Archive for the ‘Science and the Public’ Category

A favourite XKCD:

Made out of Meat

Here’s a few idle, Friday afternoon thoughts. I study distant galaxies. I use mathematical models of the laws of nature (and a supercomputer) to try to predict the properties of light emitted by and scattered through swirling vortices of matter, each containing a thousand trillion trillion trillion tons of stars, gas and dark matter, almost a trillion trillion kilometers away. My discipline – cosmology – has taken as its object of study the universe as a whole. And we’re doing pretty well, thanks for asking. I’d like to think that I am an evidence collecting, theory discovering, model investigating, equation solving (with a little help from my computer) machine.

And then I hear a talk from a biologist. I am reminded that I’m a fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproducing machine. The lump of stuff in my head was produced by causes that “see” survival and reproduction. My brain is the control centre of a biological organism, and there seems to be precious little overlap between survival, reproduction and astrophysical ability. (Unless my astrophysical brain has made me so attractive to the ladies that it significantly increases my chances of reproduction. I’ll ask my wife.) An accurate mental picture of the world, formed using mostly reliable senses and the ability to reason logically, creatively and flexibly, seems useful to survival. But to use a brain to do cosmology? Really? (If you haven’t read Terry Bisson’s wonderful short essay “They’re made out of meat“, then do it now: “Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”.)

A parable. Suppose I call Toyota customer services.

Me: Hi there. I own a 1993 Toyota Camry. I have a question.

Toyota: Certainly, sir. Is the car running well, getting you from A to B in comfort?

Me: Sure. It’s doing all that nicely. I was thinking about using it to drive to the moon.

Toyota: … Right … Wouldn’t recommend that, Mr Barnes. No … uh … not really in the user manual, I’m afraid. Not what it’s made for.

Suppose I find a customer support label on the back of my brain.

Me: Hi there. I own and operate one of your brains. I have a question.

Support: Certainly, sir. Is it operating your body, correctly? Are you getting enough food? Have you found a mate?

Me: Sure. It’s doing all that nicely. I was thinking about using it to do theoretical physics, discover the fundamental laws of the universe and use them to understand the structure and evolution of the universe and all its contents.

Support: … Right … Wouldn’t recommend that, Mr Barnes. No … uh … not really in the user manual, I’m afraid. Not what it’s made for.

Let’s be clear about the point I’m making here. I don’t doubt that physicists in general and cosmologists in particular have discovered true facts about the universe. It’s just a tad amazing that we can do that sort of things with our brains. (We use computers and telescopes as well, of course, but they too are the products of human brains). To extend the analogy, it’s as if I find myself standing on the moon, wondering how I got there. And as I look around, all I can see is a 1993 Toyota Camry. It’s not that I doubt where I am; I’m wondering how I got here in that! I’m not asking: how do I know that our investigation of the universe is successful? I’m asking: why is our investigation of the universe successful? How does fighting/fleeing/feeding/reproducing machine manage to do theoretical physics?

Perhaps the boring answer is the right one: we do it bit by bit. If we view science as extended and refined common sense, then maybe we can understand how a brain “made for” understanding local terrestrial environments is able to understand the universe. We don’t directly grasp the universe, of course. We rely on mental pictures and analogies. Mathematical models of the universe are perhaps analogies with equations. Having a mental picture of the world is useful. Just add curiosity and get practicing.

It seems like the same problem arises for mathematics – how does a brain manage to investigate such abstract ideas as those of pure mathematics? The same answer suggests itself: abstract thinking is useful. Just add curiosity and get practicing.

The universe is easy

We seem to need another ingredient in this explanation. That a brain can do theoretical physics and cosmology suggests not only that it is a remarkably adaptable, programmable thing, but also that the universe is an easier problem than we might have expected. A great example of this is the so-called cosmological principle. (I discuss this in more detail in my Australian Physics article here.)

That the universe is rationally analysable at all, that there is order and reason waiting for us in the mathematical structure of the universe, is a remarkable fact. The intellectual problem we are presented with in nature is, in a very real and precise sense, solvable.  It is one thing that the universe exemplifies such beautiful mathematics as Lagrangian dynamics; it is another, a fortiori, that the Lagrangians that describe our universe display numerous and deep symmetries. The universe is a complicated place, and the mathematics that describes it must be complicated at some level. The remarkable thing is that the complication is on top; there is simplicity underneath. To be more precise, the laws of nature are simple, their solutions can be complicated. Newton’s law of gravitation is simple, but for even three bodies, its solution cannot be written down analytically.

In physics’s search for the ultimate laws of nature, many physicists wouldn’t accept a proposed fundamental theory unless it were simple, elegant, and beautiful. Paul Dirac went so far as to say that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment”. It follows that physics cannot explain why the laws of nature are simple, elegant, and beautiful. Now there’s a thought for the weekend.

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If you’re in Sydney on Monday (18th May, 2015), then come along to The Royal pub in Darlington to see A Pint of Science! It’s an international science festival, with similar events in 9 countries. I’ll be speaking on:

Universes, one after the other)
Cosmologists are considering the idea that our universe is just one of a vast ensemble. I’ll give two reasons to take that incredulous look off your face, and two reasons to put that incredulous look right back again.

You’ll also hear “Quantum origin of galaxies, stars and life”, by Archil Kobakhidze (theoretical particle physicist), and Quantum Technologies of the Future by David Reilly (quantum physicist).

And, naturally, beer. All welcome!

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Last time, I started a review of the Carroll vs. Craig debate with a (mostly historical) overview of the back-and-forth about the beginning of the universe for the last 90 years of modern cosmology. Here, I’ll have a look at fine-tuning. I should start by saying how much I enjoyed the debate. They should do it again some time.

In his speeches, Sean Carroll raised five points (transcript) against the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life as an argument for the existence of God. I want to have a look at those five. Carroll (here) and Craig (here, here and here) had a few points to make post-debate, too.

Here is fine-tuning reply number one:

First, I am by no means convinced that there is a fine-tuning problem and, again, Dr. Craig offered no evidence for it. It is certainly true that if you change the parameters of nature our local conditions that we observe around us would change by a lot. I grant that quickly. I do not grant therefore life could not exist. I will start granting that once someone tells me the conditions under which life can exist. What is the definition of life, for example? If it’s just information processing, thinking or something like that, there’s a huge panoply of possibilities. They sound very “science fiction-y” but then again you’re the one who is changing the parameters of the universe. The results are going to sound like they come from a science fiction novel. Sadly, we just don’t know whether life could exist if the conditions of our universe were very different because we only see the universe that we see.

“Interesting” Games

Is the debate over the definition of life a problem for fine-tuning? Sean and I had a brief discussion on this point during my talk at the UCSC Summer School on Philosophy of Cosmology. My response was (roughly) as follows.

Consider chess. In particular, I’m wondering whether minor changes to the laws of chess would result in a similarly interesting game. Wait a minute, you say, you haven’t defined “interesting”. In fact, different people are going to come up with different definitions of interesting. So how can we know whether a game is interesting or not?

It’s a good point, but instead of considering this question in abstract, consider this particular example. Change one word in the rules of chess: instead of “Knights may jump over other pieces”, we propose that “Bishops may jump over other pieces”. If we were to rewrite the 530 page “Silman’s Complete Endgame Course“, we would need just one page, one paragraph, two sentences: “White bishop moves from f1 to b5. Checkmate.”


My claim is that this particular case is so clear that by any definition of interesting, this is not an interesting game. The game is no more interesting than tossing a coin to see who goes first. It is too simple, too easy. (more…)

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I’ve been a bit quiet around here, lately. Travel is my excuse. I’m currently in Cambridge, collaborating with a few colleagues on a project. I’ll be back in Sydney next week, so if you’re near Epping on Friday 4th July 2014, why not come along to hear me speak at the Astronomical Society of NSW:

“What Happened at the Big Bang?”

Friday 4th July 2014 – 8:00pm
Topic: What happened at the Big Bang?
Speaker: Dr Luke Barnes, University of Sydney
Venue: Epping Creative Centre – 26 Stanley Road, Epping

Was the big bang the beginning of the universe? Does the big bang represent the beginning of time itself? This is an age-old question, and has been remarkably informed by modern cosmology.

I will answer this question once and for all.

I will follow the theorems, evidence and hints that lead us back in time. In particular, I will discuss the expansion of the space, the physics of the very early universe, the recent BICEP2 results and cosmic inflation, the effect of quantum physics, and the reason (or one of them) why Stephen Hawking is famous.

Dr Luke A. Barnes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy. After undergraduate studies at the University of Sydney, Dr. Barnes earned a scholarship to complete a PhD at the University of Cambridge. He worked as a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), before returning to Sydney in 2011. He has published papers on galaxy formation and cosmology, and recently has taken an interest in the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. He blogs at letterstonature.wordpress.com.

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As I explained in my last posts (one, two), I’m expecting good things from the upcoming dialogue between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig. Here, I’ll look at a species of the cosmological argument for the existence of God known as the contingency argument.

Before all that: Sean has linked to my previous post about this debate. Just to be clear, I don’t think Sean needs much advice. I’m really using these posts as an excuse to discuss Carroll’s ideas. He knows the arguments, knows the cosmology, has a clear idea about what naturalism is and how to defend it, and is an excellent public speaker. Carroll’s arguments are interesting and relevant, and Craig’s response won’t be anything as basic as “here’s a Grammar 101 lesson on using terms of negation and indefinite pronouns.”

Long post ahead. The short story: Carroll needs to make clear his objection to the Craig’s version of the principle of sufficient reason. In particular, why think that the universe is an exception (perhaps the only exception) to the general trend that things exist for a reason?

Craig’s Version of the Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God has been defended through the ages by a who’s who of thinkers: Plato, Aristotle, Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus, Spinoza, Leibnitz, … Of course, it has also been critiqued, most famously by Hume and Kant. The debate continues. Craig’s version of the contingency argument goes like this.

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.

It follows from these premises that God exists (homework). Note that this argument has nothing to do with whether the universe has a beginning.

Some atheists (Lawrence Krauss in particular) object to the second premise, thinking that God is just crowbarred in, an ad hoc assumption. But premise 2 has its own argument:

4. Since the universe is the totality of space, time, matter and energy (i.e. that’s the sense of universe being used here), the cause of the universe must be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.
5. The most plausible immaterial kind of thing that could cause a universe is a mind.
6. A spaceless, timeless, and immaterial mind that causes the universe deserves to be called God.

Premise 5, in turn, has its own argument based on the causal effeteness of abstract entities. If you want to go after premise 2, you need to deal with this argument. Krauss didn’t.

Getting slightly ahead of myself, Carroll seems to object to Premise 1. This premise is a version of the infamous Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). It is a mild version, applying only to things, not to all (contingent) truths. Craig argues for premise 1, or at least that the universe is not an exception to premise 1, as follows.

  1. It would be arbitrary for the atheist to claim that the universe is the exception to the rule. Merely increasing the size of the object to be explained, even until it becomes the universe itself, does nothing to remove the need for some explanation of its existence.

Alexander Pruss has advanced arguments for a version of the PSR along these lines. (I’m paraphrasing, dangerously).

8. If the universe could exist without explanation, then it would be inexplicable why just anything couldn’t exist without explanation. In other words, why is only the universe an exception to premise 1?
9. Universal principles are simpler than principles that apply to an arbitrary subset. The simplest explanation of fact that contingent things typically have explanations is that all contingent things have explanations.

Carroll’s Case

Let’s consider with what Carroll’s response might be, as gleaned from this reply to an op-ed piece by Paul Davies.

“[A]t first glance, it seems plausible that there could be [an] answer to the question of why the laws of physics take the form they do. But there isn’t. At least, there isn’t any as far as we know, and there’s certainly no reason why there must be. The more mundane “why” questions make sense because they refer to objects and processes that are embedded in larger systems of cause and effect. … The universe (in the sense of “the entire natural world,” not only the physical region observable to us) isn’t like that. It’s not embedded in a bigger structure; it’s all there is. We are lulled into asking “why” questions about the universe by sloppily extending the way we think about local phenomena to the whole shebang. What kind of answers could we possibly be expecting? … [The correct possibility seems to be] that’s just how things are. There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops. This is a simple hypothesis that fits all the data; until it stops being consistent with what we know about the universe, the burden of proof is on any alternative idea for why the laws take the form they do.”

Let’s break it down. Lurking in the background of this entire discussion is this question: what makes an explanation an ultimate explanation? What is it about this explanation that makes another iteration of “and why?” out-of-bounds? Carroll’s argument seems to be:

10. Chains of explanations have to end somewhere.
11. Once we arrive at a simple explanation that fits all the data, there is nothing to be gained by going any further. Such an explanation should be considered an ultimate “stopping-point” explanation.
12. The fundamental laws of nature are just such an explanation for the physical universe.
13. Thus, we should consider the fundamental laws of nature to be the ultimate explanation of the universe.

Carroll’s formula of “simplicity + fits the data” needs a closer look. (more…)

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I don’t know who Rob Sheldon is, but he doesn’t know much about cosmology. He recently was quoted in this post at uncommondescent.com regarding the geometry of the universe. If I lecture cosmology this year, I’ll set this passage as an assignment: find all the mistakes. It gets more wrong than right. I have an article for “Australian Physics” on common questions about cosmology that I’ll post here once it’s out (a fortnight, maybe). In the meantime, I’ll try to clear up a few things.

The discussion of the mathematics of curvature (flat, positive, negative) is about right. It’s when he discusses the universe that things go wrong.

It takes a lot of effort to find any curvature at all, and certainly it is difficult to get good agreement between different types of measurement.

Nope. That’s why it’s called the “concordance model of cosmology” – because the different measurements converge on the same set of cosmological parameters. For example, this plot.

… a “closed” universe that collapses back down to itself …

A common error. In a matter and radiation-only universe, closed implies collapsing. A cosmological constant and/or dark energy changes this: closed vs. open no longer divides collapse vs. expand forever. Here is the plot you’ll need, from John Peacock’s marvellous Cosmological Physics.

… one would like it to have positive curvature to avoid infinities …

Flat and negatively curved universes can be finite. A flat 3-torus, for example, is finite, unbounded and has a flat geometry. Einstein’s general relativity constrains the geometry of the universe but not its topology. (more…)

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As I explained in my last post, I’m expecting good things from the upcoming dialogue between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig. Before discussing the topic, a few comments about debating.

An awful lot of rubbish has been written about counteracting Craig’s diabolical debating; it’s actually pretty simple. When you speak, make a clear argument for a relevant conclusion. After he speaks, target specific premises of his arguments and explain why you think they are unlikely to be true. That’s it. It sounds simple, and it’s been done very effectively, but so many of Craig’s opponents can’t manage it.

Critics have said that Craig unfairly dictates the flow of the debate, keeping a stranglehold on the topic of his choosing. This doesn’t happen when his opponent keeps him busy. Austin Dacey and Keith Parsons are great examples. Craig won’t ignore your case if you make one, and it’s relevant. Give him something to respond to.

If you fail to make a case, Craig will have read your writings and be prepared to both make your own case for you and critique it. He did this to great effect against Rosenberg. If you fail to address his arguments, he will point this out and repeat them. He is justified in doing so because one often hears the refrain that “I’m an atheist because there’s no evidence for God”. To maintain that there is no evidence, one must be able to explain why the supposed evidence isn’t really evidence at all. As an analogy, one cannot reasonably claim that “there is no evidence that human beings walked on the moon” and not attempt to explain the Apollo 11 photographs and videos.

There is no excuse for debating Craig underprepared. You can listen to a debate from the early 1990’s and get most of his arguments. That said, you are better off reading an article rather than responding to a 20 minute summary. It’s best not to raise objections that he has already addressed in print, or even better, raise them in a way that also addresses his response.

Always go for the argument, never the man. If you’ve shown that Craig is mistaken, then it doesn’t much matter how he convinced himself of such falsehoods. Amateur anthropology/psychology/neuroscience – e.g. any sentence beginning with “human beings have a very strong cognitive bias to believe …” – is a waste of time. Just burn down his arguments; don’t toast marshmallows on the embers. Resist Bulverism!

Remember: critiquing is hard. That someone is wrong doesn’t make it easier. Step 1: understand. Step 2: critique. Here are a few resources. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Kalam Cosmological Argument

Contingency (Leibnizian) Argument

  • I think the most comprehensive presentation of Craig’s version of the argument is in his book “Reasonable Faith”. A shorter (and free) introduction is here.

  • Some of the “Questions of the week” shed more light on the philosophical issues that arise: 132, 190, 248, 329.

  • I recommend Alexander Pruss’ article on the Leibnizian argument in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Craig calls it “a must”, but be aware that it differs from Craig’s version in both content and style. In particular, Pruss defends a more comprehensive version of the principle of sufficient reason.

Fine-Tuning Argument

  • Again, the book “Reasonable Faith” is the best resource. A slightly older presentation is here.

  • Questions of the weeks that address the argument: 49, 63, 161, 313. In particular, Craig’s response to the multiverse, include the Boltzmann Brain problem: 14, 285.

  • For the scientific details of the argument, Craig relies a lot on the work of Robin Collins. Collins’ best presentation of fine-tuning cases is in this book. He presents the argument itself in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. He has an interesting discussion of the implications of the Boltzmann brain problem in this article.

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I’ve read two of Daniel Dennett’s books, and while I enjoyed them at the time I find myself unable to remember what they were about, what their arguments were, or indeed any memorable passages. Maybe it’s just me, but I remember almost nothing from “Freedom Evolves”.

I’ve just watched one of Dennett’s TED talks, having been pointed there by 3quarksdaily. The title of the talk is “The Illusion of Consciousness”. Maybe I’m being thick, but I after 20 minutes I’m left with this question: what does any of this have to do with consciousness at all, let alone showing it to be an illusion? Before I move on, I should stress that I’m no kind of philosopher of mind or neuroscientist. I’m not even particularly well-read in the popular literature of these fields. Comments, please!

What I’m going to try to do today is to shake your confidence … that you know your own, inner-most mind, that you are, yourselves, authoritative about your own consciousness. …

Somehow we have to explain how, when you put together teams, armies, battalions, of hundreds of millions of little robotic unconscious cells … the result is colour, content, ideas, memories, history. And somehow all that concept [content?] of consciousness is accomplished by the busy activity of those hoards of neurons.

So we’re off to a good start. The hard problem of consciousness is to explain why certain collections of cells become conscious at all. Dennett particularly wants to question whether we really know our own conscious selves. Good. What is his method?

How many of you here, if some smart alec starts telling you how a particular magic trick is done, want to block your ears and say, “I don’t want to know. Don’t take the thrill of it away. I’d rather be mystified. Don’t tell me the answer.” A lot of people feel that way about consciousness, I’ve discovered. I’m sorry if I impose some clarity, some understanding on you. You better leave now if you don’t want to know these tricks.

Method: condescension. He’s going to smug those illusions right out of us.

The example is wrong. I don’t want you to tell me how a magic trick is done for the same reason I don’t want the stranger on the train to lean over and give me crossword answers. It’s a puzzle. The fun is thinking about it yourself. No one says “I don’t want the crossword answers. I just want the mystery of the empty squares.”

Note the implicit ad hominem. Anyone who disagrees with Dennett is weak-minded, a blissful ignoramus. Actually, those who criticised books such a Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” usually complained that it failed to explain consciousness.

I’m not going to explain it all to you. … You know the sawing the lady in half trick? The philosopher says “I’m going to explain to you how that’s done. You see  – the magician doesn’t really saw the lady in half. He merely makes you think that he does.” How does he do that? “Oh, that’s not my department”.

This is all very amusing, and delivered with a twinkle in the eye. But the message of the metaphor is this: brace yourself for some bald assertion. I’ll tell you what follows from my assumptions, but don’t expect any evidence.


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It’s always a nervous moment when, as a scientist, you discover that a documentary has been made on one of your favourite topics. Science journalism is rather hit and miss. So it was when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), our public TV network, aired a documentary about the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life as part of their Catalyst science series. (I’ve mentioned my fine-tuning review paper enough, haven’t I?).

The program can be watched on ABC iView. (International readers – does this work for you?). It was hosted by Dr Graham Phillips, who has a PhD in Astrophysics. The preview I saw last week was promising. All the right people’s heads were appearing – Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, Paul Davies, Leonard Susskind, Lawrence Krauss, Charley Lineweaver. John Wheeler even got a mention.

Overall – surprisingly OK. They got the basic science of fine-tuning correct. Phillips summarises fine-tuning as:

When scientists look far into the heavens or deeply down into the forces of nature, they see something deeply mysterious. If some of the laws that govern our cosmos were only slightly different, intelligent life simply couldn’t exist. It appears that the universe has been fine-tuned so that intelligent beings like you and me could be here.

Not bad, though I’m not sure why it needed to be accompanied by such ominous music. There is a possibility for misunderstanding, however. Fine-tuning is a technical term in physics that roughly means extreme sensitivity of some “output” to the “input”. For example, if some theory requires an unexplained coincidence between two free parameters, then the “fine-tuning” of the theory required to explain the data counts against that theory. “Fine-tuned” does not mean “chosen by an intelligent being” or “designed”. It’s a metaphor.

Ten minutes in, the only actual case of fine-tuning that had been mentioned was the existence of inhomogeneities in the early universe. Sean Carroll:

If the big bang had been completely smooth, it would just stay completely smooth and the history of the universe would be very, very boring. It would just get more and more dilute but you would never make stars, you would never make galaxies or clusters of galaxies. So the potential for interesting complex creatures like you and me would be there, but it would never actually come to pass. So we’re very glad that there was at least some fluctuation in the early universe.

Paul Davies then discussed the fact that there not only need to be such fluctuations, but they need to be not-too-big and not-too-small. Here’s the scientific paper, if you’re interested.

The documentary also has a cogent discussion of the cosmological constant problem – the “mother of all fine-tunings” – and the fine-tuning of the Higgs field, which is related to the hierarchy problem. Unfortunately, Phillips calls it “The God Particle” because “it gives substance to all nature’s other particles”. Groan.

Once we move beyond the science of fine-tuning, however, things get a bit more sketchy.

The Multiverse

Leonard Susskind opens the section on the multiverse by stating that the multiverse is, in his opinion, the only explanation available for the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. At this point, both the defence and the prosecution could have done more.

Possibilities are cheap. Sean Carroll appears on screen to say “Aliens could have created our universe” and then is cut off. We are told that if we just suppose there is a multiverse, the problems of fine-tuning are solved. This isn’t the full story on two counts – the multiverse isn’t a mere possibility, and it doesn’t automatically solve the fine-tuning problem. (more…)

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I’ve blogged before about my admiration for the remarkable talents of Derren Brown. However, I’ve just finished watching his latest TV offering, Fear and Faith, (Episode 2, first broadcast on Friday 16 November 2012) and I find it deeply flawed.

The show is pitched as an experiment. In particular, I’m going to discuss the segment in which “an atheist [Natalie] is given a religious conversion” via what Brown calls psychological techniques. The results of the experiment are very striking – I encourage you to watch the video, if you can.

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of what an experiment is. Very simply, an experiment is a controlled attempt to link a particular cause to a particular effect. If you want to know whether morphine can relieve pain in humans, you might think that you just give people in pain morphine and then ask if the pain went away. However, this experiment cannot tell whether it was really the morphine that did it. Thus, we must use a control.

The idea of a control is to use two experiments that differ only in the presence or absence of what we’ll call the active ingredient. We must be able to control both the active ingredient and the other variables.  It is crucial that in every other way, the experiments are as identical as possible. In medicine, one crucial variable is the mental state of the patient, which is why the trial must be double blind – to factor out the placebo effect, patients and even their doctors cannot know whether the pill is real or fake.

Thus we come to Derren Brown’s experiment. I have four criticisms.

1. There is no control.

An effect is caused, but in the absence of a control, it isn’t clear to what it should be ascribed. This points to an even deeper problem.

2. The active ingredient is not supposed to be belief in God.

That one can produce a religious experience in the absence of belief in God is not an interesting conclusion. Plenty of religious people claim that a religious experience caused (and thus preceded) their belief in God. In fact, it would be much more embarrassing to the religious cause if religious experiences only happened in cases where the subject already believed in God, since that would make it seem as if the prior belief created the experience. Brown excludes this hypothesis.

3. The active ingredient is supposed to be God.

Tonight I’m going to investigate what I think could be the biggest placebo of them all – God. … This innate hardwiring we have really can give a powerful experience of God, without any need for Him to exist.

God himself (if you’ll allow the traditional masculine pronoun) is the active ingredient. Brown is claiming that he can create a religious experience in the absence of any action of God.

Let’s repeat the experimental logic, as we applied it to morphine (cause) and pain relief (effect) above. To adequately test the causal connection between religious experiences and God, Brown would need to control God. At the very least, he would need to perform an experiment in the absence of God. He would need to build a divine Faraday cage, to shield the possible effects of God.

Obviously, this is not what Brown has achieved. The experiment only proves that God is not required for a religious experience if there is no God, for only then is the active ingredient known to be missing from the experiment. Brown cannot exclude God as the cause of the experience without begging the question. The most he can claim is that he can do it “without mentioning God at all”. And that, clearly, is not the same thing. (more…)

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