Monday, 8 June 2009

Scot Pruett replies to atheists: A Question of Order

Scott Pruett, through Lifeway, who asked 10 questions for atheists and to whom I replied here, has started writing replies to various answers provided by atheists in his own blog. I have already addressed his first reply in Scott Pruett replies to atheists: Cosmic Origins. He has now provided a detailed response to the second question in A question of Order where he now acknowledges both my response and db0's 10 answers from an Epicurean.

What Pruett has displayed in this response is he has thought far more about it than was indicated in his rather brief and biased original 10 questions. Whilst this might warrant a more considered answer, reading through his post does not really enhance his position. Still I note that he addresses three points that I made in my initial response, which were admittedly brief, which given the nature and presentation of his original question, did not then warrant a more considered reply.

His three ripostes to me were over the assumption that this universe is hospitable to life, the assumption that other universes are inhospitable to life (even if of a quite dramatically different form) and my card analogy to indicate the problem with probabilistic arguments over the universal constants. I will grant that my first point was weak but it was only addressing a weak presentation of the problem by Pruett in the first place, it served to force Pruett to be more clear about what he was claiming, which he has now done. However my last two points still stand and I do not think Pruett understands the issue.

For sure, as Pruett notes, many physicists have been fascinated by the question of why do the universal constants have the values they do and this is indeed an important and fascinating question in physics. Physics are wont to speculate beyond the evidence but such speculation is highly constrained by the evidence and fellow physicists also apply the same methods that they use to criticise evidential based arguments over speculative extrapolations beyond the evidence too. There simply is no basis for Pruett to make such assertions as he does in reply to my noting we have no idea what life could occur in other universes with:
Perhaps some other dramatically different mix could add up to a recipe for success, but that would be another island in a vast sea of improbability as well [my emphasis].
and, in reply to my card analogy with:
And to suggest that other radically different universes might help us here is to suggest that there might be a way that any old arrangement of its materials would yield order. This is like saying that in another universe made of dice instead of cards, that most rolls of the dice will come up all sixes, or in stacks. Perhaps there could be some universe where the laws are so rudimentary that there's no possible "variation," or any variation would yield the same assembly capability, but even that kind of universe surely would be less probable than all the other more dependent kinds, like the one we happen to occupy.[my emphasis]
I am sorry we simply have not idea of the probabilities at all, we simply do not know. This is the key point.

Now how are we going to find out, if ever we can? Through Pruett's approach which never did and most likely would never have led us to discover a single fundamental constant or the methods that did, that were predicated on rejecting Pruett's worldview and without which Pruett would have been unable to ask this question? Surely the historical record and evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the latter (certainly any Bayesian would argue this way). So the mere possibility of Pruett being able to ask his first three questions at least are good reasons to reject Pruett's answers!

I noted when I engaged in answering Pruett that I was interested in understanding radically different worldviews from mine. I have also discovered that, whilst Pruett is relatively obscure in the blog world, Tom Gilson, with a much higher profile Christian blog site, judging by his comments here, fully endorses if not all of the detail of Pruett's arguments, at the every least the basic intent and worldview behind them. I can also presume Pruett's would also be endorsed by such debaters as William Lane Craig, that Gilson has used here in ripostes to other posts. (So the fact Pruett is not well know does not seem to mitigate against him presenting pretty much a stereotypical modern Christian Theistic worldview). Still the underlying issue is about worldviews.

Pruett admits that his worldview is based on teleology and so it is not surprising that he assumes and seeks a teleological answer - god did it - here. However one cannot assume what one is trying to prove and he misunderstands what it means to reject a teleological premise. He asserts:
It is true that this, and many of my questions, depend upon teleology. In fact, teleology is part-and-parcel to the worldview I am advocating. But surely teleology cannot be ruled out a priori any more than we could meaninglessness. I might just as well claim, "the atheist can't say the universe just is what it is, because that's a circular argument: it presupposes that there actually is no meaning to the universe." How, then, is one to demonstrate the need of a designer if one cannot point to anything as evidence merely and precisely because it supports his thesis!
The mistake Pruett makes is to think that if one denies a (in this case teleological) premise one must provide an alternate (non-teleological) one, such as (in this case) the "materialist" premise: "there is no meaning to the universe". As a problematic premise one can there is no requirement to provide any alternative to it and it is preferable see how far one can get without substituting any alternate premise first. That is the sensible course is for anyone, not just a "materialist", not to assume a priori that the either universe is meaningless or that it is meaningful, instead they should focus on the best methods available and make as few metaphysical assumptions as possible, to employ the methods of critical rationality and evidential reasoning to expand knowledge. In our case this has taken us very far to provide all the knowledge upon which Pruett has been able to formulate in at least his first three questions, hence having this knowledge available to both us and Pruett is good evidence that imposing an a priori metaphysics or worldview of either of a teleological or anti-teleological nature is a mistake.

So far Pruett has provided no good argument or evidence that his solution to the first two questions is not highly improbable (based on Bayesian analysis of the repeated failure of his worldview to get us to our current knowledge of the universe) and implausible (given everything else we know about the universe including how we know it) and so is not worthy of further consideration. I await his reply to the third question and predict that he will again fail to provide good argument or evidence to revise my tentative conclusion here.