Rapped on the Head by Creationists

By Sean Carroll | August 8, 2006 10:04 am

I think this is a new category for my CV — “articles subjected to close reading by creationists.” (That, and pioneering the concept of the least bloggable unit.) Here is the first entry: my humble little essay for Nature entitled “Is Our Universe Natural?” has been lovingly dissected at “Creation-Evolution Headlines.” In which they claim that my paper “arms the intelligent design movement in the current fight over the definition of science.” Okay, now those are fighting words.

The page is part of a larger site called Creation Safaris. I would tell you more about the site if only their web pages weren’t so confusing that I can’t follow what’s going on. It seems to be one of those places that takes you on a rafting trip to better enjoy God’s creation; blurbs for the trips include stuff like this:

ABOUT YOUR GUIDE: Tom Vail is a veteran rafting guide with 24 years experience. In recent years he has led the big trips for ICR and Answers in Genesis. Formerly an evolutionist, he used to tell his rafting parties the usual millions-of-years stories about the canyon, but when he became a Christian, he began to look at the world differently: this led to the publication last year of his book Grand Canyon: A Different View that caused a firestorm among evolutionists when the National Park Service began selling it in its bookstores; fortunately, visitors to the park are voting for it with their dollars!

Hey look, they’re the ones saying that becoming a Christian persuaded poor Tom to give up on rational scientific thought, not me. I’m not sure what belief system is responsible for the run-on sentences.

The most impressive thing about the site is that they have the massive cojones necessary to favorably invoke Carl Sagan, of all people. In particular, Sagan’s notion of a baloney detector, which apparently is just a “good grasp of logical reasoning and investigative procedure.” Which they use, ahem, to counter the illogical rhetorical sneakiness of the pro-evolution crowd. Jiminy crickets.

Anyway. Somehow they found my Nature article, which was about how physicists are taking advantage of seemingly-unnatural features of our universe in their efforts to develop a deeper understanding how how nature works. The title, “Is Our Universe Natural?”, is of course a joke, which folks of a certain cast of mind apparently don’t get. Of course our universe is natural, more or less by definition. The point is that it doesn’t always look natural from the perspective of our current state of understanding. That’s no surprise, because our current understanding is necessarily incomplete. In fact, it’s good news for scientists when they can point to something that doesn’t seem “natural” about the universe; although it’s not as useful as a direct experimental result that can’t be explained by current theories, it can still provide some useful guidance while we develop better theories. Trying to understand the rarity of certain particle-physics decays inspired people to invent the concept of “strangeness,” and ultimately the Eight-Fold Way and the quark model. Trying to understand the flatness and smoothness of our universe on large scales inspired Alan Guth to invent inflation, which provided a dynamical mechanism to generate density perturbations purely as a bonus.

Right now, trying to understand hierarchies in particle physics and the arrow of time has led people to seriously contemplate a vast multiverse beyond what we can see, perhaps populated by regions occupying different phases in the string theory landscape. Wildly speculative, of course, but that’s to be expected of, you know, speculations. Ideas are always speculative when they are new and untested; either they will ultimately be tested one way or another, or they’ll fade into obscurity, as I made perfectly clear.

The ultimate goal is undoubtedly ambitious: to construct a theory that has definite consequences for the structure of the multiverse, such that this structure provides an explanation for how the observed features of our local domain can arise naturally, and that the same theory makes predictions that can be directly tested through laboratory experiments and astrophysical observations. To claim success in this programme, we will need to extend our theoretical understanding of cosmology and quantum gravity considerably, both to make testable predictions and to verify that some sort of multiverse picture really is a necessary consequence of these ideas. Only further investigation will allow us to tell whether such a programme represents laudable aspiration or misguided hubris.

(Did you know that Nature has an editorial policy forbidding the use of the words “scenario” and “paradigm”? Neither did I, but it’s true. “Paradigm” I can see, but banning “scenario” seems unnecessarily stuffy to me.) (Also, it’s a British publication, thus the spelling of “programme.” There is no “me” in “program”!)

It’s not hard to guess what a creationist would make of this: scientists are stuck, don’t understand what’s going on, grasping at straws, refusing to admit that God did it, blah blah blah. And that’s more or less what we get:

For the most part, Carroll wrote thoughtfully and perceptively, except for one thing: he totally ignored theism as an option. He is like Robert Jastrow’s mountain climber, scrambling over the last highest peak, only to find a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. Yet he doesn’t even bother to say Howdy. Instead, he walks over to them and tries to describe them with equations, and puzzles about how they emerged by a natural process. As he does this, one of the theologians taps on his head and says, “Hello? Anybody home?” yet Carroll continues, now trying to naturalize the pain he feels in his skull.

Gee, I wonder why anyone would waste their time trying to explain the universe in natural terms? Maybe because it’s been a fantastically successful strategy for the last five hundred years? Somewhat more successful, one might suggest, than anything “creation science” has managed to come up with.

Sorry, got a little sarcastic there. Don’t mean to offend anyone, even while they are tapping on my empty skull. What we have here is a textbook case of the God of the gaps argument, notwithstanding the thorough squelching that David Hume gave the idea many years ago. It’s really kind of sad. All they can do is point to something that scientists don’t yet understand and say “Aha! You’ll never understand that! Only God will provide the answer!” And when the scientists finally do understand it and move on to some other puzzle, they’ll say “Okay, this one you’ll really never understand! You need God, admit it!”

Think about it for a second — a century ago concepts like “the state of the universe one second after the Big Bang” or “the ratio of the vacuum energy to the Planck scale” hadn’t even been invented yet. Today, not only have they been invented, but they’ve been measured, and we’ve moved on to trying to understand them in terms of deeper principles. I’d say it’s a bit to early to declare defeat in our attempts to fit these ideas into a naturalistic framework.

Creationists don’t understand how science works. But more amusingly, they also don’t understand the definition of the word “faith”! The Creation-Safaris article pulls out the hoary old chestnut that science requires just as much faith as religion does.

The introduction also hints that the naturalistic approach is built on faith. Scientists believe that even in the most puzzling phenomena there exist underlying physical or natural principles accessible to the human mind. … It takes faith, however, to believe this approach can be extrapolated without bounds.

Let’s look up the dictionary definition of faith:

  1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
  2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

The thing is, scientists don’t have “faith” that the universe can be explained in naturalistic terms; they make that hypothesis, and then they test it. And it works, over and over again — it becomes a belief that very much does “rest on logical proof or material evidence.” In my Nature article I said “Needless to say, proposals of this type are extremely speculative, and may well be completely wrong,” which is seized upon as an admission of weakness. That couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s just standard operating procedure for scientists to admit that their theories may well be wrong before they’ve been tested against data. The provisional nature of scientific theorizing, admitting ignorance where appropriate, is the strength of the scientific method.

Nor is it true that I “totally ignored theism as an option.” I didn’t discuss it in this particular paper, of course, just as I didn’t discuss the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Elsewhere I have argued in detail why theism is simply not a very good option, in the specific case of trying to understand the apparent fine-tunings we see in nature. (And don’t tell me that no serious theologian tries to use fine-tunings to argue in favor of God these days, because they do.) But I will explain it once again! Because, despite the absence of God in my cold materialist heart, I am nevertheless a very generous person.

When scientists compare hypotheses that purport to explain the same set of data, they tend to prefer the model that explains the most with the least; that is, the one that can account for the widest variety of phenomena with the smallest amount of input. In this case, the phenomena to be explained include certain large-scale features of the universe (the existence of many galaxies, the arrow of time) as well as the values of various constants of nature that seem to be crucial to the existence of chemistry (and therefore life) as we know it. The claim of modern-day natural theology is that the God hypothesis provides a simple and elegant explanation of features of the universe that would otherwise seem disconnected and unnatural — it’s much easier to say “God exists,” and from that derive the conditions necessary for the existence of life, than to separately posit each of those conditions.

Except that (1) the God hypothesis is anything but simple, and (2) you don’t derive very much from it at all. It’s not simple because nobody will tell you much about this God character. What is its origin, how does it behave, what laws does it obey? Of course some people think they know the answers, but those people don’t generally agree with each other. Rather than offering a simple and well-defined hypothesis, we’ve been forced to invent an entirely new metaphysical category and an ill-defined set of rules for it to follow.

And you don’t go from “God exists” directly to a prediction for the vacuum energy or the charge of the electron. You go (in the most generous of readings) from “God exists” to “conditions in the universe must allow for the existence of life” to the values of various constants. But that first step buys you precisely nothing. The only thing that the God hypothesis even purports to explain is why the universe allows for intelligent life. But the statement “the universe allows for intelligent life” contains just as much predictive power, with much less metaphysical baggage, than the God idea. So, strictly from the perspective of scientific theory-choice, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained (and much to be lost in terms of specificity and simplicity) by giving the credit to God.

As I like to emphasize, the God hypothesis could in principle count as a scientifically promising explanation, if only it could actually explain something new, something beyond our mere existence. For example, it’s unclear why there are three generations of fermions in the Standard Model; can God perhaps account for that? Even better, make a testable prediction. Does God favor low-energy supersymmetry? What is God’s stance on proton decay, and baryognesis? If you are claiming to explain some features of known particle physics or cosmology by appeal to God (and maybe you aren’t claiming that, but some people are), you should be able to carry the program forward and make predictions about unknown particle physics. Otherwise you are just telling a story about stuff we already know, without explaining anything, and that’s not science.

The true tragedy of “creation science” is that it is an invitation to stop thinking. Instead of taking puzzling aspects of Nature as clues to something deeper, and mulling over the possible lessons we can learn from them in our quest to undertand the universe better and better, the creationist attitude just wants to say “God did it!” and declare victory. It’s a form of giving-up that could have been invoked thousands of times in the history of science, but thankfully was not. Instead, stubborn naturalistic investigators took seriously the clues they had, and used them to gradually uncover marvelous new features of the real world. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science
  • http://eclecticfloridian.blogspot.com Eclectic Floridian

    Your comments about Gods influence on natural events, reminded me of a story I read recently.

    A fire starts in the engine-room of a naval vessel being sold to a Muslim nation. The American crew sees the Muslim crew running from the fire. After the Americans put out the fire, they ask the Muslims why they ran. The answer: “The fire was Gods will.” Inshah Allah.

    This is not a put-down to Islam, just an example of how misguided one can be when depending on God to explain/control events.

    My favorite saying: “God gave you a brain. Use it!” After all, God created the laws of probability too.

  • http://www.brucecordell.com Bruce

    Recently, a very high IQ colleagues repeated to me that “chestnut” that science is just as much about faith as religion. Luckily, I had a response I read in comments somewhere, either here or on another blog:

    Science is based on trust; religion is based on faith. The difference between trust and faith is that trust is earned; faith is taken on, well, faith.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Hi Sean great read
    Science and Nature and Theology and Maths.

    Could you go back to yesterday for me and measure the length of my baguette.
    Come on Sean, can’t take yoy that long if you can go all the way back thousands or even millions or is it billions of years in an instant inside your head.

    Ok, so that one (the baguette) to difficult for you
    How about going back and measuring how tall you were when you were born, ok that one is easy check the hospital records, and how tall was Einstein when he was born – did you say??? say say

    Only messing – love ya really. After all what would life be without a Universe to debate over, over coffee. lol!

  • Allyson

    This kerfuffle brings to mind the old argument from the Angel writers’ room: “Who would win in a fight: Astronauts or Cavemen?”

    Score so far:

    Sean: 2
    Cavemen: 1

    As expected, the Cavemen knock on Sean’s noggin with heavy clubs. Thankfully, Sean has access to lasers and the ability to make fire.

    This round goes to Sean, but I strongly suggest he take cover once they figure out that they have opposable thumbs and start throwing rocks at the moon.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9


    Are you saying the craters on the moon were created by cavemen who figured out that with opposable thumbs they could throw rocks at the moon – and how many millions of years ago did you say this happened.

    Well we’ve certainly evolved, have we not we can just about launch a rocket to the moon loaded with lasers. Oh and did you say the first Astronaut was a monkey, funny how most people can’t remember his name. lol!

    but then again this generation has so little regard orrespect for their ancestors and each other, that one could seriously be excused for thinkingthey were descended from apes

  • ed hessler

    Bruce’s comment reminds me of Martin Minsky’s observation on a difference between science and religion (which I hope I don’t butcher too badly). “In religion, sin is not believing strongly enough; in science, sin is believing too strongly.”

    My scoreboard reads Sean 2; creationists nil.

    I love the idea of the LBU. I probably should apply its kin here, i.e., something along the lines of an LVC, least valuable comment and pay attention to what it means.

    Thanks again for another thoughtful post.

  • http://www.wolverinesden.org Wolverine

    Thanks for the marvelous article, Sean. It more than made up for the brain-rotting few minutes I spent perusing the Creation Safaris page.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    By the way, if the values of physical constants are a function of God’s will, shouldn’t we be able to use dimensional analysis to define the nature of the deity?

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Hi ed hessler,
    thanks for your nil point, but I hadn’t quite realised this was the eurovision song contest.

    Now in terms of value, or the measure of one’s understanding, how did you say you measured a million years, sorry 13.7 billion light years

    You do realise that a light year has nothing to do with a calendar year or the solar year, ie: the 365.35 revolutions of earth in its annual orbit around the Sun. This is the measure of time we use today, how far back did you say earth started orbitting around the Sun, and how long was a (solar) year before there was a Sun.

    Oh! and speed of light is a measure of distance over time, so which measure of time did you use fot the speed of light before there was a Solar year or a day of 24 hours, 60 minutes 60 seconds 100ths of a second …

    And finally being a Creationist is not a contradiction of Nature or Physics or the physical world – although perhaps LQG and ST can appear to contradict each other. I have no problem with Creationism, though only you know what you understand me (I) to mean by that, just like only Smolin understands what he means by parallel universes thru blackholes or only Susskind understands what he means by a membrane or landscape of pocket Universes in his Megaverse. And yes I fo look forward to EuroTunnel trips to these pocket universes if and when you can create maglev trains that can take us there. But that is because I like totravel, and why do I like to go places, well quite simply ed, because they are there

    So you been judge at any bikini contests lately?

  • NL

    And a cry went up from the people: LORD, the land is beset by a distinct sinkhole in the level of discourse, WOE be unto us, canst thou not MODERATE? Let thy people SUFFER no more. Amen.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    And finally being a Creationist is not a contradiction of Nature or Physics or the physical world

    Yes it is.

    Can somebody show me some evidence that “theism” exists except in some fools head in order for it to even be a valid consideration?

    Welcome to my world, Sean, but it goes both ways, to be sure.

  • Pete

    I still can’t believe that the notion of evolution is under attack by the ID creationists; can’t they at least attack the various postulated mechanisms of evolution, rather then the word itself, which simply means ‘change over time’?

    After trying for a long time to understand the ID philosophy, I’ve come up with a possible solution: a theological perspective that the ID crowd can accept. I’m sure this isn’t original but here goes. The “Intelligent Designer’ had actually designed many universes before he-she-it did this one. However, the ID, being omniscient, always grew incredibly bored with those universes, since all future events were known to the ID. Therefore, after much Deep Thought, the ID came up with a brilliant solution – a universe that was intrinsically unpredictable and that would always deliver interesting surprises. Key ingredients in this new universe would be sensitive dependence on initial conditions, the quantum uncertaintly principle, and so on. A degree of nuclear stability was also included so that complex forms could arise.

    The origin of this idea is in a quote regarding Einstein re. the dice quote. I forget the author, but it is “If God played dice… he’d win!” – but wouldn’t that get boring? Somehow, I think Douglas Adams came up with this first.

  • http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2006/07/interesting-guest-posting.html Blake Stacey

    A quick question about the “three generations” bit:

    I recall reading that measuring the decay rate of the Z boson restricts the number of generations which can exist (the more particles available, the more ways the Z can decay and so the shorter it lives). While I suppose the Z decay rate affects the strength of the weak nuclear force, this still seems like an esoteric quantity, and one which could be “corrected” by tweaking coupling constants and boson masses to adjust for a different generation count.

    Off the top of my ignorant head, it seems like a more parsimonious Creator could have managed with fewer particle generations, or alternatively, that we could have been blessed with a multitude of them: “I the LORD thy God am a loving God, creating quarks and leptons unto the fourth generation and beyond”, etc. How stands the (cough) Anthropic Principle in handling discrete choices like this?

    (Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Muggle-Theory Landscape, cellular automata living on a D2-brane they know as “Flatland” are asking the same question.)

  • http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/contents.html Blake Stacey

    Oh, and just so I can be helpful too, the idea of God creating what Pete calls “a universe that was intrinsically unpredictable and that would always deliver interesting surprises” appears in an Isaac Asimov story entitled “The Last Answer”, first published in 1980. It is not nearly as well known or as highly regarded as his earlier story “The Last Question”, but at least now you have your precedent!

    Of course, I’d love to hear about earlier uses of the concept; this is just the one which sprung to my mind.

  • JoAnne

    Blake Stacey,

    We have produced roughly 17 million Z bosons in electron-positron collider experiments at CERN and SLAC and the properties of the Z are very, very accurately measured. The mass of the Z boson, in fact, is the single most precisely measured quantity in the Standard Model. It is measured to 0.002%. The mass of the W boson is measured directly at LEP2 and the Tevatron to a precision of 0.036%. The weak coupling constant (most precise measurement was done here at SLAC!) is measured to 0.5%. These quantities are determined so precisely that there is simply no wiggle room in what you are proposing!

    The number of generations is determined by the invisible decay rate of the Z. The Z decays into particles which we can see in the detector and those we can’t. Neutrinos are examples of particles which interact so weakly that they fly through the detector undetected. We have observed that the only particles we can see from Z decay are the 3 generations of charged leptons (e mu, tau) and the 3 generations of quarks, minus the top which is heavier than the Z (leaving up, down, strange, charm, and bottom). We can measure the total decay rate (by varying the beam energy ever so slightly near the Z mass) – it is determined to 0.09% – and we measure the decay rates into the particles we see. The difference is the invisible decay rate. One can calculate the number of neutrinos which can contribute to this invisible decay rate. The only variables in the calculation are the number of neutrinos, the Z mass, and the weak coupling constant. The result is 2.984 generations of neutrinos with an error of 0.008. So we know that there are only 3 generations of light neutrinos which couple to the Z.

    This is a great demonstration of Sean’s point – through precision scientific measurements we know there are only 3 generations of light neutrinos in the universe.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    Oh good grief, the mistake of IDists that Non-Creationists buy into is that they assume that the appearance in nature of human-like intent can possibly be different from any other form of expressed bias in nature, so they get away with projecting that human-like intent exists behind an unknown natural bias, rather than the other way round.

    They get away with it, because they immediately and automatically knee-jerk react to deny the appearance of “design”.

    Like when Lenny QUALIFIED his statement in the least scientific manner possible:
    ‘The “appearance” of design is undeniable…’

    Without an infinite number of potential universes, Lenny is an idist, by rights, (since he doesn’t seem to know about scientific concepts like Einstein’s idea of purpose in nature)

    …BUT he was also careful to point out that “scientists won’t see it that way” if the “landscape” idea and the multiverse, fails.

    His was a conditionally qualified statement of pre-existing intent to deny the implication of evidence if I’ve ever seen one.

    And I won’t even get into Lawrence Krauss’ expressed intent to deny observational evidence that supports anthropic specialness… but that doesn’t mean that he was any further from willful denial than Lenny was.

    Of course, none of what I say will ever strike a logical nerve on either side, so I’m just wasting my fingers.

  • http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/contents.html Blake Stacey

    Many thanks to JoAnne for giving specific techniques and numbers. That’s the kind of information I love to get! (A string-theorist friend of mine quoted that “2.984 pm 0.008 generations” result in conversation a couple weeks back, so the figures do sound familiar, even though I can’t keep all the details in my head at once.) That people are able to measure things so well is absolutely awesome! However, I have to say that I feel you provided a very good answer to the wrong question. Being my normal inarticulate self, I probably wasn’t able to get across the point which really interests me:

    Could complex matter, heavy elements, life and all that exist with a different number of generations, with other parameters adjusted if necessary? I know we can tell what is with supreme accuracy, but how much can we rule out about what might be? Particulary if what might be differs from what is by a big step, a discrete alteration instead of an ε-sized perturbation of some continuous variable.

    This is where I should wave my hands and mumble something about “widely separated local maxima in the fitness landscape. . . .”

  • Cynthia

    As long as the Grand Canyon belongs to the state, selling Vail’s book on creationism within the confines of the Grand Canyon appears to blatantly violate separation of church and state.

    Nonetheless, it seems that these “dissectors” at “Creation-Evolution Headlines” are in dire need of an MRI scan to determine if they have any viable tissue remaining inside their skulls.;)

  • Aaron

    What is G-d’s stance on proton decay?

    As far as we know, He seems to be against it. 😉

  • Haelfix

    I simply don’t agree. Not even a little bit.

    Ive been a life long atheist, and still am. However the anthropic argument is just as bad as the god hypothesis if not considerably worse.

    At least with a creator present, it makes the hopelessly bizarre naturallness somewhat palatable (eg god made a bizarre and unlikely universe). Especially when you are talking about picking on the order of 10^500 different boxes or vacua (keeping in mind that if you are wrong at some scale, eg there is some sort of hidden quantum correction inherent even by a little bit you likely end up with something completely different than what you predict and observe you live in).

    Worse, nowhere else in physics does finetuning occur of that magnitude. Indeed several places things conspire to output parameters that are adjusted by factors of 1-100 at most. Consider for instance the appearance of the W and Z boson, which occurs right where it should before Fermi theory starts getting really ugly.

    All this to say, both arguments are anti scientific and tautologous

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  • http://jfaughnan.blogspot.com John Faughnan

    Creationists made a colossal strategic error attacking natural selection. I must give them credit for shifting their focus — cosmology is a much more vulnerable target. The universe is so damned peculiar that it seems almost reasonable that it’s buried in the reject pile of a perverse and possibly malign designer. (From what we can see of the handiwork, the designer might not be something to meet in a dark alley.)

    In a similar vein, I was a bit bemused when I realized that one of the solutions to the Fermi Paradox was simply that the “universe” was “designed” so that we had the galaxy to ourselves. Not my favorite solution, but it is in theory subject to disproof (ie. SETI comes up with something).

    Cosmology and physics are the logical next targets for the Creationists. I wish all strength to physicists and warm congratulations to biologists …

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne


    Simple answer is no. We’ve just measured things too well at the energy/distance scales you are describing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I think the answer to Blake’s question is that nobody knows. If you are asking whether there exists a self-consistent physical theory, with very different parameters, but for which life, complex elements, etc. are still possible (perhaps, for example, in another local minimum of the landscape), then we just don’t know. (I think JoAnne thought he was asking could such things be true in our part of the universe/multiverse, should that terminology make sense, to which, as she explained, the answer is no)

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Seems like if someone forgot to close an italics tag, the names of the following posters become italicized too.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Fixed – thanks Eugene!

  • Gregory de Mare

    Science does depend on beliefs. The beliefs are that there is a predictable element in everything to which science can be applied. In general, the predictability is across both location and time. The predictable element may have scintific descriptions that are qualitative as in evolution, by mathematical equations as in relativity or by probability distributions as in quantum mechanics.

    Whenever a scientist sees something that appears to violate this belief, he or she changes the problem to find a predictable element. One approach might be to see if the averages of an observation (over space or over time) are predictable. Another approach might be too look for factors that were not considered, that, when added to the observation, make the result predictable.

    I subscribe to this scientific belief. Nearly all my experience and all our technology depends on that predictability.

    Creationism and Intelligent Design are contradictions of that predictability. To the extent that they are true, they preclude the application of scientifc methods. While they may be true in some cases, the only way to find out is by failing to be able to find a predictable relationship and such a failure may take one or more centuries of scientific study to be meaningful.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Well, if one is not restricting oneself to physical processes in our neck of the landscape, then I would guess many things are possible. In fact, take a look at: `A Universe without weak interactions’ by Roni Harnik, Graham Kribs, and Gilad Perez hep-ph/0604027. They do a pretty good job in showing that universes with chemistry and life etc can exist without weak interactions.

    However in our neck of the woods, the answer is no.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    No, there is no Fermi Paradox, which is a falacy that comes from the failure to correctly apply the physics for the anthropic principle. Carter never said that we are alone at the center of the universe, rather, he correctly noted that “our situation is not necessarily central, but it is inevitably privileged to some extent”.

    The evolutionary physics for the AP applies to planets near stars in every galaxy that evolved under the same conditions, Time and “Locaction-wise, as we did.

    As a result, contact with other life should not be expected YET, since there hasn’t even been time even for radio transmissions from nearby planetary-systems in our own galaxy to reach us given that the above indicates that we are all approximately equally developed, technologically as all other intelligent life is.

    And Quazar9, what you apparently don’t get is that there is no presidence for breaking the known continuity of causality just because you can invent some fantasy about NeverNeverLand in your mind.

    It’s the same gripe that people have about the multiverse, because this isn’t science until and unless it proves to be necessary to the one true ToE or MAYBE a “real” theory of quantum gravity.

  • http://phy.duke.edu/~bstacey Blake Stacey

    Many thanks to Mark and JoAnne for their replies (and for fixing the effects of my inability to close HTML tags)!

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Not to trivialize the discussion, but I’m concerned — for Sean’s sake :) — by Allyson’s evoking of the “Astronaut vs Caveman” debate among the writers of the “Angel” TV series… The whole point of the episode where that came up is, “Of COURSE the caveman always wins.” Superior technology doesn’t save the major character (a physicist) who dies horribly (as in, internal liquefaction of all major organs) at the hands of an ancient parasitic demon.

    This notion that modern science is no match for “old magic” is a common trope in science fiction, but certainly encapsulates why rational, scientific arguments are rarely effective against Creationists, who reject that sort of thing in favor of blind faith — in fact, they usually pride themselves on “resisting” scientific evidence; they tend to view it as the devil testing their faith.

    Let’s hope the writers of “Angel” were mistaken in their conclusion. But Sean, if someone delivers a mysterious old sarcophagus to your office, DON’T OPEN IT, lest you turn into a blue-tinged, time-shifting demon… :)

  • http://quthoughts.blogspot.com Joe

    “Astronaut vs Caveman” isn’t really the same as “Scientist vs Creationist”. Everyone knows that scientists have the best weapons:

    Physicists have nuclear weapons,
    Chemists have conventional explosives and nerve gas,
    Biologists have anthrax and ebola, and lots of other nasty stuff…..

    And I suppose social scientists have propoganda.

    All the creationist could do is literally throw the Book at you.

    (For people that have a difficulty picking up on this sort of thing, this comment is posted in jest)

  • Allyson

    Let’s hope the writers of “Angel” were mistaken in their conclusion

    Hi Jennifer. On Angel and Buffy, magic always wins because everything is magic, including the protagonists. But amongst the writers in the real world of Santa Monica, there were pro-cavemen and pro-astronauts, and the debate was about blunt force vs. brains. The argument Spike and Angel were having was a meta-shoutout to the actual argument.

    Why isn’t my job that much fun?

    In any case, I believe Sean should always wear a helmet to protect his poor noodle from further assault.

  • http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ nigel cook


    you deserve to be in the dock for that Nature article called “Is our universe natural?” You say it is a joke.

    But the very fact that the title of a Nature article seems to raise such a question is itself a severe blow to physics (which isn’t concerned with such metaphysics, but is only concerned with useful predictive calculations and – hopefully in the long term – underlying physical mechanisms and unification).

    It doesn’t help science one bit when you inadvertently play into the hands of these creationists. Yes, it is mildly entertaining, but on balance it does harm to the standing of objective science.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    Natural is a relative term is Sean’s good point, I think.

    An airplane lying on the bottom of the ocean is not the natural expectation, and it certainly is out of place with the rest of the environment so it is not NORMAL to this environment… relatively speaking.

  • Haelfix

    Seans argument is basically a variant of Occams razor applied to the anthropic argument. Eg god is extra baggage to the predictivity of the system, hence its unnatural and disfavored.

    Well, the primary disagreement then is how satisfied you are with the anthropic principle to explain living in a highly unnatural, fine tuned and unstable place in presumably an enormous forest , with a near infinite number of disjoint subforests which are also capable of supporting life. In my mind, its perfectly reasonable for Iders to then argue that we are in that situation b/c a diety put us there. Eg the extra god baggage is completely irrelevant relative to how satisfied and confident you are with that physical laws that place you in an n choose 10e500 situation.

    Now, a scientific mind will question the assumptions that put us in that conundrum to begin with. For instance, whats more likely.. That we live in an isolated, hard to get to region of some googleplex landscape such that we are even tempted to invoke the god hypothesis, or that we are missing a piece of the puzzle.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/11/music-of-spheres.html Plato

    The point is while you might have been witness to the ideas of the “hills and valleys” by Smolin’s analogy, the multiverse idea still through it’s infancy is opening the mind to all possibile pathways?

    What the heck is Alice doing? Then, there is this resulting backdrop of the spectrum?

    Wayne Hu idealizations(acoustic like) are no different in this regard, yet, he has comparatively extended our thinking by moving forward the landscape (WMAP) in different ways?

    Play a bow string perhaps?:)Watch the sand particles dance.

    “Innovation of thinking” does not imply that you should have become a dissident for/against what ever ideas you have of God?

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    Exactly Haelfix, which is the reason that I’d point out that Carter never claimed that the AP is complete, so the failure of most people to listen isn’t his fault, since Barrow and Tiper didn’t really add anything to what had been understood since the 19th century.

    At the conference in Cracow, in 1973, Brandon Carter said that the AP respresents “a line of thought” [“against exaggerated subservience to the Copernican-(like) Cosmological (extensions per the General Principle of Relativity) Principle”] that he believed was “potentially fertile”, but that it “needs further development”.

    He had John Wheeler in mind when he said this, because it was at Wheeler’s urging that he put forth the principle in order that John could add his idea of the kind of anthropic specialness that the physics indicated.

    But there is a lot more evidence that “specialness” means that we are simply a entropically favored by a predominantly expansive universe as a specialized means to an end. Jackhammers are better rock-breakers than the ocean is, in terms of energy-efficiency.

    If the big bang produces anything less than absolute symmetry between gravity and the cosmolgical constant, then the result will be a lot of junk asymmetries, like us, that serve as a relatively piss-poor attempt to follow through on the *intent* of the effort, by maximizing work and energy efficiency as well as possible, given the inherent asymmetry.

    Some junk is more specialized than others, is all.

  • spyder

    Joe’s jest in 32 above, is not far off the mark in some enlightening ways. In the recesses of the not at all public consciousness research studies, academics are looking at the “weapons” of ethnopharamcologists (not just those in the field {aka-shamen}, but also those in the laboratories). This area of specialization looks at these sorts of molecules that have the capacity to alter the perceptions and information processing neurons of the human brain, manifesting psychological revelations of magic, demons, gods, etc.. One of the fields that ID’ers and creationist types love to avoid is the one that studies how our brains develop and create our god(s). The study of entheogens is finally beginning to regain the momentum it lost in the late 60’s; it is quite dangerous to talk about from where our concept of divinity came and i am saddened that the mechanisms of repression are already trying to stop the resurgence of that research. Just look at all the flak Dennett is getting about his new book.

    I would suggest Sean not worry about the sarcophagus and be more concerned with who puts what in his espresso.

  • Pete

    Thanks for the reference, Blake.

    Somehow, I think that the heart of the issue is our modern knowledge of the vastness of our universe, and the sense of insignificance that some people feel when looking up at a starry night. Infantile egos must continually proclaim their importance; a soothing pat on the head is the best response, along with an evolutionary example – take the evolution of multiple drug resistance in pathogenic microbes over the past 60 years.

  • http://suitti.livejournal.com/ Stephen Uitti

    “Is Our Universe Natural?”

    Of course it is. From the point of view of enthalpy, the Universe is a really big explosion. That makes it a natural disaster.

  • Cynthia

    I regard JohnFaughnan’s comment#22 as the most insightful among the bunch of comments. Creationists appear to be backing off their attacks against the life sciences. However, creationists appear to be stepping up their attacks against the physical sciences. Therefore, this change in strategy should serve as a wake-up call for all interested people within the field of the physical sciences.

  • pete

    One small point – the distinction between the ‘life sciences’ and the ‘physical sciences’ is a fairly arbitary academic division that has more to do with the distribution of research funds than anything else. Systems, whether natural or unnatural (and I don’t know how to distinguish between the two), don’t draw such distinctions – thus the newish concept of ‘systems science’. The fields of biophysics and biochemistry are good examples of this; however it is true that physics has done more to inform biology then vice versa. (PM Dirac did succinctly state that life was going to be a far more difficult problem then relativistic quantum mechanics). Thus, even if creationists switch to attacking ‘physical sciences’ they will also unavoidably be attacking the ‘life sciences’.

  • Tammy

    What I never understand in this discussion is why a dicotomy between God and Nature has been created by some. If there is an all-knowing, all-powerful God, how could nature, as understood by scientists, be in contradition to God? And, how could these same people be so arrogant to assume that our minds are capable of understanding all of nature (ie. God’s creation)? I would think they would take the gaps in science as an opportunity to realize humility in the presense of God’s creation, but what do I know? I am just an astronomer.

  • http://www.laurengunderson.com Lauren Gunderson

    I LOVE this, Sean. You rock. I wish I could get in an arguemnt like this with a creationist. Luckily I’m currently rehearsing a science play i wrote for middle and high schools in Georgia that chats about evolution (among other things scientific). Can’t wait for the school boards to start tapping on my empty skull :)

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    Nah, they’ll just stick a disclaimer on your forehead. Somebody call Kathy Cox… 😉

  • http://modulotruth.blogspot.com John

    I have been guilty in the past of using the “science also relies on faith” argument, of which it is right to be skeptical. The question is not, however, so clear to me. If you want to conclude absolutely nothing about the universe except that which you can definitively prove, you have completely avoided “faith,” but you cannot accomplish anything. Maybe we will find out tomorrow that we have been brains in a vat, etc. If you want to accomplish something worthwhile, assumptions are warranted. If you want to make your assumptions as few as possible and as well motivated as possible but still be able to understand the universe, you have science. If your goals are different from understanding, and include things like seeing (probably wrongly) an overriding meaning or being comforted (probably wrongly) that there is life after death, then different assumptions that may be less motivated are required. The point, though, is that the differences of these approaches are in their goals: if the goal is as few assumptions as possible, be a nihilist, if it is understanding, be a scientist, if it is (a particular kind of) comfort, be spiritual. Sometimes science pretends that understanding is the obvious and only legitimate goal and that science is not founded on a very heavy dose of pragmatism. This is what can be upsetting to some. Of course, people other than scientists can be pigheaded. I am distressed to hear the passage Sean quoted, and his anger is justified. The abuses and overextensions of science have always been miniscule compared to the abuses of religion.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Everybody makes lots of assumptions and only has the time (or inclination) to challenge a handful of them. On the other hand, it is disingenuous in the highest degree to lump religious belief in with the commonsensical assumptions needed to do science (or take a walk around the block). Religious belief is sui generis since its content is relentlessly counterfactual. People aren’t immortal. The universe isn’t haunted . The dead stay dead. Prayer has at most a psychological efficacy. The host is a cracker. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that actions have automatic conseqences at a later time. The point is, the craziness of such beliefs is not something asserted merely by outsiders. It is an essential feature of what can reasonably be called the religion effect. You can’t get the same frisson from believing in the principle of induction or by deciding that life isn’t just a dream. Doctrine such as the great antiquity of the Earth and the kinship of all living things can hardly be believed in a religious way since they are almost certainly true or, at the very least, we sincerely think they are.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    Science without Religion is lame…
    Religion without Science is Blind.

    -Albert Einstein

    Without assumptions about projections our theories would be exactly one step ahead of what we can measure directly.


    But if these assumptions can’t be reasonably verified by empiricism or a good theory, then we might be projecting a mathematical fairy-tale.


    I think that it’s appropriate after the year of disrespect that was paid the the man that he take a bow to let you know that the mentioned assumptions become outright absudities at an exponentially increasing rate as time passes without proving that your assumed leaps of faith aren’t just prayers.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Bake #13

    Perhaps this can be explained by the Anthropic principle. If you change the number of generations you change the number of light particles (neutrinos) during nucleosynthesis. This affects the ratio of helium/hydrogen abundance. This in turn would strongly affect evolution of stars and hence life. See here for a study of properties of stars with high helium abundances.

    Now, you could still get the same helium/hydrogen ratio with a different number of generations if you adjust the ratio of Newton’s constant/fourth power of Fermi’s constant. But I’m not sure that you could get a universe in which the abundance of intelligent beings would be larger.

    JoAnne #28 mentioned the Weakless Universe. I’m not convinced that this could yield a larger abundance of intelligent beings. They claim that the absence of internal heat generation via radioactive decay inside planets and the effects that has on geological activity, in particular the generation of a magnetic field, is not very important.

    But it seems to me that without heat from radioactive decay, the window for life to evolve would be much shorter. After the magnetic field vanishes, the atmosphere would be stripped away by solar wind. This does happen to some extent even with a magnetic field, however geological activity also replenishes the atmosphere. If you have no magnetic field and no geological activity you end up with a dead planet.

  • spyder
  • http://modulotruth.blogspot.com John


    it is disingenuous in the highest degree to lump religious belief in with the commonsensical assumptions needed to do science

    I apologize for being disingenuous. I would prefer you to think of me as confused. I am still young and foolish, but I should probably know better.

    Religious belief is sui generis since its content is relentlessly counterfactual. People aren’t immortal. The universe isn’t haunted . The dead stay dead. Prayer has at most a psychological efficacy.

    Completely accurate but not an argument against what I said. If the goal of belief (as is my own goal and I’m sure is yours) is to be accurate, then these would be deadly flaws. When there is a pragmatic situation at hand- like education policy or space policy- there is a very good reason to be accurate. When someone is dealing with their personal life, I don’t know of a convincing argument that accuracy should be their goal (despite having a personal conviction that deluding myself would be a bad thing). Also, this is not all mutually exclusive. I can set different goals in answering different questions. When pondering physics or math, I can apply the very well motivated “commensensical” assumptions required of these fields. When I ponder things like my reason for being, perhaps you will permit me to be a little more hokey. Maybe pondering these things is just silly, but in this context, it does no harm.

    You can also accuse me of being off topic because these scientific-religious debates are about pragmatic questions where convincing arguments for science do exist. There you would be right. I don’t mean to discount science’s successes or its superiority in resolving the vast majority of debates. If it means anything, I may yet be a physics major, and I would generally be considered an athiest and certainly don’t believe in the things you cited as religious (immortality, ghosts, resurrection, effectiveness of prayer beyond the psychological). I just think caution may be called for. Sometimes things that are “at most psychological” are very, very important to people and sometimes that is enough to make them worthwhile. Science has proven itself enough in the minds of enough people that we don’t need to trample over religion. A cultural war is not what we need because if people are pushed hard enough, then science is in actual danger.

  • http://modulotruth.blogspot.com John

    Lest you think I am just incapable of hearing reason, I hasten to add that perfectly sensible things can be said that actually do address the argument I made- as John Baez and David Corfield demonstrate in comments here. I would greatly appreciate discussing this more in that thread or in this one.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison


    I wasn’t addressing your post so much as the general argument that since science requires assumptions (faith, sorta), it resembles popular religion. I wasn’t attacking religous people, who are welcome to whatever they wish to believe and are guaranteed to be unimpressed with my arguments in any event. I’m simply trying to understand how religion and science work. Like every attempt to come to the truth (small t), it is very much a minority endeavor. You write “When someone is dealing with their personal life, I don’t know of a convincing argument that accuracy should be their goal.” I completely agree.

  • http://modulotruth.blogspot.com John

    Ah. Sorry about the misinterpretation and over-defensiveness. Sometimes this area is just too touchy.

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  • Drew

    I personally believe in God and the creationist theory that God made the earth and all that but I also believe in evolution and the whole primortial earth thing also. First of all, if the big bang theory is true, where did the matter for the big bang come from and what caused it. Because the four fundamental forces, the strong and weak nuclear forces the electromagnetic force and gravitation; they would eventually reach an equilibrium and the big bang would not happen. So some outside force had to cause it to go boom. Also in Genesis, God made man and everything in seven days, but you have to remember God is outside of time, seven days to him could be well over 50 billion years to us. And what did he make before he made the animals. He made the earth and then he could let natural processes take over. Then he made the animals, the dinosaurs and all that. They die, and he makes human, and there is no proof that Adam and Eve had to have looked like us, thats just in art. Even if they did they were cast out of Eden, therefore God could have punished them by making them into neanderthals.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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