Friday, November 29, 2013

Sean Carroll's argument for atheism

The video of Sean Carroll's Oxford-Cambridge lecture titled "God is not a good theory" is almost one hour long.  I recommend taking the time to watch the entire video.  However, for the benefit of people without an hour to spare I will summarize his argument for you.  

He starts with a definition of theory as an idea about the universe that may be true or false.  For almost all believers, god qualifies as a theory.  However, god is not a precisely specified theory, and this is one of the substantial problems with the theory of god.

Concepts of god can be placed into at least three categories:  Passive, Active, and Emergent.  A passive god, as conceived by arm chair philosophers, is justified as fulfilling some requirement for making logical sense of our universe, such as the first cause, the unmoved mover, and a necessary being.  This a passive conception because this god is not intervening to change any physical laws.  An active conception of god is that of a creator and ruler who cares about human life, communicates to humans about proper human conduct, performs miracles, grounds morality, organizes an after life.  The active god has an empirically observable presence and is justified accordingly.  An emergent conception defines god as synonymous with love, the universe, the laws of nature, feelings of awe/transcendence.  An emergent god is justified as serving a rhetorical function.  

Sean Carroll dismisses the emergent conception of god as unworthy of further discussion because we can have the same conversations about the same topics without making any references to a rhetorical god. An emergent god therefore is superfluous.

The passive conception of god has a huge problem. It is based on a-priori metaphysics.  It is rooted in rationalism rather than empiricism, it fails to give priority to observation.  Such arm chair reasoning has never taught us anything factually true about the world.  What it reveals, at its best, are consequences of axioms, and this can be useful, particularly in mathematics and logic.  But it doesn't tell us which axioms are possibly true.  Such a-priori reasoning cannot get us to the facts about what is actually true in our particular universe.

Sean Carroll then proceeds to argue that even if we take the arguments for a passive god more seriously than is merited by this major flaw in the underlying epistemology, they still do not succeed.  God as a necessary being, first cause, and similar concepts are refuted by the fact that we can easily conceive of many possible, self-consistent, self-contained, coherent, eternal universes in the forms of various mathematical constructs with no god, no first cause, etc.  Furthermore, at least one of these possible universes is plausibly our universe as it appears to represent a framework that correctly models our universe.

A counter-argument is that while it is possible to conceive of universes without god, those universe are infeasible because they lack a sufficient cause or explanation, they provide no answer to the "why" question.  A legitimate universe explanation must answer the question why there is a universe and why it is this particular universe, therefore a god is required.  Sean Carroll disagrees.  You may prefer that there be an explanation for why this universe exists instead of another, or for why this universe exists instead of no universe, but our universe could just be.  We associate causes with events because we experience our universe that way.  Cause identification is linked to the overall context, so examining the same event from different perspectives will very often result in our reaching different conclusions about the cause.  The context in which the universe appears is different from the context of our daily experiences.  So analogizing from the contexts of our experiences within the universe to the context of the universe as a whole here is a weak analogy.

Sean Carroll states that he does not think that everything within the universe can be associated with a reason or a cause.  Here is a short discussion of "Purpose and the Universe" with a video of Sean Carroll discussing the topic in more depth at an American Humanists Association meeting.  He says "The universe itself doesn’t have a purpose, nor is there one inherent in the fundamental laws of physics. But teleology (movement toward a goal) can plausibly be a useful concept when we invent the best description of higher-level phenomena, and at the human level there are purposes we can create for ourselves."

The primary point here is that all such a-priori metaphysical arguments claims ultimately boil down to contingent empirical claims.  Why must there be a sufficient reason for the universe?  We are obligated to adopt a skeptical stance to such "must be", "necessary", types of assertions.  It can then be argued that sufficient reason is needed because everything else has sufficient reason. But that is an empirical claim. Therefore, we must examine the god hypothesis like we examine all other hypothesis and look for the simplest coherent theory that explains the largest amount of data.

So does god give us a good theory on conventional scientific grounds?  For a variety of reasons, the answer is no.  Conservation of energy means there is no need for a first mover, chemistry means there is no need for a giver of life, natural selection means there is no need for a designer of the many different species of life.  Neuroscience suggests that there is no need for a provider of consciousness and cosmology suggests there is no need for a creator.  While these latter questions remain unsolved problems, there are multiple viable hypothesis and these questions appear to be resolvable using the same types of empirical methods that have successfully resolved the other questions without a god being needed.

Sean Carroll then identifies the Fine Tuning argument as the best empirical argument for God.  He identifies several weaknesses to this argument.  One is that we do not know what other possible universes would support life because we do not know enough about what different forms of life are possible and under what other conditions those different possible forms of life would be viable.  Life may be possible in many other forms and as a result the phenomena of life may be much more generic and common to many different universes than the Fine Tuning argument assumes.  What is needed for life is a very hard question to answer and we are not even close to knowing what percentage of possible universes would support some form of life.  Another weakness of the Fine Tuning argument is that modern physics predicts a multiverse, and in a multiverse where the parameters vary we would expect to find ourselves in a region of the multiverse where the parameters appear to be finely tuned to support our existence.  

Lastly, the question of the probability that god exists given the data is addressed.  If we did not know anything about the actual universe, but we have this theory that there is a god who created the universe and who cares about us human beings, what would we expect the universe to be like?  We know what the universe looks like so it can be tempting to say that god would make the universe exactly as we see it.  But that is a biased approach.  To tackle this question properly, we must try to start with a blank slate.  And here we encounter a problem with the very low entropy of our universe during the Big Bang.  It was about 10 to the -10 to the 120 smaller than its current value.  Such extremely low entropy is incompatible with the existence of life, so if god created the universe to support life then we would predict our universe would have started with much higher entropy.  This would have resulted in a universe with one galaxy instead of our universe with billions of galaxies that are unnecessary for life on earth.

There are other similar empirical arguments against the god hypothesis.  The problem of evil, the problem of random suffering, and the problem of lack of clear divine instructions.  No god ever told us that matter is made of atoms, the universe is billions of years old, people of different races, genders, etc. should be treated equally, and the like.  Trying to salvage god by assigning to god the traits of elusiveness and vagueness is counter-productive since those are traits that evidence a weakness in the god hypothesis.  We cannot have it both ways and say that god is evidenced by fine tuning but no other evidence can count against god.  That is a double standard.  God is much more ontologically problematic than a multiverse.  God is an entirely different metaphysical category from everything else, ill-defined, unnecessary, whimsical, and frustratingly reclusive.  We do better explaining the universe without the god hypothesis. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hylopathism and pantheism overlooks emergent properties

There are numerous Jewish/Christian/Muslim scientists, or at least theistic scientists. I prefer to cite atheist scientists because their arguments are better. Today, I will quote and criticize the metaphysics of physicist Freeman Dyson, who calls himself a non-denominational Christian but whose liberal theology sounds similar to traditional universalist unitarianism.  He appears to meld unitarianism with a type of animism that is known as hylopathism and also with pantheism.  This perspective appears to not be uncommon among liberal academic theologians.  Deepak Chopra, a physician and author who has turned himself into a wealthy man by presenting himself as a holistic health/New Age guru, and by promoting alternative medicine, sometimes cites Freeman Dyson's beliefs as supporting his "quantum healing" concept, which mixes ideas associated with quantum mechanics, applied outside their proper context, with ayurvedic "medicine". Chopra's popular reception in America is symptomatic of many Americans' historical inability, as Susan Jacoby puts it, "to distinguish between real scientists and those who peddled theories in the guise of science."

In his book "Infinite in All Directions" Dyson Freeman asserts that there are three levels of mind: "The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is the level of elementary physical processes in quantum mechanics. Matter in quantum mechanics is [...] constantly making choices between alternative possibilities according to probabilistic laws. [...] The second level at which we detect the operations of mind is the level of direct human experience. [...] [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus" (p. 297).

Either we get sentient life from non-sentient matter or we get non-sentient rocks from sentient matter.  After all, both life and rocks are made with quantum mechanical matter.  Some people with a religious orientation have a tendency to think the latter scenario is more plausible.  But we have lots of evidence that properties that are not found in the constituent parts  emerge from interactions that occur within large ensembles of those smaller parts. Thus, the available evidence strongly favors the conclusion that the sentience difference between rocks and brains is rooted in the differences of the molecules and their chemistry and interactions that result in an active metabolism in sentient life that is lacking in non-sentient rocks.

The fact of emergent properties is not controversial.  These are phenomena that only occur, or can only be defined, when there are a gazillion interactions occuring.  Emergent properties, which appear only within the confines of a particular context, are pervasive.  Examples of these in physics are superconductivity, fractional quantum hall effect, and magnetism.  Weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals, as driven by the random motion of water molecules within a conducive natural environment, is another example of an emergent process. The laws of classical mechanics can be said to emerge as a limiting case from the rules of quantum mechanics applied to large enough masses.   Friction, viscosity, elasticity, and tensile strength are emergent properties.  Chemistry is an emergent property of the laws of physics and biology is an emergent property of chemistry.

What is controversial here is the reductionist versus anti-reductionist interpretations of the emergent properties phenomena.  The reductionists say that all emergent properties are ultimately explainable in terms of the basic physics.  The anti-reductionists deny that this is possible.  But we do not have to take a position in that debate to recognize that sentience, and mind, are nothing more than two more instances of the ubiquitous phenomena of emergent properties.  It is a mistake to take emergent properties and assign those same properties to the constituent parts or to universe as a whole, as Dyson Freeman is selectively doing in both directions when he assigns sentience and mind to matter and to the entire universe.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Testing the God hypothesis

I recommend Victor Stenger's blog, which is on the Huffington Post.  His latest article is a synopsis of his argument that the god hypothesis is disfavored by the available evidence.  He adopts a simple, pragmatic, evidenced based approach.  We can do the same from a higher level perspective and substitute testing the closely related, but more general, supernatural hypothesis instead of the god hypothesis.  If our universe appears to exist and operate for the purpose of harboring humans, if our universe appears to exist and operate under the design and control of an intelligent agent to further that intelligent agent's goals, then that is evidence for supernaturalism.  If our universe appears to exhibit an indifference to humanity and exhibits a chaotic, random operation then it is naturalistic.  

We have determined that our universe operates according to laws.  The laws that govern our universe's operation exhibit an indifference to humanity.  Humanity lives at risk of annihilation from a large asteroid, a volcanic storm, a gamma-ray burst, contagious disease, supernovae, or even a solar flare eruption from our sun.  The patterns and constraints that define the laws governing our universe exhibit no intended purpose, no goal.  Our universe's overall organization and operation is haphazard, unstable, and random.  Galaxies are built from a small minority of all of the particles, and after they are born they all eventually disintegrate.  The immortality of the Greek gods is a fiction given that our universe dissapitates at an accelerating rate.  Furthermore, the natural laws governing our universe are not violated.  

The aforementioned considerations are the most relevant empirical evidence available to us for deciding this question.  The best fit conclusion that follows is that our universe is exclusively naturalistic.  This can easily sound sad or tragic to us but that is entirely irrelevant to determining what is true.  It may be that the popularity of supernatural belief is motivated at least in part by wishful thinking, but that is an ineffective, parochial, self-centered way of reaching conclusions about how our universe works.

One of the points Victor Stenger emphasizes in his article is that we arrive at conclusions about how our universe operates by constructing models.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters here is whether the models we construct are successful.  Does the model describe what we observe accurately and consistently?  Does it make predictions which are subsequently verified?  The reason that success is our ultimate criteria is that we have no way of measuring the truthiness of our assertions by any other criteria.  If our model is successful then we have achieved everything that we reasonably can want to achieve.  Thus, it is a mistake to worry that we are missing some additional ultimate truth as a result.  Since we do not have access to that ultimate truth we have not in any sense failed by not acquiring it.  So when some people argue for believing in an unevidenced god on faith they are making an intrinsically silly argument.