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Seven Questions for Professor Carroll

Recently, the physicist Sean Carroll, Senior Research Associate in Physics at the California Institute of Technology, composed an article entitled Does the Universe need God? for The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (eds. James B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett, Wiley-Blackwell, due for publication in 2012). There are lots of things I’d like to say in response to Professor Carroll’s article, but instead, I’ve decided to condense my remarks into a set of seven questions, which I hope Professor Carroll will be kind enough to answer.

1. In your article, you’ve argued that the ultimate explanation of why events happen is that things are simply obeying the laws of nature – in particular, the laws of physics. What do you mean by the term “law of nature”? Specifically, are the laws of nature (a) rules which prescribe the behavior of objects, or (b) mere regularities which describe the behavior of objects?

2. Do you believe that rules, which prescribe the behavior of objects, are a fundamental and irreducible feature of the cosmos, even in the absence of human observers?

3. If your answer to question 2 is “Yes,” then what do you mean when you claim in your article that things in the universe obey rules – you describe them as “obeying the laws of physics” – while at the same time denying the existence of a Mind that made these rules? How can rules exist in the absence of a mind?

4. If your answer to question 2 is “No,” and rules are not a fundamental feature of the cosmos, then why is it rational for scientists to believe that the universe will continue to conform to the laws of nature in the future, instead of violating them? Specifically, why should I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow at the forecast time, when there is no rule saying that it should rise, and when there are innumerable ways in which it could fail to do so?

I hope you will resist the temptation to answer: “Because it’s simpler.” It’s one thing to try and order the observations you’ve already made in the simplest way you can. That’s what scientists do. But it would be naive to expect the universe to go on behaving simply in the future, simply because it would fit your favorite theory better if it did. That would be an anthropomorphic projection of human wishes onto the cosmos. In a cosmos without rules, it simply makes no sense to say that our remarkably lucky run of sunrises every day for the past 4.5 billion years should continue in future, and it would surely be very surprising if they did continue.

I hope you will also resist the temptation to answer: “It’s rational to believe that the cosmos behaves in a reliable fashion, because we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t.” That’s a perfectly good reason to believe that the cosmos has behaved reliably in the past, but it doesn’t constitute a reason for believing that it will behave reliably in the future.

5. You’ve stated that “All else being equal, a simpler scientific theory is preferred over a more complicated one,” and you’ve defined simplicity in terms of Kolmogorov simplicity: “The simplicity of a theory is a statement about how compactly we can describe the formal structure.” All very well and good. Now, supposing the cosmos to be the work of an infinitely wise and benevolent Creator, would you agree that we should expect the laws of the cosmos to exhibit the maximum degree of Kolmogorov simplicity compatible with the emergence of free and intelligent human beings?

6. You’ve written that “the much-more-than-anthropic tuning that characterizes the entropy of the universe is a bigger problem for the God hypothesis than for the multiverse” and you add that “It’s unclear why God would do so much more fine-tuning of the state of the universe than seems to have been necessary.” For my part, I will readily acknowledge that the much-more-than-anthropic tuning which we observe is an extremely odd fact, which requires an explanation. Would you agree that if scientists discovered that a universe with much-more-than-anthropic tuning has a much higher degree of Kolmogorov simplicity than a universe with just enough entropy to permit the emergence of intelligent human beings, this discovery would constitute a striking confirmation of the hypothesis that the cosmos is the work of an infinitely wise and benevolent Creator? Would you also agree that the best way to answer questions like “Why does God favor three generations of elementary particles, with a wide spectrum of masses?” is to try and establish whether a universe built in this way exhibits a higher degree of Kolmogorov simplicity than one which does not?

7. Using scientific terminology, can you rigorously define a set of laws of nature which: (a) exhibit at least the same degree of Kolmogorov simplicity as the laws of our own cosmos; and (b) entail the emergence of intelligent human beings who are invariably kind and never evil, and whose virtuous acts are always rewarded – as in the hypothetical world you described in the final paragraph of your article, Does the Universe need God? If not, then how can you consistently claim that the laws of our cosmos – which are at least friendly enough to permit the emergence and continuation in existence of intelligent human beings with libertarian free will – constitute evidence against the existence of an infinitely wise and benevolent God?

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8 Responses to Seven Questions for Professor Carroll

  1. Hi vj!

    You should mail this off to Blackwell!

  2. Hi Mung,

    Thanks for the compliment. Actually, I’ve emailed Professor Carroll and invited him to respond to my post, so I’m hoping he will.

  3. I don’t think these questions are all that good (if you’re trying to trip Carroll up on his atheism). Also, I think you should have condensed some of these into conditionals so that each question is a challenge. e.g. 1 and 2 should have been condensed into question 3., so that it looked like “If x and If y, then how…?”). As it stands, you have 7 questions but only 3 challenges.

    1. Yes
    2. Yes
    3. This is no better than asking “How can rules exist in the presence of a mind?”; it’s just weird (and Carroll hardly has to use the anthropic verbiage of “rules”; he can just talk about “properties”). It’s *your* job to make a problem for Carroll. Can you turn this into a deductive argument without using premises you couldn’t possibly defend?
    4. This is an alright question, but Carroll might not immediately see how theism better handles the problem of induction. It’s also odd that you camp out on this argument for theism (articulated best by John Foster, imo) when there are more mainstream and relevant arguments out there you could have pressed.
    5. No. I have no idea why we should agree to expect the *maximum* degree of Kolmogorov simplicity on theism (even if such an observation would fit better on theism than atheism). Christian philosophers don’t even think this. At *best*, we’d expect things to simple *enough* for humans to discover them (e.g. to maximize or contribute to”soul-making”), but that could compatible with a range of possibilities.
    6. Yes
    7. Where does Carroll say they constitute evidence against God? He writes: “As another thought experiment, imagine a hypothetical world in which there was no evil, people were invariably kind, fewer natural disasters occurred, and virtue was always rewarded.” The next sentence makes his point: “Would inhabitants of that world consider these features to be evidence against the existence of God? If not, why don’t we consider the contrary conditions to be such evidence?” This isn’t a case against’ God’s existence, just a case against God’s being a scientific theory (as the section title says).

    In a nutshell, the only of the three questions here that seems potentially fruitful is “How do you answer the problem of induction as an atheist?”, but I think you would have been better and more relevant to his article to put forward things like Pruss’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason”, e.g. in response to Carroll’s saying “States of affairs only require an explanation if we have some contrary expectation, some reason to be surprised that they hold.”

    If Carroll is going to spend any of his valuable time answering questions from proponents of theism, I’d prefer it to go a qualified professional philosopher of religion. I feel its a little selfish to use your influence at Uncommon Descent to pressure Carroll into answering this. Don’t take this the wrong way, it’s just my opinion.

  4. Hi BlakeG,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    1. I readily admit that I could have condensed the list of questions, but I wasn’t writing exclusively for Professor Carroll. I was also writing for Uncommon Descent readers, who might prefer to see the way in which my line of argument is unfolding, step by step, and consider the implications of each option, especially in the first four steps. Another reason I had for posing seven questions is that I happen to like the number seven :)

    2. You seem to think I should have adopted a more aggressive tone – “It’s *your* job to make a problem for Carroll” – and you ask whether I can turn my point about rules requiring a mind into a deductive argument. The short answer is No. My point is simply that the term “rule” makes no sense in the absence of a mind that can impose rules, just as the notion of “theft” makes no sense in the absence of property. Only a mind, it seems, can serve to make the notion of a rule intelligible. To me this seems obvious enough; but if Professor Carroll thinks otherwise, then I’d be interested in hearing why. It’s possible that he might have some insight on this question that I haven’t thought of. That’s why I’m adopting a more open, less aggressive approach.

    You also suggest that Carroll might try to evade my dilemma by replacing talk of rules with “properties”. That won’t work. We can ask the same question again: are they properties that the universe simply happens to have, or properties that it should have? If the former, then the problem of induction re-surfaces; if the latter, then where does the “should” come from?

    The real question I’m asking is: can we characterize the cosmos in terminology that is free of norms of any kind?

    3. Thank you for informing me about John Foster’s articulation of the problem of induction. I hadn’t heard of his work until you mentioned it, so I am very grateful to hear of a philosopher who has explored the issues fully. My own perspective is based on Dr. Robert Koons’ essay, “A New Look at the Cosmological Argument”, in which he raises the problem in connection with the multiverse. Another strong influence on my thinking is G.K. Chesterton’s chapter, “The Ethics of Elfland” in his 1908 classic, “Orthodoxy.” I do think the problem of induction is a huge problem for any atheist, and I make no apologies for saying so. In the absence of God, there is no rational warrant for expecting the universe to go on behaving reliably. That’s just wishful thinking on the part of atheists – the equivalent of whistling in the dark.

    You also ask why I didn’t press “more mainstream and relevant arguments” when questioning Professor Carroll. Short answer: from years of debating atheists, I know what would impress him and what wouldn’t. “First Cause” arguments would leave him cold, because he regards the notion of a cause as rather vague (see point 4 below). Arguments based on design evidently don’t impress him either: he discounts even fine-tuning. Carroll apparently rejects the argument from motion as based on bad Aristotelian physics, and although I think the argument has some merit, I think Carroll would probably respond, if pressed, that there is some ultimate level of physical reality – perhaps the laws of nature themselves – which is timeless and which therefore qualifies as an Unmoved Mover of sorts.

    When attacking Carroll’s position, I chose to hone in on Carroll’s concept of a law of nature because that, as I see it, is his Achilles’ heel. It’s a concept he takes for granted, but I believe he needs to think it through more carefully and ask himself: “What is a law of nature, and what makes it binding?”

    4. I am of course familiar with the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which you cite, but I’d hate to use it in a debate with a physicist – particularly one who’s versed in theological arguments, as Professor Carroll is. Here are a few reasons why:

    (a) Which version to use? You mentioned Pruss’s version, but there have been many others – ranging from stronger versions which say there’s a sufficient reason for everything to weaker versions which restrict it to contingent facts (as Pruss sensibly does). Even the weaker versions have their problems: (i) what counts as a sufficient reason? (ii) what about compatibility with free will? and (iii) does the principle apply to aggregates of contingent facts as well? Pruss’s formulation strikes me as quite sensible, but Pruss’s statement, “sufficient reason needs to be understood not as ‘necessitating reason’ but as ‘sufficient explanation,’ where we understand that a causal account is always sufficiently explanatory, even when indeterministic” would strike Carroll as rather ad hoc – tailor-made to accommodate belief in libertarian free will while also fitting with our rational intuition that brute facts require an explanation of some sort.

    (b) Quantum indeterminacy: we have virtual particles popping in and out of existence all the time. To be sure, the quantum vacuum isn’t absolute nothingness – it’s still a something of some sort, since it obeys the laws of physics and has a very small but measurable energy. But the upshot of all this is that we have to redefine our concepts of something and nothing. Carroll would probably reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason as being based on imprecise terminology. Suppose we demand a cause for every contingent fact: what exactly is a cause? To a physicist’s mind, it’s a messy term.

    (c) In his article, Carroll made plain his preference for explaining events in terms of the laws of nature rather than underlying causes:

    It’s often convenient, in the context of everyday life, for us to refer to this or that event as having some particular cause. But this is just shorthand for what’s really going on, namely: things are obeying the laws of physics.

    Since Carroll is a “laws” man, I chose to address him on his own terms.

    5. You write that you “have no idea why we should agree to expect the *maximum* degree of Kolmogorov simplicity on theism (even if such an observation would fit better on theism than atheism).” Many religious believers would agree with you – it seems at first blush to limit God’s freedom. Not so; all it means is that if God decides to make a universe in which intelligent human beings with libertarian free will emerge, then He has to do it in a way befitting a Deity. Because God has a perfect Mind, and everything He does, He does in the best possible way relative to His overall plan. Notice that I mentioned “human beings”: conceivably God could have created some other race of intelligent animals, but I’m supposing He chose to create humans. I also stipulated that human beings had to emerge and possess libertarian free will – which means I’m not talking about static perfect worlds such as Heaven, in which there is no possibility of suffering. All I’m saying is that if there is a maximally beautiful way of generating the life-forms in our cosmos (where “beauty” is defined in terms of mathematical elegance, or how compactly we can describe the formal structure of the laws of the cosmos), then God has to do it that way. If there are several maximally equivalent ways, God would have to choose one of them.

    Recently physicist Garrett Lisi has proposed an “exceptionally simple theory of everything” based on the geometry of E8, which is supposed to be the most beautiful shape in mathematics. I like his way of thinking, so I hope he’s right. I think that’s how religious believers should be doing physics – by asking themselves, “How would a master mathematician have made the laws of the cosmos?” In other words, how would God have done it? Einstein was not an orthodox believer, but he sometimes used this method when formulating his theories.

    Please note that I am only talking about the laws of the cosmos, not the entire suite of events that occur in it. Of course I believe that God manipulates events as well, when He inputs information into the cosmos to generate complex life-forms. Some ID proponents are front-loaders; for my part, I’m rather impressed by physicist Rob Sheldon’s argument that front-loading wouldn’t work. But even here, I’d be looking for the pasth of least effort: what would be the easiest and most efficient way for a Deity to add the information required to generate complex life?

    On top of that, of course, God also works miracles.

    6. You ask where Carroll says that the laws of our cosmos constitute evidence against the existence of an infinitely wise and benevolent God. OK. How about this sentence in Carroll’s essay: “In numerous ways, the world around us is more like what we would expect from a dysteleological set of uncaring laws of nature than from a higher power with an interest in our welfare.” If Carroll thinks the laws of nature are apparently “uncaring” and even “dysteleological”, then I’d say that for him they constitute evidence against</i the existence of an infinitely wise and benevolent God.

    7. Professor Carroll has been informed that he is welcome to write his own guest post on Uncommon Descent if he wishes. I sincerely hope he says yes, but he's under no pressure to do so. If he's too busy to respond, that's fine. I chose to put up this post, because I happen to know that he's looking for some feedback on his article before it goes into print next year.

  5. UPDATE:

    Professor Carroll has kindly emailed me, and he tells me that he is currently busy in France at a conference, but will try to get back to me next week. I will keep readers posted.

  6. vjtorley,

    You say,

    Quantum indeterminacy: we have virtual particles popping in and out of existence all the time. To be sure, the quantum vacuum isn’t absolute nothingness – it’s still a something of some sort, since it obeys the laws of physics and has a very small but measurable energy. But the upshot of all this is that we have to redefine our concepts of something and nothing.

    I hear this a lot, but I think it’s wrongheaded. I understand that virtual particles may be treated as “popping in and out of existence” in a sense. But it’s not as if non-existence is some place, and we can go to check if all the virtual particles are there when they’re not “in existence”.

    Now, someone may make the argument that due to various considerations these particles can’t be ‘coming from’ some other physical thing or place. On the other hand, unless one is immediately discounting said particles’ appearance and disappearance involving a non-physical cause, I don’t see why we “have to redefine our concepts of something and nothing”. Either the vacuum is not ‘nothing’ (no redefinition necessary) or it is, and we’re left with the options of utter nothing or a non-physical cause.

  7. Scordova, I hope you don’t mind if I take these in reverse order. (using your numbering), because I wanted to say something about 7 first.

    7. While I would have asked different questions, my closing “who do you think you are?” comment was ill placed; it seems you *are* a professional philosopher. Sorry sorry. I’m also glad to hear that Carroll is looking for critiques.

    6. I still disagree with you here. If you’re right, Carroll is saying “we CAN’T sensibly predict what kind of Universe God would create”, while simultaneously saying “we CAN sensibly predict God wouldn’t create this kind of Universe”, in which case he’d have an even bigger problem (a contradiction!) on his hands.
    I believe he’s only arguing for the former. In attempting to get theists to agree, he basically argues “After all, IF we could predict it, THEN we would predict something different than our Universe (because our universe “seems” dysteleological, prima facie)”. Of course, again, he *doesn’t* think we can predict it, so no harm done.

    5. I’m skeptical because perhaps the maximally simple Universe with free humans etc. is missing out on some sufficient good-making properties that a slighly less elegant Universe would have.

    4c: Ironically, insofar as Carroll is a “laws” man (lol), I’d think pressing him for a explanation for those laws would be a very sensible strategy!

    4b: I don’t think its that hard to refer to a philosophers sense of “nothing”. I’m also not sure that we need to have a non-messy analysis of “cause” to run the argument, do we?

    4aiii: Yup, R-PSR does apply to both simple and complex contingently true propositions.

    4aii: You seem to already know how Pruss handles free will. If you think it’s also true that all things need a necessitating condition as well, so what? You’re welcome to say something stronger than PSR, but that doesn’t invalidate PSR.

    4ai: I wasn’t quite sure what you were doing with (i), so I asked a friend, who said: “I think that perhaps the best way to respond to that question is to point (denotatively) to bona fide instances of explanation and say we have a sufficient reason for p, when (insert any of the relevant examples you just pointed to). E.g., one might say, one has a sufficient reason for p, when q is true, and q supplies the interested inquirers with a proposition reporting the causal explanation of the event/fact/or state of affairs p reports/refers to etc. Another way is to state that we have a sufficient reason for [p] (following Gideon Rosen’s representation of facts in terms of variables with flanking brackets), is to report that [p] is grounded in some more fundamental fact, say [q]. Or to say that fact [p] supervenes on fact [q], its subvenient base. These are all good examples of what I take to be plausible answers to the question: “What is a sufficient explanation?” If your interlocutor demands that you provide a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for “sufficient explanation”, you had better reveal to him/her that such a demand assumes that philosophy proceeds by means of conceptual analysis….but just about everyone nowadays believes that there are good inductive reasons for not proceeding that way, methodologically.”

    3. Fair enough. (In addition to PSR, I do wonder how he handles Robin Collin’s formulation of the fine-tuning argument.)

    2. Well, if he replaces it with talk of “properties”, then you no longer have 3 challenges, but 2, since this “rules” argument reduces to the problem of induction. (Btw, are you saying this “rules” argument is from Koons?)

    1. lol. ok.

    Thanks for the discussion. = )

  8. Why did I say scordova? I meant vjtorley

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