In Defense of Republican Atheism

In a recent comment, Vincent writes that

However, I would argue that if we believe in human freedom, then that freedom has to include the freedom to bind oneself to a particular vision of humans’ ultimate good – whether it be one that includes God as its core or one which excludes God as a hindrance to unfettered liberty.

I’m very interested in theories of freedom and this idea of atheism as somehow involving “unfettered liberty.”


For the most part, when we talk about theism and naturalism, we focus on the epistemological side of the question: what counts as evidence for or against a position, the best explanation of the available data, and so on. Clearly such discussions have their place.

But I also think that the exclusive focus on epistemology is problematic, since it inclines us to neglect the “passional” (William James’s term) side of our natures. Why do we want theism or naturalism to be true, what motivates us to affirm or deny. If you will, “man cannot live by reason alone.”

It’s reasonably clear that the affective aversion to naturalism amongst theists arises from an anxiety that naturalism causes (not entails!) nihilism. So we must believe in God to avoid the threat of meaninglessness. (Some theists are less than clear whether the relation between naturalism and nihilism is causal or logical, but we can get into that in the discussion.)

Here I want to pick up on the suggestion that atheists want atheism to be true because they desire “unfettered liberty.”  One sees this claim made quite often (it’s a reliable trope at Uncommon Descent, for example) and it needs to be examined closely.

To do this, I want to look at theories of freedom: what does it means to be free?

In the classical liberal tradition that runs (roughly) from John Locke to Bob Nozick, freedom is non-intervention: one is free to the extent that others cannot prevent you from doing what you want, or might want to do if given the option.

There is another conception of freedom, freedom as non-domination, that some theorists (including myself) find more compelling. On this approach, known as republicanism, one is free to the extent that one is not subject to the arbitrary or uncontrolled power of a master, regardless of how benign his intentions.

Consider this analogy. Suppose my boss is prone to micromanage her office. Some employees end up being interfered with because they don’t do things her way. I, on the other hand, turn out to be very good at anticipating how she wants things done. I adjust my behavior to meet her expectations. As a consequence, I’m interfered with less than my co-workers are. Does this mean that I am more free than they are?

On the freedom as non-interference conception, we would have to say “yes”. But this is counter-intuitive: we’re all equally under the dominating authority of our employer, and I’m just better at accommodating myself to her. I might be better off — say, more content, less disgruntled — than my co-workers who are constantly being micromanaged. But surely I’m not more free than they are!

We can now distinguish between liberal atheism and republican atheism. A liberal atheist doesn’t want there to be a God because she doesn’t want there be anything like the God of theism to get in the way of satisfying her desires. By contrast, a republican atheist doesn’t want there to be a God because she doesn’t want there be anything like the God of theism to have power over her.

In short, it’s not necessarily that the atheist wants “unfettered liberty”, in the sense of being able to do satisfy her desires, whatever those desires happen to be. If she is a republican atheist, what she wants is to not be under the power of any one else, not even God, and certainly not those who appeal to religious language to legitimize their domination. (There is a nice question here as to how religions become ideologies.)

One final thought: in further development of the republican tradition beginning with Hegel, the only stable alternative to domination is mutual recognition. There is a theological tradition on which the existence of God — or the belief in God — is necessary for mutual recognition between human beings. Martin Buber, in his short and extraordinary I and Thou, articulates this approach quite well. I mention this because there’s indeed a crucial question here as to whether religion is necessarily dominating, or if religion can be part of the struggle for recognition in resistance to domination. Within American religious/political thought, Martin Luther King is perhaps most clear about the capacity of religious discourse to articulate the struggle for mutual recognition in resistance to domination; see his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (PDF).

116 thoughts on “In Defense of Republican Atheism”

  1. vjtorley

    Hi DNA_Jock,

    The universe is trying to kill us.

    You seem to have paranoid feelings about Nature. I love watching the sea, but I have a very healthy respect for it, which is why I only swim in relatively calm waters, close to the shore. Why should I expect to be able to swim everywhere, anyway? Why not just enjoy the view? The same goes for space: a few thousand meters above sea level is as high as I can go, without gasping for air, but I still love sky-watching. There’s no reason why a personal Deity would make a universe such that intelligent beings could travel anywhere in it, without the need for a space-suit. Such an expectation is anthropomorphic.

    You write that Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P) is extremely high. But as I argued, the picture changes if we already know that D. I don’t see why Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P) should be extremely high. Without any evidence for D, however, I agree that the problem of evil would render belief in a benevolent personal God very difficult.

    Hi GlenDavidson,

    You ask why I think Pr(S|not-P) and Pr(B|not-P) are astronomically low. Simple enough: Occam’s razor. Nature is only “interested” in building survival machines. Smart moves can assist in an organism’s survival. Feelings and the ability to appreciate beauty are not. Nociception is not pain, and sensation is not pleasure. The ability to sense and respond to stimuli does not require the ability to experience them, phenomenally. That’s an added bonus.

  2. Neil Rickert

    vjtorley: (1) Beauty (especially mathematical beauty) is an all-pervasive feature of the cosmos

    I completely disagree.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t exist in the universe. It comes from our relation to the universe.

    As I see it, mathematics is wholly absent from the universe. The only mathematics that we can find, has its origin in human minds.

  3. GlenDavidson

    vjtorley: You ask why I think Pr(S|not-P) and Pr(B|not-P) are astronomically low. Simple enough: Occam’s razor. Nature is only “interested” in building survival machines. Smart moves can assist in an organism’s survival. Feelings and the ability to appreciate beauty are not. Nociception is not pain, and sensation is not pleasure. The ability to sense and respond to stimuli does not require the ability to experience them, phenomenally. That’s an added bonus.

    No, there’s no reason why being sensate is necessary per se. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t arise as a near-epiphenomenon, then the underlying phenomenon being selected. That’s what I suspect happened, that electric fields interacted (with consciousness being experienced within the fields), and coordination of electric impulses (timing, etc.) being selected within the regions where field interactions were prevalent.

    Maybe not, sure. But it’s plausible and makes sense of the phenomena. Even if not, some other near-epiphenomenon could be responsible, thanks to a selected phenomenon.

    Why God would give us consciousness I really couldn’t guess. Could you, without mere assumption that humans would be given it by a “caring God” or some such thing? See, the problem is that you have no problem, it’s just God wanting to do it because of your prior assumptions, and nothing that tells us anything meaningful about it.

    Glen Davidson

  4. dazzdazz

    vjtorley: But if I have independent reasons for believing in D (contingency, fine-tuning etc.) then I could argue that since D is true, and since Pr(P|D) is not astronomically low (since there’s no strong reason why a Deity could not be personal)

    Can you please elaborate on this?
    If, for the sake of argument, we grant that the cosmos is contingent, why would the necessary being be a deity? It could be anything with the causal power to produce a contingent cosmos (KN has made this point before here). I would argue that, given what we know about personal beings, the probability that such a necessary being would be personal is in fact astronomically low.
    And why would fine tuning point to deism? If fine tuning was a thing, and a deity was necessary to dial in just the right fundamental constants and natural laws, such a deity could not explain why those laws and constants need to be so precisely constrained. If that’s the case, the purported deity can’t be the cause of the laws, and their “mathematical beauty”.

  5. petrushka

    Would it be rude to ask how a system could fail to be mathematically beautiful?

    Would it be unbeautiful if the fundamental constants were irrational or transcendental numbers? Would it be more beautiful if all the constants were rational numbers?

  6. dazzdazz

    petrushka:
    Would it be rude to ask how a system could fail to be mathematically beautiful?

    Would it be unbeautiful if the fundamental constants were irrational or transcendental numbers? Would it be more beautiful if all the constants were rational numbers?

    great point

  7. Neil Rickert

    petrushka: Would it be unbeautiful if the fundamental constants were irrational or transcendental numbers? Would it be more beautiful if all the constants were rational numbers?

    The more important point, I think, is that beauty is not a human independent concept. In the natural world, our sense of beauty and ugliness roughly match what is important to us as biological organisms.

    Vjt is, in effect, saying that beauty came first, and isn’t it amazing that the beautiful things turn out to be what is of value to us. The more likely alternative is that our sense of beauty developed to recognize what is already biologically important.

  8. RumraketRumraket

    Blas: Ok, then you have o agree that everything KN said in the post is meaningless.

    I haven’t followed your interaction, I just dropped in because I spotted something I found objectionable.

    That is partially wrong, the hammer fits the properties for hammer nails and not for sewing fabrics. When you build a hammer, if you are intelligent. you give to the hammer properties according to the scope.

    Sure, but that doesn’t mean the hammer has purpose. It just means that you, as a designer of the hammer, has some idea of how to make the hammer in order for it to be good at what you intend for it.

    That the hammer is good at hammering in nails with, doesn’t make that it’s purpose. Again, I don’t think the hammer truly “has purpose”, I think sentient beings have intentions for hammers. This is not a property of the hammer, but a property of those sentient beings.

    True, but then you have two purpose for yourselve, the purpose for which you have been created and your own purpose.

    No. I have thoughts about myself, and God has thoughts about me.

    If anything, only the first one is a property of me, the second one is a property of God. Neither of those mean I have purpose, it just means both God and me have thoughts and intentions about me.

    Your own purpose is thought by you the subject, so is a subjective purpose, the purpose of your creator is an objective purose because he puts in you, the object, the properties for the purpose.

    It makes no difference whether it is me, or it is God, that have intentions for me. In both cases, those are subjective thoughts. God’s subjective thoughts, and my subjective thoughts. In either case, they’re just subjective thoughts.

    I might have been created with properties that are conducive to what God intended for me, but that doesn’t mean that is really my purpose (strictly speaking, it doesn’t logically follow. In fact that connection cannot be made with a logical argument without begging the question). It’s still just God’s subjective opinion, no different in essence from my own.

  9. RumraketRumraket

    GlenDavidson:
    Rumraket,

    I think you’d have a hard time fully explaining the existence of hammers without bringing in intent and purpose.

    I agree with this. The properties and existence of hammers is much more sensible and easily explained, if we include the fact that hammers were made by humans who intended for them to be used for something specific, for which hammers are well suited.

    If that’s not “objective,” well, I doubt that anything really manages to avoid “subjectivity” anyway.

    I have to concede I struggle with this myself. What does it really mean for to say that purpose, value and meaning is objective? If we agree that me, or any sentient being, having intentions for something (events, objects, our lives) means that that entity then objectively has that purpose, then it becomes all the more a mystery to me, that theists are claiming there can’t be objective purpose without God.

    If all it takes is for God to think “X is for Y”, for X to objectively really be for Y, then it is so obvious as to be utterly trivial that there can also be objective purpose even without God. Then all it takes is there to be just ONE sentient beings, to have intentions about X.

  10. Blas

    Rumraket: Sure, but that doesn’t mean the hammer has purpose. It just means that you, as a designer of the hammer, has some idea of how to make t

    May be here we have a problem with the concept of “purpose”. If we take purpose as:

    commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future.
    may also refer to: Goal, a desired result or possible outcome

    Purpose is not about having ideas, it is about intent. As I said, you are partially right the purpose is the will of the constructor. The hammer is build in order to hammer nails that is what define the purpose of the hammer and is an objective purpose because there is no other “true” objective, may be others can give to the hammer the purpose of sit on it but that is not the constructor purpose. The constructor give to the hammer the properties that make him able to hammer nails that make him a hammer and you can infer the purpose of the constructor. You can have thoughs about hammer and chairs, and give them the purpose to both to hammer nails and sit on them, and also you can be succesuful to reach that goals but that will be your personal, subjective, ideas about the purpose of the hammer.

  11. DNA_Jock

    Vjtorley, you appear to have confused yourself, due to your sloppy rewriting of my definitions [My “T” (tri-omni God) and my “D” (a specifically indifferent creator) were mutually exclusive, a nice property for competing explanations to have; your “P” (personal Deity) is a subset of your “D” (a possibly indifferent Deity). That’s an invitation to confusion.]

    vjtorley: You write that Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P) is extremely high. But as I argued, the picture changes if we already know that D. I don’t see why Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P) should be extremely high. Without any evidence for D, however, I agree that the problem of evil would render belief in a benevolent personal God very difficult.

    Let’s use HIGH to denote Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P), which you agree is high, and
    LOW to denote Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P), which you claim could be much lower. Thus, apud vjt, LOW divided by HIGH should be a small number.
    However, LOW divided by HIGH reduces to Pr(D|E&not-P)/Pr(D|not-P)
    [this occurs thanks to your goofy redefinition of “D”, wherein Pr(D|P) = Pr(D|E&P) = 1. I assume you can reproduce the algebra yourself.]
    So what you are arguing is that, in the situation where we stipulate that there is no personal God, then the existence of gratuitous suffering makes the existence of an indifferent Deity less likely.
    Hardly.

  12. vjtorley

    Hi Neil Rickert,

    You write:

    The more important point, I think, is that beauty is not a human independent concept. In the natural world, our sense of beauty and ugliness roughly match what is important to us as biological organisms.

    I have to respectfully disagree. You might like to read the following short posts of mine:

    Why the mathematical beauty we find in the cosmos is an objective “fact” which points to a Designer

    Beauty and the multiverse

    See also section 6 of Dr. Robin Colllins’ article,

    Universe or Multiverse? A Theistic Perspective (Multiverses, Design, and the Beauty of the Laws of Nature).

    I hope that helps.

  13. dazzdazz

    I’ve made this (obvious) point before.
    Apparently complexity is evidence of ID, and simplicity, you guessed it, also counts as evidence for ID. That’s just how omnipotent beings roll, you know

  14. waltowalto

    Neil Rickert: In the natural world, our sense of beauty and ugliness roughly match what is important to us as biological organisms.

    What is the basis for this claim?

  15. vjtorley

    Hi DNA_Jock,

    I wrote:

    You write that Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P) is extremely high. But as I argued, the picture changes if we already know that D. I don’t see why Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P) should be extremely high.

    You replied:

    Let’s use HIGH to denote Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P), which you agree is high, and
    LOW to denote Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P), which you claim could be much lower. Thus, apud vjt, LOW divided by HIGH should be a small number.
    However, LOW divided by HIGH reduces to Pr(D|E&not-P)/Pr(D|not-P)

    I’d just like to make a couple of points. First, I don’t think Pr(E|P) is near-zero. I don’t see any compelling reason why a personal God should not tolerate the existence of temporary gratuitous evil. If I had to put a number on it, I might say Pr(E|P) is about 0.2 and possibly more than that. Thus, I’m not saying that HIGH, or Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P), is extremely high. I agree that it’s high, that’s all. Even if Pr(E|not-P) is 1, then HIGH is no more than 5, if we suppose that Pr(E|P) is 0.2.

    Also, I’m not saying that LOW, or Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P), is a small number. I would say is that it’s more than 1 (since Pr(E|D&not-P) is surely greater than Pr(E|D&P)) and that it’s less than HIGH. If HIGH is 5 then LOW is somewhere between 1 and 5.

    Let’s return to the calculation.

    LOW divided by HIGH will be: [Pr(E|D&not-P)/Pr(E|D&P)] / [Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P)].

    Multiplying top and bottom by Pr(E|P) we get:
    [Pr(E|D&not-P) x Pr(E|P) / Pr(E|D&P)] / [Pr(E|not-P)]

    Multiplying top and bottom by Pr(E|D&P) we get:
    [Pr(E|D&not-P) x Pr(E|P)] / [Pr(E|not-P) x Pr(E|D&P)]

    But Pr(E|P) = Pr(E|D&P), so these factors cancel, and we are left with:
    Pr(E|D&not-P) / Pr(E|not-P),
    rather than Pr(D|E&not-P)/Pr(D|not-P).

    This ratio (LOW / HIGH) will be less than 1, if the absence of any kind of God (whether personal or impersonal) makes the existence of gratuitous evil even more likely than the existence of an indifferent God, which I think it does.

    You evidently disagree. Fair enough. In that case, I would simply go back to my original point, which is that while Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P) is somewhat high (as I said, I’d estimate it at around 5), Pr(S|P)/Pr(S|not-P) and Pr(B|P)/Pr(B|not-P) are much, much higher, where S stands for the proposition that sentient beings exist, and B stands for the proposition that beings who can appreciate beauty (including “mathematical beauty”) exist. That’s all I need for my argument to work.

  16. DNA_Jock

    vjtorley: But Pr(E|P) = Pr(E|D&P), so these factors cancel, and we are left with:
    Pr(E|D&not-P) / Pr(E|not-P),
    rather than Pr(D|E&not-P)/Pr(D|not-P).

    This ratio (LOW / HIGH) will be less than 1, if the absence of any kind of God (whether personal or impersonal) makes the existence of gratuitous evil even more likely than the existence of an indifferent God, which I think it does.

    Oh dear. Maybe you do need help with the algebra. Both reductions are correct, (I used Bayes theorem to invert the conditionals, you did not), but you have floundered when trying to put Pr(E|D&not-P) / Pr(E|not-P) << 1 into words.

    As I noted, Pr(D|E&not-P)/Pr(D|not-P). << 1 is claiming that

    So what you are arguing is that, in the situation where we stipulate that there is no personal God, then the existence of gratuitous suffering makes the existence of an indifferent Deity less likely.

    Which I don’t buy for a minute.
    Putting your re-arrangement into words would be:

    So what you are arguing is that, in the situation where we stipulate that there is no personal God, then the existence of an indifferent Deity makes the existence of gratuitous suffering less likely.

    See the similarity?
    Neither equation contains any term that can be described as “the absence of any kind of God (whether personal or impersonal)”. That would be “not-D”.
    Here’s a tip: Pr(D&notP) is less than or equal to Pr(notP). Just ask Linda.

    And your original point is still just as wrong as it was originally, having received zero support in the interim.

  17. Neil Rickert

    walto: What is the basis for this claim?

    Personal experience. Note that I did use “roughly”. It isn’t a perfect match. And my comment was intended to be restricted to raw nature, so excluding human art.

  18. Neil Rickert

    vjtorley: You might like to read the following short posts of mine:

    Why the mathematical beauty we find in the cosmos is an objective “fact” which points to a Designer

    A nice piece of fiction.

    Beauty and the multiverse

    Your argument is based on the premise that laws of nature exist independent of people. I disagree with that. I see our scientific laws as human inventions.

    I see the world in itself as human independent. But the world that we describe is dependent on our invented ways of interacting with that world.

  19. colewd

    dazz,

    And why would fine tuning point to deism? If fine tuning was a thing, and a deity was necessary to dial in just the right fundamental constants and natural laws, such a deity could not explain why those laws and constants need to be so precisely constrained. If that’s the case, the purported deity can’t be the cause of the laws, and their “mathematical beauty”.

    How would you propose that computers work without constrained laws of nature?

    a deity was necessary to dial in just the right fundamental constants and natural laws,

    What do you mean by dial in?

  20. petrushka

    Neil Rickert: Your argument is based on the premise that laws of nature exist independent of people. I disagree with that. I see our scientific laws as human inventions.

    The simplest argument for this is that Laws of nature are approximations. Even the much touted quantum electrodynamics doesn’t mesh with gravity.

  21. dazzdazz

    colewd:
    dazz,

    How would you propose that computers work without constrained laws of nature?

    What do you mean by dial in?

    What do computers have to do with any of that? My point is that, if these natural laws & constants are the only ones that produce a viable universe (FT argument), then God couldn’t have designed them, and ultimately can’t explain their mathematical beauty or “the nature of nature” so to speak. If OTOH God could have used any other set of laws and constants, then fine-tuning is just an illusion. FT is a self defeating argument. This may be like the 10th time I’ve said this, so sorry about the repetition everyone.

  22. colewd

    dazz,

    What do computers have to do with any of that? My point is that, if these natural laws & constants are the only ones that produce a viable universe (FT argument), then God couldn’t have designed them,

    How would you support this claim or assertion?

    This universe allows for life and that life to produce complex designs. The values of the laws of nature may have alternatives. Precise repeatability is, however, a requirement for what we are observing.

    Is your claim that this repeatability is a random accident?

  23. dazzdazz

    colewd: How would you support this claim or assertion?

    FFS Bill. If God couldn’t have created the universe any other way (that’s what the fine tuning argument is) then the way natural laws work can’t be a design decision. Do you understand that?

  24. colewd

    dazz,

    FFS Bill. If God couldn’t have created the universe any other way (that’s what the fine tuning argument is) then the way natural laws work can’t be a design decision. Do you understand that?

    Fine tuning is one aspect of the design. You can have a different finely tuned design. A HP personal computer is finely tuned and so is and Apple Mac. Are they the same designs?

    No, repeatability is an observation

    What do you think is the cause of this observation?

  25. colewd

    dazz,

    You still don’t understand what I’m saying, or even the FT argument. Whatever.

    The fine tuning argument is the fine tuning argument. Changing it to “God could not make the universe any other way” is creating a straw-man.

  26. dazzdazz

    colewd:
    dazz,

    The fine tuning argument is the fine tuning argument.Changing it to “God could not make the universe any other way” is creating a straw-man.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_Universe

    No straw man: “The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can occur only when certain universal dimensionless physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is understood”

    Get it now? Not holding my breath

  27. colewd

    dazz,

    “The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can occur only when certain universal dimensionless physical constants lie within a very narrow range

    This assumes that the universe is made of protons neutrons and electrons which is the current design strategy. The above does not say this is the only way a life providing universe can be designed. It says given its CURRENT DESIGN if you alter a parameter slightly the universe as we know it would not exist.

    You have tried to change the argument from one about altering parameters of an existent design to one of the current design being the only possible design.

    The logic does not hold up except as an attempt at a straw-man argument.

  28. Gregory

    Something has happened. It appears Vincent has made a discovery. It is great to see this progress. We should celebrate the ‘forward steps’ as they are clearly with intention and purposeful; a non-nihilistic feast of gladness for this advance in his understanding to the way out of the ‘expelled’ territory of the game board. He finally realised that “the picture changes if we already know that D.” 😉

    Now, Vincent, continue to flip that script, apply McLuhan principles – the Medium is the Message – at least they’re out there by a non-Seattlist, definitely self-admitted non-scientist, not even an aspiring one, et voila! – already something non-IDist on the brew. So non-IDist, so post-DI true that it uses and explores entirely ‘other’ language than what the foggy dew from Seattle continues to spew.

    Sorry to read it continues to stick on you – that ‘Intelligent Design’ political concept – like glue.

  29. vjtorley

    Hi DNA_Jock,

    I am perfectly well aware that Pr(D&not-P) is less than or equal to Pr(not-P), thank you very much.

    You seem to think I am claiming that Pr(D | E& not-P) / Pr(D | not-P) is much less than 1. I thought I made it perfectly clear in my last post that I’m not making that claim, when I argued that I thought it would be somewhat less than 1, and when I acknowledged that you might legitimately disagree with me about the value of the ratio LOW / HIGH. My comment was: “Fair enough.”

    You failed to address the argument in my final paragraph:

    In that case, I would simply go back to my original point, which is that while Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P) is somewhat high (as I said, I’d estimate it at around 5), Pr(S|P)/Pr(S|not-P) and Pr(B|P)/Pr(B|not-P) are much, much higher, where S stands for the proposition that sentient beings exist, and B stands for the proposition that beings who can appreciate beauty (including “mathematical beauty”) exist. That’s all I need for my argument to work.

    You also failed to address the argument in my first paragraph:

    I don’t think Pr(E|P) is near-zero. I don’t see any compelling reason why a personal God should not tolerate the existence of temporary gratuitous evil. If I had to put a number on it, I might say Pr(E|P) is about 0.2 and possibly more than that. Thus, I’m not saying that HIGH, or Pr(E|not-P)/Pr(E|P), is extremely high. I agree that it’s high, that’s all. Even if Pr(E|not-P) is 1, then HIGH is no more than 5, if we suppose that Pr(E|P) is 0.2.

  30. vjtorley

    dazz,

    You quote Wikipedia as saying:

    “The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can occur only when certain universal dimensionless physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is understood.”

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with Wikipedia here. The second part (after “so that…”) is correct, but not the first. There may very well be other, very different sets of values of the universe’s fundamental constants which are (a) life-friendly and (b) not fragile, but robust – meaning that if they were altered slightly, life would still remain possible. What the fine-tuning argument says is that in our neighborhood, that’s not the case: curiously, the fundamental constants are very sensitive to change. It then invokes the “fly-on-the-wall” argument to infer that this arrangement is unlikely to be due to chance, and that the universe is most likely a put-up job. This is thee argument that needs to be addressed.

    Before you attack the fine-tuning argument, you should also have a look at my 2013 post, Night Vision: A new version of the fine-tuning argument. I’ll just quote from the beginning:

    Philosophy Professor John T. Roberts, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has recently put forward a new version of the fine-tuning argument, entitled, Fine-Tuning and the Infrared Bull’s-Eye (Philosophical Studies 160(2):287-303, 2012). What makes Roberts’ version of the argument particularly interesting is that it is not only much clearer in its formulation than other versions, but also invulnerable to the standard objections that are usually leveled against the fine-tuning argument. As Roberts puts it in the Abstract:

    I argue that the standard way of formalizing the fine-tuning argument for design is flawed, and I present an alternative formalization. On the alternative formalization, the existence of life is not treated as the evidence that confirms design; instead it is treated as part of the background knowledge, while the fact that fine tuning is required for life serves as the evidence. I argue that the alternative better captures the informal line of thought that gives the fine-tuning argument its intuitive plausibility, and I show that the alternative formalization avoids all of the most prominent objections to the fine-tuning argument, including the objection from observation selection effects, the problem of old evidence, the problem of non-normalizable probability measures and a further objection due to Monton. I conclude that the alternative formalization is the one that attention should be focused on.

  31. dazzdazz

    vjtorley: Sorry, but I have to disagree with Wikipedia here. The second part (after “so that…”) is correct, but not the first. There may very well be other, very different sets of values of the universe’s fundamental constants which are (a) life-friendly and (b) not fragile, but robust – meaning that if they were altered slightly, life would still remain possible. What the fine-tuning argument says is that in our neighborhood, that’s not the case: curiously, the fundamental constants are very sensitive to change. It then invokes the “fly-on-the-wall” argument to infer that this arrangement is unlikely to be due to chance, and that the universe is most likely a put-up job. This is thee argument that needs to be addressed.

    OK, but it doesn’t change my argument. Let me try again:

    Was fine tuning a design decision or not? I mean, the fact that, according to your definition, the constants are “very sensitive to change”, was that a design decision?

    Does God get to pick those things or not?

    If he does, FT is just an illusion: he could just as well have designed the laws so that all combinations of constants work just fine
    If he doesn’t, he’s not the designer of the laws themselves, or their beauty. The laws themselves are necessary and sufficient to explain how nature works, making God completely superfluous

    Works a lot like the Euthyphro dilemma

  32. vjtorley

    dazz,

    I’d now like to address your key argument:

    My point is that, if these natural laws & constants are the only ones that produce a viable universe (FT argument), then God couldn’t have designed them, and ultimately can’t explain their mathematical beauty or “the nature of nature” so to speak. If OTOH God could have used any other set of laws and constants, then fine-tuning is just an illusion. FT is a self defeating argument. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

    The second part does not follow. It would only follow if you said: “If OTOH God could have used any other similar set of laws and constants, then fine-tuning is just an illusion.” But the whole point of the fine-tuning argument is that while there are other sets of laws and constants that yield a viable universe, there are no sets of laws and constants slightly different to our own that yield a viable universe.

    You may also be wondering why God would design a viable universe using a sets of laws and constants that was so fragile, and that was balanced on a knife-edge. This is answered in the article by Roberts which I linked to above. In brief, Roberts contends that even if it were unlikely that a Designer would make a finely-tuned cosmos that was balanced on a knife-edge, rather than another kind of cosmos, the occurrence of fine-tuning is still more likely if the parameters describing our universe are set by a Designer than if the parameters are set by chance. He adds:

    It might be helpful to consider an analogy. I have an uncle who is not at all famous, is not a model, and does not work in the computer industry or know anybody who does. So if you notice that my screen saver features a picture of my uncle, you can reasonably be quite confident that I set up my own screen saver, instead of just using the one that came pre-installed on the computer. This doesn’t change if you also happen to know that my uncle and I are not particularly close, so that it is rather unlikely that I would choose a picture of him for a screen saver if I were setting it up myself. That doesn’t matter: As unlikely as it is that my uncle’s photo would be in my screen saver had I set it up myself, it is surely far more unlikely that his photo would be in my screen saver had my screen saver been the one provided by the manufacturer. (After all, I am at least related to the guy.) So when you see my uncle’s photo there, you have excellent grounds for favoring the hypothesis that I set up my own screen saver over the hypothesis that I used the one that came pre-installed – even though what you see is quite surprising, given the hypothesis thus favored.

    I might also point out that if we assume that one of the Designer’s motives, in making our cosmos, was to advertise His existence to intelligent creatures living in the cosmos, then making a universe that was balanced on a knife-edge would be a good way to do that. (No, I’m not saying it would be the only way, or even the best way.) That alone makes it choice-worthy, and hence we can say that a fine-tuned universe is the sort of universe a Designer might plausibly choose to create.

  33. vjtorley

    Hi Neil Rickert,

    You write:

    Your argument is based on the premise that laws of nature exist independent of people. I disagree with that. I see our scientific laws as human inventions.

    I’m having a hard time understanding your view. Are you simply saying that our scientific laws are the best approximation to the truth that our finite brains can come up with (making them nearly true but not quite), or are you making the more radical claim that the laws of Nature simply do not exist, period – whether in a Platonic sense, as mathematical entities in a realm of forms “out there,” or in a weaker Aristotelian sense, as descriptions of the essential properties of different kinds of things?

    If you mean the latter, then how do you explain the everyday observation that the laws of Nature cannot be defied? (Try as we might, we can’t send a signal faster than the speed of light, for instance.)

    But if you mean the former, then you still have to explain the fact that the search for mathematical beauty in Nature has repeatedly yielded useful scientific results (see the articles I linked to). In a universe that was generated by mindless processes, we wouldn’t expect that at all.

  34. GlenDavidson

    I might also point out that if we assume that one of the Designer’s motives, in making our cosmos, was to advertise His existence to intelligent creatures living in the cosmos, then making a universe that was balanced on a knife-edge would be a good way to do that. (No, I’m not saying it would be the only way, or even the best way.)

    It’s not even a legitimate way. So why not?

    You have an apparent effect. That leads to the question of cause. How is it that you think “God” is the automatic default?

    Glen Davidson

  35. GlenDavidson

    vjtorley: But if you mean the former, then you still have to explain the fact that the search for mathematical beauty in Nature has repeatedly yielded useful scientific results (see the articles I linked to). In a universe that was generated by mindless processes, we wouldn’t expect that at all.

    And we’d expect it in a universe that was generated by God?

    Why?

    What observations of God led you to the expectations you have for the universe?

    Glen Davidson

  36. dazzdazz

    vjtorley: The second part does not follow. It would only follow if you said: “If OTOH God could have used any other similar set of laws and constants, then fine-tuning is just an illusion.” But the whole point of the fine-tuning argument is that while there are other sets of laws and constants that yield a viable universe, there are no sets of laws and constants slightly different to our own that yield a viable universe.

    OK, but again, that’s not really important at all to the point I’m trying to make.

    vjtorley: You may also be wondering why God would design a viable universe using a sets of laws and constants that was so fragile, and that was balanced on a knife-edge. This is answered in the article by Roberts which I linked to above. In brief, Roberts contends that even if it were unlikely that a Designer would make a finely-tuned cosmos that was balanced on a knife-edge, rather than another kind of cosmos, the occurrence of fine-tuning is still more likely if the parameters describing our universe are set by a Designer than if the parameters are set by chance

    Why should the alternative be “set by chance”? Also, It’s not true all that points to a designer, not one that can choose to design nature anyway He wants. If He can in fact design the laws so that they are “balanced on a knife-edge” or not balanced on a knife-edge at all, you have no reason to believe that one option points to a designer more than the other. We have no background knowledge of designers picking laws and constants.

    vjtorley: I might also point out that if we assume that one of the Designer’s motives, in making our cosmos, was to advertise His existence to intelligent creatures living in the cosmos, then making a universe that was balanced on a knife-edge would be a good way to do that. (No, I’m not saying it would be the only way, or even the best way.) That alone makes it choice-worthy, and hence we can say that a fine-tuned universe is the sort of universe a Designer might plausibly choose to create.

    Problem with this is that this purported designer also gave us the ability to think logically. Making a universe that just looks like it’s balanced on a knife edge when it’s not is not a very smart way to go about convincing anyone. After all, if you are right, he could change any constant to any value and have the universe keep going all the same. He could randomize the constants every other day if he wanted to, perhaps every 25th of december to make it crystal clear He’s the Christian God. Wouldn’t that be a better way of sending a clear message of His presence?

  37. dazzdazz

    vjtorley: You may also be wondering why God would design a viable universe using a sets of laws and constants that was so fragile, and that was balanced on a knife-edge

    By the way. How would the math work in a different design of laws and constants? What does that tell us about the beauty and simplicity of the math of designing universes, when you can have any number of conflicting mathematical models describe viable universes? I mean the laws of physics heavily rely on math. The FT argument does too. If you allow other models, you’re essentially denying the consistency of the mathematics in all of them. It’s just chaos, anything goes. There’s nothing intrinsically simple or beautiful in this view of math. I doesn’t even make mathematical sense!

  38. petrushka

    One of the working hypotheses of physics is that all the constants are derived from some original symmetry breaking event. The relationships are co-dependent, and proceed from an early stochastic event.

  39. dazzdazz

    petrushka:
    One of the working hypotheses of physics is that all the constants are derived from some original symmetry breaking event. The relationships are co-dependent, and proceed from an early stochastic event.

    Who cares about scientific hypothesis when you can appeal to cosmic super-minds that just happen to want to produce whatever we observe?

  40. Neil Rickert

    vjtorley: Are you simply saying that our scientific laws are the best approximation to the truth that our finite brains can come up with (making them nearly true but not quite), or are you making the more radical claim that the laws of Nature simply do not exist, period – whether in a Platonic sense, as mathematical entities in a realm of forms “out there,” or in a weaker Aristotelian sense, as descriptions of the essential properties of different kinds of things?

    No, I’m definitely not saying any of those alternatives.

    Perhaps I should add that I am neither a platonist nor an essentialist.

    Scientific laws express relations between concepts. I’m saying that the concepts themselves are human inventions. And therefore the laws are human inventions.

    …, then how do you explain the everyday observation that the laws of Nature cannot be defied?

    Very often, the laws are actually the definitions of the relevant concepts. And, as a result, the laws are analytic truths. That’s why they cannot be defied.

    But if you mean the former, then you still have to explain the fact that the search for mathematical beauty in Nature has repeatedly yielded useful scientific results (see the articles I linked to).

    That’s a really weird thing to say. Mathematics is not an empirical science. There is no search for mathematics or mathematical beauty in nature.

    In a universe that was generated by mindless processes, we wouldn’t expect that at all.

    The universe may have been generated by mindless processes (if it can even be said to have been generated). But it was conceptualized by human minds. It does not seem surprising that mathematical ideas were used in the inventing of a suitable conceptualization

  41. DNA_Jock

    vjtorley,

    Maybe we can resume this conversation at a later date. Right now, there is evidently too much else going on for you to keep track.
    Enjoy!

  42. dazzdazz

    vjtorley: You may also be wondering why God would design a viable universe using a sets of laws and constants that was so fragile, and that was balanced on a knife-edge. This is answered in the article by Roberts

    Finished reading your article. I don’t see anything addressing my contention. Note that I’m not wondering or questioning why would God do anything, that seems a waste of time to me. My contention is that, if a universe that is not sensitive to change in constants is possible, then it’s simply not true that fine tuning is a requirement for life or anything else

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