A Response to Counter Apologist

Difficulty Level: Advanced

This post gets a bit technical at points. Be prepared to encounter terms and concepts you might not have seen before.

Context

Counter Apologist (CA), a contributor to the Real Atheology Facebook Page, responded to a post of mine on Facebook. For the full context, here’s what my original post said:

Counter Apologist responded to this post at the link below:

https://counterapologist.blogspot.com/2017/12/are-our-standards-too-high-for.html

The following is my response to the above link.

General Remarks

In reading his post carefully, there’s very little I can agree with. Most of what he says strikes me as obviously false. For instance, his first critique says this (emphasis added):

Like all good apologetics, some of what Cameron says here is quite sensible: Even if it’s possible that doesn’t mean we have enough justification to think it’s probable or likely.

However, this doesn’t support his idea that just because there are some answers to the Kalam or Fine Tuning arguments that rely on “it’s possible that X premise is false” that doesn’t mean that there are not better, stronger objections – or that the appeals to possibility in that context is analogous to believing far reaching possibilities in mundane situations.

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.

The remainder of the article goes on to provide supposed counterexamples to the claim he ascribes to me. Now, I agree that at least some of his arguments would constitute counterexamples if I were making that claim. But I wasn’t. Spending an entire post responding to claims I did not make is a textbook case of the strawman fallacy.

This is why I am a huge proponent of asking for clarification. You’ll often see me ask, “What do you mean by that?” This can be frustrating for some people–and I get that–but it’s an honest attempt at understanding the actual claims of my interlocutor. I don’t want to respond to a claim they aren’t making.

That said, let’s analyze his alleged counterexamples in depth, as I’m convinced they are all false.

The Kalam

Next he offers two critiques of the Kalam Cosmological Argument: (a) Science gives strong evidence that A-theory is false, and (b) Science doesn’t tell us the universe began to exist. These, he claims, are good reasons to think the Kalam is unsound. Now, I could argue that both claims are dubious (which they are), but instead of arguing that, I’ll take a much simpler approach. I will argue that even if both claims are true, it doesn’t follow that 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), assuming he’s right that science doesn’t tell us the universe began (which again is dubious), 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. Much more work is needed to reach that conclusion.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

He then turns to the Fine-Tuning Argument (FTA). What’s ironic is that he falls into the trap I warned against in the paragraph he critiques. At least two of his objections to the FTA are based on possibilities rather than probabilities.

First, CA says that (emphasis added):

It could be that all the constants referred to in the FTA actually are necessary – ie. they must have the values they possess because there is a grand unified Theory of Everything (ToE) which explains why those constants have the values they do.

Notice that he says it could be the case there is a Theory of Everything that explains fine-tuning. This is an explicit appeal to possibility, not to probability. And that’s just the beginning of what’s wrong with this statement. To quote Luke Barnes, “A ToE won’t explain literally everything. In particular, the initial conditions (or, more generally, boundary conditions) of the universe are a worry.” In other words, a Theory of Everything won’t explain something like the initial distribution of mass-energy and hence won’t explain the most impressive case of fine-tuning. Moreover, a ToE would not explain why our set of laws of nature exist rather than some other set (e.g.: the set that includes a universal attractive force (like gravity), a force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus (like the strong nuclear force), something like the electromagnetic force, and so on). So not only is he appealing to an unmotivated possibility, he’s appealing to a possibility that doesn’t do what it needs to.

Secondly, he says that (emphasis added):

“Life” isn’t well defined, so we have no idea what other kinds of life could arise given other values of the constants we find in physics.

Here again he’s not arguing that other kinds of life are probable given different values of the constants, rather he’s saying for all we know life could arise under different conditions. In other words, he’s making an appeal to an unmotivated possibility. I suppose it’s only appropriate to let CA rebut himself; earlier on in the article he agreed: “Even if it’s possible that doesn’t mean we have enough justification to think it’s probable or likely.”

CA then says:

If we look at the universe as a whole we wouldn’t assume that it was finely tuned for life, given that the overwhelming majority of it is exceptionally hostile to life.

This objection is easily dispelled. Let’s start by defining fine-tuning. According to Barnes, fine-tuning is the claim that, “In the set of possible physics, the subset that permit the evolution of life is very small.” That definition is compatible with the overwhelming majority of our universe being inhospitable to life. Consider the following argument:

(1) Most of our universe is hostile to life.

(2) If most of our universe is hostile to life, we shouldn’t assume that, in the set of possible physics, the subset that permit the evolution of life is very small.

(3) Therefore, we shouldn’t assume that, in the set of possible physics, the subset that permit the evolution of life is very small.

When put in the form of a syllogism, it’s obvious that the consequent of (2) doesn’t follow from the antecedent. These are unrelated propositions. Thus, the idea that we ought to conclude that our universe is not fine-tuned for life given that our universe contains very little life is, to put it gently, wrong-headed [1].

Normalization

The last argument CA forwards against the Fine-Tuning Argument is the Normalization Problem (NP). Here’s what he says:

Finally, we can point out that there is a technical problem with appealing to probability in the FTA. This is what is known as the normalizability objection. The main problem is that to say that the values various cosmological constants could take fall within a specific probability range can’t be coherently defined – because the argument presumes that there is no upward bound on the possible values that those constants could take. This means there are an infinite number possible values that those constants could take, but if that’s the case the total probability space can not be summed up to be 1. This is required to be able to make coherent use of probability math.

Let me respond to this with three points. First, this is a well-known problem, and one that Robin Collins explicitly addresses in his work on fine-tuning. His response involves limiting the comparison range. Here’s what he says, “My proposal is that the primary comparison range is the set of values for which we can make determinations of whether the values are life-permitting or not. I will call this range the “epistemically illuminated” (EI) range.” Given that the EI range is finite, any fine-tuning argument that utilizes it is not subject to the Normalization problem [2]. For anyone that’s interested in learning more on this, check out Collins’ paper in the Blackwell Companion.

The second point is that Barnes has recently published a paper on the subject as well (click here). There he argues that the NP is a problem not just for fine-tuning but for physics more generally. Any theory that has a free parameter (e.g.: Newton’s theory of gravity and it’s free parameter G) will run into the NP. Here is his response: “The standard models of particle physics and cosmology avoid these problems as follows. Dimensional parameters do not vary over an infinite range; they are bounded by the Planck scale. Dimensionless parameters might not vary over an infinite range, and common practice in the physical sciences assumes that parameters of order unity are more probable, so a uniform probability distribution is not forced upon us by the principle of indifference.”

Third, I agree with Alvin Plantinga (surprise, surprise) that the NP proves too much. If successful, it would undermine some of the most obvious design inferences (see section 2.2 of this paper).

The Normalization Problem is a technical puzzle, no doubt, but it is not one that seriously challenges the Fine-Tuning Argument.

Conclusions

Fortunately, I can agree with at least part of what CA concludes at the end of his post. He says:

While Cameron is correct to say that just because something is a logically possible answer to an argument, that doesn’t give us justification for believing that possibility. A good example of this is the Problem of Evil – just because there is a logically possible way out of the problem doesn’t give any justification to think such a solution is remotely likely.

Let me clarify the dialectical situation. There are at least two versions of the Problem of Evil: The Logical Version and the Evidential (or probabilistic) Version. The logical version says that God and evil are logically incompatible; there is no possible world where (i) God exists and (ii) Evil exists. By contrast, the probabilistic version says that, given all the evil and suffering in the world, God’s existence is highly unlikely. The former is a claim of impossibility, while the latter is a claim of improbability.

Here’s the point: To rebut a claim of impossibility, all one has to do is show possibility (for example, show is that there is a possible world where (i) and (ii) are true). That’s it. So at least in the case of the logical version of the problem of evil, possibility is all that’s required.

Where I agree with CA is that possibility is not sufficient as a response to evidential or probabilistic versions of the problem of evil. There we require something more robust than possibility. For my approach to the probabilistic problem of evil, see this blog post or, for a more rigorous treatment, my debate with Justin Schieber.

In summary, Counter Apologist’s entire blog post is a response to a claim that I never actually made. And on top of that, nearly everything he says is false. If I had more time, I would deconstruct his claims even further, but alas, it’s time to get back to work.


Notes:

[1] For a further defense of this, consider Barnes once again: “A precise definition of life is not required, for the following reason. We would like to be able to place firm boundaries in parameter space between possible universes that would develop and support life and those that would not. However, this is not practically possible, as we do not know the sufficient conditions for abiogenesis. What we can do is consider a conservative outer boundary associated with sufficient conditions for lifelessness. For example, if the cosmological constant were negative, and its absolute value 1090 times smaller than the Planck scale (rather than 10120 in our universe), space would recollapse into a big crunch in one minute. This, it seems, is a sufficient condition for a lifeless, physical-observer-less universe.”

[2] Also note that his recent work on fine-tuning for discoverability is not subject to the Normalization Problem.

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sillymuddlePhilip RandCameron BertuzziRonAlex Recent comment authors
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Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

Cameron

It is always best to take the pivotal argument of an opposing view and analyse it…

For example, Counterapologists entire “blurb” rests on this statement of his:

“Modern science gives us strong evidence that the A-Theory of time is false.”

Well, no… Counterapologist is not correct…. simply refer him to this:

http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/researchers-chart-the-secret-movement-of-quantum-particles

Clearly, one requires expertise in physics to understand fully what this measurement means…

However, I believe even Counterapologist would have to surrender his view regarding A-time with a quick view of the news… and if he does that…. the rest of his blog post collapses…

Ron
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Ron

I read Barnes’ paper on normalizability over the summer, and I have mixed feelings about it. He’s not really saying that the Plank scale is the range of *possible* values. Instead, he’s saying that its the range of possible values that we can use our current theories to use to explore what the universe would look like under those values. It’s not that other values are not possible, its just that we don’t have any idea what would happen if the constants took those values. Barnes’ answer to the “Normalizability Objection” is very similar to Robin Collins’ answer: identify an… Read more »

Ron
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Ron

Cameron, Can you 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 almost 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… Read more »

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

Regarding CounterApologist….. in his blurb he has a BIG problem…. because in it his position is that “time” is NOT a real variable….

Problem is…. a Multi-verse requires “time” to BE a real physical variable… so, his reasoning is inconsistent…

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

Ron

The thing is…. the Kalam Argument (should that be your target) is a philosophical argument…

The Kalam is NOT a Biblical Argument…

Because the Bible is quite emphatic concerning the creation of the universe…. the past did not exist, nor did the present…BUT the future did exist…

So, the creation of the universe was a case of backward causation.

This means that the “future” acted as the boundary condition at the moment of creation.

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

Ron This statement of yours can be clarified: ” 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.” There is only one way of “predicting how probable E is given ~B” and that is by considering what all these types of eternal universe models share, i.e. the a priori assumptions of all theses models, which are: 1/ Eternal inflation 2/ Many-World interpretation of quantum physics 3/… Read more »

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

The problem with the Kalam with respect to A-theory and B-theory is in its interpretation. A-theory of time is strictly a geometrical global physical argument. (where Cantor axions apply) B-theory of time is strictly a mathematical local physical argument. (where Dedekind axioms apply) The confusion in the interpretation of the Kalam using A-theory of time, is just that; because it is clear from Cantor that no last-transfinite number exists. The confusion arises in the Kalam when one applies it to “time”, i.e. the “flow of time”. Debates arise because someone like W L Craig attempts to make a case of… Read more »

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

You even have a reference to “inflation” in the Job verse, i.e. stretches out the heavens, and “collapse” of the universal wave function, i.e. treads on the waves of the sea.

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

Cameron….

How come you won’t publish my posts on this topic any longer?

They do conform to your ideal type of discussion concerning Christianity, surely….

Philip Rand
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Philip Rand

A bullet-proof re-jig of the Kalām Cosmological Argument would be this: 1. Whatever begins to exist has an insufficient cause. 2. The universe began to exist. 3. Therefore, the universe has an insufficient cause. Now, apply this to Vilenkin’s analogy with respect to the radioactive atom: “What causes the universe to pop out of nothing? No cause is needed. If you have a radioactive atom, it will decay, and quantum mechanics gives the decay probability in a given interval of time, say, a minute. There is no reason why the atom decayed at this particular moment and not another. The… Read more »

sillymuddle
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sillymuddle

I agree with your original Facebook post. We definitely shouldn’t agree with this type of reasoning: if there’s even some small possibility we can deny the argument, we should. Instead we should say: yes, it’s possible the argument is wrong, but it isn’t likely. One of the things that gets to me, is that some people do this repeatedly, for totally different arguments. That’s just their approach. But if they’re independent, the probability that they are all wrong goes down exponentially. You don’t even need to assign a particularly high probability to each one being correct – even if you… Read more »