Chatting Theology with Robert Novak

By Sean Carroll | August 7, 2008 12:38 am

Robert Novak, conservative pundit/journalist and TV personality, is retiring after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Novak and I probably don’t agree on many things, and he isn’t called “The Prince of Darkness” for nothing (nor does he seem to especially mind). But brain tumors shouldn’t happen to anyone, so perhaps this is the place to share my Novak story.

Last September I gave a talk at a somewhat unusual venue: a conference at the University of Illinois on “Plato’s Timaeus Today.” Most of the speakers and attendees, as you might expect, were philosophers or classicists interested in this particular Platonic dialogue — which, apparently, used to be one of his most popular back in the Middle Ages, although it’s fallen a bit out of favor since then. But one of the central purposes of the Timaeus (full text here) was to explain Plato’s theory of the origin of the universe. (Briefly: the demiurge did it, not from scratch, but by imposing order on chaos.) (Also! This dialogue is the origin of the myth of Atlantis. It was not, as far as anyone can tell, a pre-existing story; Plato just made it up.) So the organizers thought it would be fun to invite a physicist or two, to talk about how we think about the universe these days. Sir Tony Leggett gave a keynote address, and I gave a talk during the regular sessions.

The point of my talk was: Plato was wrong. In particular, you don’t need an external agent to create the universe, nor to impose order on the chaos. These days we are reaching toward an understanding of the entire history of the universe in which there is nothing other than the laws of physics working themselves out — a self-contained, complete, purely materialist conception of the cosmos. Not to say that we have such a theory in its full glory, obviously, but we see no obstacles and are making interesting progress. See here and here for more physics background.

And there, during my talk, sitting in the audience, was none other than Robert Novak. This was a slight surprise, although not completely so; Novak was a UIUC alumnus, and was listed as a donor to the conference. But he hadn’t attended most of the other talks, as far as I could tell. In any event, he sat there quietly in his orange and navy blue rep tie, and I gave my talk. Which people seemed to like, although by dint of unfortunate scheduling it was at the very end of the conference and I had a plane to catch so had to run away.

And there, as I was waiting at the gate in the tiny local airport, up walks Robert Novak. He introduced himself, and mentioned that he had heard my talk, and had a question that he was reluctant to ask during the conference — he didn’t want to be a disruption among the assembled academics who were trying to have a scholarly conversation. And I think he meant that sincerely, for which I give him a lot of credit. And I give him even more credit for taking time on a weekend to zip down to Urbana (from Chicago, I presume) to listen to some talks on Plato. Overall, the world would be a better place if more people went to philosophy talks in their spare time.

Novak’s question was this: had I discussed the ideas I had talked about in my presentation with any Catholic theologians? The simple answer was “not very much”; I have talked to various theologians, many of them Catholic, about all sorts of things, but not usually specifically about the possibility of an eternally-existing law-abiding materialist universe. The connection is clear, of course; one traditional role of religion has been to help explain where the world came from, and one traditional justification for the necessity of God has been the need for a Creator. (Not the only one, in either case.) So if science can handle that task all by itself, it certainly has implications for a certain strand of natural theology.

Understanding that it was not an idle question (and that Novak is a Catholic), I added my standard admonition when asked about the theological implications of cosmology by people who don’t really want to be subjected to a full-blown argument for atheism: whether you want to believe in God or not, it’s a bad idea to base your belief in God on an urge to explain features of the natural world, including its creation and existence. Because eventually, science will get there and take care of that stuff, and then where are you?

And, once again to his credit, Novak seemed to appreciate my point, whether or not he actually agreed. He nodded in comprehension, thanked me again for the talk, and settled down to wait for his flight.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Philosophy
  • piscator

    > Plato was wrong. In particular, you don

  • Hotdog Operator

    Oh piscator… you can’t see the forest for the trees, can you?

    Thanks for the story, Sean.

  • capitalistimperialistpig

    Instead of a demiurge, blind luck plunked us down where we are in the multiverse? Is that your theory? It’s not clear to me that one theory has more explanatory power than the other.

  • Jason Dick

    Just to expand a bit on Hotdog Operator’s comment, this really is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Science works. The simple facts that science works, that we keep discovering new things, and that there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to our discoveries, mean that it would indeed be foolish to believe in a god because god “explains” our universe or something in particular about it.


    Oh, blind luck has infinitely more explanatory power. Every random process, after all, behaves via some probability distribution. So if a random process is a cause for our existence, then the signatures of that random process will be written into our universe. Now, it is the case that the general statement, “by accident,” has no explanatory power. But Sean’s not talking about this: he’s talking about discovering very specific models for precisely how this random process operates. And when you have a specific model, you can make specific predictions, based upon the probability distribution of the random process proposed.

  • Plato


  • Rebel Dreams

    A point about “blind luck”…

    Roll a die; you roll a six. You have a one-in-six chance of getting that number (obviously), the same chance as rolling a 1, 2, 3 etc…

    Now have someone put a gun to your head and tell you “roll a three”. If you don’t roll a three, you’ll die. You roll the die and lo and behold, a three! you live.

    After this terrible ordeal, you live a long happy life (haunted by nightmares and unable to play boardgames), get married, have kids and generally do all the things that constitute a “normal existence”. But it was ALL predicated upon rolling a three, a one-in-six happenstance. But without that blind chance, you would not have done all that. Your children would not be able to envision a world where you rolled a four, for example, because they would not be there if you had.

    In other words, simply because blind luck played a fundamental role in your existence (or theirs) does not mean that it was NOT blind luck. If the result had been anything else, you would not be here.

    Yes, it’s a weakly anthropic argument, but still utterly valid. To my mind, anyway… :-)

  • Rebel Dreams


    >>I do not think because you see part of Plato

  • Rebel Dreams

    >>Could be wrnog tohough.. I often am

    …and, apparently, unable to type.

  • ree ree

    You can’t get a universe from nothing. So if there’s only one universe (namely, this one), and if it had a beginning, it doesn’t have the reason for its existence contained within it. Therefore, to avoid a “God did it” argument, you need to posit the existence of an eternal multiverse, from which our universe was born.

    Thus, belief in God as the creator is being replaced by a belief in the multiverse. If we can show that a multiverse is a mathematical consequence of a proven fundamental theory, a theory capable of providing a mechanism for giving birth to new universes, then we are done and no belief is necessary. If the fundamental theory has a unique solution with our universe as the solution, then I have no idea how such a theory could possibly explain the origin of our universe.

  • Garth A. Barber


    Oh, blind luck has infinitely more explanatory power.

    But it requires an equal amount of faith.

    To explain the anthropic propitious nature of our universe by ‘blind luck’ requires an ensemble of non-propitious members of the multiverse, none of which can be observed except this one.

    The ensemble exists in our minds only after an act of faith.

    I agree with piscator, science has its limitations and to be good science it needs to recognize its own boundaries.


    Plato was wrong. In particular, you don

  • lemuel pitkin

    This seems like a good opportunity for a question that’s been bugging me.

    One of your central interests is obviously the arrow of time, and in particular how it can arise given that the laws of physics are time-symmetric. In particular, you seem committed to the idea that the appearance of the universe beginning in a state of minimum entropy and evolving toward a state of maximum entropy must be wrong — that if we could see the full picture there would just be fluctuations with no privileged low-entropy “beginning.”

    My question is: why? How do we know that the arrow of time is just a local phenomenon, and the universe does not, in fact, have a distinct beginning?

    Especially given the Bozeman’s Brain type arguments that the probability of random fluctuations producing a big bang, as you describe in your SciAm article, is infinitesimal compared with the probaility of producing our solar system directly. Right?

    (By the way this question has zero theological implications — I’m an atheist too.)

  • Mike

    Not that I believe in a personal god, but there is something “godlike” in the rules of mathematics — there is a sense in which they seem to be eternal, they seem to exist independent our material world, they seem to have power over everything (nothing can violate them), and they seem to be inevitable. I guess this isn’t apropos to the present discussion, but the thought occurred to me this morning.

  • Rebel Dreams


    >>You can

  • Rebel Dreams

    >>…if there

  • Sean

    lemuel — that’s a perfectly good question, and I’m always careful to stress that we don’t actually “know.” It’s absolutely possible that the universe simply had a beginning with a low entropy, and that’s a brute fact that has no further explanation. But it would seem more simple and compact if there were some dynamical explanation for this feature of the local universe, rather than just positiing it as a new law of nature. (Similarly for the cosmological constant: we could just take it as a number and move on, but it might very well be a clue to some underlying dynamics, which is a possibility well worth pursuing.)

    The Boltzmann’s Brain argument is very specific. *If* you have a theory in which fluctuations in entropy occur randomly and with an exponential distribution, *then* we are overwhelmingly likely to be in a smaller fluctuation (a single galaxy, or a single brain). But we’re not, and therefore a theory like that is wrong. So either we are not a fluctuation of any sort, or the numbers have to work out differently. Many of us are pursuing the latter option, but we’ll have to see.

  • TimG

    You can

  • lemuel pitkin


    Thanks for the reply.

    A couple follow-ups. First, what’s the basis for simple and compact — both why the dynamicly-arising big bang is more so, and why that’s the standard to begin with? To me, the statement, “the universe beings in a state of minimum entropy and evolves toward a state of maximum entropy” doesn’t seem obviously less simple than the statement “fluctuations can produce low-entropy states, which then evolve toward higher entropy.” How do you know you’re not smuggling an aesthetic preference into your science?

    Second, is there any kind of evidence or argument foreseeable that would resolve the question? Would you ever conclude that there was no fluctuations-type account of the big bang and that the universe simply began with a low-entory state?

    (Indicentally, part of my interest here is I studied economics at the graduate level for a while, and it seems to me that the bias toward talking about universal laws rather than historical narratives is really destructive for mainstream economics. Of course, what’s a problem in economics might be perfectly appropriate in physics.)

  • ree ree

    Rebel Dreams,

    “Since we don

  • ree ree

    Rebel Dreams,

    “>>…if there

  • Jason Dick

    ree ree,

    Here’s the simple truth of the matter:
    The universe may have had a beginning. It may not have. We don’t yet know. But not knowing in no way, shape, or form indicates that theists are right when they claim that god did it. That would be the intellectual equivalent of claiming that because we don’t yet know whether quantum loop gravity or string theory (or both, or neither) are correct, quantum loop gravity must be correct. It’s nonsense.

    Garth A. Barber,

    But it requires an equal amount of faith.

    To explain the anthropic propitious nature of our universe by

  • Reginald Selkirk


  • ree ree



  • Sean

    lemuel– the preference for simple and compact is just a recognition that seeking such a thing has historically been very successful. In science, we try to explain the most with the least, as far as we can. Positing a low-entropy boundary condition is not really very simple or compact: it’s a separate law of nature, you have to specify exactly which kind of “low entropy” state you mean (there are a huge number of possibilities), and you have to posit that the ordinary laws of quantum mechanics, which do not include a boundary in time, somehow fail in this case.

    Reginald– there was not much indication. I think he was just curious about what the response of a theologian would have been.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Why is there something instead of nothing? To sum up an answer to that it appears that nothingness is just unstable. To the extent we can talk about a “nothingness” it appears to be some sort of instanton (tunnelling state) for the universe which exists on a false vacuum. The ball on the Mexican hat peak will under the smallest perturbation or fluctuation begin to fall off the peak, roll into the trough and the universe tunnels out of the vacuum or nothing to become a “something.”

    The upshot here is that a real question about the origin of something probably can be answered scientifically. At least so far there is a very good track record for this. We don’t as yet understand completely how the universe quantum tunnelled out of the vacuum (nothing or void), but that we are able to at least discuss this and work with putative models does illustrate that an anwer is certainly possible. Much the same holds for the pre-biotic origin of life. Possible organic and geological chemical models can be debated and proposed. Which does again suggest that an answer to life’s origin is possible. I would say that given sufficient time in the future answers to these questions are not just possible but highly probable.

    Clearly the theological type might ask where this false vacuum comes from, but that is in a way a timeless aspect of reality. Also we might not get it perfectly figured out, but we can do a damned good job anyways. To hang a God on what is not understood is a way of closing minds off to asking questions or using imagination.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Rebel Dreams

    ree ree:

    The problem with the terminology you use is that it relates to “laws” that only pertain to this universe; from the perspective of this Universe there was, indeed, “nothing” as you use the term before it, but that does not preclude that the universe arose *from* nothing, just nothing that relates to *this* universe. That is one idea that is currently being investigated.

    Secondly; I still stand by my point about the “zero sum equation”; if the zero-sum game is shown to be true (and nothing has so far ruled it out, then the universe not only *could* come from nothing, but indeed it *had* to. Basic quantum physics says that if anything is thermodynamically possible, then it must happen (Feinman’s “Sum over histories” approach uses this as its basic tenet) and so if the Universe truly is zero-sum, then physics essentially demands that a universe will occur.

    Of course, this says nothing of the *mechanics* of how this universe arose, but it removes the need for an ontological “first-cause” in general. The mechanics of how it occurred can be investigaed without needing a “prime mover”, because, the argument goes, a zero-sum universe is bound to happen eventually.

    As for Kant, his basic argument revolved around the idea that “existence” is a property of a thing. That the universe exists may or may not be undeniable, but it is not a property of it. Therefore any claims regarding its existence that relate to some other property (i.e. in this case that the “reason” for its existence cannot be contained within it”) are meaningless, because it presupposes that existence is a property conferred upon the object in question.

    This does not say that the Universe does or does NOT contain the reason for its existence within it, merely that the fact that the unverse exists cannot demand a priori that the cause (if any) for its existence cannot be held within it. The statement that the Unverse does not contain its cause within itself cannot be proven, and is therefore an invalid supposition.

  • Rebel Dreams

    Correction to #25:

    “As for Kant, his basic argument revolved around the idea that “existence” is a property of a thing”


    “As for Kant, his basic argument revolved around the idea that “existence” is NOT a property of a thing”

  • Rebel Dreams

    Addendum: Another point on “something rather than nothing”.

    There is a (small) school of thought that says that we’re looking at this in the wrong way; is there, in fact, something rather than nothing? Right now, yes, there is, but on a long enough timescale (and we have no idea what a relevant timescale may be in the universe) there will once mroe be nothing; even protons have a lifespan and eventually everything will decay to…well… false vacuum again.

    Since we have no real working description of what the Universe, at its base, really IS (beyond a physical description) then we cannot talk about whether it is, in fact, anything at all! Weird, yes. Controversial? Almost certainly. True? Well, I dunno… get back to me in about 10^150 yrs…

  • Pingback: Sean Carroll is my favorite source about cosmology « My agnostic views & images I like()

  • ree ree

    Rebel Dreams,

    “The problem with the terminology you use is that it relates to “laws” that only pertain to this universe; from the perspective of this Universe there was, indeed, “nothing” as you use the term before it, but that does not preclude that the universe arose *from* nothing, just nothing that relates to *this* universe. That is one idea that is currently being investigated.”

    Okay, so you’re saying that if there are “multiple universes” out there, “our universe” can come from them. I agree. Then that whole zero sum game can apply because there’s something (namely, another universe) for the game to apply itself, and create our universe. But how do we know if there are other universes around? All we can do is get a theory that works for our universe, which mathematically implies that there are other universes around. But then again, how do we know that someone won’t come along and formulate a theory which is just as good, but which doesn’t have other universes? Thus, perhaps a little faith is still required with regards to the existence of these other universes?

  • Rebel Dreams

    Again, faith is irrelevant to the idea of multiple universes’ they are either there (in which case they will be proven to be there) or they are not (in which case they won’t).

    I gave the multiple universes example as one idea; there are also others that can “create something from nothing” as ably outlined by others here, that do NOT require multiple universes. And the zero-sum game described is one of those.

    Science does not seek the infinite regress that multiple universes might ultimately create (“ah, but what created THEM, and what created the ones BEFORE them, etc…”) It seeks the ontology of the universe using understandable physical laws, without appeals to the unknown.

    Science does not even have “faith” in its own established “laws”, and seeks to refine, redefine or even abandon them if they turn out to be inadequate descriptions of what is going on. Faith has no place in science as a whole. To be sure, individual researchers examining one point of a theory or another may “have faith” that the overall theoretical underpinning of a subject pertains, but tacitly acknowledge that if that theory is proven false, then their work will be imperilled by it. A true scientist secretly dreams (and sometimes not so secretly!) of overturning a long-held scientific theorem or law with some astounding discovery. That’s the fun of the game!

  • Rebel Dreams

    Another addendum! (sorry!) 😀

    As Lawrence B. Crowell pointed out, the “nothing” before the big bang may indeed have been “nothing” in the sense that there was no universe, but it may also have been “something” in the sense of being a false vacuum, without limit but able to produce the universe “something”.

  • ree ree

    “Again, faith is irrelevant to the idea of multiple universes

  • Garth A. Barber


    Again, faith is irrelevant to the idea of multiple universes

  • Rebel Dreams

    To the first point; we would prove the existence of multiple universes in much the same way as we prove the existece of quarks, or the Higgs boson, or dark matter; a theory that describes and necessitates multiple universes would as a consequence have to include points that describe phenomena in this universe adequately too. One tack currently being investigated is the “gravity problem”; the gravitational force is so weak that some theorists suggest that gravitons actually operate in another universe, and their effect is only weakly felt in our own. If that theory made some radical prediction, upon completion, that was then borne out by observation (perhaps even at the LHC) then that would be good evidence that the theory was correct.

    This feeds in to the other point about “faith”… even is demonstrated to be probably true, and taken up and utilized by other theories, the putative multiple universe theory could and should still be open to falsification – the very basis of all science.

    The zero sum game makes perfect sense in the absence of other universes; if the universe is, as a whole, a zero-sum equation, then it is bound to occur, according to QM. I find the best image is to visualize it as a virtual particle; feinman suggested that a virtual particle can be imagined as a particle-antiparticle pair, leaping into existence and annihilating each other instantaneously, thus leaving no relic of their existence in the vacuum from which they sprang. If the universe is a zero-sum equation then when looked at over the totality of its existence, it took no energy to “create”, beacuse the total “amount” of energy expended over the lifetime of the universe is zero.

    This had two important implications; firstly, if it took no energy to create, then it required no “prime mover” to do the creating in the first place. It simply *happened* because it took no “effort” to happen.

    Secondly, not only did it just happen, but it was *bound* to happen; according to QM, the probability of an event is related to the energy required to produce that event; a Higgs boson is not just going to drop out of the sky, but it *might* appear with a sufficiently energetic reaction. If an event requires no energy at all, then it has a probability to 100% of occurring.

    Your assertion that energy is just some system invented by humans to track change, I think you should refine your definition of energy; energy is a real thing, independent of “stuff” – be it fields, particles, instantons or events. The concepts of positive and negative energy are well defined in physics, and energy certainly does exist independently of systems, fields and particles. The false vacuum has an energy potential independent of any pre-existing or acting field, for example. If false vacuum existed ‘before’ the universe, then, as LBC pointed out, quantum tunneling could lead to a perfectly rational, zero-sum universe.

  • Rebel Dreams

    Garth; good questions. The universes may well be “lost” behind their event horizons, but Hawking and Susskind have both in their way demonstrated that event horizons are not necessarily a barrier or impediment to information; any theory that deomnstrates the existence of multiple universe must necessarily have consequences for our own universe, otherwise it is just a wish-list. What I spoke of as a working theory that dmeands multiple universes means just that; a theory that makes some meaningful prediction or declaration of our own universe as a consequence of the existence of multiple universes.

    One could imagine multiple universes being falsified in many ways, depending upon how they were demonstrated in the first place. For example, take the idea of the graviton operating “elsewhere”; if it oculd be domeonstrated that the observers made an error, or misunderstood the behavior of the gravtion, and it turned out to operate not in another universe, but rather in the higher dimensions of this universes’ brane, and its effects only marginally impinged on the 4-space we inhabit, that could falsify the multiple universe theory.

    Or the theory might make some grandiose prediction regarding black holes that turned out to be false… basically I cannot make any meaningful statement regarding the falsification of a theorem that does not yet exist, but I could write some entertaining SF stories about them in the meantime.

  • Leisureguy

    The Timaeus proposes that at the basis of reality we’ll find mathematics and mathematical objects, which determine how reality unfolds. Not so very different.

  • Rebel Dreams


    “I could write some entertaining SF stories about them in the meantime” in no way implies that I am a good writer, or even able to do anything mroe than tap keys in a pseudo-random manner to reply to blogs.

    For the record, I use a stochastic Monte-Carlo function to generate all these replies.


  • ree ree

    Rebel Dreams,

    “The zero sum game makes perfect sense in the absence of other universes; if the universe is, as a whole, a zero-sum equation, then it is bound to occur, according to QM.”

    That makes absolutely no sense to me. What does it mean for the universe to “be a zero-sum equation”? If we are talking about the origin of our universe, and in the absence of other universes, the terms in the “zero sum” correspond to NOTHING because there is no universe. Bound to occur how? Does QM exist in the absence of a universe? If there is no universe, the “zero sum equation” does absolutely nothing. QM is a theory cooked up by humans to explain stuff happening in the universe. If there is no universe, there is nothing to obey the rules of QM.

    “Your assertion that energy is just some system invented by humans to track change, I think you should refine your definition of energy; energy is a real thing, independent of “stuff” – be it fields, particles, instantons or events. The concepts of positive and negative energy are well defined in physics, and energy certainly does exist independently of systems, fields and particles.”

    Give me an example.
    Things HAVE energy. Energy doesn’t just float around. It’s a property. If energy exists independently of things, then why is it that kinetic energy depends on your frame of reference? Did the KE disappear if start from rest and travel at the same velocity as the thing whose energy I am trying to measure? Things have energy. If there is no things, no spacetime, there is no energy. IF you look in any physics textbook you’ll see that energy is just a label we assign things. It helps us explain the world around us. It’s just a handy concept.

    You speak of false vacuum. What is it a vacuum of? Do you even know what a false vacuum is?

  • Otis

    From Sean: “whether you want to believe in God or not, it

  • Rebel Dreams

    I think you’re missing the point of the “zero-sum game”. It refers to the idea (if proven true) that the Universe requires no “external” impetus to create it. If the total sum of the universe over time is zero, then it required nothing to create it, the same way as virtual particles can be envisoned as pairs of particles and antiparticles instantaneously annihilating one another are “zero sum” unless some external impetus changes the equilibrium. It remains to be seen if the Universe is zero sum or not; I raised it as an objection to the idea that the universe had to have a cause.

    “Zero sum” makes no assertions regarding the existence of the universe, and thus your objection on the grounds that QM cannot exist if there is no universe absurd; the universe may well exist temporally, but that in no way means it is not a zero-sum universe. The zero-sum does not relate to the amount of energy in the system at any given moment, but rather overall.

    Also your assertion that QM does not exist beyond or in the absence of the universe does not necessarily make sense either; it remains to be seen if that is the case, and if QM can provide a framework to describe the creation of this niverse, then that would demonstrate that QM pertains independently of it.

    The false vacuum is a theoretical construct, being a stable space whose forces are in pure equilibrium. One idea of the creation of the universe suggests that before the universe a false vacuum existed (possibly, but not necessarily infinite in size) which our universe essentially ‘tunneled’ into as an instanton effect. See False Vacuum for a much more ocmplete discussion.

    Energy is a property of things, and I admit with full mea culpa that I overstated that it existed independently, except inasmuch as it exists in potentia in the vacuum as demonstrated by the phenomenon of virtual particles. However I maintain that your assertion that it is a purely human construct as a means to ‘keep score’ of transactions in space is false.

  • nate

    thank you for the tipping of the hat to philosophy, it is a dis-respected profession these days. I am sure that an individual that takes education as seriously as you has come into contact with the works of Bergson (Henri-Louis) and I would suggest that you take another look at what he has to say on the nature of causality and its shortfalls, it is worth your time (see creative evolution, time and free-will). Science is an amazing project, but one that does not and can not fully explain to us some of the most important aspects of life, just a thought.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    This discussion took off a bit! :-))

    When it comes to matters of false vacua, a void and zero sum games, we should keep in mind that conservation of energy is something which holds locally, and only holds for spacetimes where there is a time Killing vector K_t where

    K_t cdot K_t~=~g_{tt},

    which for a Schwarschild solution is the g_{tt} = (1 – 2M/r) metric term. The Killing vector in this case insures a timelike momentum vector in a certain frame has a constant projection along K_t

    K_tcdot P~=~K_tE~=~constant,

    which conserves energy. For cosmology we have time dependent metric components. This means one can’t establish a global energy conservation!

    So we can think of how a vacuum state |0) can be unstable and give rise to a universe. While this has not been solved in completeness, we can at least think about this. So the universe might start out from some false vacuum |0) with a terminal point at AdS conformal infinity — a Minkowski space or void. This “map” might reshuffle information or quantum bits, even violate some of our cherished conservation laws on a global level.

    Of course theologians can be smart, and they are clever at finding places where a God can be squeezed in. Is a false vacuum really a nothing? It is about as close to a nothing as we can think of which ties into physics. So from that perspective it is good enough. Where do the physical laws come from? There really are no physical laws! There are only patterns that repeat themselves in nature which we interpret in mathematical models. There was no imposition of physical laws onto the universe. We are the ones who if anything might impose physical laws.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • ree ree

    Rebel Dreams,

    “If the total sum of the universe over time is zero, then it required nothing to create it, the same way as virtual particles can be envisoned as pairs of particles and antiparticles instantaneously annihilating one another are “zero sum” unless some external impetus changes the equilibrium. It remains to be seen if the Universe is zero sum or not; I raised it as an objection to the idea that the universe had to have a cause.”

    What the heck does “if the total sum of the universe over time is zero” mean? Virtual particles exist in a Minkowskian background spacetime. They pop in and out of an already existing universe. If there is no universe, there is nothing literally NOWHERE to apply this analogue, and QM cannot be used because there is NOWHERE to use it. Now, if our universe, by a quantum fluctuation, came from a parent universe, that’s a different story. But you can’t apply any laws or any zero sum equations to a universe that doesn’t exist. Therefore, the universe HAS to have a cause. Presumably this cause can be explained by fundamental laws, right? Well, if that’s true, those fundamental laws have to be associated with SOMETHING (i.e. another universe). These laws don’t just exist on their own, you know. From nothing, comes nothing. The equation 0 = 0 doesn’t cause ANYTHING.

    “Also your assertion that QM does not exist beyond or in the absence of the universe does not necessarily make sense either; it remains to be seen if that is the case, and if QM can provide a framework to describe the creation of this niverse, then that would demonstrate that QM pertains independently of it.”

    Well, QM does provide a framework, as long as there’s a “parent” universe from which our universe can be produced. Presumably QM applies there too. QM doesn’t exist on its own like some sort of spirit. Any law of nature, or mathematical theory is really a set of rules we cooked up to explain the phenomena that we observe. Without the universe, there is nothing to which the laws of QM can be applied. Why is this so hard to understand?

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    I strongly second what reeree says above. There is little reason to suppose there are externally imposed rules which guide the universe. I will for the time avoid the issue of whether mathematics is Platonic or constructed, but when it comes to physics we are simply putting together rules which logically follow each other, and where these rules reference things we observe.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Jason Dick

    ree ree,

    However, that doesn

  • Count Iblis

    Well, I’m pretty sure that what really exists are mathematical structures and that what we perceive as a physical world is not something separate from a mathematical world. This is pretty much the picture proposed by Tegmark. I.m.o., this should be the default hypothesis in physics, but for some strange reason it isn’t.

    The difficulty in assuming a “physical world” which is different from the mathematical model that exactly describes it, is that it raises questions that cannot be answered from within the model (like where did the universe came from). So, it is exactly like postulating a God (in that case you cannot answer who created God).

    Postulating that the set of all formally describable mathematical models is all that exists is sort of a “minimal assumption”, even though it implies the existence of all posible universes. The question “how did the unverse came into existence?” is then trivially answered by saying that the universe is the model that describes it and as such it is timeless.

    To do physics in such a setting, one needs to assume some measure over the set of all models. Also, one needs to define an observer (which is a mathematical model in its own right, of course). Then one can try to compute the probability of the observer experiencing some history. So, physics becomes an (perhaps intractable) exercise in pure mathematics this way.

    The measure must be some exponentially fast decreasing function of the Kolmogorov complexity of the model for this to be well defined (Kolmogorov complexity is the least number of bits one needs to specify the model).

    If we then take an observer, defined as some very complex model as input, then the problem amounts to finding a model with the lowest Kolmogorov complexity that generates the observer. Such a model will, of course, generate a lot of junk besides the observer, which is the rest of the universe the observer finds him/herself in.

    It may well be the case that quantum mechancs, which we think of describing “our universe”, actually is a meta-law approximately describing the probabiblites over a set of “nearby models”.

  • ree ree


    “Ah, yes, but what if the specific features of the theory that lead to the unambiguous prediction of the multiverse are verified?”

    Good point. I guess for the time being this is a philosophical thing because we don’t yet have a satisfactory and complete theory, nor the experimental capabilities to test it. For example, if string theorists discovered a mechanism by which other universes may be generated, and they were able to show what the laws and constants in that universe should be (given a set of initial conditions), that that would obviously be great evidence for a multiverse. Of course, to be absolutely sure, we need to be to understand physics at all energy scales.

    Count Iblis,

    “Well, I

  • JimV

    Otis @ #39:

    From Sean

  • Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Sean said:
    “Positing a low-entropy boundary condition is not really very simple or compact: it

  • Hank J.

    “…whether you want to believe in God or not, it

  • collin237

    and it seems to me that the bias toward talking about universal laws rather than historical narratives is really destructive for mainstream economics.

    Maybe you didn’t intend it this way, but this sounds like one of the ad-miz attacks on science by various denialist groups.

  • Atanu Dey

    Let me introduce the hymn to creation from the Rig Veda (composed sometime between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE):


    Translation by V. V. Raman, University of Rochester

    Not even nothing existed then
    No air yet, nor a heaven.
    Who encased and kept it where?
    Was water in the darkness there?

    Neither deathlessness nor decay
    No, nor the rhythm of night and day:
    The self-existent, with breath sans air:
    That, and that alone was there.

    Darkness was in darkness found
    Like light-less water all around.
    One emerged, with nothing on
    It was from heat that this was born.

    Into it, Desire, its way did find:
    The primordial seed born of mind.
    Sages know deep in the heart:
    What exists is kin to what does not.

    Across the void the cord was thrown,
    The place of every thing was known.
    Seed-sowers and powers now came by,
    Impulse below and force on high.

    Who really knows, and who can swear,
    How creation came, when or where!
    Even gods came after creation’s day,
    Who really knows, who can truly say

    When and how did creation start?
    Did He do it? Or did He not?
    Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
    Or perhaps, not even He.


    I particularly like the expression of agnosticism and skepticism in the last lines. Others have translated those as: “He who surveys it from the highest regions; Perhaps He knows it; or perhaps even He knows not.”

    The hymn also suggests the possibility that the gods (the sum total of the laws that govern the universe) came after the creation of the universe.

  • Atanu Dey

    Here’s another translation of the last two verses of the creation hymn from the Rig Veda.

    Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?
    Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?
    Even the Gods came after its emergence.
    Then who can tell from whence it came to be?

    That out of which creation has arisen,
    whether it held it firm or it did not,
    He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
    He surely knows – or maybe He does not!


  • collin237

    Atanu, that may be the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read.

    It perfectly states the connection between physics and philosophy that I’ve never had the words to express.

  • Jason Dick

    Well, I

  • Jason Dick

    ree ree,

    Good point. I guess for the time being this is a philosophical thing because we don

  • ree ree


    What upcoming work on examining inflation do you mean?

  • Plato

    Back to the lumping in of theology alongside of Atlantis. Rebel dreams, it is hard to remove one’s colour once they work from a certain premise. Atheistic, or not.

    Seeking such clarity would be the attempt for me, with which to approach a point of limitation in our knowledge, as we may try to explain the process of the current state of the universe, and it’s shape. Such warnings are indeed appropriate to me about what we are offering for views from a theoretical standpoint.

    The basis presented here is from a layman standpoint while in context of Plato’s work, brings some perspective to Raphael’s painting, “The School of Athens.” It is a central theme for me about what the basis of Inductive and deductive processes reveals about the “infinite regress of mathematics to the point of proof.”

    Such clarity seeking would in my mind contrast a theoretical technician with a philosopher who had such a background. Raises the philosophical question about where such information is derived from. If ,from a Platonic standpoint, then all knowledge already exists. We just have to become aware of this knowledge? How so?

    Lawrence Crowell:

    The ball on the Mexican hat peak will under the smallest perturbation or fluctuation begin to fall off the peak, roll into the trough and the universe tunnels out of the vacuum or nothing to become a “something.”

    Whether I attach a indication of God to this knowledge does not in any way relegate the process to such a contention of theological significance. The question remains a inductive/deductive process?

    I would think philosophers should weight in on the point of inductive/deductive processes as it relates to the search for new mathematics?

  • Rebel Dreams


    Interesting points… I would argue that “all knowledge” does not exist prior to investigation. It may be a fine point (even too fine a parsing, I don’t know) but I would differentiate between “facts” and “knowledge of facts”. If we posit that all facts exist, and that mathematics can describe all facts phenomenologically, then it can be deducecd that all mathematics already exists, and we simply need to discover it. In that I do not remotely disagree with Plato. I do agree with Sean, however, in his disagreement with Plato’s vision of how the unverse came to be, which is essentially the thrust of this post, if I understand it correctly.

    I look at the ongoing attempts to unify mathematics (e.g. the Langlands Program) as a possible proof of this; namely the fact that previously undiscovered links exist between unrelated (or seemingly unrelated) areas of math suggest that math is discovered rather than invented.

    To your first point, I agree it is hard to remove one’s ‘prejudices’ in whatever endeavor one undertakes. For the record, I am Catholic, but my appreciation of astronomy, cosmology etc is not impacted by my beliefs. Not that I claim any superiority in this, you understand; I simply believe what I believe, and appreciate what I appreciate.

  • Plato

    Rebel Dreams:For the record, I am Catholic, but my appreciation of astronomy, cosmology etc is not impacted by my beliefs. Not that I claim any superiority in this, you understand; I simply believe what I believe, and appreciate what I appreciate.

    You could be a atheist and it should not matter. You would be correct on this in my view.

    Rebel Dreams:I do agree with Sean, however, in his disagreement with Plato

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The origin of mathematics and its relationship to the physical world are likely questions we may never solve. There are the platonists and the constructivists view of mathematics. One can well enough see either side of this metaphysical or metamathematical debate. Mathematical objects and their relationships have a “beingness,” or at least a sense of such, such as with proof that involve certain types of spaces. The mathematician often has some mental image of the space, or relationships between certain elements of that space with each other. At the same time the mathematician has experience with a physical world, and at the nuts and bolts level there are billions of neurons in a brain sending action potentials to each other.

    The Perleman proof of the Poincare conjecture is an interesting case in point. I read that Perelman himself said that a part of the idea comes from recognizing that clothes on a rack or worn by a person will assume their minimal configuration. So there is a connection of sorts with a physical object. The proof stems from Hamilton’s work on Ricci flows. This is a dynamical equation for the fluid-like flow of a three dimensional space according to


    which tells us that how the metric evolves is given by the Ricci curvature plus the second term involving the conformal gauge term (eg a dilaton). So the metric can be of the form


    where this system is involved with the conformal structure of string world sheets! This tells us that a space that is deformed or twisted up will evolve towards a minimal energy configuration. A balloon when twisted up (not tied to other balloons) will when released pop back to its spherical shape. There is also heat kernel theory which enters into this picture, and so this connects up with some physics of thermodynamics.

    So where does this really come from? These is some visual imagery, some connections with the physical world and connections between objects that have a logical structure. This is an interesting mathematical system to consider for the boundaries between physics and pure math, between abstract structures and construction are so wonderfully blurred. No GH Hardy pretention of perfectly pure math. It would appear that disentangling math from physics is nearly impossible, and further there does not appear to be any way to discern what the existential status (platonic v construction) of this system is.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Jason Dick

    ree ree,

    The upcoming work on inflation is related to detection of the B-mode polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background. B-mode polarization is expected to be a means of measuring the energy level at which inflation occurred, which will significantly narrow the range of possible theories of inflation.

    It is, however, a very difficult thing to measure, requiring fantastic signal-to-noise ratios. Even Planck won’t be capable of getting a strong detection of the B-mode polarization. There are, however, ground and balloon-based experiments that measure much smaller sections of the sky that are designed to do precisely this, such as EBEX. There are significant technical difficulties in separating out the B-mode polarization from various systematics, however, so it will probably be some 5-10 years before we can be confident on what the measurements mean.

  • Rebel Dreams

    Plato and Lawrence; your points are elegant and I agree wholeheartedly with them! I think what you are touching on (and forgive me if I misrepresent your views in any way) is the inspiration or the path,/i> to a mathematical idea.

    I agree that certain mathematical ideas can only be happened upon in a specific order; Newton and Leibniz did not create the calculus from whole cloth, but building upon a body of mathematical ideas pre-existing in the body of mathematical thought. Lawrence’s illustration of Perleman’s inspiration for the Poincare solution from seeing clothes on a rack is another aspect of this; the ability of mathematics to be improved by intuitive leap; in this sense, mathematics is more closely related to the arts, perhaps, than the sciences.

    My own view is that math pre-exists, and we discover it; the intermix between math and physics is a beautiful illustration in my view of this idea, namely that mathematics is the language one must learn to describe nature, and thus is self-consistent even when explored on its own (that is in areas that have, thus far, no practical applications).

    Of course, this creates a marvellous dichotomy; a mathematical proof, when proven true, is true for all time, even if it does not apply to a physical reality. I think it’s a lovely idea that all those wonderful, mathematically consistent physical theorems are still true, even if they do not apply to the phenomenon they attempted to prove in our universe.

  • Sean

    BRB (49)– in our theory we imagine that the visible universe came to life by pinching off from a specific pre-existing spacetime, empty de Sitter space. One could, in principle, calculate the rates of different kinds of fluctuations that could ultimately lead to brains, or galaxies, or what have you. In practice you can’t, in any believable way, because our understanding isn’t nearly there yet. I wouldn’t even call our ideas a “theory,” more like a schematic framework that it might be worthwhile trying to fill in.

    As for Vilenkin and other tunneling-from-nothing approaches, I think this is a good question. How do you calculate a rate or a likelihood if the universe, by hypothesis, doesn’t exist yet? You certainly have to say that conventional quantum mechanics breaks down, as the time parameter in the Schrodinger equation doesn’t come with some initial value, it goes forever.

  • Count Iblis

    ree ree,

    I think that question of “why these laws” is exactly what can be addressed in a setting in which you have an enseble of all possible universes on which you define a measure that gives a larger weight to those universes that can be specified with less information.

    Finding the laws of physics can be seen as an exercise in data compression. Given all the experimental data, what are the simplest rules that describes the data? The fact that such compression is possible at all and that it is a good guide to find the laws of physics suggests that we can consider ourselves to be sampled from an ensemble of universes using a measure that favors low complexity.

    So, all this is consistent with the way we usually do physics. G

  • Otis

    To JimV @ #48

    Your response has the makings of an atheistic creation myth. Appeals to randomness, chance and indeterminately long periods of time are characteristics of atheistic materialism. Then there are unobservable universes. When all else fails, those arguments are always available. You appeal to the “power of random algorithms” to explain human exceptionalism, yet you have a sample size of one.

    Finally, you attribute our species success in understanding the universe to “trial and error.” That point can hardly be taken seriously since I doubt that mathematicians and mathematical physicists consider their work to be trial and error.

    The most remarkable occurrence in the natural world is that humans have a seemingly unique and exhaustible capacity to comprehend that natural world. That situation fits nicely within the confines of theism. I have yet to come across a compelling explanation from atheistic materialism. Perhaps someone could point me to one.


  • Andrew Daw

    “Oh piscator… you can

  • Jason Dick

    The most remarkable occurrence in the natural world is that humans have a seemingly unique and exhaustible capacity to comprehend that natural world. That situation fits nicely within the confines of theism. I have yet to come across a compelling explanation from atheistic materialism. Perhaps someone could point me to one.

    We wouldn’t be able to have this conversation if we weren’t this species. So why do you think you have a right to be surprised at this? And what are you surprised at, anyway, that any intelligent being exists, or that we’re the only one?

  • Andrew Daw

    [I wonder how come my towardsanageofcertainty blog link has been bugged from this site? It doesn’t happen with other links from here.]

  • Otis

    To Jason @ #68

    That humans are intelligent, have conversations or even that intelligence exists is not necessarily surprising. What is surprising is that the universe is mathematical and that our species can do the math. (Refer to my response #39) Max Tegmark tells us that coherent mathematical structures constitute an independent reality. In his book “Road to Reality” chapter 1, Roger Penrose makes the case for an objective mathematical reality that was in existence long before humans arrived on the scene. There is an immaterial and external (to our minds) reality that humans can decipher and use to determine the age and evolution of our universe (among many other mathematical and scientific achievements). That humans can do all that is very surprising in light of their supposedly contingent evolutionary origin.

    In his famous essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences“, Eugene Wigner writes, “it is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.”

    What is additionally surprising is that many materialistic atheists seem not to be surprised by any of this at all.


  • Jason Dick


    I don’t see why it’s in any way surprising that the universe is mathematical. Mathematics is nothing more and nothing less than a fully self-consistent symbolic system. The only way for the universe to be anything but mathematical is for it to be inconsistent with itself. But the claim that this is even conceivable just doesn’t make any sense. If you want to claim that the universe is not mathematical, you’re going to claim that some specific statements about the universe can be both true and false…it makes no sense!

    It is perhaps interesting that at least some portions of the mathematics of the universe appear so approachable, but without any expectation of which sorts of mathematical universes are likely, there’s just no way to know whether our situation is special or normal. So I don’t see that there’s any point in worrying about it. Better to focus on things that are genuinely surprising, such as the value of the cosmological constant.

  • Pingback: Conference on Timaeus « Later On()

  • JimV

    Otis @ #66:

    We have vastly different world views, so I have difficulty even understanding what you are trying to say. You talk about an atheistic creation myth involving long times and random events. From my point of view, there is so much evidence that the unverse has been around for a long time and contains randomness that it seems pointless to debate it.

    You talk about human exceptionalism. I see human intelligence as one end of a spectrum within the animal kingdom, which includes apes which can do simple arithmetic and understand sign language, parrots which can speak and understand some English, dogs which can understand dozens of commands, et cetera. Giraffes have longer necks, elephants have larger size – these are just different evolutionary niches or contingencies. The most success living organisms are still bacteria, which outweigh all other species combined in mass, on this planet.

    Look around you. After some 200,000 years of our species’ existence, do you see a great utopia that our exceptionalism has produced? I don’t.

    I didn’t say trial and error accounted for all human progress, but yes it has ocurred in both math and physics and other sciences. Aristole’s physics was a trial form which contained many errors. Galileo’s was better, but still flawed. Ditto for Newton, and so on. As for math, I myself discovered this minor theorem while looking for something else: (p-1)! + 1 is divisible by the integer p if and only if p is prime. I suspect that many mathematical discoveries happened similarly. Andrew Wiles’ first attempt at proving Fermat’s Last Theorem contained an error, so he had to go back and try something else.

    The random search algorithm has this great advantage over more clever methods: give it enough time and it will find a good result, regardless of the landscape it is searching over. Understanding this goes a long way towards understanding where we are in the universe, IMHO.

    In summary, I see humans as a natural part of this universe, not somehow apart from it or of supreme importance within it. You seem to have a different worldview which you somehow justify with different evidence. (Perhaps you have not ridden in as many city buses as I have.)

    In hopes that I have at least explained my point of view, if not convinced anyone, I promise not to submit any more off-topic comments on this thread.

  • Rebel Dreams

    Hi to anyone still reading this thread..!

    Anyone see this paper?

  • Plato

    Grossmann is getting his doctorate on a topic that is connected with fiddling around and non-Euclidean geometry. I don

  • Otis

    Thanks Jason Dick and JimV for your comments. Yes, there is a vast difference in world views being expressed here.

    It is certainly true that randomness and long periods of time are fundamental to the universe. However, materialists seem to be quick to attribute unique outcomes (such as human cognitive abilities) to random chance and long time intervals. I believe there is something else going on. There are some prominent scientists, even biologists, who would agree. (Examples are Simon Conway Morris and Francis Collins)

    Materialists would even argue (as JimV has) that human cognitive abilities are not unique, but are simply at the far end of a continuous spectrum. After looking at how humans dominate the planet, that contention would not seem to square with reality. In addition, humans have intellectual attributes that cannot be traced to evolutionary origins, such as religion, art, humor, cooking.

    As is obvious from our exchange of posts, these ideas have been debated and will continue to be debated.

    What I find to be exceptionally odd is the expectations that materialists have. When Sean Carroll wrote in his recent SciAm article, “we seek an understanding of the laws of nature and of our particular universe in which EVERYTHING makes sense to us,” he was, in effect, putting a CONSTRAINT on nature; that it ought make sense to recently, contingently and randomly evolved human cosmologists.

    In the end, I claim, Sean’s view of human exceptionalism is similar to mine. His expectation cannot be rationally based on a mind that is produced by materialistic biological evolution. There must be something else involved in order to get the desired outcome that he expects. The materialistic view of nature is not the whole story. Theism is not excluded.


  • Jason Dick


    The problem with your stance is that it is fundamentally impossible to rationally conclude that any deity exists as an attempt to explain any fact about the natural world due to Occam’s Razor. Simply put, because gods are posited as being that make choices, the only possible answer for the question, “Why did this god do it in this particular way?” can ever be, “Because it wanted to.” This means that you need a specific new property of the god (its desire) for each and every thing you try to explain by invoking it.

    So, you haven’t actually explained anything. You’ve just shifted the explanation. Instead of, for example, providing an answer to the question, “Why is the universe understandable?” you’ve simply shifted it to, “Why did the creator god want the universe to be understandable?” The number of questions that need answering have not decreased. In fact, they’ve increased! By invoking a god, you’ve increased the number of things that need explaining because there are also properties that are unique to the god itself.

    The only possible way you could get around this conclusion would be to demonstrate that your definition for your god is specific enough such that it is possible to make explicit predictions as to what this god will do and not do. These predictions furthermore need to be a form of compression: you have to use fewer properties of the god than things that are explained. If you can’t do this, if you can’t make definite predictions, and can’t make many predictions come from few postulates, then your god explains nothing, and is handily ruled out by Occam’s Razor as a result.

  • collin237

    JimV wrote:

    (p-1)! + 1 is divisible by the integer p if and only if p is prime.

    You’re not the first to discover this. I’ve seen it in a number theory book. I think it’s called “Fermat’s Little Theorem”.

  • collin237


    The specification you can make about God is that His laws are the laws of physics. You would discard concepts like benevolence and omnipotence, and replace them with mathematical consistency.

  • Otis


    You make a very good point. It is one thing to identify the deficiencies of materialism. It quite another to argue that a God (of some kind) created the universe. (However, I think that it can be very effectively argued that the supernatural was involved in origins. For example, using a variation of Richard Dawkin’s argument against a creator God, where did the eternal high entropy vacuum, dark energy and allied equations and laws come from if there was not a natural process that produced them?)

    As far as the nature of the God who created the universe, I don’t have to explain who God is or what he wants to do, as if his character was speculative and unknown. God has revealed himself to us in the Bible and in the life of Jesus Christ. Now you might not believe what is written in the Bible. In fact, belief in the Bible is not important for this particular discussion. I (and many other theists) claim that what is revealed in the Bible about God is a quite adequate explanation for “why did this god do it in this particular way?”

    That brings us to the fact that the Bible says that God created the universe (Big Bang or high entropy primordial vacuum or whatever is the current scientific fashion) and he also created humans “in his image” giving humans some of the emotional and rational attributes of himself, the creator. Whether you believe the Bible or not, I maintain that this is a much more robust (and only) explanation for cosmologists’ ability to comprehend the mathematical universe than the random, contingent biological evolution favored by materialistic atheists. As scientists are continually successful in deciphering evermore mysteries of the created universe, the “God hypothesis” gets more and more support and the “materialistic hypothesis” is less and less tenable.

    (By the way, please do not lump me in with the usual caricature of “creationists” who believe the universe was created in six days and that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon. I can assure you that there are many deep thinking Christians who far beyond that.)

    Thanks again, I have enjoyed this exchange.


  • Nick

    The Bible also says that Elijah flew to heaven on a chariot.

  • Electric Dragon

    collin237: That’s Wilson’s Theorem. Compare Fermat’s Little Theorem.

  • Jason Dick


    Okay, that’s fine. But that just begs the question as to why these laws. As a result, it still doesn’t explain anything.


    No, actually, attempting to identify deficiencies of materialism and attempting to use a god as an explanation are closely intertwined. Using a god is just one possible way of trying to get around materialism. But it’s a logically unsound thing to do: materialism is simply an inevitable consequence of existence. Why do I say this?

    I say this because I define materialism as this: materialism is the refusal to resort to any explanations that require hypothetical entities that cannot be understood by their very definition. That is to say, even if we were to make a thought experiment to build the most elaborate, powerful instruments we could dream up in our wildest imaginations, these non-materialistic hypothetical entities would still elude understanding (caveat: by understanding here I don’t mean intuitive understanding, but simply the ability to describe how/why the thing in question works or is the way it is).

    So, why is this nonsense? It’s nonsense simply because if something operates or is, there must be a way to describe how it operates, why it is. The absolute best argument you can offer against this is that there are some aspects of the natural world that we do not understand (that’s the argument you have put forward, in fact). But simply not knowing certain facts does in no way indicate that we should give up by referencing an illogical explanation that cannot itself ever be explained, even in principle.

    As for the Bible, suffice it to say that that text is so absurdly wrong on so many levels that it just boggles my mind that anybody thinks it offers any level of reliability.

    P.S. You may have a first cause objection to my claim that the only possible universe is a fully-materialistic one. This objection fails because one needs only have a fundamental law that explains itself to get around the problem of an uncaused fundamental cause.

  • collin237

    Jason wrote

    because if something operates or is, there must be a way to describe how it operates, why it is.

    Actually, a religious realist (that is, someone who believes in “God, but not a book”) can be more attuned to this requirement than an atheist, because he admits to having a tendency to neglect it.

  • Jason Dick

    What, what? Neglecting realism equates to being more realistic!?

  • JimV

    I hope this is not off-topic, or else I am breaking my promise, but I feel compelled to say that Jason Dick’s #83 is my favorite comment of the millenium (so far).

    P.S. Wasn’t going to comment further until I saw #83, but as long as I am here … thanks to Colin and Electric Dragon for the news about Wilson’s Theorem. Colin’s initial comment was slightly remiss in recollection, as ED pointed out, but still sufficed to let me find Wilson’s Theorem in my google search. (I guess I will have to stop calling it “JimV’s Theorem”.) My proof is different and less direct than the one I found from the search, but contains a number of other terms which are also only divisible by primes – as I said, I was looking for something else and stumbled on it more or less by accident, which made me wonder how much mathematical progress is accidental and hence explicitly materialistic in origin.

    (As self-judge, I rule my comment OT, and sentence myself to one week without further blog commenting.)

  • Neil B. ?

    But Jason, the “laws” can’t be treated as explaining anything anyway as Hume pointed out. Saying It

  • Jason Dick


    It’s an explanation if it provides compression. That is, if you can show that many quantities can be explained by a few, then you’ve provided an explanation for the value those many quantities take by highlighting relationships between them.

    As for why there must always be an explanation, this is simply because if an unexplainable entity is ever proposed, then it cannot be an explanation for anything, because by its unexplainable nature it could potentially explain anything. This unrestricted quality prevents it from offering the compression required for an explanation.

  • Neil B. ?

    But Jason, then you have an infinite regress because whatever is used to explain the universe, divine or not, needs an explanation according to you, which needs an explanation in turn, etc. But if you say the universe is at some level self-sufficient, I’ll just say it can’t be because of the “why this way to be and not some other” and say “something else” must be responsible. It’s a “not” operator like I said: “Not” the universe because it can’t bootstrap its own way to be IMHO and justify it’s selection among the platonic possibilities (again, I must bring up my overworked term “modal realism.”) If whatever “that” is, can’t be understood I would say it’s just our tough luck that it has those problems, it is just a necessary background to there being “something”.

    BTW those heuristics like “compression” (is that a term that philosophers of science use now, or just your coinage?) that we have developed because of their practical helpfulness in everyday explaining (i.e., from foundational givens like laws into things like what stars act like) shouldn’t be expected to have the same applicability outside their region of known usefulness.

  • Jason Dick

    Nah, you can terminate at a self-explanatory explanation. This would be an explanation with zero information content, such as “all mathematical structures exist”.

  • TwisMinion

    I think you were very tactful. I lack that skill.
    I would have started it that way, but after a short silence I’d have continued that if god existed, then god would do so physically. There would be a god walking down the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change (or changing it at will as not to make god late). We would see a god made of matter, flesh and blood maybe even, and interacting with humanity with no less certainty than we interact with gravity. Otherwise there can be no god. For if god intended to remain a non physical entity in the physical world of man, god could just as well have imagined us to exist and never created the physical world at all. Since the physical world exists without a physical god, god must never have existed.

  • collin237


    I think the official term is mood swing. The more guilty one feels about thinking spiritually for “dessert”, the more one resolves to think rationally for “the next meal’s main course”.


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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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