Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian

Scott Pruett has written 10 Questions for the Atheist, and François Tremblay has answered with the first half of 10 Answers from an Atheist (with more to follow).

Darwin as JehovahPruett seems to equate atheism with materialism (“Atheism,” Pruett tells us, “by definition, holds that there is no God and nothing beyond this world of matter, space, time, and energy”!) and theism with creationism, which is a mistake: Chrysippus and Hobbes, arguably, were materialists but not atheists; most Buddhists are atheists but not materialists; Aristotle and the early Spencer were theists but not creationists; and people who think life on earth was designed by aliens are creationists (or intelligent design theorists, anyway) but need not be theists. (Brother Cavil knows he’s the product of intelligent design, but he’s no theist.) But this error on Pruett’s part doesn’t really affect François’s reply, since he is a materialist as well as an atheist.

Since I, on the other hand, am neither a creationist nor a materialist, and since I moreover think that theism and atheism come to the same thing, I’m not really on either side of this dispute; so let me say something about how Pruett’s questions look from my own perspective. My answers are often similar to François’s, but not always. (I’ve shortened Pruett’s questions somewhat, but you can read the full original at the above link.)

1. [W]hat explanation is given to the questions, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Where did it all come from?”

I regard these questions as incoherent. It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of the whole of existence – whether that whole includes a God or not. Any attempt to explain existence has to appeal either to something in existence or something not in existence. If it appeals to something that’s already in existence (be it God, quarks, or whatever you like), then you’re not explaining all of existence; and if it appeals to something not in existence, then you’ve offered no explanation at all. The concept of explanation applies only within the realm of existence; that’s why both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.

Likewise, if there was a Big Bang, and if it was the first event (i.e., no previous universe perishing in a Big Crunch), then that event has no explanation over and above the natures of the entities involved in the event (again, be they gods or quarks or steam calliopes) – and the existence of those entities has no explanation and needs none.

Incidentally, when François in his answer to this question says that matter “has always existed,” I’m not sure whether he means that matter has an infinite past (in which case I disagree with him – and with Aristotle too) or merely that matter has existed throughout all past time (in which case I agree, since that can be true even if the past is finite).

2. How is it that we live in such an exquisitely fine-tuned universe? Even assuming that the universe could have popped out of nothingness, why should it have been such an orderly and hospitable one?

First, “popped out of nothingness” is a tendentious way to describe the option of Big Bang minus God. If time began with the first event, then there never was a time when nothing existed, and so there was never any nothingness to pop out of. The existence of the universe – be its past finite or infinite – is explanatorily basic.

As for the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” to support life, this claim presupposes that physical laws other than the present ones are possible. But as an Aristotelean, I reject any form of possibility other than “compatibility with the nature of the actual world.” Just as explanations make sense only within the realm of existence, so the distinction between possible and impossible does so too. Thus I essentially agree with Fraçois’s answer: “Just because we can imagine the gravitational constant being, not 6.674×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, but rather 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, does not mean that it can actually be 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2. Just because we can write it down and make calculations based on it doesn’t mean it’s actually possible.”

3. The problem of abiogenesis (the origin of the first lifeform) is one of the thorniest and most intractable issues in chemistry. … What hope for an explanation do you have?

Scientists are constantly discovering new forms of spontaneous order, and I fully expect that trend to continue. Before Newton, it was widely believed that ongoing angelic intervention was needed to hold the planets in their orbits. Newton then proved that gravity and inertia could keep them there without the need for such intervention – but even he believed that some sort of divine intervention was needed to get the planets into the right initial positions. But Kant and Laplace then developed the “nebular” model to show how that too could occur via spontaneous order.

Hume explained how biologically fit species, once they arose, could spread and persist via natural selection; but he couldn’t explain the initial emergence of such a species except via its bursting full-blown on the scene randomly after infinitely many throws of the dice in infinite time. Darwin then improved on Hume’s all-or-nothing conception of fitness by introducing the notion of comparative degrees of fitness, thus drastically reducing the role of randomness in evolutionary theory.

Contrary to the view that all social order derives from wise rulers, the eighteenth-century economists showed that social order naturally arises and persists via the invisible hand of the market; but they generally thought that a consciously designed background framework of legal institutions, as well as a state-sponsored medium of exchange, were needed to secure the peaceful enjoyment of property rights necessary for the market to work. But then the nineteenth- and twentieth-century economists showed how even money and legal frameworks can, and historically have, emerged and persisted via spontaneous-order mechanisms too.

Many early thinkers thought that language had to be a divine creation (you can’t have complex thought without language, and you can’t have language without complex thought, so there was a chicken-and-egg problem, solved by postulating the simultaneous full-blown creation of both together); but modern linguists have explained how the two can arise gradually in tandem.

Given this track record, I see little reason to worry about abiogenesis; and, like Leibniz, I wonder why creationists think God is such a poor craftsman that he constantly has to keep fiddling with his handiwork to make it function properly rather than just setting it up right in the first place.

With regard to some of the more specific problems that Pruett raises (and that I didn’t quote), I recommend François’s detailed answers.

4. Logic and mathematics are abstract principles that have been discovered rather than invented. … What is the source of math and logic? … The existence of this remarkably fine-tuned universe aside, how is it that we have these “languages of reality” to so elegantly describe and interact with it?

Here I think I disagree with François’s answer, which is that math and logic “stem from our observations of reality.” I agree rather with Kant’s observation that “though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all knowledge arises out of experience.” Math and logic, in other words, are a priori, and not the product of observation.

I’m not sure whether Pruett is asking how the universe came to be governed by logical and mathematical principles or how we came to think in logical and mathematical terms (maybe both); but either question is again illegitimate, as I see it. To ask why the universe is logical and mathematical is to suppose that it could conceivably have been illogical and unmathematical; but such a supposition is incoherent and senseless. Likewise, to ask why our minds are logical and mathematical is again to suppose that there could be something that would count as a mind while being illogical and unmathematical, and that too is incoherent and senseless. (For elaboration on this point, see my article Anti-Psychologism in Economics: Wittgenstein and Mises, especially section 6.) It makes no sense to demand an explanation for why something is so when no alternative to its being so is conceivable; it’s like asking “Why not glarvel babu snoorp?” – you haven’t succeeded in asking an actual question or specifying the scenario whose non-occurrence you want explained.

5. With no divine author or judge there is no reason to think that there should be any moral laws that we are obliged to recognize and keep, except for self-serving reasons. … [H]ow do you ground morality; how do you explain where it came from and why we ought to be moral tomorrow?

Like Socrates, Aristotle, and Kant (in their different ways), I ground morality in the structure of practical reason. So morality has a status similar to that of logic and math, and asking where it came from makes no sense. As for why we should obey it, here I think (following Socrates and Aristotle more than Kant in this instance) that whatever we desire logically commits us to desiring moral virtue in the same way that whatever we believe logically commits us to believing the laws of logic. (For more details, see my seminar on libertarian ethics.)

Does my commitment to Greek-style eudaimonism make moral obligation (albeit non-instrumental) “self-serving”? If so, I ask: what is the non-self-serving basis for morality that Pruett offers? (It had better not be hope for heaven or fear of hell, because those would be self-serving motivations, no?)

Indeed, more generally, where does morality come from according to Pruett? Presumably his answer is “from God,” but that by itself isn’t very informative. Is Pruett a divine-command theorist, who holds that God makes things good or bad by commanding or forbidding them? (Not all theists are divine-command theorists; Aquinas and Grotius, for example, were not.) If so, he needs to deal with the well-known problems with divine-command ethics (such as its making it impossible for God to have a good reason for anything he does, since no reason counts as good until his choosing it makes it so); plus it still doesn’t by itself give us a reason for obeying God’s commands. (Locke’s version of divine-command ethics offers respect for our creator as the reason to obey his commands; but the moral principle “respect your creator” either depends itself on a divine command – in which case we have no reason to accept it unless we already have independent reason to obey divine commands – or it doesn’t, in which case divine-command ethics is false.)

Now Pruett might instead hold, like Aquinas, that morality derives from God’s nature rather than from his will. Fine; but Aquinas makes that argument work by in effect identifying God with reason personified; and since it’s the reason part, not the personified part, that seems to be doing all the work, this grounding of morality is as available to the atheist as to the theist.

6. In the atheist worldview we are products of time, chance, and blind forces – there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence. … Does life really have no point other than what you pretend for your own sake?

Actually atheism per se doesn’t obviously entail that “we are products of time, chance, and blind forces,” but leave that aside. The obvious answer to this question is that from the premise “we are products of time, chance, and blind forces,” the conclusion “there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence” simply doesn’t follow. The argument’s not valid. An additional premise needs to be supplied, and I have no idea what it could be (apart from the question-begging conditional “IF we are products of time, chance, and blind forces THEN there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence”).

Why would facts about our origin be the only facts relevant to determining the meaning of our lives? Why wouldn’t facts about what kind of being emerged (and not just how it emerged) be at least as relevant?

7. In the world of atheism, where there is no soul or transcendent “self,” humans are simply biological machines, and our minds are just computers made out of meat. With this in view there is really no room for something like freewill, since we are all just operating according to our “programming” and our environmental influences. … Are you prepared to accept the idea that no one is really morally responsible for their bad behavior and, conversely, that virtuous behavior is not commendable?”

Pruett assumes that a) atheism entails materialism, b) materialism entails determinism, and c) determinism entails absence of free will.

I agree with (c), and moreover I think the supposition of determinism is incoherent (for some of my reasons, see my paper Free Minds and Future Contingents); but a lot of smart people have given interesting arguments against (c), so Pruett needs to grapple with those arguments.

I think (a) and (b) are false; anyway, Pruett has offered no defense of them. (Incidetally, for my Aristotelean view on the soul-body relation, one that attempts to avoid the vices of both materialism and dualism, see here, here, and here.)

8. Every known time and culture is rich with stories of near death experiences, ghosts, angels, demons, prophetic dreams and visions, and miraculous healings. … In addition to this, humans seem to be incurably religious; the idea of God and the spiritual is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, if not in its actual experience. … If man is simply an adapted biological organism, then how is it that we did not manage to adapt to our natural environment in this area – why are we not “naturalists” rather than theists?

A ghost! Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian Pruett offers the atheist a dilemma: either paranormal experiences are real, in which case, theism wins; or else they’re not real, in which case our cognitive mechanisms are badly adapted to our environment, so evolutionary theory fails, so once again theism wins.

Neither half of this argument works. There is no inconsistency in regarding experiences of ghosts, prophecies, spiritual healings, etc., as genuine without thinking they’re caused by God. Has Pruett never heard of Buddhists? Or parapsychologists, for that matter?

On the other hand, there’s also no inconsistency between evolutionary theory and regarding paranormal experiences as delusions. It’s no part of evolutionary theory to claim that we are, or that any species is, perfectly adapted to its environment; quite the contrary. And the paraskeptical evolutionist always has the strategy of explaining maladaptive paranormal experiences as the byproducts of traits that are genuinely adaptive (such as high alertness to purposive activity in one’s environment).

As for the claim that belief in God is “deeply entrenched in the human psyche,” actually for most of human history it seems to have been belief in many gods that’s thus entrenched; the prevalence of monotheism is fairly recent. So if this is a good argument for being a theist, it’s an even better argument for being a polytheist – a conclusion that I suspect Pruett will be hesitant to embrace.

9. The case for the Jesus of Scripture is extremely compelling. There is good evidence that the New Testament was written in the generation of the Apostles. … There is no motivation and evidence for fraud among the apostles and church fathers – most died martyr’s deaths. … What alternative explanation do you offer to the New Testament documentation and the tradition of the church, and what support do you have for your theory? Is it because of the miracles that you doubt the Scriptures? If Jesus really were God in the flesh, how would you expect Him to confirm that fact?

Here the atheist has several options. First: grant the miracles but continue to deny the existence of God. (As we’ve already seen, from the existence of miraculous events, nothing follows about the existence of God. Most Buddhists believe in miraculous events also.) Second: question whether the Gospels in their present form had the approval of the Apostles. (We still don’t have complete texts from the Apostles’ actual era, and we already know that some miracles were added that weren’t present in the original editions, like the very resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.) Third: deny that the Apostles had no motive for fraud. (The desire to be regarded as an emissary of the divine might easily outweigh the desire to avoid martyrdom; it often does.) Fourth: deny that deliberate deception is the only explanation for false stories of miracles. (Does Pruett think all reports of alien abduction, sightings of the Loch Ness monster, etc., are either genuine or hoaxes? that such factors as false memories and the suggestibility of the human mind never play any role?)

As for how Jesus would have confirmed that he was God, I don’t know, but the point is moot, since Jesus explicitly denied that he was God.

10. If there really is no meaning or purpose to life, no objective good or evil, and the existence of “truth” itself is open to debate, by what standard will you condemn the beliefs of Christians?

This question depends on conflating atheism with materialism and ethical nihilism; I’ve already said why I think that’s a mistake.

Also, why does Pruett assume that the only alternative to atheism is Christianity? There are a lot of other religions out there besides Christianity (as well, of course, as other versions of Christianity than his own).


68 Responses to Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian

  1. island April 12, 2009 at 4:22 am #

    And this is what I said to him if he ever approves it:

    First of all, one must point out that LifeWay apparently does not know what the anthropic principle actually is. The anthropic principle does not support the fine-tuning argument at all. What the anthropic principle actually says is this: we live in a universe compatible with our own existence.

    Nope, that is a “variant interpretation” of the physics that requires that you assume without proof or justification that the multiverse is in fact the reality.

    This is not the most natural expectation, it is an alternative to a resolution to the fine-tuning problem in physics, from first principles.

    The alternative is fine if you have a final theory to justify it, but we don’t, and the pointed nature of the physics that causes reputable atheist physicists to admit that the universe carries an “appearance of design”, most probably indicates that there is a bio-oriented cosmological principle in effect that resolves the problem from first principles that don’t include probabilities, chance or even other possiblities.

    This is the naturally preferred solution to the problem and it will always take theoretical precedence over the alternatives per the scientific method.

    Creationists use the bio-orientation of the physics to says that goddidit, but that can never take precedence over the natural expectation for a law of physics that includes carbon based life as a meaningful feature of the universe.

    They could, however, laugh at your non-evidenced alternative as requiring a greater leap of faith than to think that the universe is exactly what it looks like… “designed”… and I wouldn’t blame them, because your unsupportable rhetoric is weak.

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

      I don’t see how anything François said about the anthropic principle presupposes the multiverse.

      • island April 12, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

        The interpretation assumes a multiverse and I thought that I was very clear about that.

    • Francois Tremblay April 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm #

      What in tarnation are you talking about.

      • island April 12, 2009 at 2:19 pm #

        You’ll have to be a little more specific than that.

        • island April 12, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

          Nevermind, I think that I understand what you’re asking, now, Francois. I replied in greater detail below, but the simplest way to say this is this:

          You are trying to claim that the universe is not fine tuned because there is nothing remarkable about the observation. Then you make incorrect assumptions about what defines fine tuning.

          In order for yours to be a true statement, you must assume that there are a vast array of other *real* possibilities, because you cannot lose the obvious significance of the observed fine-tuning of the constants any other way.

          Your mistake occurs when you conclude that there is something wrong with the fact that fine-tuning problem compares a “field of possibilities” that don’t appear to actually exist.

          Francois said:
          These quotes clearly illustrate the creationists’ fallacy in their assumption of fine-tuning: they set up a field of possibilities that simply doesn’t exist.

          They don’t have to exist for physicists to know that this would result a runaway effect that sends conditions racing so far away from anything that you can possibly imagine would be conducive to life if we permanently change any of the constants by only a little bit, that it would literally make your head swim.

          This is the fine-tuning problem and it has nothing to do with your false assumption.

          Just because we can imagine the gravitational constant being, not 6.674×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, but rather 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, does not mean that it can actually be 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2. Just because we can write it down and make calculations based on it doesn’t mean it’s actually possible.

          So what?… it doesn’t have to be possible for us to calculate what would happen if they were.

          In other words….

        • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 11:38 pm #

          it doesn’t have to be possible for us to calculate what would happen if they were

          I think this is one of the central philosophical disagreements here. You think that a sentence like “If X were the case, then Y would be the case” can have a straightforward truth-value even if X is impossible. This I deny. If X is impossible, then there is no possible scenario in which X is the case, and thus no fact of the matter as to what happens in such a scenario.

      • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 11:35 pm #

        François — there’s an argument (which island seems to think is your argument, though I think it pretty clearly isn’t) that goes like this: there are many many universes, some compatible with observers like us and some not. Since we couldn’t exist in any of the universes that aren’t compatible with us, it’s no surprise that when we look around we see a universe compatible with us. So no fine-tuning is needed.

        But as I said, I see no reason to interpret your argument in the multiverse way, when it makes perfect sense in the non-multiverse way that you stated it.

        • Roderick April 13, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

          In other words, some argue that there’s one universe of every kind; and if one of each kind of universe exists, it’s not surprising that ours exists. island apparently thinks your (= François’s) argument is a version of this argument, or implicitly presupposes it, or something (though why he thinks this is a mystery).

          But as I noted elsewhere in this talkback, it seems to me that he, not you, is the one presupposing, if not a multiverse of actual universes, at least a multiverse of possible universes, and he owes us an explanation for why we should believe they’re possible.

  2. smally April 12, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    I think the argument in the post you link to reduces theism to atheism rather than synthesizing the two because it doesn’t include any notion of Godlogic being either personal or necessary. Absent those, very few theists, and possibly no Christian theists, would accept the unification.

    Do you think it is possible that the universe, or the something we have rather than nothing, is necessary rather than contingent? That would make a true synthesis of atheism and theism more plausible.

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 12:47 pm #

      Of course logic is necessary, so I don’t see how my solution is problematic on that front. (For more on this, see my follow-up.) As for being personal, I already noted that theologians have traditionally treated God’s personality characteristics as merely analogical, so my solution is no worse off than that of, say, Aquinas, or indeed of most historical Christian theology.

      And I thought it was clear from what I said above that I regard the universe as necessary.

  3. Charles H. April 12, 2009 at 8:47 am #

    both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.

    As one who questions the impossibility of infinite regress, I’d like to offer an alternative view. Perhaps there is no end to the chain of explanation, and everything can be explained in terms of something else, which can itself be explained in terms of something else, ad infinitum. It may be a practical necessity to stop somewhere along the chain and say “I’m going to take this as a given and not try to explain it,” but that doesn’t mean there’s one point in the chain where everyone will agree to stop. There may even be limits to human cognitive capabilities that would make it impossible for us to explain beyond a certain point, without ruling out the possibility that future humans or other rational agents without such limitations will be able to explain what we thought basic.

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

      I don’t think infinite chains of explanation make sense, because the entire series of explananda depends for its explanation on the first link. If there’s no first link, then none of them has been explained.

      • island April 12, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

        Not if the universe is “Darwinian”.

  4. Marja Erwin April 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    As a Christian anarchist, I thought I’d add my own thoughts on morality and question five.

    If morality consists in obedience to judges, rulers, etc. then the highest judge, ruler etc. has no superior, and no capacity for obedience. An obedience ethicist must either assert infinite regress, or accept that the highest judge, ruler, etc. is amoral. Either solution is inconsistent with traditional theism.

    The earliest Christian texts, however, explicitly condemn obedience systems (as well as purity systems). Jesus, through the synoptics, teaches God-as-servant and Paul, in his writings on grace, teaches God-as-healer.

    • Phil April 21, 2009 at 8:57 pm #

      I agree with your assessment about God being amoral and I think it has Biblical evidence to support it. You have supplied one half of the argument, I will try to show the other.

      Morality requires interaction between moral agents (ie. more than one). ‘Before’ creation, there were no moral agents. God is eternal and unchanging. God is amoral.

      • Roderick April 21, 2009 at 11:02 pm #

        Morality requires interaction between moral agents (ie. more than one

        I suppose the concept of the Trinity could be used to get around that. But my main question is: whence comes the premise that morality requires interaction between moral agents?

        • Phil April 28, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

          I assume this is a tautology. Is there some definition of morality that allows for good and bad acts in a personal universe?

          There are similar arguments in the philosophy of language that there can be no ‘personal languages’ i.e. language requires more than one agent. Not exactly analogous IIRC; and actually I find the ‘no personal language’ language argument less persuasive than the moral argument.

          The Trinity might possibly get around this line of reasoning, but I personally don’t think the Trinity is coherent.

        • Roderick April 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

          I’m the other way around; I accept (a version of) the argument against private languages, but I don’t accept the view that morality requires interpersonal interaction (except in the boring sense that we would never have survived infancy, let alone acquired moral cocnepts, without other people’s assistance). Most traditional conceptions of morality assume that in addition to other-regarding duties/virtues there are self-regarding duties/virtues. This is something that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Mill, and Rand all agree on, so it can’t be terribly eccentric.

        • Phil April 28, 2009 at 4:24 pm #

          Interesting. I don’t regard self duties and virtues as part of morality, but as something else. For example I would forcefully stop someone from murder or theft, but I would not forcefully stop suicide or personal property waste/destruction. Certainly the idea is not eccentric, but of the philosophers you list, I’m not a big fan of a (minor) majority.

        • Roderick April 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm #

          I don’t regard self duties and virtues as part of morality, but as something else. For example I would forcefully stop someone from murder or theft, but I would not forcefully stop suicide or personal property waste/destruction.

          As a libertarian, I of course agree with you on the 2nd sentence above, but I don’t see what it has to do with the first sentence. Unless you are equating “morality” with “stuff it’s okay to enforce”? If so, why? That seems like an eccentric use of the term.

          I would say that interpersonal duties are a subset of morality, and that duties it’s permissible to enforce are a subset of interpersonal duties.

        • Roderick April 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm #

          but of the philosophers you list, I’m not a big fan of a (minor) majority.

          Well, my point was that thinkers who agree with each other on so little still agree on this point.

          Out of curiosity, though, which folks on the list are you not a big fan of?

        • Phil April 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm #

          I think I meant to show that in the one case, where I consider morality to be in play, there involves an interaction between moral agents, and the violation of the interaction warrants interference by a second or third party; but in the other, there is no interaction between two or more parties, nor is it warranted. So if both would be considered part of being moral, why would it be ok for me to interfere with one but not the other? This would suggest two ‘tiers’ of morality, which is really just another way of saying they are two separate (related in some way) things.

          Well, I haven’t read two of the philosophers much if at all, so I can not be a big fan of Kant (who is considered abstruse – so I haven’t tackled him yet), or Aquinas (who is more known for theological things? Not as interested in that per se). Rand I am not a fan of. She seems to produce largely two camps of people: zealous zombies who are choir boys for Republican pseudo free-markets and big-corporatism, and people who hate libertarians because she is the most well-known to outsiders. Lastly, Aristotle. He delved into nearly everything, but seemed to be mediocre (at best) in all he touched.

  5. Francois Tremblay April 12, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    Thank you for your answers Roderick. I will add a link to your entry on part 2.

  6. island April 12, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    Trying this again:

    2. Order
    The past several decades have added profoundly to our knowledge of chemistry, physics, and cosmology. It has become increasingly clear that we live in a universe finely tuned for the support of complex life. This fact is so universally acknowledged that even secular scientists have coined the term “Anthropic Principle” to describe it.”

    “How is it that we live in such an exquisitely fine-tuned universe? Even assuming that the universe could have popped out of nothingness, why should it have been such an orderly and hospitable one? Is there a scientific, testable answer for this question that does not simply appeal to imagination?”

    First of all, one must point out that LifeWay apparently does not know what the anthropic principle actually is.

    No, first of all, you need to understand that the fine tuning problem in physics is not a creationist idea. It comes from an observation by physicists that the universe is configured in a manner that is drastically different than our most natural expectation for what the universe should look like without an anthropic constraint on the forces, which looks like this:

    Is Our Universe Natural

    The anthropic principle does not support the fine-tuning argument at all. What the anthropic principle actually says is this: we live in a universe compatible with our own existence.

    This definition typically goes as follows:
    “we live in a universe compatible with our own existence, or we would not be here to observe it.”

    This tautology assumes that there is nothing remarkable about our universe because we simply wouldn’t be here to observe it if it were different. It assumes that other configurations are just as likely as ours is, but as the physics paper that I linked above points out, this is not so.

    The fine tuning problem in physics is not a creationists idea.

    The many variant interpretations of the anthropic principle fall from the observation that the forces are “fine-tuned” to an extremely narrow range of values in a completely unexpected manner that is also highly pointed toward the production of carbon based life over a specific region of the observed universe and at an equally specific region of the observed universe.

    This does not indicate that the universe is simply compatible with our existence, (which requires a multitude of incompatible possibilities in order to be true), rather, the pointed nature of the observation indicates that were are somehow specially relevant to relevant to the structure mechanism.

    Got it, yet?

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

      When you say “just as likely” are you referring to objective or subjective probability?

      If objective, then we have no reason to assume that any alternative to the present laws of nature has any objectuve probability at all.

      If subjective, then obviously the subjective probability of any universe in which we don’t exist is zero.

      • island April 12, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

        Roderick the scientific paper that I linked defines the objective probability for a universe without an anthropic constraint on the forces, vs… increasingly ambitious ideas that attempt to explain why certain features of our universe aren’t as surprising as they might first appear.

        They appear surprising because they don’t look anything like the most natural model that uses first principles to define the natural expectation.

        “Increasingly ambitious ideas” are theoretical speculations that require assumptions that aren’t justified by a final theory.

        You can’t lose the SURPRISE without assuming a bunch of stuff that isn’t yet science, and you can’t lose the bio-orientation of the physics no matter what you do.

        So the universe is surprisingly bio-oriented unless you assume without proof that there is a multiverse, or if can provide a valid cosmological principle that explains why we are just a consequence of otherwise highly-pointed physics which is defined by the common connection between the goldilocks enigma and the structure of the universe.


        • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 6:06 pm #

          I don’t see how any of that affects my objection. You seme to be just repeating your original claims.

          If you’re talking about objective probability, we need evidence that any alternative to the existing laws has any non-zero probability. What scientists find “natural” is not evidence.

          When you talk about “surprise” you seem to be raising subjective probability again, but in that case my earlier question stands.

        • island April 12, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

          I’m repeating myself because you refuse to recognize that evidence that the alternative to the existing laws has a non-zero probability is given in the paper.

          We expect dimensionless parameters in a theory (including ratios of dimensionful
          parameters such as mass scales) to be of order unity, not too large nor too small. Indeed, in the context of effective quantum field theories, the renormalization group gives us some justification for this notion of “naturalness”.

          Remove the anthropic constraint from the forces and this is what you get per the current best supported theories, so the probability for a universe like ours is extremely unlikely, unless there is an otherwise unidentified suppression mechanism that is constraining the forces to the observed low-entropy configuration.

          But what scientists find “natural” doesn’t include the true anthropic constraint on the forces. Instead of coming to the realization that their failure to derive unity from what is observed is actually telling them that there is something wrong with their theories that gives them partially accurate answers to their questions. So you may have a point because they are practicing a religious belief known begrudgingly by them as “copernicanism”:


        • island April 12, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

          Re: Subjective Surprise

          Is it surprising to find that our universe is configured like this?:


          Not if the expected cosmological principle fixes the universe to this configuration…
          Not if there are many universes where one had to be like ours.

          If the cosmological principle fixes the universe in this manner, then the structure mechanism is most apparently directly connected to the goldilocks enigma and life.

          Should we be surprised that we appear to be specially relevant to the structure of the universe?

          That depends on whether you expect this to be true or not.

          You certainly don’t expect it if you are a cutting edge theorist, nor will you if you are a “free-thinker” or a “skeptic”, but you might if you were a creationist, and you most certainly would if you could produce a law of physics that shows why we might be specially necessary to the physical process.

          Like an energy conservation law that includes life as a thermodynamic mechanism.

          For example only:

          So now I’m just rambling for clarification… sorry.

        • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 11:27 pm #

          Let me put my point this way: You think of yourself as someone who’s opposed to people who arbitrarily assume there’s a multiverse. But from my perspective there’s a sense in which you too are arbitrarily assuming that there’s a multiverse. The difference is that the people you oppose are assuming that there’s a multiplicity of actual universes, while you’re assuming that there’s a multiplicity of potential universes.

          And then you point out that the actual universe is a fairly atypical member of that set of potential universes. Maybe that’s true, given that set. But I’m questioning the set. All the evidence that you point to about the probability of the other members of the set presupposes that there are other members of the set. And that’s what I’m questioning. Until that presupposition is defended, all discussion of the relative probabilities of these disputed potentialities is question-begging.

          In other words, your assumption of a multiplicity of potential universes seems as arbitrary and unmotivated to me as the assumption of a multiplicity of actual universes seems to both of us.

        • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 11:42 pm #

          Is it surprising to find that our universe is configured like this?

          Surprising relative to what baseline?

          Is it surprising to find that the four-colour theorem is true? Is it surprising to learn that you can’t divide by zero? Sure, initially.

    • RLWemm April 13, 2009 at 12:40 am #

      The universe appears to be fine-tuned for black holes. Almost all of it is toxic to life.

  7. Richard Garner April 12, 2009 at 5:03 pm #

    A lot of these questions seem to be “how do you explain…?” type questions. But why do atheists have to answer these questions? All they have to do is say why it is reasonable not to believe that there is a God, and so why reasons for belief don’t hold up. The “how do you explain…?” type questions almost imply an argument “you have no explaintion for X, therefore it is reasonable to believe there is a God.” But this argument is clearly fallacious. The absence of any explaination for, say, the origin of life, does not in anyway prove that it is reasonable to believe in God, and so unreasonable not to.

  8. littlehorn April 12, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    I don’t really want to enter any debate at the moment. I just want to say thanks. Thanks.

  9. TGGP April 12, 2009 at 6:07 pm #

    most Buddhists are atheists but not materialists

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 11:29 pm #

      I’m not surprised that a lot of Americans who call themselves Buddhists also believe things inconsistent with traditional Buddhism. But a high percentage of those seem to me to be “fad” Buddhists whose understanding of the traditions they’re adopting is extremely superficial.

      But at any rate, the only claim I need in order to make my point is that most classical Buddhists are atheists.

    • Mike April 13, 2009 at 7:17 am #

      Well AMERICAN Buddhist believe in God. Colour me Shocked. Or not.

      Perhaps you should actually read the Dharmapada which states in no uncertain terms there are no gods. That American Buddhist belive there is is more a case of importation of cultural norms (you can bet those American Buddhist used to be American Catholics or American Baptists). Kinda like importing the old Voodoo gods into Carribean Catholicism or American Christians hunting for eggs in the spring and puttiong up a Christmas tree at the Winter Solstice….

  10. John the Skeptic April 12, 2009 at 7:04 pm #

    Something has always struck me as odd about the ‘fine-tuning’ argument.

    To use your example, what if the gravitational constant were a little higher, say 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2 as in your example? Well, the development of stars and solar systems might have proceeded a little differently. White stars like our sun might have developed to be a little smaller and a little hotter. Larger, cooler stars might have developed to be more like our own sun. In that scenario, while our Earth might not have formed, there’s nothing that seems to rule out highly Earth-like planets elsewhere in the Universe.

    Moreover, we really have no reason to suppose that life can only develop on Earth-like planets. Given the range of viable ecosystems that we know of on Earth, ranging from the sulfur plumes of oceanic volcanoes, to the arctic tundra, to the tropical rain forests, it seems that life is pretty flexible. It really does not seem much of a stretch to suppose that since life can exist in a volcanic plume, it might also exist on, say, the Jovian moon Europa.

    Any alleged ‘fine-tuning’ seems to be largely irrelevant to the viability of life in the Universe.

    • Mike April 13, 2009 at 7:23 am #

      I have generally fond the fine tuning arguement to have on major problem – it assumes only one of the contanst being out of tune. I understand there are models that exist that show that a universe that can support life can be made when the constants are changed in sync – the gravitational constant is pushed up while the few others are pushed down. The result is a universe very different from ours but still able to sustanin life.

      In other words, the entire argument rests on false premises other than the ones Roderick has presented.

  11. Anon73 April 12, 2009 at 7:18 pm #

    I didn’t really get a solid impression one way or another from that link TGGP. The comments discussed the percentage of Buddhists in indochina, korea, and china that are atheist, and it said a good many are. That would give some support to the idea that Buddhism is, if not explicitly atheist, at least compatible with it.

  12. island April 12, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    Well, the development of stars and solar systems might have proceeded a little differently.

    No, that’s false, and the information that explains the runaway effect that takes place if they are a little different is readily available at numerous .edu sites, so it requires convenient ignorance of the facts to make your bogus statement. This is highly symptomatic of the large problem here that prevents a true resolution to the fine tuning problem in physics.

    Any doubt about ‘fine-tuning’ seems to be largely to be a matter of willful ignorance that comes from the historically recorded ideological predispositoning of people like you:


    • John the Skeptic April 13, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

      Well Island, I’m really glad you shared that drawing of a pencil balanced on its point. That was really persuasive.

  13. Alexanka April 13, 2009 at 2:21 am #

    The Anthropic Principle says just what it says, our form of life is impossible in other types of worlds, so we have to take our world for granted. We can enjoy our world and question it only because it is the only world we have.
    So what? I can’t see any God and his plans in here. It doesn’t and can’t say that those other universes do or don’t exist. And much more, its apologists are not able to say anything sound about those universes’ conditions. Is an intelligent life possible in there? Not our kind based on these miserable proteins, but any kind of life and intelligence? What the hell they know about 5-dimensional or E= mc^17 universes? Absolutely nothing. If some 5-dimensional scientist think about our world he would say like “oh, bloody hell, what a backward universe! Only huge clouds of hydrogen and some stupid stars. No life, no intelligence.” Could he predict these rare, unique, exceptional, sophisticated conditions of our lovely planet? And if he does, would he say “wow! look here guys, these funny two-legged two-armed one-nosed bugs are so happy! Just cauze they got a Fine-Tuner above them. Let’s try it!”
    Can our scientists say anything meaningful about 5-dimensional universes beyond some SF crap? How the hell they are so sure that any intelligent life can exist only in our universe and in our form? ( btw, the very fact that our brains are made of beef is a good evidence against God. Really, if even we in our technological and scientific stupidity know that other materials ( like optical fibers) are much better, the question pops up, why our Fine-Tuner is so negligent and careless? Dos he really love us?)

  14. Francois Tremblay April 13, 2009 at 3:59 am #

    Can anyone explain to me in simple terms what island is going on about? He is really vexing.

    • Roderick April 13, 2009 at 1:43 pm #

      I gave it a try above (i.e. here).

      • Francois Tremblay April 13, 2009 at 2:19 pm #

        Oh I see. So why does he believe that’s what I’m saying? I never said the word “multiverse.”

        • Roderick April 13, 2009 at 11:32 pm #

          So why does he believe that’s what I’m saying?

          My guess: When you’re used to arguing against people who use a specific argument, you start assuming that each new opponent is making the old familiar point even when they’re not.

  15. Brother Mark, Amen April 13, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    I had an event when I was 17 where I saw the singularity. Afterwards I was tempted to give the local Jehovah Witness a real good talking to whenever they came around to my house: something like “we are immortal and will never die so don’t worry about anything.”

    Roderick, language is important right? I’m not a philosophy student or even well read, but I saw the source of my quantum physical embodiment when I was 17 years old. I carry the memory of that event with me as I age. I don’t want to claim something that is not true but I also do not wish to avoid promoting something I think could be considered unique and useful.

    Atheist vs Theist are really about being language warriors, aren’t they? Do we nutters, with simple existential experiences, get a pass? We just want to use language to describe it. We know it’s crazy. Bu there it is. An here we are.

    American Beauty clip is actually close to what I experienced when I was a teenager.

    I make the assumption that subjective experience is the model for all of existence. Existence exists. Existence is experience. Rudy Rucker tells it better: http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_3.html#rucker

    • Brandon April 13, 2009 at 7:22 pm #

      I have two questions. Which drugs were you on when you saw the “singularity?” and “give me some”.

  16. Brother Mark, Amen April 13, 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    I should also mention I’m also a Phil Dickian Gnostic. I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure this whole existence thing is one big conspiracy.

  17. Brother Mark, Amen April 13, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    “It could be that having a mind is in some sense equivalent to being capable of universal computation.”

    Oh my. That’s empathy. Empathy is the Emanation of Self. The Singularity became the Many in order to return to it’s self.

  18. Brother Mark, Amen April 13, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

    I’m dicking up the internets aint I? Sorry.

    But the concept of Classical Eudaimonism, for me seems like what I call the Sandbox. I want to have as many and varied people in my sandbox with me so I can have the most opportunities to play with not only the most toys but the most eager playmates which appriciate these same toys which I love.

  19. Gene April 13, 2009 at 7:52 pm #

    Speaking as a self-identified Buddhist, I certainly favor atheist and anti-supernatural interpretations over theism and some conceptions of rebirth, but it’s not unreasonable to interpret in the latter fashion. However, Buddhism (particularly Theravada and the more austere forms of Mahayana like Zen) more than asserting a god doesn’t (or does) exist underscores again and again that it just doesn’t matter.

    Stephen Batchelor talks about that position here:

  20. Micah April 14, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    “Second: question whether the Gospels in their present form had the approval of the Apostles. (We still don’t have complete texts from the Apostles’ actual era, and we already know that some miracles were added that weren’t present in the original editions, like the very resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.)”

    The section added in later was the resurrection appearance of Jesus (Mk. 16:9-20). The resurrection of Jesus is mention in the preceding verses, along with the mention that he was about to appear to the disciples. (16:6-7) Just thought I’d clarify that, since the way it is worded makes it sound like *every* mention of the resurrection was in the material added in later. The textual history doesn’t bear out the later claim, though it is agreed upon that 16:9-20 was added in later.

  21. Ray Mangum April 16, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Really great post, Roderick!

    I first encountered a philosophical discussion of “why is there something rather than nothing” in an essay by William James called “The Problem of Being”, where he wrote “Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge. . . . The question of being is the darkest in all philosophy. All of us are beggars here . . .”

    Now I have begun to read Mises’ “Human Action” and I think early on he deals with this issue in much the same way as you do, although not in the context of theism vs. atheism. (He speaks of monism, dualism and so on. I suppose theism can be seen as a subspecies of monism.) He brings into further relief why being is such a dark question for philosophy, in this striking passage:

    “Science always is and must be rational. It is the endeavor to attain a mental grasp of the phenomena of the universe by a systematic arrangement of the whole body of available knowledge. However . . . the analysis of objects into their constituent elements must sooner or later necessarily reach a point beyond which it cannot go. The human mind is not even capable of conceiving a kind of knowledge not limited by an ultimate given inaccessible to further analysis and reduction. The scientific method that carries the mind up to this point is entirely rational. The ultimate given may be called an irrational fact. ”

    If I understand you in point 4, you are making a Misesian point about logic and math b being (like praxeology) being a priori. But Mises doesn’t say that the universe is logical but rather, “Life and reality are neither logical nor illogical; they are simply given.” Life and reality could be otherwise. It is probably another impossible question to find out why they are not, but not an incoherent one as you suggest.

    “It makes no sense to demand an explanation for why something is so when no alternative to its being so is conceivable; it’s like asking Why not glarvel babu snoorp? – you haven’t succeeded in asking an actual question or specifying the scenario whose non-occurrence you want explained.”

    Chesterton does ask just such a question in “The Logic of Elfland”:

    “They [scientists] talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.”

    Of course, this does not mean that they do, or that there must be some universe where they do. But the “test of the imagination” is an important one, since it supports Mises in his contention of the necessarily rational structure of our mind (does he get this from Kant?), and the non-rational givenness of the natural world.

    • Roderick April 16, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

      That’s why I’m an Aristotelean rather than a Kantian.

  22. Anon73 April 17, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Wasn’t Kant the one who thought our rational minds impose order on an irrational world?

    • Roderick April 17, 2009 at 11:36 am #

      That’s at least one strand in his thought, yeah. I think there’s a tension in Kant’s thought between impositionism (boo!) and raillessness (yay!). For what I mean by those terms, see this. For the tension between good (“austere”) and bad (“transcendental”) Kant, see Strawson’s Bounds of Sense.

      Part of my quarrel with Rand’s interpretation of Kant is that a) she sees only the bad strand in Kant, not the good one, and so b) misses the fact that the bad strand is there not because Kant put it there out of deliberate malice against reality, but because the railless view is perched between impositionism and reflectionism, and if you’re mostly busy attacking reflectionism it can be awfully easy to slide into impositionism.

  23. sarah April 17, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    “To ask why the universe is logical and mathematical is to suppose that it could conceivably have been illogical and unmathematical; but such a supposition is incoherent and senseless.”

    Actually, I don’t think this is true. (Forgive me — I’m not a philosopher, just thinking out loud.) It is remarkable that physical observations are governed by simple mathematical laws, and it might have been otherwise.

    There are examples of chaotic processes in the world — weather, for instance — that we cannot predict. This does not simply mean that science has yet to understand the weather, but that, in a rigorous sense, weather prediction is computationally complex to the point of impossibility. One could imagine a world in which all physical observations were like the weather; chaotic, unpredictable, governed by no simple laws. But, instead, gravity is an inverse square law, the three-dimensional wave equation has a closed-form solution, and so on.

    I agree that it’s incoherent to hypothesize about a world that’s contrary to reason (an *illogical* world) but it seems perfectly possible to imagine a world that we cannot summarize with simple predictive laws.

    I agree that it may be self-evident that we can find patterns in the world, or rules to explain what we observe. After all, if you draw any curve, no matter how arbitrary, I can approximate it with a polynomial. If you show me any arbitrary event, I can write a description of it, and call it a “law.” But your arbitrary curve will have to be approximated by a *very long* polynomial most of the time, if you want any degree of accuracy. And the “law” for an arbitrary event may have to be very detailed and ad hoc. This means that it’s remarkable that so many curves in nature can be approximated by *simple* functions, and that so many events in nature can be approximated by *simple* laws.

    I study math, and I’ve known a lot of mathematicians. No mathematician would find it a surprising or remarkable fact that mathematics is logical — that’s just what math is, by definition. But quite a few find it remarkable, and a source of religious or scientific awe, that math has anything at all to do with the physical world. Your back-of-the-napkin chicken scratch might really be tomorrow’s bomb or fuel source.

    To me (a conventionally, if sloppily, religious Jew) that suggests God. But even to atheists, it often suggests that something is going on behind the scenes — it seems instinctive for a lot of people to personify Nature or to believe, if only subconsciously, that the world is a scientific one in which most events have explanations. The more science you do, it seems, the more superstitious you are about this — the more firm your belief in a universe with elegant solutions. (Buckminster Fuller.) Scientists tend not to say, “Oh, that’s probably really complicated and we’re never going to understand it.” Why not? Why isn’t everything too complicated to understand? I think that’s a contingent fact, and a fact that we can marvel at — I don’t think it’s self-evident.

    • Roderick April 17, 2009 at 3:44 pm #

      Well, as Wittgenstein points out (in a way this is his version of the anthropic principle), although the principles of mathematics would still be true in a world where, e.g., all countables behaved like water droplets instead of like beans, we wouldn’t be able to apply mathematical concepts in such a world — and so wouldn’t have them, since the ability to apply them is part of having them. Thus the applicability of math to the empirical world is an a priori truth, in the sense that anyone who grasps it thereby knows it to be true (since a world in which it wasn’t true wouldn’t have beings apable of possesisng the concepts needed to grasp it).

      • sarah April 18, 2009 at 6:18 am #

        So, in a world where nothing made sense, we wouldn’t have been able to ask the question, “Why does nothing make sense?”
        Fair enough; I didn’t know that.

  24. Anon73 April 17, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

    Ayn Rand likes to talk about that a lot, although Aristotle came up with the whole idea that the world can be grasped by our intelligence and understood, studied, and predicted. I remember reading a weird science textbook one time that contrasted Aristotle’s “logic” with modern science’s “experiments”, drawing the conclusion that because Aristotle’s theory of elements (wind,fire,earth,water) was wrong that therefore “trying to understand the world though logic” was incorrect but instead experimentation was the way to go. I never really understood the thinking behind that, since scientists presumably use logic when doing experiments!

    • Roderick April 17, 2009 at 3:46 pm #

      Yeah, that sounds like a bad science textbook. Or at least a science textbook with some bad philosophy — it may have been all right in the strictly science part. (Come to think of it, most science textbooks I’ve seen have some bad philosophy in them.)

      The earliest thinker I know of to state explicitly that whatever is real is intelligible was Parmenides. Though Parmenides pushed this idea in a rather un-Aristotelean direction by dismissing most of experience as unintelligible and therefore unreal.


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