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On February 21-22 (2014), Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig will debate at the Greer-Heard Forum, at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The topic is “God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology”. For a number of reasons, I have high hopes for this one. Here’s why.

I (mostly) like the format

We start with a dialogue between the two parties, for 1.5 hours. As a spectator, I prefer the debate format. While a dialogue sounds like a friendly chat rather than a confrontation, in practice it unfairly unfavors the rude and the loud. We are at the mercy of the disciplinary skill of the moderator. However, this one shouldn’t be too bad. Craig will let his opponent talk, and I get the same impression from Carroll.

Given the list of things I’d like them to discuss, as I’ll discuss in future posts, I’m hoping that each party gets an opening statement of at least 20 minutes. They both have a lot to say about this topic, and need the time to present their case thoroughly.

The next day we’re back with 4 speakers, each with an hour that includes responses from Carroll and Craig. That’s a very interesting arrangement and I’m keen to see how it works in practice. The day rounds out with concluding comments from the two debaters.

Good choice of debaters

I’ve listened to a number of William Lane Craig’s debates and the best ones are usually against other philosophers, for this reason. The topic is God, or at least something closely related to the almighty. In any argument for or against the existence of God, at least one of the premises must be metaphysical. So against, say, a scientist, Craig can absorb a lot of the scientific expertise of his opponent and focus on the (often unstated) philosophical assumptions behind their remarks. The debate moves to matters philosophical, which gives Craig the home advantage. Some of Craig’s opponents know less than nothing about philosophy; what they think they know about philosophy is wrong. On the other hand, Craig knows enough of the science that is relevant to his arguments to be able to defend the scientific premises against a philosopher.

Carroll has an undergraduate philosophy minor and as a grad student in astrophysics at Harvard, sat in on courses with John Rawls and Robert Nozick. His blog posts and articles show a familiarity with and respect for philosophical issues. Carroll is close to the ideal opponent for this debate, as he should be able to hold his own on matters philosophical, whilst holding a substantial advantage on matters cosmological.

Good Choice of Respondents

I’m guessing that Craig will defend three of his usual five arguments – the Kalam cosmological argument from the beginning of the universe, the contingency argument, and the design argument from the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. The contingency argument doesn’t rely on any particular scientific theories, so Craig doesn’t need any particular backup on that front. For the Kalam cosmological argument, his scientific case for the premise “the universe has a beginning” has been provided in recent times by James Sinclair. In particular, Craig’s most sophisticated defence of the argument in recent times is in the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, which was co-written with Sinclair. Sinclair is a Warfare Analyst with a masters in cosmology, so his credentials are slightly unorthodox.

Also writing in the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology is Robin Collins, a philosopher with a background in physics. He has specialised in the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. So that gives Craig his backup for his third argument.

Carroll has two philosophers in tow. Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher at Duke University who Craig has debated before, and whose book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” was praised by both sides of the debate as seeing rather clearly the consequences of atheism. Tim Maudlin is a philosopher of science at New York University. His book “Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time” is marvellous. He also seems to have taken an interest in the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. (I have a few reservations about his opinions on that topic.)

That’s an interesting line up. I’d gladly hear any of them speak on the topic at hand; all four of them in a row with responses from Carroll and Craig is very promising.

My advice

I think this debate could be uniquely insightful on this important topic. Craig has said an awful lot about cosmology in recent years, and no one has really pressed him on the details. They’ve mostly (though not unreasonably) appealed to cosmological authorities. (For the love of Pete, nobody read out an email from Alex Vilenkin. More on that soon.) Carroll has said a lot about the implications of cosmology for theism, and there are some philosophical niceties to be examined there as well. Stay tuned for parts two, three, and four.

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[Edit, 4/2/2012: I’ve written a more complete critique of Stenger’s book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us. It’s posted on on Arxiv.]

This post is part of a series that responds to internet articles on the fine tuning of the universe. Here I will respond to Prof. Victor Stenger, who is a particle physicist at the University of Hawaii and known for his defence of atheism. Stenger, according to Wikipedia, is currently writing a book on fine-tuning. Here I will respond to a point he made in a debate with Dr. William Lane Craig.

Stenger proposes the following counterexample to the claim that interesting conclusions can be drawn from the improbability of the fine-tuning of the constants/initial conditions/laws of nature:

Low probability events happen every day.  What’s the probability that my distinguished opponent exists?  You have to calculate the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg, then multiply that by the probability that his parents met, and then repeat that calculation for his grandparents and all his ancestors going back to the beginning of life on Earth. Even if you stop the calculation with Adam and Eve, you are going to get a fantastically small number. To use words that Dr Craig has used before, “Improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.” Well, Dr Craig has a mind-reeling, incomprehensibly low probability – a priori probability – for existing.  Yet here he is before us today. (more…)

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Today, more on the work of William Lane Craig on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. The issue today is whether the laws/constants/initial conditions of the universe are, in some way, necessary. We think that the probability of a randomly chosen universe (with its laws, constants and initial conditions) being life-supporting is vanishingly small. We reach this conclusion by altering the laws/constants/initial conditions and predicting the outcome.

But perhaps when we have a deeper understanding of the laws of nature, we’ll realise that these constants couldn’t have been different. Or at least, we’ll realise that many of them are related, and thus cannot be altered independently. This would significantly reduce the probability of “getting the universe right”, as there are fewer dials to be tuned.

Let’s have a look at Craig’s response to this argument: (more…)

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This post is part of a series on the fine-tuning of the universe. Here I will respond to the work of Dr. William Lane Craig. Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology. He is known for his defence of arguments for the existence of God, both in philosophical journals and public debates. Here, I will respond to a point that Craig has made in response to the multiverse (or many-worlds hypothesis; James Sinclair makes a similar point in his essay in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics”):

The error that that is made by the many worlds hypothesis is that it is basically an attempt to multiply your probabilistic resources without having any justification for doing so. It’s a way of saying that the improbable roll of the dice that we have come up with is rendered probable because there have been many throws. If you’re allowed to do that, then you could explain away anything. For example, imagine a couple of card players in a west Texas saloon. And every time one of them deals, he gets four aces, and wins the game. The other guy gets outraged and says, “Tex! You’re a dirty cheater!” And old Tex says, “Well, Slim, you shouldn’t really be surprised that every time I deals I gets four aces. After all, in this infinite universe of ours there’s an infinite number of poker games goin’ on somewhere. And so chances are in some of them I gets four aces every time I deals.” (more…)

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