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Wednesday, June 15th, 2011 | ISSN 1556-5696

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SKEPTICALITY: Report from Atlanta
SkeptiCamp 2011

As the international skeptical community gears up for another season of conferences presented by established organizations like: the Skeptics Society (Science Symposium), the James Randi Educational Foundation (The Amazing Meeting), and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSICon), a new generation of skeptics are also finding the critical thinking movement in their own back yards at local meet ups called SkeptiCamps (community driven, informal ‘un-conferences’ born of people’s desire to share and learn in an open environment).

This week on Skepticality, Derek & Swoopy report from Atlanta SkeptiCamp 2011 and share one of this year’s SkeptiCamp talks by Skeptic History contributor Tim Farley appropriately entitled “Don’t Start a Blog or Podcast,” on the topic of how to handle the vast amount of skeptical content created by blogs and podcasts, and how to stand out if you decide to jump into the fray.


Mr. Deity and the Days

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About this week’s feature article

In this week’s eSkeptic, Andrew Zak Williams reviews Victor Stenger’s new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us.

Andrew Zak Williams is a barrister based in England. He has written for The Independent newspaper, The New Statesman, The Humanist and American Atheist. He is also a columnist at www.secularnewsdaily.com.

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The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (detail of book cover)

The Physics of Atheism

by Andrew Zak Williams

If there’s one thing that best-selling author and physicist Victor Stenger loves, it’s a good story. That was probably the first thing I noticed when we spoke in his home study on a crisp early summer morning in Lafayette, Colorado.

Stenger is one of the most prominent atheist science writers of the last decade, so I was curious to know where his antipathy toward religion came from. His answer took me on a 40-year journey from his student days at UCLA, to meeting his future wife while singing in a Methodist church choir, and on to being a physics professor at the University of Hawaii. After ten minutes, he hadn’t even reached the part where he became an atheist so I felt that I had to interrupt him: “You sang in a church choir?”

“Religion and atheism weren’t matters which I thought a lot about,” he explained. “It wasn’t until the eighties that that changed. That’s when it really started to annoy me how science, and in particular physics, was being abused by religious people. My concern was that they were misusing science to come to conclusions which they had reached only for religious reasons. That’s probably when I realized that I was an atheist.”

As he talked, Stenger took in the impressive view from his study window, albeit one that narrowly misses the nearby mountain range. A pristine copy of his new book, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning—released in April—sat on a shelf behind him. As with his previous works, it’s a physics-heavy debunking of theistic claims for the existence of God. And judging by the sales of his recent books, it will soon be adorning plenty more shelves.

It has been his stance against the purported science of Christian apologetics which has made Stenger’s name. His first foray into their territory came with the 2003 book Has Science Found God? “I felt that I made a contribution to the question of Intelligent Design,” he told me. “I read William Dembski’s book Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science & Theology. He had something in there called the Law of Conservation of Information. He claimed that the amount of information output by a living system could never exceed the amount of information input without the involvement of an intelligent designer. As a physicist I knew that that wasn’t true because information is linked to entropy, and the entropy of a closed system can increase with time. And so I explained in my book how Dembski had got it wrong.”

Clearly Intelligent Design, and its requirement for a divine meddler in the laws of science, irks him. “There is nothing in the realm of human knowledge that requires anything supernatural, anything beyond matter, to describe our observations. I am almost one hundred percent certain that the God of Abraham worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims doesn’t exist. This God supposedly plays such an important role in the universe that there should be evidence that he exists. That was the theme of God: The Failed Hypothesis.”

That was the book which, in 2007, granted him best-seller status. According to Stenger, “My publisher was really surprised and wasn’t ready for it, never having had a bestseller before.” Suddenly, seven years after his supposed retirement, it was his book which arguably set the benchmark for atheistic science writing. It has been so successful that now, in his mid-seventies, he finds himself being frequently invited to address physics conferences where it is hoped that his name will add a certain pizzazz.

But there is a downside to his so-called retirement. “Since I left full-time work, I’ve spent time with many well-off elders who listen only to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, and get a distorted, religion-based view of political reality. They also are tremendously self-centred and lacking in compassion for the needy and lower classes in society.”

Perhaps that is why he is inclined to spend so much time locked in his study, penning a steady stream of physics texts all containing a straight-to-your-face atheistic slap. His latest book is dedicated to his friend, Christopher Hitchens. After all, “he is the only one of the ‘four horsemen’ who regularly credits my work. And his courage is an inspiration.”

It was Hitchens who wrote the Forward to God: The Failed Hypothesis in which he drew attention to Stenger’s passage dealing with the fine-tuning argument. The theistic argument goes like this: if the laws of physics were even slightly different than how they are, none of us would exist; therefore there must be a God who made the laws that way. It is a topic on which Stenger has written numerous times. But why did he dedicate a whole book to it now? “I hear Christians raise the fine-tuning argument so often and I am sufficiently expert to address it,” he explained. “I have always been interested in these types of basic questions.”

It is an issue about which numerous physicists have reached very different conclusions. The most frequent answer that skeptics raise in response to the fine-tuning argument relies on M-Theory. This developing theory attempts an overarching union of the five versions of string theory. The ten dimensions of space that follow from the mathematics of M-Theory allow for the conclusion that an imponderable number of universes— a Multiverse—have been and are being spontaneously created, all with different laws of physics. And so it is no surprise that we find ourselves living in the one whose laws of physics allow us to exist. Stephen Hawking made headlines last year when his book The Grand Design, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, lent his support to this theory.

Sir Roger Penrose, an atheist, rejects the fine-tuning argument, but for wholly different reasons. He argues that M-theory is unscientific. According to his theory of Conformic Cyclic Cosmology, the beginning of our universe (or as he prefers to call it, our “eon”) was also the end of a previous one. He does not rule out the possibility that his theory could be extended to provide for a process of constantly successive eons, each with different laws of physics. We happen to live in the one with bio-friendly laws.

On the other hand, best-selling science writer Paul Davies largely accepts the fine-tuning argument and believes that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligence, albeit not a god in the conventional sense.

Yet for Stenger, fine-tuning is a fallacy and so there is no case for atheists to answer. They simply do not need to resort to Multiverses or to cyclical universes. His book discusses each of the usual examples of fine-tuning that Christian apologetics raise. He applies well-established physics, seeking to demonstrate that in each case, “the parameters of physics and cosmology are not particularly fine-tuned for life, especially human life.”

For example, Stenger agrees that the ratio of protons and electrons in the universe is sufficiently precise as to enable life to ultimately form. However that does not mean that there was the need for a divine being to intervene to ensure that the ratio was correct. He writes, “The number of electrons in the universe should exactly equal the number of protons because of charge conservation, on the reasonable assumption that the total electric charge of the universe is neutral—as it should be if the universe came from ‘nothing’ and charge is conserved.”

Similarly, it is true that the universe would have collapsed before it reached its present size if its expansion rate at one second after the Big Bang had been lower by as little as one part in many billions. However he explains that the expansion rate was automatically very close to the critical rate due to the energy density of the universe.

But I wondered why most writers and academics don’t share Stenger’s opinion. He swatted away the question, pointing out that he is the first person to systematically go through each of the specific theistic claims of fine-tuning. “Generally speaking, physicists shy away from attacking religious claims directly. They are not under direct attack the way that biologists are. But dealing with these kinds of claims is my niche. And I’m one of only one or two physicists who are confrontationists.”

Perhaps his confrontationist personality trait is in his genes. His book tells of the determination of his Lithuanian grandmother who risked catching a terminal disease when she nursed a sick neighbor who would later become her husband. After they married, her husband moved to the U.S. looking for work. When she hadn’t heard from him for two years, she took a nightmare journey to America with three children in tow. This was in 1908. Despite not speaking a word of English, somehow she managed to find him. The family then settled down nearby, where their son later met his future wife and had a child, Victor Stenger.

“The point of my little story,” he explained, “was to illustrate that simply finding a low probability for something happening doesn’t preclude it from happening. You have to compare alternative probabilities.” And for Stenger, it is far more probable that human life evolved in a universe without God twiddling the knobs to set the laws of science than it is that there is such a divine being in the first place.

The book doesn’t hold back in its criticisms of leading Christian apologetics such as Hugh Ross and William Lane Craig. Stenger even lists in bullet-form what he considers to be their mistakes. For instance, they “misunderstand and misuse probability theory.” They also fail to consider “that with the hundreds of billions of planets that likely exist in the visible universe, and the countless number beyond our horizon, a planet with the properties needed for life is likely to occur many times.”

That word “confrontationist” leaps to mind again. But what is it about religion that has him spoiling for a fight?

“Religion does not offer comfort,” he told me. “In fact, the opposite is true. I knew several Catholic families, relatives and neighbors, who lost children in childhood. Despite their priests compassionately assuring them that it wasn’t their fault but God’s will, they never believed it. The rest of their lives they lived in misery, blaming themselves. They figured they must have committed some sin that God was punishing them for.”

There were more stories where that came from, and it is apparent that even a cerebral individual like Stenger cannot help but be influenced by what he sees around him. “I’m close to a family who are part of a Protestant cult,” he continued. “The wife was mistreated and died young of drug addiction and alcoholism. And even though the husband had a Ph.D., the daughters weren’t encouraged to go to college because the cult looked at females as inferior and there to serve men. Unsurprisingly the girls have gone on to have troubled lives.”

However, there was a sparkle in his eye. “I won’t live to see it,” he said, “but someday religion will disappear from the face of the Earth. It has to. It is too evil and too absurd.” The disappearance of religion from the face of the Earth? Now, that would be a story worth telling.END


Skeptical perspectives on the Universe and God’s existence…
cover The Grand Design
by Leonard Mlodinow

When and how did the universe begin? Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of reality? Why are the laws of nature so finely tuned as to allow for the existence of beings like ourselves? And, finally, is the apparent “grand design” of our universe evidence of a benevolent creator who set things in motion—or does science offer another explanation? In this lecture by Leonard Mlodinow, based on his co-authored book with Stephen Hawking, answers to these ultimate questions are answers based on the most recent scientific evidence.
READ more and order the lecture.

cover The Great Debate: Does God Exist?
Dr. Geivett v. Dr. Shermer

Dr. Doug Geivett (Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University) presents the best theological, philosophical, and scientific evidence for God’s existence. Dr. Shermer counters these arguments, then presents the best scientific evidence that God and religion are human creations. Remarkably enlightening & entertaining! Lively Q & A session with the audience. READ more and order the DVD.

cover The Atheism Tapes (2-DVD set, 90 min. each)
by Jonathan Miller

In these revealing interviews the neurologist turned playwright, filmmaker and self-described atheist Jonathan Miller filmed conversations with six of today’s leading men of science and letters, including: the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the philosophers Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn, the playwright Arthur Miller, the theologian Denys Turner, and the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg. These distinguished thinkers discuss their personal intellectual journeys and offer illuminating analyses of belief and disbelief from a wide range of perspectives. Compelling viewing you won’t want to miss.
READ more and order the 2-DVD set.


Mystery Photo
Mystery Photo

This week’s Mystery Photo
(Click to enlarge)

Solution to last week’s Mystery Photo

The Mystery Photo from June 8th is The Fremont Troll (aka the Troll Under the Bridge), a giant public art piece under the north end of the Aurora Bridge in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. He eats cars for lunch; in his hand is a Volkswagen Beetle. Avoid using this bridge at mealtimes.

This week’s Mystery Photo

Who is this statue depicting and where is it located?

We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.

19 Comments »

19 Comments

  1. Kurt Kessel says:

    Mystgery photo answer is: Lenin statue, Fremont, Seattle, Washington

    The 16-ft. tall bronze originated in Poprad, Slovakia, where it was first erected in 1988. It tumbled along with other heroic (and out of fashion) statues when the Soviets went down in 1989. For a time, the 7-ton Lenin lay face down in the mud at the Poprad dump — until rescued by American entrepreneur Lewis Carpenter. Carpenter, who admired the artistry, mortgaged his house to buy and transport the statue to Seattle.

    Carpenter died in a car accident in 1994. To recover the statue debt, Carpenter’s family made an arrangement to loan it to the Fremont district until a buyer emerged. Asking price: $150,000. In 1995, Fremont put the statue up in the center of town, near a Cold War era rocket also displayed as public art.

    • Jenn says:

      Yep, but the real question ought to be:

      Why is Michael Shermer in Seattle and not having lunch at 13 Coins?

  2. Roy Niles says:

    It seems fairly obvious that if life evolves, the energetic produce of the universe evolves as well, and the never ending series of results did not need, and have not needed, a plan or planner to form the consequences of its form of order. The universe has acquired forces and rules that regulate them, and likely always had some strategic system to make a form of order out of chaos or worse.
    And what does one more book about the obvious impossibility of Gods have to say that hasn’t been said in more or less the same way before? Especially by a guy who doesn’t give the universe much credit for the evolution of intelligence, or give us credit for using it to evolve ourselves.
    And I’m also an old guy in Hawaii who wouldn’t give the time of day to the likes of Beck and Limbaugh. Fine tuning there? fuggedaboutit.

    • Donald Clarkson says:

      Just one more book, perhaps, but there are many people who cannot or will not hear the obvious because falsehoods have been ingrained in them since birth, and maybe for some of them this will be the repeat that opens the door to enlightenment. It is refreshing to know that Stenger does not feel the need to concoct some M-theory or other to prove the non-existence of a Designer. There is after all no reason to apologise for what is not, nor any need to adopt a belief in lieu of God.

      • Roy Niles says:

        A primary argument for God has been that we are alone in the otherwise dead universe and without him/it we would not be here either. The absolute best argument against God is that we don’t a supernatural explanation for life in an energetic universe that has, and always has had, all the makings for it.

  3. Gail Zeigler says:

    Drat! The new Google Image Search has taken the guesswork out of the Mystery Photo.

  4. Anne L Nicholls says:

    I found the answer to the mystery photo of the Lenin statue by typing in to Google the words that appeared to be in a sign in the background that said Royal Grinders. I had to guess at the Royal part though! It immediately took me to the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, WA which I then Googled to find information on the statue.

  5. bill wallace says:

    Of course everything had to be right for us to have the physics that we have. If they weren’t we would not be here. duh. Saying that god had to tweak the figures for us to exist presumes a conclusion: that we were meant to exist..

    Not very good logic.

  6. aqk says:

    Well, I know tht’s a statue of Lenin, but WTF is he doing in Seattle? (google images)
    Is Seattle full of commies?

  7. Hartmut Wisch says:

    Mystery statue -
    Having grown up in East Germany, with plenty of Lenin images, I immediately recognized a ‘Lenin statue’ in the photo. I knew it wasn’t the one purchased years ago for the Las Vegas Casino which later took off the head, etc., so a quick Google search brought me to Fremont, Seattle. Its a nutty enough place…

  8. aqk says:

    OK- Thanx, Kurt Kessel for the answer above.
    Next question: WTF keeps that statue there? Haven’t any Republicans/Teapartiers/fundi-christians heard about it yet, and forced it to be torn down?
    After all it IS America that this statue of an evil godless commie is in! ;-)

    • aqk says:

      Addendum-
      There a statue in Rome of an Emperor (I think it’s Marcus Aurelius) that was hauled out of the Tiber 500 years ago, and MichaelAngelo was asked to design the base for it. He apparently replied “I am not worthy, etc.” but did build it.
      But I digress.
      Will we, in centuries to come, find statues of Lenin, Stalin and (possibly) Hitler in the bottom of rivers, drag them out, and re-erect them as monuments to great leaders of a forgotten age?
      OK… seems its already happened with Lenin and it’s only been 20 years.

  9. Travis Lamar says:

    Ha! Why type “Royal Grinders” into Google Image Search? I typed “Lenin Statue” and the correct photos of the Fremont, Seattle, WA statute came in on top, three in the first ten. Then, as always, I was already too late.

  10. Brian Darcey says:

    Won’t convince the god-botherers, but well worth a glance

  11. Catalina says:

    Drat!! I’d actually found the photo and located it, and as I scrolled the page to insert the address I saw I was way too late.
    Living in Europe I recognised old Vlad at once, which is more than usually happens to me when I see your pictures.
    He looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, doesn’t he?
    I suppose that’s where the artist’s skill comes in, guess most people now don’t even realise what he did after getting to power. Oh, by the way I’m agnostic, so wary of revealed religious beliefs, but atheists should think of him, before saying that without religion mankind will automatically be freer and happier. Might, but not necessarily so.
    Anyway, great magazine, great articles, and fun (this is my first comment)

  12. oldebabe says:

    One of the worst depictions of Lenin… and what a remarkable thing to find it in Seattle…

  13. Jenny Haskins says:

    Re “The Physics of Atheisn” and other similar articles.

    It never fails to amaze me that anybody ever finds the need to show that God (whatever THAT is!) doesn’t exist. For a start, you cannot prove anythign either way about a non-defined entity.

    It is up to ‘believers’ to prove their point — without failing the Occams’ Razor test!!

    Number one point — define your terms!!

  14. Udaybhanu Chitrakar says:

    By proclaiming that there is no God, the no-God theorists has made God imaginary. So their no-God theory must have some definite answer to the following two questions:
    Why should an imaginary God have to be spaceless and timeless? Why should an imaginary God have to be all-pervading, when He could have easily resided in His own heaven?
    This is because in almost every religion we find that God has been said to be all-pervading, spaceless and timeless.
    These are some of the basic questions that the no-God theory must be able to answer if it is really a sound theory. Otherwise we will have to think of some other theory in its place, as because no-God theory has failed to explain some most well-known facts.

  15. Syd Foster says:

    Say what, Uday?! Yours is a perfect example of the faulty thinking that religion teaches people. Your “two questions” are really one and the same, and your so-called “facts” are just speculations… in other words, as you say yourself, they are imaginary, based purely on thinking rather than any observable actualities. So your “challenge” is just so much hand-waving, as indeed is the religious philosophising which tries to explain the absence of god by imagining that god is “spaceless and timeless” and yet somehow also “all-pervading”, which is just a fancy way of saying what believers in the supernatural always try to claim: that is, that a nonphysical force somehow interacts with the physical without any physical trace of its action. Faulty logic mixed with wishful thinking to arrive at a pre-supposed result. Nonsense, in other words! You are asleep and dreaming that you are awake, my friend.

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