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.