Extreme Divine Command Theory

This post is related to my previous one on morality.  The following is a comment by a theist on another blog that I saw a while back (here’s the link to the comment):

THE God, who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, is Himself the standard by which ALL things are measured. That means when he commands Joshua to kill every man, women, child and beast in Canaan that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. It means that when he causes Israel to eat their own children as reported in Jeremiah 19 that that is PERFECTLY holy righteous, just and good. It means that if He has decreed all of the horrific human misery, suffering and death in all of history that that is PERFECTLY holy righteous, just and good. It means that if He has decreed the existence of billions of human beings for the expressed purpose of casting them into the lake of fire in judgement for sin that He also decreed that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. It means that if He has purposed that everything we consider to be pointless evil, immorally unjust and unthinkably unfair shall be so ordered by divine mechanisms known only to Himself, to His own glory for reasons sufficient unto Himself that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good.

 

It also means that His not caring one bit how you (or I) feel about that is most assuredly PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. I sleep like a baby knowing that every time I hear about some gut wrenching blood curdling act of barbaric depravity that my Father God has from eternity seen fit to assign purpose to it that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. IF IT WERE MY OWN FAMILY? You ask? Most ESPECIALLY then would I fall to my knees and worship Him knowing that evil has NOT triumphed, but that a PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just, good AND LOVING God who calls me brother, bride and son though I myself belong in that lake of fire will receive honor and glory by my praising His name while the world loses it’s collective mind. EveryTHING and everyONE belongs to HIM. His exaltation and glory IS the purpose for all that is. No more PERFECTLY purpose could ever exist.

I don’t think any of my theist readers hold this viewpoint, but obviously there are people out there who do.  How many I’m not sure, but I wonder if it is higher than we would expect in some parts of the world.

I’d like to hear what my readers think of the above quoted comment.  Please offer your thoughts no matter what your worldview is.

“Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review

WhyIsThereAnything

About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title.  In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable).  I thought it was great for several reasons:

  1. It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
  2. It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
  3. There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
  4. It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist.  A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.

I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation.  If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.

So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?

Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory.  These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.  Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”

I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible.  Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.

The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes.  The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views).  You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:

So I’m Still Skeptical

Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist.  Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses.  There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea.  I see this as a valid stance to take.  But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists:  “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.”  Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory.  And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option.  If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option.  The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number.  Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable.  “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved.  However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.

But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.

Judgment Day Concept is Bizarre

judgmentdayA lot of evangelical Christians believe in some version of Judgment day and to me it is a very bizarre concept.  Granted, some versions are more bizarre than others, but let me explain further:

I mean here we are on earth with so many varying religious beliefs, and where even some people who claim to be Christian admit that God’s existence is not very obvious.  Prayer feels like a one way conversation, scientific studies trying to detect effects from gods or a God fall short of detecting anything.  We are unable to experience this God with any of our senses.

Even those that are Christian seem to be so divided in beliefs.  Sure there is some commonality but some of the differences are actually pretty important, like what requirements there are for salvation.

The most common responses from Christians to explain this hidden God are that God must allow us free will, or that God has reasons which we wouldn’t understand for being so hidden.  There are others but they all just seem like ways to explain away what may be the most likely explanation – that gods either do not exist or are not interested in communicating with us.

And then comes the belief in Judgment day.  We are told that after we die we will stand before God and at that point it will all be very clear that he exists and at that point it will be too late.  So much for free will at that point, because it will be very clear that he exists then.  And even though there was much reason to doubt here on earth, we aren’t given any chances when it’s clear he exists.  It’s like God pops out and says “surprise, here I am; see you should have trusted that one sect (which one is anyone’s guess) that had the truth, and now it’s on to eternal punishment for you.”

But anything is possible, so I don’t mind entertaining the question of “what would you say if you die and end up standing before the almighty God?”.  At least it’s a good thought experiment.  This is my guess on how it would go down:

First, I’d crap in my pants (which I suppose is ok if I died of old age since I’d likely have a pair of Depends on).  Then I’d throw up all over the clouds.  At that point my heart would be racing so fast and I’d probably have a heart attack.  Interestingly enough, that may very well be the “second death” that the bible speaks about, so perhaps annihilationism is correct.

Anyways, if I was able to make it through all that and finally pull myself together I’d likely say “I really wasn’t expecting this, but at this point I don’t think I’ve got anything to say.”  He’d be reading my mind anyways, so he would know all the expletives going off in my mind (like “WTF, this is some insanely crazy sh-t”).

I mean seriously though, I’d be so scared out of my wits that I’m not sure that I’d even know what to say.  If I’m allowed I’d ask which sect was the one that got it right.

But the same book that people get this idea from they also get the idea that God loves his creation.  This whole judgment day scenario doesn’t match up with a God that cares about his creation.  A lot of other questionable stories come from this book, so this is why I can take this thing with a bit of a sense of humor – it just doesn’t seem real to me.

Maybe There Are Gods

godsWrapping The Series Up

In this post I ended with this:

In my future posts I plan to give a few more reasons why I don’t believe in gods, will try to explain why proofs for gods aren’t very convincing to me, and will end with my personal opinion on the best approach theists should use to convince others of the existence of gods.

and this post is the final in the series where I’ll share my opinion on the best approach for theists to convince others.  I also mentioned several times along the way that I would share why I still wonder whether gods might exist, what would change my mind, and even share my own views of which formulations of that would make more sense to me if I were to change my mind.

The philosophical arguments for God’s existence are basically interesting questions or conundrums about existence that we really just don’t have the kind of information we need to form any conclusions about, so they didn’t help me before, during, and still after I was a Christian.  I can understand that others might find them helpful, but as I’ve explained they just aren’t convincing to me.

SerendipitySerendipity, Miracles, and Coincidence

Maybe you just happened to be thinking about religion that night just at the very same time that you turned on the telly and they were amazingly talking about Jainism.  Or perhaps you experienced a healing after being prayed for.  Everyone has these stories that seem to go beyond coincidence.  A lot of them aren’t too impressive, but every once in a while you’ll come across some that do seem surprising.  These are the things that make me wonder if there is any meaning or agency involved behind the scenes.

As far as serendipitous stories go, the most amazing one I’ve heard was from my wife’s grandfather.  He believes in a Taiwanese tribal god, and he was in the midst of bombings in World War II when he saw a shiny object on the ground.  He decided to walk over to get it and right as he went to pick it up a bomb exploded in the place that he had just moved from.  The shiny object ended up being a trinket with the symbol of the tribal god of his family on it.  He has other stories about why he believes in that Taiwanese god but that one in particular has always stuck with me.  While this causes me to wonder, it doesn’t cause me to believe that his god exists as I’m sure many people reading this wouldn’t be convinced either.  But if you are willing to toss away these miraculous stories from other religions why are you so quick at judging others for doubting your own?

So instead perhaps all these miracle stories could be studied by probability theorists, and perhaps a good case could be made for causation.  Doesn’t sound like an easy task but it would be certainly something I would be very interested in following up on.  My suggestion to anyone who does this however is to stay in the bounds of science, because people are starting to become more educated about pseudo-science, and while there will always be those that are convinced by that, I believe if current trends continue we will see credulity like that become less prevalent.

There are several issues with serendipity – first, these strange events also seem to happen even for the most mundane of things.  For example, several months ago I was teaching the playing card game “war” to my son and trying to teach him the concept of less than or greater than.  We went through maybe 6 or 7 rounds before I decided to tell him the rules that happen when the numbers match, and wouldn’t you know it the very next cards that showed up matched.  I tried to remember that example just for this post, and there are many other extremely mundane “coincidences” like that which I don’t even make a point to remember, some even stranger than that.  Should we really be making some conclusions based on these kind of events?  Is “coincidence” a valid / justified explanation for these events?

And some do believe that these rare events that some would call miracles are actually to be expected given natural probabilities.  I’ll likely write more about this in the future, but here’s a primer.

It’s also very clear that these events happen across all religions and across all cultures.  Given that, if I was to believe in a traditional monotheistic God then I can’t see picking the God of just one religion.  While I have a hard time seeing the traditional personal omni-god (POG) concept as probable, if I did return to that belief it would be a more universalist type of belief in a God who for some strange reason doesn’t seem to be a very good communicator yet is somehow trying to communicate with humans through all different religions.

Certainty

Another thing that should be avoided is this insistence on certainty.  When someone like Ray Comfort says that he knows that God exists as much as he knows that his wife exists, I believe a whole lot of people see through that, and are also pushed away by things like that.  It’s just way too oversold, and gives the appearance of a sneaky used car salesman.  Belief in the existence of gods should fall along the continuum of certainty levels just like any other belief we would take in life.  For example, while I usually take a multi-vitamin in the morning I’m not terribly convinced of its efficacy.  I’ve read different things regarding vitamins, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus.  So I don’t always take them, and I certainly wouldn’t go around pushing them on others or judging them for believing differently.  This is the normal way that we believe things in life, and frankly a belief in gods shouldn’t be different.  This is why I have great respect for some of my theist friends who have said things like “Christianity works for me, but by all means I realize that I could be wrong about it being true and I don’t judge anyone for doubting.”

Just a Very Small Smorgasbord of Different Possibilities

So to me there is certainly no reason for me to take a hard stance on any worldview as a result of these kind of strange events, and given the law of truly large numbers I even see reason to doubt there is meaning behind any of them, but nevertheless my human mind still wonders, and I think about different possibilities involving ultimate questions.  Here’s just a few:

pantheism– Spinoza’s or Einstein’s God, which is very much like pantheism – a popular option that some paradoxically call the “God of the atheists”.  Here’s an interesting talk about Spinoza’s God.  If gods were just described as “entities higher than us” or if a God is described as a “being of infinite attributes” then the universe or whatever else there is that exists seems to fit this.  But as I’ve said before that definition of gods doesn’t seem to fit the traditional understanding of gods as personal thinking agents, so perhaps it just causes confusion in communication.  Just like Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies and a lot of other atheist scientists use the word “God” in their popular books and while I’m sure it helps them sell more books, it gets misinterpreted by many.  Either way some of this is just semantics.

– Several gods messing with us – Every once in a while I wonder whether there may be spiritual entities out there somewhere messing with our minds and laughing it up at the scene down here on earth.  Monotheists obviously aren’t very fond of polytheism, but interestingly enough it only takes 2 gods to completely wipe away the problem of suffering or evil.

Transcend– Entirely transcendent gods – perhaps the answer is way above and beyond what our human minds are capable of understanding.  Or perhaps we are byproducts of a universe whose purpose was actually meant for some things or some beings (aliens) way more advanced than ourselves.  Much like we view amoeba or other animals as not being as important a part of the purpose of existence as the conscious, thinking agents that we are, maybe there are other beings out in the universe (or other universes) who would think the same of us if they were ever to meet us.  Perhaps they would think that our inability to obtain certainty in knowledge, our ability to be wrong, and our inability to fit the concept of infinity into our finite brains are surprisingly primitive.  Or perhaps they do something even beyond what we understand as “thinking”.  Something entirely transcendent.  I’ve seen a lot of traditional theists describe the God they believe in as a transcendent concept – something that we humans are not capable of defining or understanding, but yet at the same time they feel comfortable assigning certain attributes to their God.  To me if one or more exists then I’d lean more toward thinking they were entirely transcendent.

– Just to encourage people to think more outside of the box, here’s a link to some videos that Closer to Truth has of philosophers discussing alternative concepts of gods.

Maybe try to come up with your own conceptions and think them through.  Any way to confirm or falsify those ideas?  Any way for them to be empirically tested?  Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of all of these ideas is that they are unlikely to be able to be tested.  Much like Max Tegmark’s (MIT professor) multiverse.  Well, more on that another time.

The more I experience life and the more I read studies done relating to human nature, our minds and religion the more I lean toward thinking we live in a godless reality.  But for me I don’t have good reasons to be close-minded about it.

But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic?

Agnostic

I don’t believe the title of this post is correct, and I’d really like input from all my readers on this topic.

But before I go there I’d like to go over my own views again.  The graphic to the right totally cracked me up and it was one of those “yup, that’s definitely the image I want for this post”.  As I promised I would a couple of times before, I’m turning a bit of a corner now in my series (you know the one which is not very clearly a series and has been going on for 9 months) and I’m going to express the other side of the story, and will share even more on that in my next post.

Now I’ve expressed the kind of labels I think apply to my own viewpoints here and here.  I believe they still fit.  As I mentioned there I don’t see a need to argue semantics and some believe the labels are used as tactical debate moves, but that kind of stuff just irritates me – I’d much rather get at the meat of what’s real rather than win some silly debate.  I was recently invited to a neighborhood evangelistic small group and was asked why I called myself atheist when I wasn’t really that certain about the existence of gods.  My response was something like this: “I know that by strict definitions I am implicitly an atheist, and I also know that I am agnostic as well, and I frankly think possibilian fits me the best, but feel free to call me whatever you like, as long as it’s not a curse (wink) – instead of getting the right label on me what I’d much rather do is get across to you the kind of views I have, and maybe I can learn some from yours as well if I force myself to truly listen.  I am doubtful that the kind of gods that humans have described exist, but my certainty level is not extremely high on that.  I’m not so sure I am a naturalist but it’s probably fair to say I lean in that direction.  I highly value humans and all conscious beings (hide that chicken leg I’m chewing on, gulp).  If someone put a table with all possible worldviews out before me and forced me to bet which was true I’d likely choose one that had naturalistic tones to it (whatever that means), but I do wonder quite a lot about reality and whether there is something deeper to reality that perhaps transcends any experience or description that any human is even capable of describing at this stage in our development.”  Now how’s that for some cool dinner talk?

And then in this post I described some more about my somewhat relaxed view toward all this stuff, and likely confused some of my readers a little.

So a little more on point – agnosticism – I am an agnostic, but I’m not the kind that says “I don’t know and you don’t either.”Agnostic2  My agnosticism is my own and it really just means that I’m not quite so sure of my conclusions.  Perhaps I haven’t read enough or learned enough to realize that I can be sure about this topic.  Perhaps one can be epistemically justified in claiming that gods do not exist.  Which leads to my question.

I’ve seen a lot of theists (and some agnostics) say that that if you cannot disprove something then you should claim agnosticism.  But there are some analogies that kind of fly in the face of this.  The issue is not about 100% certainty – all who are well thought know that.  I’ve given the example of ghosts before.  I don’t believe the arguments for the existence for ghosts is very convincing.  Do I have proof that ghosts do not exist.  Of course I don’t.  Perhaps they exist but for some reason would prefer to only make themselves known to a select few (sound familiar?).  But should I say I’m agnostic about ghosts?  This is not how most people practically communicate their everyday beliefs.  A lot of people simply say they do not believe in ghosts.  And yes I do believe this relates to the burden of proof, but I don’t see it as a burden I need to put on anyone else – for me it is a burden on myself – if I want to say I believe in ghosts then I feel I should have convincing reasons that justify that belief.  If I don’t have them then I feel I am epistemically justified in claiming that I believe ghosts do not exist.

Take the spirit in the closet that my 6 year old son is afraid of.  It’s dark in there at night and he’s seen some movement in there (shadows maybe), and noises as well (shifting toys maybe due to gravity).  But no matter what I tell him he still wants me to make sure the closet door gets closed before he goes to bed.  Can I prove there is no spirit in there?  Actually no – in fact it may very well explain things he has heard and seen.  Ah, but there seem to be some better explanations for those things (at least to me).  But are those really better explanations?  We don’t know do we?  But why would the spirit not come out and simply reveal itself to us, or why can’t we see it when we go look in there.  Well it’s invisible of course, and we should not place any assumptions about the way that spirit thinks – for all we know it has it’s reasons for wanting to remain invisible (sound familiar?).  So then I should be forced to claim agnosticism about that spirit then right?  I’m thinking not.  I’m thinking there is some good epistemic justification there.  Is there the same for more deeper metaphysical questions that may relate to spiritual beings in general?  I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the strange experiences that so many people claim to have really do end up going a bit beyond just anecdotal – more on that in my next post.  And then there’s just the general question of existence itself – deep questions that seem strange to think about sometimes.

Questions: If you are a theist, can you see that there may be cases where things cannot be proven yet we would still say it is fair to claim they do not exist?  What other thoughts do you have on this?  If you are not a theist, do you feel you are epistemically justified in claiming that you know gods do not exist (not 100%, but enough practically speaking), and if so how would you formulate that?

Is the Universe Fine-tuned For Life

fine-tune1The fine-tuning argument is an argument from design or purpose (aka teleological) just like biological irreducible complexity is.

If I was rating arguments for God in previous years I would have initially put this argument at the top of the list, but after doing some more research it has fallen way low on the list and has even fallen below irreducible complexity (which is already low due to the fact that consensus among experts in the relevant fields of study is that irreducible complexity has no basis scientifically.)  It turns out the fine-tuning argument suffers from way more than just the possibility of the multiverse, and I was surprised to find out that some of the most coherent arguments against it are explained by evangelical Christians, and most skeptics are not even aware of those arguments.

First the facts: there are several constants in the equations of physics that if modified by very small amounts would cause a universe that would be dramatically different from our own.  The claim is that those universes would not be life permitting, but there are some who contend that this second claim is not actually a proven fact.  If you want the details for the positive claims you can hear them very clearly in practically any debate on God with William Lane Craig in it.

Do We Know The Probabilities?bell-curves

The first and probably the toughest issue for fine-tuning is explained very well by mathematician William Dembski (a Christian apologist who believes design can be found in biological irreducible complexity):

In layman’s terms, the issue is that even though the constants might sit within a tight range we have no way of figuring out what the probability distribution of those constants are because we don’t have empirical access to universe generators.  As a result we have no way of finding out what the probability is of the constants being in that tight range.  For all we know the probability that they sit in the range they do could be high.  Without access to universe generators we cannot know.  The discussion with Dembski goes longer and he explains himself more – you can see it here.

This along with other probability issues are explained in mathematical terms in this paper by Timothy McGrew, Lydia McGrew, and Eric Vestrup, all of whom are Christian apologists.  Eric Vestrup is a mathematician and the McGrews are epistemology philosophers.  It gets a little technical but overall it’s not too bad, and if you truly want to understand the issues involved with fine-tuning you need to understand their paper.  Lydia McGrew explained some (not all) of the issues described in the paper starting at time “51:00” in this interview with Luke Muelhauser.  Here is a very short clip of Lydia expressing her misgivings about the concession:

A short summary of the paper in my own words:

– Page 203: If we assume a uniform probability distribution, since the range of values for the constants are infinite, no matter how we break them up into pieces the sum will always be infinite.  However, for probabilities to make sense the sum of all possible alternatives must add to 1 (i.e. 100%).  This is called the “normalizability” problem, and it means we have no way of assigning probabilities to the range of the constants.

– Page 205, paragraph 2: The above assumes a uniform distribution, so to get around it we can assign a different kind of probability distribution.  But what distribution do we pick?  This is exactly the problem that Dembski described.  There is currently no valid way to know what to pick.

– Page 206, paragraph 1: Here they allude to important questions related to fine tuning that I have always wondered about.  How do we know that there cannot be other constants or forces in possible universes?  Put another way, we are so fixated on varying the constants that are in the equations we’ve found, but what about varying the equations themselves?  What is the evidence that causes us to think that the constants can be changed while the equations cannot?  It seems like the only reason for this very well may be psychological – the constants seem to be the easiest thing for our brains to ponder varying.  In summary, given this infinite possibility of varying equations, “we may not be in any position to speak of the life-friendliness of universes”.

– Page 207: They essentially say what Dembski said.

This direct quote from the article summarizes things well: “The point of the argument was supposed to be that objective results in modern cosmology virtually compel disbelief in a chance origin of the Universe. If, at a critical point, the argument turns on a subjectively variable sense of which assessments of probabilities are reasonable, a sense that cannot be adjudicated in terms of any more fundamental criteria, then the FTA is effectively forceless. To retreat to the point where the argument rests on unargued intuitions is to deprive it of anything more than devotional significance.”

SC_WLCAn Enlightening Debate

This debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll was very educational:

Craig gives his pitch for fine-tuning starting at 38:48, and Carroll gives his response at 54:17.  It comes up several other times in the debate (at 1:12:12, 1:21:47, 1:42:31, and 2:35:28).  Here are some issues that Carroll brings up:

– The conditions under which life can exist, and what life is, have not been clearly defined enough to prove the fine-tuning argument.  While our human form of life may not be common after varying parameters, some kind of conscious minds could exist in many other different universes.  While he may very well have a point I believe he is currently in the minority on this point, perhaps because varying some of the parameters often results in very short-lived universes not allowing for complex beings to arise.  I’m not sure about this one, but I think it’s at least valid to question how thoroughly this has been defined.

– The next objection is a bit more philosophical in nature and while I find it a bit confusing to think through it may very well be a valid objection.  Carroll says: “in theism life is not purely physical, it’s not purely a collection of atoms doing things like it is in naturalism.  I would think that no matter what the atoms were doing God could still create life.  God doesn’t care what the mass of the electron is, He can do what he wants.”  (please don’t say something silly like “I thought Sean didn’t believe in God, but now he is talking about Him”).  This is an interesting conundrum for the fine tuning argument itself.  Theism posits a certain view of God, but then the argument doesn’t seem consistent with that view.  Sean’s final statement here may also shed some light on this: “the only framework in which you can honestly say that the physical parameters of the universe must take on certain values in order for life to exist is naturalism.”  I’d like to add here that Lydia McGrew also mentions this as an issue in her interview with Luke Muelhauser (above), and apologist Hans Halvorson (see link below) concedes it as well in his debate with Carroll.

– The third objection is more technical and I believe is a valid one: the “apparent” fine-tuning of some constants actually disappear on closer inspection.  The example Carroll gives is the common example of the early expansion rate of the universe.  Claimed to be fine-tuned to 1 part in 1060.  But after doing a correct, rigorous derivation of the probability using the equations of general relativity you find that the probability is 1.  You can read further on this example here.  Craig used to use this example in his debates and took Hawking’s statements out of context.  To be fair he has corrected himself and no longer does that.  It’s important to keep in mind the following statement from Carroll to get some balance to this objection: “I can’t say that all parameters fit into that paradigm, but until we know the answer we can’t claim that they’re definitely fine-tuned.”  The debate over this objection that I’ve seen usually lies in questioning that last sentence of Carroll’s – the claim is that many cosmologists have thrown their hands up at this point and given up on getting answers that explain the apparent fine-tuning of many of the constants.  A lot of cosmologists do seem to indicate this but I’ve seen some interviewed who have not given up.  Either way though one could argue that this is still a God of the gaps argument because as we’ve seen many times in the past, not having answers to tough problems does not mean they are unsolvable with naturalistic explanations.

– 4th is the most common explanation among naturalists – the multiverse.  I think this is a perfectly valid objection to fine-tuning and none of the responses to it have moved me.  The idea is that there are many universes out there with many different constants and we just happen to be living in one of them.  The perfect analogy is that we used to think the conditions of our planet were finely tuned for life to exist, but once we became aware that there are tons of planets in the universe this conundrum was gone.  This is known as an “observer selection effect”.  Craig’s response is that universes with boltzmann brains are more likely than universes with embodied living beings, so he claims that means the observer selection effect is nullified.  But it is still agreed that with a multiverse there could be universes that have embodied living beings, and so the selection effect is still valid – we happen to be in one of those universes.  Just because there are lots of other universes with other types of observers doesn’t nullify that.  Also, Craig seems to misrepresent the hypothesis by saying “in order to rescue the alternative of chance it’s proponents have therefore been forced to adopt the hypothesis that there exists a … multiverse” (40:47), and then “now comes the key move” – as if it’s some sort of tactic.  My understanding is that the multiverse is actually a prediction of physical theories (mainly inflation).  And as I’ve seen written by some cosmologists, this is “indirect” evidence for the multiverse.  The hypothesis is not created as a “rescue” for an objection to fine-tuning.  And frankly even if it was I don’t see why that would really be an issue anyway.  This could be a valid hypothesis on it’s own.  Where is the need to add ideas of supernatural when cosmologists have never had any confirmed empirical evidence for that?  Carroll responds to other objections to the multiverse here.

– His last objection is that even if we grant that the constants are fine-tuned theism is a poor explanation.  I’ve gone way too long, so you can watch at (59:38).

Links to More Objections

– Hans Halvorson (Christian apologist) explains why he agrees with Carroll that the fine-tuning argument is not convincing – at time 28:41 in their debate.  It’s worth a listen.

– While inconclusive, Don Page (an evangelical Christian) has a paper explaining that different values of the cosmological constant would have produced universes which were way more life permitting than the one we are in.  It is at least another hint at the fact that the constants may not be tuned for life.

Keith Parsons describes a good philosophical point that comes up a lot.  It is the same objection that I have to the Cosmological Argument (mentioned here) and I haven’t figured out a good reason why the objection does not make sense.

– This is a link to a long list of objections to fine-tuning which is worth looking over.  It is important to note that the strength of these objections span the map and several of them are very poor.

Links in Support of Fine Tuning

Luke Barnes (agnostic who who seems to lean toward theism) is one of the better expositors for fine-tuning.  You can also listen to an interview he had with Luke Muehlhauser here.

Robbin Collins is another educated proponent for fine-tuning.  His form of the argument is more polished than William Lane Craig’s but it’s also a weaker form of the argument.

I give more links in support as well as criticism of the argument on my companion page.

Summary

Given all of the issues, some of the strongest of which are even brought forth by theists, the fine-tuning argument does not look to me like a very convincing argument.  And it surely cannot be claimed that those skeptical of it are doing so only because they don’t want to believe in God.  While I would never say that everyone should give up trying to find out if this argument can really fly (certainly further research and study could possibly resolve objections), it seems to me that this one is a bit of a dead-end.  On my companion page to fine-tuning I give references both for and against the argument so people can research further to try to form their own conclusions.

Philosophical Arguments for God

Continuing in my current series trying to explain why I doubt the existence of gods, I’d like to start talking about the philosophical arguments for gods (the popular ones are formed as trying to prove a traditional monotheistic God, so I’ll stick to those.)

As an introduction to this topic I’d like to talk more generally about my own perspectives regarding arguments for and against the existence of God.  I’ve found some theists who have expressed my own ideas better than I can.  I’ve tried my best to not twist their quotes out of context but I’ll include links to all of their interviews from the Closer To Truth website so my readers can make their own judgments.  There are tons of related interviews on that website with both theists as well as atheists that I’ve spent way too many hours listening to, but I’ve found many of them helpful.

While many of my readers (perhaps all) don’t need to hear this, it is important for some believers to hear that philosophers agree that we cannot get complete certainty from philosophical arguments for/against the existence of God (actually uncertainty in philosophy extends way beyond this subject).  This seems to be the consensus even among conservative theistic scholars.  Some theists go further than only suggesting that you can’t get complete certainty and those are the perspectives I’d like to share here.

First a short clip from Peter van Inwagen:

This may have been one of those one off comments but it fits the context of what he was expressing in the interview.  Either way It matches my own view.  Take a look here at polls of philosophers on different topics.  What I see from that is that opinions are all over the map on many different topics.  Not only is there lack of complete certainty but there is much honest disagreement on deep philosophical questions.

Next a longer one from John Cottingham:

Cottingham doesn’t get into much detail here but his points are well taken – for many people these arguments likely won’t get them anywhere and they are even unhelpful.  I’m sure Cottingham would agree with me that there are exceptions to this, and frankly I want philosophical discussions to continue because the pursuit of truth needs to continue with all ideas on the table and discussed back and forth with rigor – but the point is that we need to have a practical as well as respectful view of the fact that these arguments at least at this point remain intellectually unconvincing to many who are both sincere and well informed.

People can provide their air-tight syllogisms and tout philosophical rigor above those they disagree with but they should be aware that many of those they disagree with are quite aware of the difference between logical validity and logical soundness. They are very aware that the premises of many of these arguments are questionable often in several different ways, and that it is mainly the discussion of the premises where the confusion and honest disagreement always lies.

Then there is more insight from William Dembsky:

Similar things here regarding this kind of perspective regarding arguments.  I totally agree with him regarding the ontological argument and many (not all) of the theists interviewed tend to express the same concession.  Like him, I also feel like the ontological argument is a word game where the existence of God somehow “pops out”.  Usually after reading these kind of ontological arguments I end up feeling similar to how I feel after I’ve been scammed by a sneaky telemarketer.  I don’t plan on discussing the ontological argument much, although I would say that I think that some laypeople (even theists) who speak against it don’t properly understand the argument.  Some feel that it just says “if you can think about something then it exists”.  This isn’t quite right, but either way many experts who are better informed (both theists as well as atheists) agree that the argument is fallacious.

Dembski precisely hits the nail on the head regarding the problem I’ve always felt plagues the Cosmological argument and frankly I don’t understand why people are so enamored with this one.  Since it is so popular later on I will likely post on some of the other issues with it.  Quoting Dembski on this: “…explanations always run out at some point.  There’s a natural resting place or final resting place of explanation, and it seems we can end it in nature or we can end it in God.  I’m not sure you can adjudicate that on any sort of logical grounds that stand outside and can say ok well it’s really God and not nature.”  If he was being more precise he would have exhausted all possibilities by saying “we can end it in something natural or we can end it in something not natural”, but this was an informal setting.

Dembski expressed that he is personally persuaded by the moral argument (Cottingham is also) as well as intelligent design (irreducible complexity) as you can see in the rest of the interview.  I’ve already discussed why the moral argument is not convincing to me.  While the moral argument is a popular one, Dembski seems to be in the minority among theist philosophers interviewed regarding intelligent design.  This is likely because the consensus among scientists in the field is against this view.  Francis Collins is one of many well informed theists who disagree with Dembski on this.  Which brings me to another very interesting point – there seems to be much disagreement among theists about which arguments are convincing and which are not, even among the experts.  Again, par for the course when it comes to philosophy.  I’m not all that negative on intelligent design, but I’ll need a separate post to fit all the ideas I have on that (sorry I keep doing that).

And last but not least a kind offer of respect from theist John Polkinghorne:

I just love Polkinghorne’s attitude here.  He mentions Steven Weinberg and I am similar to Steven in that I often talk about religion with my friends who have an interest in it.  Face to face these kinds of discussions can actually be enjoyable even with lack of agreement because a lot of my theistic friends can have a similar attitude as Polkinghorne.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the online medium it is much more difficult to have this kind of conversation (but not impossible) in the virtual world.

In my next post I will dig deep into one of the more popular arguments.  Likely fine-tuning.