Gaps at the Dinner Table

Speaking of the God of the Gaps™, I was myself accused of believing it just the other day.  I was at dinner with Raphael Bousso, Eva Silverstein, Ori Ganor, and some other physicists, and they were discussing fine-tuning and questions involving the precise way in the Multiverse is supposed to explain it.

Well, eventually I got tired of remaining in the closet, and I asserted: "Given that I believe in God for other reasons, I think it's most likely that God chose the Laws of Nature to be conducive to life".  Well, this got everyone pretty worked up (in a friendly way) and Raphael tried to apply that ominous phrase: the God of the Gaps™.

Well, it isn't.  In my comment, it was completely manifest that I did not believe in a God whose sole purpose was to fill the fine-tuning "gap".  I believe in God primarily for other (good, evidence-driven) reasons.   Once you already believe in God, it is seems totally natural (supernatural?) that he should pick laws of Nature which support life.  Theism isn't an ad hoc hypothesis invented solely to fix the problem of fine-tuning.   Whereas the Multiverse is, so I guess I should have made a counter-accusation regarding the Multiverse-of-the-Gaps!

Or perhaps it should be called Naturalism-of-the-Gaps, that touching faith that Naturalism can explain away the apparent meaning and purpose of the Universe (something which is perfectly obvious to many ordinary people, who haven't been trained out of this intuition by a Naturalist worldview masquerading as "Science").

Of course, for all I know God did create gazillions of other universes besides ours, and this is the explanation for the fine-tuning of our universe.  But I'm certainly not required to believe that the laws of physics are ultimately due to blind processes which don't care about us.  Without that premise, a fine-tuned universe just doesn't seem like as big of a problem.  Hence there is no need to fill the gap with elaborate new physics.

(But don't worry, if I think of a wonderful physical explanation with experimental consequences, I'll still be perfectly happy to publish it and collect my Nobel prize... just because I am open to supernatural explanations, does not mean my mind is closed to natural ones.)

The other thing the dinner conversation made clear is that some physicists get seriously nervous about the fact that God can't be described by equations, and is therefore (in their eyes) ill-defined.  I'll have something to say about this later, in response to Sean Carroll's debate comments.  For now I'll just say that it seemed rather insular to me—there are only a small number of people who are capable of using equations to describe the world, yet everybody else manages somehow.  As they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.  It is our job as physicists to describe the world as completely as we can using equations, but it does not follow that there are no other ways of gaining knowledge about the world.

Perhaps I should have asked whether any of them had ever had a mystical experience.

On the other hand, somebody else (I think it was Ori) pointed out that Monotheism is the ultimate example of a unification hypothesis—explaining diverse things in Nature based on the operation of a single principle.  The elegance of Monotheism seemed to have some appeal to him.

It's a funny thing.   These days, the Multiverse is taken seriously by theoretical physicists, yet God isn't.  (Although the more old-fashioned types attack both concepts as equally unscientific.)  And yet, there is at least some observational evidence for the existence of God (in the way of claimed miracles and visions and so on).  On the other hand, there is no observational evidence for the existence of the Multiverse.

Apart from fine-tuning itself, the best that can be said about the Multiverse is that certain types of speculative new physics (such as string theory) might also predict multiple universes with different laws of physics (depending on certain other factors).  But it's not like there's any actual experimental evidence for other universes, or for any specific theory which predicts them.  It's almost as if people care more about whether an idea has the flavor of Science (or science-fiction) than if there is any actual evidence for it.  The most important aspect of Science is always observational support!

(It's important for people like me who study quantum gravity to remind ourselves of this point from time to time.  It's always especially ironic when people in my field dismiss concepts for lack of observational evidence, since there isn't much in the way of quantum gravity experiments.  10^{-35} meters is just way too tiny to see!)

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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26 Responses to Gaps at the Dinner Table

  1. sp says:

    "Theism isn't an ad hoc hypothesis invented solely to fix the problem of fine-tuning. Whereas the Multiverse is, so I guess I should have made a counter-accusation regarding the Multiverse-of-the-Gaps!"

    This doesnt seem to me to be consistent with my understanding of the history of physics. There are many versions of the mulitverse and it seems to me that none of them were invented to fix the fine tuning argument of theists.
    1)The multiverse of the many world of QM was driven to correct a perceived flaw in the Copenhagen interpretation of QM. Ive not seen reference to fine tuning argument that was even around at the time this came out. But id be keen to see any, do you have any?
    2) the multiverse if eternal inflation was driven by an analysis of how the inflaton field evolves
    3) the mulitverse of the string theory landscape was driven by the realisation that comapticfying extra dimensions led to different version of low energy physics.

    It seems to me in no cases were these conclusion driven by the theistic argument of fine tuning. in the last case of course the issue of the cosmological constant may have helped the cause of the landscape but it seems to me it was discovered way before 1998.

    If no one had ever heard of the theistic fine tuning argument the physical arguments for a mulitverse from these approaches would still be there. Where have I gone wrong?

  2. TY says:

    Don Page (Theoretical Physicist at the University of Alberta) wrote in “Does God Love the Multiverse, Jan 17, 2008): “Here I wish to go on record as a Christian who respectfully differs from Cardinal Sch ̈onborn’s opinion that the multiverse idea was “invented to avoid the overwhelm-ing evidence for purpose and design found in modern science”and that it is “an
    abdication of human intelligence.” Different multiverse theories were invented for
    different reasons, and there are intelligent reasons for investigating them.”

    So SP’s comment above has solid support in terms of the history of physics. Yet a careful reading of Aron’s “Gaps at the Dinner Table” indicates he was not concerned so much about historical accuracy as refuting the atheistic “God of the Gaps” fallacy. And in the next sentence, Aron says, “Or perhaps it should be called Naturalism-of-the-Gaps, that touching faith that Naturalism can explain away the apparent meaning and purpose of the Universe (something which is perfectly obvious to many ordinary people, who haven't been trained out of this intuition by a Naturalist worldview masquerading as "Science"). That to me is the main argument.

    The Naturalism-of–the-Gaps is a valid counter-argument. Naturalism is the view that physical events have only physical causes, which rules out miracles and supernatural causes. Thus the debate between Sean Carroll & William Lane Craig, “God and Cosmology”, may be restated “Theism versus naturalism”. Sean Carroll offered a naturalistic argument for creation out of (absolutely) nothing but it wasn’t compelling, and we are still left with the old theological or metaphysical question : “Why is there something rather than nothing.”

    Aron: have I interpreted you correctly?

  3. sp says:

    HI Ty
    I’m glad you and Don Page agree that the statement that the multiverse is an ad hoc hypothesis solely invented to fix the problem of fine tuning is wrong.
    I’m not sure how Aaron subsequent statement :
    “Once you already believe in God, it is seems totally natural (supernatural?) That he should pick laws of Nature which support life. “
    Why is this totally natural? Its seems just as natural to assumer god would create laws that do not support life and insteade intervene divinely. That might reveal his glory.
    In fact if we believe that a naturalistic explanation for abiogenists is wrong then it seems to me this is exactly the case.

    If we accept there are reasonable scientific reasons for taking the multiverse hypothesis seriously and it seems to me that both Ty, Don Page and I agree that is the case then there is certainly no “naturalism of the gaps “ argument to propose for a multiverse.
    If we believ there are good sceintific reaosns to belive in god then perhaps the same for god too.
    I definitely agree that we should not assume that there is always a scientific explanation for all questions. But it may well be there is no explanation for some questions or that there is an explanation but are brains just aren’t good enough to get it. How do you class that view ? Based on your deifntion its not naturalism but its not super naturalism either.

    I’m not quite sure recasting the god versus not debate as “naturalism” versus “supernaturalism” gets us anywhere. If we believe the only supernatural agent is god then all we’ve done is to use different words for exactly the same issue.

  4. TY says:

    SP.
    Aron says it best about the multiverse as a naturalistic explanation of Creation:

    "Apart from fine-tuning itself, the best that can be said about the Multiverse is that certain types of speculative new physics (such as string theory) might also predict multiple universes with different laws of physics (depending on certain other factors). But it's not like there's any actual experimental evidence for other universes, or for any specific theory which predicts them. It's almost as if people care more about whether an idea has the flavor of Science (or science-fiction) than if there is any actual evidence for it. The most important aspect of Science is always observational support!"

    I do agree with the spirit of your comment that we should be open to reasonable scientific hypotheses, but with the caveat that we there is observational support.

    Suppose the Multiverse is confirmed (as was the Big Bang hypothesis), what is left for God to design? Don Page provides a reasonable response in: Does God So Love the Multiverse? Don N. Page, Institute for Theoretical Physics, Department of Physics, University of Alberta, Room 238 CEB, 11322 – 89 Avenue Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2G7, (2008 January 17.

  5. sp says:

    I totally agree with you Ty, observational support is the ultimate test of an idea.
    iIcertianly agree there is insufficient evidence for the multiverse to be called a fact in the same way that we might say that the existence of say other galaxies . But is it correct to say there is no evidence at all? Let me play devils adovcate for a moment.
    It seems to me there is evidence for inflation , even if BICEP 2's results do not hold up. the evidence is not so overhwleming that we cant enetertain rival theories to inflaiton but I dont think its true that there is no evidence for inflation.
    So does inflation give us a mulitverse? Again i dont think it's I guaranteed but according to Guth etenral inflaiton is a generic outcome of any succesful inflationary model.
    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0702178
    Aron said in his post answering a question about the multiverse:
    "Most models of inflation predict "eternal inflation",
    But at the same time says:
    "there is no really good reason to believe in the multiverse,"
    This seems contradictory to me. Perhaps Aron means the reasons arent good enough to be fully convinced that a multiverse exists in the same way we are convinced about other galaxies. If thats the case I agree but the wording and other comments make it sounds like that its just an ad hoc invention to deal with fine tuning arguments. but if there is evidence for inflaiton and most versions of inflation are eternal then this to me seems not ot be the case at all.

  6. TY says:

    SP
    Thanks for the response. I'm not a physicist so I rely on people like St Aron (I can call address him thus in the 3rd person) and other accomplished saints in the field. I have done a fair bit of quantitative modelling, which helps me to follow the physics discussions and appreciate the philosophical nuances. I've heard about Guth, Valenkin, etc, but really, SP, I try to assess the views of many scientists and theologians, not a handful of the "pop-stars" and self-promoters on both sides of the aisle. My considered view is that God created the cosmos and we are here for a purpose. Theories come and go as the evidence becomes available and overwhelming; that is the nature of science. Naturalism tells me I'm just a collection of atoms and molecules, and that I am an insignificant outcome of Evolution (a theory I support because of the physical evidence). So Naturalism falls short of my expectation.

  7. sp says:

    Thats fair enough, thanks for the chat

  8. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome, sp.

    Personally I believe that the Many Worlds Interpretation of QM is totally insane, to the extent that I think I might be psychologically incapable of believing in it. Other physicists (like Don Page) take it more seriously than I do. But in any case, it isn't the right sort of multiverse to explain fine-tuning. That's because in the MWI-multiverse, the laws of physics are all exactly the same in each "world".

    There is (now increasingly strong) evidence for inflation. As I said in this post, most models of inflation end up predicting eternal inflation. But once again, this doesn't get you the right type of multiverse unless there is also variation in the (effective) laws of physics.

    I also acknowledged in that post that string theory provides some support for the idea of a multiverse. So I'm not denying that there is some theoretical motivation for the multiverse. But theoretical motivation is a very different thing from observational support. That is the main point I was trying to make when I argued that Theism is better supported than the Multiverse. Ad hoc might have been an excessively strong term. It may have been clearer if I had said something like "complete lack of direct observational support, albeit with some rarified theoretical motivation from what is known".

    The string theory multiverse is at least two levels of hypothesis removed from actual observation. First you have to accept that string theory is physically correct. String theory has some theoretical motivation, but no observational support. Then from there it is an additional hypothesis that the multiverse exists. Plus you have to accept some controversial assumptions about how to do probability reasoning if there is a multiverse.

    Whereas if you want some reports of observational evidence for God, you need only open the pages of your New Testament, or perhaps this book.

    St. TY is right that I was trying to assess the current state of the evidence, rather than construct a historical narrative of how people came to believe what they believe. However, considering my rebuke of Naturalistic just-so stories in my previous posts, I should have been more careful to express what I was doing.

    Regarding the issue of God sustaining life miraculously, I will deal with that later in my response to Carroll's comments.

  9. sp says:

    [Note: this comment got held up in moderation for a while, presumably because of its links. Also, I have fixed a bug with the second link to make it live. WordPress did some funny things because it had two consecutive periods in it.--AW]

    Hi Aron, thanks very much for responding.
    I think there are two separate issues that perhaps are getting confused.
    Issue 1: is there a well motivated reason to suggest a multiverse?
    Issue 2 : can a multiverse address fine tuning arguments?
    These are two separate issues.
    So can we agree that the multiverse is not an ad hoc solution to fix the problem of fine tuning as you claimed? Instead the multiverse is an idea that has many forms and many different motivations from separate branches of physics. Of course there has been the proposal the many worlds of QM is in fact the same thing as the multiverse of eternal inflation:
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1104.2324
    But even if this turns out to be right it won’t affect the historical fact that the original ideas were separately motivated and neither of them were motivated by fine tuning.

    I agree the existence of a multiverse doesn’t guarantee a solution to fine tuning. If I pointed a gun to your head and said throw two dice, if you roll a double 6 I’ll let you live. I think we have to take into account how many throws we are allowed before we determine our chances of survival. If we are allowed a large number of rolls it might not help us, perhaps the dice are three sided dice with no 6’s on them. But if I don’t know how many side the dice have, and I don’t know whether the dice are random or loaded or even if I don’t know if the dice have different numbers on each side, then its still doesn’t change the fact that the knowledge that I get many throws surely ups my probability of survival even if it doesn’t guarantee it. Similarly the multiverse doesn’t guarantee a solution but it certainly makes one more likely.
    Do you agree with that? , if not where have I failed in my reasoning?

    One should also point out that if we found the universe was created by an intelligent designer it does not guarantee a solution to the fine tuning problem either. Perhaps the designer created the universe in a way suggested by Guth, Farhi and Jemal:
    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1990NuPhB.339..417F
    I don’t see that the creator of this universe would be able to choose the values of the constants, perhaps they have to make lots of universes. Perhaps the creation of the universe is like parents creating children, they can decide to create the children but they can’t choose their properties. Or perhaps they can choose their properties but prefer not to. Or perhaps they choose a universe that is not fine tuned for life and then create it via a miracle anyway to demonstrate their divine power.
    So I think it’s true to say that a multiverse doesn’t guarantee a solution to fine tuning but neither does a creator. However the discovery of either one would surely up the probability of an answer.

    Another issue; does not the fine tuning argument rely on the suggestion that the constants we observe could have been different, that we could have ended up with life forbidding rather than life permitting values? However if the there are gazillion different universes and the constants of nature were the same in each one of them why should we not question this assumption? Perhaps they could not have been different after all and the odds of getting the ones we got are hence not so unlikely as we thought.

    As to the issue of observational support I don’t really follow your reasoning, you agree the there is strong observational evidence for inflation and you agree most models of inflation predict eternal inflation. So there is some indirect evidence for the multiverse. I certainly wouldn’t call it strong enough to compel us to believe in it but nor would I call it zero. Do you not agree the rela world of science is more messy than these simple division and direct observation is not the norm in science. Instead there is some mix of observation and interpretation. If we are only allowed direct observations how could we pose the fine tuning argument in the first place? After all no one has ever observed universes with different constants to check they have no life in them.

  10. TY says:

    Hi Aron,

    Wall's theorem was cited in the Carroll-Craig Deabte and later outlined in "Further Reflections on the Sean Carroll Debate" by William Craig:

    "2.2 Quantum Gravity era began to exist
    2.21 Wall theorem holds for Quantum Gravity era and requires a beginning. One can avoid it only by having reversal of time’s arrow, which implies a thermodynamic beginning of time and the universe. "

    Hope I'm not jumping ahead as you did say you will have more commentary on the subject of the debate.

    Pleaae decipher this in the context of beginning, creation, and time.

    Thank you for your previous posts. They are insightful and thiughtful (though my bias as a Christian is obvious)

  11. Aron Wall says:

    Dear sp,

    Inflation by itself, without new physics, just makes a really really big universe where all the laws of physics are the same in each of the different causal regions. If you want to call that a multiverse, go ahead, I agree that that kind of multiverse is well-motivated. (Although identifying this with the MWI multiverse seems totally crazy to me.) For that matter, we already know there are lots of universes if you consider each galaxy to be a different "island universe", as people apparently used to call them! I was using the term "multiverse" in a more specific way, to mean the type of multiverse which might explain fine-tuning. Because that's how it came up in the conversation I was reporting.

    I already conceded that ad hoc was not the best term for the multiverse. I won't repeat that concession, even though you seem to be asking me to. ;-).

    My main beef here was with the inconsistency of those who complain that God is totally unscientific, because he is supposedly based on pure theological speculation without any actual observational evidence, who then go on to happily discuss things like the anthropic multiverse without any scruples.

    Certainly a multiverse (with different laws of physics) makes it more probable that there exists at least one universe which has life like ours. The highly controversial question is whether this probability is the correct likelihood number to plug into Bayes' theorem. (One reason to be suspicious is that in an infinitely large multiverse, the probability that you exist somewhere would always be either 1 or 0.) But that is too big of a topic, so I'll hold off discussing that until later.

    I agree that you can't entirely separate observation from interpretation, since all observation is filtered through some layers of interpretation. Nor am I saying that theoretical motivation is an unimportant thing. If we define evidence as anything which raises the probability that something is true, it counts as evidence.

    For example, the fact that string theory appears to be a consistent mathematical structure incorporating quantum mechanics and gravity is some evidence for string theory. But it isn't really observational evidence, which I regard as (generally speaking) a more compelling type of evidence. In the absence of observational evidence---or perhaps a more conclusive type of theoretical evidence, e.g. a successful prediction of some constant of Nature---I withhold judgment on whether or not string theory is true; in fact I would say it is most likely false. (Although it is a very interesting model which I think we can learn a lot of important lessons from.) Most of the other times that scientists have concocted speculative new physics ideas which require going multiple steps beyond what is known, those ideas have turned out to be wrong. That's why observation is so important, if you can get it.

    I'm not sure what you mean when you speculate that maybe the constants of nature could not have been different. We know that the other laws are at least logical possibilities (at the level of the Standard Model). If some deep physical or metaphysical reason constrains the constants to take only some special values, I would still want an explanation of why those favored values are of the special type needed to permit life.

    I believe that the Farhi-Guth-Jemal mechanism is probably impossible for reasons described in my article here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1010.5513. But in any case, your statement that the designer might not be able to fully design the laws of nature, is only relevant if the designer is really just a clever scientist in a laboratory in some other universe. But that would only be another creature, not a divine being . If the designer is the traditional one---an omnipotent God outside spacetime who transcends all material limitations---then he can certainly choose the constants of Nature to be whatever he wants. (He can also sustain life by continual miracle, as you say, but I don't see why he would, if he could do it more naturally.)

  12. sp says:

    Hi Aron,
    Thanks for replying, I know you must be very busy so if you don’t always reply I understand. It is very kind to engage in this way.
    If you go on Christian web sites you will see statements like this:
    http://carm.org/atheism-and-the-multiverse
    “The atheist’s most recent god, the multiverse, was laid to rest this January at a rather unusual event: the 70th birthday celebration of Stephen Hawking, which was held at Cambridge. Delivering the eulogy was Dr. Alexander Vilenkin, who had written a recent paper that was presented at the “State of the Universe” meeting of scientists who had gathered to honor Hawking…After demonstrating the fallacies of the various theories that have attempted to validate a multiverse… Vilenkin’s recent paper dismantles the three possible options for a multiverse and is in keeping with prior statements he’s made”
    Or here:
    “There are several fundamental problems with this proposition, the key problem being that it is both unnecessary and ad hoc. There is no good scientific reason to think that we reside in one universe within a multitude of parallel universes. There is also no reason to think that there should be a mechanism for generating such universes, each with its own fundamental constants and values. “

    Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/multiverse-theory.html#ixzz32WYc63J6”

    Even William Lane Craig recently (after 7 year WMAP results before BICEp 2) said there was no evidence for inflation at all.

    So I think there is a lot of misinformation about the multiverse on Christian web sites. I would hope that those Christians who are trained in relevant fields would try their best to correct this false view. As Ty pointed out Don Page has done this and I would add John Barrow and if memory serves me rightly also Hans Halvorson

    Contemporary physics and cosmology in particular is done via some mix of observational and theoretical considerations. Using this method a reasonable scientific case for a multiverse can be inferred. That case includes observations that inflation happened and the many papers in the literature arguing that it produces pocket universes that may have different constants of nature. I don’t think the same (papers arguing for different constants) can be said of the Andromeda Galaxy. Now one might argue that this method is unreliable and only direct observations should ever be allowed. But if that’s so how does that leave the super natural and how does that leave the central assumption of the fine tuning argument that universe could have different constants and most of them are not bio friendly.

    So what of the inconsistency of your colleagues? It seems to me they are saying is that the method I described above is more reliable than believing accounts of miracles in an ancient book. Whether they are right or wrong, I don’t see anything inconsistent in arguing that position.
    As for the issue of Farhi Guth Jemal mechanism I’m not sure you are aware that I mention only to illustrate the point that just as its possible there are other pocket universes with the same laws of physics so its possible and hence not solve the fine tuning argument; so its possible for a god (I’m defining god as the intelligent creator of our universe) to be able to create a universe but not chose all its features. Of course if you define god as a being that can do anything that yes you can solve any problem you like ,including fine tuning but simply because god is traditionally defined that way does not in any way make it so. It seems to me to be the mother of all assumptions, what could be a less parsimonious assumption than a being that can literally do anything?

  13. Aron Wall says:

    sp,

    I'm not surprised that there's a bunch of misinformation out there, but I'm not taking responsibility for anyone else's take beyond my own.

    The quotes which you give above do seem to be rather exaggerated in their contempt for the Other Side. As I said above, the Multiverse is not completely unmotivated, although (in the version where the different universes have different laws of nature) there is no actual observational evidence for it (unlike inflationary cosmology by itself, for which there is quite good evidence, although it isn't totally conclusive). I certainly wouldn't mock it the "atheist's most recent god".

    In any case, the two websites you quote from both seem to adopt an anti-evolutionary viewpoint, which is a far greater sin against the truth than anything they might have to say about the Multiverse. I don't see why I should expect good scientific information from sources like that. Although sometimes I have found some worthwhile historical apologetics about the Resurrection from such people (the skills needed to do good history are different than the skills needed to do honest science) still it's an embarrassment.

    One can and should trust at least some ancient books, over physics as speculative as a multiverse of 10^{150} worlds with different laws of Nature. (Although obviously the multiverse and miracles are not in direct competition, since neither would rule out the other; I'm just comparing their relative degree of support...) Science might in general be more reliable than History, but surely it is irrational to think that even speculative Science is more reliable than good History. That would only be reasonable if "History is bunk".

    Though obviously determining whether the book is good history or not would require examining the nature of the book more specifically. If the primary issue is that the miracles happened a long time ago, then one could look at the Keener book I linked to instead. (Ignore the subtitle; the book is really about modern-day miracles.)

    Your argument that its unparsimonious to assume that God can do anything seems to me the exact opposite of the truth. If there were a god who could only do some things, then there would have to be some sort of list of the things that the god could or could not do. The information in that list would represent a complication in the hypothesis, whereas a God who can do anything is quite simple (in the modern sense of the term, although it is presumably also more compatible with God being simple in the sense of noncomposite). What's more, if there were limitations on this god's abilities, this seems logically equivalent to saying that the god is limited by some additional, more fundamental reality (maybe the laws of physics in some other world like Asgard) constraining him in certain ways. Once again that makes the hypothesis more complicated. In the debate Carroll said:

    I judge simplicity by the number of ideas and concepts, not by the number of universes.

    Well, if that's the right way to intepret Occam's razor (and it had better be if the Multiverse is to be tolerated) then you should also judge God's omnipotence on the basis of the simplicity of the rule for what he can do, rather than by counting the total number of things he can do. (It's not as if each additional power requires God to have more muscles or anything like that).

  14. g says:

    I agree that (ignoring other considerations) a god who can do literally anything is a more parsimonious hypothesis than a god who can do a lot of things but not literally anything, and more generally that the parsimony of the hypothesis of a god who can do a given set of things depends on how simply one can represent that set.

    But of course a god-hypothesis doesn't merely consist of saying what powers the god in question has; it also consists in saying how he behaves: what he will do, rather than what he could do. And this is where the lack of parsimony actually comes in. Hypothesizing (say) electrons is pretty simple; you write down a few equations and you've completely specified what electrons do. (Of course finding the right few equations is the job for physicists of great genius, such as Dirac, and I am not meaning to belittle their genius.) The behaviour of a god is ... rather less straightforward. Ineffable, even. I think some theologians would argue that their god's behaviour is too subtle to be encapsulated in any finite description, which would make their god-hypotheses infinitely unparsimonious.

    At least it does according to my understanding of parsimony. Perhaps not yours!

  15. TY says:

    A God who has unlimited power – omnipotent and omniscient – unconstrained only by logic (God cannot make square circles) is a simpler hypothesis than a God with some finite amount. Why? It’s not just what on the list of what God can, should, and will do, but what are not on the list.
    I guess the argument in this discussion (or one strand thereof) is which is the simpler (Occamite) of the two hypotheses: A God with unlimited power or the multiverse. Why is this relevant?

    Aron says earlier:
    “Certainly a multiverse (with different laws of physics) makes it more probable that there exists at least one universe which has life like ours. The highly controversial question is whether this probability is the correct likelihood number to plug into Bayes' theorem. (One reason to be suspicious is that in an infinitely large multiverse, the probability that you exist somewhere would always be either 1 or 0.) But that is too big of a topic, so I'll hold off discussing that until later.”

    According to Roger Penrose (Mathematician & Cosmologist), the Creator has 10 to the 10 to the 123 , i.e., 1 with 10 to the 123 zeroes after it, possible universe configurations to choose from and only has the order of our universe, the one we do observe. From the principle of simplicity, the probability of God is higher than the probability of the multiverse. So we have to pieces of information to evaluate Bayes’ theorem (after the Reverend Thomas Bayes). What you get is (A) the probability of God given fine tuning must far exceed (B) the probability of the multiverse given fine tuning (the solution from dividing A into B in the equation).

  16. Aron Wall says:

    g,

    I agree with you that Theists need to have some account of what God is expected to actually do. (Clearly God is not be completely unpredictable: most of the time his governance of the Universe proceeds on very predictable lines indeed, accounting for our ability to model the world with equations.)

    Obviously I am also not in possession of any equations saying what God will in fact do. I would guess that no such equations exist, although I'm not sure we would expect to know them even if they did exist. The behavior of an expert Poker player (or Go, etc.) is extremely complicated even though (given the rules saying what the player can do, and the state of the game and the other players etc.) it is encapsulated by the very simple rule "maximize your odds of winning".

    Infinitely unparsimonious is a rather strong statement to make about any hypothesis, if it implies that one should assign to it exactly 0 prior probability. Except for hypotheses which contain strict logical contradictions or are totally absurd, I don't think it's right to assign 0 prior probability to anything. "The most fundamental thing in the universe is not a system of equations, but something more like love or goodness" does not seem to me so absurd as to merit this treatment. If so, that would mean that one should have been able to predict with certainty that there exists an equation-based Theory Of Everything even before the advent of Modern Science. But surely the fact that various parts of the universe can be described by some simple equations is a nontrivial discovery of Science, not an obvious truism!

    Also, "I don't know what God will do" does not itself have very large information content; a specific set of predictions for infinitely many decisions of God would, but one could argue that the large number of possible hypotheses about God would cancel out the large information content, if one remains agnostic to some extent about what God will in fact do.

    But I think I'd rather say that God is in fact very simple to himself, and only appears complicated to us due to our indirect way of approaching him (although of course, our Bayesian calculations our based on our own perspective). I don't even know how many bits of information to assign to General Relativity (it all depends on the language we choose to express it in), so how to decide how many bits of information should be assigned to "love"? If Naturalism is right, then love is only a name we give to some very complicated circuits in mammalian brains. But that's exactly the question at stake.

    Even if we hypothetically reduced everything we see to the equations of a TOE, there is still the additional fact that those equations are beautiful. We can either call that another delusion of the mammalian brain, or we can postulate that there really is such a thing as Beauty. The latter would take us straight down the road to a mystical understanding of the universe. Naturalism says that the mystical understanding of the universe is bunk, because only things which can be quantified exist. But I think that's bunk.

  17. sp says:

    I certainly am not asking you to take responsibility for misinformation but I would just hope that you are aware that it’s not uncommon on Christian web sites and hope you would follow the excellent example of the likes of Page, Barrow etc of being clear in correcting them. Correct if I’m wrong but I think are a very few people who are in your position of being on the inside of theoretical physics and a Christian blogger. Not everything an evolution denier says is wrong but if Francis Collins blogged about evolution knowing Christians were his audience and said they were right about something I would hope he would go to some effort to point out what they are wrong about too.

    I agree that some speculative physics is less reliable than some history. But just as every statement in physics does not have equal reliability the same is true of history.
    But I would also assert that the more ancient the history the less reliable it is likely to be. The longer the gap between the events and the account the less likely they are to be reliable. Something written up 30 years later is likely less reliable than 30 days later. The more an eye witness account conflicts with what we know from other observations about the world the less reliable it is likely to be. There are eye witness accounts of people that have claimed to travel backward in time. Eye witness that are heavily invested in what they have seen are less likely to be reliable than those that have no investment. People who are exposed to misleading information about an event are more likely to have their memories of it altered , see here:
    http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm

    So I think what is implied from your colleagues argument is that the unreliable history is not as good evidence as well motivated physics. Now of course we can get into long arguments about how exactly how well the motivation is for the multiverse and exactly how reliable the gospels are. These debates have going on for a long time and I doubt we will settle them here.
    But all I am saying is that to take the position that the physics is well motivated and the gospels are unreliable is not an inconsistent position even if it turns about to be wrong.

    As to the issue of omnipotence. You are suggesting that a being that is all powerful is less of an assumption than a being that is simply more powerful than us. I found that incredible quite frankly. Virtually any hypothesis you can thing of is more complicated than “anything goes” but the problem with “anything goes is that its too big of an assumption to make. It’s a simple assumption yes but it’s a weighty one and I think these two considerations need to be considered when we talk about which is the more economic.

    I have performed what some people call miracles. One of my favourite affects is to ask someone to freely pick a card from a deck they mixed and checked to see all the cards are different and without showing me what it is I phone my friend who is often in another country and who then tells them which card they picked. You should see the reaction this gets. It may be simpler for them to assume magic is real and I have access to it. The real method is more complicated (alas I’m not aloud to tell it to you). So which should they assume?
    Similarly if an alien being visited us on Earth and did one thing we could not explain, would you on that basis assume that therefore they can do anything at all, including create universes and chose their constants? Given that we already have evidence that intelligent beings are constrained by fundamental reality it seems more economic to assume that would apply to any higher being than assume they are exempt from it.

  18. g says:

    I agree that "infinitely unparsimonious" is a very strong statement. Let me clarify briefly what I do and don't mean by it.

    First of all, it applies to descriptions rather than to things. In other words, if one universe is 1000 times the size of another but can be completely described in 1/10 the space, I regard that one as the more parsimonious. Second, I conceive of parsimony (semi-formally) in terms of minimum description length. This seems to match rather well (albeit, of course, handwavily) with what has worked well in science. This, of course, does have the consequence that anything genuinely unspecifiable is infinitely unparsimonious, and if I were using something like a Solomonoff prior then I'd have to give all such hypotheses zero probability. But (not being a perfect idiot or a total bigot) I am aware that this might turn out to be a bad way to measure parsimony, and that choosing prior probabilities strictly on the basis of parsimony might turn out to be a mistake. So I'm happy to give such unspecifiable possibilities nonzero (but small) probability. (Also, but I think less importantly, it seems like there are degrees of parsimony even among hypotheses that are not completely specifiable.)

    So I agree that we shouldn't give zero probability to hypotheses that say that the universe is fundamentally uncomputable in one way or another.

    However, I can't 100% agree with your remarks about this. Specifically, I think it's reasonable to hold (1) that before science got properly going, we couldn't credibly have predicted with much confidence that the sort of physical theory we now have would be anywhere near as successful as it has in fact been, but also (2) that in the light of what we have found doing science we have much better grounds for using parsimony (understood in these kinda-mechanistic terms) to guide our prior probabilities. That could never get us to certainty about the correctness of doing that, of course.

    I didn't intend to suggest that "I don't know what God will do" has very large information content, or that you should think it does, or that anyone thinks it does. What necessarily (I think) has large information content is a complete description of the universe (where "universe" here includes any god or gods that there may be) if an important player in that universe is a god whose behaviour is ineffable. (Of course even without such a god a complete description of the universe has very large information content! But the more ineffable the god, the less "compressible" an account of its doings.)

    I like your framing of the issue in terms of the underlying language. Perhaps if we choose a language in which things like "love" are primitive notions, some God-hypothesis might come out simpler than its naturalistic rivals. But the history of science seems full of cases where such notions have been found less primitive than they were thought (famous example: "elan vital") and empty of cases that have gone the other way (I think some people would claim that QM is irreducibly tied up with consciousness via the notion of "observer" and counts as an example, but I think that's very very wrong). And it looks to me as if, if you wanted to make (say) some version of Christianity come out the winner in parsimony, you'd have to go a lot further than making "love" a primitive notion; you'd need your language to be carefully targetted at Christianity. And, after all, one can make anything "more parsimonious" by a suitable choice of language. I'd need some persuading that the choice of language wasn't question-begging.

    I don't see why the only options should be (1) regard our sense that the equations of physics are beautiful as a delusion or (2) try to ground them in some capitalized-essence "Beauty" of the sort that leads inevitably "to a mystical understanding of the universe". I can look at a chess game and see that its moves are legal, without either (1) regarding the notion of "legal chess move" as a delusion or (2) treating it as fundamental to the structure of Reality. I can look at my wife and find her attractive without either (1) regarding myself as delusional or (2) thinking that human romantic and sexual love are fundamental to the structure of Reality. Something can be a matter of convention and/or taste without being a delusion.

    I would prefer to say that naturalism says that everything that exists can be quantified, rather than that only quantifiable things exist :-). (The relationship between the two resembles that between "whoever is not against us is for us" and "whoever is not for us is against us".)

  19. Aron Wall says:

    sp,
    Of course that viewpoint is not inconsistent. It just turns out to be wrong. :-0

    Once I went to a physics colloquium in which somebody stood up and confidently talked about his personal reminiscences of Enrico Fermi, who had died more than 50 years before. If I hadn't spent too much time on the internet arguing with people about the historicity of the Gospels, it would never have occured to me to realize that most of it was probably just made up or exaggerated and had little or no basis in the facts! The type of reasoning you are using here would invalidate quite a bit of history whose accuracy most people take for granted most of the time.

    It's true of course that the speaker did not report that Fermi had performed any miracles. But miracles are only impossible if you subscribe to Naturalism, which goes against quite a bit more human experiences than just those reported in the Gospels. If there is a God, then miracles become considerably more plausible, especially if you are talking about his chosen Messiah sent to the Jews rather than some random physicist. I'm not asking anybody to assume the truth of the supernatural without a careful investigation, but I do think it's reasonable to ask people to look at historical claims with an open mind rather than ruling them out a priori because of "Science".

    I can think of several ways you might have done that trick (unfortunately I'm not allowed to tell you what they are). With all due respect to your magical abilities, I think that creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them is a slightly greater accomplishment than card tricks. It seems much more reasonable to assume that if a being can do that, they can do anything.

    When you ask me "if an alien being visited us on Earth and did one thing we could not explain, would you on that basis assume that therefore they can do anything at all, including create universes and chose their constants?" you are changing the subject. In your original comment you stipulated explicitly the existence of an "intelligent designer" who is the "creator of the universe", not some alien who does one thing I don't understand. Those are completely different cases.

    If I saw an alien with bug eyes and tentacles do some trick with laser weaponry, or saw some guy wearing tights and a beard throw down a hammer to cause a lightning to fall from the sky, then of course I would assume by default that that this is merely a more powerful but finite being subject to limitations just as I am. In particular, if their identity subsists in a tangible body, then in some sense they must be part of the same Nature that I am (and therefore could not have created it). The classical theist notion of God is quite different from that. The idea is that God is the most fundamental entity in existence, and therefore he cannot be limited by a body or by laws of physics or by anything else, because if he were so limited, that would mean that there is another layer of reality higher than himself. But that would just push things back to Naturalism (or Theism) on a still deeper level of reality. So at the end of the day this doesn't get you anywhere. The real question is, once we reach the highest level of reality, is it something more like a mind or more like a set of rules?

    On the assumption that there exists some divinity responsible for the existence of the world as we know it, it seems to me that:

    \mathrm{God \to Nature}

    is a simpler view of reality than

    \mathrm{Nature_1 \to a\,god \to Nature_2}

    .

  20. g says:

    (I'm not sp, but:)

    I bet some of the things your colloquium speaker said about Fermi were wrong. (And I know that if I stood up at a conference and talked about things that had happened even 10 years ago, some of the things I'd say would likely be wrong.) The more improbable the claims he made about Fermi, the more likely to be wrong. Miracles aren't a special case here being ruled out a priori; they're just things that occur very rarely, even if theism is correct.

    (In particular, someone who takes reports of miracles as enormously unlikely to be correct doesn't need to be ruling anything out a priori and doesn't need to have a closed mind, and I do wish believers would stop claiming that they do. Don't you think it's rude?)

    Unless your theology is more unorthodox than I think it is, the fact that some entity has a physical body shouldn't be too-strong evidence for you that they aren't the sort of transcendent god you believe in -- in standard Christian theology, after all, there was once someone in a physical body who none the less was a (the) transcendent god.

  21. sp says:

    Hi Aron, I’m glad you agree that your colleagues are not being inconsistent. I must have msinuderstood the point of your OP. I do think it comes across as implying they were in preferring a multiverse and rejecting god. So its nice to clear that up.

    Human experience tells us that homeopathy works, there are huge number of anecdotes telling us that homeopathy is effective. I’m not convinced that’s sufficient to accept that it is, are you? We know of huge number of cognitive biases that mean peoples experience of the world can be deceptive. I think that’s why science succeeds so well because it tries to correct these biases. I think we should not rule out homeopathy entirely but we should weigh the chance that the reports of its effectiveness are false positives versus the plausibility of the claim. I’m happy to believe an implausible claim if the evidence is overwhelming but not so ready if there’s some good chance the reports are unreliable or distorted by known cognitive biases.

    I totally agree that if god exists miracles are more plausible but the issue is surely the other way around, given claims of miracles how much more likely is God? and not just any old god , but a God with all the omnis?
    To say that if a being can create a universe they can do anything, I just don’t see that it follows. If you knew and understood how god created the universe then maybe you could make that argument. If it’s a mechanism in the way the humans design technology maybe you are right, but if it’s a mechanism analogous to the way humans create other humans maybe you are not right. Since you know nothing about the mechanism I don’t see you can have much confidence in your conclusion.
    But the situation isn’t even that good. It isn’t that we have observations of god creating the world and then inferring he can do any other miracle. We have claims of more Earthly miracles (water into wine, raising the dead etc) and we are trying to infer whether those claims also imply a omni creator. Or can they be more economically explained by a text being unreliable? And even if they are reliable and some higher intelligence has performed a “miracle” can we then assume they have all the omnio’s?

    This is why the example of you gave in Thor is quite relevant. In the movie Thor, the religious stories of the Norse gods are explained by aliens coming to Earth and enjoying being believed to be gods. You say if you saw Thor perform his miracle you would only assume him to be a more powerful but finite being. So why not do the same for the miracles of the gospels? I don’t understand why they should be treated differently?
    I understand what the classical notion of God is, but the question is do out observations of the world allow us to confidently conclude that such a notion is correct or is more economical hypothesis possible? Even if we assume there are beings with far greater powers than us and that they have intervened in our affairs in the past.( Something I don’t believe by the way in case you thought I was taking ancient aliens too seriously.) I don’t see why we have to assume such a being is infinitely more powerful than us rather than some finite measure.

  22. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comment, TY.

    You wrote:

    According to Roger Penrose (Mathematician & Cosmologist), the Creator has 10 to the 10 to the 123 , i.e., 1 with 10 to the 123 zeroes after it, possible universe configurations to choose from and only has the order of our universe, the one we do observe. From the principle of simplicity, the probability of God is higher than the probability of the multiverse.

    10^{10^{123}} is roughly speaking the number of possible states for the observable universe. This is indeed an strikingly large number, and indicates that if the state of the universe were randomly selected (i.e. if the universe began in a state of maximum entropy) the probability of getting a universe that looks like ours is less than 1 over that number. But I do not think that this is the most impressive instance of fine-tuning, because I don't see any particular reason why an atheist should assume that the universe began in a randomly selected state. One could instead postulate that it began in some very special state (as indeed, it seems to have). There may be remaining questions about why it began in that very special state, but certainly the a priori odds of there being some unknown natural reason for it to start in a special state are far, far greater than 1/ 10^{10^{123}}.

    Later on, I will talk about instances of fine-tuning which I find more impressive.

  23. Aron Wall says:

    g,
    I chose my words carefully. What I said (tongue-in-cheek) was:

    it would never have occured to me to realize that most of it was probably just made up or exaggerated and had little or no basis in the facts

    I wouldn't be particularly surprised if the speaker on Fermi got one or two minor details wrong, nor would I be surprised if (shock! heresy!) the Gospel accounts were off on one or two minor details. That's quite different from a false claim that a dead person came to life and was witnessed by by lots of people if in fact nothing much happened.

    Personally, if the speaker did get things wrong about Fermi, I would guess that it would be mostly "probable-seeming" claims, since people are more likely to edit their memories into a form that makes more sense to them. I know it would be a lot easier to falsely implant in me the memory that (e.g.) I had talked to such and such a person in college, than that (e.g.) I had seen somebody come back to life again.

    I said that by "default" I would not assume that the alien was the creator, and I also said that

    if their identity subsists in a tangible body, then in some sense they must be part of the same Nature that I am

    In Christian theology about Jesus, we say that as the Son of God he pre-existed his incarnation, and it was with respect to this eternal divine nature that he created the universe. His human body and mind were part of the material creation just like ours, although God chose to unite himself to them. Thus Jesus' identity does not subsist in his human body, even though he has one.

    I knew someone was going to gripe about the Incarnation, even if I picked my words carefully. However, I judged this risk worthwhile because we can't even talk about the Incarnation until we get straight what type of "God" we are referring to. If "God" just refers to somebody like Thor, a guy with a beard in the sky who maybe seduces a virgin or two, then the doctrine of the Incarnation is deprived of all meaning. So it makes sense to get that straight first.

    No, I don't think I was being rude when I wrote this:

    I'm not asking anybody to assume the truth of the supernatural without a careful investigation, but I do think it's reasonable to ask people to look at historical claims with an open mind rather than ruling them out a priori because of "Science".

    I think that asking an unspecified general audience to keep an open mind, is not really the same as accusing some specific person of being closed-minded (although in specific cases that is justified as well).

    Nor is it rude to point out to people, nicely one hopes, and if it is true, that their background presuppositions are such that probably they would not believe in any miracles even if they do sometimes happen and leave historical evidence, of a sort that would normally be considered strong if the events were non-miraculous. There might conceivably be good reasons for this stance (which would by definition involve considerations that are at least prior to the examination of the records in question), but I think it's the sort of thing that should make people worry that maybe they are setting the standard of evidence too high. But I am not trying to stereotype everyone, there may well be other people who set the bar considerably lower than that, actually examine the historical facts, and (wrongly) believe that the Resurrection doesn't clear that bar. But mostly I meet people who don't think the historical facts even merit preliminary investigation.

    You make a probability argument that even on Theism, miracles are very unlikely and therefore accounts thereof should be viewed with suspicion. I don't think this argument really works. Here's a parallel argument which I hope is illustrative:

    1. Even if the United States is a Republic rather than a Monarchy (suppose this were controversial), the odds of any given person being elected President in a given year is vanishingly small.
    2. Therefore, most reports that people were elected President are probably false.

    But in fact most reports that somebody was elected President are true. Obama is not a randomly selected individual, and neither was Jesus. I tried to make that argument back here. (Not that I really have time to rehash the debate we had then. I have to get some actual physics done sometime, and it's getting a bit off-topic for the parent post.)

  24. Aron Wall says:

    sp wrote:

    Hi Aron, I’m glad you agree that your colleagues are not being inconsistent. I must have msinuderstood the point of your OP. I do think it comes across as implying they were in preferring a multiverse and rejecting god. So its nice to clear that up.

    I'm afraid our "agreement" is mostly superficial here. I'm not accusing them of any strict logical inconsistency, but that's not the only kind of intellectual fault. I do say that it is wrong to prefer the evidence for the multiverse over good historical data, and that there exists some good historical data from the ancient world, and (more controversially) that the New Testament falls into that category. You can disagree with any of these assertions without logical contradiction, but I claim that it is unreasonable to do so. (I doubt that if I had been dining with a bunch of ancient historians, that they would have agreed that the multiverse is better supported than everything they work on!)

    Regarding homeopathy, I'm not really impressed by efforts to prove skepticism about one conclusion (say, the New Testament) by these sorts of scattershot arguments about cognitive biases regarding unrelated things. Whatever is the explanation for the reports that Jesus rose from the dead, I'm pretty sure it wasn't the placebo effect.

    There was actually another example of this in the dinner conversation that launched this post. Somebody brought up the famous gorilla experiment where subjects asked to count the passes of a basketball failed to notice a guy in a gorrilla suit walk on-stage and beat his chest. I thought then that this completely missed the point. That experiment showed how people concentrating on an ordinary task failed to notice something extraordinary, not people falsely remebering something extraordinary when only ordinary things had happened.

    The article you linked to about planting false memories is more relevant, although I think it is perhaps worth pointing out that most (though not all) of the studies cited involved early childhood memories, which are typically fuzzier and more typcially subject to correction by older relatives. In any case, these things are EXCEPTIONS. Nobody writes up sexy psych articles about the large majority of cases where we remember things more-or-less correctly (in the broad outlines of what occured). Focusing on exceptional things which can go wrong is itself a cognitive bias, as I'm sure you know.

    I don't doubt that people make mistakes and are biased in various ways, but I really think that's looking at the problem at much too high of a level of abstraction. The task is not to evaluate human reliability in general, out of context. Imagine a jury member who has had one too many people lie to him, so he decides not to believe any of the testimony he hears in a lawsuit. One needs to assess the reliability of testimony in a more fine-grained way than that.

    Ad populum ain't exactly the strongest argument (though it isn't always a fallacy for inductive reasoning, contrary to the logic textbooks), but I do think it is striking that there are very few people in existence who 1) believe the factual accounts of miracles in the New Testament, but 2) ascribe it to some other finite power (e.g. space aliens) besides God. (2) almost always comes up as a backup reason for people who don't accept (1), and if they do come to accept (1) they almost always take a more traditional religious view. (But I did once have a nutty office-mate who believed that the miracles in the Old Testament were caused by space aliens, so it can happen...I guess Mormons are also exceptions.)

    I think the reason is that philosophically, Monotheism makes a great deal of sense as a theory about the ultimate nature of reality. There are actual reasons why smart philosophers from several many religious backgrounds (Graeco-Roman pagans, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, even some Hindus) all converged on something like classical theism. But it will take much too much of my time to summarize 2500 years of Western Philosophy. As a start, you could do worse than exploring Ed Feser's blog which I keep linking to in my replies. I don't agree with everything he says, but he does a pretty good job of explaining the classical theistic view.

    All right, I'm done with this thread now. Any further comments should not expect replies from me, since I have to do work sometime.

  25. sp says:

    Thats fair enough , as its your blog I will let you have the last reposnse , thansk for engaging as long as you did.

  26. Aron Wall says:

    Thank you too, sp.

    By the way, I don't want to leave the impression that the question you asked (when we would conclude that the source of some miraculous intervention is actually the ultimate reality rather than some lesser being) isn't worth considering carefully, I just don't have the energy to argue it further at the moment. But related issues are likely to come up in future posts...

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