Fool’s Argument

Fourth of a series

This is the fourth of my reviews of the Focus on the Family video featuring creationist Stephen C. Meyer. It’s a DVD set available on Amazon and titled Does God Exist? Episode 4 is titled “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 3: A Finely Tuned Universe,” and it recapitulates, after a fashion, a book, and subsequently a video, by creationists Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards. These carry the title The Privileged Planet, and the theme is that Earth, this planet, is so privileged, with everything set just right, for human life to exist, yeah, even any kind of life to  exist. The argument is extended to the entire Universe, which two terms being redundant. That theme is voiced in the opening scene (above) as David Stotts exhibits a string instrument and talks about fine tuning.

As before, this is a classroom setting, where Stephen C. Meyer is lecturing an assembly of students on why we should accept Intelligent Design over naturalistic explanations for life on Earth and for the Universe, as well. Meyer is

an advocate of the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design. He helped found the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) of the Discovery Institute (DI), which is the main organization behind the intelligent design movement. Before joining the DI, Meyer was a professor at Whitworth College. Meyer is currently a Senior Fellow of the DI and Director of its Center for Science and Culture (CSC).

He makes ample use of presentation foils, some of which I reproduce here. I will discuss these and also will transcribe them to make it possible for search engines to find the text.

Fine-Tuning

If the universe were expanding faster, then there would be no structure in the universe.

He imagines how, in a science fiction world, this might be portrayed. A space traveler comes across the Universe control room, and there are all these knobs that have to be set just so. Else calamity.

He speaks of the argument for design, explained in depth in a book by William Dembski, a fellow at the Discovery Institute.

There is a discussion of  the Weak Anthropic Principle.

Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP)

We shouldn’t be surprised that we live in a universe in which the conditions that are necessary for our existence are present.

Meyer is dismissive of the WAP, illustrating it with a supposed fire investigation scenario. The investigator comes back and says there was a fire because of oxygen in the atmosphere. Not much of an explanation. From all appearances this is an illustration that was poorly constructed by design. I have long had my own illustration of the WAP.

We see an explorer in the Amazon Basin, and he is at a boat landing at the very head of one of the river’s tributaries. He has no way to get home. A boat he was not expecting arrives to rescue him, and he remarks, “Out of all the possibilities, out of all the branches you took, you chose just the ones to get you to me.”

Then my imagined scene zooms out, and we see the entire Amazon Basin, and at the head of each of the thousands of tributaries there is an explorer waiting for a boat to arrive, but there is only one boat, and it has arrived at the one landing just described. How lucky is the explorer? Very. How improbable is it that somebody was rescued? Not so improbable. Meyer could benefit from deeper thinking.

Meyer quotes from an item that appeared in the London Times:

Anthropic Fine-Tuning Principle

“No such argument can ever be absolutely conclusive, and the anthropic fine-tuning argument stops just short of knock-down proof. For there could’ve been millions and millions of different universes created each with different settings,  of the fundamental ratios and constants, so many in fact that one with the right set was eventually bound to turn up by sheer chance. We just happened to be the lucky ones. But there is no evidence of such a theory what-so-ever.

And there is more, for which you will need to view the video or else send me a note.

I was particularly intrigued by the last sentence quoted above, “But there is no evidence of such a theory what-so-ever.” I am not sure what the writer meant by no evidence for this theory. Does he mean to say there is a theory, but the theory has no evidence to back it up? Or does he mean there is no evidence such a theory exists? Let’s assume the former, because, if the latter, then there is evidence such a theory exists, because I just now proposed such a theory, and my proposal for such a theory is evidence the theory exists.

Graciously accepting the first of the two, then the statement is equally amazing. Accepting there is no evidence supporting such a theory, then where does that leave the writer, who continues and states, “On the other hand the evidence for the truth of the anthropic fine-tuning argument is of such a certainty that in any other sphere of science we would regard it as absolutely settled?” From all appearances it leaves the Times writer having made a bald statement with as much evidence as the WAP. None.

Meyer wraps it up:

Conclusion

Intelligent design provides the best explanation of the “fine-tuning” of  the laws of physics and chemistry. And thus it points to not only a transcendent cause of the universe, but also an intelligent and rational one.

No, it does not.

First, Intelligent Design does not resolve anything. Meyer can say Intelligent Design is the theory with the fewest assumptions (Occam’s Razor). It certainly does have the fewest of all assumptions. “God did it.” Can’t get much simpler than that.

The problem with “God did it” is that it does not have much going for it. A theory with as little basis of evidence is going to be hard put to compete with theories of equal simplicity and equal basis. For example, this one: “I did it.”

There is no basis to believe I did it, putting my theory on an equal footing with “God did it.”

There’s more. “God did it,” in truth, carries the same baggage as naturalistic proposals. It does not account for the much-publicized specificity of the Universe, including human life and all other life on the planet. If “God did it,” then God must have had all that specificity and design built in before, and where did that come from? Of course, this is an ancient response to an ancient postulation, but it now possesses a remarkable irony. Since its formation 30 years ago, Intelligent Design has adopted an  argument that challenges the originality of God.

Meyer invokes William Dembski, who frequently invokes Kolmogorov complexity to demonstrate that specifically complex things cannot derive from less complex things. For example, in his book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, Dembski invokes Kolmogorov on page 159:

It is CSI on which David Chalmers hopes to base a comprehensive theory of human consciousness. It is CSI that within the Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory of algorithmic information identifies the highly-compressible, nonrandom strings of digits. How CSI gets from an organism’s environment into an organism’s genome is one of the long-standing question addressed by the Santa Fe Institute.

CSI, for Dembski, translates as Complex Specified Information. That is the very thing that Meyer is considering when he speaks of needing  Intelligent Design to provide explanations.

Meyer cites enormous improbabilities in arguing against the WAP. These are improbabilities that amount to impossibilities. In a finite Universe. If a person wants to wax philosophical, then before the Big Bang, when time did not exist, then all things were possible. Does somebody want to discuss that?

Episode 5 has the title “DNA by Design,” and we can presume Meyer is going to argue that DNA is evidence of design, just as he did in his book, Signature in the Cell.

Much is promised for this book. It’s supposed to set us straight about the basis for Intelligent Design and to make the case, using the story of DNA, for Intelligent Design. Once again, I will let Amazon do the talking:

Signature in the Cell is the first book to make a comprehensive case for intelligent design based upon DNA. Meyer embarks on an odyssey of discovery as he investigates current evolutionary theories and the evidence that ultimately led him to affirm intelligent design. Clearly defining what ID is and is not, Meyer shows that the argument for intelligent design is not based on ignorance or “giving up on science,” but instead upon our growing scientific knowledge of the information stored in the cell.

The video series, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, has this to say about Episode 5:

The Question of design is a critical worldview-shaping paradox. If biology points us to the appearance of design, then what are we to make of it? Can we attribute this to natural selection or was there an Intelligent Designer?

Watch for a review later this week.

Fool’s Argument

Third OF A SERIES

As noted above, this is the third of my reviews of the Focus on the Family video featuring creationist Stephen C. Meyer. It’s a DVD set available on Amazon and titled Does God Exist? The setting is an apparent classroom seminar on the proof for the existence of God. Episode 3 is titled “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 2: In the Beginning,” and it seeks to affirm that God, that is the God of Abraham, is the root explanation for the creation of the Universe.

Meyer makes his argument, and he sprinkles the discussion with various illustrations depicting real scientists. Here are a few.

Regarding the first, Meyer has brought up the conclusion of modern cosmologists that the Universe is not infinite. It is both finite in scope and finite in time. It had a beginning. Allow me to quote, not from Meyer:

Genesis 1:1 King James Version (KJV)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

There. Modern cosmology and the Bible are in agreement. The argument goes pretty much from there.

He dismisses quantum cosmology. Back to Lawrence Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothingpreviously reviewed:

The lesson is clear: quantum gravity not only appears to allow universes to be created from nothing— meaning, in this case, I emphasize, the absence of space and time— it may require them. “Nothing”— in this case no space, no time, no anything!— is unstable.

Moreover, the general characteristics of such a universe, if it lasts a long time, would be expected to be those we observe in our universe today.

Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (p. 170). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

But Meyer has issues with quantum cosmology, and he lays them out:

Problems with Quantum Cosmology

  1. It doesn’t explain how you get from the timeless state to temporal state.
  2. Must use mathematical tricks.

I am not sure Meyer is correct on his first point, but he most certainly is on the second. Quantum cosmology does require the use of mathematical tricks. It’s what physicists do. Tricks with mathematics.

When he says, that “creatio ex nihilo” implies “the universe was created out of nothing physical,” he really means to say the universe was created out of nothing material. Everything is physical, especially if you’re a physicist.

Meyer cites the work of Arno A. Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson in the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, confirming a critical consequence of the proposed origin of the Universe. And he quotes Penzias (Nobel laureate):

The best data we have (concerning the Big Bang) are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on  but the five books of Moses, the psalms, and the Bible as a whole.

This is, indeed, a quote in proper context by Penzias. At issue are the sources Penzias cites. First of all, Moses is known to be a fictional  character. Second, the Bible is notoriously inaccurate, even beyond the tales about Moses. Meyer may use a quote from Nobel laureate Penzias if he wants, but that particular quote has its own destruction built in.

Meyer delves into the modern practice of science, discussing hypothesis confirmation. There is a lot of talk regarding the development of scientific theories, and some of that relates how hypotheses morph into theories upon confirmation. Experience says otherwise. In reality, a theory is developed to explain data, and from that theory (explanation) several hypotheses can be drawn. If the theory is valid, then certain consequences must ensue. These consequences are used to form hypotheses regarding the theory. Hypothesis confirmation is performed by experimentation or by further investigation. Confirming a hypothesis does not prove a theory, only strengthen it. Theories are never disproved. Failure to confirm a hypothesis can defeat a theory.

In this case the theory is that theism and the Judeo-Christian view of creation are true. Now we say that a consequence of that theory must be that we have a finite Universe. Additional studies have demonstrated we have a finite Universe. The hypothesis is confirmed. This strengthens the theory. Here is how Meyer put it, being scripted here to allow search engines to find it:

Confirmation of a Theistic Hypothesis

If theism and the Judeo-Christian view of creation are true, then we have reason to expect evidence of a finite universe.

We have evidence of a finite universe. Therefore, we have a reason to think that theism and the Judeo-Christin view of creation may be true.

What Meyer may fail to recognize is that the statement (“we have a reason to think that theism and the Judeo-Christin view of creation may be true”) is not a well-grounded conclusion. Left as an exercise for the reader.

Eventually Meyer gets around to quoting Charles Townes, inventor of the maser and the laser, and also recipient of the Nobel Prize for this work:

Charles Townes

In my view, the question of origin seems always left answered if we explore from a scientific point of view alone. Thus, I believe there is a need for some religious or metaphysical explanation. I believe in  the concept of God and in His existence.

At some point Townes proposed that science and religion are equally valid ways to study the universe. Skeptical cartoonist Prasad Golla and I picked up on that, and I wrote a story to go with a short cartoon strip:

Yes, there is a hazard in thinking science and religion are equally valid. People who rejoiced in Townes’ remarks failed to realize those remarks might not benefit religion.

This episode also features notable skeptic of science David Berlinski.:

Most rational people will agree with the argument I have put forward here, but an amazing portion of otherwise sensible people will argue that biological science must be treated differently. Whenever the matter has gone to legal arbitration, as in the court cases McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education and Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, it has been easy to demonstrate a religious motivation behind the actionable offense. (There seem to be a few with no apparent religious ax to grind, and David Berlinski stands out. With no outward religious leanings, Berlinski seems to be chiefly of a contrarian nature.) Also, the writings and actions of various proponents of creationism demonstrate a religious agenda. It quickly becomes apparent that advocates of supernatural explanations, especially with respect to areas that touch on religious beliefs, are allowing religious conviction to trump objectivity in these matters.

Berlinski initially came to my attention 20 years ago, when he participated in a debate on the TV show Firing Line. You can watch the show on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITqiIQu-fbA.

Berlinski is without doubt a master intellect, but his formal study climaxed in obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. He is presently listed as a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture, the Discovery Institute being this country’s prime supporter of Intelligent Design. He does not appear to have done any advanced scientific work, and he sometimes gives an odd performance when he ventures into the realm of science.

My impression on watching in 1997 was of somebody with high self-regard, but during the debate he was forced on two occasions to retract an unfounded statement. For his statement of position, catch him at the 45-minute mark. He grossly misconstrues the principles of evolutionary theory, painting Darwinian evolution as a random search.

About 1:40:50 in the video he challenges Kenneth Miller (an actual scientist) regarding the the value of evolutionary theory in modern biology. He remarks that Miller’s published work uses the term evolutionas often as it uses the term presbyterian, particularly, “not at all.” Wrong-o! Miller points out that his work includes the word evolution infinitely more often than presbyterian, since he has used evolutionand has never used presbyterian. Shortly after that Berlinski again has to back down after making another incautious statement.

Episode 4 of this Focus on this Family series is titled, “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 3: A Finely Tuned Universe.” Who wants to bet this is going to touch on the work of creationist astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and co-producer Jay Wesley Richards? A review is coming later. Read some more.