Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Richard Carrier: Worthy winner of the Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award

Richard Carrier wins the coveted Jerry Coyne Lidless Eye Award which, as you may know, was created to celebrate and recognize exceptional stupidity in writing about the intersection of religion and science.

Richard, you see, has, um, --well it is best to use his own words:

"In fact, I show how the fine tuning of the physical constants actually proves God doesn’t exist. Quite conclusively in fact."

Quite conclusively? Really?

This is of course complete nonsense, which I pointed out on his blog. He has threatened to treat my comments as spam because I haven't actually read his chapter in some book that contains this "proof." I have read other such proofs, such as from Ikeda and Jefferys. I know exactly how they work.

I wonder if Carrier agrees with many of his FTB colleagues who argue that it is OK for Dawkins to criticize absurd theological arguments without actually studying them? Because I am using the same argument against him--I don't have to read his chapter to recognize it as utter nonsense. Can you say "Courtier's Reply?"

Now one can argue that under the assumptions of fine-tuning (the habitability of the universe is sensitive to the constants) and a low probability of the constants (something which nobody actually knows--but you can assume it for the sake of an argument) that multiverse explanations are more plausible, from an Occam's Razor sense, than supernatural design. But even then neither Carrier nor anyone else can prove "quite conclusively" that God doesn't exist. Total Kool-Aid. And he doesn't need Bayes' theorem--which if you don't know is a simple theorem in probability that freshmen learn--but like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is disgustingly abused in the hands of the intellectually challenged/dishonest and the mathematically illiterate.

In this kind of argument, Bayes' Theorem--which is incredibly powerful when used properly--is merely obfuscatory, in a Sokal-like sense.

So... let's image an incredibly fine-tuned universe:

1. This universe has only one physical constant, C.

2. The universe is only habitable if C is within its measured value by one part in 1023.

3. The laws of this universe predict the value of C.

Now here is an extremely fine-tuned universe! I challenge Carrier to prove that such a universe precludes the existence of a god.

If you believe he can, there may be a lidless eye award in your future!


  1. Remember Prof. Heddle, this is a person who believes Jesus never existed (which he claims to prove with Bayes) and that a universe fit for life is in fact proof that a loving God does not exist (well, now anyways, before he was on the "the universe is not fine-tuned" side until he found a way to twist logic into a pretzel).
    You can't really take anything he says seriously.

  2. Let's not forget his claim that he is on par with Aristotle

  3. Sami,

    That's hilarious. However, I'm inclined to give Carrier the benefit of the doubt that what he meant was he was a philosopher in every sense of the word-- just as Aristotle was. But the boy can't write, so it comes out sounding like a claim to be of equal caliber.

  4. That always confuses me though, how do some people use design as an argument against God? Does that even make sense?

  5. Just saw a "history channel" program on the BMW company, which now owns Rolls-Royce. Based on what I've learned here, the extreme perfection of the Rolls Phantom proves that the company doesn't exist.

    I wonder where all the money that people pay for those cars goes.

    Hope your semester ends well.

  6. This just goes to show that Christians don't have a monopoly on hubris.

    And Sami- yes, there is a Design Argument against God. My version goes like this:

    1. All known complex structures in the world are either evolved or the product of evolved beings.

    2. God is presumed to be complex and not evolved.

    3. Therefore, God does not exist.

    I wouldn't say it's a proof by any means, but it's at least as plausible as the normal Argument from Design.

    cheers from unseasonably mild Vienna, zilch

  7. Hi, David,

    Ready for a question that has nothing to do with the point you were making? Here it is. Is it logically possible for there to be just one constant? Doesn't your hypothetical constant have to be constant with respect to something else? Granted that 10^23 is a generously flexible range, I think it needs to be 10^23 units of something other than rubber-band lengths.

    (See, I warned you it wasn't going to have anything to do with your point. :) )

  8. zilch, If that's an argument, then I'm a space alien. Which I'm not.

    Suppose you find the premises in the Argument from Design implausible. Would you at least agree that there are valid constructions of that argument? For example:

    1. If there is any instance of genuine design in nature, then it came from a really existing designing intelligence.
    2. There is at least one instance of genuine design in nature.
    3. Therefore there is a really existing designing intelligence.

    As I said, you need not agree with the premises. It is a valid argument in any case. (I presume you know what "valid" means here, as opposed to "sound.")

    So it's your turn. Just for fun, can you come up with a valid form of your argument? We don't all have to agree with your premises Your premise 1 is false, in my view. So is your premise 2. That makes 100% of your premises controversial, at least. But then, I know that mine were controversial too. I won't raise the bar any higher than this: can you make your argument in some valid form?

    If not, then regardless of the truth or controversiality of your premises, your conclusion is just plain wrong.


  9. Yeah, the real problem is agreeing on the premises, for instance, in Zilch's arguments not too many Christians agree with premise 1 (really, if you are an atheist than you cannot believe premise 1 yourself, since the laws of physics are complex "structures" but you do not believe they were evolved or are the product of evolved beings). And many theologians argue that God is in fact extremely simple/fundamental/necessary, which would invalidate premise 2.

    On the other end, I do not think that most atheists agree with Gilson's premise 2.

    Personally, due to the fine-tuning of the universe, I think we are left with either a benevolent God or some kind of multiverse as options. As Prof. Heddle once said, "pick your pseudoscience".

  10. I agree, Sami, that disagreement on premises like these is a huge issue.

    My challenge to zilch was on another level, though. I'd like to see him construct a valid design argument against God, using whatever premises he needs to use to get there. I would prefer it if he used premises that someone believes, but they don't have to be premises that Christians believe or even that a large proportion of people believe.

    Here's a quick explanation for readers who may be unfamiliar with the term "valid." A valid argument is one whose conclusion follows logically from the premises, whatever those premises may be. Since an argument could be valid without relying on true premises, it need not lead to a true conclusion.

    A valid argument with true premises is called a sound argument, and its conclusion is necessarily true.


    1. All cats read physics books.
    2. Callie is a cat.
    3. Therefore, Callie reads physics books.

    That argument is valid but not sound.

    My challenge to zilch is to come up with a valid design argument against God, based on premises that at least some people consider true. If he can't do it, then what he told you earlier is false, and (as far as he knows, at least) there is no design argument against God.

  11. I appreciate Zilch telling me what the anti-god design argument was even if I do not agree with it myself on account of its premises, I now know what people are talking about when they talk about this argument.
    I think the design argument (for God) is probably more of an intuitive argument generally. Not that it isn't reasonably sound, just that most likely it is too hard to make an argument built on well-defined premises that everyone agrees on.

  12. Sami, I agree with you completely, except I hope you also count zilch's argument out on account of its illogic. It's invalid on several points, so much so that I wouldn't even consider it an argument.

    In order for the conclusion to follow from the given premises, the following premises would have to be included as well:

    2a. God, if God exists, is necessarily a structure.
    2b. God, if God exists, is necessarily complex in structure.
    2c. God, if God exists, is necessarily in the world
    2d. No form of complex structure can exist except for such as is of the same form or origin as is known in the world.

    Without these additional (and rather ridiculous) premises, the conclusion does not follow logically.

    That's why I've been challenging zilch to present something better, even if it's not something whose premises everyone would agree to.

  13. Tom- okay, here's a logically valid form of the Design Argument Against God:

    1. All living things are the product of evolution.

    2. God, if God exists, is a living thing.

    3. God, if God exists, is not the product of evolution.

    4. Therefore, God does not exist.

    Again, I'm not claiming that this argument is sound. But neither is the classical (say, Paley's Watchmaker) version of the Argument from Design.

    I don't think you can get to either God or not-God solely on syllogisms.

    And Sami- I'm not sure this is necessarily representative of what other people consider the Design Argument Against God- I made it up myself, so caveat emptor.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

  14. PS- it might well be that many consider the following to be "the" Design Argument Against God:

    1. God, if God exists, is omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

    2. Therefore, His design of Creation must be perfect and good.

    3. But the design of Creation is not perfect and good.

    4. Therefore, God does not exist.

    Again, not a sound argument, but valid.

  15. Well, the first argument is no good, since even if we thought God was just a lifeform like us (he's not), there was at least one organism that was not the product of evolution. After all, all organisms did have to evolve from the first one.
    The second is argument from evil. A hot topic for sure, but not the design one. When I say design argument, I simply mean "argument that uses the fact that the universe appears fine-tuned for life, or at least is very complex". Anything along those lines, it doesn't even have to mention evolution or imperfection.
    But zilch, you are definitely right about not getting God from syllogysms, otherwise there wouldn't be much of an argument :P

  16. Sami- of course you may dispute the premises, but Tom asked for a "logically valid" argument, not a "sound" one. You say:

    Well, the first argument is no good, since even if we thought God was just a lifeform like us (he's not), there was at least one organism that was not the product of evolution. After all, all organisms did have to evolve from the first one.

    Perhaps I should rather have said "alive" than "living thing". Is God alive? And your second objection only holds if you're an essentialist, which I am not. It seems very unlikely that life formed in such a way that you could draw a hard and fast line between nonlife and life, or "a bunch of chemicals" and "a living organism". Even with modern organisms, there is debate about where to draw such a line. Are viruses alive? Prions?

    This is of course an issue which comes up in other places as well, for instance in defining "species". Many Christians, and even some biologists, seem to think that there must be a hard and fast line between different species in one lineage, such that at some point, say, a Homo ergaster couple must have given birth to a Homo sapiens child.

    But this evinces rather our tendency to draw lines in what is actually a continuum, and then regard the lines as reflecting nature. Of course, as a matter of practicality we often must draw such lines; but we get into trouble when we start worshiping the lines. Plato famously said that successful theories should "carve Nature at its joints", but sometimes we carve where there are none.

    The second is argument from evil. A hot topic for sure, but not the design one.

    You could read it that way, but what I meant (not clearly stated, admittedly) was more along the lines of obviously poor design, not evil: say, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, or jumping genes. But you could regard evil as just another instance of bad design, or at least not the sort of design one might expect from an omniscient, omnibenevolent being.

    Many Christians, of course, answer this by saying that God is not omnibenevolent, or by putting weird constraints on God's omnipotence, such that there exists a "greater" or "logically necessary" good that requires tossing lots of people into the inferno. I can't prove this isn't true, but it seems kind of dodgy to me- but what do I know?

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

  17. I am not sure we have a answer to the problem of evil, but I have always liked the free will defense and the freedom to believe defense. I think evil is something that is needed for things to truly grow, and that if we and the world were already perfect there would be not point. Tossing people into an inferno is not something God does either, we choose to walk away from him ourselves. Like anyone who really loves us, he does not want to force us to love him, that wouldn't be much of a relationship. Just my opinion of course, there are probably scholars who would laugh at my answer, but that is how I feel, and I can't deny my feelings.
    Fun fact about the virus thing though (not really related, but whatever), we recently have been finding evidence that viruses actually evolved from cells! I think that is kind of cool.
    As for the question: is God a "living thing"... kind of depends on how you define living. If you are talking about "is god an organic lifeform" than no, God is not a living thing :P If you are saying "is he intelligent or conscious", then yes, he is quite alive. What I was trying to point out is that design arguments against God are based on some type of strict materialism that theists reject anyways.

  18. Sami- that's very interesting about viruses having evolved from cells, but not terribly surprising: after all, many parasites, which used to be regarded as primordial forms because of their simplicity, are now believed to have evolved their simplicity secondarily.

    And about God not tossing people into Hell, but our choosing to walk away from Him: yes, I've heard this argument before. But it's not terribly convincing to me: God is running the show, after all, and if He has chosen to make Himself invisible, and to make the world in such a way that the more education you have, the less likely you are to believe in Him (I can document this if you like), then all I can say is that he is a trickster God, and infinitely cruel. Is such a God worthy of worship?

  19. Well, about the statistic about higher education being correlated with disbelief, it is also true that higher education and IQ is correlated to strange beliefs. In fact, if you were to enter the Church of Scientology, you will find a group with higher education and IQ than the average population. Put simply, smart people are better at putting up arguments, and thust better at believing bullshit :P
    I find that God left plenty of evidence for his existance, however Christians believe that God wants us to have faith. How on Earth could people have faith if he left no question of his presence? What type of freedom could exist for people if they could actually see God looking over their shoulder at all times? How could we choose what to believe, or make creative bodies of knowledge, if God just popped up right in front of us? I think a problem for atheists in general is not that they don't see any evidence, but that you want a little too much. For instance, look at all the people denying evolution and the age of the Earth. These are clear facts, but intelligent people still find ways to reject them. For many people, I often think that even Jesus was knocking right at their door, they would look right through him. God never tried to trick us, we are just impossibly good at tricking ourselves.
    Or at least, that is my answer to "why does God not show himself more clearly (though I think miracles and the universe are already sufficient proof)" To recap, God simply does not want to force himself on us. Of course, you probably consider this answer insufficient, but really there isn't much I, or even the best theologians, can do about that.
    Anything to add Prof. Heddle? I would like to know how you personally answer this question.

  20. Sami- I'm sure you're right about the higher educational level of Scientologists than the general population. But I'm not sure that's not rather correlated with wealth: wealthier people tend to have more education, and you have to be plenty wealthy to be a Scientologist.

    And I must confess, I don't really get the argument from faith. You can use this argument as a justification for just about any belief system: if you don't believe in, say, a divine origin for lightning, or crop circles, it's because you "don't have enough faith". It's basically saying: "don't trust your senses, or your intelligence, about the way the world seems to be, but believe blindly in System X". Why would God operate in such a dodgy fashion?

    Also: what miracles? I don't see any evidence for any, and I do see tons of evidence that people make this stuff up all the time.

    You probably also find my answers insufficient, but that's okay. As I've said, I don't really care what people believe, as long as people behave nicely- and that's "nicely" in the usual sense, not wrf's "atheist" sense, which is "reproducing successfully".

    cheers, zilch

  21. I used Scientoligists as an example because they are sufficiently crazy to make a good point. However, I have read studies that do not just apply to them, but to strange beliefs (often conspiracy theories) in general. Put simply, there are acts of stupidity you have to be educated to perform.
    My so called "argument from faith" is simply that God wants us to a) have the ability to choose to walk away from him b) wants us to choose him through faith and c) wants us to at least have the choice to reject him. I then say that there can be no faith involved if God made his existence too obvious. I also say that if God made his presence too obvious, free will couldn't really exist for humans, since it would be like making decisions at gun point. People often avoid doing bad things purely because other people are watching them, imagine if you could literally see God himself staring at you, right there, what kind of freedom is that? You cannot logically choose to walk away from him if his existence is too clear as well, while in this world you can choose atheism or some other position, the choice is there.
    Of course, I think that this is one of those arguments that would only appeal to Christians who already accept certain premises, so I don't expect you to find it sufficient.
    As for miracles, I can only resort to either evidence from the church, which you will no doubt call biased, evidence from anecdotes which you probably consider worse, and or evidence from history such as the Bible, which you don't believe.
    Also, I don't just illogically believe in God, I have reviewed the arguments and the evidence, and rationally come to my conclusions. The entire field of apologetics is about justifying belief rationally. However, we also live in a world where faith is required to believe just about anything, atheism included. I do trust my senses and intelligence, otherwise I wouldn't be able to believe anything at all. Yet, even this trust requires a type of faith. I think living without faith is practically impossible.
    You might disagree, but at this point there is nothing more to argue about. I don't think there is really a chance to convert you over the internet after all :P
    However, I notice you are very tolerant, and seem genuinely interested in Christianity. Perhaps you should consider finding someone to talk to near you. I think if you approach our religion with a open mind, you might find it to be something you can agree with. I think belief probably has a lot to do with attitude, and after all, what do you have to lose? You need give up science or rationality while pursuing faith, in fact, you might find both enriched (or at least I do).
    Both ways, I am in a festive mood. After all, we approach the conception of someone who has truly changed the world for the better!
    Merry Christmas guys, it was fun talking to you.

  22. Sami- I agree with you about "faith" being necessary to be a naturalist as well. Naturalism cannot be proven to be true, any more than God's existence can. The naturalist version of "faith" is of course also known as the Problem of Induction- we cannot know for sure, for instance, that the Sun will rise tomorrow. In this sense, the atheist is in the same boat as the theist.

    But I put "faith" in scare quotes here, because the "faith" of naturalists in the world: that it exists, that we are not brains in vats, that the Sun will rise tomorrow, etc, is not really the same as the faith of the religious. Naturalism is based on an ever-increasing body of knowledge that works, and religion, at least as far as I can see, is based on a static set of beliefs that may produce peace of mind, and help build societies, but it doesn't produce anything new in the way of knowledge, predictions, or technologies- and it's largely unfalsifiable.

    Of course, most theists don't dispute the value of science. But they're borrowing from our worldview when they engage in, or accept the findings of, naturalism. Of course, religious texts do have naturalistic components- for instance, when they say that bats are birds or that pi equals three- but they also have supernatural stuff, or they wouldn't be religions, would they? And the supernatural stuff doesn't inform the natural stuff in any useful way, as far as I can tell.

    And I'm afraid I must concur- I'm open minded, or I wouldn't be here, but I think the chances of converting me over the internet are pretty small. As far as talking to Christians near me goes- I do that a lot anyway. I have the annoying habit of asking people who come to my workshop, or in stores, what they believe, and I tell them I'm an atheist. Lots of my friends are Christians too- one of my best friends here is a very pious Catholic, and he's one of the smartest people I know, perhaps even as smart as I am :lol:

    In any case, I've enjoyed talking to you too. Merry Christmas to you as well.