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Why the moon isn’t made of green cheese (Part One of a reply to Professor Keith Parsons)


Wikipedia image of the full moon, taken from Belgium. Courtesy of Luc Viatour.

A few months ago, Keith Parsons, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston-Clear-Lake, announced that after having taught the philosophy of religion for a decade, during which time he managed to publish over twenty books and articles on the subject, he had decided that this particular field of philosophy was no longer worth teaching, as there was no good case to be made for the existence of God:

I have to confess that I now regard “the case for theism” as a fraud and I can no longer take it seriously enough to present it to a class as a respectable philosophical position – no more than I could present intelligent design as a legitimate biological theory. BTW, in saying that I now consider the case for theism to be a fraud, I do not mean to charge that the people making that case are frauds who aim to fool us with claims they know to be empty. No, theistic philosophers and apologists are almost painfully earnest and honest; I don’t think there is a Bernie Madoff in the bunch. I just cannot take their arguments seriously any more, and if you cannot take something seriously, you should not try to devote serious academic attention to it. I’ve turned the philosophy of religion courses over to a colleague. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Parsons’ choice of words – “I now regard ‘the case for theism’ as a fraud” – ignited a firestorm of controversy, which he now regrets: “I’m afraid what precipitated the thing going viral is that I said it was a fraud, which I shouldn’t have said, because ‘fraud’ implies an intentional attempt to fool people,” Parsons says. However, Parsons has not wavered in his firm belief that the case for God’s existence is utterly devoid of intellectual merit.

Professor Parsons’ unfinished business

Professor Parsons has since written two follow-up posts (see here and most recently, here) to his original announcement on September 1, 2010, that he was quitting philosophy of religion. In today’s post, I’d like to go back to something he wrote near the end of his original announcement, suggesting that he was not quite done with the philosophy of religion:

For instance, the Secular Web has a long critique of my essay “No Creator Need Apply,” and I might respond to that.

Professor Parsons was referring to his online essay, No Creator Need Apply: A Reply to Roy Abraham Varghese (2006), which, I have to say, is one of the best critiques of the cosmological argument for the existence of God that I have ever read. However, after reading the brilliant refutation by Professor Paul Herrick, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe – A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009), I was extremely surprised that Parsons had contemptuously written off the case for theism as without merit in his announcement last September that he would no longer be teaching the philosophy of religion. Any unbiased reader of Parsons’ and Herrick’s essays would acknowledge that Herrick has written a devastating rebuttal of Parsons’ arguments, and unless Parsons can write an equally devastating counter-rebuttal, his retirement from the field of philosophy of religion will look like an ignominious retreat.

Readers may be wondering why I am bothering to write a series of posts on the Parsons-Herrick exchange, if it was so one-sided. The short answer is: I don’t think that even the cleverest atheists fully appreciate the strengths of the intellectual case for theism. Reading Parsons’ essay, I detected a hint of exasperation: evidently Parsons thinks that theists spend a lot of time asking silly questions that should not be asked. Before Professor Parsons attempts a reply to Professor Herrick, I hope that he will take the trouble to read my forthcoming posts, which are intended to address a few issues that Herrick did not have time to discuss in his lengthy rebuttal of Parsons’ essay.

Is “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” a silly question?

In my first post, I’d like to focus on a single paragraph in Parsons’ essay, in which he attempts to show that the question, “Why is the universe the way it is?” is a meaningless one, by likening it to the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?”

Why should it surprise us that there is a universe? Why should it surprise us that we have this universe? What else should we expect? Of course, we can imagine that there might (i.e., conceivably could) have been nothing at all or that all sorts of other universes might have existed instead of ours, but this need not create any mystery. There are always innumerable imaginable possibilities whose failure to be realized creates no mystery at all. The moon could conceivably have been made of cheese, but it is no mystery that it isn’t. In general, it is no mystery why something does not exist unless, given our background knowledge, its existence was expected, or at least no more unexpected than what does exist. Nothing in our knowledge base supports the slightest expectation that the moon would be made of cheese. Nor do we have any basis for thinking that some other (ex hypothesi eternal) universe should have existed all along instead of ours. Therefore, it is hard to see how asking “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” is very different from asking “Why don’t we have a moon made out of cheese?” (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

But is “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” a silly question, which we shouldn’t even bother asking, as Parsons seems to think? For my part, I think that the question makes perfect sense, and that it would be flippant to answer, “Why should it be?” as Parsons evidently thinks we should.

Surprisingly, in the very next paragraph of his essay, Parsons inadvertently refutes his own example of what he considers to be a stupid question (“Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?”), by providing the grounds that make it a reasonable question:

In scientific contexts, when only one out of a range of relevant alternatives (what Bas van Fraassen calls the “contrast class”; Van Fraassen, 1980) is realized, we naturally and rightly assume that there is some reason why this happened rather than that. We rightly assume that there were physical antecedents and relevant physical laws that determined, at least probabilistically, the occurrence of one event out of a contrast class.

Scientists are currently investigating the interior composition of the moon. A few days ago, a team of NASA-led researchers concluded that the Moon possesses an iron-rich core with a solid inner ball nearly 150 miles in radius, and a 55-mile thick outer fluid shell. In making this determination, the team had to consider what Professor Parsons refers to as “a range of relevant alternatives” regarding the moon’s interior composition. In such a situation, scientists “naturally and rightly assume that there is some reason why this happened rather than that” – to quote Parsons’ own words. For instance, why is the moon’s core composed of iron, rather than silicates?

But if the question, “Why is the moon’s core composed of iron, rather than silicates?” is a reasonable one, then it is also reasonable to ask: “Why is the moon’s core composed of iron, rather than cheese?” which in turn entails that the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” is a perfectly sensible one. Incidentally, for the benefit of readers who may be wondering, the term “green cheese” originally referred to a young, immature cheese:

“The Moon is made of green cheese” was one of the most popular proverbs in 16th and 17th century English literature, and it was also in use after this time. It likely originated in 1546, when The Proverbs of John Heywood claimed “the moon is made of a greene cheese.” (Greene may refer here not to the color, as many now think, but to being new or unaged.)

How might one answer such a question? Again, Professor Parsons tells us himself: by appealing to “physical antecedents and relevant physical laws that determined, at least probabilistically, the occurrence of one event out of a contrast class.” The contrast class in question here is the range of proposed alternatives for the composition of the moon. In asking such a question, today’s scientists would presumably confine their range of alternatives to minerals that are known to exist on Earth, and they would surely laugh at the very idea that the moon is made of cheese. However, a young child, who is lacking scientific knowledge, might well take the possibility seriously. Indeed, a 1902 study in the United States found that although most young children were unsure of the Moon’s composition, the single most common explanation was that it was made of cheese (Slaughter, J. W. (1902), “The Moon in Childhood and Folklore,” American Journal of Psychology XIII: 294–318). And if that strikes readers as ridiculous, let them recall that the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the moon and other heavenly bodies were composed of an imperishable fifth element (aether, which was later known as “quintessence”). A large number of medieval scholastic philosophers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, followed Aristotle in this opinion, since it explained not only the apparently uniform circular motion of the heavenly bodies, but also the unchanging character of these bodies, which appeared immune to the corruption that terrestrial bodies were liable to. The point I am making here is that not too long ago, scientists had no way of knowing that the moon wasn’t made of green cheese, and the alternatives they considered, such as quintessence, were no less bizarre. It is only in the light of current knowledge that we no longer bother asking why the moon isn’t made of green cheese. This current knowledge relates to what Professor Parsons describes as “physical antecedents and relevant physical laws.”

So, why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?

Is there any physical law that prevents the moon being composed of green cheese? No; and for that matter, there is none that prevents it being composed of silver. However, there are laws of nature that make it extremely unlikely that a moon composed of green cheese would arise by natural processes from a cloud of hydrogen and cosmic dust, which is the raw material from which the solar system is believed to have been formed. To see why, let’s consider what cheese consists of:

Cheese consists of proteins and fat from milk, usually the milk of cows, buffalo, goats, or sheep. It is produced by coagulation of the milk protein casein. Typically, the milk is acidified and addition of the enzyme rennet causes coagulation. The solids are separated and pressed into final form.

Readers who want to learn more about the structure of casein can go here. Amazingly, even in the 21st century, scientists still aren’t able to properly visualize its true structure.

Cheese is normally made by human beings, but it doesn’t have to be. According to Wikipedia, “it is probable that the process of cheese making was discovered accidentally by storing milk in a container made from the stomach of an animal, resulting in the milk being turned to curd and whey by the rennet from the stomach.” Indeed, legend has it that cheese was discovered by the Arabs in precisely this fashion. But this still begs the question: to make cheese, you need milk, which contains proteins. And an inquisitive child, upon being told about proteins, would reasonably ask: how did proteins form, in the first place?

Uncommon Descent readers will be very familiar with the arguments as to why the formation of a protein by natural processes is an astronomically improbable event (see here, here, here, here and here for examples). I hope that Professor Parsons takes the trouble to acquaint himself with these arguments, as they are based on cutting-edge research. Since cheese largely consists of proteins, we may fairly conclude that while there is nothing which physically prevents the moon from being composed of cheese, the formation of such a moon as a result of natural processes is vanishingly unlikely.

So, how would I answer a young child’s question: “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” If the child was about five years old, I’d answer it like this. To make cheese, you need milk. The only way you can make milk naturally is from animals like cows, who feed their babies with it. There are no animals on the moon, and there never have been. Animals need air, and the moon doesn’t have any, because it’s too small to keep its air. So there’s no way of naturally making a moon out of cheese, let alone green cheese. The key notion being deployed here is that certain raw materials (e.g. milk, from which cheese is made) have a characteristic natural origin: they originate in this way, and no other.

If the child was aged eight years or older, I would add that scientists believed that all of the matter in the universe was originally a very light gas called hydrogen, and that over the course of time, other heavier elements formed, such as iron. Carbon (found in the proteins contained in cheese) formed too, but it was just one of many elements. So even if cheese could form naturally from the elements, without the need for animals, it would be very unlikely that the moon would contain nothing but cheese – a bit like flipping a million coins and getting nothing but heads. At this level, the answer to the child’s question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” invokes a rudimentary notion of probability.

If the child were ten years or older, I would further add that the most popular scientific theory of the moon’s origin is that it was formed from the debris left over when another planet collided with Earth. To encourage the child to keep an open mind, I would also mention that some scientists are proposing a new theory of the moon’s formation, according to which a massive nuclear explosion occurred at the edge of Earth’s core, flinging red-hot, liquid rock into space. The orbiting debris gradually coalesced into what is now our moon. No matter which theory is correct, however, the logic is the same: since the Earth isn’t made of green cheese, we wouldn’t expect the moon to be. So the answer to the child’s question in this case depends on the added piece of information that the Earth materially contributed to the moon’s formation.

I hope I have persuaded readers that the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” is a reasonable one, which can be sensibly answered in a way that even a young child can understand.

Concluding remarks

Before I conclude my post for today, I’d like to say that I have the greatest respect for Professor Parsons’ intellectual honesty: he has even acknowledged that he could be converted to theism: “if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out ‘Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!’ (and if all the world’s astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.” He is also a great admirer of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. An atheist who is a fan of Aristotle can’t be all bad.

In my next post, I shall argue that the question, “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” is a good one, which theists are perfectly entitled to ask and seek an answer to. In the meantime, I hope that the links given above on the unlikelihood of proteins forming from inanimate matter will persuade Professor Parsons to reconsider his bald assertion that Intelligent Design is not a “legitimate biological theory.”

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39 Responses to Why the moon isn’t made of green cheese (Part One of a reply to Professor Keith Parsons)

  1. Question -

    I have always thought that one of the fundamental tenets of atheism is that nothing occurs except by random chance or by result of physical laws.

    But “choices” can not be either random or produced by physical laws. So does not the mere existence of choice disprove atheism?

  2. @JDH

    I think a basic tenant of atheism is that there is indeed no real “choice”, i.e. no free will (which has always seemed a dirty secret of atheism to me but so be it). So, if I am understanding the position correctly, as a human being I have no choice over either my genetic makeup, nor my environment which produced me (ergo both nature and nurture are out of my control). Therefore, it seems that whatever type of person I have turned out to be, whether pillar of the community or psychopath, it has been entirely determined by forces out of my control. Since I am neither trained nor versed completely in the argument, I can not say this is a fair representation of materialism, but it seems inescapable. So, to answer your question, yes – choice would negate the concept…but atheism rejects choice as being only an illusion?

    just an opinion

  3. Actually, one part of the linked article that stood out to me was this:

    Although Parsons is done arguing with a field that seems committed to a particular perspective, he concludes his post by saying that he hopes others will continue the fight. But what he doesn’t make explicit in his post is a disheartening subtext to his decision: that in our pursuit of truth, argument may only take us so far. “Philosophy of religion,” says Parsons, “is inevitably speculative and inconclusive.” Although he has no doubt that the theistic arguments for God’s existence have been thoroughly rebutted, he allows that the atheistic arguments he finds persuasive might not be nearly as persuasive to another rational person who happens to have different intuitions.

    “There are certain things William Lane Craig takes to be metaphysical intuitions, like that it’s undeniable that the universe must have had a cause—and for me it’s not. My intuitions are quite different,” Parsons says. And what then? He adds, “And then, once we’ve reached that point, there’s just no further to go.”

    I think that says a lot, actually, and probably hints at why even a great argument in defense of the PSR will only do so much. A person who really wants to be an atheist will, even if unable to find a flaw in Herrick’s (or someone else’s) argument, can and will just determine that the inability to find a flaw is a project for them to solve, not a reason to change their position necessarily, even on what’s being argued.

    Another comment I have is on this:

    Before I conclude my post for today, I’d like to say that I have the greatest respect for Professor Parsons’ intellectual honesty: he has even acknowledged that he could be converted to theism: “if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out ‘Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!’ (and if all the world’s astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.”

    This gets the same reply from me as it does when Coyne made the move: Does that sound much at all like the God of Christianity, or even classical theism more generally? What if a person said “if God sent a choir of angels to my house to vomit two billion dollars in gold bullion onto my floor that spelled out ‘Praise God!’, I’d believe”. Is that a sign of intellectual honesty and reason with regards to God’s existence? Or suggestive commentary on just how they’re approaching the question of God to begin with?

    That said, I agree with much in the post, and in Herrick’s reply. (Though I think Herrick gives too much – indeed, I think even a contingent God or gods are in better shape than Herrick thinks compared to atheism.)

  4. #1 and #2

    There is a long and respectable tradition of compatabilism which I subscribe to. We hold that free will is compatible with determinism or determinism+random fluctuations. I don’t plan to argue the case for compatabilism yet again on this forum. See this post on my blog for an earlier discussion with vj. I just want to point out that free will is not a “dirty secret” of atheism.

  5. JDH,

    I have always thought that one of the fundamental tenets of atheism is that nothing occurs except by random chance or by result of physical laws.

    That’s incorrect, though not for the reason given. That’s a fundamental tenet of materialism, not atheism. And even then, more a certain kind of materialism, since what counts as “physical” or “material” has been blown open almost as wide as what counts as “natural”.

    To give a good example, even though he doesn’t speak much about free will – David Chalmers is a prominent anti-materialist, but also an atheist. He’s not alone.

    While I have no great fondness for most atheists/”atheists”, it’s not fair to regard them all as materialists, or even as naturalists. Some have more sense than that.

  6. nullasalus (#3, #5)

    Thank you for your comments. I also noticed Professor Parsons’ closing remark about the clash of metaphysical intuitions between himself and Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig. I don’t think we can necessarily conclude from that, however, that people will continue being atheists if they want to be. That assumes that people always adjust their intuitions to suit their lifestyle preferences – which I think is just a little cynical (although certainly true for some). It occasionally happens, however, that an atheist, upon hearing of the arguments for God’s existence, discovers (to his/her surprise) that his/her metaphysical intuitions are more closely aligned with those of theists. Such an atheist may eventually switch sides, because the theistic worldview makes more sense.

    The question I would like to answer is: how do people acquire these metaphysical intuitions in the first place? What role do parents have, for instance? And do children who are raised in households where they are free to explore Nature (e.g. by going hiking in the woods, or looking at the stars through a telescope) have a greater sense of Nature’s sheer contingency than children who learn about Nature from books? I don’t know.

    Re your remark on atheists who oppose materialism: Raymond Tallis is another noble example of a prominent example of an atheist (and a medical man at that) who rejects a materialist account of mind. His recent article, How can I possibly be free? in The New Atlantis is well worth reading, as well as his article, Conscious computers are a delusion in The Guardian, and his irreverent article, In search of the G-spot in New Humanist magazine. I may write a post on his views later this month.

  7. jkcates:

    “I think a basic tenant of atheism is that there is indeed no real “choice”, i.e. no free will”

    And so it is.

    Excuse me, Mark, but I like to call things with their true names. You know my opinion about compatibilism. I agree with you that it is not probably the case to go back on that here.

    But I just wanted to state my opinion again, as you have stated yours: compatibilism is an intellectual fraud.

  8. VJ,

    Is this what evolutionists really believe?

    “…natural processes from a cloud of hydrogen and cosmic dust, which is the raw material from which the solar system is believed to have been formed.”

    “I would add that scientists believed that all of the matter in the universe was originally a very light gas called hydrogen,….”

    It seems a bit silly to me to think that hydrogen gas simply turned into everything that we see around us today!

    So basically what we’re saying is that if we leave hydrogen gas long enough, it will turn into a person?

    That’s too far out for me!

  9. TJG:

    Dr Torley has simplified somewhat, but the basic big bang cosmology is much like that.

    Out of the singularity, to H, He, some Li and a fair amount of exotic stuff, in an expanding cosmos. Thence, stars [that cook up heavier elements and give off light through fusion], galaxies and when enough heavier elements are available [big stars blow up and recirculate gases], stars with solar systems and terrestrial planets.

    We are held to have got lucky [very, very, very lucky . . . ], and through chem evo, life thence us via macro-evolution.

    Oddly enough the cosmological part of it has better empirical and theoretical/analytical support than the claimed chemical origin of life, and macro-evolution. (Cf cosmological evo remarks here, vs those for OOL and OO body plan level biodiversity.]

    In no case, however, are we in a position to decide that the reconstruction of the past through scientific models and limited observations that have been matched to projected observational consequences, amounts to we know the course of the deep past for a fact.

    GEM of TKI

  10. tjguy

    I see kairosfocus has done an excellent job of briefing you on cosmological evolution. I had forgotten that even in the first three minutes, in addition to normal hydrogen, there was a tiny fraction of heavy hydrogen, a tiny fraction of helium-3, a small amount of helium-4 and a trace of lithium. But to a rough approximation, in the beginning there was mostly hydrogen gas.

  11. VJtorley,

    That’s a good article in the New Atlantis by Tallis. Free will is a difficult topic. I liked his analysis.

  12. @nullasalus

    If atheism is not materialism, then I have to ask the question, what is it then?
    I mean, if the atheist is saying there are “other” factors beyond the physical…. then why can’t that other be a God of some sort?
    Or maybe I do not understand the word atheist. I have always assumed atheist is a positive claim i.e. there is no God.
    It seems to me that if you allow other forces or factors beyond the physical you must at least allow the possibility of a God, but then that would seem to make one an agnostic rather than atheist.

    jao (just an opinion)

  13. Happy New Year,

    New things come, but old ones just seem to keep cropping up. Free will for example. It may be a complicated issue, but at the same time it is very simple. All of us know what it is. We use it everyday. And we know we use it because we know that we made a choice; that we could have done something different.

    Every posting to this blog is a specific act of free will. Nobody is forced to do it.

    God Bless each and everyone of you.

  14. jkcates,

    I mean, if the atheist is saying there are “other” factors beyond the physical…. then why can’t that other be a God of some sort?

    Well, a ‘god of some sort’ is permissible even under materialism. For instance, if we’re living inside of what amounts to a computer simulation, or a god like Zeus. Of course, that leads into a huge problem with what would or wouldn’t count as ‘a god’, the problems with defining natural and supernatural and even material, etc.

    Or maybe I do not understand the word atheist. I have always assumed atheist is a positive claim i.e. there is no God.

    Well, you also get atheists who insist agnostics are atheists too. Or even that they themselves are atheists and they ‘have no belief about God’s existence or non-existence’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Believe me, I’d like things to be nice and clear-cut. But decades, even centuries of shifting definitions, sophistry, and worse have made this whole area muddled.

  15. vjtorley – If as moderator you find this comment overly offensive to some please delete it. but….

    Thankfully, I am not schooled enough in nuance to be able to conceive of an atheism which does not lead to some form of materialism which does not lead to some form of determinism.

    IMHO – I think the progress from Atheism -> Materialism -> Determinism -> NO CHOICES is inevitable. Those who find some way around this are just fooling themselves by tossing in a bunch of obfuscation. Its a tragedy, that intelligent people are clever enough to put in enough erudite sentences, and enough clever philosophizing to disguise the false assumptions which allow them to get around this stopper. You can not choose atheism because atheism makes it so you do not really have a choice. Its as simple as that.

    Whatever else may be true, I do believe in God because in the immortal words of Jiminy Cricket “I’m no fool.”

  16. OK

    Markf, I read as much as I chose to from your compatabilism stuff, and I have to say anything that takes that long to get to the point is probably not true.

    So, I give you a simple gendanken experiment which scientifically argues for free will. It is not a difficult experiment, you can do it yourself.

    Assumption 1: At any point in time I have a finite number of brain states due to the restrictions of quantum mechanics.

    Assumption 2: I have lots of time to spend on this.

    Now type in a list of 100 characters –

    aukejtmkwl5jie&kelji2liurjjhneh4iljthnddbguelo44jhnksjeleslmktje2lltkenske;oll28euksjglelssie.xltjeo

    That was easy. I finished that very quickly. But let’s analyze this. How many possible sequences were there BEFORE I STARTED TYPING?

    Well since I only typed characters which only take one key stroke ( no high ascii, no SHIFTED chars ) I had a choice of about 50 characters. Sequences were 100 characters long so possible sequences were 50^100 power. This is a number larger than all the interactions there have been between particles assuming the big bang. So the believer in compatibalism ( or some other theory of atheist free will ) would have to conclude one of two propositions..

    1. Either I had at least 50^100 possible brain states available before I typed the list. And I could actually decide to type any of the sequences.
    2. Or some sequences in the list of 50^100 sequences were unavailable to me. AND I COULD NOT type them.

    But if number 1 is true, then just increase the number of characters to choose from or increase the length of the sequence. Eventually, I can choose a number of sequences which EXCEEDS the number of possible brain states.

    So let’s say I choose an number of characters (C) and length of sequence (K) such that C^K exceeds the finite number of brain states I can have. Then what. Well, compatablism or some other form of atheistic free will would have to say that some sequences were unavailable for me. But statistically it does not make sense that some sequences were unavailable to me.

    Why? Because BEFORE I START TYPING – I could think of an arbitrary list of prerequisites for the sequence.

    e.g. the first char is ‘a’ the 400th char will be ‘y’ or such.

    { [ 1, a] [400, y] …….}

    Since this array is completely arbitrary, statistically, it does not make sense that certain sequences were unavailable to me due to my initial brain state.

    So ( in rational analysis of the gedanken experiment ) both propositions 1 and 2 must fail.

    This is not a proof. I admit that. The only proof would be to actually list out all of the sequences ( and I don’t have that amount of time ). But the scientific evidence from this gedanken experiment is that I have free will. If I have free will, atheism, compatabilism, whatever you choose to call it — is false.

  17. So parsons claims that: ““if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out ‘Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!’ (and if all the world’s astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.”

    I don’t want to be rude but the underlying stupidity and self-indulgence in this comment is astounding.

    Surely, God created the world so in the year 2011 he could spell that phrase in the sky solely to “convince” a narrow-minded atheist to convert.

    Does no one else see how pedantic and ridiculous this man’s thinking is? So much for professional philosophy eh?

  18. vjtorley -

    Thanks for the link to the excellent article “How can I possibly be free?”. This man is a thinker and not a fool. I believe that this man is not an atheist but a polytheist. He believes in the God of the Space of Possibility. He believes in the God of “am”, instead of the “I am”.

    The problem I have with his argument is that the so-called “Space of Possibility” is essentially infinite and must have been created at sometime. An atheistic and evolutionary perspective demands that at one point the “Space of Possibility” did not exist at all.

    To say that it “grew up” with human beings seems to circumvent a huge problem. When was the first waking of “am”? Why in the world was “am” passed onto his children? and Why is “am awoke” a better explanation than God ” breathed into his nostrils, the breath of life” ( NIV )? “I am” as the creator makes much more sense, than the some day awaking of “am”.

    Also, why is the awaking of “am” solely limited to human beings? Why has not “am” awoken in another species?

    This man puts forward an at first plausible theory of intentionality, but the more you analyze it, it is implausible, and just more ways of denying the obvious need for God.

  19. I also like to note one last thing. The irony of someone like parsons, whose position is the most intellectually bankrupt not to mention practically indefensible, is accusing Theism of being problematic?

    The dogma of some people knows no bounds!

  20. “But to a rough approximation, in the beginning there was mostly hydrogen gas.”

    VJ,

    What do you make of all the scientists who have trouble with the Big Bang, the as yet undocumented dark matter, dark energy, etc? Cosmological evolution (Add a lot of hydrogen gas and a pinch of other stuff and like magic the universe appears) seems as difficult to accept to me as biological evolution.

    Are you familiar with this list of scientists who are on record as doubting the big bang?

    http://www.cosmologystatement.org/

  21. TJG:

    Quite interesting critique.

    It reflects the point that absolute agreement is not going to happen in a given discipline, and that there is always a danger of over-conformity and imposition of an artificial consensus. In turn, ironically (as they are protesting no funding etc), the vigour of the protest and the fact that protesters by the hundreds can list heir institutional affiliation, reflects the relatively healthy state of cosmology as compared to other fields that are much more strongly ideologised.

    However, while for instance, the plasma cosmology view of Alfven is interesting, the general view is that it ran into trouble on the microwave background and lost support thereafter. Similarly, the classic steady state model lost support on failure to find serious evidential support by contrast with the said 2.7 K background.

    In addition, the presence of dark matter was proposed to explain the mass behaviour of galactic clusters, is confirmed by gravitational lensing on galactic clusters, as well as by the orbital behaviour of galaxies.

    Two Wiki excerpts give a good summary:

    S1: Dark Matter: >> The first person to provide evidence and infer the presence of dark matter was Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, of the California Institute of Technology in 1933.[8] He applied the virial theorem to the Coma cluster of galaxies and obtained evidence of unseen mass. Zwicky estimated the cluster’s total mass based on the motions of galaxies near its edge and compared that estimate to one based on the number of galaxies and total brightness of the cluster. He found that there was about 400 times more estimated mass than was visually observable. The gravity of the visible galaxies in the cluster would be far too small for such fast orbits, so something extra was required. This is known as the “missing mass problem”. Based on these conclusions, Zwicky inferred that there must be some non-visible form of matter which would provide enough of the mass and gravity to hold the cluster together . . . >>

    S2: Galaxy Rotation Problem: >> Stars revolve around the center of galaxies at a constant speed over a large range of distances from the center of the galaxy. Thus they revolve much faster than would be expected if they were in a free Newtonian potential. The galaxy rotation problem is this discrepancy between the observed rotation speeds of matter in the disk portions of spiral galaxies and the predictions of Newtonian dynamics considering the visible mass. This discrepancy is currently thought to betray the presence of dark matter that permeates the galaxy and extends into the galaxy’s halo. An alternative explanation is a modification of the laws of gravity, such as MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) [NB: this argues that gravitation loses its conformity to inverse square law at low enough gravity force levels]. >>

    S3: Dark Matter: >>The most direct observational evidence to date for dark matter is in a system known as the Bullet Cluster. In most regions of the universe, dark matter and visible material are found together,[29] as expected because of their mutual gravitational attraction. In the Bullet Cluster, a collision between two galaxy clusters appears to have caused a separation of dark matter and baryonic matter. X-ray observations show that much of the baryonic matter (in the form of 107– 108 Kelvin[30] gas, or plasma) in the system is concentrated in the center of the system. Electromagnetic interactions between passing gas particles caused them to slow down and settle near the point of impact. However, weak gravitational lensing observations of the same system show that much of the mass resides outside of the central region of baryonic gas. Because dark matter does not interact by electromagnetic forces, it would not have been slowed in the same way as the X-ray visible gas, so the dark matter components of the two clusters passed through each other without slowing down substantially. This accounts for the separation. Unlike the galactic rotation curves, this evidence for dark matter is independent of the details of Newtonian gravity, so it is held as direct evidence of the existence of dark matter.[30] Another galaxy cluster, known as the Train Wreck Cluster/Abell 520, seems to have its dark matter completely separated from both the galaxies and the gas in that cluster, which presents some problems for theoretical models. >>

    So, while there are problems and there is a healthy protest, the state of Big Bang cosmology is not as dire as might be suggested.

    And, when it comes to stellar life cycles on Hydrogen-rich gas ball models, with fusion and supernovae, the H-R diagram and its life cycle explanation stand unrivalled. One of the most powerful supports for that is the pattern of the H-R diagrams for open clusters, which shows a pattern of breakaway to the giants bands, which has led to an inferred cluster-age explanation.

    Of course, all of this is provisional, subject of challenge from anomalies [a normal state for scientific theories] and is in a reconstruction/ modelling of the unobserved deep past context.

    My conclusion, subject of course to further enlightenment, is that the picture of star life cycles and that for overall development of the cosmos are better supported than other origins theoreis, and are more openly dealt with. That openness reflects confidence.

    Of course, the attempted reconstruction of a remote past not directly observed, is always subject to provisionality. The dynamics in question seem — at least tot his onlooker — to have the capacity to perform the required tasks, which is far more than can be said for origin of life on abiogenesis models and origin of the large amounts of bio-info for origin of the range of body plans in life. They may not be true in fact [e.g. at an extreme, we could all be part of a global simulation in a supercompuer somewhere, or the cosmos as we think we know it was created instantly 5 minutes ago, both empirically equivalent to the world we think we inhabit], but have a degree of plausibility that should not be lightly brushed aside.

    GEM of TKI

  22. Oops, decided to add a 3rd excerpt.

  23. F/N: on free will, GCS is right: >> Every posting to this blog is a specific act of free will. Nobody is forced to do it.>>

    Indeed, absent free will, reasoning, knowledge in light of reasoning, and linguistic communication, as well as moral responsibility all break down.

  24. JDH

    Thank you for your comments. You write:

    IMHO – I think the progress from Atheism -> Materialism -> Determinism -> NO CHOICES is inevitable.

    Personally, I share your skepticism regarding the idea that libertarian free will is fully compatible with an atheistic world view. While there is no logical incompatibility between “There is no God” and “My will is free,” it would be wholly unexpected, in a world without God, to find creatures with the almost magical power to make a free choice between two options.

    The reason why one would not expect such a capacity to exist in Nature, on an atheistic world view, is that it’s a top-down capacity, which makes its existence wholly mysterious. Where do top-down capacities come from?

    I don’t think, however, that materialism necessarily implies determinism. It’s quite compatible with indeterminism as well. But that’s not genuine freedom, unless we combine this indeterminism with top-down causation.

  25. GCS:

    “New things come, but old ones just seem to keep cropping up. Free will for example. It may be a complicated issue, but at the same time it is very simple. All of us know what it is. We use it everyday. And we know we use it because we know that we made a choice; that we could have done something different.”

    Great truths in a simple and precise form. Thank you.

    Of course, one can even freely choose to be a compatibilist…

  26. kf:

    “Indeed, absent free will, reasoning, knowledge in light of reasoning, and linguistic communication, as well as moral responsibility all break down.

    Absolutely.

    I would say that there are at least 3 different forms of conscious representation which are fundamental for any cognition (and which, by the way, are absolutely necessary also for design).

    a) Meaning

    b) Purpose

    c) Free will

    It is interesting that none of these concepts can be even defined without recurring to the empirical concept of conscious representation, and of a conscious perceiver. Just try.

  27. JDH (#18)

    I was intrigued by your critique of Raymond Tallis’s atheistic affirmation of freedom:

    He believes in the God of the Space of Possibility. He believes in the God of “am”, instead of the “I am”.

    The problem I have with his argument is that the so-called “Space of Possibility” is essentially infinite and must have been created at sometime. An atheistic and evolutionary perspective demands that at one point the “Space of Possibility” did not exist at all.

    To say that it “grew up” with human beings seems to circumvent a huge problem. When was the first waking of “am”? Why in the world was “am” passed onto his children?

    Reading this, I was reminded of the Dean Koontz novel, Phantoms . In the novel, the Ancient Enemy absorbs the mental capacity and memories of those it consumes, so its mind grows more powerful, intelligent and self-aware over time. But that begs the question of how human minds managed to “evolve” in the first place.

    That said, I have to say that Dean Koontz is a first class writer of suspense thrillers. By the way, did you know he’s also a Catholic ? I only just found out.

  28. kairosfocus and tjguy:

    kairosfocus, Thanks very much for the useful summary you provided regarding the current state of cosmological research. I too am inclined to think that the Big Bang is by far the best game in town, despite its problems.

    tjguy, Thanks for your comments. I have seen the statement of dissent you refer to. I’m a philosopher, not a scientist; however, my impression is that cosmologists seem to be on top of most of the objections to the Big Bang. You might like to have a look at Dr. Ned Wright’s article, Errors in the “The Big Bang Never Happened” . You might also like to have a look at this as well.

  29. #16 jdh

    I am sorry – I only just noticed your comment.

    Markf, I read as much as I chose to from your compatabilism stuff, and I have to say anything that takes that long to get to the point is probably not true.

    It was part of continuing discussion. If I was simply trying to explain compatabilism then I think I could do it more concisely.

    I don’t understand the point of your experiment. There are obviously an infinite variety of things I can do – intentionally or not. But there are an infinite number of things a bacterium can do – do you think that has free will? In order to be able to do something it is not necessary to have a complete representation of it stored some way beforehand.

  30. @VJ

    -”While there is no logical incompatibility between “There is no God” and “My will is free,” it would be wholly unexpected, in a world without God, to find creatures with the almost magical power to make a free choice between two options.”

    I don’t think it’s so much a matter of logic (formally speaking) but rather that free will given atheism would be matephysically impossible.

    But I do agree that claiming otherwise entails appeals to magic.

  31. response to markf@29

    Don’t you understand the argument. The argument is not that I did something. The argument is that I had the choice to do more things than could have been dictated by the current state of my brain, and chose one such item. This could not be the result of random chance or physical law. The fact that a bacterium has many things it can do proves nothing. When it makes a selection of what to do there is no proof that it could have chosen otherwise.

    The materialist claims that any action can only be generated by random chance or by physical necessity.

    Therefore if I can demonstrate the creation of something that CAN NOT possibly be created as the result of random actions or physical law, materialism is shown to be false.

    The gedanken experiment results in the production of a sequence of characters which can neither be the result of random chance or simple physical law. Since the sequence is something real, this gives evidence that materialism is false.

    In other words if the assumption of materialism says A can not exist. And I demonstrate A – I have disproved materialism.

    The reason I don’t call it a proof, is that it just might be possible that I can only name a certain number of sequences and that some of them are disallowed.

    Let me try and make it simpler for you. If I was presented with 3 platforms to jump onto. A) 3 inches off the ground B) 5 inches off the ground, and C) twenty feet off the ground I would not be physically able to jump onto platform C.

    I make the assumption that my brain has only a finite number of states available to it N. However many this is, I agree to construct a sequence of K characters from the set C such that

    ( order of C ) ^ K > N

    Then a materialist must conclude that there are some of the C^K sequences which I could not possibly produce, just like I could not possibly jump onto the 20 foot platform.

    But it does not make sense that there are sequences I could not possibly produce, because I could arbitrarily ( before typing ) choose to make any item in the sequence k, the specific character c.

    Now I do not have time to produce such a sequence, so that’s why it remains a gedanken experiment and not a real experiment. What I am trying to show is that the scientific evidence is that the human mind can produce infinitely many more results than the finite physical states allow.

    In other words there exist things which are neither the result of randomness or physical law.

  32. #31 JDH

    Sorry I don’t understand your argument. It seems to imply that in order to choose an action I must store the details of all possible alternative actions. This clearly isn’t true. Let us assume that you decided in advance to type that string of characters rather than just choosing each one as its turn came up (a pretty amazing feat of memory but let’s assume it). Then the choice is either type that string or not. So all the brain has to “store” is the string of characters and maybe one other action which is a generic “type something different”. If you then decide to do something else the brain can drop that string (or not) and start to work on a different string.

  33. #32 JDH

    The real question I am trying to resolve, is “Do I have the physical ability to type an arbitrary sequence?”

    I think the pure determinist would say, “NO”. He would conclude the inevitablilty of the sequence you “chose” ( note: this does not mean you have to hold the entire sequence in the brain at one time ) depends upon your brain state at time t=0.

    The experiment shows that this is probably a wrong conclusion. It attempts to show this by demonstrating that quite easily I could pick a set of characters and sequences such that the number of sequences is larger than the number of possible t=0 brain states.

    I don’t know what a compatablist would say to the initial question of whether I could type any arbitrary sequence.

  34. #33 JDH

    I am sure that most people could type any arbitrary sequence of characters subject to limitations such as time, sore fingers and boredom. But so what? That doesn’t mean they have to store the sequence in their brain before they start typing it and certainly doesn’t mean that all alternative sequences of the same length have to be stored in their brain.

  35. #34 markf

    I think you are missing the point.

    First of all I don’t think you understand the idea of an ensemble of experiments. The subject does not have to hold the entire sequence in their heads, and does not have to hold all the alternate sequences in their head. If materialism was true – different brain states at t = 0 would result in different entire sequences.

    The strict determinist would have to argue one can only choose the entire sequence that coincides with the particular brain state you started with. I know this because I have read papers by materialists who claim that some day we may be able to tell what someone will answer to a question by investigation of the brain state prior to the asking. The gedanken experiment is just a way of demonstrating that the scientific evidence is against this proposition.

    What I am arguing, is that their is scientific evidence that we can actually exercise free choice. But if we can actually exercise free choice strict determinism is dead. Actually I think quantum mechanics kills strict determinism anyway, this is just a way of demonstrating it.

    But I do not see a way that materialism accounts for free choice, no matter how many smart people hold up models for it. They all introduce some magic along the way where choice came about.

  36. #35 JDH

    You are right I really don’t understand what you are saying. Can you spell out for me exactly:

    * What it is your are trying to prove
    * What is the evidence
    * How the evidence relates to whatever it is your trying to prove

    I am sorry if I am being slow but I really cannot make head or tail of what you write.

    Mark

  37. #36 markf

    What is it that I am trying to prove?

    I am trying to demonstrate that the scientific evidence exists that we do indeed make arbitrary choices.

    Certain materialists believe that decisions that we as human beings make are just the result of complex initial states. They claim that if we were sophisticated enough to measure the initial state of the brain, we could predict the answer to a question before it is asked.

    This is a hard statement to actually prove or disprove. So how do you quantify things and make the question more definitive. After all, many questions are unanswerable until you look in depth and find some way to check with quantitative, not qualitative arguments.

    Well, you start with something which we know. Quantum mechanics means we do not live in a continuum. That there are a finite set of states an object of finite energy can assume. This may be an incredibly large number, but it is finite.

    So I attempt to look at this conjecture from a scientific angle. I want to quantify things.

    Whatever number N for the total number of brain states there is, I could ask for a sequence of length K containing characters from a set of order C such that

    C^K > N.

    Understand this does not mean that the subject would have to hold the entire sequence in his head. Strict determinism MUST conclude that given the brain state at t = 0, the entire sequence of K characters has already been selected.

    Well here is the problem. If the total number of sequences exceeds the number of brain states, the only conclusion that can be made is that some set of sequences are not allowed at all. In other words some sequences can not be chosen NO MATTER WHAT THE INITIAL BRAIN STATE IS!

    But this is absurd. We may not be easily able to think about the 1 billionth character in the sequence, but obviously we can think about the first, third, eighteenth etc. and everyday experience dictates to us that all values are allowed for these positions in the sequence. Thus how is it that there could be some sequences which can not possibly be chosen NO MATTER WHAT THE INITIAL BRAIN STATE IS.

    I am not saying this is a proof. Its just I am trying to take something out of the realm of philosophizing, where anything is possible, and check out whether it is reasonable given numbers and real quantities.

    Is there a way I could be clearer? What do you still not see?

  38. Hi JDH & markf,

    I hope you don’t mind me interrupting your discussion for a moment – I believe I can help clarify something:

    JDH said:
    “Well here is the problem. If the total number of sequences exceeds the number of brain states, the only conclusion that can be made is that some set of sequences are not allowed at all. In other words some sequences can not be chosen NO MATTER WHAT THE INITIAL BRAIN STATE IS!”

    The fallacy you commit here is very simple: just because the number of combinations that have the potential of making up an event x exceeds some probability threshold, does not mean that event x cannot happen at all, or that certain combinations of x are A PRIORI excluded. Look at it this way:
    If a sufficiently large deck of cards is dropped from a sufficient height (I am using this scenario instead of a person shuffling the deck to remove the confusing element of a person making choices while shuffling), the probability of ANY specific resulting order of cards landing on the ground BEFORE they actually land will exceed that same probability threshold (after they land, the probability of the actual order is obviously 1 – it did occur). Does that mean that there is any particular order that is A PRIORI excluded from occurring? Of course not!

  39. #37 JDH

    That is clearer thanks. I was confused because I thought you were attempting to refute compatabilism but actually you are attempting to refute determinism in general. It is a very interesting thought experiment. Although I don’t think it has much to do with any version of determinism that I know.

    1) Many determinists allow for the possibility of random events. So the universe it not completely determined.

    2) All determinists I know would say that my actions from time t=0 are determined by a combination of my brain state and the environment. For example, if asked to give a string of 20 characters I might decide to do it by reading the string from a book.

    I think you have demonstrated convincingly that for a sufficiently long response (1) or (2) or both must be true.

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