There’s no such thing as bad publicity: Giberson disses my theology at HuffPo

I am really flattered to see that Uncle Karl Giberson has devoted an entire column on the HuffPo Religion page attempting to debunk me. I’m not quite as famous as Maru or Henri, but this will do.

Giberson is exercised by  a recent post in which I criticized an Oxford Catholic theologian’s attempt to show that, because of the prescient lucubrations of St. Thomas Aquinas, we now see that there is no conflict between evolution and science.  I criticized as well the Vatican’s attempt to harmonize science and faith by setting up a special foundation to “build a philosophical bridge between science and theology.” Well, you know that’s the Bridge to Nowhere. And as for the theologian, Wiliam Carroll, he made a claim that I thought fatuous:

“A proper understanding of creation, especially an understanding set forth by a thinker such as Thomas Aquinas, helps us to see that there is no conflict between evolutionary biology or any of the natural sciences and a fundamental understanding that all that ‘is’, is caused by God,” Professor William E. Carroll of Oxford University’s theology faculty told CNA [Catholic News Agency] Aug. 22.

In his HuffPo piece, “Science and religion talks remain controversial,” Giberson first compliments me for posting energetically (sadly, he uses the word “blog”) and for trying to keep up with modern theology, before he goes after me for being “uncharitable” in attacking both Aquinas and the Vatican’s attempt to marry science and faith. His beef? That I criticized the characterization of Aquinas as some kind of prophetic accommodationist:

Nevertheless, I think [Coyne’s] critiques of the Vatican project are slanted and unfair. For starters, Thomas Aquinas is not being “trotted out” to make some point, as though he were some obscure figure cherry-picked from a pantheon of options because his 13th century view of creation comports with contemporary views of evolution. Aquinas is, by most estimates, the most important Christian thinker since St. Paul, and his views on creation have informed all subsequent thinking on the topic by both Protestants and Catholics.

Who ever said he was “trotted out” as an obscure figure cherry-picked from a pantheon of options? I said he was trotted out because among all famous Catholic theologians, he is the one most cited by modern accommodationists as supporting their views: according to them, Aquinas said that it was okay to read scripture metaphorically.

The thing is, he didn’t.  First of all, Carroll is dead wrong—though Giberson doesn’t mention this—in claiming that there is no conflict between evolutionary biology and Catholicism.  Aquinas bought huge swaths of the Bible literally, including those bits that are diametrically opposed to evolution. Even Giberson knows this:

Like other thinkers from previous centuries, Aquinas certainly held beliefs that we can no longer embrace. Coyne mentions that Aquinas believed the earth was 6,000 years old, for example, and thought the events in Genesis, including the Eden story, really happened as described. “So let us hear no more,” he concludes, “about Aquinas showing that there’s no conflict between the Bible and science.”

And if you read Aquinas, he doesn’t say that the Bible can be read completely metaphorically. What he said was that the Bible can be read both literally and metaphorically, but when there was a conflict in the book of Genesis, and elsewhere, literalism takes precedence (see my earlier post for the supporting quotations).  So again, it’s a gross distortion to see Aquinas as the Great Accommodationist. Nevertheless, Giberson tries to save St. Thomas’s bacon:

What Coyne is missing here — because he opposes harmonizing science and religion — is the difference between beliefs that Aquinas shared with his century, embraced uncritically because they were not controversial, and Aquinas’s more original thinking in response to the challenges of his day.

Aquinas’s central insight — the one that is appropriately defended as his enduring claim and not just something that everyone accepted in his time — is that the foundation of the Christian doctrine in creation is the belief that God created and upholds everything, including the laws of nature. This remains relevant today because it lets us distinguish between God as the primary cause or source of the laws of nature, and the activity of the laws themselves.

Well, remember that Aquinas lived in the 13th century, and we really didn’t have many “laws of nature” then. Yes, Aquinas proposed a “natural law” for both objects and humans, but it’s not clear to me that this is the same thing as saying that the principles of physics and biology and chemistry all obeyed regularities imposed by God (remember, Aquinas lived well before Copernicus).

But even granted that, Aquinas also accepted many exceptions to the laws of nature, including the miracles of the Garden of Eden, the Resurrection of Christ, and the existence of a soul.  All of these violate at least the laws of nature known today.  And really, how does God “uphold everything”? Many modern theologians say that if the universe operates by known laws, it doesn’t need any damn upholding.  God made the laws, and then retired to put his feet up on a cloud and watch the show. Would atoms and stars fly apart if God isn’t busy holding them together?  If God disappeared, would the “laws” (actually, just regularities) vanish too? Giberson doesn’t tell us.

What Giberson is doing here is reverse-engineering modern accommodationism to say that it’s the same as that of Aquinas.  And to some extent, it is: plenty of modern theologians have a deistic view that is superficially similar to what Aquinas said: God started everything, created the regularities of nature, and then let the show go on by itself.  Unfortunately, Aquinas also accepted plenty of irregularities.

It’s a sign of how pathetic theology is, and how little it has moved on, that people like Aquinas are still cited as exemplars of how to reconcile science and religion. We didn’t even know much about science in his day, and the problem of reconciliation has become far worse: we now know about the Big Bang and evolution. Aquinas’s views are in direct conflict with those. Citing Aquinas as an accommodationist is like citing Archimedes in support of the modern laws of physics.

Still, Giberson pretends that there is no conflict, no “debate,” between science and religion:

Unfortunately, such dialog between science and religion will continue to be widely misconstrued as a “debate,” largely because Andrew Dickson White [author of History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896)] did such an effective job painting it with that brush. White’s influential polemic, one of the holy books of the New Atheists (you can download it for free at infidels.org) has been widely condemned for its irresponsible scholarship, but convenient mythologies can be hard to displace. I have just started teaching a course at Stonehill College titled “Does Science Disprove God?” and one of the primary goof the course will be to expose the poverty of White’s thesis.

Is Uncle Karl kidding here? Does he really think there is no conflict? Giberson just left an organization—BioLogos—that dealt with this “debate” on a daily basis.  The “dialog” between science and religion consists, in America, of many religious people rejecting stuff like evolution and global warming.  That’s no dialogue; it’s a refusal to listen. The real dialogue is a one-way street: science tells theology it’s wrong, and theology (as Giberson is doing here) reverse-engineers its philosophy to accommodate scientific facts. Theology has nothing—nothing—to contribute to science. Why are we supposed to listen to theologians, except to refute them?

In fact, at the end of Giberson’s piece, he admits that religion stops people’s ears:

The Vatican project, executive director Father Tomasz Trafny told the Catholic News Agency, raises the important question of “how to offer a coherent vision of society, culture and the human being to people who would like to understand where to put these dimensions — the spiritual and religious and the scientific.” At a time when religiously motivated concerns make it almost impossible to discuss the warming of our planet, the curriculum in our schools and even the reproduction of our species, we should embrace efforts at dialog, not assault them.

Well, the whole purpose of Giberson’s former organization, BioLogos, was to embrace dialogue with evangelical Christians with the aim of converting them to Darwinism.  That failed. In fact, the reverse seems to have happened—BioLogos is getting more and more evangelical, floating various theories about how Adam and Eve might have been real people.

Speaking of that, did I mention that the modern Catholic Church still takes a profoundly antiscientific view on at least two evolutionary issues: the uniqueness of humans in having a “soul,” which mysteriously appeared sometime in the hominin lineage, and the Church’s insistence that Adam and Eve were the real progenitors of all humanity, whom they afflicted with original sin? It looks like even Aquinas wasn’t so effective at dragging the Church toward modern science.

I close with a comment following Giberson’s piece by Bob Metcalfe, which pretty accurately sums up the state of the art: those scientists who do try to reconcile science and faith almost invariably turn out to be religious.  The rest of us don’t see the point.

It seems to be religious people and have this overwhelming need to reconcile religion and science. As an atheist I don’t find any need to do this at all. If religion and science conflict – science is probably correct, religion is probably wrong – end of story.

Except that I’d substitute “invariably” for “probably.”

And here’s Uncle Karl’s new book:


137 Comments

  1. Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Time will come when they will have to jump ship and join the atheist world. Why would a scientist of good repute try to reconcile science and theology?

  2. Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Why are we supposed to listen to theologians, except to refute them?

    -If they didn’t try to claim the supernatural exists, they could be listened to just for the fun of hearing what the logical consequences of the existence of gods would be. But, sadly, the theologians would never consign themselves to such a role.

  3. Michael Fisher
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Good post!

    Jerry, I don’t understand the distinction between “laws” & “regularities” can you explain/define please? See bold part here:-

    “And really, how does God “uphold everything”? Many modern theologians say that if the universe operates by known laws, it doesn’t need any damn upholding. God made the laws, and then retired to put his feet up on a cloud and watch the show. Would atoms and stars fly apart if God isn’t busy holding them together? If God disappeared, would the “laws” (actually, just regularities) vanish too? Giberson doesn’t tell us.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      What we call Physical Laws or Laws of Nature are merely statements of observed regularities. A physical law is not a rule that must be followed, it is something that has been observed to always happen in the same way with such fidelity that we are confident in relying on it always happening that way in the future, and having always happened that way in the past.

      • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        Or, better, the laws are the objective patterns in nature, whatever they may be. Law statements are our attempts to reconstruct these patterns in thought. The recent (2009) book by Marc Lange gets tied in knots because he thinks it useful to think of laws as sort of paralinguistic. I.e., relations of *entailment* are held to hold between them … On the other hand, Bunge and Armstrong (to pick two) know that this is a dangerous move and gets one into trouble.

        As for “sustaining”, this seems to be a common move these days – I’ve seen it from various catholic apologists from time to time. Absurd, since conservation laws and such have no known “expiry” attached to them.

    • andreschuiteman
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      If God disappeared, would the “laws” (actually, just regularities) vanish too?

      At least some of the “laws” are a bit more than just regularities, but are consequences of Noether’s Theorem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noether%27s_theorem).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      “Laws” is a name that is sometimes used for, or to describe, observed regularities.

      It was much more popular historically, as “natural philosophy” was in many ways a project to, or supported by, seeing gods in patterns and remarkable exceptions. And that is one reason, I suspect, that it is less popular today.

      And of course we have now results like Noether’s theorems or the landscape of string/inflation theories that starts to tell us why we see laws and what they are. Many fundamental laws are symmetries and broken symmetries, which follows from Noether’s work; some of those and other regularities are most likely observation bias on the landscape.

  4. david middle
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    “It’s a sign of how pathetic theology is…”
    Sub

  5. joe piecuch
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    “…because of the prescient lucubrations of St. Thomas Aquinas, we now see that there is no conflict between evolution and science.”

    ??

    • joe piecuch
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      i questioned what appears to be a wording error (was it meant to be ‘religion and science’?) because i am otherwise finding that sentence confusing, both in and out of the context of your two articles.

  6. dunstar (@eightyc)
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I really don’t get how accommodationists are so oblivious to the notion that once you smuggle in God to do some creating, you just undermine the explanatory power of evolution.

    lolz. I just don’t get why they don’t see this. Do they even know what an explanation actually entails?

    • Tulse
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Once you smuggle a non-deist god in, you undermine all of science, since you can’t be sure that any observation you make isn’t a miracle.

      • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        Even a deist god is a problem if it is supposed to entail something nonscientific like a beginning of the universe. But, yes, theistic deities make the problem even worse.

  7. David Moffat
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    And what did Aquinas know about evolution or any science? How can Aquinas have any bearing on those subjects?

  8. darrelle
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    “What Coyne is missing here — because he opposes harmonizing science and religion — . . .”

    Does anybody else here agree with that interpretation of Jerry’s position? It seems very clear to me that Jerry’s position is that, because of their very nature, science and religion fundamentally conflict with each other. In other words he doesn’t oppose harmonizing the two, he thinks it is impossible to harmonize the two.

    Does Karl Giberson misunderstand Jerry, is he being disingenuous, or am I way off base here?

    • Tim
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      A charitable interpretation of Uncle Karl is that he meant that JC opposes attempts to harmonize science and religion – for just the reason you gave. That is, is because they can’t be harmonized, one inevitably compromises science in the attempt.

    • Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Seems needlessly confrontational to me. A common tactic for people who know they’re on shaky ground but insist on declaring that they’re right.

      And what on earth does “Hints of God in our fine-tuned world” mean?

      • Achrachno
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        “And what on earth does “Hints of God in our fine-tuned world” mean?”

        = “I have no good evidence, but I can wave my arms as well as anyone.”

      • darrelle
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        I think it is a profound way of saying to believers that there are still a few gaps in our scientifically derived understanding of nature that you might be able to squeeze your god into and still sound reasonable. If you talk really fast, or something.

        • Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          So God is getting smaller all the time. At this rate he’ll soon be lunch for one of those brain-eating amoebas.

          • darrelle
            Posted September 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            How ironic would that be? The last believer of a brain eating dogma loses its marbles to a brain eating amoeba, resulting in the demise of god.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        I agree. To say he ‘opposes’ is a dismissal of his arguments, as if to say “he’s just contrary and has a negative opinion”, rather than saying “he argues against” or “makes the case that”, which at least grant some respect and legitimacy even if it withholds support.

        And Jerry was kind enough to add a ref to Karl’s book. Karl ought to thank him for that.

      • Notagod
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        See Victor J. Stenger’s book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us

        A number of authors have noted that if some physical parameters were slightly changed, the universe could no longer support life, as we know it……

        In this in-depth, lucid discussion of this fascinating and controversial topic, physicist Victor J. Stenger looks at the same evidence and comes to the opposite conclusion. He states at the outset that as a physicist he will go wherever the data takes him, even if it leads him to God. But after many years of research in particle physics and thinking about its implications, he finds that the observations of science and our naked senses not only show no evidence for God, they provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist.

        • Notagod
          Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

          See Torbjörn Larsson, OM’s replies under comment 13 for better information.

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:02 am | Permalink

      I’ve always understood our host as more or less agreeing with my viewpoint: that they cannot be harmonized, but you’re of course welcome to try, but when you do, be prepared to be mercilessly criticized, particularly if your arguments are as bad as they usually are in this area.

  9. Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Off topic, but FYI the esteemed Dr. Shapiro intends to write a polemical soon about the “secular priesthood” of which you are supposedly a member.

    (typo alert: link to the Giberson post says “piece” instead of “peace”)

    And I can thank them for drawing my attention to your site, now I can read more informed views on evolution than are on published the Huffington Post.

    • Achrachno
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Welcome.

  10. Roo
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking in the past, and for a long time I didn’t see the problem with it. Every believer, at least those in a free society, tends to discount portions of scripture that they disagree with in some way. They were meant symbolically, they were meant for the times, it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and so on. Of course there are always those hot button issues like abortion, contraception, and homosexuality where religion does seem to have undue influence, but outside of those, I think religious doctrines often serve as a Rorschach test of sorts. People see what they want to see in them, and then feel perfectly justified (again, also guilty at one point,) in discounting the concerns of secular activists. They are, after all, talking about someone else’s religion, which is too bad, but “I’ve” already erased everything I personally consider negative from my version of religion, thanks.

    At some seriously watered down, wishy washy point, you can reach a version of religion that’s harmless, by most standards, and I suppose striving for that (in trying to bridge science and religion, I mean,) is not an entirely ignoble goal. It’s better than nothing, at least. Even so, since becoming an atheist, I’ve started to see this as a subpar method for decision making at best, akin to us all reading the works of Doestovsky and creating interpretations of how life should be lived based on that. Obviously, the result will be a projection of our own moral intuitions, simply confused and complicated by trying to intertwine War and Peace. There are surely clearer and more helpful modes of discourse for us to use.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      “At some seriously watered down, wishy washy point, you can reach a version of religion that’s harmless, by most standards, and I suppose striving for that (in trying to bridge science and religion, I mean,) is not an entirely ignoble goal.”

      I do understand this line of reasoning, and it may indeed be pragmatically useful in reducing religion’s negative impacts on our society, though I am certainly not sure of that. I wouldn’t be motivated to oppose such a hypothetically benign version of religion.

      But at some point doesn’t fostering that kind of religion become dishonest? In real life it sure does seem that way to me, at several levels.

      Accommodationists often claim that most religious believers have already achieved a benign religion. Since that is so obviously not the case, at what point can we claim dishonesty as opposed to willful ignorance? And even more egregiously unethical, what about those accommodationists that claim they do not believe, but provide believers with justifications for their beliefs while telling us that the believers need religion to deal with their existence, so shut up and leave them alone?

      Many Sophisticated Theologians™ actively provide validation for believers in general, and yet when questioned directly by a prominent atheist describe a religious belief that includes none of the central “facts” that define typical religious belief, and which those general believers would not recognize as their own. That is dishonest.

      Trying to get people to superficially accept a distorted version of some of the findings of science, and as an incentive reassuring them that their religious views are perfectly reasonable and respectable, is disrespectful and, I think in many cases, dishonest. I think it is much more ethical to just openly disagree with believers on religious matters, and oppose them when they attempt to use political power to impose there religious beliefs on society.

      • Roo
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        You make some great points, and yes, I agree with the above when it comes to nonbelievers. I suppose when it comes to believers, though, I still go back and forth. I still see it as a step up overall. To give a hypothetical parallel example, say there was a strident group out there promoting unequal rights for homosexuals, and a small faction in that group started to speak out and say that while they disagreed with homosexuality, they thought everyone should be treated with kindness and respect. I wouldn’t agree with their basic premise against homosexuality, but I would still be encouraged to see a bit of progress towards fairness and better treatment. I might be slow to discourage that particular sentiment within the group, despite disagreeing overall. On the other side, as you said:

        “Many Sophisticated Theologians™ actively provide validation for believers in general, and yet when questioned directly by a prominent atheist describe a religious belief that includes none of the central “facts” that define typical religious belief, and which those general believers would not recognize as their own. That is dishonest.”

        Maybe it is just putting lipstick and a bow on a topic that would be better looked at with piercing honesty, in order to cut past all the justifications more quickly and get on with it. I don’t know. Love the Sophisticated Theologians trademark thing people use here, by the way, where did that come from? I’m totally going to steal that!

        • darrelle
          Posted September 1, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

          Regarding your hypothetical, I agree. I definitely would never try and discourage anyone from believing that treating others decently is the right thing to do.

          I am not sure when or where the trademark bit of snark started, but it has been around for at least a couple of years. Applying the ™ symbol to various religion related labels (i.e. True Christian™) has been around for a bit longer. I think it was probably over at Pharyngula that I saw it for the first time, but I would be surprised if that is where it originated.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      ” … akin to us all reading the works of Doestovsky and creating interpretations of how life should be lived based on that. Obviously, the result will be a projection of our own moral intuitions, simply confused and complicated by trying to intertwine War and Peace … “

      I think you may have intertwined Dostoyevsky with Tolstoy in your analogy –which is itself probably analogous to what believers do when they confuse separate books of the bible.

      Otherwise, +1 on the points you make.

    • saguhh00
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      War and Peace was written by Leo Tolstoy

  11. Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    “…the most important Christian thinker…”

    It always bothers me when theologians/religious leaders are referred to as “thinkers.” If they’re receiving divine revelation, then they’re not really thinking. If they’re not receiving revelation, then how do we know their “thinking” accurately represents reality?

    It seems to me to I advert entry give the game away. There should be no need for theological “thinking” if god is really out there, doling out revelation and inspiration.

    I see a similar problem with pedophile priests. If they are truly called of god, why the fuck would god call such disturbed, evil people to positions of authority?

    If god is real, religion should work, 100%.

    Phrases like “xian thinker” and “theological work” sound to me like “we have to make this stuff up ourselves because the source from which we should be getting it isn’t really out there.”

    • Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      “I advert entry” = inadvertently

      Fuck autocorrect.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Yep. Fork autocratic.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 2, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

        You were breezing through the Turing test, musical beef, until up jumped “I advert entry.”

  12. Desnes Diev
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Theology shares a big similarity with (other) pseudo-sciences like parapsychology: practicers are sure that the subject of their discipline (God and psi, respectively) exists even if this have never been proved.

    One difference between the two is that parapsychologists do not accept the results of their experiments, whereas theologists simply do not test anything. (After all, they have no lab.: http://todayinsci.com/W/Wood_Robert/WoodRobert-Quotations.htm)).

    Desnes Diev

  13. Rob
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Fine tuned? How many 9s in the percent of the universe that isn’t habitable? Heck, how many 9s in the portion of this planet that isn’t habitable?

    Wasn’t there another book (Stenger?) that showed that fine tuning wasn’t tenable, that there were additional tunings that could’ve been made?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Oh yes, Giberson is throwing out his physics esteem with that one.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      I forgot: “GOD – The failed hypothesis”, Stenger.

      Stenger review the area for similar work, and then notes that 4 parameters are essential, and when you covary them you can get ~ 50 % habitable universes in a range of ten orders of magnitude around the present value (his works).

      He also describes how many “finetunings” are sleight-of-hand abuse of units. (“if he had been one part in 10^16 of a light year shorter (that is, one meter shorter), Michel Jordan would not have been the worlds greatest basketball player”, a Manson quote.)

      There is IIRC also an independent article in Scientific American where they discuss similar work.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Do you have the reference to the Sci. Am. article? I’d appreciate it.

        jac

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 1, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

          I believe it was this article by Jenkins & Perez, Looking for Life in the Multiverse, 2009:

          “These findings suggest that our universe may not be as “finely tuned” for the emergence of life as previously thought.”

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 2, 2012 at 4:12 am | Permalink

          After finding the article without paywall, I can see that it is a presentation of weakless universes and how life can exist there. It is the same same in spirit as Stenger’s work, but not the article I seem to remember.

          Since I can’t find that article, I now believe that if it exists at all it may have been from the 90’s, when the landscape took off, too early for a web presence.

          For now at least, the linked article is independent confirmation of Stenger’s idea. I am sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

      • Gary W
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Stenger review the area for similar work, and then notes that 4 parameters are essential, and when you covary them you can get ~ 50 % habitable universes in a range of ten orders of magnitude around the present value (his works).

        I think you’re misstating Stenger. He doesn’t say that “4 parameters are essential.” He says that four parameters govern the physical properties of matter. That doesn’t mean the only feature of a universe that is “essential” for life is the physical properties of its matter (what about energy, for example). And Stenger says only that most of the universes in his simulation probably allow for stars that last long enough to synthesize heavy elements. That doesn’t mean that any of those universes is necessarily “habitable.” As far as we can tell, life, and especially animal life, depends on a lot more than simply the availability of heavy elements.

        Also, ten orders of magnitude might still be “fine-tuning.” What are the results if the parameters are varied by a hundred or a thousand orders of magnitude? Ten orders may be just a tiny subset of the space of possible values.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

          – Correct, I meant that 4 parameters were essential for the problem, or in Stenger’s word “needed to specify the broad features of the universe” (p148).

          – As for matter = life, it is a common assumption in anthropic theory, it is the simplest possible in many cases and thus far it delivers reasonable predictions. So I don’t fault Stenger in using that as measure.

          He does ensure that enough stars have lifetimes exceeding 1 billion years, enough to establish life on Earth.

          – In physics finetuning is how much you must adjust parameters to match observations. In some cases that is as much as the observation deviates from naturalness, i.e. ~ 1 in normalized units. The most known case is the cosmological constant that is ~ 120 order of magnitude less than the natural case.

          But what you are discussing (and Stenger too) is sensitivity to change. Another way to state the cc observation is that it is not sensitive to finetuning. Physicists were prepared for 100s of oom larger value!

          In practice of science or engineering, if you can adjust a parameter but 1-2 oom, it is starting to be too sensitive to be realistic or useful. For example, if Earth had ~ 5 times less water, we wouldn’t have much of oceans. If it had ~ 5 times more water, we wouldn’t have much of land. It is the largest finetuning I know of for life as we know it (having land-life).

          So 10 oom is a lot of room.

          The “a tiny subset of the space of possible values” doesn’t make sense in an anthropic multiverse. That subset will mean an infinite of habitable worlds.* This touches the so called measurement problem of eternal inflation, but it is a large subject.

          – I would live to discuss astrobiology, but this comment is too long already. Let me just note that the speed with which life was established on Earth predicts that there was no deterministic difficulty in the attempts of chemical evolution or their rate or both.

          —————-
          * If Susskind et al is correct, we already *know* that the “dominant vacuum”, the likeliest vacuum of eternal inflation, is not livable. The habitable universes are a small subset of universes that are on the pathway of the vaccums moving towards a fractal attractor of that dominant vacuum, the universes that are a few steps away from (mostly) decaying to the dominant vacuum.

          • Gary W
            Posted September 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

            In physics finetuning is how much you must adjust parameters to match observations … So 10 oom is a lot of room.

            The “fine-tuning” argument is about probability. If ten orders of magnitude is only a tiny subset of the space of possible values, then it may be very unlikely that the observed value would fall within those ten orders of magnitude by chance, even though ten orders of magnitude is a vast number. What matters is the fraction, not the absolute number. According to Sean Carroll, one example of this comes from cosmological inflation. Inflation occurs in only “a negligibly small fraction of cosmological histories.”

            As for matter = life, it is a common assumption in anthropic theory, it is the simplest possible in many cases and thus far it delivers reasonable predictions. So I don’t fault Stenger in using that as measure.

            I don’t understand this argument at all. Why is the assumption “matter = life” justified? In the paper I read, Stenger doesn’t make that assumption. He says only that long stellar lifetime (long enough to synthesize heavy elements) is *one* of the requirements for life.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

          “That subset will mean an infinite of habitable worlds” – That subset will mean an infinite set of habitable universes.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:14 am | Permalink

          As far as we can tell, life, and especially animal life, depends on a lot more than simply the availability of heavy elements.

          To get into the astrobiology part of this, since anthropic theory on the landscape of parameters makes reasonable predictions when constraining matter = observers, how can we understand this?

          There are two main questionable areas here. (Or three, if you also invoke problems with evolving language capable intelligence.)

          1. As I noted earlier, the observation of early life on Earth can be taken to predict that there is no deterministic difficulty on similar terrestrials. In effects, chemical evolution of CHNOPS will lead to cellular life.

          But then we have to ask if there is something similar in chemical versatility as carbon chemistry in other parts of the landscape. Apparently so, see Jenkins and Perez article on weakless carbon life.

          2. Prokaryotes can result in simple multicellular life, but to get to observers of complex multicellulars we need energetic cells (Lane’s energy theory on eukaryotes).

          This can evolve as satellite energy plants. In our case this happened by endosymbiosis, where the symbionts gave up most of their already simple genome to the nucleus.

          Endosymbiosis is not all that rare, and bacteria-bacteria endosymbiosis has been observed. So why did the crucial endosymbiosis happen only once, or a few times if you count chloroplasts as other, though inferior, satellite energy factories?

          Since we have no remaining lineages of amitochondriate eukaryotes, except possibly parasitically simplified Megaviruses which has remaining nuclear genes but no mitochondrial genes, it likely happened early on after domain diversification. That is again a prediction of no deterministic difficulty.

          Maybe there was an ecological lock in effect. If Megaviruses are amitochondriate eukaryote lineages, they would test the idea that competition drove those who weren’t parasites extinct. We see endosymbiosis happening, yet no new eukaryote analogs evolve.

          Such a lock in may be a common phenomena. It looks similar to how some RNA viruses may be the surviving lineages of RNA cells that didn’t evolve DNA synthesis, if that is what happened. We see chemical evolution happening (say, in hydrothermal vents), yet no new RNA cells evolve.

          I don’t particularly like these type of air castle, loosely if at all constrained story tellings. But they are useful when it comes to demonstrating that there are more possible pathways than dreamt of in a single hypothesis.

          If you ask me today, I would say that the main problem for observers is how to get an oxygenated atmosphere.

          The water finetuning problem was probably licked earlier this year, since modeling of the protoplanetary disk ice line got updated with the latest result and predicts the same water content on the inner part of a protoplanetary disk. This has now also been tested by finds of the same initial water content in Earth, Moon and Mars mantle. So it seems this is roughly the water content to expect in the habitable zone of many systems.

          However, whole genome results and fossils both indicate, at least to me, that domain diversification happened as a result of oxygenation, not as a cause. That means earlier photosynthesizers weren’t oxygenating. Then it may be that rare effects, such as a global glaciation making ice available for increased UV photolysis, must increase the free oxygen content until a runaway situation occurs.

          But I doubt oxygenated atmospheres will be as rare as the presumed uniqueness of mitochondria is seen as.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

          Now I am mostly procrastinating, but I also got an idea in the context.

          – Maybe our Moon hampered our evolutionary pathway to an oxygenated, domain diversified biosphere.

          It is believed that Mars more chaotic orbital cycles, as it lacks a somewhat stabilizing Moon, resulted in periods of equatorial ices and melts, which can have resulted in the major parts of the sediments Curiosity sees in Gale crater (as water sedimented aeolian dust).

          It could be, and maybe people already have looked at this, it is a rarer and less strong chaotic tipping (max 15 deg vs max 40 deg, IIRC) that caused the pre-oxygenation glaciations on Earth. (One or two presumed ones, IIRC.)

          So maybe abiotic oxygenation isn’t as rare as I first thought, but Earth is the unfortunate case of a late bloomer.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

          Bad idea, the first global glaciation was decisively correlated with plate tectonics.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      How many 9s in the percent of the universe that isn’t habitable

      The universe is fine-tuned to produce a vacuum at 3K. Everything else is a rounding error.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

        I would say that cooling is part of the process. The universe has cooled ever since it left inflation, and it will cool a lot more.

        If you say that it is finetuned to 3 K at this epoch of cosmic coincidence, when the dark energy starts to dominate, I think it could be a reasonable case of finetuning. A different cc would have a different temperature, I would think.

    • Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Pick a random location on the planet and drop a naked human at that spot, and the odds overwhelmingly favor that person’s painful demise in short order. Most likely, it’ll be the middle of the ocean. But, even if the person is deposited on land, that land will be in the middle of nowhere, and the person has a good chance of dying of exposure and starvation, maybe of thirst, before finding civilization. Even if dropped in or near civilization, a naked stranger in the middle of a strange culture far from home, one where nobody speaks any familiar language, is in for a very rough ride.

      But that’s just the surface of the Earth. If you instead put the person not on the surface of the Earth, but several feet (or more) above or below the surface, and the already-pathetic chances of survival plummet. It’s four thousand feet to the center of the Earth, and all but the last few feet of water or inches of (loose) soil will be your death warrant. Even a fall of ten feet can be fatal, and the atmosphere extends a hundred miles or so above your head.

      And, again, that’s just the Earth. It’s a quarter million miles to the Moon, every one of those miles lethal, and you’ll die just as fast unprotected on the surface of the Moon as in space. We don’t even know if it’s possible to build a self-sustaining lunar colony…it’d need an industrial manufacturing base at least on a par as our own, and we’re having a hard enough time sustaining ours here with ready access to the entire Earth’s mineral and biological resources.

      After the Earth, Mars is next on the hospitality list. But, remember that demonstration your high school physics teacher did with the ringing bell in the vacuum jar? When you couldn’t hear the bell any more…well, that’s about as thick as Mars’s atmosphere. And that’s the best place we know of for humans off the surface of the Earth.

      The Moon is a quarter million miles away, but the Sun is a hundred million miles, every hundred million miles as lethally empty as the last.

      Pluto is 40 times farther from the Sun than the Earth, but even that’s nothing. Imagine you’re standing in the center of a scale model of the Solar System, and the Earth is a mile away (instead of a hundred million miles away). To keep your model to scale, the nearest star would have to be on the Moon. Capella would be where Pluto is.

      It’s about four light years to the nearest star, but it’s a hundred thousand light years to the other side of the galaxy. And, again, that’s virtually entirely pure vacuum, with a few stars peppered here and there every several light years.

      The nearest spiral galaxy, Andromeda, is two and a half million light years away. Not only is it as empty as the Milky Way, the distance between the two is even emptier still. Not that that makes a difference — again, remember that even the second-best place we know about, the surface of Mars, is enough to kill you much, much quicker than you’ll die in an airliner that loses cabin pressure.

      And so it goes, for billions upon billions of light years, in all directions, all empty.

      Indeed, if we start with the big picture…it’s nothing. All of everything that’s not nothing is an incomprehensibly meaningless oversight, a rounding error so small that no human can fathom just how small a fraction of the universe is something rather than nothing.

      But let’s forget all the nothing and just concentrate on the something that’s left over…and we discover that three quarters of it is dark energy, a quarter of it is dark energy, and only a few percent is baryonic matter. 95% of everything that is is stuff that isn’t even vaguely hypothetically relevant to everyday human life.

      And what of that remaining 5%? That afterthought after we’ve distilled the afterthought out of the nothingness?

      It’s all stars and black holes.

      That which isn’t stars and black holes is a tiny fraction of a percent.

      And that tiny fraction of a percent? It’s all gas giants. As much as the stars dwarf the planets, the gas giants dwarf the rocky planets.

      And those rocky planets? We can be very confident that even a slimmer percentage of those even hypothetically could sustain life as we know it — the rest are too hot, too cold, too big, too small, and so on.

      And, to come full circle, it would again only be the surfaces of those planets, and only small portions of those surfaces, that are hospitable to human-like life.

      So, please. Don’t be insulting.

      You are not the center of the universe. You’re a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of an empty universe. And any notion that the universe was tailor-made for you, that it’s “just right,” that its sole purpose is to comfort you…any such notion would be hysterical if it weren’t so pathetic.

      Except, of course, that it’s not even an echo in the void.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Achrachno
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        “It’s four thousand feet to the center of the Earth”

        Units typo: 4k miles is what you meant.

      • abrotherhoodofman
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        I think somebody has been reading David Deutsch

        😉

      • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

        I’m reminded of when my father (a chemist) built for me a model of the solar system out of balls and such that were around the house. He had to explain to me that Alpha Centauri (which I’d read about) was so very far away we’d not even be able to dream of putting it to scale. It was quite humbling. Even to get Pluto and the sun in was only temporarily possible – we had to move the tiny grain of sand (so small as to allow the sun to be to scale within a certain factor or something) to the park down the street or something. I’d have to run the numbers again to see, but it is very different from seeing it “deliberately wrong” in a book because the page is too small. Something every child should see, I think.

      • Gary W
        Posted September 2, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        And any notion that the universe was tailor-made for you, that it’s “just right,” that its sole purpose is to comfort you…any such notion would be hysterical if it weren’t so pathetic.

        No one’s arguing that the universe was tailor-made to comfort humans. The argument is that in the set of all possible universes, the subset that would allow life to exist (or, at least, anything remotely resembling life-as-we-know-it) seems to be vanishingly small.

        • Tulse
          Posted September 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          That’s disingenuous, since the only reason theists argue for fine-tuning is that it keeps humans special. No theist would argue for fine tuning if the universe had only produced single-celled organisms (despite the fact that such organisms may make up over half the biomass of this planet). The argument isn’t about fine-tuning for “life”, or even “life as we know it”, it’s about fine-tuning for “us”. Any claims otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

          • Gary W
            Posted September 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            I’m not a theist, and I don’t really care what motivates theists to argue for fine-tuning. A number of prominent atheist scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Sean Carroll have also raised the issue of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life.

            • Tulse
              Posted September 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

              The difference is “apparent” fine-tuning.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 3, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

                The point is that the appearance of fine-tuning needs an explanation. You can’t just wave it away because some people use it to argue for God.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 4, 2012 at 4:21 am | Permalink

                It’s only needs an explanation if you think that humans need an explanation, since the whole fine-tuning “problem” is one of “why did the universe produce us?”. Note that no one asks why the universe is “fine-tuned” to produce uranium, or fine-tuned to produce black holes, or fine-tuned to produce cold vacuum, or fine-tuned to produce dark matter, all of which may be just as improbable and sensitive to specific values of universal constants.

                The “problem” of fine-tuning is only a problem if you think the only thing in need of explanation is humans, which is indeed a rather religious point of view. It is a “problem” solely because of a narrow, hubristic, self-centred viewpoint that sees humans as the whole point of the universe.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 4, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

                It’s only needs an explanation if you think that humans need an explanation, since the whole fine-tuning “problem” is one of “why did the universe produce us?”.

                No, it needs an explanation because it appears that a habitable universe is extremely unlikely to have appeared by chance.

                An analogy would be a lottery. It’s extremely unlikely that a particular player would select the winning lottery numbers by chance. So if there is a winner (a habitable universe), then that fact needs an explanation, such as that the lottery was rigged (God “fine-tuned” the universe), or that the winner is just one of a very large number of players (a multiverse hypothesis).

              • Tulse
                Posted September 4, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

                it needs an explanation because it appears that a habitable universe is extremely unlikely to have appeared by chance

                It’s extremely unlikely that a universe that produces beryllium would have appeared by chance, but very few people think that is significant. It’s extremely unlikely that a universe made 95% of non-baryonic matter would appear by chance, but so what? It’s extremely unlikely to get a universe with chocolate pudding, but does anyone suggest we need a special explanation for that? Heck, forget producing life, as it is even more unlikely that the universe would have produced me, but I don’t go around touting the Tulse-opic Principle and declare that I must be the reason for creation.

                Almost everything is “unlikely”. The category of “unlikely things in this particular universe” is near-infinite. So why only focus on “habitability”, unless it is the pure parochial/religious interest of humans?

              • Gary W
                Posted September 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                So why only focus on “habitability”,

                Because it appears to be very unlikely that a habitable universe would arise by chance. But a habitable universe did arise. So we need to explain that outcome. Just as we would need to explain why, out of all the millions of possible sets of lottery numbers a lottery player could choose, he somehow manages to choose the winning set of numbers. He is very unlikely to just stumble upon the winning set of numbers by chance. The fact that he is also very unlikely to pick any other particular set of numbers is irrelevant to this point.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

                Because it appears to be very unlikely that a habitable universe would arise by chance.

                You’re just repeating yourself, almost verbatim.

                It’s very unlikely that any particular universe would appear by chance, just as it is very unlikely for any particular lottery number to come up. So? Why does “habitability” need an explanation but “has tantalum” doesn’t, even though the latter is also “unlikely”?

                Again, you’ve offered no reason why we should view “habitability” as the important criterion this universe is fine-tuned for, rather than, say, “create black holes” or “produce paper clips”. The only reason people think that habitability is relevant is because it is relevant to humans. But supernovas may be just as sensitive to physical variables. So is the universe really fine-tuned for supernovas, and we’re just the lucky byproduct? How would you tell that it is life specifically that the universe is fine-tuned for?

                It is only if you view the entire vast amazing universe through the eyes of a mud-bound parochialist that somehow “life” is the central feature of the infinite cosmos.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                It’s very unlikely that any particular universe would appear by chance, just as it is very unlikely for any particular lottery number to come up. So? Why does “habitability” need an explanation but “has tantalum” doesn’t, even though the latter is also “unlikely”?

                As I keep telling you, because habitability is what needs to be explained, not any other property.

                Suppose there is a lottery with a single player. Only one set of lottery numbers out of a hundred million possible sets is the winning set. Yet the player somehow manages to pick the winning set, even though this is incredibly unlikely to happen by chance (1 in 100 million).

                You’re claiming that we wouldn’t need to explain this amazingly unlikely outcome, on the grounds that any other particular set of numbers is just as unlikely to be picked by chance as the winning set.

              • joe piecuch
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                but there was no ‘picking’ involved. you’ve got it backwards. we are here because the circumstances allowed for life to happen as it did; had things been a little different, more or less different life might have been the consequence, or no life at all. but trying to attribute motive is anthropomorphising; habitability is a consequence, not an intent.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

                habitability is what needs to be explained, not any other property

                Why? Why is unlikelihood of habitability so profoundly important, but the unlikelihood of the production of samarium isn’t?

                Perhaps you are misunderstanding my point, which is that there are an infinite number of unlikely things about this universe, and no doubt an infinite number that are actually more unlikely (by whatever metric you like) than the existence of life. So why is it “habitability” that is so amazing and unexpected?

                You’re claiming that we wouldn’t need to explain this amazingly unlikely outcome, on the grounds that any other particular set of numbers is just as unlikely to be picked by chance as the winning set.

                No, I’m saying that you’re focused on the unlikelihood of the lottery win and ignoring even more unlikely things about that person (like the person having their exact sequence of nucleotides in their chromosomes, or containing exactly that many atoms of carbon-13). If you look hard enough, there are an infinity of things that are unlikely in a particular person’s life, and in this particular universe. Why is only one of those unlikely things important?

                Here’s an analogy. Imagine any particular universe as a shuffled deck of cards. The likelihood of being dealt a royal flush of any suit in 5-card stud poker is one in 649,739. So when someone is dealt a royal flush, you cry “It’s amazing! How unlikely that is! There must be some sort of fix in! This deck must be specially rigged to produce a royal flush!”. But the probability of getting any specific hand of 5 cards is one in 2,598,960, four times less likely than a royal flush of an unspecified suit. So the guy at the table who’s been dealt a 2 of hearts, a 6 and 7 of clubs, a 9 of diamonds, and a queen of spades had a hand that is actually more unlikely than getting a royal flush of indeterminate suit. But you don’t argue that the deck is actually rigged to produce that hand, even though it is less expected. You’re so focussed on the royal flush that you don’t see that other hands are even more unlikely — it’s just that those hands are irrelevant to poker.

                Similarly, there are likely an infinity of things in this universe that are even more sensitive to the universe’s fundamental qualities than “habitability”. But you’re focused on that issue, and that issue alone, and I’d argue that such focus is purely the result of parochialism and human hubris. “Habitability” is not a uniquely unlikely aspect of this universe, and to claim so betrays either a willing prejudice or a very narrow view of existence.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

                Why? Why is unlikelihood of habitability so profoundly important, but the unlikelihood of the production of samarium isn’t?

                Because our very existence depends on the universe being habitable, not on “the production of samarium.” Isn’t this difference obvious to you? Your question is like asking a lottery player why it’s so important to pick the winning set of numbers rather than a losing set.

                Perhaps you are misunderstanding my point, which is that there are an infinite number of unlikely things about this universe, and no doubt an infinite number that are actually more unlikely (by whatever metric you like) than the existence of life.

                No, I understand what you’re saying perfectly well. You just don’t seem to understand that it’s completely irrelevant to the issue. It’s like making the “point” that there are umpteen million losing sets of lottery numbers, each of which is just as unlikely to be picked by chance as the winning set. As if that means that it’s not important to pick the winning numbers.

                If a lottery has a winner when the odds that there will be a winner are only 1 in 100 million, that outcome needs an explanation. It very, very strongly suggests that there is some other explanation for the outcome than luck. Likewise, if the universe is habitable when the odds of it being habitable seem to be astronomically small, that outcome also needs an explanation. It very, very strongly suggests that there is some other explanation for the outcome than luck. One possible explanation is a multiverse hypothesis. Another possible explanation is God.

                I don’t know why you can’t see this. It seems obvious to me. It also seems to be obvious to Victor Stenger, Sean Carroll, Steven Weinberg, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists, all of whom recognize the need to provide some kind of explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life.

              • Tulse
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

                Because our very existence depends on the universe being habitable, not on “the production of samarium.”

                And why exactly is that relevant to your argument about the probability of an outcome? You keep saying that we need to explain habitability because it is unlikely, as if it is only its unlikelihood that requires explanation. But when I point out that a vast number of other aspects of the universe are even more unlikely, you then retreat to the habitability being personally important to us as humans, which is completely irrelevant to your statistical argument, and exactly what I mean when I say you are just being parochial in focusing on habitability.

                No, I understand what you’re saying perfectly well. You just don’t seem to understand that it’s completely irrelevant to the issue. It’s like making the “point” that there are umpteen million losing sets of lottery numbers, each of which is just as unlikely to be picked by chance as the winning set. As if that means that it’s not important to pick the winning numbers.

                You don’t understand what I’m saying, because I’m not arguing about possible universes, of which this is the only winner. Instead, I’m arguing that you’re only concentrating on one lottery, habitability, when this particular universe is the winner of an infinite number of different lotteries, and a multitude of those are harder to “win” than habitability. You’re missing my point because you don’t seem to see that we can talk about fine-tuning for things other than habitability, and by any reasonable probabilistic criteria that you choose, there will be aspects of this very universe that are less likely than habitability, and thus by your argument should be even better candidates for fine-tuning, and in even greater need of explanation.

                if the universe is habitable when the odds of it being habitable seem to be astronomically small, that outcome also needs an explanation.

                And if the universe produces flerovium when the odds of it producing flerovium seem to be astronomically small, doesn’t that outcome also need an explanation? Or is your argument not just statistical, but also reliant on the notion of people as special, in other words, a parochial bias?

              • Gary W
                Posted September 5, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

                And why exactly is that relevant to your argument about the probability of an outcome?

                I just told you: because we wouldn’t even be here to ask the question if this particular extremely improbable outcome had not occurred.

                You don’t understand what I’m saying, because I’m not arguing about possible universes, of which this is the only winner.

                Yes you are. You’re confusing the importance of an outcome with the probability of an outcome. You keep insisting that we shouldn’t care about why the universe is habitable any more than we care about any other equally improbable property of the universe, as if our existence is no more important to us than “the production of samarium” or somesuch. Again, it’s like claiming that we shouldn’t care about how someone managed to win the lottery when the odds of there being a winner are astronomically low.

                Tell us, if you seriously believe that the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life doesn’t need an explanation, why do you think all these famous scientist-atheists like Stenger and Dawkins and Weinberg think it *does* need an explanation? Why don’t they just dismiss the question as irrelevant or unimportant, like you’re doing?

              • Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

                @ Gary

                “why do you think all these famous scientist-atheists like Stenger and Dawkins and Weinberg think it *does* need an explanation?”

                Do they? Stenger doesn’t, iirc. He simply explains why fine-tuning isn’t a good argument because the universe isn’t really finely tuned.

                I don’t know where Dawkins or Weinberg or any of those other scientists you mentioned above say that they think the “specialness” (the appearance of fine-tuning or any other criterion) of the universe needs an explanation.

                Some people might need such an explanation, but that’s not quite the same thing.

                At least one eminent scientist (and regrettably, I cannot remember who, and Google is unhelpful for the nonce) doesn’t think so. In debate with William Lane Craig he made a comment along the lines of, “I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

                As far back as I can remember, my view has been, it doesn’t matter how unlikely it is that this universe is habitable for life of any kind or for humankind in particular; it must be so else we wouldn’t be here to contemplate how unlikely it is that this universe is habitable for life of any kind or for humankind in particular.

                Why do you think that it does need an explanation?

                /@

              • Tulse
                Posted September 6, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

                I just told you: because we wouldn’t even be here to ask the question if this particular extremely improbable outcome had not occurred. […] You’re confusing the importance of an outcome with the probability of an outcome.

                No, you’re confusing the important of an outcome with its role in logically justifying your argument. In fact, your argument is nearly circular:

                You: “Life is unexpected, therefore it needs a special explanation.”

                Me: “But why life and not other more unexpected things?”

                You: “Because life is special.”

                The specialness or importance of life to us has no impact on the validity or truth of your actual argument for fine-tuning, which is solely about the allegedly improbable features of habitability. You’re like a Chicago White Sox fan arguing that your team is objectively the best ever in baseball, and when confronted by all the objective historical stats of the Yankees, say “but I live in Chicago, so clearly the White Sox are the best!”

                If you can explain how life’s personal relevance to us affects the actual argument you’re making, I’m happy to reconsider. But at this point I don’t see how the one connects to the other. Either life is special solely because it is improbable (in which case other improbable things are also special), or life’s improbability is important because life is inherently special (in which case the improbability is irrelevant to making the case it is special).

                why do you think all these famous scientist-atheists like Stenger and Dawkins and Weinberg think it *does* need an explanation?

                I dunno — care to provide their actual claims, rather than just argue from authority?

              • Gary W
                Posted September 8, 2012 at 1:14 am | Permalink

                Do they? Stenger doesn’t, iirc. He simply explains why fine-tuning isn’t a good argument because the universe isn’t really finely tuned.

                No, Stenger merely argues that some of the apparent fine-tuning may not be as fine as it appears (the constants governing the physical properties of matter), although I think his argument is flawed for reasons I have explained elsewhere. But even Stenger agrees that some aspects of the universe appear to be fine-tuned for life, and appeals to a multiverse hypothesis to account for them.

                I don’t know where Dawkins or Weinberg or any of those other scientists you mentioned above say that they think the “specialness” (the appearance of fine-tuning or any other criterion) of the universe needs an explanation.

                Dawkins explicitly appeals to multiverses to explain fine-tuning. Weinberg’s position isn’t entirely clear. He seems to agree that the appearance of fine-tuning is real, but thinks it will be explained by some as-yet-undiscovered scientific law or principle. Both men acknowledge the need to offer some kind of explanation for it.

                Why do you think that it does need an explanation?

                I’ve explained at length why I think so.

              • Gary W
                Posted September 8, 2012 at 1:30 am | Permalink

                In fact, your argument is nearly circular

                No, you’re misstating the argument yet again, and hence rebutting a strawman. Life is special in part because it’s important to us, because it is necessary to allow the question to be asked at all, not merely because it is unlikely. Just as the winning lottery numbers are special because they have important consequences for the lottery players, not simply because they’re unlikely. I still don’t know why you can’t grasp this simple point.

                The specialness or importance of life to us has no impact on the validity or truth of your actual argument for fine-tuning, which is solely about the allegedly improbable features of habitability

                No, it’s not *solely* about probability. It’s also about the nature of the property. I have explained this repeatedly, but you’re still attributing to me a silly argument I have not made.

                I dunno

                Then perhaps you should think further on the question. It seems rather more likely that you’re misunderstanding the issue than that Dawkins, Stenger, Weinberg, Carroll, Hawking, etc. are.

              • Posted September 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

                @ Gary

                At length =/= compelling.

                /@

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      “Fine tuned? How many 9s in the percent of the universe that isn’t habitable?”

      Even indulging every favorable assumption as to how frequently earthlike planets exist in the orbit of sun-like stars, if the universe were Yankee Stadium, its habitable portion would be roughly equivalent to a shred of hot-dog wrapper under a right-field bleacher seat. Not sure how many 9s that would make in the inhabitable percentage, but believing that the “purpose” of the universe is to give rise to life (let alone intelligent life), is akin to believing that the purpose of Yankee Stadium is to house that shred of a hot-dog wrapper blowing through the bleachers between games of a double-header.

  14. DrDroid
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Giberson seems like a guy with more than a few neurons to rub together. He must surely recognize the vacuity of his arguments sometimes, so why does he do it? Ahh, I see that he is a prof at Stonehill College, a Catholic institution, and there’s nothing like a paycheck to motivate high-sounding apologetics.

    Thanks for taking the time to monitor and swat down this kind of religious foolishness. I suppose it may seem like pissing in the wind sometimes, but I do hope and believe that it is having an effect on contemporary thought.

    • Kingasaurus
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      My mother-in-law lives across the street from Stonehill. I was convinced the best thing that happened there was the annual Irish Music Festival, and considering Karl’s unsupportable opinions, I’m not really changing my mind about that. LOL

    • shedinator
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Actually, Giberson only recently joined the faculty of Stonehill. He was a long time professor at Eastern Nazarene College, where he was regularly criticized by the schools religious constituency for his commitment to legit science, faith, and the harmony of the two. He left there recently and, while the reasons were not made public, suspicions are that it was his strong advocacy for accepting the conclusions of science, and refusing to criticize great scientists such as Darwin, that led to his eventual separation from the school, so I don’t think he’s the type to softpedal for the sake of a job. He’s also got several books out that have sold pretty well, so I don’t think he’s very desperate for a paycheck. Just sayin’

  15. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Bob Metcalfe’s paragraph says it all, really.

    Theists constantly complain that we atheists are angry and aggressive towards them and that we hate their god. The truth of the matter is that we are more bemused than aggressive, as theists try to reconcile their beliefs with science and arrive at ludicrous theories because science has to agree with the Babble. It’s their theories we laugh at and their insistence that such risible theories are the indisputable truth and that established, peer reviewed and tested scientific theories are nothing more than just theories that we get angry with. It’s their insistence that their theories be taught in schools as scientific fact that makes our blood boil.

    It’s impossible for us to be angry with their God, because we don’t believe or think that he/she/it or any other god exists, and you can’t get angry at anything that doesn’t exist.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      The “you hate god(!)” accusation really cracks me up. No, I don’t hate your god. I hate that so many people are so ignorant that they believe in something so ridiculous and so inhibiting as god. And I hate that so many god believers spray their god shit willfully, indiscriminately, and some of it gets on me.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      How about “I would hate your God if it existed” 😉

  16. Tim
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with Giberson about one thing: convenient mythologies can be hard to displace. It is a shame he is making a career in protecting a the bigget mythology of them all.

    • Tim
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      …biggest…

      • Achrachno
        Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        “bigget mythology” works too. 🙂

  17. MNb
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    “the most important Christian thinker since St. Paul”
    If that were true the worse for christianity.
    But it isn’t.
    Augustinus of Hippo didn’t do that much philosophy, but what he did is excellent. His thoughts on time are even relevant for modern physics.
    There is also Johannes Scotus Eriugena.
    The only reason Giberson calls Thomas that important is that he is the RCC’s favourite

    “God made the laws.”
    Which only shows that said theologians don’t know the difference between a legal law (which is a prescription backed by violence) and a law of science (which is a description of reality).

    • Achrachno
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Well, they may think “God” made everything with the existing regularities in place. I suppose they have wiggle room there. The trouble is that they can’t demonstrate that this is true or that their “God” even exists.

  18. andreschuiteman
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Citing Aquinas as an accommodationist is like citing Archimedes in support of the modern laws of physics.

    I understand what you mean, but this is somewhat unfair to Archimedes, who was one of the greatest geniuses of all time, unlike Aquinas, who just made stuff up.

  19. MNb
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    “like citing Archimedes in support of the modern laws of physics.”
    I am offended. The hypotheses as formulated by the great Syracusian dó support the modern laws of physics. They are by no means contradictory or refuted. They are as true now as they were back then. That’s something you can nót say of Thomas.

    “The real dialogue is a one-way street”
    Now you comfort me again. Exactly this is why we can dismiss Thomas, but not Archimedes.
    Question: why would we try to refute them? It’s not my problem. Even if theologians succeed at accommodating their belief with science, fine for them, I’ll still remain an atheist.

    Btw a book with the subtitle “… our Fine-Tuned World” is one I am nót going to read. It makes clear that the author will use teleology as soon as it suits him. And teleology sucks. Major balls.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Whoops, I made a bad analogy. Yes, Archimedes was right, unlike theologians. It’s just that physics has moved on since. I should have pointed out that theology HASN’T!

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    It is an interesting relationship Coyne and Giberson has going there. I have lost track on the ons and offs, but apparently “uncle” is on again.

    Giberson’s academic status is what brings me to this low water mark:

    Hints of God in our Fine-Tuned world

    Giberson should know better than to claim our world is finetuned as a physicist, and he should know better than to claim that there is one unique god as a believer.

    As a matter of fact, our world is *not* finetuned in the sense that there isn’t order of magnitude room for co-varying parameters resulting in sufficient conditions for life. (See Stenger et al.) And as a matter of fact, current theoretical physics leaves *no* room for gods as a result of theoretical finetunings.

    The best search for a fundamental theory of physics, and a useful tool in other areas, is string physics. “Virtually all of the work, which attempts to make a connection between string theory and the real, non-supersymmetric, world, centers on the concept of the string landscape.” “the global view of eternal inflation has
    dominated most of the literature on the subject” [on phenomenology on the landscape].

    This is what a leading critic of the landscape, Tom Banks, note. I found it interesting in the context, and it was a much stronger description than I have dared voice (not being my area).

    In this state, I would argue ground state of inflation cosmology, all possible worlds where life can exist are explored. It doesn’t matter for the outcome if Giberson’s myth gods put their fingers in. There is no gap left!

    And if you believe that the initial conditions are necessary and thereby open a gap for gods, it is now an open question AFAIK. (See Susskind et al flurry of paper this year.) Certainly the fabled requirement for low initial entropy to get inflation started has left the premises and is parked on the lot in the latest achievements.

    This is why I say that religion is the process to try to replace facts with belief, while science is the process to try to replace belief with facts. And why there is no “accommodation” to be found between the two.

    Sorry Giberson, if you still see myths in your pattern search after several millenniums of failures (because different people see different myths), this is now not a scientifically feasible option. Sure, inflation can be wrong and its basic physics can be an ineligible option in actuality. But it is unlikely, and increasingly so.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Fun fact:

      Alan Stern, the science lead on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, accidentally opened up for the dethroning of Pluto as planet by discovering as large Kuiper Belt objects. He seems a bit peeved by the result, and humorously adopted the tag “Pluto Killer” and I believe a T-shirt with that print.

      If inflation survives the upcoming Planck mission 1st data delivery, and eternal inflation with, the path is open for a similar dethroning of theories of a single universe and a decisive initial condition. Maybe we should prepare a T-shirt with “God Killer” for Susskind.

  21. Douglas E
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Minor point – peace not piece. But Peace Talks between believers and non-believers are largely fruitless IMO. BioLogos exists to facilitate conversations among xians, a la Falk’s “Coming To Peace With Science.” Uncle Karl et al are wasting their time responding to JAC et al. The preponderant direction of flow is from belief to non-belief particularly as folks encounter evolutionary, geologic and cosmic sciences. Collins’/BioLogos intention is to ebb that flow, but as JAC has noted, BioLogos has taken a sharp turn toward conservative evangelical leaders rather than the searching high school and college students.

  22. Christian
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    What I really don’t get is how these sophisticated theologians can look at our universe, especially it’s size and age and conclude that the deity who supposedly created it all, is anything like the gods described in ancient scripture (e.g. Bible, Quran, etc.).

    It is as if they can’t really grasp the huge numbers and subconsciously still live in a universe that’s not larger than our planet (flat disk with a dome) or at most our solar system.

    In such a small universe these gods would be at least somewhat plausible but a god of this immense universe that shows this kind of interest in a bunch of naked bipedal mammals on a tiny speck of dust is beyond preposterous.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Humans are not capable of understanding the vastness of the Universe, so god didn’t bother mentioning it.

      Also, you just don’t understand how special humans are.

  23. matunos
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    “Would atoms and stars fly apart if God isn’t busy holding them together?”

    I guess so, because that’s exactly what they’re doing.

  24. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    There’s really only one reason for Karl to diss your philosophy.

    To get publicity, any publicity for his newest book. It’s possible to become rich if you have the right book and generate the right kind of publicity for it. No, really.

    Every god ever described has been a human made lie. Therefore theology is the study of lies and the liars that tell them. You can make a living doing that, strange as it might at first seem.

  25. MadScientist
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    “… it’s not clear to me that this is the same thing as saying that the principles of physics and biology and chemistry all obeyed regularities imposed by God …”

    Unfortunately it *is* the same thing. God put the sun, moon, stars, and planets into the sky and made them move through the heavens because he is so marvelous and almighty. The idea of the placement and movement of the heavenly bodies of course was taken from Plato, but the catholic church insisted that those objects must have been put their by their own god. God controlled everything else as well – whether your crops succeeded or failed, whether a person was afflicted with a deadly disease and so on. All order was ultimately imposed by god (as we see again in Rene Descartes’ philosophy many years later).

    I doubt Aquinas believed in a 6000 year old earth though (did he write any such thing?) I’m pretty sure the 6000 years story was the work of the bishop Ussher many centuries after Aquinas. Aquinas would have believed in a young earth though because the bible was believed to be some sort of historical document; he would certainly never have guessed billions of years.

    The bible as Metaphor, the bible as Allegory – it’s all old stuff. Even Augustine the Hippo saw such problems and of course any contradictions could be resolved by turning at least one contradicting account into a metaphor or allegory.

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      Aquinas, like most Christians (or even those raised within “Christendom”) until quite recently almost certainly would have if he’d thought about it, since (as I mentioned the other day) everyone took all the “history” in the OT at face value, and that gives you a flood at such and such a time (within the margins of error introduced by contradictions, of course) and hence A&E before that and so on.

      When I read some of A.’s work I was struck that it read so clearly like a genius desperately trying to rationalize his faith. What a shame, what a waste!

  26. The whole truth
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “Aquinas is, by most estimates, the most important Christian thinker since St. Paul, and his views on creation have informed all subsequent thinking on the topic by both Protestants and Catholics.”

    “by most estimates”

    ROFLMAO

    “most important Christian thinker”

    ROFLMAO

    “informed”

    ROFLMAO

    “all subsequent thinking on the topic by both Protestants and Catholics”

    ROFLMAO

    So, besides being one of the most ridiculous arguments I’ve ever read, it’s an appeal to the alleged authority of a long dead guy who believed in fairy tales, and it’s confirmation that protestants and catholics still believe in fairy tales because the long dead guy did.

    Religious zealots sure do like to exhume and trot out corpses and mire themselves in antiquated fairy tale garbage.

  27. MadScientist
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    “… science is probably correct, religion is probably wrong …”

    Personally I’d change one ‘b’ to ‘v’ in each occurrence of ‘probably’.

  28. Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Aquinas, as I (seem to)recall somewhere said that reason cannot prove that the world had a beginning in time, causes might extend forever back in time – but, as a matter of faith, it did have a beginning, a temporal 1st cause. Be that as it may, there is another version of a first cause that maybe some theologs (Aquinas too?)espouse, i.e. a contemporary 1st cause. That is, there must be some external-to-the-world/universe cause that “holds the world (and all its natural laws etc.) in existence,” right now, and without which there would be nothing. But could this external cause (maybe an Aristotle-like unmoved mover) itself have a cause, and that cause have a cause . . ? And a theolog might claim that THIS sort of contemporary cause can’t be infinite, there must be a first cause that right now causes the universe to keep on existing, even though there might have been no temporal first cause.

    Anyone else ever heard of such?

    • zendruid1
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      The realm whence came the Black Monolith…?

      My notion is that any true conciliation of science and religion will only happen when the storytellers ,i.e. theologians, have mastered the necessary sciences and can [re]build their stories on a rational foundation. Fat chance.

      Aquinas fell down by giving too much authority to scripture. Had he truly possessed the authority which prosperity granted him, he would have followed a less dogmatic and more rational approach. Meh.

      Clarke’s fictional oeuvre gives fine examples of how good science can merge with “good” metaphysics and mysticism. But then, Clarke was an exceptional storyteller.

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      Yes, see above. The “sustaining god” thing is absurd, but very popular.

  29. raven
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    To say that the universe is fine tuned by the gods for us is pretty silly.

    1. The vast majority of the universe is vacuum at 3K.

    2. There are billions of galaxies with billions of stars none of which we can reach.

    3. Even the earth isn’t all that well designed. 3/4 of it is water, salt water that we can’t make much use of. The poles are too cold, and a lot of it is desert.

    4. The universe is young and projected to settle down due to Dark Energy as a cold, dark, empty place where nothing much happens for all eternity.

    It makes just as much sense to claim that the god XYPRST created the universe for his favorite creatures. Giant squids swimming in methane seas 50 million light years from here. God keeps close track of his beloved squids, especially their sex lives, which consists of exchanging spermatophore packets.

    We are just mold growing in the back of XYPRST’s refrigerator.

  30. Marjorie Spencer
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    The thing is that every Jesuit I know believes that Aquinas gave them license to treat biblical pronouncement as metaphoric. This says to me that a large class of highly educated Catholics don’t really want to be Christians and are in the religion for other reasons, some of which might even be noble. Being Jesuit is kind of a wink-wink situation where we know what the masses can’t be told because they wouldn’t understand. It’s _informed_ hypocrisy that believes by disbelieving.

  31. Posted September 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry, you done good as usual. “Hints of God in the Universe”? Hints are not close to proof. Who in their right mind would live their life and base their beliefs on mere hints of something. Science offer much more than hints about the natural universe, It offers overwhelming proof from many disciplines.

  32. Caroline52
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to be OT here, but JAC mentions in his post that he doesn’t like it when people call his WEIT site a blog, and he’s said this in the past as well. Can anyone explain to me why he objects to calling his site a blog, what makes it different from a blog, and what he prefers to call it instead? Thanks for any information.

    • docbill1351
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Jerry tried “WEIT Can Haz Cheeseburger” but ran into copyright infringement issues.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted September 1, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      May I call your headscarf a doo-rag?

  33. kelskye
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    “It seems to be religious people and have this overwhelming need to reconcile religion and science. As an atheist I don’t find any need to do this at all. If religion and science conflict – science is probably correct, religion is probably wrong – end of story.”
    Yes!

    It’s not my place, as an atheist, to reconcile the beliefs for theists. Apart from anything else, it would be somewhat hubristic to think that I know better than them about what it is they believe. This is why I think Michael Ruse’s attempt to reconcile “Darwinism” with Christianity is a doomed enterprise; Ruse has to deal with the fact that what he’s saying Christianity is (and needs to be) might not gel well with believers.

    Like Julian Baggini’s recent effort that seemed to draw the ire of most theologians (and the approval of Karen Armstrong), the effort of reconciliation is going to depend on the kind of “thing” that people think God is. That’s personal, and mostly incoherent, so I don’t expect anyone to actually succeed in a way that captures a conception of God that’s agreeable and an assessment of science that’s agreeable.

  34. kelskye
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    ”It seems to be religious people and have this overwhelming need to reconcile religion and science. As an atheist I don’t find any need to do this at all. If religion and science conflict – science is probably correct, religion is probably wrong – end of story.”
    Yes!

    It’s not my place, as an atheist, to reconcile the beliefs for theists. Apart from anything else, it would be somewhat hubristic to think that I know better than them about what it is they believe. This is why I think Michael Ruse’s attempt to reconcile ”Darwinism” with Christianity is a doomed enterprise; Ruse has to deal with the fact that what he’s saying Christianity is (and needs to be) might not gel well with believers.

    Like Julian Baggini’s recent effort that seemed to draw the ire of most theologians (and the approval of Karen Armstrong), the effort of reconciliation is going to depend on the kind of ”thing” that people think God is. That’s personal, and mostly incoherent, so I don’t expect anyone to actually succeed in a way that captures a conception of God that’s agreeable and an assessment of science that’s agreeable.

  35. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Contrary to what JAC/WEIT says Aquinas DID have a modern concept of laws of nature (although he was mistaken about them- he embraced Aristotle’s Physics). They would fall under the purview of what Aquinas would call “eternal law”. He, of course, knew that miracles violated them, but he figured that’s what God can do.

    However JAC/WEIT is correct in that Aquinas played down metaphorical readings of the Bible in contrast to early Christian theologians.

    If Giberson is really saying that he’s appealing mainly to the methods and style of Aquinas rather than to the specific substance of Aquinas then his exercise is less disingenuous.

    The main problem I have between bridges between science and religion is that they are one-way or at least in the other direction the toll charged (re suspension critical thinking) is exorbitantly high. It’s not so much a bridge to nowhere as a bridge to a castle in the air made of cardboard.

    But if some forms of accomodationism get people !*started*! thinking critically to the point where they embrace genuine science while adhering to some vestiges of what remains of their religion, I would not quarrel with that.

    Contrary to my usual practice, I have not read the previous posts. Normally, I read all of them before posting myself, but I just can’t today. Sorry.

    • Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      On the contrary, if he really thinks of them as something which can or (worse) has to be sustained, that’s not modern at all. Moreover, there are several modern viewpoints, so “the modern” doesn’t work if only for that reason. (I for one have a mixture of Bunge and Armstrong’s views, but there are others.)

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      the toll charged (re suspension critical thinking) is exorbitantly high. It’s not so much a bridge to nowhere as a bridge to a castle in the air made of cardboard.

      So, it’s a suspension bridge.

      I’ll get my coat.

  36. Stephen P
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    White’s influential polemic, one of the holy books of the New Atheists … has been widely condemned for its irresponsible scholarship, but convenient mythologies can be hard to displace.

    I suppose Giberson would say that his use of “holy” was tongue-in-cheek, but even so he clearly wants to give the impression that this book is one of the main underpinnings of atheism.

    But in the fifteen years since I started following the atheism-religion discussion, I’ve seen this book mentioned by atheists half a dozen times at most. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that Giberson is busy creating his own convenient mythologies.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      Never heard of the book or the author. Guess that makes me a heathen.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 2, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        White’s book was a major classic when it was published in the 19th century, a seminal book in the discussion of conflict between science and religion.

        However, since it’s publication, there has been a growing recognition of the datedness of some of his observations.

        • darrelle
          Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

          It is a standard feature of religious believers that they look to the past, not to the future. They regard their ancient holy writings with veneration because they are from deep in the past, and it never crosses there mind that anyone could feel differently.

          • Posted September 2, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            Actually, we start with the old book behavior being driven by unconscious and reactive brain processes — well beyond verbal and conscious choice and explanation.

            There is research that some brains simply do not have adequate circuitry to handle novel experiences well and retain homeostasis.

            We an speculate that the fetisizing of old books and written documents, the Bible, Constitutions, is a way for these brain to cope with uncertainty and the anxiety it produces.

            It is likely soothing to make these old writings a totem and it seems the idea that magical solutions are written somewhere, idealized by one’s in-group, is all that’s needed, since no one ever reads these documents.

            If your brain can’t manage uncertainity and brain needs with internal processes — the brain reaches out to external things and social/verbal behaviors for soothing.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 2, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        However, while secular historians have recognized its inaccuracies, Christian apologists occasionally pounce on it to show how biased humanists allegedly are.

        • MNb
          Posted September 2, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          Conveniently forgetting that many other humanists criticized it.

  37. papalinton
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    I wish Karl would just go one step further and become the fine scientist he is capable of becoming once he sloughs off the old skin of theism.

    • DrDroid
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      You beat me to it. He does have some degrees in science, albeit from Eastern Nazarene College and hence slathered in a giant helping of god-sauce no doubt. I think he sees the futility of religion’s arguments with science and is probably one step away from contacting the wing of the Clergy Project that supports lapsed religious scientists. And with his scientific credentials he wouldn’t have to go back to school for a real education like the clergy.

  38. Posted September 2, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    The fetishizing of old books.

  39. Stonyground
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    “White’s influential polemic, one of the holy books of the New Atheists.”

    What? I am aware of this book, I downloaded it in the nineties, printed it off and put it in a folder. I read some of it but gave up part way through because I found it to be excruciatingly boring. How much projecting is involved in referring to it as a holy book. Religions have holy books, atheists don’t, it really is that simple.

    A much more approachable book on the history of the science and religion conflict is ‘Time traveling with science and the saints’ by George A Erickson.

    • joe piecuch
      Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      i can’t comment on mr. erickson’s book, not having read it, but i was amused by a couple of less than complimentary reviews on amazon; this quote is from one of them:

      “Mr. Erickson is no historian…I admit I am being hard on him because I am a professional; however, we atheists make the claim that we are more intellectual and honest with ourselves than theists are. Therefore, our scholarship must be impeccable.”

      the other negative review, again from a self-described atheist, similarly takes him to task. can you comment on the veracity of mr. erickson’s account?

  40. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted September 2, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Why not attempt to harmonize the Aztec Religion and science? Or Norse religon?

    You cannot possibly harmonize Christian religion with science. The main religious player, the Supernatural Being, is mythological.

    One might just as well attempt to “harmonize” Santa’s Christmas Night journeys with modern aerodynamics….”Why won’t you try, Jerry??”

  41. Another Matt
    Posted September 3, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Two minor points:

    And really, how does God “uphold everything”? Many modern theologians say that if the universe operates by known laws, it doesn’t need any damn upholding. God made the laws, and then retired to put his feet up on a cloud and watch the show. Would atoms and stars fly apart if God isn’t busy holding them together? If God disappeared, would the “laws” (actually, just regularities) vanish too?

    If I understand Aquinas right, atoms and laws would simply cease to exist if god were not actively sustaining them at all times. I think all four of Aristotle’s causes need a first cause in Thomist ontology, so without the hierarchy of material and formal causes ending in Deus, the whole instantaneous ontological chain would collapse and nothing would continue to exist.

    Newton did much to debunk this kind of thinking. And obviously modern cosmology “has no need of this hypothesis.”

    Speaking of that, did I mention that the modern Catholic Church still takes a profoundly antiscientific view on at least two evolutionary issues: the uniqueness of humans in having a “soul,” which mysteriously appeared sometime in the hominin lineage, and the Church’s insistence that Adam and Eve were the real progenitors of all humanity, whom they afflicted with original sin? It looks like even Aquinas wasn’t so effective at dragging the Church toward modern science.

    This actually works out logically for the church, given certain fun extra provisos. Feser had a series on this on his blog, where he argued that Adam and Eve were just common ancestors (not necessary most recent common ancestors) who happened both to have been gifted with souls. The rest of the existing “humans” would not have souls, and therefore be incapable of rational thought, but they’d still be genetically fine for mating with — and magically each member in the resulting lineage would get souls.

    The resulting discussion surrounded whether human-zombie sexual congress would be considered bestiality, and whether it could be possible that there are still extant unensouled zomboids running around who don’t have Adam&Eve in their ancestry.

    This is an example of how far theologians are willing to go to make their beliefs work out logically with modern science, and it would be funny if they didn’t actually believe it.

  42. Posted September 3, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that “natural law” as understood by Aquinas had nothing to do with laws of nature as we think of them today. Aquinas was talking about laws of governance and human behavior. He was trying to say that morality is absolute and that our feelings of right and wrong had a basis outside of ourselves. This argument is still used by some theologians as an argument for the existence of God, but in a twisted way. Watch William Craig for an example of this. HE argues that without God morality would be relative, but that since morality is objective, there must be God. Anyhow, using Aquinas’ ideas of natural law to argue that religion is somehow scientific is really cramming a square peg in a round hole. As you point out, Aquinas had no idea what science was. Am I off base here?

    • Posted September 4, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      No, concur. RCC still uses “natural law” in this sense in its edicts &c.

      /@

  43. lisa
    Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    If Thomas Aquinas and the philosophers and what passed as scientist in his time believed that the Earth was 6,000 years old in the 13th century and the Young Earthers think it is 6,000 years old now, is this the same sort of thing as people who have their 39th birthday over and over?


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