The God Conundrum

By Sean Carroll | October 29, 2006 7:52 pm

Some of you may be wondering: “Does God exist?” Fortunately, Richard Dawkins has written a new book, The God Delusion, that addresses precisely this question. As it turns out, the answer is: “No, God does not exist.” (Admittedly, Dawkins reached his conclusion before the Cards won the World Series.)

Nevertheless, there remains a spot of controversy — it would appear that Dawkins’s rhetorical force is insufficient to persuade some theists. One example is provided by literary critic Terry Eagleton, who reviewed The God Delusion for the London Review of Books. Eagleton’s review has already been discussed among some of my favorite blogs: 3 Quarks Daily, Pharyngula, Uncertain Principles, and the Valve (twice), to name a few. But it provides a good jumping-off point for an examination of one of the common arguments used against scientifically-minded atheists: “You’re setting up a straw man by arguing against a naive and anthropomorphic view of `God'; if only you engaged with more sophisticated theology, you’d see that things are not so cut-and-dried.”

Before jumping in, I should mention that I have somewhat mixed feelings about Dawkins’s book myself. I haven’t read it very thoroughly, not because it’s not good, but for the same reason that I rarely read popular cosmology books from cover to cover: I’ve mostly seen this stuff before, and already agree with the conclusions. But Dawkins has a strategy that is very common among atheist polemicists, and with which I tend to disagree. That’s to simultaneously tackle three very different issues:

  1. Does God exist? Are the claims of religion true, as statements about the fundamental nature of the universe?
  2. Is religious belief helpful or harmful? Does it do more bad than good, or vice-versa?
  3. Why are people religious? Is there some evolutionary-psychological or neurological basis for why religion is so prevalent?

All of these questions are interesting. But, from where I am sitting, the last two are incredibly complicated issues about which it is very difficult to say anything definitive, at least at this point in our intellectual history. Whereas the first one is relatively simple. By mixing them up, the controversial accounts of history and psychology tend to dilute the straightforward claim that there’s every reason to disbelieve in the existence of God. When Dawkins suggests that the Troubles in Northern Ireland should be understood primarily as a religious schism between Catholics and Protestants, he sacrifices some of the credibility he may have had if he had stuck to the more straightforward issue of whether or not religion is true.

Right out of the gate, Eagleton bashes Dawkins for dabbling in things he doesn’t understand.

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology…

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

These questions, of course, have absolutely no relevance to the matter at hand; they are just an excuse for Eagleton to show off a bit of erudition. If Dawkins is right, and religion is simply a “delusion,” a baroque edifice built upon a foundation of mistakes and wishful thinking, then the views of Eriugena on subjectivity are completely beside the point. Not all of theology directly concerns the question of whether or not God exists; much of it accepts the truth of that proposition, and goes from there. The question is whether that’s a good starting point. If an architect shows you a grand design for a new high-rise building, you don’t have to worry about the floor plan for the penthouse apartment if you notice that the foundation is completely unstable.

But underneath Eagleton’s bluster lies a potentially-relevant critique. After all, some sophisticated theology is about whether or not God exists, and more importantly about the nature of God. Eagleton understands this, and gamely tries to explain how the concept of God is different from other things in the world:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or “existent”: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

Okay, very good. God, in this conception, is not some thing out there in the world (or even outside the world), available to be poked and prodded and have his beard tugged upon. Eagleton rightly emphasizes that ordinary-language concepts such as “existence” might not quite be up to the task of dealing with God, at least not in the same way that they deal with Al Gore. A precisely similar analysis holds for less controversial ideas, such as the Schrödinger equation. There is a sense in which the Schrödinger equation “exists”; after all, wavefunctions seem to be constantly obeying it. But, whatever it may mean to say “the Schrödinger equation exists,” it certainly doesn’t mean the same kind of thing as to say “Al Gore exists.” We’re borrowing a term that makes perfect sense in one context and stretching its meaning to cover a rather different context, and emphasizing that distinction is a philosophically honorable move.

But then we run somewhat off the rails.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere. If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling. As a pragmatist, I might quibble that such a formulation has no operational consequences, as it doesn’t affect anything relevant about how we think about the world or act within it; but if you would like to posit the existence of a category called “the condition of possibility,” knock yourself out.

But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.

It’s worth the effort to dig into the origin of these two foundational notions of God, in order to get straight just how incompatible they really are. Until the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, Israelite religion was straightforwardly polytheistic, as much as the Greeks or Romans or Norse ever were. Originally, the Canaanite High God El (often translated simply as “God” in modern Bibles) was a completely distinct creature from Yahweh (often translated as “the Lord”). It’s not until Exodus 3:6 that Yahweh asserts to Moses that he should be identified with El, the God of Abraham. (Why do you think that Yahweh’s very First Commandment insists on not having any other gods before him?) Remnants of Judaism’s polytheistic origins linger on throughout the Scriptures, which are an intricately-edited pastiche of various earlier sources. Psalm 82, for example, describes Yahweh making a power play at a meeting of the various gods (the “Council of El”):

 1  God presides in the great assembly;
       he gives judgment among the “gods”:

 2  “How long will you defend the unjust
       and show partiality to the wicked?

 3  Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless;
       maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

 4  Rescue the weak and needy;
       deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

 5  “They know nothing, they understand nothing.
       They walk about in darkness;
       all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

 6  “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
       you are all sons of the Most High.’

 7  But you will die like mere men;
       you will fall like every other ruler.”

 8  Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
       for all the nations are your inheritance.

The quotes around “gods,” of course, are nowhere in the original Hebrew; they were inserted by the translators (this is the New International Version), who were understandably squeamish about all this talk concerning “gods” in the plural.

The development of Hebrew monotheism from its polytheistic beginnings is a long and complicated story that contemporary historians only incompletely understand; see this review of a book by Mark Smith of NYU to get some flavor of current thinking. But the crucial point is that the emergence of One God was an essentially political transformation. The ancient Hebrews, surrounded by other unfriendly nations, promoted their tribal deity Yahweh to the position of the most powerful god, promising dire consequences for any backsliders who would choose to worship Ba’al or Asherah or other pretenders (as Ahab and Jezebel learned the hard way). From there, it was a short doctrinal leap (requiring only the imaginative re-interpretation of a few Scriptural passages) to declare that Yahweh was the only God out there — the well-known others weren’t merely subordinate, they were imaginary. Even in its own right, this claim was somewhat problematic, as Yahweh had to serve double duty as the God of the Hebrews and also the only god in existence. But the conception of God as some sort of being who cared about the fate of the people of Israel was relatively sustainable; none of the Prophets went around defining Yahweh as “the condition of possibility,” or even ascribing characteristics of omniscience and omnipotence to the deity.

Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks were developing monotheism for their own purposes — essentially philosophical rather than political. They had quite the robust pantheon of individual gods, but it was clear to most careful thinkers that these were closer to amusingly anthropomorphic fairy tales than to deep truths about the structure of the universe. Unsurprisingly, the monotheistic conception reached its pinnacle in the work of Aristotle. In the Metaphysics, he presented a version of what we now know as the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which (in Wikipedia’s rendering) goes something like this:

  1. Every effect has a cause.
  2. Nothing can cause itself.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

Admittedly, this is merely an informal paraphrase of the argument. But the more careful versions don’t change the essential fact that these days, the cosmological proof is completely anachronistic. Right after step one — “Every effect has a cause” — the only sensible response is “No it doesn’t.” Or at least, “What is that supposed to mean”?

To make sense of the cosmological argument, it’s important to realize that Aristotle’s metaphysics was predicated to an important extent on his physics. (Later variations by theologians from Aquinas to Leibniz don’t alter the essence of the argument.) To the ancient Greeks, the behavior of matter was teleological; earth wanted to fall down, fire wanted to rise toward the heavens. And once it reached its desired destination, it just sat there. According to Aristotle, if we want to keep an object moving we have to keep pushing it. And he’s right, of course, if we are thinking about the vast majority of macroscopic objects in our everyday world — which seems like a perfectly reasonable set of objects to think about. If you push a book along a table, and then stop pushing it, it will come to rest. If you want it to keep moving, you have to keep pushing it. That “effect” — the motion of the book — without a doubt requires a “cause” — you pushing it. It doesn’t seem like much of a leap to extend such an analysis to the entire universe, implying the existence of an ineffable, perfectly static First Cause, or Unmoved Mover.

But the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible is very far from being “Unmoved.” He’s quite the mover, actually — smiting people here, raising the dead there. All very befitting, considering his origin as a local tribal deity. But utterly incompatible with the perfect and unchanging Aristotelian notion of God.

For the past two thousand years, theology has struggled to reconcile these two apparently-conflicting conceptions of the divine, without much success. We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem, and our understanding is incomplete; after all, we haven’t come up with a fully satisfactory way to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics, either. But there is a more likely possibility: there simply is no reconciliation to be had. The reason why it’s difficult to imagine how God can be eternally perfect and also occasionally wistful is that God doesn’t exist.

In fact, in this day and age the flaws in Aristotle’s cosmological proof (just to pick one) are perfectly clear. Our understanding of the inner workings of the physical world has advanced quite a bit since the ancient Greeks. Long ago, Galileo figured out that the correct way to think about motion was to abstract from messy real-world situations to idealized circumstances in which dissipative effects such as friction and air resistance could be ignored. (They can always be restored later as perturbations.) Only then do we realize that what matter really wants to do is to maintain its motion at a constant speed, until it is explicitly acted upon by some external force. Except that, once we have made this breakthrough, we realize that the matter doesn’t want to do anything — it just does it. Modern physics doesn’t describe the world in terms of “causes” and “effects.” It simply posits that matter (in the form of quantum fields, or strings, or what have you) acts in accordance with certain dynamical laws, known as “equations of motion.” The notion of “causality” is downgraded from “when I see B happening, I know it must be because of A” to “given some well-defined and suitably complete set of information about the initial state of a system, I can use the equations of motion to determine its subsequent evolution.” But a concept like “cause” doesn’t appear anywhere in the equations of motion themselves, nor in the specification of the type of matter being described; it is only an occasionally-appropriate approximation, useful to us humans in narrating the behavior of some macroscopic configuration of equation-obeying matter.

In other words, the universe runs all by itself. The planets orbit the Sun, not because anything is “causing” them to do so, but because that’s the kind of behavior that obeys Newton’s (or Einstein’s) equations governing motion in the presence of gravity. Deeply embedded as we are in this Galilean/Newtonian framework, statements like “every effect has a cause” become simply meaningless. (We won’t even bother with “A causal chain cannot be of infinite length,” which completely begs the question.) Conservation of momentum completely undermines any force the cosmological argument might ever have had. The universe, like everything in it, can very well just be, as long as its pieces continue to obey the relevant equations of motion.

Special pleading that the universe is essentially different from its constituents, and (by nature of its unique status as all that there is to the physical world) that it could not have either (1) just existed forever, nor (2) come spontaneously into existence all by itself, is groundless. The only sensible response such skepticism is “Why not?” It’s certainly true that we don’t yet know whether the universe is eternal or whether it had a beginning, and we certainly don’t understand the details of its origin. But there is absolutely no obstacle to our eventually figuring those things out, given what we already understand about physics. General relativity asserts that spacetime itself is dynamical; it can change with time, and potentially even be created from nothing, in a way that is fundamentally different from the Newtonian conception (much less the Aristotelian). And quantum mechanics describes the universe in terms of a wavefunction that assigns amplitudes to any of an infinite number of possibilities, including — crucially — spontaneous transitions, unforced by any cause. We don’t yet know how to describe the origin of the universe in purely physical terms, but someday we will — physicists are working on the problem every day.

The analogy to a penthouse apartment atop a high-rise building is quite apt. Much of the intricate architecture of modern theology is built on a foundation that conceives of God as both creator and sustainer of the world and as a friendly and loving being. But these days we know better. The Clockwork Universe of Galileo and Newton has once and for all removed the need for anything to “sustain” the universe, and the “creation” bit is something on which we are presently closing in.

In fact, although it is rarely discussed in history books, the influence of the conservation of momentum on theological practice is fairly evident. One response was a revival of Pyrrhonian skepticism, which claimed that it was simply wrong even to attempt to apply logic and rationality to questions of religion — claiming that you had “proven” the existence of God could get you accused of atheism. The other, more robust response, was a turn to natural theology and the argument from design. Even if the universe could keep going all by itself, surely its unguided meanderings would never produce something as wonderfully intricate as (for example) the human eye? The argument doesn’t hold up very well even under purely philosophical scrutiny — David Hume’s devastating take-down in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, interestingly, actually pre-dates William Paley’s classic statement of the argument (1779 vs. 1802). Hume, for example, points out that, even if the argument from design works, it allows us to conclude next to nothing about the nature of the Designer. Maybe it was a team? Maybe our universe is a rough first draft for a much better later universe? Or even just a mistake? (Okay, that has something going for it.)

But then, of course, Darwin’s theory of natural selection undercut the justification for the design argument just as thoroughly as classical mechanics undercut the justification for the cosmological argument. Indeed, the unpurposeful meanderings of matter in the universe can produce the wonderful intricacies of the human eye, and much else besides. Believers haven’t given up entirely; you’ll now more commonly find the argument from design placed in a cosmological context, where it is even less convincing. But for the most part, theologians have basically abandoned the project of “proving” God’s existence, which is probably a good move.

But they haven’t given up on believing in God’s existence (suitably defined), which is what drives atheists like Dawkins (and me) a little crazy. Two thousand years ago, believing in God made perfect sense; there was so much that we didn’t understand about the world, and an appeal to the divine seemed to help explain the otherwise inexplicable. Those original motivations have long since evaporated. In response, theologians have continued to alter what they mean by “God,” and struggled to reconcile the notion’s apparent internal contradictions — unwilling to take those contradictions as a signal of the fundamental incoherence of the idea.

To be fair, much of Dawkins’s book does indeed take aim at a rather unsophisticated form of belief, one that holds a much more literal (and wholly implausible, not to mention deeply distasteful) notion of what God means. That’s not a completely unwarranted focus, even if it does annoy the well-educated Terry Eagletons of the world; after all, that kind of naive theology is a guiding force among a very large and demonstrably influential fraction of the population. The reality of a religion is manifested in the actions of its adherents. But even an appeal to more nuanced thinking doesn’t save God from the dustbin of intellectual history. The universe is going to keep existing without any help, peacefully solving its equations of motion along the way; if we want to find meaning through compassion and love, we have to create it ourselves.

  • Sean

    In the running for Longest Post Ever! Sorry about that, but I figured it was a good idea to get all this down in one place, if only for future reference.

  • PhilipJ

    Apology accepted, it was a good read!

  • coturnix

    Excellent! So many reviews of TGD (and mine still in the planning stages – I have not yet finished reading it) and this one is THE best!

  • Blake Stacey

    Thank you very much for this! My grandiose schemes for world domination have been taking up so much of my time that I haven’t been able to sit down and read The God Delusion, or for that matter, any of the other books which have recently been provoking sound and fury in the blogosphere. (Like The Not-Even-Elegant Trouble with the Universe or whatever it’s called.) This essay was both informative and thought-provoking, complete with pointers for further reading, all of which I appreciate greatly.

    So. . . about that burrito question. . . .

  • RBH

    I agree that this is the best post/review of Dawkins’ book that I have yet read. I’ve read the book once through rapidly, and might quibble with a few of Sean’s remarks about it. E.g., I’m less sure that Dawkins attributes the Irish troubles primarily to religious differences, but rather argues that religious differences are easily recruited to reinforce troubles having additional root causes. But they’re relatively trivial quibbles.

  • Gabe Isman

    Great review!

  • bittergradstudent

    1. Every effect has a cause.
    2. Nothing can cause itself.
    3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
    4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

    The problem with this argument, insofar as Newtonian mechanics/classical field theory is concerned isn’t in the first step–if you are solving some classical (here meaning ‘not quantum’, rather than ‘Newtonian’) system, you specify a set of observable variables to be measured. Then, you slice up the spacetime into a set of ‘constant time’ slices so as to create a notion of what time is. You pick one of these ‘constant time’ slices and specify the ‘initial’ values of your dynamical variables (and, usually, their first time derivatives) on that slice. Then you find a solution of the relvant field equations for your dynamical variable consistent with those ‘inital’ values.

    But the point is, if, at some later time, I measure the values of these dynamical variables, their values depend only on the initial values and the field equations. It is not much work to identify the final values as an ‘effect’ and the inital values as a ’cause.’ The field equations are simply a means by which to convert cause into effect. Aristotle used those terms vaguely, but the notion can be preserved in classical theories.

    The problem with an Aristotlean cosmological argument is in the third statement–with the development of modern mathematics (particularly calculus and set thoery), we now know that it is perfectly reasonable to have a notion of an infinite set, and an infinite causal chain (each constant time surface is the ’cause’ of the next, but it’s perfectly reasonable to have an infinite number of them–discretised time ‘atoms’ are actually a much more difficult concept to work with physically).

    As Sean points out, the randomness inherent to quantum theories creates problems with the first claim, but a careful definition of terms can surely create a notion of ‘every effect has a cause’ in Classical Mechanics.

  • Brad Holden

    I will agree with everyone else. Despite being long, that was a very clear and easily readable argument. I have had a much harder time reading much blog posts.

  • Rob Knop

    if we want to find meaning through compassion and love, we have to create it ourselves.

    …and if some choose to do that by gathering together in a community and identifying a meta-form of compassion and love as God or some such, what’s the big deal? Suppose that many of those people (say) are inspired by the stories about a historical man named Jesus, interpreted and sold to the world by another man named Paul. Yeah, you can take it too far and do evil things with it (up to and including denying what we know about the natural world in the name of this meaning through compassion and live), but if we’re finding meaning through compassion and love for our own selves, is religion as a way of doing it such a terrible thing?

    Obviously it’s not for everybody, but it also does seem to work for a lot of people. And, yeah, a lot of evil is done in its name, but a lot of evil is done in the name of quite a number of other philosophical concepts as well.


  • Troublemaker

    and if some choose to do that by gathering together in a community and identifying a meta-form of compassion and love as God or some such, what’s the big deal?

    Because these people never, ever stop there. They go on to assert that this God has some kind of role in the physical universe, wants some amount of worship and obedience from us, and/or needs money.

    is religion as a way of doing it such a terrible thing?

    In the ideal, no, but like communism, it’s an unrealizable ideal. In practice, it, like communism, is often a very terrible thing.

  • Antti Rasinen

    What an excellent article!

    This second-order review of TGD is actually better than the book itself! =) Especially the analogy of penthouses and sophisticated aspects of theology — Loved it!

    I must confess that I had the same problem with The God Delusion as Sean did: namely, I knew most of the content already and agreed with conclusions. The morality chapters had the most impact.

    Judging from my friends, the book seems to have the greatest effect when the reader has not thought things through. It really is aimed at the possible “converts”, something to jump-start their own intellectual engines.

  • Amara

    Some trivia I heard at the Dawkins talk this evening in Menlo Park, California (he will be speaking to a sold-out crowd at Berkeley tomorrow night). The first location of his US tour for promoting this book was in Kansas. It was a full event, 3000 people in the audience. The crowd tonight at Kepler’s book seemed to overflow the bookstore too. It seems that Dawkins is speaking to almost full/sold-out crowds everywhere on his tour. I find that very encouraging.

  • Jesse M.

    I agree with your point that the more abstract philosophical notions of “God” are constantly being burdened with anthropomorphic baggage, but this bit strikes me as uninformed criticism:

    If that were really what people meant by “God,” nobody would much care. It doesn’t really mean anything — like Spinoza’s pantheism, identifying God with the natural world, it’s just a set of words designed to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    I’m no Spinoza expert myself, but I’m pretty sure Spinoza’s identification of the natural world with God was tied up with plenty of specific philosophical claims, like the idea that every truth about the natural world is a necessary truth just like 1+1=2. And maybe related to this was Spinoza’s idea that God had a “rational” nature which was supposed to guarantee the order and comprehensibility of the universe (something we shouldn’t take for granted–see Wigner’s The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences). Also, Spinoza’s God was supposed to be a single “substance” with an infinite number of “attributes”, and all the features of the universe that we think of as physical were supposed to fall under the attribute of “extension”, separate from the attribute of “thought” (which I think is similar to the modern philosophical idea of qualia) and an infinite other number of attributes that were supposed to be incomprehensible to us. Finally, Spinoza tried to derive a bunch of ethical consequences from his views on God (especially from the idea that all truths are necessary truths, including truths about our own actions).

    Of course it’s another question whether Spinoza’s philosophical arguments for these claims actually make any sense or if they’re completely batty (Einstein seems to have found Spinoza’s philosophy very interesting, although that may have been more because it accorded with his personal intuitions about life, the universe, and everything than because he found Spinoza’s arguments intellectually convincing), but I don’t think his equation of God with the natural world can be treated as just feel-good language with no intellectual content.

  • James

    I’m not very familar with the bible, but can someone give me an example of a testable prediction it has made?

    Walking on water etc doesn’t count. While it is implausible, assuming the laws of physics that hold today held then, it is not really testable. At the other end, Revelations doesn’t count because it doesn’t (to my knowledge) give an upper bound by which it will all happen.

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  • Grady

    Well, I still don’t accept the claim that all existence,life, mind, and reason itself can be accounted
    for by mindless processess.

    I await the scientific demonstration of that particular
    faith commitment.

  • Galactic Chet

    Victor J. Stenger, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy, University of Hawaii, will be publishing his next book: “God: The Failed Hypothesis –How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist”, Prometheus Books, in 2007.
    Related Material: “The Scientific Case Against a God Who Created the Universe”. A chapter in “The Improbability of God”, edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006).

  • Christopher

    Dawkins’s book has been the subject of a lot of blog posts and op-ed pieces lately and I think that this is one of the most lucid I’ve read yet. I’m about 3/4 of the way through the book and I’ve been struggling precisely with a lot of the issues that you point to in the beginning and very end of the post (that Dawkins tries to deal with too many God arguments at once, that he argues against biblical material that many of the more educated religious followers dismiss, etc.) I’ve also read that this is what is wrong with Sam Harris’s approach too…that he is attacking a religious belief that just isn’t characteristic of most ‘sane/moderate’ believers. (Unfortunately, I suspect it is characteristic of enough of people in the world today to make it as dangerous as both Dawkins and Harris argue. )

    I think this juxtaposition of the anthropomorphic god v. the abstract condition of possibility is the way to address the argument to the more erudite and sophisticated believers…I wonder what, if any, recent (last 20 years) texts take that approach?

  • SLC

    Re James

    The bible claims that Joshua caused the sun to stand still. This, of course violates all the laws of physics, in addition to implying that the sun revolves around the earth. Thus, it constitutes a falsifiable claim.

  • Torbjörn larsson

    It seems to be a definite trend that as one gets more experience of theology, the more interesting bits comes from secular sources.

    I must admit that I had completely forgotten the “El/Yahweh” bit, and have lately refered to ‘the abrahamic god’ in discussions about christianity. Good to get that straightened out.

    But what interested me most (of the particulars, it was a great review) was the description of the fuzzifiers of pantheism’s “natural world” and Eagleton’s “condition of probability”. While pantheism is overloading or conflating nature with meaning, Eagleton prefers to use what seems to be an imposition of a god-of-the-gap description.

    “Aristotle used those terms vaguely, but the notion can be preserved in classical theories.”

    Aristotle et al distinhuished between several notions of causality, including ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’. I think you have substituted proximals for a distal in that terminology. Should work for him anyway as you say, since he wants to argue about ‘a first cause’. But as Sean notes in his paper and above, causality is a secondary derived concept, not a fundamental, so this philosophical formulation of “which boundary conditions and why those” doesn’t feel like it “moves my world”. ;-)

  • B

    Hi Sean,

    I haven’t read the book, but after reading your review, I’m already tired of the idea. Regarding the three issues you mention, I’d have said 1. is the tough one! As you point out later, what means ‘existence’ anyway? 3. Why are people religious? It’s a template for your life. It provides you with an easy to use foundation to which you can add the details. Religions give you answers, and they give you rules. Take the 10 commandments: they were probably once (more or less) sensible suggestions to improve the society without going into endless philosophical or sociological discussions about reason and the nature of human beings. The problem is just that some templates aren’t really compatible with the 21st century. 2. Is religious belief harmful or helpful? Beliefs are neither harmful nor helpful. What can kill you are acts that follow from it. If your template isn’t compatible with the latest software, your browser will crash down.

    I kind of suspect that something similar is written in the book, so I’ll stop here.

    BTW, I like that sentence
    If an architect shows you a grand design for a new high-rise building, you don’t have to worry about the floor plan for the penthouse apartment if you notice that the foundation is completely unstable.

    Yes… we should pay more attention to the foundations before we work out the details of interior design…



  • jeffw

    Before you call yourself a theist, atheist, or agnostic, it’s really quite necessary to define the word God first. Most religions have a holy book of some kind that does this rather clearly. Perhap some folks keep changing the definition, so they can call themselves theists.

  • Count Iblis

    Question 3: Why are people religious?

    There are different reasons. What would you have done if you were Mozes and needed the Ten Commandments? Say that these are your commandments or that these are God’s commandments? :)

    It is also possible to approach this question using anthropic reasoning. Whatever the explanation is why humans are religious, if most intelligent beings in the universe are not religious you would have to explain why you ended up living in a religious civilization.

    If humans were much more rational then science would have progressed much faster. As explained here, you would expect that such rational civilizations give rise to less observers. So most observers, even atheistic observers, will find themselves living in civilizations where the scientific progress is hindered by religion and other factors.

  • B

    Hi bittergradstudent,

    Without a direction of time you’re right, you could turn everything around and what then was a cause and what the effect? But that doesn’t seem to be the case – instead it seems like today I’m another day older than yesterday. Then the question comes down to: Did God Himself take the arrow of time and pointed it towards future infinity?

    Instead of asking where the universe comes from, ask where the natural numbers ‘come from’. Do they come from the 1? Does the 1 ’cause’ the natural numbers? Do the natural numbers ’cause’ fractions, real numbers, complex numbers? Is the 1 the origin of linear algebra, analysis, of maths? Is maths the foundation for the theory of everything? And then, finally, is 1 the cause for the universe to be like it is? Do the natural numbers ‘come into existence’ or are they just out there, waiting to be applied to our universe?

    I’m afraid I have successfully confused myself. I think I’ll go read the particle data booklet to remind myself of reality. Best,


  • wolfgang


    in you last sentence you write
    “The universe [..] peacefully solving its equations of motion [..]”

    Is this not the same anthropomorphizing you critize in Eagletons point of view?
    And does it not somehow reveal that even an atheist is longing for a ‘peaceful’ universe in which ‘we want to find meaning’?
    And would this help explain your question 3, why people are religious?

  • Eclectic Floridian

    This was an interesting read, but, to my way of thinking, unnecessary. That’s not a put-down, I know people are fascinated by the “does God exist” question.

    My feeling is pretty simple. Physicists have now come face-to-face with the question of “what is reality.” Pretty much everyone agrees that an answer to that question can never be answered. The same is true of whether or not God exists.

    When the equation for the Grand-Unified-All-in-One-Theory-of-the-Universe is finally published, it will still leave an unanswered question. Is there a God.

    My sleep is no longer disturbed by this question. It is the ultimate question, and we will never be able to answer it. Why care about it anyway?

    If God exists, he/she/it knows no proof has ever been offered, therefore judging humans based on their (non)belief would be unjust.

  • Count Iblis


    That’s a good question and that has lead some people to postulate that reality is purely mathematical in nature.

  • bittergradstudent

    Torbjörn larsson–

    You are, of course right about the subtleties of Aristotle. I still see way more problem with that third point regarding the impossibility of an infinite causal chain is much more problematic than the first–a notion of ’cause and effect’ fits quite neatly into a classical theory, and if anything, is more prominent in Special and General relativity than it is in newtonian theory, while infinite causal chains are not at all problematic to anyone who know how to use calculus to resolve the Zeno paradox.


    What I said doesn’t have a ton to do with time reversal (which is a true symmetry of nature, aside from CP-violating decays). All that I said is that, in a classical theory, if we can measure everything in the universe (the state now), then we can predect all future states (effects of current state), and infer all of the previous states that ’caused’ the current state of the universe.

    It’s undoubtedly not what Aristotle intended, per se, but something that’s a little more careful and along these general lines could certainly preserve the first two lines of that ‘cosmological argument.’

    I have trouble seeing how anything vaguely resembling that third line could possibly be preserved given our current mathematical, scientific and philosophical knowledge.

  • bittergradstudent


    Classically, the arrow of time comes merely from the fact that the universe happened to have an ‘initial’ condition of extremely low entropy. Without such special initial conditions, you get statistical perturbations both ways, and see the entropy quickly decrease, and then quickly increase again. On this longer time scale, time reverseability is preserved. Cosmological times are simply much shorter than the relevent amount of time required for such a low entropy state to relax up to it’s natural high-entropy state.

  • Kristine

    I personally think that there will never be any Grand Unified Theory. That’s just another substitute for God, and God doesn’t exist. It’s still a Judeo-Christian concept that we need to get away from. This is a universe of checks and balances, not absolutes.

    Well, I still don’t accept the claim that all existence,life, mind, and reason itself can be accounted for by mindless processess.

    I understand the problem that you have; I really do. Even relatively recently I used to sit and contemplate with amazement that the Big Bang happened before consciousness, that atoms don’t just float around but combine into molecules and compounds, that organic compounds give rise to life. The answer is when you learn as much about physics, chemistry, and biology as you can, and observe how matter behaves (as opposed to just thinking about it), you realize that matter is inherently in motion; nothing jump-started it. (People misunderstand the Law of Inertia.) Consciousness is extremely unreliable and prone to delusion, mental illness, bias, and is not all that it’s cracked up to be, but matter is reliable and behaves in consistent and predictable ways. Consciousness depends upon matter—first came the computing machine, then came the GUI interface.

    Matter does not need consciousness. We want matter to “need” consciousness, because we worship our self-awareness and call that “God.” But as Voltaire said, “Men argue; natural acts,” and life is to be lived. I have come to see the unthinking process of matter as a wonder in itself, even a comfort–isn’t it more optimistic to realize that unthinking processes have their end in thinking beings who can create their own purpose (should we choose to), instead of having an alien “purpose” imposed upon us from outside of ourselves? I had almost two decades of Bible study, and all it taught me was that I hate being told what my “purpose” is.

  • dthat

    Nice posting, Sean. You give a plausible account of the origin of the different conceptions of god current in contemporary theology. However, I wonder if you can develop more fully your argument that they are incompatible. As you say, these two notions arose from different sources. But that does not in itself mean they are incompatible. And doubtless combining the two does lead to some theological/philosophical puzzles. But what are these?

    You give as an example the old canard about the rock too heavy for god to lift. But this paradox arises not from the fusion of two incompatible understandings of god, but from recursive problems in the concept of omnipotence. As a result, most theologians and philosophers will grant that god cannot make logical contradictions to be true (and thus cannot limit the power of a necessarily limitless being). If there is any incoherence here, it would seem to already exist in one (or both) of the conceptions of god prior to this fusion.

    I am also a bit confused by the other contradiction you list. Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover doesn’t itself move, but it does move other things (and so is a mover). So god can still do things in the world, he is just not affected by the world. As you say, this argument relies on poor science, and so there is definitely a problem here, but it seems to me this problem already exists in Aristotle’s idea of the Unmoved Mover, and doesn’t arise from the combination of two conceptions of god.

    That being said, I think many if not most theologians reject the immutable Aristotelian notion of god.

    I found the self-congratulatory tone of Eagleton’s review quite annoying. I also think it makes sense for a popular book on religion to primarily address popular conceptions of god. But Eagleton does have a fair point. By not addressing the ideas and claims of the best contemporary theological thinkers, Dawkins (and other atheists) are leaving the theist with a legimate rebuttal.

  • Bruno

    Eagelton’s review was just odd.

    I don’t understand how people can claim theology as a serious subject.

    A great piece of writing Sean.

  • ronan

    Angry Astronomer links to a set of videos at Kansas University, including a nice hour-and-a-half presentation by Richard Dawkins, covering some of the material in his newest book. Videos are in RealPlayer streaming format.

    Dawkins waffles a little bit, saying that there might be religions that don’t make supernatural claims, but then he speaks broadly about religion. It was a tiny bit sloppy to fall into a Judeo-Christian-centric position. His statements about “everyone being an Atheist about Thor, Amon-Ra, etc.” neglect many syncretic neopagan groups. He is attacking certain religions, but not being very careful to confine his remarks to those groups. Still a great presentation.

    RE: not having a theology degree, Dawkins has a great bit about “never having read any learned papers about faeries” and “not knowing the scholarly taxonomy of faeries”, yet he feels qualified to disbelieve in faeries.

  • Paul Kemp

    Interesting critique, but perhaps focused so intently on Western theology that it may miss a broader point. Eastern philosophy and countless other religious traditions do not struggle with the historical contradiction you raise in the piece, yet they are religious and posit a view of some deity (or deities) just the same.

    Here’s something to consider, and it ties up questions 1 (does god exist) and 3 (why are people religious): No culture or society of homo sapiens of which I am aware has NOT had one religious tradition or another. Now, that may simply be because homo sapiens have tried to make comprehensible aspects of the natural world that they otherwise found incomprehensible, or it might be that something in the hard wiring inclines home sapien to such fantasizing, or it might be that there is some spiritual force in the universe that homo sapiens perceive only imperfectly, and which manifests itself in the countelss religious traditions that history has spawned. This, obvously, is not an empirically testable idea. And if I believe it one asserts that it is silly silly to believe in such an idea, that is fine. But niether this post nor Dawkin’s argument (as I’ve seen it articulated on the web; I haven’t read it myself) does no damage to that idea (you seem to acknowledge this in your post, to your credit).

    To me, he interesting thing about that idea gets at point two — what value is such a religion?

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  • Paul Kemp

    No way to edit all those typos! My apologies. :-)

    Let me correct the final bit:

    “And if one asserts that it is silly to believe in such an idea, that is fine. But niether this post nor Dawkin’s argument (as I’ve seen it articulated on the web; I haven’t read it myself) does no damage to that idea (and you seem to acknowledge this in your post, to your credit).

    To me, the interesting thing about that idea gets at point two — what value is such a religion?”

  • ctw

    “that has lead some people to postulate that reality is purely mathematical in nature”


    tnx – charles

  • Stephen Frug

    Terrific, terrific post.

    This is a manual track-back (since blogger doesn’t do track-backs): this post inspired a long one of my own, in which I take Sean’s ideas and put a different spin on them. As a teaser, the Bible gets compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you’re interested, you can read it here:

    Anyway, thanks again for writing this.

  • Roger Penrose’s fan boy

    True reality is the confirmation of matter to ‘equations’ -are you a Platonist? Do you think that numbers and these equations are necessarily exist, in fact given that integers are an infinite set isn’t there a whole set of numbers that will never correspond with anything in the universe in that those numbers are larger than any possible count of any conceivable physical thing in the universe — Are there any logically necessary statements or logical axioms that would be true in any conceivable reality – if so do they have ontological priority over mere physical things; hence are a more fundamental non-physical aspect of reality?
    I think you’ll find that an extremely hard position to defend amongst a lot of philosophers.

    As John Searle argues in ‘The Construction of Social Reality’ there is simply no question begging ‘foundation’ for the assertion of a mind independent reality — i.e. one that is independent from our representations of it. And Searle is a no-nonsense analytical philosopher committed to a naturalistic ontology (he would very much be an anti-realist with respect to universals such a numbers). The issues around the soundness of human knowledge and the foundations (or not) it rests upon are very complex (philosophically). It really doesn’t do to be ignorant of the issues or to imagine some ‘knockdown argument’ that is immune from criticisms within the discussion about ontology and epistemology. It is about choosing the least worst position with the fewest unpalatable consequences.

    Incidentally falsification is the usual demarcation line between scientific statements and non-scientific statement. Nothing within science has a truth statement of P=1 as that would suggest it is impossible to falsify. Now if people want science to make P=1 statements the onus is upon them to define a new demarcation between science and non-science.

    Dawkins really should be aware of the dangers of scientism. Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.

  • B

    Hi bgs,

    What I said doesn’t have a ton to do with time reversal (which is a true symmetry of nature, aside from CP-violating decays). All that I said is that, in a classical theory, if we can measure everything in the universe (the state now), then we can predect all future states (effects of current state), and infer all of the previous states that ’caused’ the current state of the universe.

    But the point is, if, at some later time, I measure the values of these dynamical variables, their values depend only on the initial values and the field equations. It is not much work to identify the final values as an ‘effect’ and the inital values as a ’cause.’ The field equations are simply a means by which to convert cause into effect.

    Well, if you didn’t mean to say something about time reversal, sorry, your comment just lead to me to point out that the ‘direction’ of time is kind of important to the question of cause and effect. Without a notion of time, every slice is as good as the next, without the need to go into the discussion whether the number of steps needed to get from one cause to an effect is finite, countable, or uncountable infinite.

    I agree on your PS.



  • Roger Penrose’s fan boy

    A closed system is one restricted in such a way that laws have uniform effects. An open system is one that is not closed. Closed systems do not usually occur spontaneously in nature and generally require human intervention, such as in laboratory experiments. All sorts of intervening causes may prevent a causal mechanism or tendency from having its normal effect. The concept of closure plays an important role in refuting determinism, because a determinist case cannot be sustained without the regularity that comes with closed systems, and ultimately it is shown that the assumption of closure is an article of faith.

    Classical field theories in physics (gravity, electromagnetism, mechanics) assumed a pure world containing only a single field and showed how, given any initial state of the field, all subsequent states of the field were determined. The question of what happens when several of the fields are assumed to exist and interact created problems for the determinism that was irrefutable under the assumption that only a single field exists and is operative. Laplacean determinism extrapolated this narrow truth to all of reality. Closure is also closely connected to the understanding of laws other than as merely patterns of events: that identity can be sustained only so long as systems are assumed to be closed.

    It is important to realize that a closed system is not the same as a spatially isolated system. To achieve closure one must assure that there are no countervailing causes (of a kind pertaining to the phenomena being investigated). Being cut off from external influences is in general insufficient to rule out internal countervailing causes. For example, a system free of external influences is nevertheless open in respect to Newtonian mechanisms if it contains quantum phenomena. Quantum phenomena are treated by determinists as irrelevant at some macro level without a truly compelling explanation as to why this is the case.

  • B

    Hi Count,

    That’s a good question and that has lead some people to postulate that reality is purely mathematical in nature.

    … which is a completely vacuous statement unless you explain what ‘reality’ is…


  • NoJoy

    ask where the natural numbers ‘come from’. Do they come from the 1?
    If they ‘come from’ anywhere, it’s from the 0. :)

  • Steve Esser

    There are 2 blog posts here. In the first one, Sean ably criticizes the “bait and switch” whereby a theist falls back from the everyday conception of God to a more abstract and philosophically sophisticated version. Good job.
    The second blog post criticizes the cosmological argument (and briefly the design argument). This is less successful IMHO. In particular, the fact that many of our physical theories have no concept of causality (or time directionality) may be more of a statement about what is still unaccounted for in these theories than an argument that the cosmological argument is just an anachronism.

  • Sam Gralla

    Sean, this was a fantastic post. Literal religion (of the kind Dawkins apparently addresses) will certainly find its way to the “intellectual dustbin” of history, but I doubt abstract theology will be abandonded until we have a naturalistic explanation for consciousness and free choice. Anyway, mainly I’m posting to thank you for keeping this blog (extraordinarily) interesting.

  • alkali

    Two thousand years ago … an appeal to the divine seemed to help explain the otherwise inexplicable. Those original motivations have long since evaporated. In response, theologians have continued to alter what they mean by “God” …

    This criticism has a thoughtful sound to it, but I don’t think it is anywhere close to an accurate description of the history of theology as it actually took place.

    If this means that theologians used to think (A) God was a big white guy in a toga hurling thunderbolts, along the lines of Laurence Olivier in Clash Of The Titans, and now think (B) God is an incorporeal being that exists outside of and throughout space and time, well, no, that’s wrong, because theologians haven’t thought (A) for the past thousand years or so at the very least.

    If this means that theologians continue not to agree in all particulars about the nature of God, well, no sh*t. Arguing about the nature of God is what theologians do.

  • Sean

    Steve, the point is that our current theories manage to fit all the data we have without having “causality” as a fundamental category; there doesn’t seem to be anything “unaccounted for.” The directionality of time is, indeed, not understood, except to the extent that it can be traced to cosmological initial conditions, which is a matter of work in progress.

  • Roger Penrose’s fan boy

    Sean – you don’t seemingly want to engage with my points any reason why?

  • Vince

    “t’s certainly true that we don’t yet know whether the universe is eternal or whether it had a beginning, and we certainly don’t understand the details of its origin. But there is absolutely no obstacle to our eventually figuring those things out, given what we already understand about physics. General relativity asserts that spacetime itself is dynamical; it can change with time, and potentially even be created from nothing, in a way that is fundamentally different from the Newtonian conception (much less the Aristotelian).”

    Whoa! I highly doubt that the universe could have originated from nothing. And by “nothing”, I mean nothing. Hmmm…I’m currently trying to imagine nothing, for what it’s worth. If nothing is simply no universe, then how can any universe be created without a pre-existing being to create it? I’m afraid no physical theory or law can create anything from nothing, not even general relativity or quantum mechanics.

  • Roger Penrose’s fan boy

    To paraphrase Wittgenstein what is remarkable is not the way things are but that they are at all. What everyone does is to postulate that something necessary exists and is it’s own first cause. After all if everything is conditional and contingent then we have the infinite regression problem.

  • James

    SLC: The sun holding still is indeed quite implausible, assuming the laws of physics that hold now also held then. (Does the bible ever state this assumption?) Nevertheless, it is not testable. By a testable claim, I mean something about the result of an experiment that you can actually do (i.e., in the present), not something that one might have done at one time. Here is an example: If you go outside and hold a rock and let go, it will fall down. Here is not one: If you had gone outside yesterday and helf a rock and let go, it would have fallen down. The second will never be testable, even though it was testable yesterday.

  • Olben

    If god can create logical contradictions, he could put you in endless pain and call it heaven. And you would suffer and agree. Nothing would need to make any sense.

  • spyder

    Paul Kemp (#30) begins to make an interesting point, that quickly gets lost in his post, and the rest of the thread. We, as users of the English language, seem particularly attentive to a monotheistic theological construct. Eagleton makes a glaring and revealing error along those lines, at one point writing “Christ-Buddha-Allah” as if all three were even remotely similar. They are not, and labelling them as such is a major disservice (other blogs regarding Dawkins and Eagleton seem to have also fallen afoul of this example). The judeo-christian-islamic strand of human religious behavior is just one strand of several on the earth, and among the associated and related sects within that strand are diverse and competing theological constructs (and more so each day it seems).

    Yet there are also other very different manifestations of human religious behavior: Hinduism with its three dieties Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Buddhism with none, although the teachings us divine symbolic referents to point out the illusion of them all; various indigenous polytheisms among peoples of Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, Pacifica; and newly developing spiritually oriented faiths free of omnipresent divinity but encompassing the efforts of researchers who study consciousness (for example those who examined the psilocybin and DMT molecules). Having spent the last 40 years in the academic study of the history and phenomenology of religions, I have come to a couple of conclusions: both Dawkins and Dennett are more accurate than not, and given the archaeological evidence, humans evolved for a relatively long period of time without religious activity. Maybe, just maybe, if researches can find some evidence of religious behaviors among the cetacea, then i would start to reexamine its evolutionary necessity and applicability. As yet neither the whales, nor bonobos, exhibit any traces.

  • Count Iblis

    Hello B,

    … which is a completely vacuous statement unless you explain what ‘reality’ is…

    To explain something means that you explain it in terms of some other, more fundamental, things. So, you always seem to end up with things that cannot be explained.

    The only way out is if what we call “reality”, “the physical world” etc. only exists in an abstract mathematical form. Reality could be just the mathematical model that describes our universe. Other mathematical models describe other universes and they are thus just as real to any creatures that live there, so this lead to modal realism.

    I like this idea, because it gives better answers to some philosophical questions that Sean discussed above. E.g. if the universe is not eternal then where did it come from? This would not be a problem if you only have mathematical reality, because then “the universe” is just a timeless mathematical model. This model describes a big bang and observers that ask questions like “what was there before the big bang?”.

    Another example: Considering simulating a brain using a computer. It is difficult to deny that the simulated brain would be conscious. So, we intuitively accept that what makes us conscious is not the “hardware” but the “software” that our brains are running…

  • John Searle’s forum troll

    RPfb, perhaps you misrepresented his statements, displayed ignorance of the existence of formal systems (‘P=1′), tractability (why oh why aren’t quantum phenomena calculated explicitly at macro-scale), and made-up and debated from a non-standard definition of ‘closed system’ for starts?

  • B

    Hi Nojoy,

    If they ‘come from’ anywhere, it’s from the 0

    0 is the identity element of the addition, it’s a finite closed subgroup, it never gets you anywhere.



  • Count Iblis

    You can define them recursively:

    0 = {} (empty set)

    1 = 0 U {0} = {0}

    2 = 1 U {1} = {0,1}

    etc. :)

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  • bittergradstudent

    Frege lives!

  • Joe

    It nice to come across this oasis of thought on the internet.
    There are some excellent arguments here, but unfortunately I’ve heard the only response the crazys need – “the Holy Spirit gives understanding to those that are his – why should he do the same for the corrupt”. There’s just no response to that…

  • Chris W.

    From bittergradstudent:

    But the point is, if, at some later time, I measure the values of these dynamical variables, their values depend only on the initial values and the field equations. It is not much work to identify the final values as an ‘effect’ and the inital values as a ’cause.’ The field equations are simply a means by which to convert cause into effect. Aristotle used those terms vaguely, but the notion can be preserved in classical theories.

    They can, in the sense you presented, but I think this misses the point. The field equations, or more generally, the invariant structure of dynamics, is what physics—at its core—has come to be about. The ancients’ consideration of causality only contained the first glimmerings of this understanding.

    The Grand Unified Theory, if one must call it that, may be precisely the fundamental theory of those “checks and balances”; it will explain how they work. The fundamental balance that the universe seems to strike is between determinism (rigid causality) and utter, formless chaos. This balance seems to be essential for life, while posing the problems that life must solve to perpetuate itself. It is not obvious that these problems should be soluble, especially if there are no absolutes, ie, if change is primary and pervasive (as I believe it is).

  • Torbjörn Larsson


    Oh, I agree. In that last part I meant that I’m not partial to “causes” – they have their uses, even here, but Sean’s model is broader.

  • George Ellis

    Three points about your passionate commentary on Eagleton’s piece on Dawkins.

    First, Eagleton points out that Dawkin’s book is academically incompetent: you should have a reasonable grounding in the theory you are critiquing if you are doing a responsible academic job. That is actually a good point. In addition to Dawkin’s lack of knowledge of theology, which can of course be responded to in the way you do – it’s not worth knowing (think how string theorists would respond if all the unsubtantiated claims of string theory were responded to in that way) – is his gross misrepresentation of history. He claims religion has been responsible for all the worst evils in history. Religion has of course been responsible for major evils in a totally unacceptable way (as well as being responsible for many good things, not acknowledged by Dawkins). But that statement of Dawkin’s shows a profound lack of knowledge of the history of the 20th century, when national socialism, based deeply in the philosophy of social Darwinism (see FROM DARWIN TO HITLER: EVOLUTIONARY ETHICS, EUGENICS, AND RACISM IN GERMANY by Richard Weikart) was the single biggest killer, apart from the massive killings by Mao Tse Tung (responsible for more deaths than any other individual ever). Dawkins of course does not mention the contribution of social Darwinism to the history of evil that would be too embarrassing for his thesis.

    Second, Dawkin’s book is philosophically incompetent. It is driven by one particular faith position – atheism – which is just as unproveable as theism. That simple fact has been known since the time of Kant and Hume, and has been expressed very clearly by both of them. His book, like your review, is strongly driven by that faith position:

    “But they haven’t given up on believing in God’s existence (suitably defined), which is what drives atheists like Dawkins (and me) a little crazy.”

    Fair enough. But Dawkins is not entitled to claim, as he does, that science proves God does not exist. Certain reductionist philsophical positions associated with science by some scientists and philosophers argue that science can be interpreted as showing that God does not exist; but science itself cannot prove this statement (or disprove it). Please read Hume on this. Atheism, like theism, is an uprovable philosophical position, which can be argued for and against with vigour. To claim it is scientifically provable is not just philosophically wrong, it is also fundamentally damaging to science. Dawkins, as the Professor of Public Understanding of Science, has put this false dilemma to the British public in hard-hitting TV shows: choose between science and religion, you can’t have them both. The inevitable result is that he fuels the anti-science sentiment that is at large in many parts of the wider population. It is an irresponsible act by someone trusted with representing science to the public at large.

    Finally, you yourself state:

    “We don’t yet know how to describe the origin of the universe in purely physical terms, but someday we will — physicists are working on the problem every day.”

    That is fantasy. Science will never be able to answer that problem because to answer it would involve doing experiments we will never be able to perform (re-running the universe for example, or probing conditions before the universe existed). We may be able to make plausible theories about how pre-physics might have led to physics in some way or other, but they will never be testable theories. They will inevitably be philosophical theories rather than tested science. It is fine to have such theories, but they must be acknowledged for what they are. It is crucial that scientists working on the foundations of cosmology respect the boundaries of what is scientifically provable and what is not, separating out clearly the philosophical foundations of their work from its scientifically testable aspects. This boundary is already highly blurred in many writings on the possible existence of a multiverse, for example. Claiming too much for science will in the end be counter productive. Science needs crucially to maintain its integrity as an observationally and experimentally testable subject, and to resist the temptation to abandon these pillars of its past success.

  • Torbjörn Larsson

    “First, Eagleton points out that Dawkin’s book is academically incompetent: you should have a reasonable grounding in the theory you are critiquing if you are doing a responsible academic job.”

    Eagleton makes it easy for himself by equating theology and religion. “This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.”

    Sean seem to discuss this, and PZ Myers takes this further to distinguish between a personal “god” of beliefs and an abstracted “oom” of theology. ( )

    “think how string theorists would respond”
    They seem quaite happy to discuss what background independence and lorentz covariance means with LQG:ers. Why should Dawkins abstain from discussing the epistomological basis of respective world view?

    “the contribution of social Darwinism to the history of evil”
    This is an old point that has been rehashed many times. The gist of it seems to be summarized well by Wikipedia: “Social Darwinism is the overextension and misapplication of Darwinian biological ideas to the social realm.”

    Leaving this point superficially supported, I want to note that Richard Weikart is an associate of the creationistic organisation Discovery Institute ( ).

    On the evolution site Panda’s Thumb is a series of critique of the Darwin – evolution – social darwinism – nazism connection. ( ; ) by Nick Matzke, NCSE.

    “To be fair to Weikart, his webpage lists his replies to historian critics, including Richards (evidently Weikart has another critic who bashed his book in the Journal of Modern History, although I have not yet read the review in the March 2006 issue of the journal).

    Weikart’s reply is basically “But I didn’t mean to tar Darwin and evolution with the odious reputation of Hitler and the Nazis, I put some weak disclaimers to this effect at the beginning of my book.” But this is ludicrous. The title of Weikart’s book is From Darwin to Hitler, and he has participated in and endorsed the streams of anti-evolution propaganda put out by the Discovery Institute and related groups — see the links above, and don’t miss — based explicitly on Weikart’s book (which, if memory serves, the Discovery Institute financed in the first place). At best, Weikart is an innocent academic who is being used by the creationists for their own nefarious ends. But it’s impossible to believe that he is that stupid, especially since he has regularly shown up at ID conferences and events (and in their videos) to advocate his thesis.”

    If Weikart book book is financed by anti-scientists and is heavily criticized (“bashed”) by several historians, I don’t see how he possibly can make a good reference.

    “It is driven by one particular faith position – atheism – which is just as unproveable as theism.”

    Strawman, I think. The reviewers seem to say that Dawkins view is not that is provable, but that atheism, or rather pure naturalism, has high probability. This is consistent with earlier claims from him.

    “We may be able to make plausible theories about how pre-physics might have led to physics in some way or other, but they will never be testable theories.”

    Ehrm. If you are George Ellis the cosmologist I should probably leave this to Sean as a fellow scientist. But I confess to curiosity how for example Linde’s eternal inflation ideas of pushing the start indefinitely back fit into the idea of a pre-physic and why it is a philosophical choice instead of science as usual to shave a theory to the skin of it, or perhaps use the cosmological principle where it takes us. The demarcation problem is partly a philosophical problem too, so it seems rather like question begging to try to separate out what is philosophy and what is science, especially on a specific problem.

  • Torbjörn Larsson

    Ooof! Too many spelling errors to correct all.

    “I want to note”: I want to go on to note

    “the Darwin – evolution – social darwinism – nazism connection”: the evolution – Darwin – social darwinism – nazism connection

  • Torbjörn Larsson

    “The reviewers seem to say that Dawkins view is not that is provable”:

    Dawkins view is not that it is provable

  • Quasar9

    No Joy #43
    Curiously or rather historically
    1 came long, long before 0 in Mathematics

    Bee #42
    Reality is purely mathematical in mathematics
    But it is amazing how much reality is not maths
    or purely mathematical
    So where do these ‘thoughts’ come from?
    thru a macrostate blackhole
    and where do the thoughts which don’t stay, go?
    out thru another macrostate blachole
    or thru the same (bivalve) macrostate blackhole
    Scientists nudge closer to the edge of a black-hole

  • B

    Hi Count,

    You can define them recursively:

    I know. That’s what I meant to say. Is there something like a ’cause’ for the natural numbers? Or is it just a set of axioms? Besides this, the recursive definition doesn’t change the fact that you can’t use the element 0 as a generator, once you’ve defined the elements of the group. On the other hand, there’s nothing special about using 1 whatsoever, since the group (actually, the natural numbers are only a semi-group, so lets make that integer numbers instead) generated by, say 23, is isomorphic to the one generated by 1.

    1 gets a special meaning only if you clarify its the identity of another structure: multiplication. Inversion of which gives you all the fractions, and so on and so forth,…

    So, in the end you’ll sit in this field of complex numbers, and every one of them is just a point in a plane. Does C have a cause?


  • ronan

    > But Dawkins is not entitled to claim, as he does, that science proves God does not exist.

    I haven’t read TGD yet, but in the video lecture that I linked-to above, Dawkins says (at time offset 1:23:10), “I think the issue of whether God exists is strictly a scientific question. I don’t think science can answer it yet. There are lots of questions that science cannot yet answer. Science is working on it. What I think we can do, using the methods of science and logic, is to shade the probabiliies and say we can’t disprove God, and we can’t prove God, everybody agrees on that. But what you can do is answer the question, ‘What is the probability; what is the likelihood, that there’s a God?’ I haven’t had time to go into it this evening. I have made hints at it. My book goes into it further. I believe that one can produce a very, very strong case, although you can’t disprove God, just like you can’t disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or faeries, that the likelihood that any sort of supernatural intelligence exists, is very, very low. I don’t think you need to be qualified in theology to do that, anymore than you need to be learned in astrology, to say that astrology is bunk.”

    Given the above quote, can anyone who has read his book state that the book contradicts his public statments? Does his book actually say that “science proves that God does not exist”?

  • Simon

    The book does not say that the existence of God can be disproved, by science or otherwise. But it does make the excellent point that this fact is a red herring.

    Is there any statement about the world, not about logic or about mathematics, that can be proved? Can one prove for example that Santa Claus doesn’t exist – as opposed to say making a very strong case based on many observations? Or as Dawkins asks, what about the Gods Zeus, Poseidon, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    So what one should think about is not the trivial question of whether there is a proof, but rather the question: in which direction does the evidence point? And how far in that direction does it lead? Is the existence of God on a par with the existence of Santa Claus? Or is it better supported than that? Dawkins argues in an interesting way for the former – it’s worth reading.

    If it’s the case that the existence of God is only as well supported by observations as the theory that say there’s an invisible pink elephant in the center of the sun, then a rational person should not believe in God (assuming they don’t believe in the pink elephant), despite the fact that there is no proof of non-existence.

    Since it’s relatively clear that there’s little in life we really can prove, I can’t help but wonder why so many people immediately shout “you can’t prove that!”. It is not an argument, but a cheap debating trick.

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

    They’re also reviewing the review of the review of the… eh… at Dawkins Website

    Lawrence Krauss went over there the other day to review the review of his own reviw…

    Okay, I’m so dizzy now that I have to lay down…

  • NoJoy

    I’m hesitant to reply, since I feel like we’re hijacking the thread, so I’ll pretend that the discussion is topical.

    Quasar9 #67
    Ah, but this thread is all about whether modern understanding obviates the need for historical superstitious understanding. :)

    Count Iblis #57
    Thanks for providing the standard set-theoretic definition of the natural numbers.

    B #56
    Defining the natural numbers in terms of zero is just another example of creatio ex nihilo!.

    I’m a big defender of zero since taking classes from Edsger Dijkstra, who wore a shirt that said, “Life begins at 60. Counting begins at 0.” In fact, I have an infrequently updated blog about zero and nothing.

  • mtraven

    This is an excellent post, but I still think you and everyone else get hung up on the ontological status of God. If God is immaterial (as in both sophisticated and unsophisticated versions of theology), it isn’t appropriate to talk of either existence or non-existence. Immaterial things (which include numbers and fictional characters as well as spiritual concepts like God and soul) just don’t work that way, and language always trips us up.

    More confused thoughts at the link.

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

    I’m going to go ahead and throw my two cents into this, because I’ve noticed a couple of things about this whole affair that have been recently modified:

    1) Lawrence Krauss has softened toward creationists since he made has infamous appeal to the “higher-authority” of the Pope.

    2) Richard Dawkins seems to have sharpened his point by taking a nearly-word-for-word page out of Lenny’s book to defend his cosmological position, including potentially valuable admissions that the universe “appears to be designed” and other near-exact statements to some that Lenny has made, which are new to Richards vocabulary.

    Lawrence Krauss is trying to get along with moderates, because he knows that the extremists aren’t going to go away.

    Dawkins is reacting extremely to the relentless pressure from extremists that is felt most predominantly by evolutionary biologists, so he seems to be perfectly justified, but I have to ask what motivates him and the interpretation of his “anti-chance-mechanism” since he also supports all of the rest of the stereotypical ideological positions that would predisposition-away from the recognition of valid science that gets mixed in with the creationists wishful thinking.

  • Donald E. Flood

    Professor Ellis’ comment that Dawkins’ “faith position – atheism – which is just as unproveable as theism” is a strawman. Professor Dawkins, in his new book, and in his lectures, interviews, and other writings acknowledges the fact that atheism, unlike theism, is falsifiable. As Professor Dawkins admits, modern Science cannot disprove the existence of God, but modern Science can make probabilistic (albeit, subjective) estimates about God’s existence. God, of course, if he/she/it truly exists, could settle the matter this afternoon, and Professor Dawkins admits that he himself would become a believer if such evidence would be uncovered. What evidence, if any, could convince Professor Ellis to abandon his philosophical and religious point of view? Fundamentally, The God Delusion asks the question “Does it make sense to believe in propositions that can never be verified nor falsified?” Atheism’s response is that we, at a minimum, should “suspend judgment” to such propositions while at the same time viewing more skeptically those propositions (such as “God”, the FSM, IPUs, fairies, etc.) that posit extreme complexity in the absence of any empirical data.

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

    atheism, unlike theism, is falsifiable.

    Spock: Captain, my tricorder readings show… nothing.

    Kirk: Then it must be… HIM!

    Bones: I’ll bet that pointy-eared Vulcan is behind this!

    God: Prepare to beam… “up”.

  • José del Solar

    Amazing review. The best I’ve seen so far on TGD and on Eagleton’s silly putdown of it.

  • Donald E. Flood

    God: Prepare to beam… “up”.

    In other words, “The Rapture!” (Now, don’t start giving these people any ideas!)

  • José del Solar


    That the universe appears to be designed is not new to Dawkins’ views or any evolutionary biologists’, including Darwin. It was precisely the appearance of design that Darwinian biology has set up to explain since the 19th century. I think you are probably misinterpreting Dawkins’ occasional use of rhetoric that might appeal to creationists in order to drive his point home more forcefully (which he admits to in TGD).

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

    Yeah, Jose’, I was very specific about what I was talking about, and it wasn’t about Richard’s admission that the ‘blind forces are, as he used to say, “deployed in a very special way”… and just what gives you the crazy idea that evidence that this appearance can be for “design”, in lieu of any other form of natural bias? You add the extra entitiy of “intelligent intent” without proof that this is what is behind the apparent purpose.

    You found blueprints?… or maybe some other form of direct proof for your otherwise unfounded leap of faith beyond nature?… or does your “free-thinking” world-view enable you to detatch yourself from the natural process of the ecosystem from which we arrose and **BELONG TOO**… especially given that it is a hard known fact that ecobalances are as **self-regulating** as the coincidence that holds the universe flat.

    Speaking of arrogance, me thinks that if I ask you to use the term, “arrogance” in context with the term, “anthropic principle”… then this will reveal a non-scientific predispositioning to evidence that we’re not here by accident that necessarily adversely affects interpretation.

  • Bob

    I used to be an atheist. Something happened to me that I can not explain to someone who does not believe. I could not foresee it happening to me. God is an experience, an encounter that happens when you least expect it. Debates and arguments and conjecture are irrelevant. It only obscures your mind and hardens your heart. I understand wanting to tear down archaic structures that seem to plod along indifferent to what goes on in the world today, but they are no more God than you.

  • Andrea Lawrence-Stuart

    To Kristine (#30) “I have come to see the unthinking process of matter as a wonder in itself, even a comfort—isn’t it more optimistic to realize that unthinking processes have their end in thinking beings who can create their own purpose (should we choose to), instead of having an alien “purpose” imposed upon us from outside of ourselves? I had almost two decades of Bible study, and all it taught me was that I hate being told what my “purpose” is.”

    Your astute comment caught my attention because it echoed words my dear departed ex-dad-in-law said about 30 years ago–almost verbatim–that whenever he looked at a rock (he was a geologist) or a mountain, or a nautilous, he saw that unthinking process as a wonder in itself.

    That is the way I still see it at age 69. As a child I was shuttled around to about 25 foster homes and each family made me attend a different church, each of which unfailingly condemned the other, and all were Christian. I asked too many questions amd got into trouble because I dared question a god who had a son who preached hell and sin and redemption. It all made no sense even as a kid. I enjoyed the Bible, but also decided it was no more true than the Iliad. In the 40s and 50s somehow I had discovered we created this god in our own image, not vice versa. I was further encouraged by one very caring free-thinking foster family with an extensive library, to read Bertrand Russell and Darwin among others and make my own decisions. I applaud Richard Dawkins and Sean who reviewed the book.

  • George Ellis

    ronan quotes Dawkins as saying “I think the issue of whether God exists is strictly a scientific question …. What I think we can do, using the methods of science and logic, is … to answer the question, ‘What is the probability; what is the likelihood, that there’s a God’ “, and Donald Flood says “modern Science can make probabilistic (albeit, subjective) estimates about God’s existence.” I am truly amazed. Please guide me to the *scientific* literature that shows how to make such estimates. What are the *experiments* to be used to establish these probabilities? What are the observational methods to be used? And will Dawkins believe in God if a 2-sigma result is achieved, or will he demand better?

    I don’t believe a word of it. In my view these statements show a major misunderstanding of the limits of science, and an ignorance inter alia of the writings of Immanuel Kant and David Hume. If science is to attempt such things, it will be transgressing the boundaries of what it has been up to now and abandoning the methods that have led to its extraordinary success.

    Donald Flood writes `Atheism’s response is that we, at a minimum, should “suspend judgment” to such propositions’. That is not the atheist position, that is the agnostic position – which has a lot to recommend it. It is not Dawkin’s position. He has publicly stated that people who believe in religion such as Keith Ward, the recent Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, must be stupid – he stated that Keith must have suffered oxygen deprivation to lead to such a sorry result. Dawkins must be pretty desparate in order to have to resort to this kind of insulting personal attack on a highly intelligent and well informed academic. Keith may be mistaken, but he is not stupid.

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

    What are the observational methods to be used?

    Look in the 747 and see if there’s a junkyard dog in it.

    And will Dawkins believe in God if a 2-sigma result is achieved, or will he demand better?

    He’s in the same boat with Lenny now. If the landscape fails, then they’ve both found god… ;)

    That is not the atheist position, that is the agnostic position…

    Um… I’m a default agnostic atheist until I have personal experience with god, like “Bob”… that I can’t chalk-up to thermodynamics.

  • Donald E. Flood

    Donald Flood writes `Atheism’s response is that we, at a minimum, should “suspend judgment” to such propositions’. That is not the atheist position, that is the agnostic position – which has a lot to recommend it.

    Professor Ellis,

    Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, admits that he is an agnostic, in the “absolute” sense. George H. Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God defines atheism more precisely, IMHO, than does Professor Dawkins, but the latter’s work is a polemic against religion and religious faith more than it is a treatise on atheism. I am an atheist, but I am also an agnostic. I am an agnostic in that I recognize that Science cannot prove or disprove a proposition which can never be tested or observed or one that cannot, in principle or theory, ever be verified or falsified. Since there are demonstrably an infinite number of such propositions that cannot ever be verified or falsified, I am an atheist in that I believe that the burden of proof is on the “believer” and not on the skeptic. In short, I do not believe in “God” in the same sense that I do not believe in Unicorns, visible or invisible; however, fundamentally, I am an agnostic with respect to both.


    Donald Flood

  • Galactic Chet

    island and bob,
    Just because you may experience(d) a natural neuro-chemical mind rush, you automatically equate that with a god/mystical/spiritual experience? It is definitely not “god”! What “god”? You have had a natural experience all within your mind as a brain process.
    Study Neurological Science.
    There isn’t any god.

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

    Just because you may experience(d) a natural neuro-chemical mind rush, you automatically equate that with a god/mystical/spiritual experience?

    eh, NO!… I could’a sworn that I was more clear.

  • Keith M Ellis

    Regarding Aristotle’s “infinite causal chain” argument, my memory is hazy but I suspect that this involves his distinction between “infinite in extension” and “infinite in division”. The latter he allows while the former he argues against. Someone mentioned the calculus and Zeno in this context as demonstrating that Aristotle was wrong. But that’s not the case if Aristotle’s objection to an infinite chain of causes was his specific objection to the infinity of extension.

    Also, I’d like to support George Ellis’s argument in his reminder that Eagleton is objecting to Dawkins’s academic incompetency in the subject. Sean does allow this to some extent, noting that a portion of theology is concerned with the existence problem itself. But what I also notice in these comments, especially because George Ellis is a rare exceptions, is that philosophy has, I think, a stronger tradition in this area and it is inexcusable to risregard it if one is making a contemporary academically-centric argument, as I feel certain Dawkins is. As someone (not an academic myself) with a strong background in both science and philosophy, I notice in many scientists an arrogant disregard for philosophy even when they are marching resolutely across philosophical terrain. This is deeply related, in my opinion, to the common ahistoricism in contemporary science.

    I certainly don’t mean to overstate my argument: I find myself often agreeing with Nietschze that science largely made philosophy obsolete. If I had to assess my own intellectual affiliations, “scientism” casts a large shadow. Even so, it’s emphatically the case that there is an indistinct boundary where metaphysics becomes physics and science is not sufficiently equipped on its own to make enquiries on the metaphysics side of that boundary. That is a competency argument in the larger sense of the word “competency”.

    But the more limited sense of “competency” applies, as well. And is very important. Thinking back to the days when I used to often read sci.physics.relativity and in general my view of cranks and how to deal with them, I’m reminded that a signal characteristic of cranks is their willful lack of academic competency in the fields and theories they aim to “revolutionize”. There is an ethos in science and academia that requires competence before criticism, and rightly so. But that cranks are willfully ignorant is psychologically revealing, as well. They don’t want to have the expertise they lack because in some deep sense, they fear it. Everyone, artist or scientist or philosopher, who has a sufficient ego to believe themselves capable of playing a radical role at the center of their interests rather than the margins fears a true credentialed competency within that mileau because partly and ostensible, they fear co-option, and partly and more deeply, fear being educated out of their arrogance. All great intellectuals are arrogant and all those who are revolutionary face this challenge and rise to it. You believe you have a revolutionary insight into cosmology? You nevertheless suffer under those mandarins who control access not only because of some arbitrary ethos of “paying your dues”, but also because one’s ability to survive that test bears a direct relationship to the virtue of one’s theories. Dawkins is nothing if not arrogant. And he’s been disciplined enough to achieve a very high level of professional esteem in his field of ecology and evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, he pursues his claims about religion in the popular, not academic, sphere and he is willfully uncredentialed as he does so. As much as I respect the man in other ways, and as much as I agree with him in his essential judgement on the matter of God, I think it’s not at all unimportant that from an contemporary academic and professional point of view he appears much more the crank on this subject than he does the revolutionary and important expert.

  • Simon

    When should one demand that an author has qualifications in the subject area they talk about?

    One place where it’s useful is popular physics writing. In that case, readers are presented with scientific results, but usually only with heuristic explanations for why they are true, rather than the detailed mathematical arguments that lead to them. So one has to believe the conclusions for some reason other than the correct argument for them – and trust that the writer understands or perhaps has performed the calculations themselves. Appropriate qualifications are then an good way to decide how much trust to place in the author.

    I’m not saying that every popular science writer should be so qualified – Bill Bryson seems to have done an excellent job by consulting scientists. But in general someone with qualifications should be involved.

    How does ‘The God Delusion’ fit into this. As far as I can see, it doesn’t, because it is not a work of popular science. What I mean by that is that readers are not asked to trust Dawkins in his conclusions about the existence of God or the relationship between religion and ethics. Rather they are asked to assess his arguments about those matters. And those arguments are fully laid bare in the book – not in say mathematical journal articles.

    Attacking Dawkins’ qualifications in theology is therefore absurd and mischevous – one should attack his arguments directly if one finds fault with them. If on the other hand one does not find fault with the arguments, then it cannot be because (as in popular science writing) the real arguments are elsewhere. What Dawkins wants to say about religion (though not evolutionary biology obviously) is all in the book. In this situation, attacking Dawkins’ qualifications is tactic used only by those who are unable to attack his arguments rationally.

  • Keith M Ellis

    “In this situation, attacking Dawkins’ qualifications is tactic used only by those who are unable to attack his arguments rationally.”

    There’s a bunch of malicious bad-faith built into that accusation. Ironic, really.

    At any rate, no, your conclusion about when credentials are important and when they are not is false. It implies, for example, that the author of a crank argument on a matter of physics should not be criticized for a lack of credentials just so long as the math of his/her argument is presented within the argument. Your argument also privileges mathematics in some absurd way, assuming that all non-mathematical arguments can be similarly self-contained (by your definition of “self-contained”) and thus the credentialed expertise (or lack thereof) of those making such arguments is irrelevant. What an astonishingly wide-ranging example of know-nothingness. And how provincial is the exception made for popular books on mathematically-based sciences. One might wonder if you were someone with some expertise, though limited, in a mathematically-based science and not, on the other hand, an historian or physiologist or anthropologist. You’re in luck, though, if you have anything you want to say authoritatively about those subjects yet lack credentials—by your sights, your argument will stand on their own.

  • Simon

    “At any rate, no, your conclusion about when credentials are important and when they are not is false. It implies, for example, that the author of a crank argument on a matter of physics should not be criticized for a lack of credentials just so long as the math of his/her argument is presented within the argument.”

    Indeed – that is what I think. The author of a crank arument on a matter of physics should not be criticized for a lack of credentials. Their argument should be criticized for its flaws.

    “Your argument also privileges mathematics in some absurd way, assuming that all non-mathematical arguments can be similarly self-contained (by your definition of “self-contained”) and thus the credentialed expertise (or lack thereof) of those making such arguments is irrelevant.”

    No – I don’t need to assume that. My only claim was that Dawkins’ arguments are, as a matter of fact, self contained. I don’t think that all nonmathematical arguments are, or have to be self-contained. Rather I was saying that it’s very hard to be self-contained in math-intensive subjects.

    “You’re in luck, though, if you have anything you want to say authoritatively about those subjects yet lack credentials—by your sights, your argument will stand on their own.”

    I agree. I think that when people present arguments honestly they should be criticized or praised on the basis of those arguments – and not on their `qualifications’. If someone is not ‘qualified’ (whatever that may precisely mean) it does not follow that what they are saying is incorrect. It may make it more likely that they are wrong – but that is something you check by examining their arguments – not their qualifications.

    The chapter of Dawkins’ book entitled: ‘Why There Almost Certainly is no God’ presents an interesting (though not necessarily original or correct) argument. Why don’t we discuss that, instead of whether Dawkins is qualified to present it? Perhaps those who contest Dawkins’ credentials can point to the paragraphs and pages in that chapter where he errs? That is, if they’ve read the book …

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  • Peter Erwin

    Talk of “qualifications” and “credentials” is somewhat beside the point; the issue is competency. Eagleton claims that Dawkins demonstrates a lack of competency (a lack of knowledge) and doesn’t engage with the arguments of sophisticated theology. “If they [people like Dawkins] were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.” So Eagleton claims that Dawkins hasn’t done the necessary boning-up.

    Of course, there’s very little doubt that South Asia, for example, actually exists, and that it has geopolitics; Dawkins might object that he’s being asked to bone up on the geopolitics of Middle Earth or Never Never Land.

    The ironic thing is that Eagleton concedes most of the argument to Dawkins; he doesn’t really want to address the issue of whether or not God “exists,” because that is apparently, according to Eagleton, a fundamentally naive question and not something a (sophisticated) religious person worries about. In a sense, Eagleton is just as contemptuous and dismissive of much of popular, living religion as Dawkins is (“As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.”).

  • Bob

    Galactic Chet,

    I understand what you are saying. I know it has been said that a lack of oxygen to the brain gives one the euphoria of endorphins rushing to the frontal lobe or whatever.

    Well, what I experienced was external, meaning it happened to me, not inside me.

    I believe because I know, and that is not easy to explain to someone who has no faith to begin with. So you will always think I’m full of shit.

  • Keith M Ellis

    “If someone is not ‘qualified’ (whatever that may precisely mean) it does not follow that what they are saying is incorrect. It may make it more likely that they are wrong – but that is something you check by examining their arguments – not their qualifications.”

    I don’t have time to check the arguments of all those who make assertions about that which they’ve earned no credentials. Ignoring books on physics written by non-physicists is a good practice for exactly the same reason it’s good practice to ignore books on any technical subject written by someone without credentials in that subject. If you disagree, I expect you to shortly be reading those many creationist texts rather than ignoring them.

    Dawkins shouldn’t get a free pass on this just because you and I agree with his conclusions. It’s really sort of remarkable how, in pursuing your argument in Dawkins’s defense, you’ve come to sound exactly like and say exactly the same things I see the cranks say who whine about science’s supposed fetish with credentialism. “How can you crititize this book on creationism without reading it?”, they ask, smugly. “The only people who would criticize this author for having no credentials are those who are afraid to criticize his argument on its own merits”.

    In my experience, scientists are more aware than almost any other class just how important credentials are when engaging in technical subjects. True, there is a tendency in some of them to do as you are doing and to make special-pleading arguments such that credentialism matters in the fields in which they have credentials and doesn’t matter in the fields they do not. But there is a cultural distaste for those who move beyond the boundaries of the expertise signaled by their credentials. This is part of the reason there is almost always backlash against scientists who become active in the popular sphere. Such scientists almost always speak authoritatively beyond their own credentialed expertise. Sagan wrote about exobiology and climate change. Dawkins about religion. Hell, most everyone already was uncomfortable with Dawkins from the day he first uttered the word “meme”. There are damn good reasons for this discomfort. If Dawkins wants to write a book on religion that he wants people like me to read and take seriously—and note that I’m an atheist—then he’d best demonstrate some credibility on the topic. Prima facie he has not for the reasons I describe, and, furthermore, while not having read this book, I have read others of his popular works and he hasn’t struck me as very credible beyond his particular field of expertise in the past.

    Yours was the first ad hominem in this arguement and, of course, often it’s the case that such things are in fact relevant though Internet discourse likes to claim otherwise. But you might note that I have zero self-interest in attacking Dawkins’s book. I agree with his conclusions. I’m an atheist. I think religious faith is false and harmful (though I think its harm is often overstated while its possible benefits are often understated). I’d prefer a world without it. I have no ulterior motive in being critical of Dawkins. On the other hand, your agreement with Dawkins is a potential motive for defending him from all criticism. Your rhetorical style, which was extremely quick on the draw to accuse my argument as really being a cover designed to hide the fact that I’m unable to otherwise criticize Dawkins indicates a greater investment in rhetorical stance than in substance. That may not be the case, of course. But my point is that I’m criticizing a particular characteristic of an author with whom I agree while you are, in contrast, acting like a partisan. There’s an invitation to you in there, somewhere, for a bit of self-analysis.

  • Simon

    As a matter of fact – nothing I’ve said implies that I agree with any of Dawkins’ arguments – or his conclusions. I was careful to say that the interesting argument in the chapter I mentioned is not necessarily either original or correct. All I’ve said is that there if one wants to come to a judgement on it – one should read it and evaluate it.

    I’m actually somewhat undecided about the merits of the particular argument against the existence of God that Dawkins promotes – and I would find it interesting to have a discussion about it – if anyone here is interested.

    It is true of course that we don’t have time to read everything written by everyone – and judging their qualifications (or competency) is a useful way to decide what to read. And I guess this is what you are doing with Dawkins and ‘The God Delusion’. But there are lots of us who have read the book – and evaluated the arguments contained therein – and why on earth should they care about Dawkins’ qualifications? The qualifications are at best an indicator for how good the content is. But once the content has actually been examined directly, we don’t need the indicator any more. It’s like choosing whether to carry an umbrella based on yesterday’s weather forecast for today – instead of just checking to see whether it’s raining outside.

  • shiva


    It’s certainly true that we don’t yet know whether the universe is eternal or whether it had a beginning, and we certainly don’t understand the details of its origin.

    Is that right? Doesn’t the Big Bang Theory say that the universe has a beginning? Ignoring the the pop interpretation of the Big Bang to that is used to uphold certain myths; what really does the theory say? Beginning or no?

  • Sean

    shiva — The Big Bang theory says that the universe was extremely hot and dense in the past. If classical general relativity is to be believed, there was a singularity. But of course classical general relativity is not to be believed at that point; quantum effects are surely important. The truth is, we just don’t know. I’m guessing eternal, but we just don’t know.

  • George Ellis

    To Keith and Simon:

    I believe I am correct in saying that Eagleton also is not a Christian, indeed he is a well known Marxist. He did not write the review the way he did because he agrees with Christianity. He was concerned with academic integrity.

    To Sean:

    You say “I’m guessing eternal, but we just don’t know”. Why don’t you start a new thread expanding on that? – especially in the light of the claims by Guth et al that they have theorems showing there must be a start to the universe, whereas loop quantum gravity suggests no singularity.

  • Sean

    Hi George — That’s a good idea, I’ll try to do it some time when I’m less busy. I’ve described my favorite model before, e.g. here. I should also mention that the Borde/Guth/Vilenkin theorem is (1) completely classical, not quantum, of course, and (2) a little less definitive than you make it sound, as they assume an “averaged expansion condition” which certainly may be violated along some geodesics. But it’s a good theorem, no question.

  • http://none Stephen Potyondi

    It seems to me as if there’s a fundamental error in responding to a metaphysical problem with a purely physical solution. The physical solution doesn’t satisfy the requirements of ‘explaining away’ God inasmuch as it continues to beg the question: what is the origin of those mechanical laws that govern the universe? It’s fine and dandy to stop there if you’re simply seeking to explain to motion of planets or whatnot, but if the story of God is really the story of genesis, then you have to go beyond. Really, the physical argument is just limiting the scope of investigation to exclude the ‘need’ for God, whereupon it congratulates itself for being so clever. Shifting the goalposts in this way is an instance of evasion, not of genuine dialogue.

    Natural theology has historically contemplated God in terms of reason and debated his nature as an abstract issue. Beginning with Descartes, more recent philosophy has shifted the discussion to the idea of subjectivity, and of questions of religious experience and revelation. The old philosophy allows for a disjunction between the way you experience the world and what your reason tells you is true. It would be possible, under the old scheme, to give rational arguments for God’s existence (which people often believe) without yourself believing, in your heart of hearts, that he exists. In that sense, it’s pointless for athiests and religious types to debate God’s existence because they have no common ground. Faith is not the content of a concept but a form of the will; a way of being rather than a belief or thing we know.

    To choose God or science or whatever is, in effect, to choose your ‘absolute'; that is to say that which you take be true, real or meaningful. We all have faith. Faith that our wives won’t cheat on us, that the car approaching the crosswalk will slow to a stop before it hits us, that the earth revolves around the sun and so on. If you asked 99% of people who believe that hydrogen and oxygen molecules bond to form water to prove it, they wouldn’t be able to do so. They take it on authority. That’s all we’re really talking about here.

    In choosing the rational absolute, of conceiving of God as the object of an idea, he is always done away with. This is the Kantian argument:
    1) The rational ideal precedes God
    2) The individual must therefore use his ideal to determine whether an encounter with God is genuine
    So, 3) God is therefore subject to human reason

    This conclusion obviates the need for God and faith, for you can just follow the rational ideal instead. If God is incommensurate with your ideal, then you simply reject God, for you have already chosen the criteria according to which you understand the world.

  • Quasar9

    Sean said “The truth is, we just don’t know. I’m guessing eternal, but we just don’t know.”
    “It’s certainly true that we don’t yet know whether the universe is eternal or whether it had a beginning, and we certainly don’t understand the details of its origin.”

    And that is possibly the only Absolute Truth:
    The Truth is: neither Maths or Physics know, one can only theorise on possibilities and probabilities.
    PS – Sean don’t tell anyone, but your guess is a pretty good guess though. lol!

  • Galactic Chet

    I don’t have “faith”. I was raised a Catholic. Any religious faith and faith belief in imaginary god(s) ended in 1970, at 20, realizing that all gods/goddesses/spirit beings are our creations just as tooth fairies, jack frost, ghouls, goblins, trolls, etc. Check all mythologies of everyone on Earth.
    No, I do not “think” you are “full of shit”. I don’t even “know” you personally. So, do not take it personally.
    You just need to realize a personal experience
    of your own is a personal experience and there are 6.5 billion other persons and the millions of other species on Earth.
    You did not explain what happened to you. There are other rational and logical explanations–not just emotional.
    All mind is neuro-chemical. No duality.
    Just remember, ok, we live on a unique planet @ 4.5 billion years old spiral orbiting a star @4.5 billion years in its spiral orbit around our Milky Way @ 13 billion years with billions of other stars, planets, moons, etc., within and the other billions of galaxies….
    Our species is recently evolved from Homo erectus about 300,00 years ago–our species bottle-necked to several thousand about 60-80,000 years ago. Religous faith beliefs just about 40,000 years ago, just 8,000 years with written records. So, why aren’t you or anyone on this “Delusional God” post considering this?????

  • Simon

    George wrote:

    “I believe I am correct in saying that Eagleton also is not a Christian, indeed he is a well known Marxist. He did not write the review the way he did because he agrees with Christianity. He was concerned with academic integrity.”

    I think that someone who is concerned with academic integrity evaluates other peoples arguments rather than their credentials. Note that Keith’s point about using qualifications to decide whether or not to read a book clearly does not apply to Eagleton. He presumaby had read the book before writing the review.

    Although one wonders if he really did read all of it. The heart of the book is a particular argument against the existence of God – an argument from improbability which in an interesting way borrows the design argument and attempts to show that it’s conclusion is the opposite of what Paley thought.

    Is anyone actually interested in discussing the substantive content of the book? Or do people just care about who’s qualified to talk about what?

  • Galactic Chet

    And, finally, Bob:
    Lack of oxygen to the brain is not the only neurochemical mind rush one can experience. Research Neuroscience. Read Science, Science News, Scientific American, Nature, Skeptical Inquiry, etc.
    These, too, affect the brain/mind: There is some recent evidence that endogenous cannabinoids are responsible for “runner’s high”.
    Oxycodone is an agonist opioid [An agonist is a molecule that selectively binds to a specific receptor and triggers a response in the cell. It mimicks the action of an endogenous biochemical molecule (such as hormone or neurotransmitter) that binds to the same receptor. It is a drug molecule (synthesized outside an organism) that reproduces the action of an endogenous natural biochemical (synthesized inside an organism)], and as such is a variation on an ancient theme beginning with the simple consumption or smoking of the alkaloid-bearing parts of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, first cultivated circa 3400 BC in lower Mesopotamia. Ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians found that smoking the extract derived from the seedpods yielded a pleasurable, peaceful feeling throughout the body. The Sumerians called the poppy plant “Hul Gil” or “joy plant”. Cultivation and use spread quickly to the rest of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, eventually reaching India and China.
    Oxycodone has similar effects to morphine and heroin, and appeals to the same abuse community.

  • Anthony A.

    Hi Sean & George,

    I’ll skip any discussion of God and instead second George’s suggestion of a thread discussing the claims by Guth, Vilenkin etc., that they have proven that there is a beginning. In my opinion, they simply haven’t — and I think you both agree, since both of you are authors of papers that propose a nonsingular universe (as I am as well) ;-)



  • George Ellis

    Anthny A says

    “I’ll … second George’s suggestion of a thread discussing the claims by Guth, Vilenkin etc., that they have proven that there is a beginning. In my opinion, they simply haven’t — and I think you both agree, since both of you are authors of papers that propose a nonsingular universe (as I am as well)”

    Yes indeed, there are a variety of non-singular inflationary models, including de Sitter spacetime in the k=+1 frame and in the k=0 frame, and the `emergent’ universe developed by myself and others (asymptotic to the Enstein static universe in the past). The theorems of Guth et al simpy by fiat exclude all the non-singular models because of the arbitrary conditions they impose on what they regard as an acceptable inflationary model.

  • Moshe

    Since this is still a thread about god let me express my opinion that the possible initial singularity should not be confused with a “beginning”. Singularity is simply the point where our current theories, we humans on earth in 2006, break down. It has nothing to do with the question of a beginning in the real physical universe, unless we are willing to believe that somehow we are at the “end of physics”.

    You might say that in a non-singular model at least one is assured there is no “beginning”, but even that is not true. Non-perturbative quantum gravity becomes important not just near regions of high curvatures, but also in questions involving very long time scales. For examples there is a suggestion by Lenny and others that eternal deSitter space cannot exists, it will decay before the Poincare recurrence time. Whether you believe this or not, this is a suggested quantum gravity effect that will create a “beginning” (in the very far past) in a model which is non-singular.

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

    I might believe it in context, but I don’t believe it as a rule, since there are non-singular models which include big bangs that don’t have this problem. Anyway, an assumption that the big bang was the “beginning” requires a leap of faith beyond every last shred of evidence that we have at our disposal to assume that “nothing” can even exist.

    Nobody on any side likes the idea of infinite regression because they commonly assume that an effect is necessarily preceeded by a cause, rather than to recognize that cause/effect is just a relational expression, and an effect is also a cause. There is no requirement, for a Thomas Aquinas-like “first cause” and the idea contradicts the evidence.

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

    I’m sorry for quoting myself, but I have a better argument:

    There is no requirement, for a Thomas Aquinas-like “first cause” and the idea contradicts the evidence.

    There is no requirement for a first cause, especially if there is a built-in “final cause” that cannot be realized.

    Say you have an inherent disequilibrium in the energy that cannot be reconcilled no matter how hard the system naturally “tries”, since the imbalance necessitates an effort in that direction.

    What I have in mind is inherent thermodynamic structuring that keeps the system moving perpetually, “downhill”, in terms of the energy that is required to carry the structure to higher order, which necessarily increases the efficiency of the impossible effort toward absolute symmetry that is evidentially implied by an extremely “near-miss”.

  • Anthony A.


    You say: The theorems of Guth et al simpy by fiat exclude all the non-singular models because of the arbitrary conditions they impose on what they regard as an acceptable inflationary model.

    I say: Precisely.


    I guess I don’t really agree with either point. In the case of a global spacelike singularity, I don’t know that there is any meaning to saying there is something “before” the classical singularity, since “before” and “after” seem to me to be concepts that meaningfully apply only to classical spacetime (or at best a quantum perturbation of a classical spacetime). Even if we have (say) a dual theory with a well-defined time evolution passing through this singularity, I’m not sure I would take that to mean that there was something “before” the classical singularity: there would be no classical spacetime connection between the two regions.

    The content of the second argument you give is (unless I misunderstand) essentially that if I take a finite system, it will be affected by quantum fluctuations. Eventually, one of these will be large enough to imply large gravitational effects, so that spacetime becomes classically indescribable. This seems true but only problematic isofar as the universe is a finite physical system. I see no reason to believe this, especially if we are contemplating “eternal” models.

  • Moshe

    Thanks Anthony, to your two points

    1. If there is some intermediate stage in the evolution of the universe describable in terms of some dual time, “before” and “after” are definable in terms of that time. If the story is truly convincing, I doubt anyone will prefer to use the notion of time coming from an incomplete approximation to the full story, but they are perfectly entitled to do that.

    2. I am not trying necessarily to defend the argument given by Lenny and friends (incidentally, they only assume the spectrum is discrete, not that the system is finite). I am just saying it is hard to believe one can conclusively assert there is no beginning without having access to the full non-perturbative quantum gravity, being singularity-free may or may not be a sufficient condition, we just don’t know.

  • Plato

    While empirically Aristotle has lead the thinking, you know how I think don’t you:) Do you see me stand apart from Aristotle?

    I’m taking a philosophical position here. I won’t make you believe the “soccer ball” is God or anything like that, but a condense matter theorist’s point of view of what first principle “is?”

    Okay, we had Steven Weinberg’s first three minutes, but it has been pushed back some more here. Why would you do that unless you had some “reductionist plan” here to take us some where? To where it all began?

    It can’t be nothing :) Sure maybe a singularity is involved, but through it all comes a vast reservoir of existing knowledge? Everything has already been thought of? We just have to remember it?

    The Myth of the Beginning of Time

    The ancient Greeks debated the origin of time fiercely. Aristotle, taking the no-beginning side, invoked the principle that out of nothing, nothing comes. If the universe could never have gone from nothingness to somethingness, it must always have existed. For this and other reasons, time must stretch eternally into the past and future. Christian theologians tended to take the opposite point of view. Augustine contended that God exists outside of space and time, able to bring these constructs into existence as surely as he could forge other aspects of our world. When asked, “What was God doing before he created the world?” Augustine answered, “Time itself being part of God’s creation, there was simply no before!”

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

    Wow! I wonder if Aristotle would have concluded that the near-absolute balanced result of the big bang defines an “intended” **goal** that crosses-up the lines between certainty and insanity?

    And then let Hericlitus run with that…

    And suddenly Rober Frost makes a lot of sense.

  • Plato

    If there are such things as poetic justice, then why not a good story?

    Sure it can all get “entangled” and then you wonder, “beauty from chaos?”

    While the basis of “mathematical thought” was busy playing here in this thread and everywhere?

    It was Socrates’ turn to look puzzled.
    “Oh, wake up. You know what chaos is. Simple deterministic dynamics leading to irregular, random-looking behavior. Butterfly effect. That stuff.”
    Of course, I know that,” Socrates said in irritation. “No, it was the idea of dynamic logic that was puzzling me. How can logic be dynamic

    Well maybe “the idea” had to be taken to a whole new level? Hence, Susskind’s elephant conundrum :)

  • john merryman

    If I may offer my own theological observations: The reason for god isn’t to explain what is observed, but to explain what is observing. The problem with monotheism is that the absolute is basis, not apex, so a spiritual absolute would be the essence out of which we rise, not an entity from which we fell. The atheistic assumption is that consciousness is the last thin layer of the evolutionary process. My question would be whether it is simply us, staring into that abyss, or are we just the last and latest lens through which what is down there is looking out.
    At what level are we willing to admit to consciousness? The idea of Pavlovian response implies that animals are essentially mindless autoresponse because dogs can be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. Isn’t that bell essentially a symbol for food and don’t we consider the ability to think symbolically one of the surest signs of consciousness? Society has this religious and political assumption that good and bad are a metaphysical dual between the forces of light and darkness, but they are actually the binary code for biological calculation. Even single celled organisms distinguish between benefits and dangers. Can we really say for sure that insects don’t possess some elemental consciousness? Emergent properties do not spring into existence without some root structure leading up to them and how far down do the roots of consciousness really go? Could it be some form of elemental consciousness which distinguishes the organic from the inorganic?
    Atheism and monotheism make the same assumption, that intelligence and consciousness are the same, just that while monotheism asserts an all-knowing being, atheism assumes they formed together. Intelligence is the process by which consciousness incorporates complexity. Animals may not be particularly smart, but they are very sensitive to their situation in the present. People, on the other hand, in the grip of various beliefs and biases, can be extremely insensitive. Who is the more conscious?
    At the level of human discourse, we are all distinct individuals, but to the extent we are all of the same species, we function as a digital organism, like fingers on the same hand. Episodes such as war are a regulatory mechanism, as we are our own most effective predator. To the extent all life on this planet evolved out of the same genetic source, it is one organism, much like a multi-cellular organism grows out of a single cell. The tree of life has only one trunk.
    We think of consciousness as originating at a point, yet it exists as a sphere, whether within particular organs in the body, the body itself, or the sphere of our individual awareness. Could it be that we have trouble distinguishing this consciousness in others isn’t always due to a lack of connection, but in many situations, a lack of distinction? Consciousness functions as a connection, whether between synapses or observer and observed. Since we function as a larger organism, could communication between individuals be conceptually similar to these other connections?

  • Plato

    I know this post is a far stretch of the imagination? I thought I’d place it here anyway.

    Michael Persinger has a vision – the Almighty isn’t dead, he’s an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.

    While Persinger was not able to induce the desire state for even the “most skeptical,” the research is interesting nonetheless.

    Selfish Impulse Set Free by Magnetic Pulse to Brain By David Biello, can be seen here.

    In TMS, a mobile coil creates a strong and rapidly changing magnetic field that penetrates the skull to a depth of a couple centimeters. This field induces tiny electric currents in the brain’s circuitry, interfering with the normal biochemical processes in the local tissue. If the magnetic stimulation is repeated (rTMS) in millisecond-long pulses every second over the course of several minutes, the area becomes numb to other inputs for a short time afterward

    Which raises question about how we have always percieved? Brain “casings” formed as we evolved?

    What if we “reversed” the way we believe the “mind is inherently embodied” to, “the body” is inherently embodied by the mind?”

    Is this acceptable/not aceptable, to a scientist?

  • Belizean

    FYI. The latest episode of South Park (aired 11-1-06) makes fun of Dawkins in its usual vulgar yet amusing way. Dawkins actually appears as a character. It’s a two part episode, which makes the point that expecting widespread atheism to prevent violence is absurdly naive. Part 2 should air on 11-8-06. [Sorry if this has been pointed out numerous time before in this thread.]

    My own humble view as an atheist (in apparent agreement with South Park) is that belief in God should not in general be discouraged in the absence of an alternative belief of demonstrably superior efficacy in restraining uncivil human impulses.

  • Plato

    Even an atheist can practice “conformity to a principal?” Are they more “humanistic” in their approach?

  • Roman K.

    It is mentioned several times in the article that the scientists will eventually figure it all out. However, isn’t this showing blind faith in science. There is no scientific evidence that science will ever figure anything else out. I do realize that science will figure other things out, but there will always be more and more questions. I am not in favor of the “Intelligent Designer” argument, there are just way to many holes to plug up philosophically. Just so you know, there never has really been any “proofs” of God’s existence. They are all there to simply prove that God is a reasonable prospect. I will admit that the universe at least appears as if there is no being necessary for it to exist, but God could have just made it that way, and I believe he did. What it really comes down to is that God cannot be proven or disproven, that is why it is called faith. I fully realize that I have no scientific basis for my beliefs. However, it seems scientists are becoming more faith-based all the time, with more and more theories and explinations rather than cold hard facts. God is not necessary to explain the universe, but neither are humans, or any other creature or entity. I believe in God, and yes there are inconsistencies in Scripture, but those were written by man, but the overall and specific philosophies and lessons that are contained there in, when I examine my own life, as a creature of compassion and love, things unknown to science, the Scriptures and God make a lot of sense, though I would never try to “prove” any of this to anyone.
    Scientists shoud realize better than most that you really can’t prove a negative.

  • bob

    Galactic Chet: nothing new in what you say. As someone who has done his fair share of experimentation with drugs, drugs don’t explain everything. And I did my fair share of rebelling against the Catholic church. But I always have been one to find my answers in science, yet science fails in matters of faith. ‘Supernatural’ drives some people nuts. They like to lump it in with fairy tales and crap, but the reality is most people do not have supernatural occurences. How many ghosts would there be if over 90 billion people have died on this planet? Yet the same people who argue against the supernatural will believe in UFOs.

  • extabgrad

    On the subject of Richard Dawkins’ credentials, I’m curious to know what credentials, exactly, are required to make a discussion of god and religion? The faculties of reason are available to us all. What experiments must be done? What techniques must be learned? Professor Ellis seems to be suggesting that just because Dawkins isn’t published in the the Journal of Philosophy he is necessarily inadequately versed in the arguments of the field, and is just shoving his way to the front of the queue. I of course agree with the comments on credentialism with regard to scientific literature, but the creationist analogy given is inadequate – creationism opposes biology and biology is a hands-on scientific discipline requiring demonstrable evidence of experimental skill.

  • Richard Dawkins

    George Ellis (Comment 83) says:
    “It is not Dawkin’s position. He has publicly stated that people who believe in religion such as Keith Ward, the recent Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, must be stupid – he stated that Keith must have suffered oxygen deprivation to lead to such a sorry result. Dawkins must be pretty desparate in order to have to resort to this kind of insulting personal attack on a highly intelligent and well informed academic. Keith may be mistaken, but he is not stupid.”

    Please tell me where you obtained this remarkable allegation, the one about the oxygen deprivation. Of course I did not say it, and I would never say any such thing of an Oxford colleague, especially one with whom I have always enjoyed good relations. I do not know whether you are the George Ellis, the cosmologist. If you are, I would expect that you would now apologise and take steps to withdrew this libel. In any case, I hope you will. I am sorry to say that it has already been repeated on (and who knows where else?)

    Thank you
    Richard Dawkins

  • Count Iblis

    Please tell me where you obtained this remarkable allegation, the one about the oxygen deprivation.

    I guess that some meme mutated. :)

  • Nandes

    Fantastic article.

    Many kudos to the author.

  • Peter R

    Wittgenstein wrote two particularly important books, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. The Tractatus analysed language as though it were a picture of reality, whereas the Philosophical Investigations was essentially a repudiation of this view, focusing instead on the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its use or context (the tool box model). Using the latter insight, perhaps we should try to understand words like ‘God’ in terms of their function – the way they are being used, which is usually a great deal more varied and complex than as a mere positive referent.

    My God, what next! Help me God! Good God! If you don’t behave you won’t go to heaven! We probably aren’t unduly excercised by these expressions. It is the idea of a positive referent, of the word ‘God’ being a picture of a reality that creates confusion (and perhaps we need to let the fly out of the fly bottle, as Wittgenstein suggested) .

    Private belief in a God, in itself, is of little importance. In Dawkins’ terms the idea of God can be thought of as a meme which is subject to selection pressures, in a way that has some parallels to genetic selection. My own conviction is that in time the hold that religious belief (a cluster of memes) has over people will weaken, as it is doing in Europe and Quebec, and amongst young people in the US (judged by their falling attendance at churches). But unfortunately, in the meantime, the consequences of religious belief can be very harmful, as well as beneficial. Perhaps the impetus to weaken the God meme comes from a concern about these harmful consequences, and has relatively litle to do with anything of scientific interest.

  • George Ellis

    Richard Dawkins states I am completely wrong about the alleged comment re Keith Ward and oxygen deprivation. In that case I withdraw my statement with apologies. I was told about that coment by a source I believed was thoroughly reliable.

  • Garth Barber

    Is not the God Conundrum the apparent fact that atheists find Dawkins book very persuasive while theists do not?

    Of course it all depends on the definition of the word ‘God’.

    One such definition is ‘God is the author and guarantor of the laws of science’.

    If we ignore some more speculative hypotheses, the anthropic fine-tuning of physical constants, which makes ours an unlikely fecund universe, may be explained by invoking either a creator God or a multitude of other universes.

    Neither God nor other universes are observable by scientific methods; therefore each explanation requires an act of faith in something beyond ‘physics’ observable in the normal scientific sense, i.e. ‘metaphysics’.

    The question is what are we prepared to put our faith in? Theists appear just as willing to place their faith in the existence of God as atheists are prepared to put their faith in God’s non-existence.

    Surely without such an act of faith, either way, only the agnostic position is tenable?

  • Michael

    I am so pleased that someone has generated such a huge debate based on “Does God exist?” The answer is of course a resounding YES, I don’t suppose any of you who are discussing this subject have been to church recently and listened to the teaching or spent quiet time communing with God who is the Creator and Master of the universe,who does love and discipline His people, and of course will do until He creates the new heaven and the new earth. I would strongly suggest you spend more time praying than blogging or debating. You may not believe in God, but He believes in you and He will forgive you if you repent of your unbelief.
    I pray that you will have an encounter with the Living Lord, so that you too will believe, in Jesus name I pray this.
    I know that what I have written will not convince you, only the Lord Jesus Christ can do this Himself. So, go ahead, if you dare, and invite Him into your life.
    See you in Heaven.

  • George Ellis

    I have been back to my source, and have now determined that it was in fact Peter Atkins, the chemist, who in a public debate made the remark about oxygen and Keith Ward’s brain that I quoted. I sincerely apologise to Richard Dawkins for having attributed to him a remark in fact made by his Oxford colleague. My memory let me down. Sorry.

  • extabgrad

    I think, Garth Barber, if you find the fantastical idea of a pre-existing higher intelligence is on a par statistically with the multiverse then it will be hard to convince you of the atheist viewpoint. But of course this is discussed in [i]The God Delusion[/i], along with a clarification of the terms atheist and agnostic which you are somewhat muddying here. I feel like everywhere I see the book discussed half the time must be spent imploring the participants actually to read it! It really would clear up a lot of problems.

    I see this blog post has started to attract kooks, which is a pity. I very much enjoyed the article, a quite excellent analysis.

  • Peter R

    Hauser’s book, ‘Moral Minds’, puts forward the view that morality is innate, rather like Chomsky’s language structure. As a Darwinist, I empathize with this approach, but if Dawkins’ book, ‘The Selfish Gene’, is any guide, it may be that ‘immorality’, in the limited sense that the individual’s interest is generally favoured over the interest of the group, is more likely to be the governing innate structure. Non-kin altruism is a fundamental problem for a Darwinian approach to understanding human behaviour, and to the extent that morality and altruism overlap, it seems unlikely that it would be innately coded. It is noteworthy, that when social sanctions are absent or weakened, immoral behaviour is likely to increase, which doesn’t help the idea of an innate sense of morality. William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ comes to mind!

    Religions are types of social sanction that attempt to instil a moral code. It is, after all, in the individual’s interest to have a social environment which is predictable and moral, and it would make sense therefore for individuals to outwardly support and favour such codes (to display and present themselves as doing this), while inwardly calculating the costs and benefits of following them in any specific instance. The hypocrisy of so many religious leaders, who are outwardly God-fearing, but behave immorally in their private lives, is sufficiently well-established to lend some support to this.

    Religions may have no, or little, scientific standing, and history is replete with the harm and the cruelty done in their name, but one of the reasons why they may have survived for so long is their function as a brake on innate ‘immorality’ (which stems from a ‘selfish’ gene). The notion of God may well be a delusion as Dawkin’s has cogently argued, but at this point in our history, it may well have some beneficial effects as well.

  • Garth Barber

    extabgrad, are you defining “kook” as somebody who is of a different opinion?

    Note my initial comment, yes, atheists do find “The God Delusion” very convincing, others do not. Actually reading the book only confirms these responses to it.

    The question is, “What is each individual prepared to believe in?”

    Theists do put “pre-existing higher intelligence [is] on a par statistically with the multiverse” as neither can be observed scientifically.

    They have other reasons for not finding the idea “fantastical”. That is the problem with the book.

  • extabgrad

    No, a kook is someone who goes on a blog like this to proselytise, see ‘Michael’ above.

    You cleverly avoided the real point, which is that you clearly haven’t read the book, yet are commenting on it as if you are familiar with its arguments. This seems a trifle unfair, and a hell of a waste of time. But fair enough, if you insist…

    I and Richard Dawkins agree that the default position should be agnosticism. And perhaps you’re right that we should be as agnostic about the multiverse as we should about gods. But we should also be as agnostic about one god as about another, and about gods as about ghosts and alien abductions. So what are we saying here? We’re saying, as Richard Dawkins keeps having to point out poor soul, that we should be precisely as ‘on the fence’ about gods as we should about invisible fairies. If such a level of scepticism isn’t called atheism, then I call for a redefinition of the term. To a typical atheist, an agnostic is just an atheist who is too polite to point out that a supernatural creator of the universe is every bit as plausible as the Great Green Arkleseizure’s sneeze.

    Of course, I understand that most theists feel there’s a difference. But can they articulate it convincingly? This is precisely what the God Delusion is about and I highly recommend it. If you’ve already thought long and hard about these issues, as I have, then perhaps you won’t find much new in it. But most people haven’t. Have you?

    I might also mention that Richard Dawkins’ approach to the distinction between the multiverse theory and the god theory is a cogent one:

    “It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren’t they both equally unparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.”

  • Peter Anger

    Great Blog

    But in Zappas Universe how do you explain Joe getting sucked into J Edgar Hoovers Church of Appliantology?

  • Garth Barber

    ‘extabgrad, you seem to think you know what I have read. Such a claim to psychic powers I find to be “mental porridge”.

    Just because I have read Dawkins very readable book does not mean I have to agree with it.

  • extabgrad

    Garth, you bring up points that are addressed in the book as if the book hasn’t dealt with them. So at the very least, you can’t have read it very well.

  • Garth Barber

    extrabad – thank you for your clarification.

    The point I was bringing up did not concern the origin of complexity in the ‘God hypothesis’ but rather the necessity of faith not only in that hypothesis but also in the ‘multiverse hypothesis’, either in its ‘Rees’ or ‘Smolin’ form.

    I make two further points.

    First, whereas natural selection provides a simple way of developing complex structure in the universe, and in Smolin’s CNS theory the universe as well, the question arises of the origin and sustainability of the laws of physics that marshal that complexity.

    Second, the present standard ‘Lambda’CDM cosmological model requires ‘belief’ in a number of ‘entities’ at present unobserved in the laboratory, viz: the inflation particle (although there is just a hint that the Higgs Boson may have been detected), the Dark Matter particle and Dark Energy. Once you get into the habit of accepting the existence of these entities without question I suppose it is only a small step to accept the multiverse as well…..

    But, as we agree, atheists find ‘The God Delusion’ very convincing.


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  • extabgrad

    Thanks for your response Garth. I suppose we are reaching a natural conclusion in our conversation.

    Of course I can see where you’re coming from. I still think there’s a massive imbalance. You can count the number of entities that need to be taken on ‘faith’ (if you must use that word) to support the multiverse theory. The number of atomic axioms that must be assumed to support the prior-existing-supreme-intelligence hypothesis are uncountable. I think Occam would feel physically sick at the suggestion they are comparable! Perhaps my ‘inherent bias’ is just making it seem that way?

    I am an atheist. I am convinced by The God Delusion. But it didn’t really tell me anything new, certainly not philosophically. I’ve already thought hard about these issues. So I can’t easily analyse how ‘convincing’ a book it is. You are suggesting that it isn’t very convincing to anybody except people who are already convinced, basically meaning that nobody is actually convinced (as an active verb) by it. I’ll just have to take your word for it, I’m afraid. All I can say is that judging by the reaction of religionists, which has a fair amount of the usual scoffing that Dawkins has missed the point, there is a good proportion of critics who clearly /fear/ the power of book to convince, warning their flock that it will seem ‘superficially convincing’ and not to let themselves fall for it without a fight (I could point you to articles but I won’t unless you request them).

  • Garth Barber

    Thank you extabgrad, yes I believe I have seen a few of those articles already!

    Do I fear the ‘God Delusion’?’ I hope not. On the other hand, I like to think of myself as a rational religious believer, even if you probably consider that an oxymoron, as a consequence I find myself trying to fend off religious extremism on the one hand and evangelical atheism on the other so I do worry about the effect the book might have if left unchallenged.

    Finding myself somewhat in the middle I cannot help but reflect on apparent similarities between both sides.

    Apart from rehearsing all the evil done in the name of religion, in which case I join in with its condemnation, there has also been a lot of good.

    If a person wants to rid the world of the religion virus then to be consistent they ought do away with all the organisations and institutions founded and supported by religion, in Britain we would loose most of our old hospitals, ancient schools and the good old Church of England, of course we should not forget the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as well. But then as not only would I loose my job but also Richard Dawkins as well, perhaps that would be a step too far!

  • extabgrad

    Sounds suspiciously like an argument-from-absurd-extrapolation, Garth. Religion set up the healthcare and the education because religion is so pervasive and no other institutions had the resources for it; to suggest that they wouldn’t exist if religion didn’t is….naive, to say the least. Religions have subsumed institutional roles that societies might well produce regardless. Besides, must we give up saying ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes now the plague is no longer around? Must we give up aromatherapy now that we know the reason it works has nothing to do with the superstitions it was original based on? I’ve no problem with the harmless or benevolent /consequences/ of religion, if we discover a good method with faulty assumptions, it’s still a good method.

    I’d give up the ‘good old’ Church of England at the drop of a hat. Huge waste of money and offensive to democracy.

  • Garth Barber

    You may well be right extabgrad – I had my tongue somewhat in my cheek! (But don’t forget Bach as well!)

    However a question remains that if the process of secularisation is proceeding apace then why is it that fundamentalist religion in different guises is so significant in world affairs today?

    I would argue that one answer to this enigma is that the human being has a fundamental hunger for meaning and purpose in life that science often does not seem to provide. I speak as a scientist for whom the scientific dimension to my life does provide much identity meaning and purpose, and Dawkins’ biological writings do much to keep that flame alive but I despair at the general lack of interest in science by much of the younger generation. The ‘scientist as nerd’ is a popular youth image that, AFAIK, has not been propagated by religious leaders.

    In such a vacuum fundamentalist certainty propagates itself. Therefore I would advocate a reasoned and tolerant approach to spiritual matters; outright antagonism often proves to be self-defeating.

  • Michel Milla

    Is it possible for anything in the universe that could have no beginning? Something that has always been there?

  • Robert Landbeck

    Quite unexpectedly, the God conundrum may have been resolved? Consider the review below:

    On the horizon appears an approaching confrontation so contentious, any clash of civilizations will have to wait its turn. On one side, a manuscript titled: The Final Freedoms, against all the gravitas religious tradition can bring to bear.

    This, the first wholly new interpretation for 2000 years of the moral teachings of Jesus the Christ focuses specifically on marriage and human sexuality, challenging all natural law theory and theology. At stake is the credibility of several thousand years of religious history, not to mention cosmology, all psychology related to human sexuality, and theories on the nature of consciousness.

    What at first appears an utterly preposterous challenge to the religious status quo rewards those who persevere in closer examination, for it carries within its pages an idea both subtle and sublime, what the theological history of religion either ignored, were unable to imagine or dismissed as impossible. An error of presumption which could now leave ‘tradition’ staring into the abyss and even humble the heights of scientific speculation. For if this material is confirmed, and there appears to be both the means and a concerted effort to authenticate it, the greatest unresolved questions of human existence may finally have been untangled.

    Published [at the moment] only on the web as a free pdf download, made up of twenty nine chapters and three hundred and seventy pages, this new teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with any existing religious conception known to history. It is unique in every respect.

    This new teaching is pure ethics. It requires no institutional framework, no churches, no priest craft, no scholastic theological rational, no dogma or doctrine, costs nothing and ‘worship’ requires only conviction, faith and the necessary measure of self discipline to accomplish a new, single moral imperative and then the integrity and fidelity to the new reality.

    Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls,The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the worlds great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle and offers its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds to an act of perfect faith with a direct, individual intervention into the natural world; making a correction to human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception; providing new, primary insight and understanding of the human condition.

    This new interpretation explains the moral foundation of all human thought and conduct and finds expression within a new covenant of human spiritual union, the marriage between one man and one woman. It resolves the most intractable questions and issues of human sexuality. Offering the potential for resolving the most pressing health issues facing the world, including AIDs.

    As the first ever religious teaching able to demonstrate its own efficacy, the first ever religious claim of knowledge that meets the criteria of the most rigourous, testable scientific method, this teaching enters the public domain as a reality entirely new to human history.

    The beginnings of an intellectual and moral revolution are unfolding on the web and available for anyone to test, discover and explore for themselves, and what might very well define the nature and future of humanity itself!


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  • Drew

    ‘The reality of a religion is manifested in the actions of its adherents’ may be true, but this is the human face of it alone – to say it’s the entire reality would presuppose that a God doesn’t exist and therefore that the religion cannot relate to Him or derive reality, or correctness, from Him.

    The universe very well could just have come into being due to physical laws. The opposite may be true. One could equally write a book called, ‘The Science Delusion’, if arguing over the origin of the universe. Until then, why are we forming opinions? Presumably, so humanity can be more accurately informed to make decisions for its betterment. If the greater good of humanity is the object, only such delusions, based on faith both in science and religion, that achieve or aim for the opposite, should be opposed.

    To say God doesn’t exist because of what people believe is foolish. God is not changed for better or worse by what people do in His name, humanity is. God, if He exists, is evidently beyond our collective comprehension. (So, I could add, is the physical principle behind the universe’s self-creation.) Therefore, a religion cannot communicate certainly and permanently the truths inherent in this hypothetical God. A religion that could would be too good for people; we would all fall short. And uncertainty is a uniquely human fate. The animals are below it; God, if He exists, is above it. Surely the rectitude of our beliefs and the need of other people to agree and conform to it matter less than ending the suffering that is caused by people in God’s name. Neither religion or the idea of God need opposing so much as all ignorance that causes ill.

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  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    “On the subject of Richard Dawkins’ credentials, I’m curious to know what credentials, exactly, are required to make a discussion of god and religion? The faculties of reason are available to us all. What experiments must be done? What techniques must be learned? Professor Ellis seems to be suggesting that just because Dawkins isn’t published in the the Journal of Philosophy he is necessarily inadequately versed in the arguments of the field….”

    Hi, I’m not a scientist but I do love love science. I’m an old lit professor out of Jennifer Ouelette’s past, who got directed to Sean’s great website. I read Sean’s review with great interest, because I am a theist. I’ve been fascinated by this whole discussion and I really, really care about science and faith. I taught an honors seminar in science-and-faith for many years in which the science students sometimes spoke about the anguish they felt at having to keep their deep commitment to science and their faith in separate compartments. This was because their faith communities were intolerant. But now I see that it could just as well be that their scientific communities could be so intolerant.
    Now I don’t mean to say you folks are “intolerant,” because I’m so struck by the open and humanistic tone of the posts, and especially by the give-and-take of the conversation. But, and this is a big “but,” I had thought that the animosity between the scientific ways of knowing and other ways, even mystical ways, was waning in our post-modern period, and I think that would be a very good thing. It’s as though you don’t know that breezy dismissals of faith as mere illusion or seritonin highs and so forth, can be just of painful and damaging as Fundamentalist attacks on and misunderstandings of how science works. I’m struck by how much most of you agree — and agree as scientists, quite clearly — that science and “reason” go against the God hypothesis. That was Sean’s opening thesis and I simply find it extremely surprising. (Especially since I totally agree with Sean that the muffin joke is funny!)
    I think what Ellis was getting at by criticizing Dawkins’ lack of “philosophy” was that Dawkins and almost everyone in this thread are taking for granted a basically Anglo-American intellectual tradition based on scientific realism in the good-old British empiricist tradition. Now I think the good old church of England does an amazing amount of good around the world, but I’m not so sure about British empriricism! It’s really true that we all in this thread know a lot about some things and a lot less about others.
    But questions like “God” are important questions, and people should talk about them — way to go, Sean — and they should radically disagree. What’s perplexing me is the lack of radical disagreement. Everyone, even Bob, seems to assume that there’s a kind of reason that scientists use all the time and it goes against God and Bob’s experience is just a “personal” experience, not like reason, which is public and objective. But these are all Enlightenment oppositions — reason and religion, objective and subjective, public and private.
    I am not trying just to make a compassionate case that Bob’s “personal experience” should be respected and not denigrated. I’m saying that we’ve spent way too long in North America thinking that scientific ways of knowing are the only ones with true discoursive communities and evidentiary standards and validity-testing. What I’m saying is that in disciplines like philosophy and theology — in other than the Anglo-American rationalist-empiricist tradition — have produced perspectives on “truth” and “coming to know” that can differentiate, I think, between what scientific ways of knowing try to know and what other ways of knowing may try to know. Religious and mystical ways of knowing can be very taxing, arduous, discoursive, communal, and deeply tested over centuries and longer.
    I am curious about two things — and I really want to know what you think.
    1) What would be lost be adopting an agnostic stance toward religious ways of knowing, just as we do for culturally different practices and peoples? Okay, I know, I know. Scientists feel attacked and threated by Fundamentalists. But believe me, they feel just as threatened and endangered by the intellectual elites (as they see it) which have denied ordinary people any wisdom for several hundred years. But does it help anything to maintain the fortess mentality, on either side? Plus the fact that you rule out the pleasure of knowing the third group of people like me, who are charming and fun to know! The people for whom both science and God are the reason they get up in the morning with joy and hope.
    2) Isn’t it still true these days to say of current science what science — let’s say physics — use to say — that it started with methodological reductionism (a good thing)and ruled out questions of metaphysics, esp. origin and purpose, in advance? So does it seem to you that science has changed and become a broader and deeper way of knowing, perfectly able to not only tackle but answer these kinds of questions? Doesn’t it seem to you that there are belief-structures operating in your reasoning that are based on your experience in your way of knowing and how it has shaped you and ought to be taken as such by you and others. Rather than on some obvious, irrefutable reasonableness in how you think, I mean.
    Okay, I lied, I have a 3) You all sound so chipper and confident. For me, it was utter anguish and existential pain for myself and the human race and the whole planet, along with guilt ands helplessness, that was the arena in which God started to be compelling to me. It’s been Lent and the readings in the Old Testament again and again have said that God’s promise of mercy and justice and peace for all the nations is more astonishing and more counter-intuitive than anything else in the universe. It’s supposed to be a surprise, a relief, and a consolation. But I don’t want to argue pros and cons about that. I’m more interested in asking about whether science deals with the weight of experiences of evil, despair, guilt, joy, love, ecstacy. And if it doesn’t or if it dismisses them, then have they no evidentiary weight at all, perhaps for other ways of knowing, which could be respected?

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  • Janet Leslie Blumberg

    I see a lot of you have surfed over to my new weblog, at, which I deeply appreciate. My newest post — gee, I’ve done all of two — deals with this particular God Conundrum post from Sean on Dawkins and his wonderful What I believe But Cannot Prove post, and with the posts, as a springboard for meditating on the difficulty possibility of real conversations that are also touchy conversations because of the current political climate.

    I hope you all realize that I’ve not written in to your great physics blogsite to engage in controversy but to seek more understanding. There’s the great difference between science and philosophy (theory and epistemology are my philosophical fields), which creates a lot of problems for all of us. And there’s the frequent great lack of comprehension between people of science and faith.

    My website isn’t polemical. It’s seeking to explain how different the ways of knowing are, by starting with the Greeks who invented the “ways of knowing,” a term I use because it is so unfamliar in our own period and helps us think in fresh ways. The best stuff on my website isn’t in the posts, but in the Sessions from my lit theory course that I’m posting over on the Pages. I’ll continue to publish more of the sessions as time goes on. Session one deals with language, art, and representation (or mimesis) and with theory, in a rapid-fire overview. It’s intense.

    Session Two deals with the Classical Greek Thought-world, and how Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle started Western educattion by theorizing “the arts and sciences” as ways of knowing…. Basically, the possibility of human knowing begins for them with the presence of order in the world, but it is various KINDS of order, each requiring its own discipline to come to know it….

    Okay, so you’ve been invited. Now I will cease to advertise!

  • J.Rose

    If you haven’t had the chance to read some of Dr.Rick Strassman’s work with the psychedelic root bark, DMT, you should at least give them a peak.

    What might be of some interest to you is, a few of the experiences some of his volunteers had while partaking in the DMT study, relate to coming into contact with a creating force.

    I won’t elaborate any furthure. I do however, suggest if you are going to take a peak at his work, do read some of his interviews, before reading his book, DMT, The Spirit Molecule. This type of scientific inquiry is usually berift with lunatics, he is not one.

    The information might add another aspect to your blog on ” The Physics of Hallucinations” or “The God Conumdrum”.

    I think you will find him cautious and level headed in his attempts to explain what he found.

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  • AngelVamp

    This really a great discussion about the non-existence of God. It’s quite amusing that Christians believe in a God that is both omniscient and omnipotent. Yet it’s impossible for God to be both omniscient and omnipotent.

    An omniscient God would by definition know everything about the future. He would therefore know that old Uncle Joe is going to die tomorrow morning. Yet he couldn’t change Uncle Joe’s fate without being wrong about his knowledge of the future. Omniscience would make him limited in power.

    On the other hand, an omnipotent God could change the future at will. Since he can change everything, he doesn’t know the future with a 100% accuracy. Being all powerful would prevent him from being omniscient.

    The Christian concept of God is self-contradictory.

    Keep up the great work!


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  • Psydan

    This was amazing. From one philosopher-atheist to another, I have to say, this is one of the most intelligent things I’ve read on the internet in a while. Thank you, Sean, for showing that even we who know the nuances of higher religious beliefs and philosophy still don’t think that makes up for the failure of a belief system based on Bronze-age myths. Philosophy and Theology can never be reconciled, and so it is acceptable for Dawkins to write a book directed toward the common man, and attacking the common man’s religion.

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  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth

    Sean M. Carroll knows, as the teleonomic / atelic argument states that as, pace Ernst Mayr [ “What Evollution Is “] and George Gaylord Simpson, that since there is no cosmic teleolgy, not only is God irrelevant as the Razor notes as being Himself series of convoluted ad hoc assumptions, themselves needing confirmation, confirming methodological dismissal of Him as explanaotry in science, but also contradictory to natural selection, the non-planning, anti-chance agent of Nature.Theistic evolutionists, therefore, are making the new Omphalos argument, that albeit Nature has no purposes, actually that is part of God’s hiddenness [ John L.Schellenberg dismisses that argument.] in His keeping epistemic disrnce form us in order not to overwhelm our free will [ John Hick].

    As Jerry Coyne in ” Seeing and Believing’ and someone in a recent issue of Skeptic magazine notes, there was no plan for our arrival and no other being was likely to arrive in our stead, had we not arrived. And one begs the question in all teleological arguments- fromreason, fine-tuning, design and probability that divinity had us in mind. So divinity had us in mind reveals that it had us in mind?
    And the argument from pareidolia reveals that theists see divinity and design as people see Yeshua in a tortilla- not there.
    So here we have two naturalist [positive atheist] arguments agaisnt the existence of God.
    Then there is Hume’s dysteological one from imperfections; here we should require theists to anawe Hime without resorint to theodicy, the series of cop-out of His nonchalance to all animal suffering.
    And @ Talk Reason, Amiel Rossow, notes in his essay on Kenneth Miller, that the latter takes out the front door -ID – only to bring it back as teleology by the back one.
    So , theistic evolution is an oxymoron!
    We ignostics find that stating as Alexander Smoltcyk, German journalist, that He is neither a principle nor an entiy nor a person but the ultimate explanation, means that He has no way of implementing His being that explanation. Just more theological gobbedygook. All theology is a series of cop-outs for a mystery, surrounded by still other mysteries, as that ultimate explanation , yet signifiying nothing whatsoever! So, he affirms ignosticism! Keith Parsons notes that to use Him is to ‘ hide our ignrance behind a theological fig leaf.” And ” [o]ccult power, wielded by a tanscendent being in an incsrutable manner for unfalthomable purposes does not seem to be any sort of a good explanation.”
    Advanced theology , therefore, just means more obscurantism for God did it! So, PZ Myers’s coutier’s reply reveals the obscurantism of advanced theology.
    …. out of order, meant at the botom…
    Fr. Griggs took three courses in philosphy and has read in philosophy of religion; he is a mere lay polemicist, dabbling in philosphy and theology. Uner the nicknames naturalist griggsy, ratioanlist griggsy, skeptic griggsy, sceptique griggsy esceptico griggsy , griggs1947, lord griggs and lord griggs1947, he advances the naturalist/ rationalist evangel world over in several languages as Googling one of those names would show. He takes on advanced theologians unlike the mighty Dawkins!
    Fr. Griggs rests in his Socratic ignorance and humble naturalism. Religion is mythinformation. Reason saves, not that dead Galilean!
    We new atheists- we rock!
    …back to the essay…

    Together, the ignostic-Ockham reveal either that He is otiose or else He is needlessly redundant, advanced theologian, Alister McGrath, Dawkins’s nemesis, notwithstanding.
    So, advanced theology and errancy mean the same as fundamentalism- rubbish1!Errantists rationalize their fables: they find metaphors in the hard passages as Fr. Leo Booth notes. What is the metaphor then for the genocide?
    Not only do the fables not tell us how the heavens go, they are useless to tell us how to get to Heaven! One begs the question of Heaven!
    We naturalists have other positive arguments against Him- the problem of Heaven , the evidential argument from evil, the hiddenness problem, the presumptions of empiricism,naturalism, rationalism and skepticism and the covenant morallity for humanity- the presumption of humanism.
    We no more need Him as the sufficient reason than we need gremlins in addition to mechanics to explain mechanical failure, demons to explain my schzotypy and double depression and Newton notwithstanding, angels in addition to his laws to explain the planetary movemnents.


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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] .


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