling religion. (I would argue that Eagleman, who labels himself a “neuroscientist”, is a danger to both rationality and science.)

Marcus:

Scientists and non-scientists alike are still free to believe whatever they want, but the grounds for religion have to be the same as they ever were: faith, not science. Science cannot absolutely prove that there is no divine creator, but the tools of science do allow us to weigh the existing evidence, and assign likelihoods to those hypotheses; by ignoring those tools, Eagleman does science a disservice.

The final strategy of those seeking compatibility between religion and science is to retreat into something that is reminiscent of solipsism, the family of beliefs that allows me to entertain the unfalsifiable yet dubious notion that I might be the only person in the universe (with everyone else just a figment). In a recent book, ”Where the Conflict Really Lies,” the eminent analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga acknowledges the possibility of evolution, but suggests that random mutations and the like are “clearly compatible with their being caused by God.”

Plantinga argues that Christian believers have a sixth sense, a “sensus divinitatis” that allows them to sense God, with that sense defective or absent in nonbelievers. One could, of course, equally generate an infinite range of similar hypotheses, none scientifically testable, such as “only Zeus believers have a working Zeus sense,” “only ghost believers have a ghost sense,” and so forth, but the possibility of leaping outside the realm of science into a morass of untestable possibilities brings us no closer to a genuine rapprochement between science and religion than we were in the time of Goethe’s “Faust.”

Well, there are of course final redoubts of Natural Theology beyond solipsism—I’ve listed a few above—and there’s always the dumb argument that science and faith must be compatible because there are religious scientists and science-friendly believers. But I love the deft way Marcus dismantles Plantinga’s pretentions.  He doesn’t describe the alternative reason we perceive truth—that natural selection has given us a sensus rationalismus—but that’s a quibble. It’s just so rare to see accommodationism taken apart this way in such a public forum! Kudos to Gary Marcus.

118 Comments

  1. Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    What do people think of physicists who argue quite rationally that our universe may well have a non-divine creator – on the basis that creating a universe is not inconceivably difficult, technically, and therefore has probably been done? I’ve a recollection that Brian Greene made this case in The Elegant Universe – although I might be mixing this up with another popular science book. It seems to me that you can believe in a creator without being religious, and looking for evidence of a creator in the natural world is not necessarily a theological pursuit. However, I might live to regret sticking my head above the parapet in this foolish way …

    • Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Dear Paul,

      I like you so much as a person. Your thesis, of course, is the same as Paley and subject to every point made by Jerry in the column. You have stated a less clear version of the argument from design.

      In science we defend our ideas with great vigor. But we back down when the evidence goes the other way. That is what is great about science. The argument from design is the main argument for religion, or holding a bold idea for which there is zero evidence.

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Sorry, I was wrong – it wasn’t Brian Greene, it was John Gribbin, in his book “In Search of the Multiverse”.
        Here is a quote from an article he wrote for a British newspaper, The Telegraph:

        “The great British astronomer Fred Hoyle suggested that the laws of physics were so uniquely conducive to human existence that the universe must be “a put-up job”. I believe he was right: the universe was indeed set up to provide a home for life, even if it evolved through a process of natural selection, with no need for outside interference. It isn’t that man was created in God’s image – rather that our universe was created, more or less, in the image of its designers.”

        Gribbin has written books on evolution and I’m sure has no time for ID or Creationism.

        I know Hoyle’s (and Gribbins’) argument has been labelled by some as a Goldilocks fallacy, kind of equivalent to saying “isn’t it incredible that my legs are EXACTLY the right length to reach the ground” – but I’m not sure it can be so easily dismissed.

        Arguably, a creator who has no role to play beyond the moment of creation is an irrelevance anyway.

        • drdatajack
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

          Any argument from design fails because it isn’t parsimonious. Adding attributes (intelligence, purpose) to an unknown system (that which created the universe) is not helpful. It doesn’t further our understanding, or explain our observations better.

          • Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

            Seems to me that either the universe was created on purpose or it wasn’t. Both are plausible scientifically if you accept Gribbin’s argument that black-hole creation is not unfeasible given technology moderately more advanced than our own – one step on from the LHC, he says – and if you also accept Krauss’s arguments that quantum physics allows for the universe’s spontaneous creation. It’s hard to see how either theory could be tested, but perhaps we just haven’t thought of a way. (I suspect that the Big Bang was pretty untestable as a theory when first proposed but is now supported by overwhelming evidence.) Gribbin’s theory is less satisfying in the sense that it does not explain the origin of the proposed creator – but maybe that needs another theory. I don’t see why the truth has an obligation to us to be neat, which is kind of what your comment about parsimony (and the Occam’s razor argument in general) is implying. And to dismiss anything which isn’t immediately useful is a pretty depressing attitude to science. I’m sure people criticised Quantum Theory for being irrelevant and esoteric in the 1930s but now it’s an indispensable part of many technologies.

            • Data Jack
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

              Theories are proposed explanations for observations. Nothing more. They aren’t supposed to be uplifting, or depressing; they are supposed to be explanatory. Adding extra attributes that don’t advance the explanation is what I meant by “parsimonious”. When we observed the odd way that very small things behaved when observed, we came up with Quantum Mechanics to explain it. We did not add bits like intellect or personality, because they do not improve the explanation. To say “light behaves like a particle, and a wave, but it is probably angry when it behaves like a wave” adds no value.
              Similarly, to say “we do not (yet) know how the universe came about, but what ever caused it probably has intellect, purpose, and direction” adds nothing to the explanation.
              I am not saying to not think of new theories, but the absolutely cannot be accepted as true unless they explain our observations, and are supported by evidence.

              • Data Jack
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

                To be clear – I don’t mean to say theories have to be neat – but every part of them must be required (supported by evidence). Look at QM and even the Standard Model. All messy, because we added bits that were needed to keep up with observations.

              • Sastra
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                Similarly, to say “we do not (yet) know how the universe came about, but what ever caused it probably has intellect, purpose, and direction” adds nothing to the explanation.

                Good point, but I think there’s an additional problem. If “whatever caused the universe” has intellect, purpose, and direction, then we’ve just taken the only explanation we DO have for intellect, purpose, and direction out of the picture. Meaning, we’ve removed the gradual step-by-step process of evolution from the explanation of how we get mind from not-mind.

                So all of a sudden we’ve got intellect, purpose, and direction existing with no brain, no life, no history, no framework, no formation against an environment, no explanation at all — and the entire established body of work from sciences like neurology are thrown away.

                This is perhaps another violation of parsimony, and takes it to a new level. It’s one thing to say that “X happened because someone wanted it to happen” adds nothing to the explanation. True. But it seems to me that it takes a whole heaping mess of unnecessary additional assumptions to include “…and oh yeah — everything we have learned about minds, brains, and intentions doesn’t apply to this.”

                I don’t think you can just casually sneak that sort of thing in.

              • Data Jack
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                That is an excellent point! I absolutely hate those foolish “uncaused first cause” or “unmoved first mover” arguments for gods. They use “everything has a cause” to argue the universe couldn’t have formed “on its own”. And then they add in “Except this guy over here that we made up. One of his defining attributes is he doesn’t have to follow any of the rules!”
                Rubbish. :)

            • Reginald Selkirk
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

              Paul Davies: “I don’t see why the truth has an obligation to us to be neat, which is kind of what your comment about parsimony (and the Occam’s razor argument in general) is implying.

              If the available data supports two hypotheses equally well, Occam’s razor as applied to science says you should accept the simple hypothesis. Of course, the simplest solution is not always the correct one. The way to deal with this in science is to collect more data. Specifically, to design and run experiments which will generate data which will decide between the available hypotheses.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

              Paul Davies wrote:

              I don’t see why the truth has an obligation to us to be neat, which is kind of what your comment about parsimony (and the Occam’s razor argument in general) is implying.

              No, that’s a misunderstanding of the principle of parsimony/Occam’s razor. It’s not about the universe and an obligation for it to be simple. After all, Aristotle’s 4 elements were much simpler than what we discovered. The truth usually turns out to be messier than we thought.

              Parsimony is an epistemic principle which applies to us and our need to not get ahead of ourselves. If we gratuitously add in elements which aren’t necessary to a hypothesis then we place ourselves in an unfalsifiable position. Occam’s razor cuts away at our hubris about what we know and why we know it. It doesn’t remove elements from reality.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

          Here’s the crux of the matter — it’s not enough to claim that something is possible. You have to prove that it’s obligate. That no other solution other than “a creator” is possible.

          Everywhere we look, every new advance in physics and cosmology, we see absolute zero evidence that there is anything at work other than the blind forces of nature.

          Steven Hawking and many others “in the know” say clearly that we now know enough about the universe to declare that no “creator” was needed.

          If we already know that such a creative force is not required, we already proven it to be not obligate. Therefore, it is not a useful endeavor to pursue.

          BTW: My reducto scenario when people pose the “but it’s possible” challenge is this:

          It’s also possible that the universe was created by giant invisible interdimensional monkeys, who shat the universe into existence out of their red monkey butts.

          Yes. That’s possible. And you can’t disprove it, either. Doesn’t mean that if you can imagine something, that something by definition is credible, or real.

          • Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            “Here’s the crux of the matter — it’s not enough to claim that something is possible. You have to prove that it’s obligate. That no other solution other than “a creator” is possible.”

            I don’t really agree with your premise. You’re right that physicists have argued that no creator is necessary (notable Lawrence Krauss in “A Universe from Nothing”) but I doubt any of them would claim they had proved their theory. They’ve simply explained, from a scientific point of view, why it’s plausible. That’s all Gribbin has done with his opposing theory. It may be impossible to test scientifically which, if either, is correct, although scientists are very ingenious when it comes to testing theories which appear untestable.

            I like your monkey image, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that all unproven theories are equally implausible.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

              Neither is an “unproven theory”…both are conjectures based on nothing more than conjecture. Pulling fantasy out of thin air.

              If it were a “theory”, there would be some evidentiary support behind it. Some math. some physics. Observations. Something other than “well, it’s possible.”

              And how are we to judge which of these conjectures is the more likely?

              I claim that the “red shift” we see of stars moving away from us is evidence of red monkey butts.

              I can do that all day, FWIW. It’s the “dragon in the garage” meme.

              You really need to improve your understanding of what the word “theory” means.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              BTW: The point of Krauss and Hawking isn’t that they’ve proven how the universe came into being.

              It’s that they know how it didn’t. It didn’t involve a creator.

              It’s the same with abiogenesis. We know that it’s chemistry. We don’t have the “recipe”, but we sure know enough to state with certainty that it didn’t involve magic.

              Please don’t insert god of the gaps arguments into the mix.

              • Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                I’m not inserting god of anything arguments anywhere.

                I think you’re being defensive, and I don’t agree with what you say about Krauss et al: they haven’t proved (or even tried to prove) that a creator did not create the universe, they’ve explained why a creator is unnecessary. They have, as I said earlier, explained why a ‘universe from nothing’ is not as implausible as common sense would suggest it to be. I’m not sure I’d say that this is ‘pure conjecture’ – or I would at least distinguish between pointless conjecture (of the red-butted monkey kind) and useful conjecture. Arguably, most breakthroughs in science need conjecture before they need evidence. The evidence for evolution was around for hundreds of years before the right theory came along to make sense of it.

            • Data Jack
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

              No, that’s not quite getting it. No theory is “proved”; they are supported by (and explain) observations. And all theories (hypotheses, really) that are not supported, should be discarded (or at least placed on the back-burner). Possible does not in any way indicate probable.
              To say “maybe a god did it, we can’t tell” is not intellectual sound. It has the same veracity as “maybe a unicorn did it”, or “maybe a turtle did it” or “maybe Yahweh did it”. All of those are completely unsupported, and should be tossed out.
              The most interesting hypothesis in the world must be set aside, if there is no evidence to support it. If it doesn’t help explain our observations it has no value.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

              Well, my addendum apparently didn’t post…apologies if this appears twice.

              The point of Krauss, Hawking, et al, isn’t that they’ve proved their theories. We still don’t know exactly how this universe came into existence. The correct answer to the question is still “I don’t know and neither do you.”

              However, you don’t have to prove what did in order to prove what didn’t happen. And what didn’t happen was a “creator” doing some “creating”.

              We have effectively ruled out “creator” from the list of potential universe-inception tools.

              If you want to propose to re-include “creator” into the mix, you’re going to have to do some heavy duty physics. Including enough to overturn what we already do know.

              What we know is enough for a rule-out. It’s like an alibi of a murder suspect. That suspect’s alibi doesn’t prove who did do the murder, only that he/she didn’t.

              • Data Jack
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                No, we haven’t really “ruled out” a creator. We haven’t used evidence to “proved” a creator didn’t create the universe. What we did was showed that a creator is unnecessary. Krauss & Hawking have demonstrated that an “extra-universal agency” is not necessary for creation of a universe. Because of that, combined with no evidence to support the existence of a creator, we can take the creator-god hypothesis off the table. But that is not the same as “disproving” it.
                You can never disprove “omnipotent” beings. But you can demonstrate that they are unnecessary (and quite a bit silly).

              • Kevin
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                Jack: Showing a creator is unnecessary is, in essence ruling it out.

                You’d have to do an awful lot of “new” physics to rule one back in.

                There’s just no wiggle room here. The science shows that the universe is a natural event. The “creator” hypothesis has therefore been disproved.

                And frankly, there was never a “creator hypothesis” in the first place. There’s no scientific hypothesis, working or otherwise, to disprove.

                Conjecture, speculation, musing, making-stuff-up-out-of-thin-air — none of that makes an hypothesis. And that’s all the “well, it could have been magic” has ever been.

                We give this idea way too much credibility when we even extend to it the status of hypothesis. Isn’t. It’s fantasy. Fiction. Fable. Myth.

              • Data Jack
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                I completely agree – there is no credible reason to think a supernatural agency was involved. I just wanted to clarify for the folks who say “you can’t disprove gods” – by saying “no, we can’t, but we don’t need to”.

              • derekw
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

                Well honestly it seems more reasonable to believe in a “creator” than Hawking’s contradictory-babble ‘Because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing.’The Grand Design

              • Data Jack
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

                Believing in completely unsupported magic is more “reasonable” than attempting to describe the workings of the universe using the same processes that we have successfully used to describe every other element of our understanding of reality?

              • David Ravicher
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                please calculate the FACERR ratio to that theory and belief (fluctuating acceptable compounded error/risk ratio)

              • Data Jack
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

                Um… no? :)

        • Thomas Huld
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          I must admit that I don’t really understand the argument that our existence means the Universe was designed for us. If we assume, as some people argue, that our planet is the only one in the universe with life, or at least with intelligent life (I think Simon Conway Morris argues the latter, not sure about the former)(*), then we can calculate the fraction of the universe with life. The biosphere on earth is about 20km thick which comes to about 10^19m^3. I seem to remember a figure of 23 billion light-years as the radius of the universe, which gives a volume of around 4×10^76m^3 devoid of life.

          This means that the divine plan to prevent life in the universe is 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% successful, and now that humans have discovered fossil fuels it is only a matter of a short time before the earth too will be sterilized.

          I often think the best argument that we are designed, is that it is impossible that natural selection could produce something as conceited as humans.

          (*) If every galaxy has a planet with life, you can shave 11 digits off the percentage, not a big difference.

          • Data Jack
            Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

            The designed universe argument doesn’t have to do with the scarcity of planets, the hostility (or lack thereof) of environment, or even the improbability of arising by itself. It has to do with the underlying principles of physics.
            For example, what if gravity were half as strong – could planets form? Could stars? Could they burn? What if electrons were positively charged? No atoms? What if Planck’s constant was larger? What if c were faster? Slower? It seems, to the people that subscribe to this, that the fundamental properties of the universe are ideal for making the universe we have – which can support us.

            • notsont
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              The properties of the universe are ideal for making the universe we have…yep and the hole in front of my house is perfectly shaped for the puddle that sits in it…a coincidence? I think not!

        • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

          What moment of creation? (The big bang is only a (massive) phase transition.)

      • David Ravicher
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        and pray tell, what do you do before you find the evidence that makes you “back down”… believe in a lie?

        • Data Jack
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          There is no “belief” in science. We conditionally accept as true theories that are supported by some evidence, and refuted by none. When (usually new or more precise) evidence/observations come to light that no longer support the theory, we modify it or discard it.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      … on the basis that creating a universe is not inconceivably difficult, technically, and therefore has probably been done?

      I know we move in different circles, but no one I know has created a universe.

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        You need to get out more.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

          I would certainly travel more if Templeton would send me a big check.

          • Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            Ha ha. I wouldn’t mind being on the receiving end of all the Paul Davies jibes if Templeton had made the same error and sent the money to me.

      • drdatajack
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        Really? you may need to get out more :)

    • Sastra
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Paul Davies asked:

      What do people think of physicists who argue quite rationally that our universe may well have a non-divine creator – on the basis that creating a universe is not inconceivably difficult, technically, and therefore has probably been done?

      I think that the definition of “non-divine creator” needs to be made more explicit. Details.

      Are we still assuming mind/body dualism and talking about a ‘creator’ with some sort of non-material substrate with intention, will, or the desire to create? Or can this ‘creator’ be an alien lifeform or a mindless fluctuation in a brane?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      I would claim that they would have to stop after WMAP 9 year and Planck 4 year data releases. The same observation of a zero energy universe that shows our universes _must_ by thermodynamics be a result of a spontaneous process says no magical or physical agents were directly responsible. Any tweaking would show up in the CMB.

      Oh, you could argue that some magic/non-magic agent set up the process, it would make a nice scifi story (and it has), but then you had to ask what caused them. Eventually, by likelihood, you run into naturally instantiated Friedmann zero energy universes as all universes with physics (spacetime so causality, and homogeneous and isotropic so large enough volumes to make life) seems to be.

      The old infinite regress problem. It is just much easier to see from the get go, from our current cosmology, that it is a dud.

      Yes, that analysis seems foolish, since what we see is set up the exact opposite way.

  2. Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I think evolution has wired our brains to believe in a higher power that’s beyond the data we have. Maybe it’s a side effect different brain circuits that are necessary for high reasoning. According to N. Wade, author of “The Faith Instinct”, evolution seems to have favored the development of religion.

    • Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Perhaps it’s just that we are wired to see intentionality in everything. It’s pretty hard to even express mechanisms that aren’t intentional in language without using metaphor. That’s what lead to all the misunderstandings of Richard Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene”, for instance. People couldn’t and many still can’t understand how something that appears to be designed can come about with intentionality of the part of some designer.

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        oops – meant without intentionality on the part of some designer… must improve my proof reading skills!

    • Sastra
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Is the “higher power” concept really that much different than the way small children think of their parents — and their parents’ world?

      Grand, unknowable, mysterious, powerful, authoritarian, incomprehensible, encompassing, loving, concerned, and focused on what one does and how one does it. Saying that evolution wired our brains to believe our first caregivers were bigger and better than us and we were small and under their control … is not that surprising.

    • Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      it also favors the development of viruses.

      evolution has wired our brains to seek cause. Primitive humans sought cause for things they couldn’t find a cause for and came up with gods rather than physics.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        Brilliant! I’m familiar with the concept and the argument, but this is the most concise and incisive formulation I’ve seen. I am so stealing this for future use. Thank you!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      According to Jerry, it is likely a side effect of having our brains evolved for survival. I.e. the most basic _low_ reasoning that rather bet on a predator behind the moving grass than risk a death by betting the other way. Blame it on our ape belongings and being mostly prey, instead of evolving from predators.

      High reasoning is what evolved after that, as social and sexual selection made it an advantageous trait. It is interesting to ponder how high reasoning, and its drawback, would have evolved if we had been predators. Niven’s Known Space novels speculates about that.

      The question becomes, if religious agents caused a favoring of a development of religion, why did they use us apes?

      A nitpick: “a higher power that’s beyond the data we have” is meaningless. The data is the data, and it can’t be used to imply something else.

      Is the data complete? Of course not, but that doesn’t imply “higher power” inanities. On the contrary, we should have seen the more important interactions first from apriori likelihood. Religion doesn’t make any sense at all in empirical terms – don’t try to make it appear as it does, as it just looks foolish.

  3. Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The What If Zone.

  4. Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I think there is a heuristic that is very useful in science. It’s a bit like Ockham’s razor, but it’s not Ockham’s razor. I call it the incremental bootstrap principle.

    It says: Science isn’t about anything you can imagine sitting in your armchair. It’s about the constant extension of knowledge in a systematic search, steadily advancing, incrementally from where we are now, to what we can validate and test from here, with our current knowledge and technology. In other words it is an iterative process that requires building on our current capabilities.

    If you leap in the dark you are likely to get nowhere except lost.

    Lots of things could be possible, but it’s not the systematic discipline of science to worry about them.

    Science does constantly reach out beyond our current limits but not so far that we lose touch with what is currently established. Every new thing has to fit into the existing framework, or an understandable extension or revision of it.

    It has to have some empirical component too if we are to have confidence that we are still following nature and not just our own hyperactive imaginations. Pure speculation doesn’t cut it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it is a heuristic, its more an observation along xqcd’s “Science. It works, bitches!” Eg we need observations (basically, a hypothesis testing) and other tests.

      Logic alone doesn’t even get us arithmetic.

  5. Charles Jones
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann wanted to know how evangelicals come to feel the direct presence of God in their lives. (Book = When God Talks Back) The answer in short is to spend a lot of time praying and talking to God. As an experiment, Luhrmann had undergraduates employ the same technique but directed toward the dead railway baron Leland Stanford. The result: Her undergraduates developed a ‘sensus Stanfordensis’. They actually began to feel his presence!

    Spooky.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Sastra
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      I just finished reading psychologist Richard Wiseman’s book The “As If” Principle. He points to the huge amount of data which shows that it’s not mind –> body, it’s often body –> mind. If you act “as if” something is true, then you will come to believe it is true. The common example is that if you start to smile, you will begin to feel happier.

      This might say a lot about religious belief. Many times people can’t even articulate any coherent details about what it is they believe in — but they know it’s there because of their experience. Sounds like Tanya Luhrman and Richard Wiseman could do a book together.

  6. JBlilie
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    “According to Marcus, Eagleman was threatening to write a book about Possibilianism four years ago, but, mercifully, it hasn’t yet appeared.”

    Of course not: The possibilities are endless … (and therefore will never end!) :)

    • Sastra
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      +1

  7. Kevin Alexander
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I used to have a sensus divinitatus but it got overwhelmed by my sensus taurusscatus

    • Hankstar
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      +1 (moo)

  8. Kevin
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I’ve never understood the “fine tuning” argument.

    Probably 99.99999999999999999999999999999…% of the known universe is incompatible with sentient life like humans. Probably only one or two orders of magnitude more are compatible with any form of life (eg, bacteria on Mars, Europa, or other potentially habitable planets and planetoids).

    That’s not “fine” tuning. That’s impossibly bad “tuning” to the greatest degree possible.

    If the universe were “fine tuned” for life, then each and every planet would have its humans. It would be the Star Trek universe. Such “fine tuning” would be a trivial exercise for an all-powerful god.

    Of course, it’s just simple physics that most stars will have a “habitable” zone. Energy dissipates to the inverse of the square of the distance and all that. But a habitable zone that also has a planet large enough to contain a relatively stable and thick atmosphere, that has water, that is rich in carbon-based molecules, that has a molten iron core which results in a magnetic shield…the odds get reduced further and further.

    And again, since we don’t see these planets everywhere (or at least not yet), it’s evidence that we’re an aberration. A 1 in several billion lucky shot. How is that “fine tuning”? When everything around us is fine-tuned for no life.

    If we’re not alone in the universe, we most likely have darn few neighbors. And will probably spend our existence until extinction not being aware of one another.

    Whatever the opposite of “fine tuning” is, that’s what we have.

    • Gary W
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      You’re misunderstanding the fine-tuning argument. The premise is that a number of the basic physical constants that determine the nature of universe appear to have been finely tuned to allow for life. If the value of any of these constants was just slightly different from the one we observe, life would not be possible.

      • Dave
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Isn’t that version of the “fine-tuning” argument analogous to a lottery-winner thinking:

        “If any one of the digits on my 7-digit winning ticket had been just one integer different, I wouldn’t have won – therefore the lottery must have been set up for me to win it!”

        A totally spurious argument, no?

        • Gary W
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

          No, not at all. A more accurate analogy would be a lottery in which there was just one player who “just happened” to pick the winning numbers out of millions of combinations. That would indeed raise the suspicion that the lottery was fixed.

          One rebuttal to the fine-tuning argument is some kind of multiverse hypothesis. If our universe is just one of a vast number of universes, the vast majority of which are lifeless, then the apparent fine-tuning of our universe isn’t so surprising. It’s analogous to a lottery with just one winner (or a very small number of winners) among a vast number of players.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Except that the basic constants of the universe appear to be constrained primarily for there to be no life. See above. Except on this thin skin of a tiny rock in the middle of nowhere, the universe will kill you in seconds.

        Plus, that version has been disproved, I do believe. I read somewhere a while back that someone had determined that the weak force is unnecessary for us to have a viable universe.

        What?! One of only four forces in nature is unneeded? Well, there goes the fine-tuning argument out the window.

        • Gary W
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          You’re still misunderstanding the argument. If any of the constants was only slightly different, it appears that life would not be possible at all, anywhere in the universe.

        • Data Jack
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          The weak interaction is responsible for stars burning, which synthesized heavier elements (like carbon), so it is actually pretty essential for life :)

        • Vaal
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          Gary,

          I don’t think you are getting the point raised by Kevin (and many of us) about the Fine Tuning Argument. The criticism is that it seems to cherry-pick: it finds it’s apparent force from choosing only the facts that could support fine tuning for life, while ignoring all the others that point in an opposite direction. It’s like Ted Bundy’s groupies who emphasized that Bundy was a misunderstood, good human being because of his love notes and flowers, ignoring all the dead bodies in Bundy’s closet.
          If you leave out the facts that do not support a conclusion, you can get any conclusion.

          Think of all the amazing survivor stories, for instance the guy who “miraculously” survived being in one of the towers on 9/11 and, when the building collapsed, “surfed” down 22 stories on the crumbling debris to survive. If you ONLY looked at the facts relating to his case alone you could point out how utterly improbable his survival was, as there are so many alternate scenarios that should have ended in his death.
          From this you could say “It’s just so improbable everything should fall into place as it did, the events of 9/11 suggests that whatever was behind the events had the INTENT that this guy survived…or the intent in general that *some people* would survive!”

          But of course if you widen the view and take in more of the facts, you can’t help but note that the enormous number of people who died in the
          collapse of the towers. That, actually, the whole even looks more destructive to human life, and if not indifferent to manufacturing survivors, outright hostile in general to human survivors. You’d never infer from the Big Picture, all the facts together, that survival stories like the one above seemed the INTENT of the catastrophe.

          It’s the same for the Big Picture of the universe. Yes, we’ve survived in our little corner of the universe, as someone put it, like an ant clinging to a cork in the ocean, but given that most of the universe seems utterly indifferent if not outright hostile to life, especially human life, it seems silly to infer that it was designed with intent for life.

          This is the cherry-picking problem of the fine tuning argument.

          Vaal

          • Gary W
            Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            It’s the same for the Big Picture of the universe. Yes, we’ve survived in our little corner of the universe, as someone put it, like an ant clinging to a cork in the ocean, but given that most of the universe seems utterly indifferent if not outright hostile to life, especially human life, it seems silly to infer that it was designed with intent for life

            You’re missing the point, too. If there’s only one universe, it appears to be far more likely that that one universe wouldn’t support life AT ALL than that it would support life somewhere. The fact that life can survive in only a very small number of places in our universe does not explain this (apparently) extremely improbable outcome. That’s why you need the multiverse hypothesis, or the simulation hypothesis, or God, or some other way of accounting for what we observe.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              Who decided that life was special?

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

                I don’t understand the point of the question.

              • Reginald Selkirk
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                Gary W: I don’t understand the point of the question.

                Apparently not. You say that the universe may have been specially tweaked to be just as it is (although I know cosmologists who would disagree with you). But what makes you think that the reason the universe is tweaked was to create us? Maybe it was created for some other purpose*, and we are just a by-product? It appears you must have an ego the size of the universe to imagine that we are the point of it all.

                * See for example the proposal by Lee Smolin that the universe is selected to maximize black hole production. Note also that this hypothesis does not involve conscious purpose of creation, but is a form of natural selection.

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

                You say that the universe may have been specially tweaked to be just as it is (although I know cosmologists who would disagree with you).

                Really? You know cosmologists who deny that the universe may have been specially tweaked to be just as it is? I’d love to know what grounds they think they have for denying that possibility (and their names).

                But what makes you think that the reason the universe is tweaked was to create us? Maybe it was created for some other purpose*, and we are just a by-product?

                Not necessarily “us” (as in homo sapiens) specifically, but some kind of intelligent life. But perhaps the universe was tweaked for some other reason. Perhaps there were multiple reasons, only one of which was to create intelligent life. Who knows?

                See for example the proposal by Lee Smolin that the universe is selected to maximize black hole production.

                Why would they do that? And why does Lee Smolin think that our universe maximizes black hole production (compared to all other possible universes)?

              • Reginald Selkirk
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                I’d love to know what grounds they think they have for denying that possibility (and their names).

                Victor Stenger, Sean Carroll.

                Why would they do that?

                Why not? Why would you consider that less likely than that the universe was tweaked to produce us?

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

                Victor Stenger, Sean Carroll.

                Where do Victor Stenger or Sean Carroll deny that “the universe may have been specially tweaked to be just as it is?” Quotes, please.

                Why not?

                It would only make sense to do it if they had a reason to do it. Why does Lee Smolin think they would do it?

                Why would you consider that less likely than that the universe was tweaked to produce us?

                I don’t think it’s necessarily less likely. Perhaps there is a universe that was tweaked to maximize black hole production. But, as far as I’m aware, we don’t have any evidence that such a universe exists. We do know that there’s a universe with intelligent life, however.

            • Vaal
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

              Gary,

              Again, that does not engage the point being raised.

              See how I kept emphasizing the word INTENT.
              The Fine Tuning argument doesn’t merely argue to improbability, it argues to INTENT.
              That human life (as the religious will infer from the argument) or life in general was the INTENT behind the design of the universe.
              Otherwise, it suggests, any number of non-life supporting universes were possible.

              Once you are leaping from observation of a mere improbability (even if we give that) to inferring the INTENT behind it, you run into the problems I raised. It may be the case that the survival of the guy I mentioned in 9/11 was amazingly improbable in of itself.
              But if you try to extrapolate from a great improbability to infer the INTENT behind it, you can not simply ignore any of the additional facts of a case that are not supportive of that intent, or undermine the inference.

              If we are asking whether this universe appears to be the result of the deliberate INTENT for life, the desire for life in the universe, then we can’t just ignore facts that work against that inference. All the facts, the apparent blind contingencies that wipe out life, the apparent blind indifference to life, the vast inhospitable nature of the universe to life.

              If you want to move from improbable to “intended to” then we can’t just cherry pick out the facts that seem to support that inference.

              Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

                The fine-tuning argument I’m discussing has nothing to do with intent. The argument is that it appears to be extremely unlikely that a universe that supports life would arise by chance, but the universe does support life, so an explanation is needed for that extremely unlikely outcome.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                Ok, but then it appears you weren’t speaking to the Fine Tuning argument Kevin was criticizing. He was clearly speaking of the Fine Tuning argument for a creator God having intended a universe with life. (He clearly mentioned an All Powerful God).

                As to explanation being “needed” for life, I still think there are some un-argued for assumptions in there. That’s what Sastra was getting at with his “who decided life was special?” comment.

                Any particular event or phenomenon can be argued to be improbable on some grounds, given all the contingency that gets to any event. Any particular hand in a deck of cards is quite improbable, but it seems to take on greater significance only insofar as we attach it to further facts, like that the hand just won us the money for rent, on the day I lost my job or whatever. It is significant, a special outcome to me in that respect, but not at all to the general physics of the game which permit such outcomes, even if improbable.

                Likewise, the fine tuning argument insofar as it is an argument that “This outcome DEMANDS special explanation” derives it’s force because we happen to place value on life. So when we look at the constants we say “hey, if they were different then WE wouldn’t be here.”

                This is what Sastra was getting at, I believe.

                Any number of phenomona are “improbable” depending on the angle you look at it, and the value you give that outcome. As some physicists have argued, the universe also appears tuned for the existence of black holes as well.

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

                Ok, but then it appears you weren’t speaking to the Fine Tuning argument Kevin was criticizing. He was clearly speaking of the Fine Tuning argument for a creator God having intended a universe with life.

                No, he asserted (incorrectly) that “if the universe were ‘fine tuned’ for life, then each and every planet would have its humans.” That claim rests on a number of assumptions that are not necessarily true. Even if one assumes that the explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is that the universe was created by God, that God would not necessarily have had the ability or desire to create a universe in which “each and every planet would have its humans.” And the God hypothesis is only one possible solution to the fine-tuning problem, anyway.

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

                Likewise, the fine tuning argument insofar as it is an argument that “This outcome DEMANDS special explanation” derives it’s force because we happen to place value on life.

                No, it derives its force from the fact that we exist. Our existence isn’t just one possible outcome among millions of an event that has yet to occur. It’s an actual outcome of an event that has already occurred, so we need to account for it. “It’s incredibly unlikely, but I’ll just assume it happened by chance” wouldn’t be a satisfying explanation in a formal scientific theory, and it’s not a satisfying explanation of why we exist, either.

            • Sastra
              Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

              The point of the question is this: when you pick out a single aspect of reality and decide that this is like “winning the lottery,” then you’re selecting for specialness. From whose viewpoint? I think this process will always result in a discovery of fine tuning because it began with fine tuning.

              “I used to think that the brain was the most important organ … and then I realized who was telling me that.” (Emo Phillips)

              • Sastra
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, this was supposed to be a reply to Gary.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

                Exactly.

                And we see the daily results of this method of inference. We experience great improbabilities every day, but when one happens to coincide with our own interests or values, then you see how this leads people to infer “fine tuning/intent” from the events.

                “I was supposed to go to work in the Twin Towers on 9/11 but my alarm clock for the first time ever didn’t function, saving me from a fateful death. My being saved from death was so improbable the occurrence seems fine tuned/intended for my surviving the event”

                Vaal

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                The point of the question is this: when you pick out a single aspect of reality and decide that this is like “winning the lottery,” then you’re selecting for specialness. From whose viewpoint?

                From any viewpoint. If there’s only one lottery player, and that one lottery player “just happens” to pick the winning combination of numbers out of millions of possibilities, it’s not plausible that he did so by chance. More likely, the lottery was fixed or he cheated. Similarly, if there’s only one universe, and that universe “just happens” to have properties that allow for life out of a vastly larger set of properties that don’t, it’s not plausible that it arose by chance. More likely, there is some other explanation (multiverse, simulation, God, unknown science, or whatever).

              • Sastra
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                No. From whose viewpoint is the existence of life the same as “winning the lottery?”

                One lottery player = one universe
                winning the lottery = X
                X has to be something we observe

                Is there any X which would NOT result in a successful fine tuning argument? The analogy will always work if you just insist that X is the equivalent of winning the lottery.

              • Gary W
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                What we observe is that we exist. If we did not exist, the question of how we came to exist, despite apparently overwhelming odds against it, would not arise. But since we DO exist, the question does arise.

                It is precisely analogous to asking how the one and only lottery player managed to pick the winning numbers despite overwhelming odds against it. If he hadn’t won, the question wouldn’t arise.

              • notsont
                Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

                How do you know other universe variants would not have their own form of life that would be wondering if they were special?

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

              Whatever values the constants have and whatever results they allow are, in the context of this argument, unremarkable.

              So the constants allow for (a tiny amount of) human life. Why should that be evidence of fine tuning? Other constants would entail other results. Why are those results less special than humans?

              I always say: “If the universe weren’t like this, it’d be like something else”.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

                So the constants allow for (a tiny amount of) human life. Why should that be evidence of fine tuning?

                Because if the values of the constants were even just slightly different, human life (or any kind of life, apparently) would not be possible.

                Why are those results less special than humans?

                Because they would result in a lifeless universe.

        • Posted April 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          Kevin, I think a theist could argue that the goal of the “designer” (aka God) might have been to make JUST one habitable planet, specially to produce humans. In fact I think that if the universe were so inhospitable for life that we actually were the only intelligent beings in the whole universe, this would make me rethink my negative conclusions about ID. Such an extremely improbable outcome would be very rare in any ensemble of multiverses. Given that our universe must be suitable for life (else we wouldn’t be here), it would be extremely unlikely that the conditions would be right on the edge of being completely unsuitable. Virtually all such universes would not be on the exact edge of the parameter space for life-suitable universes, but in the interior of that space.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Your problem, as is the problem of all of us, is that there are many senses of “finetuning”.

      1. The physics sense:

      The standard model of particles, and the cosmological constant, are each fine tuned (in the sense of balanced out) to some part of 100’s of orders of magnitude compared to the natural order. For example the cc is ~ 10^-120 instead of ~1 in, for the problem, natural units.

      This is only a problem if you think that physical parameters must be uniquely constrained, predicted, by physics. I.e. it is a “Theory Of Everything” natural sense, not the natural sense of inflation and other processes minimizing potentials.

      2. The religious sense:

      The “finetuning argument” of religion is that something that can be a posteriori likely, say by selection bias in multiverses (“anthropic principles” and other environmental selections), can be a posteriori improbable.

      The confuse the result, high likelihood, with the initial condition, which can be low probability. If life would be improbable, happen on 1 out of 1 million habitable planets, it would still happen a lot in our galaxy with at least 100 billion habitable Earth analogs.

      3. The selection bias sense:

      Being a posteriori likely by having variation and then bias from observers.

      What precludes parts of the observable universe from being “finetuned” is observed homogeneity. Otherwise all bets would be off and we should expect every nook and cranny of the near space be filled with life as you conclude.

      In fact, there was a funny cat vs dog paper on that the other day:

      Felinic principle and measurement of the Hubble parameter.

      “Felinic principle is based on a simple observation that of all possible Universes, intelligent life can develop only in a subset with physical laws that are sufficiently complex to support evolution of life.”

      “For example, while it is true, that dogs can be appear out of pure vacuum as result of zero-point quantum-mechanical fluctuations if one waits long enough, higher forms of life are exceedingly unlikely to do so.”

      “Felinic principle has been applied to the human species with some success (see e.g. [3-11]). In that context, the principle is referred to as an anthropic principle and its application is justified to a certain degree, because opening of a can of cat-food clearly shows some degree of psychomotor ability and dexterity1.”

      And it goes on to note that if you use likelihoods without benefit of observations and a standard cosmology, measurements of the Hubble parameter should vary in value over cosmological distances.

      “We acknowledge useful discussions with many civilized people. Donations of cat food can be sent to the correspondence address. Subjects not sending Fancy Feast Savory Salmon need not apply.”

      [A paper to my taste!]

  9. Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I wish people would stop talking about their “sixth sense”. Of course you have a sixth sense. You can sense the direction of gravity/acceleration using the balance organ in your middle ear.

    • js
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      We have more than six senses.
      This is one of them –
      Our brains can detect the positions of our limbs by measureing the flexing of muscles and tendons.
      These nerves can die leaving sufferers with no control over their limbs.
      They then have to relearn movement using sight as the feedback mechanism.
      I read that in one of Oliver Sacks books.
      They are a fascinating read although critics have accused him of profiting from his patients.

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

        Yes. You could subdivide many of them too.

        For example, the sense of touch includes contact, pain, and temperature at least.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:16 am | Permalink

        Proprioception.

        Atheletes’ outfits are sometimes deliberately tight-fitting to enhance this.

        /@

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      As far as I can tell (and I claim no expertise) the “5 senses” thing, as well as the four (sic) forms of taste, comes from Aristotle (!). So it isn’t so surprising that we know better.

  10. Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Club Schadenfreude and commented:
    Another quickie post until I get a chance to sit down and really respond.
    Dr. Coyne’s observations on an excellent destruction of “natural theology” aka the claim we can see some god (usually the Christian god though Christians often try to hide their god under an avalanche of vagueness) in reality. Please note the comments about solipsism and the baseless claims of Plantinga.

    Of course I’m pleased someone has made similar observations to mine. :)

  11. Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Jürgen Schmidhuber’s playful article does not appear to be religious at all, in fact he’s almost certainly an atheist (judging by some of the things he says). As far as I can see his main points are that, the fundamental specifications underlying a deterministic universe may be very simple and that when systems unwind deterministically, certain patterns appear more readily than other patterns.

    Many people have speculated that the universe may work somewhat like a giant deterministic computer program and studies of these systems know as cellular automata (e.g. Conway’s Life game is a simple example) are quite illuminating as to how complexity can evolve in systems that have very simple rules.

    So, far from providing evidence for a complex creator, this line of research is leading to insights in how complexity can emerge from simple random systems with simple rules.

  12. Posted April 30, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Excellent article!

    Now please pay this blog post a visit… he doesn’t quite get it

    http://bennasmith.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/evolution-and-loss-of-belief/#_ftn4

  13. Alex Shuffell
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I’m starting to like Theology. Once when we were at our most ignorant we started talking, communicating and sharing ideas and investigating. Everything was magical. Something like us (because we’re the best thing in the universe), but better, was doing it all, creating it all. Everything was magical, terrifying and beautiful. All the universes mysteries were testament to our chosen deities existence. Then we started explaining in more detail, theology didn’t like this, then experiments proved our explanations! The magical terrifying wonders of our universe became all the more beautiful because we could explain them. Then theology jumped on that, the scale of our universe grew, god got bigger and lazier, gravity was god’s work too. Life was explained, theology didn’t like this. Experiment once again made the magic beautiful through understanding, theologians adopted this as god’s work too. A few were a bit slow to understand, it takes them few centuries to catch up.

  14. Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Plantinga has been touting that for some time and must surely himself now realize why it’s nonsense. In an earlier post Jerry mentioned: https://sites.google.com/site/maartenboudry/teksten-1/plantinga, where Boudry does a particular good hatchet job on Plantinga’s views.

  15. Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Eagleman says his possibilism comes out of a disatisfaction with the theism-atheism dichotomy, as if there is too much focus on this one split, while all these other possibilities are out there. But that distinction is prominent because it is a real one. There are billions of people who think science is the best route to knowledge and that it shows no evidence of God, and that it actually allows us to do stuff; and there are billions that think they know stuff about some God. There aren’t so many people telling us that the multiverse demands that we kill apostates and gays, and so though it’s a possibility, it’s also a big “So what!” when it comes to morals and prescriptions and proscriptions.

    And Schmidhuber’s Computational Theology “is compatible with religions claiming that ‘all is one’ and ‘everything is connected to everything.’ ” Well, so is materialism compatible with ‘all is one (stuff)’ and ‘everything is connected to everything’. And, digital physics is related to computationalism but isn’t a theology.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I don’t think people think very hard about what “compatible” means.

      It’s a weasel word. Senseless.

      The universe is compatible with the idea that interdimensional monkeys shat the universe into existence.

      Doesn’t make it likely. Doesn’t make it probably. Doesn’t mean there’s a shred of evidence in its favor. Just “compatible”.

      It’s like the weasel word “support” in the nutraceutical ads. “Supports” heart health…what does that mean, exactly? Well, nothing.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        Indeed, logical compatibility is a *really* weak constraint. What matters would be nomological compatibility, which is of course not demonstrated (at best).

  16. Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    My take on possibilism is that certainly there are many possibilities. There is a possibility that the lottery ticket in my hand is a winner and will make me filthy rich. I can fantasize all day long about how I would spend the money, but it would be delusional to run out and buy a Lamborghini on the merit of such a possibility, and even the most religious Lamborghini salesman would never sell me one on the credit of tomorrows lottery ticket. I doubt Eagleman would lend me a dime on that credit either. Such is the intellectual inconsistency with possibilism.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Awesome find! (Yeah, I don’t have time to read the New Yorker, despite its classic cartoons.)

    Schmidhuber:

    begins with the premise that there “is a fastest, optimal, most efficient way of computing all logically possible universes, including ours—if ours is computable (no evidence against this).”

    A variant of “the most perfect being conceivable”, it is more computable to compute than not, therefore the most efficient computer must exist.*

    As usual, possibility of an event doesn’t mean it happened.

    Eagleman:

    Now think of the immense landscape of the points in between. Many of these points will contain stories that are crazy, silly, or merely wildly improbable. But in the absence of data, they can’t be ruled out of that space.

    As usual, possibility of an event doesn’t mean it happened.

    So yes, dogs of the same bark.

    ***************

    * It is well known that the observed computer science complexity classes builds on a most efficient computer embodiment, the Church-Turing thesis. And likewise it is well known that we all happy cats gotz it.

    According to Schmidhuber, we are the gods.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      It is well known that the observed computer science complexity classes builds on a most efficient computer embodiment, the Church-Turing thesis.

      Strictly speaking, this is not true. The Church-Turing thesis is not about efficient simulation: it is about whether simulation is possible at all. You are probably referring to the “Extended Church Turing thesis”, but that is much less set in stone. We already know at least one potential counterexample to it (the integer factoring problem, which has an “efficient” quantum algorithm, but no known “efficient” Turing machine algorithms).

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Some odds and end:

    Science cannot absolutely prove that there is no divine creator,

    Only in the same way we can’t absolutely prove there is gravity by its many observations and general relativity predicting it.

    – Is magic logically impossible? Not within logical rules. But they are then both disregarding reality and too feeble to constitute reality (as logic can’t even model arithmetic on its own, according to Gödel).

    – Is magic empirically impossible? Beyond reasonable doubt, observing the zero energy universe of WMAP and Planck.

    – Is magic logically impossible within empirical finds? Yes, it seems the only universes we know could give a physics are zero energy Friedmann universes.

    The final strategy of those seeking compatibility between religion and science is to retreat into something that is reminiscent of solipsism, the family of beliefs that allows me to entertain the unfalsifiable yet dubious notion that I might be the only person in the universe (with everyone else just a figment).

    Deutsch observed in his “The Fabric of Reality” that solipsists still, by their own terms, had to embody (map) an in principle cosmically large portion of “mind” as regular nature.

    His point was that realism is simpler, so solipsism doesn’t work empirically. But the point here would be that religion still hasn’t explained (predicted) the laws et cetera of nature.

  19. Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s not just fine-tuning that leads to the multiverse.

    The vast cosmic landscape, with 10xExp{500} possible vacuum states, is also a prediction of string theory.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      More interestingly today is that the recent Planck results, that constrain inflation to convex potentials, predicts a multiverse.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        Oops. I meant concave potentials. :-/

        And while it is helpful, it is actually the flatness ( increasing with decreasing degree of potential, the potential variation as seen in the plot here: http://trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.se/2013/04/the-universe-as-seen-by-planck-days.html ) that means an eternal type inflation. It is complicated, but some videos are now published for us armchair cosmologists on youtube.

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Point.

        So whichever way you cut it we have a multiverse.

        So is it one god per ‘verse? Or one god for the whole shebang.

        Scripture didn’t get around to that part.

  20. Sastra
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.

    Translation: “I’m just sayin’ …”

  21. Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    What’s funny about the fine-tuning argument is that it’s actually an argument for atheism. It’s much more likely that god (being all powerful) would use some other physical constants — any physical constants — to create the universe than the physical constants we see right now.

    It’s like arguing for god’s existence given that we’re on Earth which is the right distance from the sun. No, god could have put us on any planet that he wanted, only atheism (or a non-all powerful god) makes sense of us being on a planet within the Habitable Zone of our sun.

  22. Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    A slight but important nitpick regarding Marcus’s claim that

    outside of geometry, it is rare for scientists to literally prove anything

    As someone whose day job involves “literally” proving things, none of which have much to do with “geometry”, I find this claim rather strange. Why, even “geometry” is now more “algebraic” and “analytical” than “algebra” used to be in the “old days”.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      Well strictly speaking he might have said “outside of geometry and other a priori reasoning that follows from some set of assumed axioms”, but that would have been more ponderous.

      One might argue with the “rare” too, as strictly speaking scientists *never* prove anything: Even overwhelming evidence is not totally conclusive – you can’t look everywhere in the universe to check that a unicorn isn’t hiding in some nook or cranny somewhere.

      • Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        “Well strictly speaking he might have said “outside of geometry and other a priori reasoning that follows from some set of assumed axioms”, but that would have been more ponderous.”

        Well, in its correct formulation, it is just plain wrong, especially in current mathematics where “geometry” has long ceased to be the epitome of a formal axiomatic system. Correctness over brevity any day ).

  23. Mervyn P
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks to Paul Davies for raising his head above the parapet.
    What is science but the delving into the depths of creation. Will the truth set us free from our preconceived ideas. Probably not. Here goes anyway. This information is from modern revelations.
    “The natural world cannot exist without a spiritual base. These revelations now state that matter is a means to an end and is bound spirit. At the atomic level the electron has been given the capability of attraction and repulsion without which matter could not exist. At the sub atomic level it is stated that particles originate in the ether of space.”
    CERN experiments confirm what is stated regarding the speed with which these events occur. Also that there size does not vary that much. The reasoning of Lawrence Krauss is misguided and is based on the assumption that the ether does not exist because space originated with an imaginary ‘big bang’. Hence matter originated from nothing.
    The explanation of how the universe is structured is totally incompatible with present theories. In the natural world everything revolves. Electrons, planets and galaxies revolve. Galaxies, clusters of galaxies and clusters of clusters of galaxies revolve around suns of a higher order.
    Red shift does not take into account motion of a revolving nature.
    The revelations state that very distant galactical complexes revolve around a fixed central sun at near the speed of thought, far in excess of the speed of light.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Where is that bullshit quotation taken from?

      /@

    • Data Jack
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      There is no evidence whatsoever of a “spiritual base” for reality – and there is quite a bit of evidence that consciousness doesn’t use, or require, a “spiritual” component.
      Also, to say the “speed of thought” is faster than the “speed of light” is completely nonsensical. The speed of light is the speed that massless things can travel without resistance (in a vacuum).
      The speed of thought, by definition, cannot be nearly that fast.


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