What Do You Say?

By Sean Carroll | July 9, 2008 11:31 am

Here is a Q&A interview with me in the LA Times, to which I link only reluctantly, as somehow they managed to take a picture that makes me look like I’m wearing a bad toupee. And a halo! So that’s a mixed bag.

The interview was spurred by the recent Scientific American article on the arrow of time, and most of the questions are pretty straightforward queries about entropy and cosmology. But at the end we veer into matters theological:

Does God exist in a multiverse?

I don’t want to give advice to people about their religious beliefs, but I do think that it’s not smart to bet against the power of science to figure out the natural world. It used to be, a thousand years ago, that if you wanted to explain why the moon moved through the sky, you needed to invoke God.

And then Galileo and Newton came along and realized that there was conservation of momentum, so things tend to keep moving.

Nowadays people say, “Well, you certainly can’t explain the creation of the universe without invoking God,” and I want to say, “Don’t bet against it.”

I’m not really surprised that people bring up God when asking about cosmology; the subjects are related, like it or not. But I really do want to separate out the science from the religion, so in the context of an interview about physics I’m reluctant to talk about the existence of God, and I haven’t really perfected an answer when the subject comes up.

Anyone who reads the blog might be surprised to hear that I don’t want to give people advice about their religious beliefs — I do it all the time! But context is crucial. This is our blog, and we write about whatever we’re interested in, and nobody is forced to read it. Likewise, if I’m invited to speak or write specifically about the subject of religion, I’m happy to be perfectly honest about my views. But in a context where the explicit subject is supposed to be science, I would rather not bring up God at all; not because I’m reluctant to say what I believe, but because it gives a false impression of how scientists actually think about science. God just doesn’t come up in the everyday activities of a working cosmologist.

This was the second recent incident when I was prodded into talking about atheism when I would have liked to have stuck with physics. At my talk in St. Louis in front of the American Astronomical Society, I was introduced by John Huchra, the incoming AAS president. He had stumbled across “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists,” and insisted that I tell everyone why. So I gave a version of the above argument, presumably in an equally clumsy fashion: whether or not you choose to be religious, it’s a bad idea to base your belief on natural theology (reasoning towards God from evidence in the physical universe), as science has a way of swooping in and explaining things that had previously been judged inexplicable by purely natural means.

And I think that’s very true, but I think something stronger as well: that claims about God can be separated into two classes — (1) those that are meaningless, and (2) those that can be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims, and come up wanting. But it’s an argument I just don’t want to force on an audience that came for some science. After all, there are plenty of claims that I think are true, but I don’t feel an urgent need to insist on every single one of them in every imaginable venue.

For example: with the acquisition of a reliable low-post presence in the form of Elton Brand, the Sixers will be challenging for the Eastern Conference title this year and for the foreseeable future. Undoubtedly true, and an important fact about the universe that everyone should really appreciate, but not something I’ll be bringing up at my next physics seminar.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and the Media
  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    You are right, the best part of the article is the picture they have of you. Halos and all.

  • manyoso

    The reason why you are not surprised when you open a deck of cards and it’s in perfect order is not because it’s just easy and natural to find it in perfect order, it’s because the deck of cards is not a closed system. It came from a bigger system in which there is a card factory somewhere that arranged it. So I think there is a previous universe somewhere that made us and we came out.

    We’re part of a bigger structure.

    Maybe these are stupid questions, but here goes:

    1) In this hypothetical multiverse, what direction does the arrow of time point? If it is the same as our universe, than don’t you have the same exact problem where the multiverse must have ‘began’ in an ‘unnatural’ lower entropy state?

    2) What are the some of the implications for if the hypothetical multiverse had a different arrow of time than ours?

    3) With your multiverse, aren’t you just adding another turtle and saying they go all the way down? If you are saying you see a mystery in the arrow of time in our universe, how does invoking a ‘multiverse’ solve this since it seems the exact same mystery could be seen in this new ‘multiverse’?

    At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    In the pre-existing spacetime, there was no arrow of time — it was locally in thermal equilibrium. Otherwise it wouldn’t really explain much, would it?

  • mike

    1) I agree completely. Most scientists I know, religious or not, prefer to keep religion and science separate. Perhaps a good answer could just be, “Religious beliefs really have nothing to do with this subject.”

    2) The more outspoken you are as an atheist, the more people will know you as an atheist rather than as a cosmologist. You may be defining yourself by your religion rather than by your profession. Don’t be surprised if the questions keep coming.

    3) Andre Miller and Elton Brand teamed up once before in LA, and it didn’t work out so well. But I’m with you – go Miller, go Brand, go Sixers!

  • http://jollybloger.blogspot.com/ Jolly Bloger

    Seems to me that once the question has been put to you, all bets are off. If someone asked you to explain how quantum vibrations can thoughts into reality, or how the positions of stars and planets determines one’s personality, you’d rightfully rip those ideas to shreds. Why should equally silly ideas be given special treatment if they come from religion?

  • http://www.joshisanerd.com/log/ Josh M

    Can you give me a simple explanation of entropy?

    One way of explaining entropy is to say it’s the number of ways you can rearrange the constituents of a system so that you don’t notice the change macroscopically.

    It would seem that we have radically different definitions of “simple” =)

    I think there is a previous universe somewhere that made us and we came out.

    Are there any simple explanations of how our spacetime could be related to the pre-existing one, for either definition of simple? I can think of a few possible mechanisms, but I’m eminently unqualified here. The stuff that immediately comes to mind: we’re inside a black hole, or we’re inside tiny little rolled up dimensions, or maybe dimensionality is variable, and we’re in a spontaneously created set of dimensions… Do you have any fun theories?

    I know this is asking for conjecture on conjecture, but it seems like an interesting/amusing line of inquiry.

  • http://www.peninkent.com Penny

    Here’s where scientists get themselves into trouble with people of faith:

    “And I think that’s very true, but I think something stronger as well: that claims about God can be separated into two classes — (1) those that are meaningless, and (2) those that can be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims, and come up wanting.”

    I have a memory of being a kid in science class and learning what constitutes a “Scientific theory.” There were criteria that the theory had to meet. It had to be 1) based on observable facts 2) It had to be testable. 3) It had to be predictive. 4) It had to be repeatable.

    Faith is certainly bad science, but that does not make it meaningless. There are plenty of things in the universe which are completely real and meaningful, but are not 1) based on observable facts 2) testable 3) predictive or 4) repeatable. That doesn’t make them any less true. It only puts them outside of the realm of things which can be probed or explained by science.

    If scientists insist on science as the only (or supreme) tool to explore the world, then the result is going to be that a lot of people are going to use science badly. This is not because they are necessarily anti-science, but because science is the only tool that the culture allows them to use.

    And this is why the world needs religion and art. Because it rounds out the tool kit. It gives people more than one way to explore and relate to their environment. The real challenge is to teach people how to use their tool kit– to teach them which tool is the right one for each job. If you try to solve the problem simply by limiting the tool kit, then you get a lot of people trying to hammer a nail with a measuring tape. It’s bad for the measuring tape. It ruins the nail. And it rips a big hole in the wall.

  • Tyler

    the only problem with your analogy with the free agent signing is that the NBA is still interesting and relevant while discussions of the relationship between religion and science are not. It is simply, as the old quote goes, like dancing about architecture or writing about music, an inherent conceptual mismatch defined by the fact that the venn diagram areas of each subject’s relevance are entirely non-overlapping.

    I sympathize with your plight, sean, i would hate it if my job led to amateur philosophy hour questions like that:
    “well thanks for your views on the new custom xml syntax for displaying interdependent datasets in a dynamic select list chain, now what do you think about Buddhist interpretations of quantum mechanics?”

    I liked that Sixers team in the playoffs, they’re fun to watch, and this is a great pickup for them. My Blazers could be seeing you in the Finals in a few years. We’re entering a new Golden Age for the NBA, with more than a dozen interesting, likeable teams (plus the Lakers) legitimately contenting for championships over the next couple seasons.

  • Mike

    I thought by the title this post was going to talk about something different:

    In Tegmark’s “level 4 multiverse,” is there a universe/multiverse that has a god?

    Although I think this is a fun question, it’s nothing for religious folks to get excited about. Although the question of measure is important, it seems reasonable that just as many universes would have a selfish, or angry, or careless, etc., god as would have a benevolent one. And this god would be just as ‘material’ as everything else in the multiverse — i.e. no reason to believe in afterlife of the soul or anything like that.

    Mainly I think it is interesting to think about what would make a person seem, for practical purposes, “god-like.” For example, if it were logically consistent to somehow create physics with the effect of violating Newton’s 3rd law, I think that would put one on the way. My thinking is, if I can punch you but you can’t punch back, I’m getting closer to “god-like.” Problem is I also want to be “dark” but at the same time see you, which seems to violate N3 in the opposite direction. Of course I have no idea if one can make self-consistent physics effectively violating N3. Etc etc.

  • Dave

    Sean, why was John Huchra so interested in knowing “why almost all cosmologists are atheists?” I would have thought that the should have been obvious to him and most of the audience.

  • joe

    And I think that’s very true, but I think something stronger as well: that claims about God can be separated into two classes — (1) those that are meaningless, and (2) those that can be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims, and come up wanting.

    Articles of faith in class (1) are certainly meaningless to science, but they are not meaningless to people. Faith-based religious beliefs are no more meaningless than the Sixers or sports in general.

  • Chris

    I think the science/religion ‘conflict’ comes down to a simple matter of semantics and a missing word in English.

    We have words for “rational” and “irrational”. Since we only have those two words, it follows that anything that’s not rational must be irrational, and vice versa.

    But that’s not the case — there’s a third option. Arational. A-rational doesn’t mean it’s IR-rational, it just means that it’s something where rationality doesn’t apply.

    E.g., why do you love your wife? It’s not irrational, but if it’s entirely rational then everyone your wife works with should also be in love with her instead of their own spouses, neh?

    So, missing the third option we hit the nonsense that a religion must be -rational- (since it can’t be irrational), and it must explain everything (since there’s no third option).

    On the other hand, if you spend your time meditating on the sound of one hand clapping then the third choice is obvious. You don’t get bent out of shape if you can’t explain how the universe came into existence. It did, get over it, let’s focus on the important stuff like what we’re supposed to do now that we’re here.

    (BTW, one answer is that ‘one’ hand clapping is meaningless — you can only clap with two hands. Kinda like how you must always have two biological parents, even if one of them was a rat who disappeared the next morning — biologically a ‘single parent’ is nonsense in mammals. So the question itself is meaningless. Once you truly understand this, you to realize that there -is- a separation between the world and the words used to describe the world.)

  • Bogie

    In my small circle I am known for my interest in cosmology. When our discussions get to the subject of the existence of God I often had to struggle too. That struggle was the stimulus for the response I now invoke.

    A Perspective on God

    If I consider God from the perspective that the universe has always existed, that finite active crunch-bang arenas pepper the infinite landscape, that life in the multi-verse has always existed, and that physics is based on quantum energy of which all physical things are composed, my thinking is a follows:

    Under those described circumstances there would have been no beginning so at all times past there would have been space, energy, physics, life and constant change. Physical change is occurring at all times in all places down to an infinitesimal level where quantum waves reign. At the quantum level constant change is characteristic of how energy is used and of the process of restoring useful energy from the remnants left when energy is consumed; entropy and the defeat of entropy playing out forever in an infinite history of arenas where the energy – to matter – to life – to matter – to energy process is continuous.

    My view is that under those circumstances life would have always existed in hospitable places across the infinite universe and would be generative and evolving to conscious, intelligent, self aware individuals who can and do think and act based on their own volition.

    Given those circumstances humans have the capacity to observe and effect change from a unique vantage point as highly organized and complex entities composed of trillions upon trillions of quantum energy increments united and made possible by the physics of the universe. Such a vantage point along with the intelligence and maturity of each individual brings with it the awareness of the concept of God.

    Belief in God would be by faith on an individual basis.

    Proof of God to one individual is not transferable, i.e. any individual who has faith in God based on what they consider adequate proof can influence others but they cannot prove that God exists to others.

    The decision to believe or not believe in God is equally justified though it is natural for those who have made a decision to consider their decision more justified. Those who have faith consider themselves enlightened. Those who chose to believe that there is no God consider such enlightenment to be a delusion.

    I myself am enlightened.

  • TimG

    Sean, your answer on the religion question seems quite appropriate to me. It doesn’t pretend that you believe in God or that you see evidence of God in cosmology. But at the same time, it doesn’t go so far as to say “I don’t believe in God and neither should you.”

    In general, I think telling people what their religious beliefs ought to be is just a rude thing to do. Having the general public see scientists as a bunch of preachy atheists is counterproductive to getting the public interested in science — because of the “preachy” part, not the “atheist” part.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    But I do believe that you shouldn’t believe in God. And I’m very happy to tell you why I think that, if you ask. (Or if you read my blog.) But if you come to a talk or read a newspaper article expecting to learn something about cosmology, I’d just as soon not muddy the waters.

    Telling people why they shouldn’t believe in God is no more or less intrinsically “preachy” than telling them why they shouldn’t believe in astrology or homeopathy or alien abductions or the plum-pudding model of the atom.

  • http://celsetialmechanician.org Celestial mechanician

    Well it is pretty obvious that the evolution and fate of the Universe is dictated by the Laws of Physics. And it is equally obvious that the origin of the Universe, i.e. the creator of the Big Bang matter arrangement, was implemented by God, properly defined as I just have done of course.

  • BRay

    Sean –

    I think your general point in your 5:01 comment is understood, but it is inaccurate. There is a big difference between ideas that are falsifiable and those that are not.

    The plum pudding model was falsifiable. Some of the other things you mentioned are not (How do you disprove that an alien abduction ever occurred?).

    If you have proof that God does not exist, please provide it. You won’t, because you can’t. It’s not your fault that His existence is not falsifiable…but then again, atheists like you shouldn’t pretend that it is.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    It’s a bad bet, against whether science can explain things? … but explaining and justifying the laws themselves is a heck of a lot logically different from discovering laws and using them to explain phenomena. (If you don’t think so, then show me.) The problem is, without (?) an a priori logical/scientific way to get a handle on “what should exist, and what shouldn’t” – not at all to be confused with how to take some underlying givens or one set of assumptions “selected” ____ only knows why, and come up with results thereby – how can you explain one sort of thing existing and not another? How can you evaluate the inherent credibility or viability of a possible other with the self-reinforcing nature of what happens here?

    That’s the whole challenge posed by multiverse enthusiasts, modal realists, Max Tegmark (basically MR), etc. That’s why some of them say, there are all these possible universes existing, and we are in one of the lucky, anthropically friendly ones. OK, maybe, but of course that pushes the envelope of falsifiability and those other fine values that were so great when the worked to the advantage of scientism, to criticize religious ideas etc. (It reminds me of how “conservatives” now find it so convenient to bypass the Constitution, go into debt, etc. in the name of the GWOT Maybe the perceived “need” of ultraskeptics to fight the GWOG is their equivalent of 9/11.)

    Not only that, we have to wonder what sort of mess multiverses bring. I mean, “where does it end.”? Why even require the sort of “laws” everywhere that we find here, if every world that can be “described”/imagined is equally real – are there heavens and hells, cartoon worlds, why not something like God just existing as modal reification of Anselm’s ontological argument, whether now “needed” or not? But the worst problem, as I have described before: all descriptions include every way for things to act and move, not just “lawful” ones (which are a way of talking about what happens, not a “thing” that makes it so as Hume pointed out.) Hence we have a vanishing chance of finding ourselves in a universe which continues to be orderly, even if it has been that way so far. IOW, the chance you will continue to get head after head in coin tosses are just as tiny if you’ve already had a run as if you just started (don’t fall for gambler’s fallacy.) This basic point is dramatically strong in orders of magnitude and doesn’t depend on the details of the measure etc, pace what some prisses have charged. Not only that, even a fairly orderly possible world should have tiny variations of things like electron masses, things that just disappear and laws broken sometimes (since after all, that can be “described” as is therefore part of the Platonic mindscape.)

    There thus needs to be a sort of “virtus” deciding what the universe will be like, and I don’t see it can be part of that same universe. However much like “God” or not, it’s at least a game point that the system of universes is not self-ordering. Sean and the like-minded: you have no basis for lumping game concepts like ultimate first cause in with specifically disprovable wrong models (like plum-pudding atom). You don’t even have a logical right to group it with non-explanatory unobserved entities like the overworked tooth fairy. “God” by definition means something responsible for this being here and being the way it is, and is not logically the same as any random, non-foundational proposal. OK, it’s not science, by definition. Fine, then it isn’t. It’s part of philosophy, but you can’t even talk about what science is etc, without philosophical reasoning anyway.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    A halo!? Horns would be far more interesting and maybe even stylish.;-)

    There are to my mind three kinds of God in the God-category. These are the deistic God, the Tao-God and the MUG-God. I present these in a nutshell and indicate what I think their relationship is to science.

    The deistic God is what many people believe in, it was the God of the European enlightenment and held by many of the framers of the US Consitution. This is a God which by some force of will established a set of initial conditions on the universe which were then an input into some dynamics. Newton’s “clockwork” universe is of this variety. Depending upon the rational or theological tastes of people and believers this may include occassional divine interventions. Newton thought these were necessary to maintain the stability of the solar system.

    The Tao-God is more mystical or metaphysical. This particular God is what gives the universe its “beingness,” or lets the “equations fly” as either Wheeler or Hawking put it. This is not a God which acts upon the world to change physical states, either now or in the origin of the universe in the big bang.

    The MUG-God, MUG = Multi-User Game, is a God which created the universe as some programmer might script up code to run a virtual reality game on a computer. This God may, as the super user, intervene and occassionally come down as a player. This is something Christians believe, where Jesus is the super user who came down as a human avatar to do various things, purportedly on our behalf. This God is essentially the God of fundamentalist religion. Ultimately they can explain away science, and I am surprised more have not done this, by saying that this God created the world 6000 years ago with a state that indicates great age, a universe that originated in a big bang and the evolution of life. The term for this idea is omphalism.

    Science, in particular cosmology, can most effectively test the claims for the existence of the deistic God. If the initial conditions of the universe, which might include the dynamics as well, emerged for no reason at all beyond something supernatural this should be testable. If observational cosmology should support theories which have these initial conditions emerging from a pure quantum vacuum, essentially a void, then the requirement for there being a deistic God is removed. Given that cosmologies are Petrov-Pirani type O solutions with no Killing isometries this is a classical gravity suggestion for how the universe can emerge from a quantum void. We need to get the quanta and the gravity to talk to each other right. If this is the case then a beliver in God is intellectually forced into supporting the other two types of God.

    The Tao-God is not a God concept I have too much trouble with. My only observation is that it is what I might regard as excess metaphysical baggage. I think that science can’t address in any way the existence of this type of God. Conversely this God is completely ineffective at telling us anything about the observable world, but at least has the honesty to admit that. If the future of religion moves to embrace this concept and then use it to help people focus their minds, to behave a bit better towards each other and so forth, then fine.

    The MUG-God is the most problematic. This is the God with thunderbolts, lightning and hell fire, and when you die will condemn you for having premarital sex umpteen numbers of time as an undergraduate, and this God as the Super-Bush cosmic FISA violator knows this. This is the God of the fundamentalist — Pat Robertson basically is a pangyric for this idea. Science can’t disprove the existence of this God, but this God is ineffective. A God which created the universe 6000 years ago (presumably on the Hubble frame I guess) could have just as well created the universe yesterday — with all our memories input as well as the supposedly man-made world. The attempts by the MUG-God believers to challenge science with ID and creationism are desparate attempts to show their belief is effective.

    Religion is not going away any day soon. It will evolve, as clearly modern American fundamentalist Christianity is very different from early Christianity or that in middle ages.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • James G

    But surely the honest scientist should be an [b]agnostic[/b] rather than an [b]atheist[/b].;

    After all Sean, even you don’t know what “magic” might be occurring in the region below the Plank Scale ~10-49m.

    When I was a kid I asked my friends how my finger moves through the air, does it do it in a continuous sweep or small discrete steps?

    Even now that can’t properly be answered.

    Be a little humble, I believe there are some pretty “magical” things left for us to discover.

    Agnosticism requires maturity both in an individual and a civilisation.

    Unfortunately, our early civilisations’ attempts at explaining the mysteries of existence still permeate our culture and growing up will take a long time .

    Some good, solid, scientific discoveries would help , rather than mathematically obscure conjectures.

  • Tyler

    the sound of one hand clapping is a false koan:
    (and many others, as originated by Bart Simpson many years ago)

    just like the egg obviously came before the chicken, it’s time to retire this phrase ;o)

    don’t disagree with the observation that symbols and their referents are distinct from each other, or that language is inherently nebulous of course

    interesting article on http://www.arxivblog.com/ about the symbol grounding problem, which might be of interest to those who care about the foundations of meaning, btw

  • lee

    “What do you say?”
    I’ve always liked Laplace’s response to Napoleon when asked why there was no mention of God in his book on Celestial Mechanics. Laplace replied that he “had found no need for that assumption!”

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Agnosticism v. Atheism? This depends upon the theo one is objecting to.

    In my case above I am atheistic about the MUG-God. The idea is not only ineffective, but it is puerile and silly. The attempts by fundamentalists to show some scientific effectiveness with creationism or ID are facile charades, which in a political sense are as much designed to end science.

    The deistic God I see as a cosmological analogue of a Maxwell demon. The point of cosmology is to exorcise the demon, just as Szilard removed Maxwell’s demon and tightened up the second law of thermodynamics. So I am nontheistic or atheistic-agnostic about this God. The purpose of this God as a concept is to eliminate the effectiveness of the concept. The goal of exorcing this demon is yet to be accomplished.

    The Tao-God is a bit stranger. I see the question of whether this God exists as similar to the argument over whether mathematics exists in some Platonic sense. I am completely agnostic on that argument. I can see both sides of the argument, but there is nothing I see which compels me to firmly take one side over the other. Of course is mathematics really changed by taking one side over the other? Not really. The same holds for the Tao-God with respect to science.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • TimG

    Sean wrote:

    But I do believe that you shouldn’t believe in God. And I’m very happy to tell you why I think that, if you ask. (Or if you read my blog.) But if you come to a talk or read a newspaper article expecting to learn something about cosmology, I’d just as soon not muddy the waters.

    Telling people why they shouldn’t believe in God is no more or less intrinsically “preachy” than telling them why they shouldn’t believe in astrology or homeopathy or alien abductions or the plum-pudding model of the atom.

    And I don’t see anything wrong with telling someone that you think they shouldn’t believe in God if they ask.

    But in cases where you haven’t been explicitly asked, I do think it’s more “preachy” than telling them they shouldn’t believe in, say, the plum-pudding model of the atom. If someone told you that they believed in the plum pudding model, but didn’t ask your opinion, would you really bite your tongue and not tell them it’s been shown to be false?

    To me, God is different for two reasons. First, while there’s a rather overwhelming lack of evidence for the existence of God, there isn’t really evidence against God’s existence either. It’s not like the plum pudding model, where it’s actually been disproven by experiment. Now if someone were claiming something were evidence for God that really isn’t evidence, I absolutely would call them on it. But if they want to believe in God for philosophical reasons in spite of the lack of evidence, then I suppose they’re entitled to their personal philosophical preferences (as long as they aren’t starting a crusade over it).

    Second, from a pragmatic perspective, there are a lot of people who aren’t going to give up their belief in God no matter what you say, and I think it makes more sense to try to convince them they can believe in scientific truth even if they insist on maintaining some conception of God — rather than driving them further from science by telling them it doesn’t afford any room for their spiritual beliefs.

  • HP

    I’m reluctant to talk about the existence of God, and I haven’t really perfected an answer when the subject comes up.

    I encountered a phrase recently (in a much longer answer about the existent of God), and I’m beginning to think it’s the ideal answer when you’re asked about the existence of God in the wrong venue:

    “Probably not.”

    E.g., “Does God exist in a multiverse?” “Probably not.”

    Someone who’s determined to believe in God is going to latch onto that “probably” and let it ride. The hardest of hardcore atheists will accept as nominally true, for very large values of “probably.” And someone on the cusp of disbelief will start thinking about relative likelihoods.

  • Alex

    in the context of an interview about physics I’m reluctant to talk about the existence of God, and I haven’t really perfected an answer when the subject comes up.

    In an interview about physics, or a talk, or anything of that nature, the idea of God has no place. The answer is therefore very simple. Merely inform your interviewer that you are in a scientific context and therefore cannot make any comment about the existence of God. A good answer might sound like “It would be unscientific for me to comment on the existence of God.”

    Preaching to them about your personal beliefs would only enforce, as commenters have pointed out, the image of scientists as a group of stodgy atheists, as well as your image as an atheist rather than a cosmologist. It would also scare off believers from listening to the scientific portion of your talk/interview.

    As for the realms where Christian (or other religious) thought directly conflict with scientific evidence, such as evolution, it is more than fair to defend the scientific viewpoint. However, you must always be careful not only to separate science from religion, but science from belief in anything, including your own atheism. All too many arrogant scientists confuse their belief in the non-existence of God with scientific justification that God does not exist. Your atheistic beliefs are every bit as justified as their theistic ones.

    Your comparison of the God question to the plum-pudding model is heinously illogical. One has been disproved by countless experiments and enormous amounts of evidence. Therefore it would not be preachy to tell a person that they are wrong. The other is a question outside of science, and you have no more justification to tell them they’re wrong than they do to tell you they’re right. It is not preachy, however, to ask them kindly to remove God from the scientific arena, where belief has no place.

    So in a scientific setting, you can only take the position of a responsible scientist, which is that of an agnostic, one who will not let the idea of God interfere with cold, hard facts.

  • Jeremy Taylor

    From the LA Times Letters to the Editor, July 6, 2008 on the interview:

    God and science

    Re “Studying time’s mysteries, and the multiverse,” June 28

    Sean M. Carroll states that “it used to be, a thousand years ago, that if you wanted to explain why the moon moved through the sky, you needed to invoke God.”

    In fact, a thousand years ago, Ptolemy’s system of the universe was widely accepted in Christian Europe, Christian Byzantium and in the Muslim world. However mistaken that system was, it was based on observation and mathematics and did not involve God mechanically moving the moon through the sky.

    The tendency to insert God into the gaps left by inadequate observation and faulty mathematics was introduced by scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries, not by religious teachers. We have been burdened by this misunderstanding ever since.

    Traditional Christian doctrine has no problem with using science to explain how the phenomena of the universe work together. What it does teach, however, is that everything, even the most well-understood aspects of the world, exist because of the creative act of God, and that knowledge of this creative act derives from the self-revelation of God.

    Marilyn Lundberg

  • JCF

    Let’s face it, fellow earthlings, the anthropic principle, marshaling the immense improbability of a universe productive of intelligent life, has left a very big question mark in this arena, for which multiverse theories, part science, part philosophy, are, at best, a tentative, groping response.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Odder than the halo is the graph on the whiteboard. Looks as if it’s flowing in through your left ear and out to the right 😉

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Andrew Zimmerman Jones of Andrew’s Physics Blog wants more physicists to speak out on the relationship between science and religion – but he also seems to want them to agree with him that science and religion are compatible.

  • Alex R

    Sean, I’m quite curious about one thing.

    You write that you believe that “claims about God can be separated into two classes — (1) those that are meaningless, and (2) those that can be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims, and come up wanting.” Would you be willing to assert the same sentence if we replace “God” with “anything”, and remove the qualification that scientific claims come up wanting? In other words, would you assert that *all* statements are either evaluable by the standards of science, or are meaningless?

    If you say yes, that seems like a very strong philosophical restriction on which statements can be considered meaningful — and indeed, one which might itself not pass its own test. If you say no, then why should statements about “God” have to adhere to a more rigorous standard?

  • Mike M

    claims about God can be separated into two classes — (1) those that are meaningless, and (2) those that can be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims, and come up wanting.

    Sorry, Sean, but that is a blatantly ridiculous assertion. There are many statements that fit neither category, whether referring to God or anything else. If I were to say “that piece of music is beautiful,” I don’t think I am making a meaningless statement, but equally the claim is not amenable to scientific evaluation.

    Even your terms are sloppy here: which standard scientific criteria would you like to apply to theological statements? How about evaluating the argument, “the Bible is the undisputable word of God, and I know that to be true because it says so in the Bible.” You can dismiss it as a tautology if you like, but it is an entirely self-consistent theory. As such, it stands up rather better than much of modern physics.

  • http://monstrousgaugetheory.googlepages.com/home mark a. thomas

    “I’m not really surprised that people bring up God when asking about cosmology; the subjects are related, like it or not.”

    Precisely. The concept of God is dominate in the ether regions of western thought. It is not necessarily the Judeo-Christian entity which inherited the throne of the roman state religions. To think that atheism or religion has a place in this ether region of origin is completely missing the point of western thought. It harkens back to the early greek thought of kosmos and logos. In the early days a politico invoked the state religion of the time and it is the same today if a politician wants to survive the voting process. People want to apply the same rules to the scientist. Who is to say that a final theory will not invoke a concept of order that the ancients say to look for. Is not science hierarchal? What will be the state religion 1000 years from now? I expect politicians will still be hugging and kissing babies at that time too.

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  • layman_42

    Sean, the picture is how God punish your view. Joke! :)

  • Matt

    Mike M. wrote:

    How about evaluating the argument, “the Bible is the undisputable word of God, and I know that to be true because it says so in the Bible.” You can dismiss it as a tautology if you like, but it is an entirely self-consistent theory.

    Must … resist … bait … cannot … afford … to – grrrwwwhhhngPaul wrote that about his only “bible” the old testament but how do you lump the new testament into self-claimed inerrancy and still maintain your “self consistency”?

    Damn. My self-control isn’t what it used to be.

    Anyway, Sean, thanks for the post. As a believer in God, I appreciate the diplomacy and agree with not betting against science. I also like reading your more forceful arguments here on the blog.

  • Mike M

    how do you lump the new testament into self-claimed inerrancy and still maintain your “self consistency”?

    Because… the Bible is the undisputable word of God. It says so in the Bible. Any inconsistencies that you perceive are your failings, not the Bible’s, because… [repeat ad nauseam]

    As it happens, I am not a believer in God. I just appreciate the neat self-consistency of this very simple argument, which seems to be what most fundamentalist theological arguments boil down to. It doesn’t mean that I think they are right.

  • Matt

    Mike M.,

    Ah, got it. My apologies. And yes, point taken.

  • anonymous

    What’s wrong with “I/We don’t know.”?

    Anything else inserts your opinion, one way or the other.

  • John Knight

    I have to agree with Alex. He identifies a real philosophical problem in this portion of the original post:

    And I think that’s very true, but I think something stronger as well: that claims about God can be separated into two classes — (1) those that are meaningless, and (2) those that can be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims, and come up wanting.

    Here we come to a problem. This insistence that claims about God are either able to “be judged by standard criteria for evaluating scientific claims,” or else they are “meaningless” is dubious at best. Either this insistence is an application of a general principle, or it is a special case. If it is the application if a general principle, (call this Case A), then it is unsound, since the principle is self-defeating.

    If, OTOH, it is a special case then it is either an arbitrary claim, or it has a specific justification. If it is arbitrary, (call this Case B) then it is unsound just because it is arbitrary. If it has a specific justification (call this Case C), it may be sound, hypothetically, but I have no idea what special justification one would invoke that would justify this requirement. So, Case C is not yet justified, if indeed it is justifiable at all. Additionally, it encounters a problem in that it is unclear which “standard criteria” would be determinative. Those of zoology? Genetics? Geology? Chemistry? Theoretical physics? Experimental physics? Astronomy?

    Case A is, sadly, quite common among scientists (like Richard Dawkins, for example), since the pedagogies of the natural sciences tend to reflect heavy positivist influences. The requirement that all meaningful claims be “scientifically testable” is self-refuting because, obviously, it is not scientifically testable. Anyone familiar with the history of positivism should be aware of this critique, and several others as well (e.g, the egocentric predicament, the problem of induction, the failure of the empiricist theory of concept formation). But many scientists, and most modern atheists, have absorbed the assumptions of positivism without being aware of the origin of their assumptions.

    When Aristotle said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” was he right?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    There are problems with science getting into the atheisti business. One problem is that we are treading into philosophical ground we might prefer to stay away from. Another problem is that physics departments and the expensive tools used are ultimately financed by Joe taxpayer. About 1/2 to 2/3 of these people are at least nominally religious — Church on Sunday for forgiveness of sins and the other 6 days for sinning. We really don’t want to project too much of an anti-God bias, for this could lead to negative consequences. Many of these people vote conservative, and the last thing we need is to fan various flames which might lead to a pack of more no-nothings getting into office. Like it or not, these people are our neighbors.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • John Merryman

    The problem with most discussion is that it quickly drowns in nuance and detail.

    My argument against monotheism is that the universal state of the absolute is basis, not apex(0, not 1), so the source of our consciousness(which is what people are really concerned about), as the spiritual absolute, would be the raw essence of awareness from which we rise and to which we fall, not an ideal of knowledge from which we fell and seek to return.

    I tried this out on a Catholic priest who was a future in-law at the time, when he asked me if I believed in God. He crossed himself and turned away.

    It’s the ‘yanking the rug out from under them’ argument.

  • John Knight

    You’ll forgive me if, like the priest, I do not regard that as a serious argument. It seems more like an incredible leap of faith.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    When I am asked if I believe in God I often say yes. Of course in my mind I am thinking of God as a concept. On that basis I believe in both Bilbo Baggans and Chthulhu. If they persist in this conversation I will engage them. I am somewhat knowledgable in the Bible, and from various perspectives. From there I can have a bit of fun. It can be a lot of fun to tie some of these people into knots. The best part is when you can get them into a paradox. Nothing is proven particularly, you are just playing with them.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

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

    The positivists did appeal to a particular epistemology to claim that the concept of God was meaningless, but one does not need to be a positivist to have problems with the meaningfulness of at least some God concepts. Let us grant that we don’t know the criterion for meaningfulness in advance. Even so, don’t we have a right to expect that somebody who proposes a concept should be able to establish that their concept is not incoherent? Most of the theists I have encountered don’t put their God concept in any sort of philosophical context at all. At least if they were still Neoplatonics or Thomists, I’d more or less know what they’re talking about. So far as I can tell, the only guys with a straight answer are those for whom God is pretty much presented as a hugely powerful being with a bad temper, i.e. an especially impressive cosmic animal. That makes for a theology almost indistinguishable from science fiction, but at least it makes a modicum of sense. I’m not counting those for whom God is just the Universe and its Laws–I don’t have any problem with deus sive natura, I just don’t understand how calling reality God makes any difference.

  • John Merryman

    John Knight,

    I understand your point to mean a specific source or entity of origin, but it’s more a matter of direction; Bottom up process, vs. top down structure. The very concept of a particular entity is structural, while process is inherently emergent, in that we really don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going, only that it does exist and continues to evolve.

    There is a political and economic corollary to this, in that politics also originated as a form of top down parental structure which reached its apogee with monarchy and we have since found it needs to be leavened with bottom up process, such as democracy, in order to be stable. The current economic model is precariously top heavy, even though its philosophical foundations are bottom up.

    If we are to apply biological process to our current situation, humanity needs to find a way to transition from being top predator in a collapsing planetary eco-system to being the central nervous system of a planetary organism. If theological perspectives can be leveraged to help bring that about, I wouldn’t reject them out of philosophical myopia.

  • Aiya-Oba

    Cosmos is God: the Self-creator of all, is the Equator of All in all (Spacetime-Continuum). -Aiya-Oba.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    There are problems with science getting into the atheisti business. One problem is that we are treading into philosophical ground we might prefer to stay away from.

    If we agree to not tread that ground, would that mean that philosophers would stay out of science? Take for example Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism, or anything that William Lane Craig has to say about time, infinity and the origin of the universe?

    It is generally agreed, even by philosophers, that the single most convincing counterargument to the argument from design is Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Which, you may note, is a scientific theory,

  • Otis

    Sean Carroll’s brand of atheism is fundamentally incoherent. On the one hand, he accepts the Darwinian evolutionary model for where he came from, believing that his brain is mere matter shaped by evolution. On the other hand, as a cosmologist, he expects the fundamental laws of the universe to “make sense” to him and be understandable by him. How could a capricious and contingent process like evolution give his material brain that ability? Why would the origin and 14 billion year history of the universe be understandable by a recently evolved human primate who has existed for just 0.0000014 percent of the history of the universe?

    Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe assertion makes Sean’s atheistic naturalism even more untenable. If the natural world is fundamentally mathematical, why would a biological organism named Sean Carroll be able to do the math? Did the mathematical universe know he was coming and structure itself so that he could understand it after he just happened to evolve 14 billion years later? Who (or what) decided that the universe should be mathematical?

    Sean writes: “science has a way of swooping in and explaining things that had previously been judged inexplicable by purely natural means.”

    I would say that science (and Sean) has a steep hill to climb if it must be shown that this state of affairs all came about by “natural means.” In fact, science gives us evidence for things that are “unnatural.”

  • Otis

    Reginald Selkirk,

    Darwin’s theory, as a counter argument to the argument from design, is no longer convincing, thanks to cosmologists like Sean Carroll. (see my post #49)

    The more cosmologists are able to explain the mathematical universe, the less convincing that counter argument becomes. Darwin’s theory just does not account for this incredible ability for humans to understand the universe.

  • Bogie

    [quote]”I don’t have any problem with deus sive natura, I just don’t understand how calling reality God makes any difference.”[/quote]

    To me is does make a difference, but then there are some “givens” in my reasoning. My thinking is that the universe (an infinite multi-verse) has always existed. That means in my view there has always been matter and energy in some relatively fixed proportions to each other throughout the greater universe. Each multi-verse is an arena like our observable universe, ours being one of an infinite number of multi-verses all in the same dimension, all temporary and as they play out they defeat entropy (crunch-bangs that are always mixing and forming within the greater universe).

    Within each arena life could abound and it could be “generative” and
    “evolvative” to intelligent self-aware individuals that then contemplate the concept of God.

    That is where the reality of the universe and the concept of God being reality make a difference to me. The universe yields individuals who naturally reach a decision point about the existence of God. Those who choose to believe and who act according to how their free will tells them to act will perhaps work to help others who are in need, finding a purpose that may be in accord with an intention.

    That intention would be a natural part of the universe, the intention that adds meaning to the universe perhaps, and an intention that would have always existed just as the universe itself could have always existed.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Otis: Your opinion of your own philosophizing is too high.

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

    One old definition of God is necessary being. Now if we use the interpretation of modal logic whereby something is “necessary” if it is always the case, an eternal universe is a necessary being and therefore God. I think this sort of reasoning lay behind the ancient Stoic theology. I have no objection: this version of God is like a murphy bed. It doesn’t take up any space when not in use, and it is practically never in use.

    There are umpteen versions of what the word “god” means, many of which seem to be pretty much come down to “Hooray for our side!” I doubt if all these various gods have any single thing in common. Maybe what we have here is another instance of family resemblances.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I think that cosmology can broom a God out of the loop in a way analogous to the exorcism of a Maxwell demon. Of course this eliminates a certain type of God, the deistic type of God.

    Darwinian evolution does indicate that the relatedness between species is not due to any design, but natural selection. This does not tell us anything about how life emerged during the early Earth. So there is a barrier of ignorance we face there. Maybe continued explorations of Mars might find chemical “fossil” evidence for prebiotic processes that were leading to the emergence of life there, before the planet aborted that path. Maybe with some of these hypotheses about submerged oceans on Europa and other moons similar evidence might be found. Maybe these oceans harbor similar evidence of pre-biotic chemistry. But as yet we really don’t have all the answers.

    My main point is that of PR. Public relations is a regrettable aspect of life. Even if we remove the need for a God in cosmology we will still be faced with ignorance that is in need of research. It is also best not to offend lots of people out there. This is particularly since our knowledge will always be of a contingent nature. It might seem a bit unfair, but who said the world was fair? Religious voices will boldly trumpet the most outlandish nonsense possible with hardly a stir, but an atheistic claim with a tenth the assertiveness gets lots of people’s feathers bristling.

    I have had a couple of encounters with fundy types where they were steaming mad and ready for a fight.

    I give little quarter to these theological ideas imposed on science. Yet with the Kitzmiller V. Dover case it must be noted that the trial did not focus at all on whether God existed. It stuck to the basic facts and how the met with the known science and failed to match with ID.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Chris

    the sound of one hand clapping is a false koan:
    (and many others, as originated by Bart Simpson many years ago)

    Totally OT, this is an interesting discriminant. Just like most koans.

    The hyper-literal do what that guy does. Totally misses the point, of course. It’s like tossing a treat and pointing to it and having the dog stare at your finger instead of following it.

    The half-awake people see how words can trip them. Goedel-Escher-Bach covered this extensively with ‘mu’ in response to any true/false question which didn’t make sense, at least to that observer at that time. Will ‘4’ be a willing lotto number this weekend? After the drawing that question will have a real answer, but for now all I can say is ‘mu’.

    There’s another level that sees the question as entirely meaningless in another way. I know it exists, but I don’t understand it. That’s who the koan really targets.

  • John Merryman

    As individuals, swatting the various memes around our brains, we are the one hand clapping.

  • John R Ramsden

    I think cosmologists are more at risk than most scientists of being dragged into religious questions, due to the scale and apparently all encompassing nature of what they study.

    Perhaps a good reply for a scientist, whether religious or not, being interviewed as Sean was is to say they study the cosmos with the same dispassionate attitude of enquiry as a biologist studying a flea under a microscope.

    Whether or not they are religious – and some cosmologists and some biologists are – each is concerned as scientists only with practicalities, just as a watch mender working on a fine gold pocket watch puts aside any aesthetic thoughts (which they may well have) while fiddling about with the springs and cogs inside.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    the sound of one hand clapping is a false koan

    “The sound of one hand clapping” is sometimes euphemistically referred to as “the sin of Onan.”

  • http://celsetialmechanician.org Celestial mechanician

    Photons expand into an ever increasing three-dimensional space. The energy and matter density of the Universe approaches zero over time. If there is an End to the Universe can there not be a Beginning? If there is a Beginning then who other than a suitably defined God could arrange matter in such a configuration? What do atheist’s actually believe in? A Universe without a Creator? Is not the Creator of the Universe no more than a absentee landlord? Something from Nothing? And Something into Nothing again?

    The Laws of Physics determine our evolution and fate. But the Laws of Physics cannot create a Beginning to the Universe.

  • poke

    I would have just said “no.” They probably wouldn’t have bothered to print the question.

  • Bogie

    [quote]If there is an End to the Universe can there not be a Beginning? If there is a Beginning then who other than a suitably defined God could arrange matter in such a configuration?[/quote]

    Our expanding arena, if that was all there was to the universe, would act like you describe, i.e. energy density would approach zero over time.

    On the other hand there might very well be “preconditions” that existed in a greater universe that caused our finite arena (we call the observable universe) to emerge from a big crunch/burst that initiated our expansion. Our arena might be just a run of the mill occupant of an infinite multi-verse where each arean will simply expand out into the greater universe to mix and merge with similar remnants of other arenas to form new crunch/burst arenas. Entropy defeated.

    In that case there is no need for a beginning since matter and energy might have always existed. And it follows that there would be no need for a creator.

    That is not to say there would or would not be a God, but it does say that creation does not need to be in God’s repertoire.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    It might be that the universe is a map which takes one form of nothing into another form of nothing. The initial form of nothing is maybe some form of instanton for a cosmology which transitions into a Lorentzian metric with unitarily inequivalent vacua. This might then lead to particle production, inflation and the rest. The final state is the AdS conformal infinity as a Minkowski spacetime — a complete void. This might all be contained in a grand path integral, a set of quantum fields defined from one state to another.

    There is no real need for matter having contant existence. The whole system may just be a path integral which is best though of “outside” of time.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    #62…Lawrence noted that the universe is a map, and there is every indication, from what is known about it, that it is, indeed a kind of map.

    However the universe works, it has a place for everything, and everything is in its place. The universe, as vast as it is “knows” where we are.

    “Star Trek; The Next Generation” is one of my favorites, and on that series, I especially appreciate stories of the “Holodeck”. In a sense, the universe is a void, but a productive void, out of which everything which is, has been and is to come emerges.

    The point of the universe is that it is meant to be experienced, observed and measured. If it isn’t, it does not exist.

    Sean, in his interview, hedged…”don’t bet on it” (that God would be shown not to exist). The way he worded his answer about the existence of God indicates he is open on the question, and I think there is real wisdom in the way he reacted. The real question, I think is not so much the existence of God but what kind of God exists. Whether we create God or God creates us is pretty much a question like: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

    Religious people say that the chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever. Whether God exists in our minds, or we exist in his, God exists only as we are here to consider the possibility of his existence. David in the Old Testament asks: “Can the grave praise You?” Obviously the grave cannot, does not and will not consider the question of the existence of diety.

    The question as to the existence of diety is brought about by the concurrent existence of a certain kind ot information and high complexity in the universe.

    To me, the fact that the universe has brought about my being and the experiences of my life is evidence enough that whatever it is, and regardless of its origin, I owe it a certain awe and respect. In fact, the universe demands awe and respect. If I don’t respect the universe, that lack of respect will inevitably and adversely affect my existence.

    Science as a process and technology as the product of that process are the result of mans determination to seek the truth about the universe and the way it operates. Our determination to be open and objective about the universe has given us a measure of control over ourselves and our environment. Yet, in the end, we are, in an important sense at the mercy of the universe, at least dependent on it…as the universe depends on us.

    The universe is mysterious and in a sense, it is every bit as mysterious at the start of the 21st century as it was 100,000 years ago. Back in January, the Doctor informed me my cancer is terminal. I laughed and reflected that life is terminal. From the day we are born, we are destined to die. There are perhaps 20 million healthy people in the country who will have probably perished before I pass on. In a sense, it is downright courteous of the universe to “serve notice”, in my case, plenty of notice regarding my impending demise…especially considering that I have had a very interesting life, have a large family, 18 grandchildren…etc.

    However, I have been near, very near death before…so close I lost my vision and bowel control. In the islands of the Pacific, I have heard people cry for weeks as they died of stomach cancer. I have made plywood boxes for dead babies, and kissed the cold, clammy faces of young people who hung or shot themselves. Life truly is (or can be) quite an experience, and I have been privileged to have an interesting program of this holodeck “map”.

    We may not be people of faith as we live, but when we die, ALL of us die in faith, because we do not, and really cannot fully understand the universe- or even our own destiny. A little humility never hurt anybody, I guess!

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    Errata: (That God would NOT be shown not to exist)

  • John Merryman


    Sorry to hear about the cancer. I can appreciate your perspective on death though. One of the few quotations that my lousy memory retains is from Plato’s The Trial of Socrates; “The fear of death is a pretense of wisdom and false wisdom at that. For who knows what men in their fear believe the greatest evil, may not in fact be the greatest good.”
    My thoughts on death are that life is like a bubble and when it pops, we just get smeared out across the universe. Our lives are a sentence in the larger story that ties what came before with what comes next, while hopefully adding a little and not screwing up the flow of the story too much, but maybe just a little to keep it from being too flat. The end is punctuation, not destination.
    I’m sure you’ve been through enough doors to know it’s just one more.
    I like to think I’ve examined whats out there enough that when the network that holds this particular node together comes apart, what pieces of me it takes with it, as it snaps back into the dark recesses, won’t be too afraid of the dark.
    Meanwhile work beckons.

  • Aiya-Oba

    No cosmologist should be afraid of being dragged into religious questions, because the cosmologist is out to resolve the ultimate riddle of reality: the common crux of religion, philosophy and cosmology.-Aiya-Oba.

  • cecil kirksey

    One Q&A was the following:

    Q: Can you give me a simple explanation of entropy?

    A: One way of explaining entropy is to say it’s the number of ways you can rearrange the constituents of a system so that you don’t notice the change macroscopically.

    I have been puzzled by the definition of macroscopic states. Suppose we have a hydrogen gas at some temperature below ionization (average energy). If the temperature is raised the hydrogen atoms will become more and more excited to higher energy states, correct? Now according to QM each hydrogen atom can exist in a countable infinite number of states. If this is true and one can not tell which state a particular atom is in would not the entropy approach countable infinite? Obviously I am missing something fundemental about the states of the hydrogen atom as regards entropy. Can you help? Thanks alot.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Sam Cox, sorry to hear about the cancer. The wife of a friend of mine, the two got married a couple of years ago, has been diagnosed with nonHodgkins lymphoma.

    The holographic analogue is close. The holographic principle and the related AdS/CFT duality do suggest that the entire universe is a sort of hologram. This “image” might be induced by a map from one form of void to another.

    In some metaphorical sense our lives are a bit similar as well — dust to dust I suppose.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    Lawrence and John,

    When I came back from the islands in 03 my PSA was 20.5. They found a small Gleason 9 cancer about the size of a fingernail on the left lobe of my prostate. Dr Strong down in Naples said he thought the tumor was no longer organ confined but we did our best anyway.

    I had 3D conformal radiation in Tampa plus a Paladium 103 seeding. For 3 years the PSA stayed down below 1, and then started to take off again. I had another biopsy series, CT scan with contrast and Bone Scan last fall and all were negative, but the negative results in this case were bad, not good news.

    The source of the increasing PSA had to be outside the prostate. An early bone scan cannot show cancer in the groin…the whole area is too bright even on a normal scan. Mine has jumped to the pubic arch, and we expect it to proceed from there. Androgen deprivation will hold it a couple of years.

    We will try intermittant androgen deprivation to try to extend things, and maybe I’ll get a GVAC vaccination…then Taxotere. After the first couple of years, the bone pain gets pretty uncomfortable, and there is always the potential for bone fractures and more spinal problems. My dad lasted 7 years on Estrogen, we may try that too, somewhere down the road.

    In our family (thank goodness) prostate cancer goes to the bones, not the rectum. However, in the final stages it migrates to the brain. The doctor says I have 4-8 years. The main hedge is the fact that Gleason 9 cancers are very aggressive.

    Make sure you check your PSA’s at least annually! I had a biopsy when I was 50 because of the situation with my father, but paid no attention to my health while I was overseas for 8 years…glad I came back and got attention when I did, or I would be in much more immediate trouble!

    Lawrence, appreciated your comments. I’ve been out there researching and found some of the same stuff (I’m sure) with which you are familiar!

    Since they are all well field verified, the connections between SR/GR and QM are very important to our conceptual understanding of the nature of reality. We know that QM operates within a manifold, an obvious GR connection. We know that both GR and QM are conceptually deterministic, and that the wave function of the universe, quantum entanglement and such principles tie in with many of the characterisitics of the GR geometry- with its invariant frames and space time curvature. The SR tranforms are impprtant too. The equivalence principle is the starting point for our study of instantons, monopoles and related phenomena, and indicates that momentum is the basis for our perception of mass in the universe…which brings us once again to holography.

    Talk about impressive virtual reality! This universe obviously developed naturally…it is far too “wild” to be in and of itself the construct of deity. However, we definitely have a lot in common with other information and complexity in the universe, and in that sense we are not alone. Information and complexity developed in all its awesome beauty within the constaints of the universe, and has obviously taken advantage of every aspect of those constraints to assure and insure its continued collective existence.

    A great thread!

  • John Merryman


    Old Mother Nature gives us our day in the sun and it can be fun, but thinking there is something to hold on to is the one hand clapping.

    Cancer doesn’t seem to be a big issue in my family. Seems like we die of other things first. My mother almost made it to 80 though. I’d lost 5 cousins by the time I was thirty. Here’s a memorial to one of them. He’d have been someone you would have liked;


    I still think the universe makes more sense as a field, than a singularity, though.

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    Hi John,

    I’m inclined to believe that the universe is both field and quantum/singularity, (if SR/GR/QM are all correct anyway) and that the way singularity and field are proportioned and observed depends on the manifold coordinates from which we select to observe them. Energy density is related to momentum-and influences space-tme curvature in a definite and predictable way.

    I’m 67 and the longest lived guy in my whole family just barely made it- he was an amputee diabetic- to age 77! I’m keeping that in mind in my planning.

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    John, I appreciated your link, and yes I have tried to live my life in much the same spirit as your cousin. Now that I’m older and tired, on reflection I’m just relieved to realize I made it this far, and have some time to look back and reflect! I would be a liar though to assert I’m really happy to have my “wings clipped”.

    One very positive thing…I travelled and worked when I had the chance. As I look back, there are few regrets. One of the attitudes of the Pacific Islanders I knew, which gave me solace was their utter contempt for death (Mala). Death was something we faced evey day, in a hundred different ways, and if it happened, we mourned, had a big feast in the memory of the departed and got on with our lives.

    I cherish my large family and relish the memory of my experiences. However, learning (in a special way) the meaning of love, loyalty, respect, interdependence, forgiveness, courage and the importance of being a “kind” person…these lessons have given meaning to my life.

  • John Merryman



    Keep in mind that we’re still just little flowers that pop up out of the dirt, scatter a few seeds and fade away. And lucky to do that. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to death, but I find that like much of everything else, the more we sensitize ourselves to it, the more sensitive we are to it. So I just try sensitizing my self to what matters and be as objective as possible about the rest. Which isn’t to deny the reality of pain, but the price we pay for feeling is that lots of it is pain.
    As the old Animals song, ‘When I was Young’ said, “I was much older then.” The older we get, the more we appreciate the overwhelming nature of change and how the world we are born into dies off, to be replaced by what was growing up in the cracks as we focused on those solid parts in between.
    One of the main reasons physics interests me and yet I disagree with its fundamental assumptions is because of this intent focus on those hard parts we think of as the physical, yet, even the most basic insights of physics suggests they are illusionary and a function of process, not the cause of it. It’s the same basic assumption of Ideal Form, as monotheism. We focus on the point at the top, not what creates and defines it. It’s like looking for meaning in the perfect pearl and not appreciating oysters. So far as physics has been able to show, reality would simply disappear if motion were to stop, yet we can only look for what must be doing the moving. There are religions and philosophies from throughout history and around the world that have figured this out, that it’s really about the verb, not the noun, yet we still insist on breaking rocks into ever smaller pieces, trying to find the smallest possible unit.
    So I find the more I live in terms of context and process, the more I find I’m connected to and part of the world around me. Then the temporal and spatial limitations that set the parameters of personal reality become part and parcel of the process in which definition and limitation are two sides of the same coin. If we were not mortal, we couldn’t exist.
    As for family… hmmm. You might say the parents viewed large families as a necessary right of passage and while they devoted their lives to raising us, survival of the fittest was never far from the surface. Being younger and introspective, I’ve kind of spent my life burrowing down into things to see what makes them tick, not climbing to the top, like most, so there is a bit of head scratching when it comes to relations.

  • John Merryman


    Seems our last two posts were lost. I backed up mine and sent it to your email, but it was a Micronesia address, so you may not get it.

  • Larry Goenka

    Sean, I was very intrigued by your article on “Time’s Arrow” in SciAm. Some questions:
    Q1. How can you define another “baby universe”? I thought by definition, the universe was infinite, and so this is an inherent contradiction. Where would the physical “boundary” between our universe and this “baby universe” occur?
    Q2. Is the presence of these other universes verifiable by science? If not, this is just as much believable as a psychic, probably less so (since some of what a psychic predicts is verifiable).
    Q3. You would implicitly assume that the laws of physics etc. are exactly the same as in our universe — what is the probability of that occurring?
    It seems like many of the explanations being proposed by scientists point to what I would term as “the Supernatural” — things we cannot observe in out universe (which by definition is infinite and therefore includes everything).
    Would appreciate your thoughts.
    Regards, Larry

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Q1: I guess that depends on your definitions. Mine were that a disconnected part of space counts as a “baby universe”; this is pretty standard in the field, actually. There would be some event in spacetime where the baby pinched off from the parent universe.

    Q2: See here.

    Q3: No, I wouldn’t assume that. It might be a reasonable starting point, but we should keep an open mind.

  • Larry Goenka

    Sean, Thanks for the reply. Some more questions:
    Q1. What event in space-time would cause a baby universe to “pinch off” from the parent? What would cause such an event? How would one then physically differentiate between the two universes?
    Q2. If the baby universe has been part of the parent, why would one think that time would then be allowed to move backward, while all other laws of physics are presumably the same.
    Q3. Is this baby universe hypothesis the only “reasonable” explanation for Time’s Arrow?
    Q4. Is the reason the entropy could not have been low at the Big Bang because this was when the (parent) universe was very chaotic and random and therefore at a very high entropy state?
    Thanks, Larry

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Larry Goenka:

    Q1. How can you define another “baby universe”? I thought by definition, the universe was infinite, and so this is an inherent contradiction. Where would the physical “boundary” between our universe and this “baby universe” occur?


    I can think of one simple model which might help visualize this. There is a construction in complex variables call Riemann sheets. A complex plane with some function that is multiply valued around a pole after a 2-pi rotation around the plane “jumps” to another complex plane. This jump is called a branch cut. Then on the second complex plane the function upon a 2-pi rotation jumps to a third one and so forth. These complex planes are infinite in two dimensions, but there are an infinite number of these. One might think of an infinite stack of CD on a rack, but where the radius of these disks “goes to infinity.”

    These planes are connected by this branch cut, which serves in a sense as something similar to a singularity. In fact these occur with a path around a singularity. So we might think of these planes as connected to each other through these singularities. In a more complicated situation such as cosmologies these universe are connected by singularities, such as black hole interiors and the initial singularity of a cosmology. We then of course have to throw quantum mechanics into the gemish so these singularities are in some ways associated with amplitudes for spacetimes and fields. Further, all of these singularities might in fact be the same singularity, but with different quantum amplitudes we observe in each specific instance that obtains, whether that is a black hole, the big bang or maybe a quantum fluctuation of spacetime.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    Hi John,

    My current email, which Sean has, is samacox@comcast.net. I made a brief reply to your note and saw it was not on the thread…but no big deal. I was just basically agreeing with your feelings about momentum. I already said my piece about diety, which of course is the subject here…

    The thread continues to be interesting…

  • Forrest

    “It’s surprising, the number of things God has seen fit to outsource to mathematics.”

  • Larry Goenka

    Lawrence Cromwell, Thanks for the explanation. Some questions:
    Q1. Is it fair to use complex variable theory to represent physical space? Should we also be describing the laws of physics in complex variables?
    Q2. A branch cut is perhaps more like a discontinuity rather than a singularity?
    Q3. One can have many multi-valued functions in complex variable theory. But this has no relationship to the real world. Why would you believe that this model would apply to explain multi-verses?
    Q4. What would be an example of multiply-connected planes in real life? How can one assume that laws of physics are somewhat arbitrarily transferred to such planes?
    Q4. What physical event would cause such planes to be formed and connected?
    Thanks, Larry

  • John Merryman


    Since you did read it, I’ll let it slide. Like everything else, our thoughts and expressions end up fading away fast enough anyway.

    The issue of deity, I suppose, is how we deal with that.

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    Hi John,

    The SR, GR and QM universe is so logically counterintuitive, it seems almost anythng could be true. Intuition is important in conceptualizing, of course, but relying on intuition, or worse, common sense, can be like building ones house on the sand!

    By the way, everything you say and do…your thoughts and expressions, are important in a determinstic universe. What you write, you literally write “in stone”. What we believe may be inconsistent- or consistent- with the nature of reality, but somehow it has a place in the overall process of discovery.

    I’m reminded of the really weird ideas of Sir Isaac Newton on religion, and the strange ideas of Hoyle and Dirac. Their strange ideas were just a part of their being human. Everybody, including non-scientists, has strange ideas. In a way, we “brainstorm” our way through life! Our life makes sense to us, at our frame of reference, but to others we seem, at least- different! I’m reminded of the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying: “I think everybody is crazy but me and thee…and sometimes I wonder about thee!”

  • John Merryman


    LOL. We all feel the need to push the envelope, without popping it. Problem is, eventually it does pop and we are continually picking up the pieces and trying figure out how they went together, if they ever did go together. As the old saying goes; Open a can of worms and you need a bigger can to get them back in. It’s all about the journey, because there is no destination.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    To Larry Goenka:

    A1: I wrote that more as a way of analogy. However, one can work general relativity with complex variables or higher up with quaternions. In a more direct way complex variables play a central role in quantum mechanics.

    A2: The branch cut is a discontinuity associated usually with the integration of a function around a pole.

    A3: This is a subtle issue. If you look at the 1984 paper by Hawking & Hartle they compute the amplitude for a transition to a deSitter space using complex variables. They do some pretty ornate integrations by “skating on the complex plane.” So behind the scenes complex variables do play a role, particularly when quantum mechanics is thrown into the mix.

    A4: We don’t sense imaginary quantities directly, but we can infer them. A wheel rolling on a flat surface might be one analogue of this, where with every 2-pi rotation it marks out an equal length. In electronically modulated music where there is a phase shift in a note is close to an example. Another is a note where the harmonics which make it up are modulated. This gives the auditory perception of an sequence of notes ascending a scale, but it never really does. It is an acoustical analogue of the Escher drawing of the cyclical waterfall or monks climbing a staircase that closes on itself. The illusion is an artifact of projecting down to two dimensions, and we know that there must be something similar to a branch cut which creates a stack of these staircases linked together to make sense in three dimensions. In such projections there is a “blow up of a point” which plays a role similar to a singularity.

    These waves are classical waves, though mathematically we often write them according to complex variables. The analyst then does a “take the real part” at the end. Quantum waves are complex valued, but observable aspects of QM are determined by the modulus square of these wave functions.

    A5: The model is really purely mathematical. If it has some applicability to physics it is used.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Larry Goenka

    Lawrence Crowell:

    Appreciate the clarifications, thanks.

    The interesting thing about the explanation for Time’s Arrow is that it points to bizarre constructs such as other universes and time moving backward (all clearly well beyond what we see and observe in this universe). Similarly, String Theory points to ELEVEN dimensions and parallel universes.

    To me, this leaves the door wide open for a Spiritual dimension to our existence.

  • John Merryman


    The SR, GR and QM universe is so logically counterintuitive, it seems almost anythng could be true. Intuition is important in conceptualizing, of course, but relying on intuition, or worse, common sense, can be like building ones house on the sand!

    Actually it’s not counterintuitive. The intellectual mind is a linear narrative, so describing time as a linear dimension is profoundly intuitive. In fact, it is Edgar Allen Poe, the narrativist, who is given credit for first proposing space and ‘duration’ are the same effect. The primary artifacts of our collective inquiry, from the Bible to Big Bang Theory, are build on this beginning to end construct. So saying it’s all ‘written in stone’ is a logical conclusion, but doesn’t this quantum decoherence across time contradict the principle that energy is neither lost, necessarily to the past, or gained, necessarily from the future?
    The basic principle of relativity is that neither the point of reference, or the frame of reference is absolute, but that they move relative to one another. The scenery moves past you, as you move through it. But somehow it becomes my hobby horse when I try applying this very basic principle to the apparent dimension of time and observe that events go from being in the future to being in the past, as the content of this dimension goes from past to future, yet it is perfectly logical to propose multiple universes in order to explain this one.
    So, yes, I do wonder who is crazy.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

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


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