Monday, February 19, 2018

Responding to Cameron

Cameron from Capturing Christianity provided a response to my last post, and although it's taken me over a month to be able to write a response (work is rough), I felt Cameron deserved a reply.  While our exchange is certainly strong, I appreciate how civil things have been kept.

What Cameron Claims

Cameron believes I'm arguing against a strawman when I made my post because he doesn't believe that the kinds of objections to the Kalam or Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) are of the 'barely possible' sort:
"He starts off by attributing an idea to me I did not articulate. It’s not “my idea that” there are not better objections to the Kalam or Fine-Tuning arguments. The point I was making was that some people confuse possible alternatives with probable alternatives. That isn’t to say that all people do this or that there aren’t probable alternatives. I wasn’t making that claim in this Facebook post."
It's certainly true that Cameron never claimed that there weren't better objections to the Kalam or the FTA, but his post definitely gives the impression that atheists can only offer "barely possible" ways out of these two arguments.  I must admit that this reading is being uncharitable to Cameron, though in my own defense I've come across the kind of overconfident Christian apologist online so many times that it's hard to not have that reaction.

That said, my post contained two points: First was to point out that there are stronger objections to the arguments, but also to show that even bare possibilities are enough to undermine questionable  metaphysical principles used in these arguments when we are in situations where we have a very limited understanding of the contentious issues being debated.

I think the real contention here is going back and forth over the objections I'm raising, since that's where the bulk of both mine and Cameron's posts spent our efforts previously and that's what I want to focus on here.

The Kalam

Cameron takes a pretty bold strategy, he claims that even if I've shown that science favors the B-Theory and that science doesn't show that the universe had a beginning, I've still not shown the Kalam is unsound:

"Regarding (a), assuming he’s right that science gives strong evidence against A-theory (which again is dubious), I agree with Calum Miller and others that one could simply forward an A-theory-independent version of the Kalam (e.g.: “one could simply take as one’s datum a universe with an ‘early’ temporal boundary”). That’s easy. Regarding (b), Craig is explicit that the evidence from science merely confirms what his two philosophical arguments already establish re: the beginning of the universe. So even if the science is out on the beginning of the universe (which again is dubious), he’s only dealt with a third of Craig’s arguments in defense of the finitude of the past.

So, even if (a) and (b) are true, it doesn’t follow that the Kalam (or something very similar) is unsound."
When we consider his first point about the B-Theory of time, I think he (and presumably Calum Miller) wildly misunderstand what the B-Theory entails when it comes to the universe existing tenselessly.

The point is that if the B-Theory is true, the universe can have a beginning but wouldn't require any kind of a cause - because the universe would always exist tenselessly. In his Facebook post about his response to me, Cameron quotes William Lane Craig regarding the possibility of defending the Kalam assuming a B-Theory of time:

"But B-theorists of time have pointed out to me that they don’t think that things can begin to exist without causes. If, for example, a horse exists at t7 and doesn’t exist prior to t7, they don’t think that even though the horse doesn’t come into being at t7 that it can just begin suddenly at that point without a cause. They would say that of course if something exists at some time before which it didn’t exist there needs to be a cause for why it begins to exist. If that is the case then the kalam argument goes through as before. I’ll leave it to B-theorists of time to develop a B-theoretical kalam cosmological argument. I think it is possible, but I personally don’t have any interest in doing so since I think it is predicated on a false theory of time."

Part of this statement from Craig is extremely confusing, where he says he thinks it's possible to develop a Kalam argument based on the B-Theory. It's actually very confusing since quoting Craig only a few sentences prior to when Cameron's quote starts Craig says:

"The B-theorist thinks that in “beginning to exist” the universe simply has a front edge, so to speak. The universe no more comes into being for the B-theorist at the first moment of its existence than a yardstick comes into being at the first inch. There is just so to speak a front edge to the universe as there is a front edge to the yardstick."

This makes sense, since time is only defined within the space-time block, so there is no "beginning to exist"- the spacetime block just always exists tenselessly.  In fact the points from Cameron's quote don't make sense in the context of the universe itself:

Sure B-Theorists would agree that if a horse exists at t7 and doesn't exist prior to t7, they don't think the horse can just begin to exist without a cause. This is true of things in-time, but it wouldn't apply to our space-time universe since the universe as a whole isn't "in-time" the universe is the boundary where time is actually defined.  Time outside the universe simply isn't defined.  Suffice it to say, I don't see how it's possible to hold the B-Theory and run the Kalam. You can run a kind of cosmological argument based on the PSR, but nothing like the Kalam.

This all said, I think Cameron really goes off the rails when he says that even if science is unclear, Craig still has philosophical arguments against an eternal universe and so the Kalam is still sound.

This is frankly ridiculous on two counts.

First, even if Craig's arguments against infinities were valid (and they're not), they would be irrelevant if the B-Theory is true. The past doesn't need to be infinite on the B-Theory so as to avoid needing a creator - the universe just always exists tenselessly.

Secondly this response is especially ridiculous given the context of Cameron's post about possibilities.  Craig's metaphysical arguments against actual infinities are a-priori arguments, meaning for them to work he has to show that it is logically impossible for an actual infinity to exist - and Craig never gets there.  I don't know how one expects to make any kind of likelihood argument against something when arguing a-priori.

What's worse is that there are outstanding responses to Craig's arguments against actual infinities from Wes Morriston and Paul Draper that have been standing for years that he's never bothered to re-engage with in the philosophical literature.

I mean, when Sean Carroll brought up the Aguirre-Gratton model of the universe in his debate with Craig, it was never addressed.  This model is a past-eternal, well-defined model that is compatible with all empirical evidence that we have.  It avoids the BVG theorem since the average expansion rate of the universe isn't positive on this model.   In fact in the days after the debate, Craig's research partner James Sinclair admitted at the end of his talk that the above model is indeed past eternal

Does Cameron think that such a statement would be made if an eternal model was somehow logically impossible given Craig's a-priori metaphysical arguments?

Seriously, if you're going to rest the Kalam's soundness on just those kinds of arguments, you're in really bad shape.

Fine Tuning

Cameron starts by replying that I’ve contradicted myself by appealing to mere possibilities in objections to the fine tuning argument, when I stated in my post that I agree with his general principle about possibility vs. probability.  He’s misrepresenting me here and I believe he’s also wrong when he responds to my bulleted points on objections to the FTA.

As far as misrepresentation goes, my article made sure to point out that sometimes appealing to possibilities as a response is valid when we’re dealing with non-mundane situations with esoteric metaphysical propositions or exploratory areas of science where we don’t have a complete understanding of everything at the levels being discussed: “…Appeals to possibility in that context (of metaphysical arguments) is analogous to believing far reaching possibilities in mundane situations.”

Consider Cameron’s response to my point about the possibility that the constants in physics being necessary because once we do have a better understanding of the laws of nature, a Theory of Everything may well explain why the constants have the values they do – as physics has shown us for some of the constants apologists have appealed to in the past in the FTA.

Here Cameron says I’m just appealing to a bare possibility that the values of the constants could be necessary, but this is wrong headed in multiple ways.

First off, it’s appealing to something in the actual FTA itself:

1. The fine tuning of the universe is either due to physical necessity, chance or design.
2. Fine tuning is not due to either physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.

The objection is aimed at premise 2, saying that we don’t know enough about physics to adequately support the idea that the fine tuning is due to necessity. I’m not sure how Cameron is going to accuse me of appealing to bare possibility when I’m literally just pointing out that one of the options listed in the argument itself is still a live one.

Cameron might respond that we don’t have any evidence that the values the constants have are due to physical necessity, but the point of the objection is to say that we don’t yet have evidence that the constants are due to necessity or chance – because we just don’t have a complete understanding of physics yet. 

Secondly, Cameron ends up hoist by his own petard when he argues against the idea that even if the constants had the values they do due to physical necessity, it doesn’t refute the fine tuning argument.  Here he links to Luke Barnes, who quotes Paul Davies (emphasis added):

"I think [the idea that there is only one possible universe] is demonstrably wrong. There is not a shred of evidence that the universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality."

This is itself an appeal to mere possibilities of things that might be the case. The entire FTA is premised on the idea that it’s possible that the constants could have had other values, even though we don’t have any evidence to say that they could. 

So the idea that the universe or the constants could be different is based on nothing more than appealing to the bare possibility that there are other consistent universes which could be the case.

This is why I mentioned in my first article that appeals to possibility can sufficiently undermine metaphysical arguments like the FTA, where as they wouldn't undermine beliefs based on our every day experiences. When it comes to metaphysical arguments like the FTA, we just don't have the relevant background information to make probable judgments about what's being debated.

We can even see how a kind of double standard gets applied when it comes to the universe and when we start talking about things like the Christian god and brute facts.

Consider how Christians conceive of god being a trinity, rather than a quintuple, duet, or whatever natural number.  It certainly seems logically consistent (assuming the trinity as a concept is consistent) that god could have had 2, 4, 5, or n parts and that he could have had such a property rather than just being 3.  But theists will simply say that god gets defined as being necessary, despite the fact that he contains a number of properties which seem as if they could well have been different.

In fact akin to Cameron's objection to a ToE, even if we were to assume some set of metaphysical principles which would necessitate that god be a trinity rather than a quintuple, why would should we think those metaphysical principles are fundamental rather than another, still logically consistent set?

In the end, the argument from fine tuning boils down to asking "Why does the physical universe have constants that contain the brute values that they do?" or "Why does the physical universe have the laws it does?" We may as well ask the same questions about the number of contingent properties that theists of various stripes believe their god has.  In the end, we all are stuck with some set of brute facts and it is meaningless to try and assign a probability value to those facts having any given value.

Before I close I want to hit a few other points about the other bullets listed.

For example when I point out that "life is not well defined" it's not just pointing out, as Cameron accuses, to a remote possibility that other kinds of life could arise in other values of constants. There is a stronger point to be made about the improper use of applying probabilities to situations like this where the outcomes in question are not well defined.

Another point is about the fact that our universe is mostly hostile to life, therefore we ought not to conclude it is finely tuned for life.  Here Cameron again quotes Luke Barnes, saying that a universe being finely tuned for life is compatible with the vast majority of the universe being inhospitable to life.  That's true as far as it goes, but it is misleading.  We don't look at the universe and then conclude "this place is finely tuned for life", if we were to look at our universe we might more properly say "the universe was finely tuned for the existence of hydrogen" since it is so much more abundant compared to the existence of life.

To get an idea of how silly it is to look at our universe and the distribution of the values of constants in physics to conclude it was designed to produce life, consider any given human being. The amount of things that "could have been different" to produce a very different Cameron or John the Counter Apologist is astronomical.  If only another sperm out of the 40 million - 100 million in an ejaculation were to make contact with the same egg that was released in ovulation, a very different individual would be standing where we are.  This doesn't account for a ton of other factors: what if the parents didn't copulate the day when the human in question was conceived? What if they never met?  etc.

If I were to try and calculate those odds, I'd get some astronomical number about the chances of any specific individual, but it would be absurd to say that given the crazy odds to get a specific individual, we should assume that all of the factors leading to that person were finely tuned by some divine agent to bring about that specific individual.   The entire method being employed here is looking at the problem the wrong way.

Given that FTA proponents appeal to broadly logically possible alternatives for what the constants in physics could be, literally the emergence of anything is going to be improbable across that range. In the end we're back down to asking unanswerable questions of "what are the chances that XYZ brute facts have the values they do?" that I alluded to earlier.

Finally this brings me to the normalization problem.  I don't really find much of Cameron's responses here very convincing.  I'm not sure how one can come up with an objective method to limit the range of possible values for the constants of physics, especially given that the FTA appeals to broadly logical possibilities for what the values can be. I think this is strongly related to the fact that the FTA is just misusing probability by trying to impose it on things to which we don't have well defined parameters to limit it to.  It's like asking "what's the probability of rolling a 6?" when we don't know what kind of dice, or how many of them are being rolled.

One last objection.

I should have included this in the last article, since it's one of the best objections to the FTA that I'm aware of.   It's presented by Justin Schieber of Real Atheolgy where he discusses the work of philosopher Jonathan Weisberg. The crux of the argument is that appeals to the values of the constants of nature doesn't add anything evidentially to the idea that god created the universe. Rather than just re-explain things, I figure I should just present the video.


Suffice it to say, I think Cameron has done a very poor job of defending the Kalam and the Fine Tuning Arguments. In fact I'm not sure he very much understands the B-Theory of time objection to the Kalam much at all.

If theists want to convince atheists to believe in a god, they're going to need to produce much better arguments than these. It's getting tiresome to go over the same ground over and over, but that's what the theist/atheist debate has been doing for such a long time.


  1. I posted this comment on Cameron's blog:

    "Can you [Cameron] clarify how the scientific evidence “confirms” the conclusions of the philosophical arguments for the finitude of the past. “Confirms” usually means “raises the probability.” But Craig’s philosophical arguments aims to show on a priori grounds that it is necessarily true that the past is finite – i.e., P(finite past)=1. By their very nature, priori necessary truths cannot be “confirmed” by empirical evidence because their probability is already maxed out.

    However, taking an epistemic interpretation of probability allows you to attach probabilities below 1 to necessary truths. So if you are unsure that Craig’s philosophical arguments are successful (let’s say you’re 50/50 on the issue) then scientific evidence could close the gap. Properly speaking, the scientific evidence (E) we have is E=our universe began with an expansion. Craig needs to say that E confirms “B=the entirety of all physical reality had a beginning.” To do this, it must be true that P(E|B)>P(E|~B). Let’s say P(E|B) is 1, because B would entail E. But is P(E|~B) really significantly lower? ~B is a catch-all hypothesis comprised of every theory in which the universe didn’t have a beginning. There are an infinite number of conceivable eternal models, and scientists propose them as they come up with them, but since we don’t really know all the theories that make up ~B, there’s no way of predicting how probable E is given ~B. Instead, we have to just do our best by estimating how probable E is on *specific sub-hypotheses* within ~B. Scientists have proposed various versions of ~B that actually entail E, so P(E|B)=P(E|specific ~B theory), so E doesn’t confirm B over these theories. Now, Craig may argue that the prior probabilities of these specific ~B theories are low, so even though they predict E, it is still the case that P(E|~B) is low. However, this is precisely the point that Counter Apologist was disputing. He was arguing that these specific ~B models are live possibilities, not just mere logical possibilities that comprise a negligible portion of ~B’s probability space. Craig really needs to argue that the ~B models that predict E have such low priors that they don’t take up much of ~B’s probability space, and therefore P(E|~B) is still low. So if Counter Apologist is correct that these ~B models are more than just bare logical possibilities, but are in fact respectable scientific hypotheses, then they will take up a decent portion of ~B’s probability space, and there will not be a tremendous difference between P(E|B) and P(E|~B). Perhaps E is some evidence for B over ~B, but I think Counter Apologist would say that P(E|~B) is somewhat inscrutable at this point, so E isn’t particularly compelling evidence."

  2. I was wondering if you could define what it is to be 50/50 on the issue of success of Craig's philosophical arguments. That doesn't seem to make much sense. Either you are convinced that his arguments succeed philosophically or you are not. If not, he has more work to do. It is that simple.

    And as it seems the subject matter pertains to a region of existence external our observation and testing, how could anyone differentiate between 'bare logical possibilities' and 'respectable scientific hypotheses?' That is, absent any way to know the conditions prior to the apparent singularity (if that was ever an actual state), how can we know what is respectable? Seems like anything proposed would be mere conjecture. That said, we can still likely apply Occam's Razor to at a minimum that some eternally existing state eventually resulted in our expanding universe through some natural process given the inherent instability of what that singularity would likely have to be. Rejecting actual infinites as Craig does is mere personal preference. He has no right to dismiss them as possible (especially if he is going to propose a magical entity that can be defined as existing for all time which is necessarily an actual infinite). Then again, special pleading is a common fallacy even for the pseudo-intellectual apologists. LOL

    I guess I just don't see the point in breaking down the unknowable to this level of resolution. As you stated, "There are an infinite number of conceivable eternal models, and scientists propose them as they come up with them, but since we don’t really know all the theories that make up ~B, there’s no way of predicting how probable E is given ~B. Instead, we have to just do our best by estimating how probable E is on *specific sub-hypotheses* within ~B."

    But how can we ever determine what our 'best' would be in this evaluation process? It is still conjecture even if we rule out the more absurd somehow. And ruling out the improbable, if one could actually do probability assessments on an unknown state with unknown attributes, STILL doesn't mean the improbable CANNOT be the case. It would just be "improbable, but also actual." I guess I don't 'get it' at a meta level. Wouldn't probability have to be demonstrated and not merely asserted, even if you think you have done the math to establish that assertion?