The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself? Part 4

Part 4 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 3 is found here.

Understanding the World

Carroll devotes a few chapters to assessing how well we understand the world. He introduces us to Rev. Thomas Bayes who, in the latter part of his life, studied probability. He was published posthumously on the subject. His work has become widely used in mathematics, principally statistics, and also in physics. The subject has become to be known as Bayesian inference or Bayesian probability.

Bayes’ main idea involves how to treat the probability of a proposal being correct in the light of new evidence becoming available. In physics we rely on what we already know, or what we think we have established as foundational and we build upon that. When we get new information that could change our view we need to update what we believe is the probability of the hypothesis being correct in light of that new information. That probability is what is called a credence, or the degree of belief that we hold that we are correct.

So Bayesian inference attempts to apply a quantitative value to what we might infer from our attempts to explain the physical world. It is the basis of scientific investigation. In terms of experimental discoveries it is easy to see how this might apply. We can never prove any hypothesis or theory correct. All we can hope to do is update our credence, meaning to increase the probability of a theory being correct.  In physics a threshold is established of 5σ (5 sigma) above which it is said that a discovery has been made. Statistically that is like saying there is only 1 in a 3.5 million chance that the signal isn’t real and thus the theory is wrong. That is a very low probability indeed. But some discoveries have been made at the level of 3σ or less.I know of one hypothesis that had a 6σ probability yet it turned out to be wrong.2

But things don’t always work out to be correct, even with a statistical probability above 5σ. Any hypothesis may be refuted but it can never be proven. Do you remember the claim of faster than light neutrinos in 2011? The OPERA team’s experimental results indicated a 6σ level of confidence, which is much higher than the 5σ usually required for new particle discoveries. But in the following year, as many expected (because we don’t expect any particle to break the speed of light limit), an error was found in the experimental analysis resulting from a loose fibre optic cable, and that meant those neutrinos obeyed the universal speed limit. When the new information came in the Bayesian credence could be updated to nearly zero.

Ironically, after discussing this affair, Carroll states the following:

“There is an old joke about an experimental result being ‘confirmed by theory,’ in contrast to the conventional view that theories are confirmed or ruled out by experiments.” (p.74)

The irony is that he claims that the case of past evolutionary change is established beyond reasonable doubt by the evidence, like the fossil record, yet at the same time admitting that we have no way to make an observation on the past.

It is true that if a good theory comes to hand to explain evidence, whether that be in the present, in terms of directly repeatable operational science, or evidence related to past events, it increases our prior credence to the claim in the first place.

Yet throughout the book, when discussing what we do learn from the world in terms of the origin of life, and evolution, they are never doubted, only a story is resorted to, to explain what the evidence does not. In other words, despite his claim to update his own Bayesian credence, when evidence at hand does not help explain the evolutionary story, he maintains his degree of belief in abiogenesis and Darwinian evolution despite the evidence. He resorts to hope in something else, not yet discovered or understood.

Yet of others he writes:

“People have certain views that they’re just never going to change, which in Bayesian language corresponds to priors set to 0 or 1. That is too bad, something we need to learn to deal with in the real world. But in principle, if we are all trying to be fair and open-minded and willing to change our beliefs in the face of new information, evidence will win in the end.” (pp.80-1)

In practice I find that atheists are not open-minded. They have a high prior credence on ‘Darwinian evolution is a fact’, despite it not being observable in the lab. And I am not referring to natural selection, though a quick change of the meaning of the word ‘evolution’ is often used in the same sentence. That is called equivocation.

Through the book, Carroll makes some statements, where on the surface he seems to place a little credence in the proposition that ‘God created the universe’ but in reality (on page 80, for example) he assigns it a credence of next to zero. He bases that belief in the fact, as he claims, that the natural world can explain everything. He would say the opposite is true for me, that I have a prior credence of zero in Darwinian evolution and that I do not base my belief on science. On the contrary, if this book is about updating our prior credence based on new information then as the decades have rolled by my credence or belief in Darwin’s theory has gotten smaller and smaller. The evidence has been stacking up against it and the same can be said of abiogenesis and the alleged uncaused big bang origin of the Universe.

Despite what Carroll claims, evidence never does ‘win in the end’. That is a false narrative. All evidence must be interpreted and whoever does the interpreting is always influenced by his/her worldview—the belief system we all have. This is particularly important when we are dealing with past events—events to which we have no direct access. Carroll in no way addresses this issue, nor even recognises that there is an issue there.

Figure 1: Image from The Matrix a 1999 science fiction film, wherein the occupants are unaware that they live in a simulated world.

In the chapter titled “Is it okay to doubt everything?” he discusses Descartes philosophical reasoning that not only he exists but also that God must exist. Carroll agrees with Descartes on his hypothesis that we cannot be sure of anything. In other words Carroll advocates that we cannot be absolutely sure of anything at all. We may not even be real—but instead living in some computer simulation as illustrated in the movie The Matrix.

From there he pointed to Philip Henry Gosse and his book Omphalos wherein Gosse tried to reconcile the alleged old age of the earth (millions of years) with that inferred from the Bible (thousands of years).

“His idea was simple: God created the world a few thousand years ago, but with all the signs of being much older, including mountain ranges that would take millions of years to form, and fossils of apparently great antiquity.” (pp.87-8)

Of course Gosse was seriously wrong. No biblical creationist would suggest such a scenario. However, God created incorporating functional maturity, not ‘appearance of age’, into His creation.

What Gosse did not know is that the mountains and fossils do not indicate ages of millions or billions of years, quite the opposite. Fossils and sedimentary layers are, in fact, only dated by fitting them into the evolution story. But fossils date the rock layers and the rock layers date the fossils. It is completely circular. They are not dated by some absolute dating technique. Carroll should have said so.

But instead he wrote:

“Versions of his idea are promoted to this day by some Christian and Jewish creationists, who use it to account for cosmological evidence of light that left distant galaxies billions of years ago.” (p.88)

He must be referring to the idea that starlight was created in transit to explain light travelling vast distances in a universe only 6000 year old. On this point I agree with him. It is a very poor, ill-thought-through explanation. But there are several far better explanations that in no way limit the veracity of the Creator’s word.3

Realism

In the chapter titled “Reality Emerges” Carroll suggests a world “profoundly different from the picture we construct from our everyday experience” (p.93). This is where, according to him, the Universe is endowed with properties everyday objects would not get.

“There is conservation of momentum: the universe doesn’t need a mover; constant motion is natural and expected. It is tempting to hypothesize … that the universe doesn’t need to be created, caused, or even sustained. It can simply be.” (p.93, emphasis in original)

This is really like the early twentieth century philosophers and cosmologists. Striving to avoid a beginning in time or of time, or striving for some sort of stasis in the cosmos, i.e. Sir Fred Hoyle and the Steady State model. Cosmologists back in the 1950’s had the same sort of thoughts. They believed in an eternal universe that had no beginning and no end. They believed it was uncreated – without a Creator.

Speaking of the conservation momentum and information in the Universe, Carroll states:

“These discoveries indicate that the world operates by itself, free of any external guidance. Together they have dramatically increased our credence in naturalism: there is only one world, the natural world, operating according to the laws of physics.” (p.93)

This begs the question. The modern scientific methodology only operates or tests the natural world. You would expect only to get natural results; nothing preternatural is expected nor obtained. As a result atheopaths, like Carroll, claim there is nothing else. But blindness to the fact that the natural world and the laws of physics are the Creator’s handiwork means that the blind guides overlook the Creator Himself. A fully wound clock will operate by itself—until it is run down and deleted of free energy to do work. It is free of external influences but does that mean we can conclude that the clock doesn’t need to be created, caused or even sustained. It simply is?

In this chapter he lists (on page 102) what he calls important phase transitions in the history of the Universe. These just evolved out of the cosmic soup starting with the big bang, allegedly. Square brackets [] are my insertions.

  • The formation of protons and neutrons out of quarks and gluons in the early universe. [An untestable belief; you can’t repeat the alleged event.]
  • Electrons combining with atomic nuclei to make atoms, several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. [An untestable belief; you can’t repeat the alleged event.]
  • The formation of the first stars, filling the universe with new light. [This is a particularly difficult problem. Unseen exotic dark matter is invoked to solve it.]
  • The origin of life: a self-sustaining complex chemical reaction. [That is all life is to an atheist. Nevertheless, no one has any idea how life began in the evolutionary world.]
  • Multicellularity, when different living organism merged to become one. [This is where Darwinian evolution, natural selection operating on mutations is assumed to be the driving force. But genetics just won’t allow the mixing of genetic information this way. Gene duplication and transmission is a highly conservative process. Only with a lot of intelligence has man been able to add existing genes to foreign organisms.]
  • Consciousness: the awareness of self and the ability to form mental representations of the universe. [Currently is total beyond science to understand consciousness. Nevertheless the atheopaths believe it arises purely from the material world. More faith on their part.]
  • The origin of language and the ability to construct and share abstract thoughts. [Another tough one for the atheopath. If language evolved it must have done so in almost a complete form. This requires more blind faith on the part of the evolutionist.]
  • The invention of machines and technology.

His list above, he believes, is the result of a blind process, powered only by an increase in entropy resulting in these emergent phenomena.

“The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next… It neither aims towards future goals nor relies on its previous history.” (p.93)

But only his last item (invention of machines) is definitively known in the naturalists’ world, because humans were there to see it.

Emergence is a relatively new buzzword in physics. It describes phenomena that result from the whole rather than from looking at the micro-substructure of a system. The materialists would say that consciousness and free will are such emergent phenomena—that is, consciousness cannot be found in the individual neurons but arises from the collective. So Carroll asks the question:

“If the underlying laws of nature are deterministic, then isn’t your volition simply an illusion?” (p.111)

He goes on to discuss ‘strong emergence’ and whether or not consciousness is merely an illusion. In his poetic naturalism something is only ‘real’ if it plays an essential role in some particular story or reality, providing an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability.

This type of realism denies the objective reality of an absolute standard and puts reality into the Hawking category of ‘model-dependent realism’. The latter claims reality should be interpreted based upon models, and where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid, realities exist. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the ‘true reality’ of a model as we can never be absolutely certain of anything. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model. The term ‘model-dependent realism’ was coined by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.

Like hurricanes—an emergent phenomenon on a larger scale than the local—are considered real. Carroll believes in the same way consciousness to be real. Nevertheless it is an emergent property of the neurons in our brains. But he warns against the mistake of mixing up the vocabulary when speaking of multiple stories of reality. This seems to be an argument against a common atheist line.

Atheists say that we are nothing but atoms and can’t ‘want’ anything. Free will is therefore an illusion. But Carroll argues that “it does not follow that you can’t have wants….you are an emergent phenomenon….” (p.113) He says as such it is appropriate to talk about ‘you’, but you can’t mix the vocabularies of the emergent you and the collection of atoms description.

But no amount of poeticizing the materialist worldview, it can’t change the fact that they have no objective reality. To them the world is only ‘real’ as much as a model can describe it, even if there are multiple models and the models are conflicting in their domain of overlap. The Bible believer however does have an objective reality. Outside of ourselves stands the Creator. Even if you considered the world like The Matrix it had a creator, who operated it. But the atheopaths work very hard to convince you that the world has/had no Creator.

Click here for Part 5 of this review.

References

  1. A 2.5 Sigma Higgs Signal From The Tevatron!
  2. And a faster-than-light neutrinos claim was wrong even though it was from a 6-sigma result. For the fallout read A. Cho, Once Again, Physicists Debunk Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos, Science, June 8, 2012.
  3. Hartnett, J.G., Starlight and time: Is it a brick wall for biblical creation? July 31, 2015.

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