Tag Archives: Naturalism

Robin Collins and atheist Peter Millican discuss the fine-tuning of the universe for life

British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight
British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight

You might remember Peter Millican from the debate he had with William Lane Craig. I ranked that debate as one of the 3 best I have ever seen, along with the first Craig  vs Dacey debate and the second Craig vs Sinnott-Armstrong debate.

Details:

Science has revealed that the fundamental constants and forces of the cosmos appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to allow a universe in which life can develop. Is God the best explanation of the incredibly improbable odds of the universe we live in being a life-permitting one?

Robin Collins is a Christian philosopher and a leading advocate of the argument for God from cosmic design. Peter Millican is an atheist philosopher at Oxford University. They debate the issues.

From ‘Unbelievable?’ on ‘Premier Christian Radio’, Saturday 19th March 2016.

The debate:

As usual when the atheist is an expert, there is no snark or paraphrasing in the summary.

Summary

Brierley: What is the fine-tuning argument?

Collins: the fine-tuning is structure of the universe is extremely precisely set to allow the existing of conscious, embodied agents who are capable of moral behavior. There are 3 kinds of fine-tuning: 1) the laws of nature (mathematical formulas), 2) the constants of physics (numbers that are plugged into the equations), 3) the initial conditions of the universe. The fine-tuning exists not just because there are lots of possibilities, but there is something special about the actual state of affairs that we see. Every set of laws, parameters and initial conditions is equally improbable, but the vast majority of permutations do not permit life. The possible explanations: theism or the multiverse.

Brierley: How improbable are the numbers?

Collins: Once case is the cosmological constant (dark energy density), with is 1 part in (10 raised to 120th power). If larger, the universe expands too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form after the Big Bang. If smaller, the universe collapses in on itself before life could form. Another case is the initial distribution of mass energy to give us the low entropy we have that is necessary for life. The fine-tuning there is 1 part in (10 raised to the 10th power raised to the 123rd power).

Brierley: What do you think of the argument?

Millican: The argument is worth taking very seriously. I am a fan of the argument. The other arguments for God’s existence such as the ontological and cosmological arguments are very weak. But the fine-tuning argument has the right structure to deliver the conclusion that theists want. And it is different from the traditional design argument tended to focus on biological nature, which is not a strong argument. But the fine-tuning argument is strong because it precedes any sort of biological evolution. Although the design is present at the beginning of the universe, it is not visible until much later. The argument points to at least deism, and possibly theism. The argument is not based on ignorance, it is rooted in “the latest results from the frontiers of science” (his phrase).

Brierley: Is this the best argument from natural theology?

Collins: The cosmological argument makes theism viable intuitively, but there are some things that are puzzling, like the concept of the necessary being. But the fine-tuning argument is decisive.

Brierley: What’s are some objections to the fine-tuning argument?

Millican: The argument is based on recent physics, so we should be cautious because we maybe we will discover a natural explanation.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Collins: The cosmological constant has been around since 1980. But the direction that physics is moving in is that there are more constants and quantities being discovered that need to be fine-tuned, not less. Even if you had a grand unified theory, that would have to be have the fine-tuning pushed into it.

(BREAK)

Millican: Since we have no experience of other laws and values from other universes, we don’t know whether these values can be other than they are. Psychologically, humans are prone to seeing purpose and patterns where there is none, so maybe that’s happening here.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Collins: It is possible to determine probabilities on a single universe case, for example using multiple ways of calculating Avogadro’s number all converging on the same number makes it more probable.

Millican: Yes, I willing to accept that these constants can take on other values, (“principle of indifference”). But maybe this principle be applied if the improbability were pushed up into the theory?

Collins: Even if you had a grand theory, selecting the grand theory from others would retain the improbability.

Brierley: What about the multiverse?

Millican: What if there are many, many different universes, and we happen to be in the one that is finely-tuned, then we should not be surprised to observe fine-tuning. Maybe a multiverse theory will be discovered in the future that would allow us to have these many universes with randomized constants and quantities. “I do think that it is a little bit of a promissary note”. I don’t think physics is pointing to this right now.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Collins: I agree it’s a promissary note. This is the strongest objection to the fine-tuning argument. But there are objections to the multiverse: 1) the fine-tuning is kicked back up to the multiverse generator has to be set just right to produce universes with different constants, 2) the multiverse is more likely to produce a small universe with Boltzmann brains that pop into existence and then out again, rather than a universe that contains conscious, embodied intelligent agents. I am working on a third response now that would show that the same constants that allow complex, embodied life ALSO allow the universe to be discoverable. This would negate the observer-selection effect required by the multiverse objection.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Millican: I don’t see why the multiverse generator has to be fine-tuned, since we don’t know what the multiverse generator is. I’m not impressed by the Boltzmann brains, but won’t discuss. We should be cautious about inferring design because maybe this is a case where we are seeing purpose and design where there is none.

Brierley: Can you negate the discoverability of the universe by saying that it might be psychological?

Collins: These things are not psychological. The selected value for the cosmic microwave background radiation is fine-tuned for life and for discoverability. It’s not merely a discoverability selection effect, it’s optimal for discoverability. If baryon-photon value were much smaller, we would have known that it was not optimal. So that judgment cannot be explained by

Millican: That’s a very interesting new twist.

Brierley: Give us your best objection.

Millican: I have two. 1) Even if you admit to the fine-tuning, this doesn’t show a being who is omnipotent and omnisicient. What the fine-tuning shows is that the designer is doing the best it can given the constraints from nature. If I were God, I would not have made the universe so big, and I wouldn’t have made it last 14 billion years, just to make one small area that supports life. An all-powerful God would have made the universe much smaller, and much younger. 2) The fine-tuning allows life to exist in other solar systems in other galaxies. What does this alien life elsewhere mean for traditional Christian theology? The existence of other alien civilizations argues against the truth of any one religion.

Brierley: Respond to those.

Collins: First objection: with a finite Creator, you run into the problem of having to push the design of that creature up one level, so you don’t really solve the fine-tuning problem. An unlimited being (non-material, not composed of parts) does not require fine-tuning. The fine-tuning is more compatible with theism than atheism. Second objection: I actually do think that it is likely that are other universes, and life in other galaxies and stars, and the doctrine of the Incarnation is easily adaptable to that, because God can take on multiple natures to appear to different alien civilizations.

Other resources (from WK)

If you liked this discussion, be sure and check out a full length lecture by Robin Collins on the fine-tuning, and a shorter lecture on his very latest work. And also this the Common Sense Atheism podcast, featuring cosmologist Luke Barnes, who answers about a dozen objections to the fine-tuning argument.

Stephen C. Meyer lectures on intelligent design and the origin of life

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

A MUST-SEE lecture based on Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell“.

I highly recommend watching the lecture, and looking at the slides. The quality of the video and the content is first class. There is some Q&A (9 minutes) at the end of the lecture.

Topics:

  • intelligent design is concerned with measuring the information-creating capabilities of natural forces like mutation and selection
  • Darwinists think that random mutations and natural selection can explain the origin and diversification of living systems
  • Darwinian mechanisms are capable of explaining small-scale adaptive changes within types of organisms
  • but there is skepticism, even among naturalists, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the origin of animal designs
  • even if you concede that Darwinism can account for all of the basic animal body plans, there is still the problem of life’s origin
  • can Darwinian mechanisms explain the origin of the first life? Is there a good naturalistic hypothesis to explain it?
  • there are at least two places in the history of life where new information is needed: origin of life, and Cambrian explosion
  • overview of the structure of DNA and protein synthesis (he has helpful pictures and he uses the snap lock blocks, too)
  • the DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of bases that code for proteins, and the sequence is carefully selected to have biological function
  • meaningful sequences of things like computer code, English sentences, etc. require an adequate cause
  • it is very hard to arrive at a meaningful sequence of a non-trivial length by randomly picking symbols/letters
  • although any random sequence of letters is improbable, the vast majority of sequences are gibberish/non-compiling code
  • similarly, most random sequences of amino acids are lab-proven (Doug Axe’s work) to be non-functional gibberish
  • the research showing this was conducted at Cambridge University and published in the Journal of Molecular Biology
  • so, random mutation cannot explain the origin of the first living cell
  • however, even natural selection coupled with random mutation cannot explain the first living cell
  • there must already be replication in order for mutation and selection to work, so they can’t explain the first replicator
  • but the origin of life is the origin of the first replicator – there is no replication prior to the first replicator
  • the information in the first replicator cannot be explained by law, such as by chemical bonding affinities
  • the amino acids are attached like magnetic letters on a refrigerator
  • the magnetic force sticks the letters ON the fridge, but they don’t determine the specific sequence of the letters
  • if laws did determine the sequence of letters, then the sequences would be repetitive
  • the three materialist explanations – chance alone, chance and law, law alone – are not adequate to explain the effect
  • the best explanation is that an intelligent cause is responsible for the biological explanation in the first replicator
  • we know that intelligent causes can produce functional sequences of information, e.g. – English, Java code
  • the structure and design of DNA matches up nicely with the design patterns used by software engineers (like WK!)

There are some very good tips in this lecture so that you will be able to explain intelligent design to others in simple ways, using everyday household items and children’s toys to symbolize the amino acids, proteins, sugar phosphate backbones, etc.

Proteins are constructed from a sequence of amino acids:

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein
A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

Proteins sticking onto the double helix structure of DNA:

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone
Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

I highly, highly recommend this lecture. You will be delighted and you will learn something.

Here is an article that gives a general overview of how intelligent design challenges. If you want to read something more detailed about the material that he is covering in the lecture above related to the origin of life, there is a pretty good article here.

There is a good breakdown of some of the slides with helpful flow charts here on Uncommon Descent.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

New study: parrots have similar brain mechanisms to humans

A cockatoo uses a little tool he made to reach a snack
A cockatoo uses a little tool he made to reach a snack

OK, it’s a fun Friday post. I guess most of my readers know that I love almost all the birds, and especially parrots. I have owned parrots most of my life, and want to get more, too. I also like to feed the wild birds who come to visit my house. One reason I like them so much is that they are very intelligent and obviously designed by a very clever engineer.

First, let me explain what convergence is, then we’ll look at a recent peer-reviewed scientific publication.

We have to start this Science Daily post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

So, naturalists say that if two organisms have traits that are similar, it must mean that the trait evolved once in their ancestors, and then the modern species inherited the trait from those ancestors. If evolution is true, the only mechanism they have to develop traits shared by two organisms is mutation and selection. The problems occur when two organisms share similar traits, but they have no recent common ancestor, and no recent shared evolutionary history of mutation and selection.

Here’s the latest study from the New Scientist:

To learn more how these birds’ brains develop, Mello and his team compared the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot with that of 30 other birds. They found that regions of the parrot genome that regulate when and how genes for brain development are turned on are the same as those found in humans. These so-called ultra-conserved elements evolved in both species at different times, but with similar results.

Well, parrots and humans are completely different creatures, with no recent evolutionary history, and no recent common ancestors. So, if these changes are due to evolution, then we should see them in the very very very distance common ancestor shared by birds and humans. But then shouldn’t they be in all the other animals who descend from that very very very distant common ancestor to?

Watch this:

I’ll tell you what the real explanation is: the real explanation is that God created birds and humans. And, like a clever engineer, he re-used components that produced the behavior he wanted in his birds and his humans. We know how this works, because this is how intelligent agents write code today. Why do we need a naturalistic theory that requires magic to work, when we have a simple explanation that we can  observe every time someone writes a blog post, or some code, or anything with information in it?

Anyway, however you feel about that, try to be kind to birds, as they are much smarter and more sensitive than most people think. Put out some bird feeders in the yard, if you don’t have an outdoor cat. And if you do have a cat, then why not put a bell on it, or keep it indoors?

Related posts

Yale computer science professor David Gelernter expresses doubts about Darwinism

How did life begin?
How did life begin?

I had to learn about David Gelernter when I was doing my Masters in computer science. We studied his book “Mirror Worlds”. A few weeks ago, I blogged about his impressions of the difficulty in forming a simple protein by chance – something that naturalistic mechanisms would have to do in order to avoid intelligent agency as a cause in nature. He found it very unlikely. But there’s more!

Recently, my friend Terrell sent me a video featuring Peter Robinson (who hosts the splendid Uncommon Knowledge show out of Stanford University), and three interesting people. First, there was Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, who is one of my two favorite thinkers. I’ve blogged on his work about the origin of life and the Cambrian explosion here many times. Then, there was Dr. David Berlinski, a secular Jewish professor of mathematics, who has studied origins issues. And then Dr. David Gelernter, who teaches computer science at Yale University, and is a legend in computer science research.

Here’s the video: (H/T Terrell)

Here is an article by Jennifer Kabbany in The College Fix about the video.

She writes about his recent Claremont Review of Books article, as well as the interview above:

In May, the Claremont Review of Books published a column by Gelernter headlined “Giving Up Darwin.” In it, he explained how his readings and discussions of Darwinian evolution and its competing theories, namely intelligent design, have convinced him Darwin had it wrong.

In particular, he cited Stephen Meyer’s 2013 book Darwin’s Doubt as well as The Deniable Darwin by David Berlinski. The professor expanded on his views in an interview with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution that was published last week.

Gelernter stops short of fully embracing intelligent design, both in his essay and during his interview. He said in his interview he sees intelligence in Earth’s design, and has no quarrel with ID proponents, but notes the world a mess, its suffering far outweighs its goodness.

“My argument is with people who dismiss intelligent design without considering, it seems to me — it’s widely dismissed in my world of academia as some sort of theological put up job — it’s an absolutely serious scientific argument,” Gelernter said during his interview. “In fact it’s the first and most obvious and intuitive one that comes to mind. It’s got to be dealt with intellectually.”

I found this part the most interesting, since we are seeing so much intolerance from the secular left, whenever anyone disagrees with their dogma:

Gelernter said he likes many of his colleagues at Yale, that they are his friends, but when he looks at “their intellectual behavior, what they have published — and much more importantly what they tell their students — Darwinism has indeed passed beyond a scientific argument as far as they are concerned. You take your life in your hands to challenge it intellectually. They will destroy you if you challenge it.”

“Now, I haven’t been destroyed, I am not a biologist, and I don’t claim to be an authority on this topic,” Gelernter added, “but what I have seen in their behavior intellectually and at colleges across the West is nothing approaching free speech on this topic. It’s a bitter, fundamental, angry, outraged rejection [of intelligent design], which comes nowhere near scientific or intellectual discussion. I’ve seen that happen again and again.”

Gelernter acknowledges “I am attacking their religion and I don’t blame them for being all head up, it is a big issue for them.”

Dr. Gelernter cited three arguments in his article: the origin of life, and the Cambrian explosion, and genetic entropy. In the first two problems, there is a problem of huge amounts of biological information coming into being . We know that software engineers can write code like that, but there is no Darwinian mechanism for writing that much code and that short of a time period. The third problem shows that Darwinian mechanisms not only don’t produce functional code – they actually break it down.

I’ve covered both of the arguments before on this blog, but if you really want the details, you should pick up the books that convinced Dr. Gelernter: Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” and “Darwin’s Doubt”. Each book tackles one of the arguments. For the third problem, a good book is Dr. Michael Behe’s “Darwin Devolves”. Even if you just read something about each book, then you’ll know about the arguments for intelligent causes being the best explanation for the history of life on this planet.

Information Enigma: 21-minute video explains intelligent design

Can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?
Can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?

The video is here:

I have read and listened and watched a lot of material on intelligent design, but I have never seen so much value packed into such a short lecture. I really hope you’ll watch this and that it’s helpful to you.

Summary:

  • the big question when discussing the origin of life: where did the information in living systems come from?
  • Until 530 million years ago, the oceans were largely devoid of life
  • In a 10 million year period, many new forms of animal life emerged
  • New biological forms of life require new information
  • the discovery of DNA shows that living systems work because cells have information that allows them to build the components of molecular machines: cell types, proteins, etc.
  • can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?
  • normally, random mutations tend to degrade the functionality of information, e.g. – randomly changing symbols in an applications code does not usually introduce useful new functions, it usually renders what is there non-functional
  • the majority of possible sequences will NOT have functions, so random mutations will more likely give you non-functional code, rather than functional code
  • example: a bicycle lock  with 4 numbers has many possible sequences for the 4 numbers, and only one of them has unlock functionality, the rest have no functionality
  • if you have lots of time, then you might be able to guess the combination, but if the lock as has 10 billion numbers, and only one combination that unlocks, you can spend your whole life trying to unlock it and won’t succeed
  • how likely is it to arrive at a functional protein or gene by chance? Is it more like the 4-dial lock (can be done with lots of time) or the 10 billion dial lock (amount of time required exceeds the time available)?
  • the probability is LOW because there is only one sequence of numbers that has unlock function
  • consider a short protein of 150 amino acids has 10 to the 195th power possible sequences
  • if many of these sequences of amino acides had biological function, then it might be easier to get to one by random mutation and selection than it is with a lock that only unlocks for ONE sequence
  • how many of the possible sequences have biological function?
  • Thanks to research done by Douglas Axe, we now know that the number of functional amino acid sequences for even a short protein is incredibly small…
  • Axe found that the odds of getting a functional sequence of amino acids that will fold and have biological function is 1 in 10 to the 77th power
  • Is that number too improbable to reach by chance? well, there are 10 to 65th atoms in the entire Milky Way galaxy… so yes, this is a very improbable outcome
  • can random genetic mutations search through all the sequences in order to find the one in 10 to the 77th power one that has biological function? It depends on how much guessers we have and how many guesses we get in the time available
  • even with the entire 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, only about 10 to the 40th organisms have ever lived, which far smaller fraction of the 10 to the 77th total sequences
  • even with a very fast mutation rate, you would not be able to reach a functional protein even with all that time, and even with all those organisms

I was once having a discussion with a woman about the research that Axe did at the Cambridge University lab. He published four articles in the Journal of Molecular Biology. I held out one of the papers to her and showed her the numbers. She said over and over “I hate the Discovery Institute! I hate the Discovery Institute!” Well, yeah, but you can’t make the Journal of Molecular Biology go away with hating the Discovery Institute. JMB is peer-reviewed, and this was experimental evidence – not a theory, not a hypothesis.

We have been blessed by the Creator and Designer of the universe in this time and place with overwhelming evidence – an abundance of riches. For those who have an open mind, this is what you’ve been waiting for to make your decision. For the naturalists who struggle so mightily to block out the progress of experimental science, they’ll need to shout louder and shut their eyes tighter and push harder to block their ears. Maybe if they keep screaming “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” over and over to themselves, they will be able to ignore the real science a little longer.