Templeton and Skeptics

By Sean Carroll | September 24, 2008 11:39 am

On the theory that it is good to mention events before they happen, so that interested parties might actually choose to attend, check out the upcoming Skeptics Society conference: Origins: the Big Questions. It will be at Caltech, and will take just one day, Saturday October 4, with a pre-conference dinner the previous night, Friday the 3rd. The day’s events are divided into two parts. In the morning you get a bunch of talks on the origins of big things — I’ll be talking on the origin of time, Leonard Susskind on the origin of the laws of physics, Paul Davies on the origin of the universe, Donald Prothero on the origin of life, and Christof Koch on the origin of consciousness.

Then in the afternoon they change gears, and start talking about science and religion. Names involved include Stuart Kauffman, Kenneth Miller, Nancey Murphy, Michael Shermer, Philip Clayton, Vic Stenger, and Hugo Ross. It’s this part of the event that has stirred up a tiny bit of controversy, as it is co-sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, famous appliers of lipstick to the pig that is the interface between science and religion. It’s legitimate to wonder why the Skeptics Society is getting mixed up with Templeton at all, and it’s been discussed a bit in our beloved blogosphere: see Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, and Richard Dawkins.

I am on the record as saying that scientists should be extremely leery of accepting money from organizations with any sort of religious orientation, and Templeton in particular. (Happily, in this case the speakers aren’t getting any money at all, so at least that temptation wasn’t part of the calculation.) But it’s by no means a cut-and-dried issue, as we’ve seen in discussions of the Foundational Questions Institute.

Personally, I prefer not to have the chocolate of my science mixed up with the peanut butter of somebody else’s religion, and certainly not without clear labeling — peanut allergies can be pretty severe. But if someone wants to explicitly put on a peanut butter cup conference, that’s fine, and I don’t have any problem with participating. The problem with the Templeton Foundation is not that they coerce scientists into repudiating their beliefs through the promise of piles of cash; it’s that, by providing easy money to promote certain kinds of discussions, those discussions begin to seem more prominent and important than they really are. Perhaps, without any Templeton funding, the Origins conference would have devoted much less time to the science-and-religion questions, leaving much more time for interesting science discussions. This would have given outsiders a more accurate view of the role that religion plays in current scientific work on these foundational questions: to wit, none whatsoever.

The Templeton Foundation has every right to exist, and sponsor conferences. And there is undoubtedly a danger among atheists that they get caught up in a “holier than thou” competition — “I’m so atheist that I won’t even talk to people if they believe in God!” Which gets a little silly. I don’t think there’s anything explicitly wrong with the Origins conference; the Templeton-sponsored part is clearly labeled and set off from the rest, and it might end up being interesting. (Also, the conference concludes with Mr. Deity — how awesome is that?) Michael Shermer’s own take is here. But I look forward to a day when discussions of deep questions concerning the origin of the universe and of life can take place without the concept of God ever arising.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science
  • Ellipsis

    Slippery slope… Soon you’ll be speaking in tongues like Sarah Palin. 😉

  • http://www.skepchick.org Rebecca Watson

    I object to the association of peanut butter to religion. Religion might be a little nutty sometimes, but it is rarely delicious on a sandwich with jelly.

    That important point out of the way, I agree that there’s a dangerous line to walk when working with the “other side.” But, sometimes I feel as though we have no choice — if the general public is obsessed with religion vs. science, maybe it’s best that we address it in a pro-science environment.

  • Dylan

    Yea I’m having a hard time getting past that part of the (delicious) analogy.

  • Paul M.

    Perhaps it’s not the CONTENT of the discussion between religion and science, but the FORM. Both sides too often treat the other with condescension & bemused contempt. “I look forward to a day when discussions of deep questions concerning the origin of the universe and of life can take place without the concept of God ever arising.” When people of faith here that, they undoubtedly will respond with “I look forward to a day when discussions of deep questions concerning the origin of the universe and of life can take place without the concept of physics ever arising.” And then where are we? Two groups with their arms folded across their chests, rolling their eyes at one another. Yes, I know – readers of this blog have no problem with the first sentence, but scoff at the second. Shouldn’t discussion be able to engage ALL thinkers, without dismissing any out of hand? And it’s no fair responding that people of faith are not “thinkers.” You don’t get to decide that.

  • King Cynic

    Who is Hugo Ross? I know of Hugh Ross, who is a nutjob who thinks that string theory proves Christianity among other things. (If he’s the person you meant, the event just lost all credibility!) But who is Hugo Ross?

  • King Cynic

    Hell, I checked the website. It IS Hugh Ross. Sean, if it were me I would withdraw immediately rather than lend this guy even the impression of credibility. At a minimum make sure you read his web site ahead of time so you’ll know what’s coming.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B
  • archgoon

    @Paul M.

    >>Shouldn’t discussion be able to engage ALL thinkers, without dismissing any out of hand?

    Yes. However, people who believe that you can have a discussion of the origins of the universe without talking about physics aren’t thinking. If you think that it’s a legitimate position, you aren’t thinking. I would like to hear your defense of the position “Being able to account for the physical laws of the universe is not at all necessary in serious discussions of how the universe came to be”.

  • Paul M.


    That’s the whole point – I DON’T think that’s a legitimate position, but by the same token, neither is the position that concepts of God can be utterly ignored, even if they seem to be utterly incompatible with Physics.

  • http://morningcoffeephysics.wordpress.com Jasper Palfree

    …if only I could hop on a plane down to Caltech. That sounds like a really interesting conference.

  • Sili

    Hmmm – so is the “holier than thou” the reason for people talking about “athiest”? “I’m the athiest atheist here! Wayyyyy athier than thou.”

  • Luke

    I am on the record as saying that scientists should be extremely leery of accepting money from organizations with any sort of religious orientation…

    Why would you make such a statement? What if the Templeton Foundation decided to fun medical research? Should biologists, physicians, etc. be leery of accepting that funding? Should they also refuse to work at Catholic, Baptist, or Jewish universities or hospitals?

    The Templeton Foundation has every right to exist, and sponsor conferences.

    Gee, that’s awfully generous of you, Sean, to grant them that right. I think that your hositlity to religion is not due to the fact that you’re an atheist. Rather, it appears that you think that you are God and you’re upset that all of the major world religions disagree.
    I certainly can’t believe that you are God. The band Squeeze was not that great, merely OK. I can’t worship a god who doesn’t understand that.

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    You’re not going to blog about the demise of LCDM and the Dark Flow?

  • Sad

    Hey King Cynic, why should Sean withdraw just because the conference is also going to feature a debate between Vic Stenger and Hugh Ross?

    The presentations in the morning and the debate later in the day are two different things.

  • http://www.nutcase.org H.M. Amir al-Mumenin al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala Allah Rab ul-Alamin Imam Yahya bin al-Mansur Bi’llah Muhammad Hamidaddin, Imam and Commander of the Faithful, and King of the Yemen.

    I do hope that Dr Carroll will give us his thoughts about Susskind’s talk, which promises to be very interesting.

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    #12. Everyone is God, atman=brahman.

  • chemicalscum

    From theologians and philosophers to creationists and intelligent design theorists, the central core of almost all of their arguments centers on filling these origin gaps with God. But now science is making significant headway into providing natural explanations for these ultimate questions, which leaves us with the biggest question of all: Does science make belief in God obsolete?

    No, science makes belief in God unnecessary.

    Now having answered the central question of the conference, I will move on to more serious things.

  • roco

    Sean you should read B’s link and, please, at least accept the $15000 :)

  • Mike Schuler

    It’s too bad that there are no big thinkers that can separate god from religion and magic. Maybe god is just logic itself or an extension of number theory. Sure, religion is icky, but why blame that on god? God had nothing to do with it.

    It’s amazing how people can entertain absurd notions like infinite parallel universes, with no corroborating observation of any kind, yet they can’t possibly believe that the physical proof of the existence of god can be observed by gazing into a flat reflective surface at a perpendicular angle.

  • http://letterstonature.wordpress.com/ LukeB

    Will transcripts or audio from the conference be available online or in print?

    I think Michael Shermer’s opinion should be the final word for anyone who is worried about the Templeton Foundation.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com Professor R

    Hi Sean, wish I could catch the morning talks, look really good.
    Re aftrenoon talks, I was pleasantly surprised at a Cambridge confrence on science and religion last suumer. I’m not religious, but I found that some theologians can pose great questions concerning the philosophical implications of science . To be honest, some of the discussions were much more interesting than those I’ve had with certain (not all) philosophers, who focus almost exclusively on how science is done).
    Regards, Cormac

  • Otis

    Hugh Ross is an evangelical Christian and an astronomer. His organization, Reasons to Believe, has been in existence for over 20 years. Hugh and members of his organization show how scientific discoveries are congruent with the creation accounts given in the Christian Bible. Hugh is a polite, soft spoken man who has made presentations at major universities across the US, and he is well received wherever he goes.

    Some commentators to this blog may be shocked to learn that science in general has been converging toward the views of Hugh Ross. I suspect that is why he was invited to the “Origins” conference at CalTech. Evidence for this convergence can be found in Hugh’s recent book Creation as Science and in articles on his web site.

    Doing science is a faith-based enterprise. Paul Davies has given strong arguments supporting that assertion. Even Sean Carroll implicitly accepts that assertion when he says in his SciAm article, “we seek an understanding of the laws of nature and of our particular universe in which everything makes sense to us.” He has faith that the universe will make sense to him. But why should it? The interplay between science and religion is here to stay.

  • John Merryman

    What is God? Is it the source of consciousness, or an all-knowing ideal entity?

    They are not the same. Consciousness is a bottom up emergent phenomena, while knowledge is a top down ordering of available information, of which there is no ideal, since an objective perspective is an oxymoron.
    It is politically convenient to base religious faith on a top down model, as it validates top down political, social and economic structures, but since there is no ultimate top down ideal, the various structures which presume to this assumption tend to find themselves in mortal conflict.
    Religions originated as tribal tradition and Gods as tribal spirits, of which individuals were parts of the larger whole. This bottom up origin of theology does make sense from a biological perspective, as we as individual members of society are essentially a form of organic parallel processor in which our intellectual complexity is a reaction to the complex reality we engage. Thus, like other swarming beings, we overwhelm obstacles.
    Physicists tend to be reductionists and view reality in terms of its components/particles. Other sciences, such as biology and other life sciences, have moved on and view reality from the wholistic perspective of process, with function as cause and form as effect, so the evolutionary function of religion is normative.

  • http://www.skepticality.com/ Derek Colanduno

    We actually talked about this same issue a bit at the first annual Skeptrack at Dragon*Con as well.

    I have ALWAYS found religion fascinating, when I left college my councilor tried to get me to finish off a few more credits so I could possibly get a full degree in Theology. I had to tell her that I took those classes because I find religion fascinating, I think everyone should know how different people see the world and why they might believe in whatever ‘supreme’ being that they think is ruling the natural world.

    As my dad has always told me; “Derek, let us say there IS a god, or deity, do you REALLY think that anyone here on Earth has a clue what we need to do to keep whatever it is happy?”.

    And, to me, that pretty much says it all.

  • Tom Salamone

    My bet is that this will be the best attended event you’ve ever had!

    It’s always odd to me when I hear people saying that they would like to discuss the origin of the universe without mention of a Creator as being responsible for it. It’s kind of like people wanting to talk about the creation of a work of art without ever mentioning the artist – did the painting just appear, as they say, out of nothing?

    I encourage all of you to give Dr. Hugh Ross a listen. He is a top rate scientist. I also encourage you to put his creation model to the scientific test at this event. You’ll be surprised how well it fares under intense scientific scrutiny.

  • Michael

    Off topic, but timely nevertheless:

    “In a dramatic turn, GOP Sen. Richard Shelby emerged from a White House meeting on a $700 billion Wall Street bailout to say: “I don’t believe we have an agreement.””

    So, McCain strikes!

  • Nick

    “It’s always odd to me when I hear people saying that they would like to discuss the origin of the universe without mention of a Creator as being responsible for it.”

    I think it’s because most people’s discussions of a creator are intrinsically tied to some religious belief. A lot of people might think religions are evidently man-made, and so would rather not go down that road.
    This is my own view, and I’m just guessing it’s similar to like-minded people.

  • http://www.nutcase.org H.M. Amir al-Mumenin al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala Allah Rab ul-Alamin Imam Yahya bin al-Mansur Bi’llah Muhammad Hamidaddin, Imam and Commander of the Faithful, and King of the Yemen.

    Prof R said: “To be honest, some of the discussions were much more interesting than those I’ve had with certain (not all) philosophers, who focus almost exclusively on how science is done.”

    Exactly. Sadly, much of the philosophy of science being done nowadays is essentially sociology and boring things like that. What is worse, however, is that some scientists themselves seem to be more interested in boring debates about how science should be done than in actually doing it: see for example the recent conference at Perimeter.

  • MP

    So why is science still having to deal with the pagan concept of a divinity?

  • Amateur Physicist

    I have been following the discussions in this block for some time. My main objctive for reading this block has been a hope to find interesting news about novel physical discoveries. Again and againg, however, I have become deeply disappointed. Instead of encouraging lively discussion about interesting scientific matters the contributors of this block seem to be mainly interested in religion and politics. To my view, scientific blocks should be kept strictly scientific, and religion and politics should be kept out of them. If the contributors of this block really want to elaborate their religious problems publicly, they will find plenty of opportunities to do that elsewhere. For instance, they may join in some religious community. But please, try to keep physics blocks as really PHYSICS blocks! I am really looking forward to the day when references to God (except as metaphorical expressions of awe towards the wonders of nature) will be kept out of scientific blocks.

    Having said this, I may say that this block also has sometimes its moments. For instance, I liked the block “Domino Effect”, and John Wheeler’s obituary was excellent.

  • Mike Schuler

    “So why is science still having to deal with the pagan concept of a divinity?”

    We are going to a very great expense to take an atoms apart, to see what they are made of. We understand that the constituent parts can be separated. At the same time, you can’t, won’t, or don’t have the ability to separate god, religion, and divinity. “Religious people have done horrible, stupid things,… therefor there is no god!” is very faulty logic.

    Did the Universe originate from an intentional plan by a creator, or did it arrive at it’s present state through no intelligent means of any kind? That is the question, and the answer is either one or the other.

    Pointing at religion or religious ideas or religious people has no bearing whatsoever on the question or the answer. To find a scientific answer you need to use scientific means. If you can’t separate god from religion, you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and you’ll never find the answer.

    Excepting one side or the other without scientific proof always leads to the illusion that whatever side is chosen is the correct side. Until the proof comes out one way or the other, wouldn’t it be better to keep both options open? In reality, atheism is just as much of a religion as any other, only it’s a religion where you actually have to hope that you die forever.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    Amateur physicist, perhaps you should have a look here


    and see if this is really the blog for you. For it seems that you want a blog that caters to your needs rather than the needs of the bloggers. Of course, you could always ask for your money back, oh wait…

  • John Phillips, FCD

    Mike Schuler, just the smallest smidgen of evidence please and I will consider the premise of a god or gods. Until then, sorry I refuse to waste my time on the concept. Oh, BTW, Pascal’s wager is so passé and old school and doesn’t say much if that is the reason to believe, so which of the myriad gods should I bank my afterlife on.

  • Mike Schuler

    33. John Phillips, FCD on Sep 26th, 2008 at 3:57 am
    Mike Schuler, just the smallest smidgen of evidence please and I will consider the premise of a god or gods.

    You read the question too fast John Phillips, FCD. I wasn’t advocating a premise. I was pointing out an unanswered question. Is there,… or is there not,… a creator of the Universe. The answer can only be “yes” or “no” and there is still no “scientific proof” one way or the other. I wasn’t trying to answer the question, I was just pointing out that there is a question. My take is that you have to use scientific methods to arrive at a plausible, scientific answer. Your post is a prime example of the deviation from scientific principles when it comes to the questions concerning the origin of the Universe. Soundbites like “pagan concept of a divinity” are just straw-man ploys that prove absolutely nothing.

    Is there, or is there not a god? You demand a “smidgen of evidence” before you’ll consider one side, but you require no evidence at all to fully embrace the other. Is that the “scientific method?” No,… that’s a pick in the poke, and that’s all it is.

    Here’s your order for a “smidgen” of evidence,… It doesn’t prove anything. It’s just what you asked for,… a “smidgen” of evidence. It’s actually a reported observation of an aspect of reality. Please,… feel free to give a “scientific explanation” for the observed phenomena.


  • John Phillips, FCD

    Mike Shuler, well considering that as of now, there is no need to posit a god as part of the explanation of what we know, why waste time on it. In fact, positing a god adds nothing to our knowledge, especially considering that we have no evidence whatsoever for such a being. And don’t give me the lack of evidence is not evidence of lack gambit, as it posits something that is not necessary to our existing knowledge. Hence my request for a smidgen of evidence to make it at least worthy of consideration.

    BTW, what is this reported observation of an aspect of reality you talk about. Fine, if you call belief without evidence, i.e. faith, reality, go for it. Though again I ask, which god or gods should I consider this possible creator when there is no evidence for one. Then again, if we have to consider a creator, who created the creator, i.e. turtles all the way down. Still doesn’t compute.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    Mike Schuler: Sorry missed your link at the bottom of the post. What is that saying again, oh yes, Correlation does not imply causation, or something like that. If that is your smidgen of evidence you will have to do a lot better than that to get me interested in considering a creator, however much some may want there to be one. As I said, a smidgen of actual evidence please, not some ill defined imagined correlation.

  • Mike Schuler

    Maybe you didn’t see the link at the end of my post??? Here’s the smidgen again: Synchronicity

    The word “synchronicity” was coined by CG Jung. I didn’t even read the Wiki article I linked because I studied this long before computers transmitting wikis were ever invented. You asked for a “smidgen” of evidence, well there it is. How do you scientifically explaing synchronicity?

  • Mike Schuler

    “ill defined imagined correlation…”

    Huh? All I did was ask a question, and then I suggested that the answer should be arrived at by scientific means. I’ll repeat the question. Is there, or is there not a creator of the Universe? “Yes there is” and/or “No there isn’t” are the only possible answers. One is right, and one is wrong. Which one? Do you have some reliable method other than a scientific method to arrive at a guaranteed correct answer?

    If you decide to take one side instead of the other, your side will always seem like the correct side (even though it’s an illusion) because that is the side you chose. What “smidgen” of evidence did you use to decide your choice?

    What I am saying is, why not keep both sides open until you get overwhelming evidence of one side or the other? It’s a “yes or no” question. You can build two models, one for “yes” and one for “no.” You can build them side-by-side favoring neither, until one overwhelms the other, which will happen, because only one answer can be true.

    And if you ever get a chance, tell us what causes synchronicity.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    Synchronicity? You might be surprised to know that there really is such a thing as coincidence. I can’t help it if some don’t accept that.

    As to which ‘side’ I chose, I chose the one with some evidence and in which god/s are superfluous.

    I am also quite happy in saying that there are things I don’t know and might never know, even if I lived forever. Thus I don’t feel the need to posit something for which there is no evidence. However, give me some genuine empirical evidence for god/s, beyond humanity’s need for answers right now, and I will happily consider it.

    Now if you wanted a debate on why humanity has this apparent need for creating gods, then I could be interested, if only because of what I consider the cost has been. However, the debate would then be about us and our psychological needs rather than about the existence or not of gods.

  • John Merryman

    Question; Do the elements of consciousness incorporating complex feedback lead to intelligence, or does the order of the intellect give rise to consciousness?

  • Aleksandar Mikovic

    Somebody in this discussion said that if you give him an empirical evidence about the existence of God, then he would be willing to reconsider his atheism.
    But a theist could say a similar thing: give me an empirical evidence about the nonexistence of God. This illustrates the fact that many people forget: atheism or theism can not be verified scientifically, and hence these are beleifs.

    Many atheists justify their atheism by saying that science can explain naturally everything, which again is a beleif. This beleif is based on a very simple philosophy, i.e. that there are finitely many types of basic constituents and a finite set of laws and if we wait sufficiently long time intelligent beings will appear in the universe. The problem with this simple picture is to explain/understand the natural laws. One has two possibilities: the natural laws are entities separate from spacetime and elementary constituents, or they are just random patterns in the universe evolution. The second possibility implies that everything is a random manifestation, which is not an attractive option.
    The first one implies that the natural laws as abstract ideas have an existence separate from spacetime and matter, and hence this leads to a Platonic worldview that the observable universe is not the only thing that exists.

  • Tom Salamone

    I think it’s because most people’s discussions of a creator are intrinsically tied to some religious belief. A lot of people might think religions are evidently man-made, and so would rather not go down that road.
    This is my own view, and I’m just guessing it’s similar to like-minded people.

    You make a very good point here. I agree with you that most people’s discussions of a creator are intrinsically tied to some religious belief. My point is, why can we put those beliefs to a rigorous scientific test?

    For example, the Christian faith proclaims that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Other faiths teach that the universe had no beginning – with science, we can rule out those other faiths by demonstrating that the universe indeed did have a beginning – the Big Bang theory confirms that, without much doubt (in fact it takes more faith to believe otherwise), the universe did begin about 13.7 billion years ago.

    Not only did the universe have a beginning, but it was also fine tuned to such a degree a natural explanation of this fine tuning requires one to abandon all rationality. For instance, the universe has been expanding ever since it was created 13.7 billion years ago – AND, the rate of expansion, scientists have discovered, must be so precise that (CATCH THIS NOW) if you could change the expansion rate of the universe by as much as 1 part in 10 to the 120th power, no life would be possible ANYWHERE in the entire universe. That is an amazing amount of precision. Not only is the expansion rate fine tuned, but the mass density of the universe is fine tuned such that if you were to change the mass density of the universe by 1 part in 10 to the 60th power, you’d also have no life anywhere and at anytime in the entire universe. There are dozens of other fine tuning characteristics that I could mention in addition to these -such as the strong and weak nuclear force constants – such that if you were to change them ever so slightly, you’d get the same result – NO LIFE. In addition, there is order in the universe – the laws of physics are fixed. If you were to change the speed of light, for example, no life would be possible (we would all be burned up by the increased energy of the sun (E=mc squared – if you increase the c (speed of light) the energy of the sun would increase and destroy us)

    So this leads me to a question. Isn’t it rational to inquire about a creator? After all, how does fine tuning occur by chance, without a designer?

    Don’t you agree with me that the world of science suddenly becomes orders of magnitude more fascinating to ponder these things? Doesn’t it make science a worth while endeavor? We don’t have to argue about any of these things anymore – we can put everything to the scientific test and throw out faiths that fail.

    That’s why I encourage all of you to give Dr. Ross a hearing and to put his testable creation model to the scientific test. If it fails the test, then it can be discarded. But if it doesn’t fail, then it should be allowed to the high table of scientific study and debate.

    I wish I could be there at the conference. I am not a scientist, but I do find the fine tuning characteristics of the universe compelling evidence for a divine creator – the God of the Bible.

    Thanks for your reply

    Tom Salamone

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B. ?

    Tom, I agree with your basic point, but I don’t think it leads to “the God of the Bible”. I think it leads to there being a need for “something” to manage reality, in the sense I discuss below. Most of the people posting and commenting here just don’t appreciate the logical problem pertaining to “existence” in the ostensible material sense (IOW, something beyond the “existence” of roots of an equation, etc.) Some observations:

    1. Our universe seems to combine some basic logical concepts such as the variational principle, combined with arbitrary details such as the value of alpha, which is not “mathematically sensible” (i.e., not equal to one, etc.) since it is about 1/137 – it’s ugly, but just right for life.

    2. The whole point (IMHO, and as put forth by Barrow and Tipler in TACP) of noticing anthropic design features of our universe is not e.g. the silly tautology that our being here must be consistent with those parameters being life-friendly. It is rather, the very fact that so many such parameters are life-friendly to begin with (originally argued as being within narrow margins, maybe or maybe not), and why should they be “picked” such as to be like that? The circular argument is dumb: if you’re a realist, then you can imagine the universe not having life-friendly features, and thus no life. So the question is, why are the laws and constants one way, versus another way, “to begin with” (not about time or initial moments per se, but that properties logically precede their effects) versus it having to be X-friendly if X comes about later (that’s Bee’s “so what” moment.)

    3. As I have explained and argued before, there is no logical way to pick out some “possible worlds” (as in, sets of laws and constants) to “exist”, but not others. It’s like the number 23 being made in brass numerals alone among all the other numbers, those having none other than airy platonic existence. Indeed, modal realists cogently argue that “existence” can’t be logically defined in any way other than “as numbers” (it from bit), and ironically then all possible worlds must exist. That’s what Max Tegmark implies he believes, but I don’t think he appreciates that it involves accepting cartoon universes too – since they involve descriptions of things in space and time, etc.

    I don’t agree with MR, for three main reasons. One is the strange nature of quantum reality, in which the wave function isn’t really representable (has to “collapse” all over the universe when particle is observed.) The second is, the nature of conscious experience, which I don’t think is mere computation. The third is (unexpectedly to most people), that “time” can’t be defined mathematically. Sure, you can draw the coordinates and the world-lines, but there’s no way to represent “flowing time” as we experience it. Really, dy/dx is the same as dy/dt in math. Time, real time, has to be put in by intuition. Some deny it’s existence, with the “block universe” idea, but what the hell are we experiencing? It ironically makes our minds even more magical, to construct a new form of reality.

    Oddly, strong AI means there’s no way to think “I am real” in a non-platonic way, so all SAI believers must admit we can’t know if we have “real [material] brains” or are just the program representing our mental activity, in conceptual form (as in “possible chess games.”) It’s an odd expansion of the “brain in a vat” problem, here it’s the “brain in fact” problem.

    So, either MR is true and there’s no point in asking “why is the world like this” because all of them “exist” somewhere, or: MR is not true, and some special “virtus” decides what is real and what isn’t. Whether “God” or some principle, there has to be some controlling authority to make some descriptions (“worlds”) real and not others. Logic by itself doesn’t allow a distinction, for such a basic non-predicate claim, to be made. (“Predicate” is like the difference between a circle and a square. However, the difference between a “real” circle (as in “material”), and one that is just “the math” is not accessible to logic.) Think about that “23” example if you need to.

    4. Is it OK to conjecture about a “God” or not? To me, it’s neither probable nor disprovable, and asking for “evidence” is a red herring since this is a matter of “logical argument” at a high level of abstraction, like the argument over modal realism (will skeptics pester Tegmark about that too?) I think it’s a choice to be either philosophically adventurous, or not. It’s just, do you accept our being able to speculate and come to tentative conclusions about what we cannot actually know, or not?

    (PS: As you can imagine, I studied and got into “philosophy” a lot – well it isn’t just “metaphysics” because it gets to the heart of what you are *saying* when you try to make a point about *anything*.)

  • Garth A Barber

    The problem is that to conclude from the anthropic nature of the universe there is a God requires an act of faith – God cannot be observed through scientific instruments, however the alternative explanations for these ‘coincidences’ also requires an act of faith – the other members of the multiverse ensemble cannot be observed either.


  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Phooey. Fine tuning is a metaphor. It may or may not be the case that life is only possible because certain parameters have particular values, but that doesn’t imply that the existence of a creation machine with dials on it. Indeed, so far as I know, no physicist has yet proposed a way in which a creator could set basic parameters. After all, such a machine would presumably operate according to some sort of physical law itself. What fine tuning would be necessary to make fine tuning possible?

    I also get a kick out of the suggestion that the evidence for the big bang is evidence for a universe that had a beginning in time. The big bang might or might not be the earliest event we can know about, but that doesn’t imply it was either a unique event or the first event. Maybe somebody will come up with plausible physical arguments for the temporal finitude of the universe, but for the moment I’m sticking with Kantian skepticism about that question and the question of the infinity of the world as well.

  • Garth A Barber

    Fine tuning is a metaphor. It may or may not be the case that life is only possible because certain parameters have particular values,

    The phrase “fine tuning” may well be a metaphor, however the improbability of our universe being propitious for life, rather than otherwise, is a very real fact that cries out for explanation.


  • Loki

    Fine tuning is not obvious at all. The conjectures we can make about what structures would have formed with other parameters are not even “educated guesses”. Right now we can not even calculate what several quarks, gluons and electrons (more than 3-4?) will do as a system …

    It’s quite imaginable that almost any set of parameters would allow some mechanism of increasing complexity leading to conscious observer of some form. E.g., when people say that some set would lead to quick collapse of the Universe back to singularity – what do they mean by “quick”? I recall science fiction abt life on the surface of a neutron star – that was “quick” for humans, but enough for local cheela.

    Off course, Neil, your general ontological point is still valid. But while i keep reading your comments for years here and can’t sensibly object to some of them, i can’t get rid of the feeling that it’s all some linguistic trickstery :-)

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    “Fine tuning” is not only a metaphor, but the use of the expression begs the question since it assumes that we already know that something like tuning has taken place, which is precisely what the argument is about. By the way, I’m using the expression “begging the question” in its original meaning of petitio principii or arguing the conclusion. Like “paradigm,” “deconstruction,” and “unique,” the phrase has been rendered pretty much meaningless, which is a pity, since we need some way of talking about what it used to mean.

  • Sad

    Off course again (sorry mods, it won’t happen again)… Neil, did you ever read or contribute to the Everything list? I think at one point Tegmark had some sort of connection to it…. maybe he still reads it…..maybe…

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B. ?

    Jim Harrison, the idea of natural variation of physical laws still doesn’t say what governs the mechanics of the source of the laws, what the laws behind the laws are in effect. It still presupposes a specific “nature” of things even if it can produce different kinds of universes. That “nature” is still a suspicious blessing giving special status of a metaphysical state to some arrangements of ways to be and not others. Of course thinking “Someone” is behind that isn’t “science” by definition, it is the choice to use philosophy to go beyond what science can find and say. Whether that’s just “semantics” is problematical, but then how much of what skeptics and science boosters say is distorted by semantics?

    BTW Loki, it’s being “imaginable” that a wide range of parameters could give rise to life is just a hunch. Barrow and Tipler carefully picked over the subject, citing many authorities, and found fine tuning to be very narrow. Maybe they’re wrong, but you’d have to take their argument on and not just blow it off.

    Sad, thanks about the Everything list – I will look. Here’s something like it I found: http://www.nabble.com/Which-mathematical-structure–is–the-universe-in-Physics–td16847937.html.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Neil, you can go on using the expression “fine tuning” for whatever reason you like, but it remains a loaded expression. Cheating.

    As for philosophy going beyond what science can tell us, swell. I’ve got no objections, always provided you have some basis to speculate. In fact, what passes for philosophy in these discussions is simply theology. The God who is supposed to have fine tuned the universe is simply the God of the Bible or a somewhat etiolated version of the same. Absent faith, why would you think of invoking a God to explain anything? There are literally an infinite number of other possibilities, each equally plausible or rather implausible. Certain Hindus maintain that the Vedas are eternal objects that persist even though worlds and their gods come and go. Maybe the parameters are simply the Veda.

    I’m pretty hard line about this, I know. I don’t think it makes much sense to talk about anything but animals or perhaps robots “acting” or “making” as in “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” So far as we know, even to have intentions requires a front end and back end, if not a mouth and a butt. Do you really think that God Highest and Best has HOX genes? And if not, why do you think it is legit to use categories like doing when speaking about anything but mobile organisms?

  • Sad

    Neil, in case you’re interested: http://groups.google.com/group/everything-list/about

  • Pingback: Reasons to Believe (that Creationists are Crazy) | Cosmic Variance()

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I encourage all of you to give Dr. Hugh Ross a listen. He is a top rate scientist.

    Hee, hee. Sean’s judgment in “Reasons to believe creationists are crazy” and btw the basis for that claim: Ross is a crackpot.

    “there is no reason whatsoever to invite such a person to speak at a conference that aspires to any degree of seriousness.”


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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