Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lawrence Krauss: No, I won!!!

Lawrence Krauss, in a guest post on Pharyngula, is in a hissy-fit over a debate he had with William Lane Craig. I haven't watched the debate—debates are usually unedifying matters of style over substance. Unless I get a critical mass of recommendations to watch, my going in assumption is that any given debate is ignorable.

Furthermore, given that, as I understand it, this debate was not about, say, the self-consistency of a world view assuming the Christian god but rather about scientific evidence for god I would have, reluctantly, been on Krauss's side. I don't believe there is any direct scientific evidence for god or any satisfying philosophical "proofs" for god. Good thing I’m a confirmed presuppositionalist, eh?

Krauss is whining, as near as I can tell, about Craig's post-debate behavior. Apparently LK is miffed that Craig has been going about declaring victory to his own supporters. To counter this unspeakable breach of ethics, Krauss has penned a guest post on Pharyngula to, well, declare victory to his supporters.

If Krauss debates like he writes I am certain he must have lost on style points. His Pharyngula essay is ponderous and sleep-inducing. Prop you eyelids open with toothpicks before reading.

One of several topics about which Krauss declares himself the winner is, unsurprisingly, fine-tuning. His writing on the subject, though better than Coyne’s (at least Krauss knows what he is talking about) is far from laudable. He starts:
The appearance of design is one of the most subtle and confusing aspects of our Universe.
which is bit of a strawman. Fine-tuning is not an "appearance of design" but a question about whether and why the universe's ability to synthesize metals (heavy elements) is sensitive to the values of the fundamental constants and the strengths of the basic forces. Some theists philosophically interpret fine-tuning as prima facie design evidence. Some scientists philosophically interpret fine-tuning as multiverse evidence. But if we stick to just science and ignore philosophy (always a good idea!) fine-tuning is agnostic with regards to any particular apologetic claim. Krauss calls Craig disingenuous—but here it is Krauss being disingenuous—sneakily setting up fine-tuning as, out-of-the-box, a religious argument.

He proceeds down this path, transitioning willfully or ignorantly into the common error of conflating fine-tuning with the anthropic principle. He concludes with a bloody awful example embedded in some hideous prose:
And, beyond this, just as bees are fine tuned to see the colors of flowers which they can pollinate as they go about their business does not indicate design, but rather natural selection, we currently have no idea if the conditions of our universe represent a kind of cosmic natural selection. If there are many universes, for example, as may be the case, and as are predicted in a variety of models, none of which were developed to address God issues, we would certainly expect to find ourselves only in those in which we can live.
Ahhhhhhreh? LK, go to the board and write 500 times: cosmological fine-tuning is not the same as the anthropic principle.

If past experience is a reliable guide Pharyngula's commenters, on the question of fine-tuning, will be as clueless as Jerry's kids, At the time I write this there is only one relevant comment, from a Kevin:
Fine-tuning. Really? In a universe that is 13.7 billion years old and 40+ billion light years across, that required the death of not one but two stars -- one in a supernova -- where humans have appeared in the last 0.00004% of that time, the entire enterprise was built with US in mind? Unbelievable arrogant self-centered narcissism.
No Kevin, what is unbelievable is that you think that the fine-tuning argument is the same as "the universe was made for us" argument.

I guess you can blame Krauss--since he couched his fine-tuning comments in a like manner.


  1. What I found amusing about Krauss' letter is that he opens it up complaining about how religious people routinely gather in groups of like-minded to reinforce their own beliefs.

    That that's his opening barb for a letter which was apparently expressly meant for the comments-section denizens of Pharyngula and Richarddawkins.net is beautiful.

  2. For the record, this is the entry that Krauss was reacting to I believe:


  3. If there were to be direct scientific evidence for God, what form would it take? Atheists are fond of using the "invisible pink unicorn in the garage" example. God is immaterial and irreducible, so this analogy partly fits. But only partly, since theists claim that God is intelligent. So, a scientific test for God would have to be along the lines of a scientific test for intelligence. That means, at least, the Turing test. But that brings a whole set of problems for which science is ill-prepared (e.g. Artificial Intelligence: a quadtych).

  4. David, I appreciate your interest in clear semantics and independence from following the like-minded crowd, however: when theists bring up "fine tuning", they don't mean the circularity that a world with people has to have had laws, conditions, that made our existence possible. Well, of course, that's just the truism that outcomes must be consistent with initial conditions, and if things were different we wouldn't be here. (And even that isn't all it's cracked up to be: note that what if probability of our existence was very tiny even so, then if we did exist we'd notice we're here but no one to complain if not, etc. And there could be life only once per 10^300 cubic parsecs for all we know.) In any case, that doesn't explain anything: if things were different, we wouldn't be here to notice but that wouldn't keep it from just being that way, without us. The real question is: why conditions-favorable + life instead of conditions-unfavorable + no life, each set taken as a unit and not as fodder for circular self sufficiency.

    So a theist is likely asking: "Why would the traits of the physical world happen to be, narrowly, just what is needed for life if "the reason why" (such as it may or can be) they are like that, is not logically related to that purpose? Why the lucky coincidence that something that way because of yadda math symmetries etc. is just what we need? Why a logically ugly ~ 1/137 for fine structure constant instead of a parsimonious "one", and the real value is great for allowing us to evolve?" That is a perfectly good tack in critiquing the idea that "this is just here", "there is no purpose to it, it's not 'here for us'" etc. Note that Wikipedia authors of "Anthropic principle" have cheated by emphasizing the circular argument ("it has to be like this since we're here") which was originally the trick hand-off to divert attention away from "it's like this *so that* we can be here.