Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday part 3 (of 3)

In my two previous posts, I introduced the anthropic principle, pointing out that, while it is non-controversial that the universe appears designed, the philosophical implications are. I mentioned that one of the biggest philosophical "loopholes" to the apparent design in the universe is something called the "selection effect", and I described the fallacies associated with it.

Before I go on, I must apologize, because I didn't give the selection effect point of view enough credit. There have been many attempts to formalize the selection effect argument in terms of conditional probabilities and Bayesian inference (for those math-oriented people out there), and this is a good thing. Critics of theistic inferences from the anthropic principle correctly point out that it isn't enough to simply say "it looks improbable, therefore God must have done it." However, even if you do carry out the calculations in a probabilistically careful manner, you do arrive at theistic interpretations. In addition, even in the mathematical arguments from the critics of theistic inferences, the selection effect is nothing more than an irrelevant red herring.

OK, sorry. I had to get that off my chest. You are welcome to ignore that paragraph if you want. On the other hand, if you wish to know more about it, I am happy to correspond with you, but I don't think I'll take up any more room about it here.

Moving on, I wrapped up the meeting discussing actual examples of fine tuning. The first, and perhaps simplest case of fine tuning to describe is the mass density of the universe. The universe is expanding, but gravity acts as a brake on the expansion. Early on in the universe's life, the rate of expansion had to be just right in order for life to exist today. If it was expanding too fast, the matter in the universe would have been to disperse in order to form galaxies, stars, and planets. On the other hand, if the expansion had been to slow, matter would have clumped up so much as to only produce things like black holes. In other words, there had to be just the right amount of matter in the universe to control the expansion rate so exquisitely that if even a "dime's worth" of mass had been added or subtracted from the universe, no life would have been possible. That's fine-tuning to one part in 10^60. (ie, more remote that winning the lottery eight times in a row).

However, the most extreme case of fine tuning known today -- one part in 10^120 -- has to do with something very mysterious called "dark energy". This phenomenon acts as sort-of an anti-gravity, causing the universe to expand faster! (You can imagine the surprise of astrophysicists when, in the late 1990's, more and more evidence accumulated that the universe's expansion is indeed accelerating.) I must admit I have no way to explain to you why dark energy -- sometimes known as the space energy density, and represented by a number called the "cosmological constant" -- is finely tuned, or what that means, but here are some quotes from scientific papers that lament this fine-tuning (and are unsettled about the possible theistic implications therein):
  • The "cosmological constant...would involve the most extreme fine-tuning problem known in physics, and for this reason many particle physicists would prefer any mechanism that would drive the cosmological constant to be exactly zero today." -- Lawrence Krauss, 1998
  • "This type of universe [one with such a cosmological constant], however, seems to require a degree of fine tuning of the initial conditions that is in apparent conflict with 'common wisdom'." -- Zehavi and Dekel, 1999
  • "If [the existence of such a cosmological constant] should become an established fact, we are also confronted with a disturbing cosmic coincidence problem. " -- Straumann, 1999
Keep in mind that these are not commentaries or popular articles, but quotes from papers by experts published in quite prestigious scientific journals.

Wow, this post got too long. Before I go, let me say one more thing. It was a really good discussion, and outside of the material I summarized here, we talked about cool topics like life on other planets (which I am skeptical of, but not in a big way), and the multiverse (which I believe is worse than speculation-squared).

Until next time...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday part 2 (of 3)

In my previous post, I began to review our meeting last Saturday, in which we discussed the anthropic principle. Here, I continue the discussion about the problems with the "selection effect", which basically says "of course it looks designed, because otherwise we wouldn't be here to observe the apparent design!" In the last post, I noted that this is a red herring argument; it still doesn't address how the apparent design arose.

The second problem with this statement ("of course it looks designed, because otherwise we wouldn't be here!") is that it's a completely nonsensical answer. Let me shift our perspective to point out how absurd this is.

The degree of fine tuning required for this universe to support life exceeds one part in 10^70 (in fact, it exceeds this by a lot. A lot a lot). The chance of winning the lottery is more like one in 10 million (ie, 10^7). Just to get to one part in 10^70, you would have to win the lottery ten times in a row. Now, assuming you won the lottery even once, doing it twice in a row is quite ridiculous. If you even won it three times in a row, you can bet the FBI would be after you, and for good reason! They would suspect that you somehow rigged it.

If you don't like the lottery analogy, let's say you flipped a coin, and found that it came up heads ten times in a row. Not unbelievable, but quite unlikely. Now let's say you flipped it 10,000 times, and it always came up heads. Long before you got to the 10,000th flip, you'd start to suspect the fairness of the coin. After all of those flips, would you bet the 10,001st flip would be tails? Why not? If it was perfectly random, then the 10,001st flip would be 50-50 heads/tails, wouldn't it? Regardless of the previous 10,000 flips?

In other words, at some point, the odds become so ridiculous as to force you to conclude it isn't just a coincidence. If that's true with the lottery and the coin examples, why wouldn't it be true with the design of the universe?

However, I admit that neither of these examples specifically address the selection effect. Just the absurdity of avoiding the cause of the design. So, here's the classical refutation of the selection effect argument (thanks to William Lane Craig):
Suppose a dozen sharp-shooters are sent to execute a prisoner by firing squad. They all shoot a number of rounds in that direction, but the prisoner escapes unharmed. The prisoner could conclude, since he is alive, that all the sharp-shooters missed by some extremely unlikely chance. He may wish to attribute his survival to some remarkable piece of good luck. But he would be far more rational to conclude that the guns were loaded with blanks or that the sharp-shooters had deliberately missed.
(I stole that, word-for-word, from here. I admit I didn't read the whole website, so therefore I don't know whether I can explicitly endorse it, but it did have the information I was looking for...)

Anyway, it would be slightly ridiculous for the prisoner to say, "Of course I'm alive! I wouldn't be here to observe this remarkable coincidence otherwise!" The point is, regardless of the selection effect, we are far more rational to conclude, based on the extreme degree of apparent design, that the universe was in fact designed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday, part 1 (of 3)

In our meeting yesterday, we talked largely about the anthropic principle, which basically says that, from our study of the universe we live in, it sure seems like it was designed for life in general, and human life in particular. And just like our previous meeting, in which we discussed the origin of the universe, it seems like we are sort of deadened to the implications of these discoveries.

Let me put it this way. The evidence for design is based on empirical data, and not philosophical or theological musings. Indeed, the impression of design is a non-controversial observation in the scientific community, and many have stated that this impression is overwhelming. However, many are still not coming to the most straightforward-seeming conclusion: that a Designer is responsible. In other words, theological implications are still avoided.

I often feel like quotes from non-theistic scientists carry a lot of weight, and so I read some during the meeting. I won't post all of them here in this blog; most you can find here. But here are some key ones:
  • "The impression of design is overwhelming." -- Paul Davies
  • "The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming." -- Freeman Dyson

So, if these are non-controversial statements, why isn't everyone rushing off to join "the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang (Stephen Strauss)?" Simply put, there are philosophical ways to get around what I called the most straightforward-seeming solution. The most prominent loophole has to do with what is called a "selection effect".

The selection effect basically says that the reason why we observe a universe seemingly designed for life is because if it weren't designed for life, we wouldn't be around to observe it, and not because Someone designed it for us. While it has been pointed out that this also takes some form of a faith committment, many people still find this answer to be intellectually satisfying. In other words, it's sort of like this: "The universe looks designed, but I don't (want to) believe in God. What do I do? Oh, good, there's this answer that settles my stomach about this apparent conflict in my worldview, and now I don't have to worry anymore."

But there are major problems with this philosophical approach. The most serious of which is that this "answer" doesn't actually answer anything at all. It's a red herring argument, so to speak, similar to the one I wrote about here. In other words, it notes what we observe, but it still lacks an answer as to why it happened. It says "of course it looks designed, because we otherwise wouldn't be here", but it doesn't say how it got that way. It avoids answering the BIG question!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Meeting this Saturday

We're having another meeting of the "Two Books" discussion group this coming Saturday (Sep 26) at my place, at 11:30am. As posted below, we're planning on talking about the "anthropic principle", that is, the ways in which God has designed this universe for the benefit of life in general, and human life in particular.

Let me just say right here that this was the main reason why the door opened for me to become a Christian. The evidence for design in the universe is overwhelming. And this is not simply something that a few radical right-wing Christian fundamentalists are saying; this is widely accepted by the scientific community at large!

Come and find out more...

Monday, September 14, 2009

The five greatest reasons

At the last meeting, I discussed my idea of going through what I call the five greatest scientific apologetic arguments, one at a time. The first one was the beginning of the universe, and so we talked about the big bang theory, and what theological/philosophical implications it has.

I would say, then, the five greatest reasons are (in no particular order):
  1. The origin of the universe
  2. The fine-tuning of the universe (including the anthropic principle and our privileged position)
  3. The origin of life (biochemistry)
  4. The origin of man (including the moral argument/imago dei)
  5. The design of life for the benefit of humanity (yes, I did say design of life)
Of course, these designations are somewhat arbitrary. Ask any ten people and they'll probably give you ten different answers as to what the five greatest reasons are. And most of these overlap. In fact, you could probably include numbers 2,3, and 5 all together into one big umbrella argument, and perhaps number 1 as well. The "origin of man" argument also has several different parts to it, such as archeology, philosophy, and genomics.

All in all, we'll see if we can cover roughly one topic per meeting for the next four meetings (given that we covered number one last time).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Summary of meeting last last Saturday

When we met on Saturday (more than a week ago now...I'm a terrible blogger!), we talked predominantly about the origin of the universe, which is basically the big bang theory. Not the tv show. The actual scientific theory.

Well, to be honest, I don't know a whole lot about the theory itself. But the theological implications are strong. The big bang theory says that the universe had an origin at some finite time in the past (current measurements place the cosmic creation event at 13.7 billion years ago). This creation event was the beginning of all space, time, matter, and energy. Before that, the universe simply did not exist.

I wanted to impress upon everyone how strong the implications are. I feel like we are sort of deadened to it these days, as if everyone understands that the universe had a beginning, and accepts it, but refuses to think about what that means. To put it into perspective, I talked about some of the initial (and ongoing, in some cases) opposition to the big bang theory. In each of these cases, the opponents admitted that their antagonism of the theory rested solely on a dislike its implications.

One example is Albert Einstein himself. After publishing his theory of general relativity, he realized the implications that came with it. (General relativity serves as the theoretical underpinnings of all current big bang models for the origin of the universe.) As a result, he later "added" a constant to his equations, changing the implication from a universe with a beginning to an eternal one. Later he called this the biggest mistake of his life.

Another example, one of the biggest opponents of the big bang theory, is Fred Hoyle. He was a major contributor to cosmology as a whole, but denied it because of its theological implications. Incidentally, Fred Hoyle was the one who coined the term "big bang", in ridicule of the theory.

On the other hand, experimental evidence has now verified, to an astonishing degree, some sort of big bang-type model. That is, we know that we live in an expanding universe that had a beginning some finite time in the past.

There are two reasons why non-theistic scientists find the big bang distasteful (yet most no longer deny its veracity). First, a beginning implies a beginner. Or a Beginner. And second, many scientists assumed that natural processes and evolution needed a nearly infinite amount of time to produce life. Certainly a few billion years is far too short a time for that. (It is interesting how our opinion changes due to necessity.)

But the reality of the matter is that we live in a universe with a beginning, and that life has originated and thrived here on this planet. These things are directly consistent with what the bible teaches about the world. There are many places in the bible that teaches about the beginning of the universe (as in, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo), as well as the beginning of time itself. Some would even claim that the bible teaches we live in an expanding universe, although I am hesitant to go that far. It is kind of provocative, though. Search biblegateway in the NIV for occurrences of the two words "stretch" and "heaven" in the same verse. It occurs ten times, all in the construct, "[God] stretches out the heavens." But again, we don't want to read too much into that.

The point of the matter, however, is that, from our study of the universe we live in, we have found that it indeed has a beginning. And most people nowadays either ignore the implications of that, or try to explain it away through metaphysical speculation. But it is a powerful apologetic point.