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

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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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