The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

It’s been a while since the last time I was the target of an epic meltdown at the #Ozfail (or at least, the last one I noticed). I thought perhaps Chris Mitchell had developed a thicker skin. But, today’s Oz has a full-length editorial responding to a mere tweet about a piece of creationist silliness by one Eric Metaxas, reprinted from Murdoch stablemate, the Wall Street Journal.

We get the usual Oz editorial line about how they aren’t really climate deniers (they just give space to “a couple of contributors who dare to scrutinise the scientific consensus”), creationists (they just think science “can’t explain the universe”), or a rightwing propaganda outfit (they publish Labor lefties like Gary Johns and Graeme Richardson). It’s just that they “love a contest of ideas”.

Moreover, the collection of rightwing delusionists on the opinion pages don’t represent the views of the #Ozfail

Professor, if you ever want to know what the paper thinks or where it stands on any issue, there is only one place you’ll find out. Right here in these editorial columns.

That’s a relief. Having been slagged off in special-purpose opinion pieces, Cut-and-Paste snarks, and various passing comments, I had the feeling the Oz didn’t like me. But the real view, apparently, is that of the anonymous editorialist, who (faintly) praises me as “oft-erudite”.

I do have one small disappointment though. Given the headline “140 characters not the full story” and the protestations of commitment to the contest of ideas, I was expecting the editorial to prove me wrong by inviting me to provide a full-length response to Metaxas’ silliness. Sadly, no.

144 thoughts on “The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

  1. Thanks for keeping me informed about the goings on at that outpost in the world of ideas. I do worry about them. And again thanks to you Professor for your level-headed output over the years. Much appreciated.

  2. Those who want to keep tabs on the Murdoch asylum (on this issue and others) should read the wonderful Loon Pond. If they ever close the Oz I will be rather sad because I won’t be able to laugh at how bat-shit crazy they are.

    http://loonpond.blogspot.com.au/

  3. john,

    Much as i love your professional and issues based commentary work (even if I disagree), I think you are rapidly descending into process based stuff that demeans you.

    You are starting to sound like a person who is enamoured by the process, not the issues.

    I suggest you move above this stuff and get back to the issues, where you add value.

    Terry

  4. I had a good laugh along with J.Q’s post at the Oz’s expense. At least it proves I can still laugh. Sometimes that’s the only response if one wants to avoid pointless fury and hair-pulling despair.

  5. Well the Australian are very obdurately obstructionist about climate change, I am almost tempted to write in to them and tell them about the time I was very sad and about to give up about climate change enough and I prayed to Mary Mackillop if there would be other lots of people that cared enough and heard her audibly say yes – then I started to find more people that cared about climate change and became more hopeful – but as the Australian editors would then recognise I found John Quiggin’s website which cares about climate change more than they do despite all their protestations of having regard for divinity.
    I am quite tempted to write that letter to the editor I have to say now I’ve thought of it …

  6. Someone else pointed it out to me: you made clickbait!

    As for the dOZe’s notion of symmetry of debate, have they ever read their own letters to the editor page lately? Not much diversity of opinion shows up there, but who knows what content is in the discards, the letters they don’t publish.

    Happy New Year, I guess.

  7. @ZM

    I prayed to Mary Mackillop if there would be other lots of people that cared enough and heard her audibly say yes

    I don’t believe in miracles but…if you were saying your prayers (aloud) at Mary McKillop HQ in Mount St, Nth Sydney back in 2013, one of the “Joeys” might have heard you and leapt into action. They are an activist lot and put out a Fact Sheet on climate change in Nov 2013 which looks pretty good to me. (search Voice your Concerns About Climate Change at sosj.org.au).

  8. I was just praying at my mum’s house having come back from overseas where I had gone to stay at a hotel which used to be a place for Carmelite hermits then a place of pilgrimage and now a hotel. One day it was their sort of Remembrance Day and lots of village women in black were in the chapel in the middle of the hotel grounds but I couldn’t understand the language. The interior walls of the chapel were papered over with pictures of miracles people sent back to the church if they received a miracle. I was very upset at the time due to the Labor party parliamentary intrigue with the improper leadership swapping and wrote a many pages (28?) group letter to the Queen and everyone else I could think of to complain about such impropriety. Only the Queen and Kim Carr’s office had the sense of propriety and duty to write back to me.

  9. Phone-hacking scum.

    There is only one thing these criminal war-mongering propagandist hate-mongers fear.

    Mass rejection.

    It isn’t about money, it’s about power.

    Sufficiently ‘loud’ and sustained criticism can lead to that mass rejection.

    Liverpool did it successfully after the disgusting treatment Murdoch’s lying scum dished out to them after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 – and it is still social poison to be seen reading one of their vile hate-sheets all these years later.

    You wouldn’t know it in Australia, because we do not have a properly functioning ‘fourth estate’, but there is huge civil unrest in the USA at the moment. One of its crucibles is the protest movement against the killing of (mainly) black people by the police.

    The #BlackLivesMatter protesters have called for a total boycott of all things Murdoch (Fox, Wall Street Journal, New York Post etc…).

    Hopefully Australia can do something similar.

    PS: JQ, I note the “donotlink”. I have to admit, the first thing I did with this post was prepare to deliver yet another ‘lecture’ about not giving them the reflected credibility of a link. Kudos.

    PPS: If they offered a comment piece I would suggest the answer should be “Piss off you lying scumbags”.

  10. Pr Q said:

    But, today’s Oz has a full-length editorial responding to a mere tweet about a piece of creationist silliness by one Eric Metaxas, reprinted from Murdoch stablemate, the Wall Street Journal.

    No doubt the Australian is as bad, in general, as Pr Q says it is, even worse in its own way than the Fairfax papers, and thats saying something. And no doubt the Australia’s testy, touchy, twitchy editorial response to Pr Q’s tweet was a blatant case of “doth protest too much”. But the Australian is not the only player who tends towards knee-jerk response.

    Lost in all the furiousness of the exchange in this long running feud was the substance of Metaxas article, unfairly characterised by PrQ as “creationist silliness”. That seems a travesty of his position which is, as I read it in the article, a restatement of the “fine-tuning argument” for a super-natural being, one that has the support of scientists who sit far higher up the intellectual pay grade than Pr Q (not to mention your humble commenter!).

    In self defence, and FWIW, I am an agnostic with a dogmatic belief in the power of evolution to solve most complex organizational problems in this universe and perhaps the multi-verse. I have no truck with Intelligent Design which seems to ignore the whole point of evolution which is that it rolls the dice over a long time and covers a lot of space.

    But Metaxas does not employ stereotypical Intelligent Design micro-biological arguments in favour of his theistic conclusions. He argues the reasonable point, not explicitly stated, that the Drake-Sagan explanation of the Fermi Paradox is looking a little threadbare at the moment. This follows from current theory: the increasingly longer and more specific list of “conditions for life” which have been discovered and refined by various astro-biologists. And empirically: the big blank being drawn by SETI investigators, even as the list of exo-planets grows exponentially.

    Thus, to paraphrase Metaxas, the purely materialist standard model of the origin of a low-entropy universe, and life on Earth, requires a quite improbable coincidence of fine-tuned physical and chemical constants. He enlists the support of a number of credible scientists (Hoyle, Davies, Lennox) who share his position.

    Of course the failure of Sagan-Drake and the weakening of SET I does not provide enough support for the (Almighty jump to) the conclusion, which Metaxas is most eager to press on us, that God exists. But it should weaken the confidence of militant atheists and crude physicalists (such as Krauss) who carry on like they have all the answers to the meaning of Life, the Universe etc They certainly had it coming.

    So the article contained a reasonable statement of a philosophically reputable position that contained some interesting nuggets of information. At worst its a rehash of the wishy-washy Templeton-Gould argument for a synthesis of scientific and religious viewpoints. The Australian was perfectly justified in giving the author some space to publish.

    The article also poses the Big Question: where are They? Maybe no where. If we are indeed alone in this universe then this calls for a restoration of the somewhat religious principle of human specialness, which is completely at odds with, what I’d call, the principle of “anthropic humiliation” that has characterised the progress of science since the Enlightenment (Copernicus, Darwin, James).

    There is something very mysterious about the fabric of reality. And maybe we really are a bit special, its certainly a question worth asking in public. (In which case, God or no God, is it too much too ask the current lack-lustre batch of liberal elites to stop stuffing up our fortunate ecological and anthropological legacy?)

    Sad to say I suspect I am being naive about the efficacy of public intellectual debate. So many contestants on both sides of the liberal establishment are inclined to massive projection over the bad faith and junk science coming from opposing tribalisms. On the Right we have the irrationalist fail of Creationism, global warming denialism and Zombie Economics. On the Left we have an irrationalist fail across the whole domain of evolutionary anthropology (race, nation & gender), a bizarre of ignorance of Durkheim’s functionalist justification of religion and of course the open sewer of post-modern art.

    It makes me deeply pessimistic about the ability of modern public intellectuals to have any constructive effect on public policy. And calls to mind Kissinger’s jibe about academic politics being so venoumous because “the stakes are so low”.

  11. Just saw “A Dangerous Remedy” on the ABC 21. The synopsis states:

    Set in 1969 Melbourne, Dangerous Remedy tells the fascinating story of Dr Bertram Wainer who put his life at risk to expose police corruption in an effort to change the law on abortion. CAST: Jeremy Sims, Susie Porter.

    The police were taking protection money from the “good” underground abortions performed by registered doctors, and were smacking the heads of the “bad” backyard abortionists. The take-away lesson was that Catholicism in the ranks and in politics had a potent effect upon police and politicians’ behaviour. And not in a good way. It got me thinking that were a similar alignment of the stars to occur, given the awesome capacity of the new surveillance state, we could all be in for a lot of trouble. Transparency and independent oversight are key: only problem is that certain media outlets are already aligned. And not in a good way.

  12. Meanwhile, as they melt down at the national HQ, a competitor, Peter Hannan, about nails it. The irony is that even the pope is making noises about having to deal with the threats of (self-inflicted) climate change, and yet our PM Tony Abbott is the stalwart, the holdout, the delayer, the limp-lettuce-wrist climate-always-changes sayer, he’s there doing the holding out, the stalwarting, the throttling of attempts at taking action. What’s a theo-neo-con to do?

  13. There is that “equal debate” argument again from the Oz editor.

    The real balanced climate change debate is a 97 accepting to 3 rejecting Global Warming articles. And the real Creationism debate would be similar if Church seats to Dinner table were measured, and far worse if those church seats had to be warm to qualify for the count.

    As for the “lively discussion” in the comments section, apparently Metaxus has a minions following of creationism faithfuls.

  14. I’m OK with the story that God made the universe and then us in likeness of himself then made a son to save us from us (the likeness of himself), but who made God? (in 140 chars or less)

  15. @Jack Strocchi

    ‘I can’t explain X, Y, and Z; therefore there is a God’ is not good reasoning, even if there are some highly paid scientists who think otherwise.

  16. @freddo

    Dorothy at Loon Pond a living national treasure who deserves a national audience. Maybe The Guardian could take her on like they did with 1st Dog.

    Always spot on in her takedowns of the Murdochians and funny to boot.

  17. faustusnotes @#14

    It takes a lot less than 140 characters to write “The anthropic principle”. You (and this Metaxas dude) should look it up, Jack.


    Duh! Thanks for the elegant put-down.

  18. J-D @ #20

    ‘I can’t explain X, Y, and Z; therefore there is a God’ is not good reasoning, even if there are some highly paid scientists who think otherwise.

    True. I no more agree with the theistic interpretation of the Anthropic Principle than you do:

    Of course the failure of Sagan-Drake and the weakening of SET I does not provide enough support for the (Almighty jump to) the conclusion, which Metaxas is most eager to press on us, that God exists.

    My own feeling, FWIW, is that the problem of the fine-tuned constants for necessary for the origin of matter in our universe suggest evolution is at work. Which implies a multi-versal cosmological environment selecting for functional universes adapted to the laws of physics. But this is metaphysical speculation, little better than theism.

    My point is that it is not “creationist silliness” to raise this point. The Standard Model really does have some ‘splaining to do.

  19. There are almost any number of ways to attempt to explain basic existence. Some of my favourites are (warning frivolous irony ahead);

    (1) Nothing cannot exist. Only something can exist. (Think about it.)

    (2) It happened. Get over it.

    (3) The chances are 50-50.

    (4) Before time and space Non-being non-existed. The negative One had negative One existence. Two negatives multiplied and became a positive.

    (5) Existence has extent. Extent has limits. Non-existence has no extent and thus has no limits. Without limits non-existence can generate existence. What do you find hard about this?

  20. JQ – “the anonymous editorialist”.

    Could this be Nick Cater, Executive Editor of The Australian?

    I occasionally listen to Counterpoint on ABC RN – the program became comically extreme when Brendan O’Neill was locum for Amanda Vanstone, and Nick Cater a guest with whom he hastened to agree, rather than probe his statements for evidence.

    Cater’s comments on AGW were especially remarkable for their insouciant refusal to face reality. With unintended irony the segment was called Enlightened Australia – http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/counterpoint/values/5856638

  21. @Jack Strocchi
    Re: “a restatement of the “fine-tuning argument” for a super-natural being” – wielding Occam’s Razor, I suspect that the values of the fundamental forces are not extraordinarily fortuitous, but (for reasons yet unknown) cannot be other than they are.

  22. @Jack Strocchi

    Metaxas points (vaguely, without details) at circumstances which he estimates as unlikely (or he accepts others’ estimates of them as unlikely), and suggests that the only explanation is one which he fails to evaluate for its unlikeliness by the same standards. That’s silly.

  23. @rog

    Do you mean this or this?

    We mortals are limited IN our capacity to understand infinity.

    or

    We mortals are limited by our capacity to “understand” infinity.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’ve decided not to be serious about this topic. A little bit of Zen humour-displacement perhaps. 😉

  24. @rog

    Hi Rog

    Please don’t denigrate religion by associating it with the “phone-hacking scum” (thanks Megan!) at News Ltd.

  25. The “I can’t explain X, so therefore God” is a classic logic mistake, as pointed out above. Another one, a bit more subtle—and made by some quite famous physicists, is “There is an infinite number of universes, therefore there is a universe where X exists”. As a simple counter-example, consider the set of integers, i.e Z:={…,-3,-2,-1,0,1,2,3,…}: this is infinite, but the set does not contain any number which is not an integer.

    If we take the rationals, i.e. Q := {r| r = p / q, where q in N, p in Z}, N := {0,1,2,…}, the rationals just being any number which can be expressed as a fraction or an integer, then things get more interesting: for any real number s, either s in Q, or: for any t > 0 there is a number r in Q such that |s – r| < t, which just means that if s isn't in Q, we can nevertheless find numbers in Q which are arbitrarily close to s, i.e. |s – r| can be made as small as we please. Therefore, although an infinite number of real numbers aren't rational numbers, we can always find a rational number which is arbitrarily close to any given real number.

    The upshot is that when you deal with the infinite, you have to be really careful how you “count'' things. Some physicists fall into this trap when thinking about things like the so-called anthropomorphic principle. I see such silliness in popular science mags quite often. A few religious scientists style it thus: “There are an infinite number of universes, therefore there is at least one universe in which God exists.'' Er, not necessarily.

  26. J-D @#28

    Metaxas points (vaguely, without details) at circumstances which he estimates as unlikely (or he accepts others’ estimates of them as unlikely), and suggests that the only explanation is one which he fails to evaluate for its unlikeliness by the same standards. That’s silly.

    No, you are factually incorrect. Metaxas specifically (not “vaguely”) and quite accurately points out that the Drake equation has exploded in complexity. Its now upwards of “200” terms. This certainly strengthens the underlying point of the anthropic principle: that the universe is most improbably fine-tuned for life. And he correctly observes that the barrenness of SETI research substantiates this conclusion.

    As far as it goes this is a good argument and deserves to be published.

    Both SETIs and theists have run into the old philosophical problem that you cannot empirically prove a negative.

    As the great philosopher Donald Rumsfeld has taught us, absence of evidence (in this case for ET) is not evidence for absence. So it does not follow from the evidence of human specialness that we are alone. But its certainly possible, and on the evidence of science, more probable.

    Of course precisely the same logic applies with equal force to Metaxas and the theists. An absence of evidence (for God) is not evidence of absence. But it is a safer bet to assume so, particularly when we have an evolutionary philosophy of history that provides a good explanation of how (low-entropy) local cosmos can emerge out of (high-entropy) global chaos.

    Occams Razor thus suggests we should stick with the hypothesis of blind evolution as the source of organized systems. With the proviso that the world is likely much bigger, older and weirder than we can possibly conceive. (Unless of course we are living in a Matrix style simulation with some alien geek software developer acting as Creator, a hypothesis that looks more probable now than it did ten years ago.)

  27. @Ikonoclast Well, it all depends on how you define infinity.

    This all leads back to the previous topic on deontology, once you have defined an expert, who amongst us is sufficiently skilled to ask the question and understand the answer from that expert?

    Historically it would have been a brave person who, after encountering unusual events eg northern lights, shooting stars & solar & lunar eclipses, did not marvel at the power of the supernatural.

  28. Ron E. Joggles @#26 said:

    Re: “a restatement of the “fine-tuning argument” for a super-natural being” – wielding Occam’s Razor, I suspect that the values of the fundamental forces are not extraordinarily fortuitous, but (for reasons yet unknown) cannot be other than they are.

    This is simply a restatement of Leibniz’s principle: this is the only possible world and every thing in it is a necessity. The irony here is that Leibniz formulated this casuistic principle as part of his theodicy. God cannot be blamed for the necessary evils of this world as even He cannot disobey the laws of logic and physics.

  29. Jack the underlying point of the anthropic principle is not that the universe is fine-tuned for life, but that for those of us alive and observing the universe, it must appear to be fine-tuned, since if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. The question Metaxas is asking is all about us, not about the universe. For example we could not exist much in the past from where we are now, since the necessary conditions for our existence didn’t hold; this doesn’t mean that we are special, but it makes us think we are.

    Also what is this “evidence of human specialness” to which you refer? There is no such evidence. There could be another planet exactly like ours, a million light years away (not that far by galactic scales) which evolved in exactly the same way as us; no signal from our peers on that planet will reach us for a million years. This is no “evidence of human specialness,” it’s evidence that we haven’t even started looking for that evidence. I mean when did SETI start, 30 years ago? You think they are going to do a survey of the entire known universe in 30 years? Or even a comprehensive survey of our tiny little corner of the galaxy?

    Unless we can develop faster than light travel, and actually visit likely planets, catalogue them and confirm that they are not inhabited, our only hope is to wait for signals to reach us, or to confirm empirically that there are no planets at all similar to ours in a subsection of universe large enough to lend probabilistic weight sufficient to disprove things like the calculation of the number of planets that might sustain life. But even if we do that we haven’t disproved the equation so much as necessitated a revision of the underlying assumptions.

    The alternative is the incredibly arrogant assumption that the simple physical processes that led to our creation are unique in a universe that is infinitely large; and even that is not sufficient justification to suppose that those processes were guided by some beardy dude on a cloud.

  30. You guys are so hard on The Oz! All they are trying to do is put interesting opinions out there. Didn’t you catch the one last week that suggested inequality was a huge problem and that much higher rates of personal income tax are a good idea to solve this? Maybe you missed the one where they painted a bright picture of a low ghg emission future? Or the one that argued strenuously that unemployment benefit was too low? Surely you caught the one where they talked about 457 visas being abused?

  31. @Jack Strocchi

    I have obviously failed to make clear the most important point I was making.

    Eric Metaxas relies on assertions (his own or others’) about the odds against life existing in this universe. However this calculation of odds was performed, it has no value as evidence in favour of the existence of God without a calcluation (using parallel methods) of the odds against God existing, and it’s a silly mistake to think that it does.

    Possibly what you are trying to say is that you find the topic of the odds against life existing in the universe to be an interesting one without drawing any conclusions relating to God. But that’s not what Eric Metaxas is doing; what Eric Metaxas is doing is silly.

  32. Metaxas et al serve to muddy the waters over our collective destiny. Various groups have over time agreed that there are better lives and other lives and we should live this life to make a better one elsewhere/next time.

    As there is no hard evidence to support these hypothesise it’s fair to dismiss them, without evidence.

    So we are left with the fact that we are entirely responsible for our present and the future of our descendants. Individual responsiblity seems to be a catch cry of libertarians and other right wingers however at the last moment they seem to seek protection afforded by religious and other groups.

  33. faustusnotes @ #35 said:

    Jack the underlying point of the anthropic principle is not that the universe is fine-tuned for life, but that for those of us alive and observing the universe, it must appear to be fine-tuned, since if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. The question Metaxas is asking is all about us, not about the universe. For example we could not exist much in the past from where we are now, since the necessary conditions for our existence didn’t hold; this doesn’t mean that we are special, but it makes us think we are.

    No, the fine-tuning problem operates even when humans aren’t on the scene. It refers to the improbability of the origin of matter, metabolism and mind, at least when only one universe is considered. In particular the standard model of atomic physics stipulates a narrow range in variation of the “dimensionless physical constants”. Any deviation and matter literally falls apart.

    You are missing Metaxas point about the anthropic principle in the light of current research, which is to undermine the “principle of mediocrity” as applied to matter and man. I dont want to get bogged down in a debate over the details of the AP given that it comes in numerous flavours from weak to strong. Always a warning sign for possible bait-and-switch.

    Its not so much that humans are special and dear to the heart of the cosmos. Its that, according to standard models of evolutionary physics, advanced life should be abundant in the huge sample space of the universe. I mean, look how quickly it took over this planet. This was immediately apparent to Fermi when he pondered the problem of the vastness of the cosmos and the scarcity of life in the aftermath of Hubble-Lemaitres discovery that galaxies were receding and that the universe was very big and very old.

    Psychology has nothing much to do with it. Let humans be as humble or narcissistic as you like, there is no gain saying the fact that there should be more like-minded souls about the place given the universes scope for natural experiment. But there aren’t. Therefore either our understanding of nature is off by a long way or we are, in fact, pretty special. Both conclusions should be unsettling to a certain sort of smug post-Enlightenment philosopher.

    faustusnotes said:

    Also what is this “evidence of human specialness” to which you refer? There is no such evidence. There could be another planet exactly like ours, a million light years away (not that far by galactic scales) which evolved in exactly the same way as us; no signal from our peers on that planet will reach us for a million years. This is no “evidence of human specialness,” it’s evidence that we haven’t even started looking for that evidence. I mean when did SETI start, 30 years ago? You think they are going to do a survey of the entire known universe in 30 years? Or even a comprehensive survey of our tiny little corner of the galaxy?

    I did not state “human specialness” as a categorical fact, merely that the collapse of SETI made it seem more “probable”. Again you are looking through the wrong end of the Fermi telescope. According to any reasonable interpretation of evolutionary physics the universe should be teeming with life and projects like SETI should be redundant. We should be awash with radio waves. But, as yet, not a peep.

    True, the vast distances that span the cosmos do pose formidable obstacles to the problem of striking up a conversation with an alien. But the ancient age, and fertile possibilities, of the Milky Way should solve that. If we are not “special” it should have taken other life forms about the same time to develop a Radio-Civilization (RC) as we did. The math is not all that daunting.

    The Milky Way is about 13 billion years old, and quite cosy as galaxies go being only 100,000 light years or so wide, containing perhaps 300 billion stars. Wikipedia reports “in the Milky Way…there could be as many as…11 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of… Sun-like stars…The nearest such planet could be 12 light-years away, according to the scientists.” Lets call it an even ten billion earth-like planets, to make the sums easier.

    If we are not “special” then we would expect a statistically significant fraction of these to evolve some form of life, say 5% to be conservative and allow for all the vagaries of the constantly expanding Drake equation to wipe out 95% of the candidates. Thats still 500 million potential life-habitable planets in our galactic neighbourhood.

    Even if only 500 or so of the habitable planets (one in a million is pretty special!) had reached an RC stage they would long ago have populated the Milky Way with umpteen-illion radio stations utilizing solar power or somesuch, advertising their presence. Yet this rather prosaic possibility has apparently not gone through the formality of happening.

    If you distributed 200 self-sustaining RCs (allowing for more than half of them to commit suicide, given the evident self-destructive tendencies of liberal civilizations) evenly around the Milky Way they would each only have to colonise a one thousand light year radius zone to have a better than even chance of making enduring contact with other RCs.

    One light year is equivalent to ~ ten trillion kilometers, so one thousand light years is about 10 quadrillion kilometers (1 x 10[16]). To be sure thats a big hike, The fastest known vehicle (Voyager) travels at about 50,000 km per hour. Travelling at that speed it should take a bit over 20 million years for a Stage I RC (Kardashev Scale) to make first contact with an adjacent co-evolving RC radio relay stations.

    This process, given our presumed mediocrity, should have been going on for at least five billion years (half the total time range) for at least 100 RCs (half the total population). Thats enough time to spread the Gospel of Life hundreds of times around the Milky Way. And thats only at Stage I RC Kardashev scale. It would be really parochial to assume that RCs could never make it to stage II or beyond. If you think contemporary humans are addicted to the world-wide net, try to imagine how bad they’d be one hundred million years hence with a galactic-wide net.

    All those ETs busy texting messaging, updating their facebook status, furiously flaming each other. Yet…[sound of crickets chirping] As Lara Bingle would say: “Where the bloody hell are they?”.

    So on the evidence of these BOTE calculation I would say that yes, it looks more probable that humans are pretty “special”.

    faustusnotes said:

    The alternative is the incredibly arrogant assumption that the simple physical processes that led to our creation are unique in a universe that is infinitely large; and even that is not sufficient justification to suppose that those processes were guided by some beardy dude on a cloud.

    Its not “arrogant” to assume that humans are “special”, in fact it would be arrogant to assume that our evident good fortune was par for the course, just the award wage instead of what it appears to be, a phenomenally long shot that only just scraped in by a nose. Lottery winners are not deemed arrogant when, blinking in amazement, they declare how lucky they are. If the odds on something good happening are very long then and that thing happens then we should thank our lucky stars.

    We know for fact that humans almost went extinct 75,000 years ago, their numbers dropping to as low as 2,000 which is perilously close to the minimal critical mass necessary for a community to survive slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is not proof that our fate was “guided by some beardy dude on a cloud” but it makes you think. Something that post-modern atheists are evidently not much up to.

  34. faustusnotes @ #35 said:

    Jack the underlying point of the anthropic principle is not that the universe is fine-tuned for life, but that for those of us alive and observing the universe, it must appear to be fine-tuned, since if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. The question Metaxas is asking is all about us, not about the universe. For example we could not exist much in the past from where we are now, since the necessary conditions for our existence didn’t hold; this doesn’t mean that we are special, but it makes us think we are.

    No, the fine-tuning problem operates even when humans aren’t on the scene. It refers to the improbability of the origin of matter, metabolism and mind, at least when only one universe is considered. In particular the standard model of atomic physics stipulates a narrow range in variation of the “dimensionless physical constants”. Any deviation and matter literally falls apart.

    You are missing Metaxas point about the anthropic principle in the light of current research, which is to undermine the “principle of mediocrity” as applied to matter and man. I dont want to get bogged down in a debate over the details of the AP given that it comes in numerous flavours from weak to strong. Always a warning sign for possible bait-and-switch.

    Its not so much that humans are special and dear to the heart of the cosmos. Its that, according to standard models of evolutionary physics, advanced life should be abundant in the huge sample space of the universe. I mean, look how quickly it took over this planet. This was immediately apparent to Fermi when he pondered the problem of the vastness of the cosmos and the scarcity of life in the aftermath of Hubble-Lemaitres discovery that galaxies were receding and that the universe was very big and very old.

    Psychology has nothing much to do with it. Let humans be as humble or narcissistic as you like, there is no gain saying the fact that there should be more like-minded souls about the place given the universes scope for natural experiment. But there aren’t. Therefore either our understanding of nature is off by a long way or we are, in fact, pretty special. Both conclusions should be unsettling to a certain sort of smug post-Enlightenment philosopher.

    faustusnotes said:

    Also what is this “evidence of human specialness” to which you refer? There is no such evidence. There could be another planet exactly like ours, a million light years away (not that far by galactic scales) which evolved in exactly the same way as us; no signal from our peers on that planet will reach us for a million years. This is no “evidence of human specialness,” it’s evidence that we haven’t even started looking for that evidence. I mean when did SETI start, 30 years ago? You think they are going to do a survey of the entire known universe in 30 years? Or even a comprehensive survey of our tiny little corner of the galaxy?

    I did not state “human specialness” as a categorical fact, merely that the collapse of SETI made it seem more “probable”. Again you are looking through the wrong end of the Fermi telescope. According to any reasonable interpretation of evolutionary physics the universe should be teeming with life and projects like SETI should be redundant. We should be awash with radio waves. But, as yet, not a peep.

    True, the vast distances that span the cosmos do pose formidable obstacles to the problem of striking up a conversation with an alien. But the ancient age, and fertile possibilities, of the Milky Way should solve that. If we are not “special” it should have taken other life forms about the same time to develop a Radio-Civilization (RC) as we did. The math is not all that daunting.

    The Milky Way is about 13 billion years old, and quite cosy as galaxies go being only 100,000 light years or so wide, containing perhaps 300 billion stars. Wikipedia reports “in the Milky Way…there could be as many as…11 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of… Sun-like stars…The nearest such planet could be 12 light-years away, according to the scientists.” Lets call it an even ten billion earth-like planets, to make the sums easier.

    If we are not “special” then we would expect a statistically significant fraction of these to evolve some form of life, say 5% to be conservative and allow for all the vagaries of the constantly expanding Drake equation to wipe out 95% of the candidates. Thats still 500 million potential life-habitable planets in our galactic neighbourhood.

    Even if only 500 or so of the habitable planets (one in a million is pretty special!) had reached an RC stage they would long ago have populated the Milky Way with umpteen-illion radio stations utilizing solar power or somesuch, advertising their presence. Yet this rather prosaic possibility has apparently not gone through the formality of happening.

    If you distributed 200 self-sustaining RCs (allowing for more than half of them to commit suicide, given the evident self-destructive tendencies of liberal civilizations) evenly around the Milky Way they would each only have to colonise a one thousand light year radius zone to have a better than even chance of making enduring contact with other RCs.

    One light year is equivalent to ~ ten trillion kilometers, so one thousand light years is about 10 quadrillion kilometers (1 x 10[16]). To be sure thats a big hike, The fastest known vehicle (Voyager) travels at about 50,000 km per hour. Travelling at that speed it should take a bit over 20 million years for a Stage I RC (Kardashev Scale) to make first contact with an adjacent co-evolving RC radio relay stations.

    This process, given our presumed mediocrity, should have been going on for at least five billion years (half the total time range) for at least 100 RCs (half the total population). Thats enough time to spread the Gospel of Life hundreds of times around the Milky Way. And thats only at Stage I RC Kardashev scale. It would be really parochial to assume that RCs could never make it to stage II or beyond. If you think contemporary humans are addicted to the world-wide net, try to imagine how bad they’d be one hundred million years hence with a galactic-wide net.

    All those ETs busy texting messaging, updating their facebook status, furiously flaming each other. Yet…[sound of crickets chirping] As Lara Bingle would say: “Where the bloody hell are they?”.

    So on the evidence of these BOTE calculation I would say that yes, it looks more probable that humans are pretty “special”.

    faustusnotes said:

    The alternative is the incredibly arrogant assumption that the simple physical processes that led to our creation are unique in a universe that is infinitely large; and even that is not sufficient justification to suppose that those processes were guided by some beardy dude on a cloud.

    Its not “arrogant” to assume that humans are “special”, in fact it would be arrogant to assume that our evident good fortune was par for the course, just the award wage instead of what it appears to be, a phenomenally long shot that only just scraped in by a nose. Lottery winners are not deemed arrogant when, blinking in amazement, they declare how lucky they are. If the odds on something good happening are very long then and that thing happens then we should thank our lucky stars.

    We know for fact that humans almost went extinct 75,000 years ago, their numbers dropping to as low as 2,000 which is perilously close to the minimal critical mass necessary for a community to survive slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is not proof that our fate was “guided by some beardy dude on a cloud” but it makes you think. Something that post-modern atheists are evidently not much up to.

  35. I think (just a guess) that other life in our galaxy is perhaps unlikely but other life in the entire universe is likely. If two or more intelligent civilizations arose in the universe they would be virtually certain to be so far apart in space AND time that they would never find any evidence of each other.

    So if God exists (highly unlikely), It in Its infinite wisdom placed intelligent beings of different “species” really, really far apart. I think It would have reasoned in this case: “They would only exterminate each other so I must keep them well apart.”

  36. it should take a bit over 20 million years for a Stage I RC (Kardashev Scale) to make first contact with an adjacent co-evolving RC radio relay stations.

    Would a 20th century piece of machinery last in space for 20 million years?

    I always liked the artistic device used at the very beginning of the first Star Wars movie. Something along the lines of: “A long time ago in a galaxy far away….”

  37. @Jack Strocchi

    The high-end improbability of the “dimensionless physical constants” having the right value for a stable matter universe is neither here or there. If you understand the Anthropic Principle properly you see it stretches all the way up to those improbabilities. It is even stated that way. In my words, the AP simply says;

    Since we are here, the requirements for our being here have already been met. It might have been highly improbable but probability is not operational now. An event that has already happened is certainty.

    I don’t however accept the Strong Anthropic Principle. I see no way that a universe is compelled, in some sense, to eventually have conscious and sapient life emerge within it. if there are multiple universes, I can imagine there could be many universes without life.

    If life is highly improbable, I don’t think positing a highly improbable creator-being gets rid of the improbability problem.

    Why require causes and then get to a cause where you suddenly say no more causes are required? That is a complete about-face in logic. It amounts to inverting the rules to get the answer you want.

  38. @Jack Strocchi

    “This process, given our presumed mediocrity, should have been going on for at least five billion years (half the total time range) for at least 100 RCs (half the total population). Thats enough time to spread the Gospel of Life hundreds of times around the Milky Way.”

    Well, sure Jack. Now bearing in mind fundamentals like signal-to-noise ratio and the inverse square law, have a go at working out the power requirements you’d need to narrowcast a signal over 10 quadrillion kilometres, and still have something identifiable left to decode on the other side.

    Then work out the probability that any one of your 200 or 500 or whatever RCs randomly pointed the beam in *our* direction 😉

  39. Would a 20th century piece of machinery last in space for 20 million years?

    The real question is how long it takes to develop different then radio wave comunications that are not limited by speed of light? Not how long the machinery that uses radio waves can last.

    Considering that we are only 100 years into ability to receive and measure radio waves, i would gues another 200 hundred years will take to switch to a different communication waves that we are still not able to receive and measure. Let’s make it 500 years to be on conservative side.
    So if timing of receiving and making radio waves within developement of technology is about 600 years, what is 600 years for a bilion years period that inteligent life is possible to exist in the universe or galaxy. Radio waves usage of other inteligent life could have well come and pass or it is not yet there.
    So, even if there is 500 million planets with life in our galaxy, what is the chance that radio technology is presently in usage on them?

    We have a glimpse of different waves that could be used for communication ALLREADY, after only 100 years of radio technology. Longitudinal or Tesla or Scalar waves do not show space and time limits as we are accustomed too.

  40. @Jack Strocchi
    Since we don’t actually know the full stretch of possible universes, and since we don’t even know that the universe is of finite origin (all we can do is extrapolate backwards), and since we don’t know if entirely different physical laws could create an entirely different type of matter/energy/field structure worthy of being called a universe, we are in no position to make claims as to the degree of improbability or likelihood of this particular universe over any other universe. What we can state unequivocally (unless we are philosophers) is that this particular universe exists, based on the evidence we can glean via imperfect sensory organs.

    Let’s say there is a parameter, call it alpha, which can range from 0 through to 1. Let’s say that each different value of alpha identifies a distinct universe, distinct in the sense that some fundamental physical aspect makes it unique: the existence of gravity would be a fairly major distinguishing feature. The point is not to get hung up on what constitutes a difference, just that different alpha values correspond to different possible universes. Let’s say alpha = 0.7853981633974483…, and that corresponds to our particular universe.

    Right, so we know that alpha, to the best of our measurement capability, is essentially pi/4. This strikes us as incredible: but, is alpha really pi/4, or is it slightly different, or is any measured deviation due to our technological shortcomings? Perhaps it is pure coincidence that alpha, to the best we can measure, is pi/4 or very nearly so. We have absolutely no way of answering this question, but we can be sure that we can construct theories which assume alpha is pi/4. So, this question as to what our magic parameter’s value really is, that’s a vexed one.

    Right, even if we know alpha must be pi/4, if our theories of gravity and what-not are to work as observed, that still doesn’t address a second vital question: what is the a priori probability distribution for alpha, i.e. when the magic hand of DoG reaches into the barrel of all possible alpha values, are some values represented multiple times in the barrel, making them more likely to be chosen over other values, or is each value equally likely as any other value? Is there some bias towards some values of alpha as being more likely than others? Without having at least some guidance on this question, its difficult to see how we can express confidence that our universe is so improbable. Of course, it is possible to just say that in the absence of knowledge, we assume all alpha values are equally likely to be chosen, in which case we get the answer we were seeking in the first place (i.e. our universe is a freak requiring explanation), so it is a circular argument at best.

    The upshot is all we ever can know is the a posterior situation: we fluked it, or we were a dead cert, but here we are—and that’s a certainty.

  41. Jack,the existence of our universe from our perspective is a matter of conditional probabilities. And your 20 million year spaceship example is complete crap, because it neglects to account for the spherical nature of the search space. Sure, if our peers knew exactly where we were it would take them 20 million years to find us, and over 5 billion years of possible evolution that task is pretty trivial. But they don’t know where we are so they need to send their sublight ships out over a sphere of increasing space. How many ships is that gonna take? And isn’t it deficit hawk conservative weirdos like you who say we can’t afford to do this shit? Maybe other societies out there in space are more realistic about government funding than conservative scare-babies like you, but even if they devote an entire society’s resources to the task, how long before they jet off a ship in exactly our direction?

    Your thinking shows you haven’t grasped the enormity of the physical space we inhabit. Maybe it’s this narrow vision which makes you amenable to visions of the beardy dude in his cloud?

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