Saturday, April 28, 2012

Michael Shermer and The Believing Brain

I have been reading Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain. In it, he argues for why people believe things in general, with a special focus on God, religion, conspiracies and scientific belief.[1] Of particular interest is his section on an attempt to answer the famous question of philosophy: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

I shall quote selected portions of his writing on this and offer a critique. It is important to note Shermer takes the explanation for the existence of the universe to be two-pronged: the question listed above, and the fine tuning of the universe crying out for a designer.

[The question] is nonsensical, along the lines of asking What time was it before time began? Or What is north of the North Pole? Asking why there is something rather than nothing presumes “nothing” is the natural state of things out of which “something” needs an explanation.[2]

There are a number of issues here that need to be teased out. Shermer seems to think there is some sort of logical incoherence involved in asking the question of why there is something rather than nothing, or at least the same sort of incoherence as asking his example questions. He does not even attempt to show this. But moreover, I think we can show it is false. Ed Feser has said,

This is the muddleheaded stuff of a freshman philosophy paper -- treating 'nothing' as if it were an especially unusual, ethereal kind of substance whose nature it would require tremendous intellectual effort to fathom. Which, as everyone knows until he finds he has a motive for suggesting otherwise, it is not. Nothing is nothing so fancy as that. It is just the absence of anything, that’s all. Consider all the true existential claims that there are: 'Stones exist,' 'Trees exist,' 'Quarks exist,' etc. To ask why there is something rather than nothing is just to ask why it isn’t the case that all of these statements are false. Pretty straightforward.[3]

Indeed, it is straightforward. In fact, Shermer’s proposed analogous questions seem to be self-contradictory: in the first case it is assumed time existed and did not exist and in the second it is assumed the North Pole is not what it is defined to be. But what is supposed to be the problem analogous to asking why there is something rather than nothing? It does not suppose that if there were nothing, then there would be something, or vice versa.

The next problem Shermer faces is that he unwarrantedly assumes that somehow asking this question entails that “nothing” is the natural state of things from which something arises that needs to be explained. But why think this is the case? While it certainly could be that someone would claim it, no one appears to do so. In fact, Feser easily dispatches this claim by pointing out that Christians think a state of nothingness is impossible because God occupies reality in the absence of anything else, and so there is no default of nothingness on the Christian view.[4] Yet it makes complete sense to ask the question.

The very conception of God existing before the universe and then creating it implies a time sequence . . . time began with the big bang creation of the universe, so God would have to exist outside of space and time, which means that as finite beings delimited by living in a finite universe we cannot possibly know anything about such a supernatural entity . . .[5]

One gets the sense Shermer is attempting to make an argument against God creating the universe, but it is here convoluted and wrongheaded. First, I think he is right that God’s creation of the universe implies a temporal change in states of affairs, from the first moment to the second.[6] But that does not thereby show God does not exist, nor does he bring up what, precisely, the problem is supposed to be. Next, he rightly infers that if time has a beginning, then God existed without time logically prior to the big bang. Strangely, he follows this up by claiming we cannot possibly know anything about God. Presumably this includes the fact “God is outside of space and time.” But if God’s being outside of space and time necessitates that we know nothing about him, we have thereby lost any grounds for thinking that he is outside of space and time, and hence the threat of epistemic blindness concerning God evaporates. It occurs to me Shermer may claim this is so much the worse for Christian theism, but it is not an essential tenet of Christianity to say that we can know nothing of God if he is timeless.

Shermer moves on to list six finely tuned cosmic numbers, and seeks to combat the implication that the universe is finely tuned for life with six of his own alternatives to answer this argument.[7] The first objection is that the universe is a giant waste of space, so to speak. I do not know if Shermer realizes this is double-talk when compared to the six finely tuned constants (which shall be called “The Six” hereafter) or not. In any case, λ, one of The Six which causes the universe to expand at an accelerated rate, is needed for the proper formation of stars and galaxies. But in the case of higher expansion we should expect a larger space. Essentially, this objection only works in the case that λ is false, in which case it does not serve as an objection nor an explanation.

The next objection is called “cosmic chauvinism,” where Shermer believes that “different physics could produce different forms of life.”[8] But this objection just does not define “life” in the same way the fine tuning argument does. Whatever something would be under “different physics,” it would not be a different form of life, but something different altogether.

The next objection is what I term the “inconsistent objection.” This states that some of the constants are arbitrary and can even change, such as the speed of light. However, this is a very subtle move that is deceitful (at least, it’s difficult to see how someone with a scientific background could make this mistake). Shermer is not objecting that certain of The Six are inconsistent or arbitrary. Rather, he is objecting that certain features of the universe are not constants after all. So what follows here? He does not say.

The fourth objection is the “Science of the Gaps” objection. It infers from science’s past successes that it will be able to overcome the fine tuning argument at some point in time. There are two major issues with this, however. First, if science took this track with respect to everything scientific then nothing would ever be believed. The epistemological principle employed here is that as long as it is possible a future development could explain X in another way, the best explanation currently should be rejected. This is obviously fallacious. Second, Shermer even admits this “theory of everything will itself need an explanation” that he expects they may have one day.[9] So The Six may one day be explained fully by a theory we do not have, which shall in turn be explained by another theory we do not have. That smells desperate.

The next objection essentially argues that because we have held beliefs in the past that turned out to be proven false scientifically that we should not be surprised to find out that The Six really are somehow accounted for one day. Again, this does not even argue that it is not the case that the best explanation of The Six is a design inference. It just charges that because we will make scientific advances at all, we have reason to believe we will make sufficient scientific advances to explain The Six in a way that avoids the consequences of fine tuning. But that does not follow.

Finally, Shermer argues for a multiverse to account for The Six. However, each of his accounts fails to avoid the fine tuning issue in varying respects. For instance, of the “natural selection” model Moreland and Craig point out,

The fatal flaw in Smolin’s scenario . . . was his assumption that universes fine-tuned for black hole production would also be fine-tuned for the production of stable stars. In fact, the opposite is true: the most proficient producers of black holes would be universes that generate them prior to star formation, so that life-permitting universes would actually be weeded out by Smolin’s [and Shermer’s preferred] cosmic evolutionary scenario.[10]

While Shermer’s arguments here are somewhat interesting, they are underdeveloped and not particularly convincing. Moreover, it is not always clear the inference being drawn; one does not always know how Shermer reasoned from one point to the next. Perhaps he took it as obvious; it was not. In any case, “why is there something rather than nothing?” cries out to be explained.

                [1] He obviously takes science to be the most superior of all epistemologies, despite its obvious impotence to explain even itself, much less certain other features of reality (2). But that is for another article.

                [2] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain (New York: Times Books, 2011), 323.

                [3] Ed Feser, “Steng Operation,” <> accessed April 27, 2012.

                [4] Ibid.

                [5] Shermer, 323.

                [6] Though it should be noted he uses the very same concept as the incoherent question (What time was it before time began?) he condemns only seven sentences earlier.

                [7] I will not be quoting them, but they can be found in Shermer, 325-27.

                [8] Ibid., 325.

                [9] Ibid., 326.

                [10] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 488.

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