Michael Prescott Tries Theology

Question from Lukas:
Hi.

First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.

Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:

(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)

1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.

2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)

3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.

4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.

5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”

6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.

7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.

If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.

Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.

1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.

2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.

3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.

4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.

5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.

6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.

7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.

So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.

Something From Nothing And Your Chicks For Free

Question from Jay:
How is nothingness able to create a finely tuned universe?

A theist might make it more complicated by saying
“If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing. Why can’t books pop into being from nothing? Why is it only the universe that can come into being from nothing?”

If mind and conscience is invisible and if matter does not contain conscience or the potential of consciences, Where does conscience come from?
If the universe began with brute matter, there will be no explanation of the origin of consciences.

How do I answer these questions cause they are really hard?
– This is for my philosophy class.

Answer by SmartLX:
This stuff isn’t just philosophy, this is “philosophy of religion”. It’s religious apologetics by way of arguments from ignorance, where if someone can’t answer the questions the questioner is free to insert God as the answer. Even if there aren’t any other answers it’s a terrible way to make a point, logically speaking, but that doesn’t stop people.

We don’t know whether there was ever nothing, so how something can come from it is a hypothetical question rather than an essential one. There might have been nothing once; if something emerged from it then we know that the process is extremely rare, or happens out of our view, or both. If whole universes emerge all at once in each event, as the Big Bang would seem to suggest when viewed as a something-from-nothing moment, we’d have to travel to the next universe to see the effects of another such event, so it’s no wonder we don’t see ex nihilo creation every day. For a more scientific perspective, take an hour to watch Lawrence Krauss’s lecture on the subject, or read his book A Universe From Nothing.

The universe is not necessarily finely tuned, for that assumes a tuning process and a tuner. The universe supports life, yes, on the crust of one known planet in countless light years of nothingness and extreme conditions (most of which would instantly kill us if we went there unprotected). That suggests two things: if the universe is tuned at all then it’s not very finely tuned, and life has emerged in the one place which happens to be hospitable. I’ve addressed the fine tuning argument several times on the site already, if you want some more material.

Mind, consciousness and the specific aspect of conscious thought we think of as “conscience” are functions of the brain. They’re not entirely invisible, because many experiments have used MRI to measure electrical activity in specific parts of the brain during specific mental activities (dreaming, problem-solving, emotional reactions). Furthermore, if the brain is damaged then consciousness may be impaired or lost forever, leaving a human “vegetable”. We see the beginnings of all these thought processes in animals such as apes, which suggests to us that consciousness has evolved slowly in our ancestors, and persisted because of the tangible benefits of being self-aware and able to think well.

Fine-Tuned Gravity: Don’t Touch That Dial

Question from Cedric:
Victor Stenger says supporters of the Fine Tuning argument make the mistake of holding all the parameters constant and varying just one. He says “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

“The ingredients for life” is a more complex case since it involves several parameters but if one were to examine a simpler case involving only one parameter then the legitimacy of Fine Tuning might be easier to discern.

Take the force of gravity. The Fine Tuning argument says it had to be precisely what it is in order for the universe to expand as it did after the Big Bang. Too strong and the universe would collapse back to a singularity. Too weak and the universe would expand too rapidly. This doesn’t seem to depend on other parameters. So doesn’t the exactness of gravity alone imply design?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’re going to circumvent Stenger’s argument by focusing on a single value, gravity is the wrong one to pick because it didn’t have to be all that exact. In Martin Rees’ book Just Six Numbers he finds that the gravitational constant would have to increase by a factor of 3000 to preclude the formation of stars. (I’ve never seen anyone use the same approach on another constant, so I suspect none of the others have similarly obvious independent significance.)

Creationists and other apologists have not contradicted Rees; they’ve taken two other approaches to dismissing this inconvenient amount of leeway. Both are found in this article, which is typical of a fair few apologetic articles attacking Rees’ conclusion of a lack of fine tuning. (Their abundance suggests to me that Rees struck a nerve.)

1. If gravity were nearly 3000 times stronger, they say, stars wouldn’t last even a billion years and life wouldn’t have time to form, so the universe is still fine-tuned for the really important thing, life. Well, the fact that this aspect of the extreme case isn’t workable doesn’t negate the fact that gravity could change an awful lot before there was any real difficulty.

2. A factor of 3000, they say, is still tiny when you consider that the different forces in the universe differ by factors of up to 10^40. True, but it’s still 300,000% so it’s huge compared to the actual value, and there’s no evidence to suggest that gravitational forces in a fresh universe are even capable of reaching the levels of our universe’s strong nuclear force. There’s an underlying assumption that each of the constants was selected from the same huge or infinite range of possible numbers, and there’s no basis for that assumption.

Even if gravity had to be what it really is for life to form, to within a zillionth of a percent, it would not simply “imply design”. We don’t know nearly enough about what went into the physical “setting” of the constant to jump to that conclusion. Alternatives include but are not limited to the following:

– A huge or even infinite number of universes exist, each of them with different constants, such that the probability of one of them hitting the magic spot is really quite reasonable. Ridicule the multiverse hypothesis if you like, but evidence has emerged suggesting its likelihood. (Additional universes seem more likely to me than a god because we know there’s at least one universe. If your cabbage patch is destroyed and you find one little rabbit, you don’t imagine that Bigfoot did the rest; you wonder where the other rabbits are hiding.)
– The value of the gravitational constant is a result, not a parameter. When a Big Bang happens, gravity comes out at 6.673 because of how a Big Bang happens, or else the constant is dependent on the other constants. (Pi is a good analogue for this; the value near 3.14 results from the physical properties of a circle.)
– The gravitational constant might have started anywhere, but it varied before it reached a stable equilibrium at its current value. Something about 6.673 stops it from wanting to shift. (This is one possible explanation for cosmic inflation.)

Finally, if you disregard all of the above, we’re ultimately comparing the probability that a universe with incredibly fortunate physical qualities arose naturally to the probability that it was designed by an even more complex, exotic, powerful, hypothetical entity with no origin at all. That might be a contest if the existence of the other entity were assumed, but you can’t take that liberty when the whole point of the discussion is to establish that entity’s existence.

The Anthropic Principle

“…the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.”

Question from Alanis:

In Richard Dawkins’ widely acclaimed book “The God Delusion” he dedicates a few pages to the Anthropic Principle, emphasizing that it is an alternative to the argument for fine tuning/design, rather than a factor of it. Please elaborate on what Richard could possibly mean by that. From my (admittedly weak) understanding of the anthropic principle, all it states is that given the fact that we are here to observe it, it should not be surprising that life originated in the universe. I do not see how that debunks or supports intelligent design in any way.

Answer:
Dawkins’ point relates to probability. The fine-tuning argument as it relates to Earth, for example, is that it’s so staggeringly unlikely that Earth would be just the right size, distance from the sun, elemental composition, etc. that it must have been created specifically so that life could exist here. The anthropic principle is that we would be considering the same thing from whichever planet we had emerged on.

The sheer number of planets in the universe (probably within one order of magnitude of the number of stars, about ten thousand billion billion) goes a long way towards balancing out the low probability that any given planet will produce life, giving the universe as a whole a more reasonable chance of naturally producing life somewhere. Even so, the nature of people (hence “anthropic”) is that we consider only the aspect of this calculation which gives a low probability and therefore makes us feel special.

Of course there’s also the fine-tuning argument which relates to the whole universe, not just the planet. The anthropic principle applies in that case if you consider the possibility of a multiverse. That hasn’t been confirmed or debunked, but there are other replies to that sort of fine-tuning argument which don’t rely on the anthropic principle at all so it’s not a critical point.

Games of chance make a good analogy. Whoever wins the lottery feels special, or even blessed, but they forget that millions of people have also played and the chances that someone won’t win the jackpot decrease rapidly as successive weeks are considered. The chances for an individual are millions to one, but someone’s going to get rich eventually.

– SmartLX

The Fine-Tuning Argument, in terms of probability

“The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life.”

Argument by Robert O’Brien, based on Probability, Statistics and Theology by David J. Bartholomew:
“As far as I know, there is no reason to believe the values of the physical constants are necessary, in which case, we have the following likelihood ratio:

P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|God)/P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|no God) =

P(physical constants|God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/
P(physical constants|no God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God)

“Now, P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God) is essentially one since it does not seem likely that our universe depends on whether the physical constants we observe arose by design or not. Therefore, the likelihood ratio takes the form:

P(physical constants|God)/
P(physical constants|no God)

which I argue is large since it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”

Answer:
The point of the argument doesn’t actually require most of the mathematical notation, so we can skip a lot of the above. We’ll concentrate on the last expression of the ratio of probability:

P(physical constants|God)/
P(physical constants|no God)

For those who haven’t seen this kind of thing before, here’s a crash course. P(something) means the probability of that thing happening. If you toss a fair coin, P(heads) is one half or 0.5 and so is P(tails). The | in the middle, which is called a pipe, means “given” or “given that” or “in the case of” or just “if”. For example, if you take the bus to work, P(getting to work on time|catching the bus) is higher than P(getting to work on time|missing the bus and walking).

So, O’Brien’s final expression is the probability of the universe’s fundamental constants having their present values if there’s a God (note the capital G – he means a god like the Christian one) divided by the probability of the same constants if there’s no God. The reason why the former is much higher than the latter, he argues, is that “it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”

Let’s transfer the argument sideways. Which is higher,

P(last week’s lottery numbers|God) or
P(last week’s lottery numbers|no God)?

One would have to argue the former using O’Brien’s logic, because whether or not it happened, it’s really easy to conceive of God wishing to make a particular person rich and choosing the right numbers whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to match a given person’s numbers. Many winners do thank God, after all.

So why are there winners all the time, then? Because any combination could be a winner, and you don’t necessarily need last week’s specific lottery numbers.

Similarly, while some combinations of the fundamental constants are unworkable, many others are. Most who argue that they aren’t make the mistake of varying just one constant at a time. Even within that limitation, the gravitational constant for example would have to vary by a factor of about 3000 to preclude the formation of stars.

Without the limitation, as Victor Stenger discovered, “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life. They don’t even seem terribly conducive to life, given that it has only apparently emerged on the surface of this one rock within hundreds of light years. They’re no better than a Division 3 lottery win.

One may consider it a low or even negligible probability that an unsculpted universe will be life-ready. Assuming there are six major fundamental constants (and you may want to consider others), the entire six-dimensional sample space would have to be analysed, not just slight variations of our set, or there’s no basis for this.

And that’s without even considering a multiverse or the anthropic principle.

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #4: Design

“…theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind.”

Question:
Here’s a sample of the many different ways in which the same basic question is posed: How did all the beauty around us come to be? How did intelligent people come from monkeys, or oranges, or sludge, or nothing at all? How did life begin if the chances of the necessary proteins assembling was one in ten to the power of hundreds? (The next one’s taken from an actual wall poster:) How can anyone witness a sunset and not believe in God? Why is there any order to the universe? Why are the fundamental constants of the universe tuned so that matter, and humans, can exist at all? How is it that we live, and live in such a wonderful world, if it all came about by chance?

Answer:
From the development of the eye to the beauty of a waterfall to the exact value of the gravitational constant, theists may claim that anything natural with any quality to it whatsoever must have been deliberately crafted with humanity in mind. This is the Argument from Design.

Even if it were correct, it’s a terribly egotistical way of looking at the world. And even if it were proven to be correct, no religion would have any basis upon which to claim that the designer or creator was its particular god or gods.

The basic answer to the argument from design is that there is no substantive evidence for it and therefore 1. to assume design in the presence of alternative theories supported by substantive evidence is putting one’s head in the sand and 2. to assume design even in the complete absence of alternative theories is an argument from ignorance.

Beginning with evolution and the development of intelligent humans, there is a huge amount of geological, genetic and observed evidence to support the currently held view of the “tree of life”. Evolution of subspecies is observed all the time, and contrary to a common objection whole new species have been seen to emerge, and recently. (This article on speciation has some examples.)

Contrary to another creationist talking point, there are tons of known transitional fossils. Contrary to Kirk Cameron, these don’t look like half of one animal joined to half of another (like his famous Croco-duck). They’re more like what you get if you morph a whole picture of one into a picture of the other, but stop halfway.

To dismiss evolution as a useless series of random changes is an argument from personal incredulity, which is a type of argument from ignorance. It’s also wrong. The mutations are random, but only the beneficial mutations tend to be passed on by sheer survival and procreation skills. Evolution doesn’t just try random things and get it right every time, it tries everything and goes with what works. It’s like trying to hit a dartboard by spraying the whole wall with a machine gun. You’ll miss a lot, but you’ll hit it too.

Intelligence came about because at every stage in the development of primates, the ones who are just that little bit smarter than everyone else will always have the advantage. Over millions of years, it all adds up. Along with this comes morality (since good deeds are often rewarded), an appreciation of beauty (since it helps if what’s pleasing to the eye is usually not diseased, poisonous or dirty) and emotions (to motivate us to do what’s helpful to us and others).

Going back to the origin of life, abiogenesis as it was called could have occurred by a number of different chemical processes. So far scientists have used electricity (lightning) and a replica of the ancient atmosphere to create amino acids, which are pretty close. With a whole world full of chemicals being blown and washed into each other and billions of years to work, there was ample time and material for the components of the first replicating organism to slowly accumulate. The huge odds against this often given by folks like Hoyle generally assume firstly that they all had to come together at once, and secondly that only one version of it could possibly work. Once one little bit of DNA was off and running, evolution and exponential growth took over.

Before we tackle the whole universe at once, let’s consider Earth. Someone might claim that God put Earth exactly where it needed to be relative to the Sun so that liquid water and therefore life could form. We now know, however, that there are a lot more planets out there, and probably huge numbers of undiscovered ones. It’s not that Earth was placed where liquid water could form. Rather, liquid water only forms on planets of the right temperature and Earth happened to fit the bill. Lots more planets might. This is called the anthropic principle: places aren’t made for humans, humans just have a chance of turning up in hospitable places. Even on Earth there are many places we can’t survive, like inside volcanoes and kilometres under the sea. So, we didn’t emerge from there. Big surprise.

The largest design claim has to do with the fundamental constants of the universe. Six major ones are usually mentioned: those pertaining to gravity, electromagnetism, spatial dimensions and other less famous concepts. As is repeated endlessly, the slightest difference in any of them might result in matter being unable to form or stay together. This is the “fine-tuned universe” argument.

The problem is that even if this is true, there could still be other values of the constants which support matter. Perhaps instead of changing one or two slightly, you need to shift four of them by a huge amount. Considering that some of the constants could even be negative, you’ve got an infinite six-dimensional sample space in which to test hypothetical universes. We may never know whether our values are the only valid ones. Or, we may stumble upon another valid combination and that’ll be the end of this argument.

Besides, the anthropic principle applies again if you consider the theory of a multiverse. If there are multiple (perhaps infinite) universes each with its own set of constants, of course we’re going to turn up in the universe with a friendly combination. Other life forms may be thriving in universes where we wouldn’t last for a second, and understanding how would require us to re-learn physics from scratch.

Contesting the argument from design is hard work, because to be most effective you need to know the going theories for whatever phenomenon is in question. I’ve tackled the most common ones, but be prepared for just about anything useful or pretty to be presented as direct evidence for gods. Then you need only find out where it really came from.

SmartLX