The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

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Debate Afterthoughts

Alex Kasman / November 29-30, 2012

Being in a theological debate last night was an interesting experience. I had a chance to share my own viewpoint with a large audience, heard counter-arguments from someone who sees things very differently than I do and spoke with many other people who offered their own thoughts. However, I find that the main effect the debate has had on me is that it changed my opinion about debates. With more time to think about it (and a chance to consult some sources I had not brought with me to the debate), I have come up with some important remarks that should have been part of the discussion if only I had been quick enough, both in thinking of them and in speaking them. Since I think it is the ideas themselves, and not the speed with which they are derived or presented, that should be important, I now think of debates as being more like sporting matches, a contest between two individuals, rather than a way of comparing opposing viewpoints. If you are a sports fan, then you'd probably think it is too late for me to say anything more since the game is over. But, for anyone else, here are some important points for your consideration that I wish I had been able to make during the debate:

In regards to Wallace's remarks concerning objective ethics, I was able to state my belief that we (humans) have defined ethics to be a measure balancing the amount of harm an action will cause those it affects to the amount of good. This may not be entirely objective, but captures in words the way people actually make ethical decisions, even if they sometimes base it on incomplete or invalid information. I was also able to address the problem with simply declaring ethics to be determined by God. Under that definition, if (hypothetically) God ordered person to do something that harmed an innocent child (e.g. rape or torture) without achieving any good at all, it would still be "good". If you agree with me that even God's decree could make such an act "good", then you agree with the Humanists that ethics are defined by consequences without any need to resort to the supernatural. But, what I wish I had pointed out during the debate is that Wallace's extreme concern about objectivity is unjustified. The question of whether ethics is objective or subjective is interesting butpurely academic;it is something that professional philosophers might want to talk about over tea when they have spare time, but not something that actually need concern the rest of us. I say this because it is of no practical value. Whether morality is objective or subjective, the fact remains that the ethics people actually practice is influenced by their upbringing and their community, and does differ from place to place and person to person. That is a reality we have to live with. Whether there is one "true" morality out there or not, we clearly do not have direct access to it. So what difference does it actually make? (Of course, I understand that if one believes that God will reward or punish you for your actions then it makes a difference whether you do those particular things God disdains -- such as eating pork or wearing clothes made of two different types of materials, according to the bible -- just as if you live in a country where the law punishes you for certain actions it might make a difference to you whether you do those things. However, the question of what later consequences you may suffer as a result of an action is a separate question from whether it is good or bad, and even farther removed from whether the answer to that question is objective or subjective.)

During his closing remarks, and therefore too late for a response, Wallace suggested that talking to a dying 5 year old girl about death posed a problem for atheists, since who would want to tell her that there is no afterlife and that you will not see her again? In fact, this is a moving story and I feel truly sorry for anyone who actually had to face this situation in reality. However, it is not an argument for believing in God. Is that how we decide what to believe as adults, by what people tell children? If so, then we ought to believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and that human babies are delivered by storks. Lying to the girl and telling her there is an afterlife even if there isn't may comfort her and will not cause any harm, and so it is arguably the right thing to do. But, I do see harm in healthy adults believing in an afterlife if there is none, because it may adversely affect their future decision making. It might lead people to worry less about children in such horrible situations (as Wallace said, what difference does 5 years of suffering make if it is to be followed by a lifetime of reward?) and I also know that this belief encourages some people to kill themselves (and sometimes others) as martyrs. So, as horrible as the story about the girl dying of cancer is, what we should take from it is that while comforting her is probably a good idea, adults might be better off spend their efforts on finding ways to prevent and cure cancer rather than on pondering the afterlife.

God of the Gaps is a phrase that atheists use to describe the way apologists always seem to find evidence for a deity in whatever subject is just beyond the edge of our current scientific knowledge. At one point, Wallace referred to the design argument as being like a bump in the rug that you keep pushing around but cannot get rid of. I suppose I agree. After all, even though I think science is the best tool we have for learning about the universe, and we will continually be learning new things from it, I don't think it will ever answer all questions. There will always be something we don't understand, yet. So, they will always be able to point at that topic, whatever it is, and claim that it is evidence for the supernatural, and when science does explain it they can move to the next mystery as evidence. So, Wallace is right that the bump in the rug is still there, but it is getting pushed off into the distance. I mean, it used to be weather and earthquakes and disease and crop yields and the tides that were mysteries that seemed to happen only because of the will of God (or "the gods")...those were things that actually affected people's lives on a daily basis. As I stated in my opening remarks, and Wallace seems to have confirmed, the "front" in this battle has moved back to the red shift of light from distant galaxies, the background radiation left over from the big bang, and the ratios between the strengths of the electro-weak force and the gravitational force. Whatever you may say about the validity of these new arguments, you must admit that it is beyond both the experience and the interest of most people. Indeed, if a deity is nothing but "God of the Gaps", then its importance diminishes with each new scientific discovery.

Where did Wallace argue that the creator of the universe is good? I certainly heard his argument that the universe was created by some supernatural being, but I do not see where he argued that this being was "morally good" as our agreement stated he would. Perhaps it was when he said that most of the suffering in the world is caused by people? Even if it were true that more suffering is caused by humans, that would not explain why a good and omnipotent being would allow the suffering which is not. However, I would be interested in seeing any evidence to suggest that it is an accurate description at all because my first guess would be that the opposite is true. I mean, it is true that about 50 million people were killed by human action during the years of World War II (counting those who died from human-caused famine in addition to those killed by weapons and in concentration camps), and that is a horrific number. However, it is also true that 50 million people, the same number, died from the influenza epidemic several decades earlier, in only one year from only one disease. And, although 3,000 people died from the despicable terrorist acts on 9/11/2001, about 250,000 people drowned in the tsunami a few years later. Wallace's claim that "most suffering is caused by people" is especially hard for me to believe when I look at survival statistics from hundreds of years ago. Prior to the 20th Century, more than half of the children born died of natural causes before their 16th birthday. (See here, for example, that about 60% of children died before age 16 in 17th Century England, and I strongly suspect it would have been even worse in other less developed countries for which we do not even have good data.) Disease and starvation were the source of the suffering of those children and their families, not the evil choices of other humans, and they were more than half of the population and did not even live into adulthood. Even if I accepted the arguments that a sentient omnipotent being is responsible for creating the universe, it seems to me that the evidence would then suggest that he is at best amoral, and I do not see how Wallace has ruled out the possibility that he is actually immoral. For example, Wallace and I agree that rape of children is immoral. How does Wallace exclude the possibility that the supposed creator of the universe wants there to be rape of children? If an omnipotent being created this universe, he certainly did it in such a way that rape of children could happen and he does not seem to use his powers to prevent it!

Wallace misquoted Penrose, suggesting that it was the "fine tuning" argument that was the inspiration for his recent work on what he calls conformal cosmology. This is incorrect. On page 127 of his book "Cycles of Time", Roger Penrose does indeed refer to something very improbable ("...if it had come about just by chance has the utterly absurd tiny value of around 1/(10^(10^(124)))...") but it was not the relationship between the different constants of nature he was talking about here at all. Instead, he was talking about the probability that all of the matter in the universe would just happen to be at the same small location at the same time, as the evidence suggests it was immediately before the "big bang". More specifically, his question was: if this universe did exist before that, then the matter must somehow have come to be all compressed in a small space, and he wanted to consider whether there might be any explanation for how that could be. (In case it is not clear, let me emphasize that this is not the fine tuning argument since that highly compressed statewas not necessary for the existence of matter or life as we know it today. It is only necessary to explain the CMB and red shift.) Not only did Wallace get the quote wrong, he completely missed the point, which is that Penrose did find a mathematical model that would explain this mystery so that it was not so unlikely as it seemed, but in fact the expected outcome after sufficient expansion. It is a completely natural theory that would explain not just one but many mysteries of cosmology (the very low entropy state that resulted in the big bang, the rates of expansion, etc.), and it is one in which the physical universe is infinite in age and has no beginning. So, contrary to Wallace's repeated claim that there must be a first cause and that it must have been a superbeing, this is at least one natural alternative that must be considered...and there are others as well, most famously the idea that although this universe did not exist prior to the big bang, it was produced by another universe which had other physical laws and which was itself the product of a previous universe and so on.

Speaking of which, I would like to address a leap (of logic, not faith) that Wallace made in his remarks. He said that if something created our universe, then it is necessarily timeless and spaceless. This is not quite accurate. Certainly, if something created our universe than it is not in our spacetime, but that does not mean that it is not in its own. Similarly, there is no reason to assume this thing is omnipotent in the sense of having the ability to have any affect on our universe once it has been created. For example, although I am no expert in M-Theory, I have been invited to conferences and workshops by physicists in that field since soliton theory (my branch of mathematics) has applications there, and I know that one consequence of their model is that there are many different universes, each with its own separate spacetime, and that instantaneous collisions of these universes can result in the creation of new universes. The three universes (the two that collided and the new one) intersect only at that one instant. As you see, in this example the "creator" is actually two different things which are not timeless or spaceless, and they do not retain any sort of influence on the universe they created. So, once again, my point is that Wallace his insistent that there is only one possibility when there seem to be many, many possibilities...but only one that he likes.

Wallace quoted David Hilbert as saying that infinity has a mathematical existence but does not appear in nature. (Wallace may have said "cannot appear in nature", but when I find English translations of the quote online they seem to only say "does not" and so I'm using that here.) He also quoted SHL's own Herb Silverman saying something seemingly similar, about infinity not being found in reality. He seemed quite surprised that I do not see these as ruling out the possibility of infinity being realized somehow in reality. (I asked a small sampling of professors in my department and none of them saw any obvious problem with an infinite past or a universe of infinite size with infinitely many particles. That is not to say they believe this universe has those properties, but in the absence of empirical evidence one way or the other, there is no theoretical reason to assume it is not.) David Hilbert was a great mathematician, and he did apparently make such a statement. However, I do not agree with a claim based on the person who said it, but by the evidence and argument that accompany the claim. (Note: David Hilbert was certainly not right about everything. He famously thought any true statement in an axiomatic system would be provable, and Kurt Gödel proved that Hilbert was wrong. I can also attest to the fact that Herb was wrong at least once, about the options available in a menu in a computer program.) How did Hilbert reach his conclusion? It is true that we now believe that the universe has a finite volume and a finite number of particles in it, but those beliefs are based on observation and not some philosophical objection to the contrary. If there were an omnipotent God, could he not choose to make a universe that was infinite in size and contained an infinite number of particles? There is certainly no mathematical reason it would not be possible, as I work with mathematical models like that all of the time and they are perfectly consistent. Wallace mentioned something about a "paradox" associated to assuming an infinite number of things, but it is not a paradox. Certainly, Hilbert's example of hotel shows that there would be surprising things that could happen if you had an infinite number of guests and an infinite number of rooms, but those were surprises not contradictions (such as the contradiction one finds in Russell's paradox). However, the argument "there can't be infinity in reality because it would be strange" is not convincing; we know that there are things that are strange (e.g. Lady Gaga). The whole point of this is just to repeat that the universe existing forever is one of many possibilities that must be considered when thinking about where the universe came from; it is a possibility that is greatly strengthened by Penrose's careful analysis of what it would require, and it is not one that can be ignored simply because it involves infinity. If it really is true, then that would just mean that Hilbert and Herb were each wrong at least twice. [Note Added December 2012: Looking into it a bit farther, I think it is likely that neither Herb nor Hilbert apparently intended their remarks to be interpreted the way Wallace has. In particular, they were not statements that there is some contradiction associated with infinities that rule out the possibility that something in the universe could be infinite in quantity or size, only that it is not part of ordinary human experience and has properties contrary to what we may expect. In fact, Hilbert's point was quite the opposite of saying it is impossible. He was hoping to be able to show that the idea of infinity is consistent (contradiction free). Because humans deal with models of finite arithmetic on a daily basis, he thought that nobody would doubt the consistency of rules for adding integers, for example. He was lamenting that infinity does not appear (or at least does not obviously appear) in human experience and therefore proving that it is consistent was a more difficult and important goal, but he nevertheless believed that it was consistent.]

Much of Wallace's argument was based on total belief in the theories espoused by some scientists and the skepticism or even complete rejection of others. Why does he believe Hilbert that infinity does not appear in nature but not Penrose who shows that it could? Moreover, I find it quite odd that he completely denies that particle-antiparticle pairs appear randomly out of the vacuum (which has been tested over and over again in numerous experiments and is certainly the most common belief of physicists today), thinks so little of the multi-verse model in string theory that he barely mentioned it, and suggested that he does not believe natural selection can explain the diversity of life on Earth (despite the huge amount of evidence, from verifiable experiments such as Richard Lenski's ongoing analysis of bacterial evolution to the millions of fossils, which suggest that it does)...and yet at the same time has no doubts at all about the cosmological models describing the early universe, even though that's 13 billion years ago and not something we can directly observe. As a mathematical physicist, I assure you that those models are a work in progress, not the final product. It is far too soon to point to a probability determined using those models as undeniable proof, as Wallace has claimed, that there is only one possible explanation for the origin of the universe. These mathematical models are themselves not that old, and they are always being refined and modified as new experimental evidence presents itself. So, for example, the fact that two parameters are currently seen as being independent is not proof that they are unlikely to have a certain ratio, which is the basis for the "fine-tuning argument"). In my own field of soliton theory (see here) there is a good example of this. In the 19th century, after the scientific community became aware that these special waves were theoretically possible (they had previously been thought to be completely impossible) it was believed that they were merely extremely unlikely because they required a perfect balance between two "forces" (nonlinear distortion and dissipation). It was thought that such a balance was so unlikely to happen that you would never see these waves in practice. (So, you see, it is the same sort of "low-probability" as in the fine-tuning argument.) However, it turned out that they were failing to notice that in many real systems these two quantities were actually coupled and naturally reach a balance. (This is illustrated by the model in the photo on the Website above, where the elastic bands play the role of the dissipation and the weights pulled down by gravity produce nonlinear distortion. Notice: even if gravity were a little lower, as it would be if the model were on the second floor of the building rather than the first floor, or even if the rubber bands had been a little thicker or a little thinner, the basic shape of the "soliton" would have been the same.) In fact, solitons are a real phenomenon that we now recognize as being an explanation of many natural phenomena and also are used to transmit data over optical fibers.

These are the things I really wish I had said during the debate. Obviously, I could not have said all of this during the debate since time was short, but I could have said more of it and I greatly regret not having the presence of mind to do so. They do not change my main message, but merely strengthen my point that these are difficult questions and the possibility of a godless universe is not nearly so easily dismissed as Wallace pretends. In fact, many of us think that is precisely what the evidence says.

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