Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

This is a copy of my Amazon review of this book. Be sure to click over there and click "like" so I can feel good about myself. :-)

This book make a pretty simple argument in a pretty simple way. The argument of the book is that God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe or the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. Both can be explained by M-theory. M-theory predicts something like 10^500 universes with various laws and constants. The wide variety of universes with different constants and laws provides the explanatory resources to account for the fine-tuning of this universe for the possibility of complex chemistry and therefore life. The inclusion of gravity explains the emergence of the universe from nothing.

The book is not technical at all, and it doesn't go into any detail about much of anything. It's very simply written and easy to understand. It's also fairly short. I would recommend it for those reasons.

But there are problems with the book. First, the book is unnecessarily polemical. It starts off criticizing the whole discipline of philosophy as being obsolete. The problem with this criticism is that the authors engage in philosophical reasoning and speculation throughout the book, sometimes poorly. The authors also take pot shots at various kinds of theism throughout the book that seem designed to poison the well or even vent the authors' antagonism toward religion rather than contribute to any argument.

Second, the argument at the end of the book for how the universe could spontaneously pop into existence from nothing seems fallacious. It's based on the fact that positive energy of the matter in the universe is perfectly balanced by the negative energy of the gravity in the universe such that the net energy in the universe is zero. I can see how that could work out as an explanation for how the universe could pop OUT of existence, but I don't see how it serves as an explanation for how the universe could pop INTO existence. It could pop out of existence because the negative and positive energy interact and annihilate each other. But how could the universe pop INTO existence from nothing at all? In that situation, there's no positive or negative energy because there's no mass and no gravity.

Also, as I understand it, M-theory does not predict that any universe pops into existence spontaneously from nothing. Rather, universes are caused to come into existence by the collision of previously existing branes. Maybe I've just got some big misunderstanding, though.

Another weakness I found with the book was that while the authors explained near the beginning of the book that science works on models, and models only have practical value without having to actually describe what the physical world is really like, they argued throughout the rest of the book as if the models of physics accurately describe the world the way it really is. In fact they went so far as to say that M-theory MUST be true because it's the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.

Based on other things I've read by Stephen Hawking, I'm skeptical that he had much to do with writing this book. I suspect Leonard Mlodinow wrote most of it and that Hawking's name is in big letters on the cover because his name sells better.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Letting an argument go

Some people will embrace (or pretend to embrace) any absurdity before conceding a point in a discussion/debate. For example, let's say you run into somebody who says all knowledge comes by way of our five senses, and you can't know anything apart from your five senses, yet there's quite a lot we can know about the external world. You respond by saying the only way our senses could tell us anything about the external world is if we already knew our senses were giving us true information about the world. After all, it's at least possible that we're plugged into the matrix. To press the point a bit farther, you say that their epistemology leads to solipsism when taken to its logical conclusion since you'd then be stuck inside your head with no epistemological way to make a connection between your perceptions and whatever external reality might exist outside your head. Rather than concede the point, or even qualify their epistemology, the person you're talking to will say, "Okay. Solipsism it is." Yes, I have actually had this very conversation with somebody, and that is what they did.

A long long time ago, I used to argue with people like that. I would argue with them with the goal of convincing them they were wrong. I would take any absurdity they threw at me as if it were a serious argument, and I'd try to respond to it. I'd basically run the argument into the ground. I wasn't really trying to embarrass the other person. I was trying to get my point across because I took them seriously.

Then I read J. Budziszewski's book, How To Stay Christian In College. There was a section in there about what to do when somebody throws up a smoke screen--something you suspect the person doesn't really believe. The example he used was of a moral relativist who, when asked about murder, says, "How do we even know murder is wrong?" Budziszewski suggested that instead of arguing with the person about whether murder is wrong, say something like, "Are you in any real doubt that murder is wrong?" I started using this technique in a lot of discussions, tayloring it to the occasion. I would say that about half the time, it works. The person will come clean and admit they aren't seriously entertaining solipsism, that murder is okay, or whatever the case may be. The other half of the time, I either try harder to get the person to come clean, or I press the argument and go back and forth with them.

A few years ago, I started doing something different, though. You see, sometimes people will dig in their heels in order to save face. They will defend any absurd notion rather than admit to being wrong. Reductio ad absurdum doesn't work with these people because they'll embrace the absurdity rather than concede the point. So what I started doing is once I've made my point, and once the other person has started to dig their heels in defending something that's absurd, I'll drop the subject. I'll let them get the last word. This is the way I look at it. If you push somebody into a corner, causing them to dig in their heels, they'll just get more entrenched in their point of view. They'll convince themselves of the absurdity, and they'll be even more comfortable defending that absurdity later on. But if I allow them to save face, then they'll be able to go off by themselves when the pressure is off and think about it without any fear of embarrassment. I figure people sometimes say things they don't believe in order to save face. So if I resist the urge to argue with them, they'll be able to see the force of my argument. It shouldn't matter to me whether I got them to admit it or not as long as I got my point across. So once I think I've gotten my point across, I'll drop it. I won't argue with them anymore.

I don't know whether it's working or not, but I can tell you it has saved me a lot of frustration. Going back and forth with people--especially people you suspect are just pretending--can be exhausting. Sometimes it's hard to let an argument go and not respond, but I'm a much happier person since I started doing that. Plus, it frees me up to enter new conversations without being bogged down in the old ones.

You might wonder about the audience, though. If you're arguing with somebody on a public forum with other people watching, you might feel the need to continue arguing for their sake. I don't worry about the audience, though. They're not in the position of having to save face, so there's no worry that they're going to dig in their heels. You have to just give people some credit and let them judge for themselves whether or not the other person is just being silly. Trust them to see the force of your argument. You don't have to run it into the ground.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Forgotten arguments

When I first started reading up about undesigned coincidences, I thought of an objection to them that was pretty strong. Now, I've forgotten what that objection was. That causes a problem because no matter how much I read about them, and no matter how persuasive arguments from undesigned coincidences seem to me now, I still have doubts because I know there's this objection I once had that I can no longer remember. I can't do anything about it either. I can't think about whether it's a good objection, and I can't ask anybody else if they think it's a good objection. So I'm stuck.

This is kind of the opposite problem I brought up on my blog a long time ago in a post about "phantom arguments." Sometimes, we study something out in depth and become convinced of some conclusion. Once we've become satisfied that the conclusion is true, we don't worry about it anymore. We stop studying it and we stop reading about it because we're satisfied. But then years later, we forget why we were so convinced. Now, when we run across objections, those objections may seem on the face to be entirely persuasive, yet we are not convinced because we know we once had good reason to believe. That makes it impossible for us to judge the merits of the objections we're hearing without going back and doing all that studying again.

If you think about it, these forgotten arguments, reasons, and evidences can keep up from progressing in knowledge. Maybe the objection I once had to undesigned coincidence is not a good objection. Maybe the reasons I had for accepting some conclusion were not good reasons or would be overcome by the recent objections I've heard.

It just shows to go you that epistemology is not always tidy. But it's also another reason to cut people slack who don't immediately change their minds when you present them with what you think is a pretty good argument. You don't know what's inside their noetic structure that's keeping them from changing their minds. They're not necessarily being irrational.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Ezekiel 36:26 and regeneration

24 For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. 25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. 28 You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.
Ezekiel 36:24-28

Calvinists (and I include myself here) often point to Ezekiel 36:26 as an explanation of what they mean by "regeneration." Regeneration, so they say, is when God takes out your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh. The result is that you stop resisting God and willingly come to Christ for salvation. But I'm not so sure that's what Ezekiel is talking about. First of all, Ezekiel appears to be referring to the eschaton when God gathers all his chosen people from around the world into the promised land, which is something that happens at the second coming. Second, Ezekiel says the result of this renewal (which includes putting his Spirit within us) is that people are caused to walk in God's statues and observe his ordinances. It's not until the resurrection (or at least death) that we become sinless, though. Regenerated people continue to sin. Maybe you could sort of wrap regeneration up with sanctification and say that the change of heart is a process that takes place over time and is never completed before you die, but I'm not so sure about that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Neale Donald Walsch's plagiarism

I read this article in the NY Times about how Neale Donald Walsch, author of Conversations With God, got caught plagiarizing a story written by Candy Chand. Walsch's excuse was that he must've read the story a long time ago, and after retelling the story many times in his public talks, he internalized it and actually thought it happened to him. Chand did not buy his excuse. At the end of the article, it says,

"Speaking of Mr. Walsch, she asked: 'Has the man who writes best-selling books about his "Conversations With God" also heard God’s commandments? "Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie, and thou shalt not covet another author’s property"?'"

The funny thing about that (to me anyway) is that if Ms. Chand had ever read Conversations With God, she would know that Walsch has both heard of the commandments and rejected them.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Materialism, Dualism, and Idealism

There's materialism, dualism, and idealism. As far as I know, that exhausts all the options. That is unless there's tri-ism or nothing-ism. But let's stick with the big three. No matter which one of the three you go with, there's a problem.

For materialism, there's the hard problem of consciousness.

For dualism, there's the interaction problem.

For idealism, there's the problem of solipsism.

Of these three, I think the materialists try the hardest to solve their problem. There are all kinds of supposed solutions to the problem of consciousness. Some people go to the extreme of denying consciousness even exists.

Idealists, as far as I can tell, don't try to deal with their problem. I think it may be because although there are difficulties with idealism, they don't amount to defeaters. I mean if it turns out that I am the only person who exists (or who I can know exists), it wouldn't follow that idealism was false. Or, if idealism is counter-intuitive for reasons I explained in an earlier post, it wouldn't follow that idealism was false.

Dualists fall somewhere in between. A lot of dualists acknowledge that there's an interaction difficulty, but they don't try to solve it. They rest on the arguments for dualism and assume there must be a solution even if they don't know what it is. Some people try to solve the problem. I thought I had a solution to it a while back, but it ended up not working out because it only allowed for causation in one direction.

But still, it seems like no matter what worldview you subscribe to, there's going to be a problem.

Friday, August 11, 2017


I've been reading Four Views On Divine Providence lately. Although I'm reformed, the representative of reformed theology in this book, Paul Kjoss Helseth, advanced the craziest theory of God's providence. He advocated occasionalism, which is the view that nothing in the natural world causes anything else. Rather, everything that's happening in each moment of time is directly caused by God. In fact, our existence in each moment of time is caused by God. He called this view omnicausality. I think it's just nuts.

That's about all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Feasible and infeasible worlds

According to Molinists, people have libertarian freedom, and God knows what each person would freely choose to do in whatever circumstances they might be in. That means there are counter-factuals to human freedom. A counter-factual is an if/then proposition. For example, if Pete were holding a drink at such and such moment, then he would drink it.

Since, according to Molinists, there are counter-factuals of human freedom that tell God exactly what each person will do in whatever situation, that means there are possible worlds that God could not actualize even if he wanted to. That follows from the counter-factuals.

Let's imagine two possible worlds that are exactly alike up until some precise moment that we'll call t. From t onward, the two worlds diverge because although Pete is in exactly the same situation in both worlds, he makes a different choice in each. In one world, Pete chooses to drink at t, and in the other world, Pete chooses not to drink at t.

Suppose God knew before creating anything that if Pete were holding a drink at t, then Pete would freely choose to drink at t. With that being the case, God could not have actualized the other world in which Pete were in the exact same situation at t, but chose not to drink. Even though the other world describes a possible state of affairs, God could not have actualized that world. That's what Molinists mean by "infeasible." An infeasible world is a possible world that God could not actualize because it describes a possible state of affairs that contradicts one of the counter-factuals that God knew before creating anything. If it was true all along that if Pete were in such and such situation at t, then he would freely drink, then God could not have actualized the world in which Pete was in the exact same situation at t but chose not to drink.

It makes you wonder how many possible worlds are infeasible compared to the feasible worlds. You'd think there would be at least as many infeasible worlds as there are feasible worlds since for whatever choice a person makes, they could have done otherwise, given libertarian freedom. But there are Frankfurt cases that show libertarian freedom does not require that a person could have done otherwise even if they have libertarian freedom. Still, it seems that in most of our choices, we could have done otherwise if those choices were free in the libertarian sense.

I think there would actually have to be far more infeasible worlds than feasible worlds. After all, at any moment, it's not as if the very next choice you make is either to act in some particular way or not to act in that way. At each moment, there are a whole slew of things you could choose to do. Let's say you decide to point in some direction. Well, there are a whole bunch of directions you could have chosen to point. You could choose to point north, south, east, west, up, down, or anywhere in between. You'd have 360 degrees to choose from, and that's just in the horizontal plane. But if you choose to point at some precise moment, you're only going to choose to point in one particular direction. There is some counterfactual that says exactly which direction you're going to point if you are in that situation at that particular moment. Yet every direction is possible. For every possible direction you could point at that moment, but don't, there is a possible world in which you do point in that direction, but each of those possible worlds are infeasible for God to actualize.

Think about that. At any given moment, there are a whole slew of things we could freely choose to do, but we don't. We only take one course of action. That means there must be far more infeasible worlds than feasible worlds. Of all the possible worlds, there were relatively few that were feasible for God to create.