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Arguments about universal fine tuning: Carrier vs Barnes

June 21st, 2014

Two people discussing

Last post I discussed The science of universal fine-tuning, a topic that is much argued over these days.

Of course we know one of the reasons behind the arguments is that the science of fine tuning forms a basis for an argument for the existence of God. So the stakes are high for both theists and atheists.

In this post, I am again only discussing the science, not making any argument about God, although I have examined this elsewhere – see Was the universe designed for us? and The Teleological argument.

You would think, and hope, that those who claim to base their views on rational inference from evidence would accept the science, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Carrier vs Barnes

I have previously discussed the disagreements between physicist Victor Stenger and astrophysicist Luke Barnes. The current situation seems to be that Barnes has had a paper published in a scientific journal, whereas Stenger’s paper hasn’t been accepted anywhere I have found yet.

But recently, Barnes took on another critic of the scientific consensus, atheist blogger and historian Richard Carrier. The history of the debate goes like this:

  1. In 2011, The End of Christianity, edited by John Loftus, included a chapter by Richard Carrier titled: Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed.
  2. In 2013 Luke Barnes posted a two part critique of Carrier’s chapter, as part of a long series critiquing different people’s statements on fine tuning. Most of these two posts discussed different views on how to calculate probability.
  3. About the same time, Carrier posted a criticism of an article by christian philosopher William Lane Craig, which included criticism of fine-tuning again.
  4. Barnes responded immediately with further criticism of Carrier’s ideas on the science of fine-tuning, this time focusing on the scientific consensus that fine tuning is a fact which needs to be explained.
  5. Further discussion ensued on the Carrier blog until he apparently closed it off. This led to a final post by Barnes – Questions for Richard Carrier.

The main points of contention

Barnes accuses Carrier of three main errors:

  1. Misunderstanding Bayes Theorem probability. This is important because Carrier considers himself to be an expert in using Bayes Theorem in New Testament historical study – he has a PhD in history but no qualifications in statistics are listed in Wikipedia.
  2. Some basic errors of physics, especially the cosmology of the big bang.
  3. Misrepresenting the views of the majority of cosmologists. For example, Carrier says the fine tuning claim “has been refuted–by scientists–again and again”, but Barnes responds: “I’ve published a review of the scientific literature, 200+ papers, and I can only think of a handful that oppose this conclusion, and piles and piles that support it. …. If you disagree, start citing papers”

Carrier’s main response has been to argue that Barnes has misunderstood him, misquoted him and offered only red herrings and ‘straw man’ arguments.

How can a layperson judge who is right?

It ought to be a no-brainer. Carrier is a historian, Barnes is a cosmologist. Go with the expert. But is this right?

An unbiased judge?

I have said previously that I admire Jeffery Lowder for his fair-mindedness. He is an atheist (he helped begin the Secular Web) and a friend of Carrier’s, so if he has any bias, it should be against Barnes.

And just over a month ago he reviewed the debate – see The Carrier-Barnes Exchange on Fine-Tuning. His review is a challenge for Carrier.

Cut the Snark

Lowder chides Barnes for being “a tad snarky” in one place, and Carrier for being “snarky and off putting” twice. “Snarky” (for those like me who don’t use this term) means “snide and sharply critical”, and Lowder makes the criticism when the protagonists impute bad motives to an opponent rather than actually address the issue. Lowder is refreshing on this.

Minor differences

Lowder looks in detail at the claims and counter claims and finds details on each side he disagrees with. In almost every case, he agrees with Barnes that Carrier is wrong in his understanding of probability and of cosmology. There are a couple of places where he agrees with Carrier against Barnes.

Significant criticisms

Lowder has no significant criticism of Barnes, but repeated and significant criticisms of Carrier. Here are a few samples:

  • “I think Dr. Carrier absolutely has to respond to this point by Dr. Barnes or publicly issue a retraction.” (regarding the scientific consensus)
  • “This strikes me as a devastating reply. Like the last point, I think Dr. Carrier absolutely has to respond or else issue a retraction.” (re Barnes’ comment to “start citing papers”)
  • “Ouch” (to several points on scientific authority and consensus)
  • “I agree with pretty much this entire section of Dr. Barnes’s essay.”
  • “I think Dr. Carrier must directly answer the questions in the bulleted list …. I strongly agree. I hope that Dr. Carrier will directly respond to Dr. Barnes without the personal attacks.” (in response to Barnes’ claim that Carrier was attacking him personally and avoiding discussing the issues)

I have checked through Richard Carrier’s blog, and so far I can find no further discussion of fine tuning, and certainly not a retraction as Lowder has urged on him.

Assessment

It is hard to contest Lowder’s critique. Barnes has named 25 eminent scientists (mostly cosmologists) who support fine tuning as a scientific fact requiring an explanation, and referenced 200 scientific papers. Carrier has given the impression of broad scientific support (“refuted – by scientists – again and again” and “by several theoretical physicists (from Krauss to Stenger)”), but he hasn’t cited any papers supporting his view of the science and has only named two scientists in support – and Barnes contests Carrier’s interpretation of Krauss’s view and has shown Stenger to be significantly in error.

Barnes is a researcher in cosmology, knows the science well and has explained it clearly, whereas Carrier is a historian who has been shown not to understand the science nearly as well.

So everything points to Barnes being correct in most of what he says. It will be interesting to see if Carrier makes any further response.

Implications

It would be dishonest, unfair and possibly a bit snarky, to guess at how Richard Carrier came to say with such confidence things that appear to be in error. But I think all of us can probably do better in this way:

  1. I think it is best to carefully distinguish between established facts (or the closest we can get to facts) and the conclusions we draw from the facts. Atheist and theist cosmologists alike seem quite comfortable with the science of fine tuning, even though they may disagree about the conclusions they draw from those ‘facts’. I don’t see why the rest of us can’t do the same.
  2. I suggest we should be wary of claiming certainty about matters that we, in truth, don’t really know that well – and wary of others who claim such certainty. Apparent certainty may make us feel good, and may rally the troops on our side of the debate, but it does little to convince and little to further rational discussion and approaching the truth. People who over-claim and are shown to be wrong lose credibility.

5 Comments

  1. Why on earth are you interested in Richard Carrier’s opinion? He’s a historian not a cosmologist or physicist. He’s very bright and he might be right but he’s just not qualified to hold forth on this subject.

  2. @unkleE
    Well you could at least have chosen Victor Stenger. He is after all a physicist. I understand that your always going to be faced with an atheist with an agenda. The trouble is that I suspect all the real cosmologists are getting on with something useful rather than arguing the toss about this stuff.

  3. @unkleE

    I have looked at Barnes vs Stenger already.

    Then you’ve done the subject to death.

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