Preaching to the Unconverted

By Sean Carroll | June 7, 2011 10:33 am

And now for something somewhat different. After I posted my article on “Does the Universe Need God?“, there were a few responses at the Intelligent Design blog Uncommon Descent, including a list of questions by Vincent Torley. Vincent then went the extra mile by inviting me to write a guest post for UD. Not my usual stomping grounds, but I ultimately agreed, precisely for that reason.

Here’s the post, which I’m cross-posting below. This might be controversial, as a lot of people on my side of things will say that there’s little point in engaging with people on the other side. And admittedly, this is a subject where feelings can be pretty entrenched. But you never know — not everyone has their mind made up on every issue, and it’s good to try to explain yourself to unsympathetic audiences on occasion. That’s all I tried to do here — to explain how I think about these things, not necessarily to pick a fight or even persuade any skeptics. I tried pretty hard to be as clear and unpretentious as I can be. (Success is for you to decide.) In a world of shouting and diatribe, I remain optimistic that real communication can occasionally occur! We’ll see how it goes.


I wanted to thank Vincent Torley and Denyse O’Leary for the opportunity to write a guest blog post, and apologize for how long it’s taken me to do so. I’ve written an article for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, entitled Does the Universe Need God?, in which I argued that the answer is “no.” Vincent posed a list of questions in response. After thinking about it, I decided that my answers would be more clear if I simply wrote a coherent argument, rather than addressing the questions individually.

My goal is to try to explain my own thinking to an audience that is not predisposed to agree. We can roughly break people up into two groups: naturalists such as myself, who think that the best explanation we have for the universe involves physical quantities obeying laws of Nature and nothing else; and those who believe that a better explanation can be found by invoking a powerful being/designer/creator/God. (For the sake of simplicity I’m going to use “God” to refer to this notion, but feel free to substitute the more accurate description of your choice.) Obviously there are many nuances that are being passed over by this simple distinction, but hopefully it will suffice for this moment.

The dispute between these two camps isn’t one where people often change their minds at the drop of an argument. Minds do change, in either direction — but typically after extended periods of reflection, not suddenly in response to a single killer blog post. So persuasion is not my goal here; only explanation. I’ve succeeded if an open-minded person who disagrees with me reads the post and still disagrees, but at least understands why I hold my positions. (After giving an earlier talk, one of the theologians in the audience told me that I had persuaded him — not that God didn’t exist, but that the argument from design wasn’t the way to get to Him. That sort of real-time response is more than one can generally hope for.)

What I want to do is to elaborate on some crucial aspects of how science is done that bear directly on the issues raised by my article and some of the responses to it that I’ve seen. In particular, I want to talk about simplicity, laws, openness, explanation, and clarity. This isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive treatise on the philosophy of science, nor is it especially rigorous, or anything really new — just some thoughts on issues relevant to this conversation.

I will be taking one thing for granted: that what we’re interested in doing here is science. There are many kinds of consideration that may lead people to theism or atheism that have nothing whatsoever to do with science; likewise, one may believe that there are ways of understanding the natural world that go beyond the methods of science. I have nothing to say about that right now; that’s a higher-level discussion. I’m just going to presume that we all agree that we’re trying to be the best scientists we can possibly be, and ask what that means.

With all that throat-clearing out of the way, here’s what I have to say about these five issues.


Science tries to capture the world in the simplest possible description. We are fortunate that such an endeavor is sensible, in that the world we observe exhibits various regularities. If the contents and behavior of the world were completely different from point to point and moment to moment, science would be impossible. But the regularities of the world offer a tremendous simplification of description, making science possible. We don’t need to talk separately about the charge of this electron, and the charge of that electron; all electrons have the same charge.

Simplicity can be quantified by the concept of Kolmogorov complexity — roughly, the length of the shortest possible complete description of a system. It takes longer to specify some particular list of 1,000 random numbers than it does to specify “the integers from 1 to one million,” even though the latter contains more elements. The list of integers therefore has a lower Kolmogorov complexity, and we say that it’s simpler. Scientists are trying to come up with the simplest description of nature that accounts for all the data.

Note that a theory that invokes God (or any other extra-physical categories) is, all else being equal, less simple than a theory that does not. “God + the natural world” is less simple than “the natural world.” This doesn’t mean that the idea of God is automatically wrong; only that it starts out at a disadvantage as far as simplicity is concerned. A conscientious scientist could nevertheless be led to the conclusion that God plays a role in the best possible scientific description of the world. For example, it could (in some hypothetical world) turn out to be impossible to fit the data without invoking God. As Einstein put it: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Alternatively, you could imagine deriving all of the physical laws from the simpler assumption that God exists. While these strategies are conceivable, in practice I don’t think they work, as should become clear.


A “law of nature” is simply a regularity we observe in the universe. All electrons have the same charge; energy and momentum are conserved in particle interactions. A law doesn’t necessarily have to be absolute or deterministic; the Born rule of quantum mechanics states that the probability of obtaining a certain observational result is the square of the amplitude of the corresponding branch of the wave function. A law is simply a pattern we observe in nature.

As far as science is concerned, it makes no difference whether we refer to these regularities as “laws” or “patterns” or anything else. It also doesn’t matter whether we think of them as “fundamental and irreducible features of the cosmos.” They simply are; science looks for them, and finds them. Vincent asks “How can rules exist in the absence of a mind?” That is simply not a question that science is concerned with. Science wants to know how we can boil the behavior of nature down to the simplest possible rules. You might want more than that; but then you’re not doing science. He also asks why we should believe that the rules should continue to hold tomorrow, simply because they have held in the past. Again, that’s what science does. Imagining that the same basic laws will continue to hold provides a simpler fit to the data we have than imagining (for no good reason) that they will change. If you are personally unsatisfied with that attitude, that’s fine; but your dissatisfaction is not a scientific matter.


This is probably the most important point I have to make, and follows directly on the issue of “laws” just addressed. There is a way of trying to understand the world that might roughly be called “scholastic,” which sits down and tries to reason about how the world should be. The great success of science over the last five hundred years has been made possible by throwing out that kind of thinking in favor of a different model. Namely: we think of every possible way the world could be, and then we go out and look at the world to see which is the simplest description that fits the data. Science insists that we be open to all possibilities, and let the data decide which is true.

Suppose that you are convinced that laws of nature could not exist without a guiding intelligence that formulated them and sustains them. That’s fine for you, but it’s a deeply unscientific attitude. The scientific attitude is: “We observe that there are regularities in nature. We might imagine that they are formulated and sustained by a guiding intelligence, or that they simply exist on their own. Let’s go collect data to determine which idea is a more parsimonious fit to reality.”

The primary sin a scientist can commit is to decide ahead of time that the universe must behave in certain ways. We can certainly have intuitions about what kind of behavior “makes sense” to us as scientists — theorists are guided by their intuition all the time. But the use of that intuition is to help us develop hypotheses, not to decide which hypothesis is correct. Only confrontation with data can do that.


Science has a complicated relationship with “Why?” questions. Sometimes it provides direct answers: Why do all electrons have the same charge? Because they are all excitations of a single underlying quantum field. But sometimes it does not: Why is there a quantum field with the properties of electrons? Well, that’s just the way it is. Which questions have sensible answers is dependent on context, and can even change as we learn new things about the universe. To Kepler, understanding why exactly five planets orbit the Sun was a question of paramount importance. These days we think of the number of planets (eight, according to the International Astronomical Union) as something of an accident.

The point, once again, is that we can’t decide ahead of time what kinds of explanations science is going to provide for us. Science looks for the simplest possible description of the world. It might be that we will eventually understand the inner workings of nature so well that we will be able to answer every conceivable “Why?” question — we will ultimately see that things simply could not have been any other way. But it is also perfectly possible that the best possible description of the world involves some number of brute facts that have no deeper explanation. This is an issue that will ultimately be decided by the conventional progress of science, not by a priori demands that the universe must explain itself to anyone’s individual satisfaction.


The final point I wanted to make involves the clarity of scientific hypotheses. Perhaps “unambiguity” would have been a more precise word, but it is so ugly I couldn’t bring myself to use it.

The point is that a respectable scientific theory should be formulated in terms that are so unambiguously clear that any two people, both of whom understand the theory and have the technical competence to elucidate its consequences, will always come to the same conclusion about what the theory says. This is why the best theories we have are very often cast in the form of mathematics; the rules for manipulating equations are absolutely free of ambiguity. You tell me the initial conditions of some classical mechanical system, as well as the Hamiltonian, and I will come up with the same predictions for its future evolution as absolutely anyone else wit the same information.

Earlier I mentioned that the God hypothesis could actually be simpler than a purely naturalistic theory, if one could use the idea of God to derive the observed laws of nature (or at least some other features of the universe). This isn’t idle speculation, of course; many people have taken this road. The fundamental problem, however, is that the idea of God is utterly unclear and ambiguous, as far as conventional scientific thinking is concerned.

One might object: God is simply the most perfect being conceivable, and what could be more unambiguous than that? (One possible response, not the only one.) That sounds like a clear statement, but it’s not in any sense a clear scientific theory. For that, there would have to be a set of unambiguous rules that let you go from “the most perfect being” to the laws of nature that we see around us. As I argued in my paper, this is very far from what we actually have. It is sometimes argued, for example, that God explains the small value of the vacuum energy (cosmological constant), because without that fine-tuning life would be impossible. But why does God choose this particular value? Actually it could be quite a bit larger and life would still be very possible. Why are there 100 billion galaxies in addition to the one we live in? Why are there three generations of elementary particles, when life is only constructed from the first one? Why was the entropy of the early universe enormously smaller than it needed to be to support life?

Obviously these are perfectly good questions for naturalistic theories as well as for God. The problem is that we can imagine coming up with naturalistic theories that do provide clear answers, while it’s very hard to see how God could ever do that. The problem is simple: God isn’t expressed in the form of equations. There is no clear and unambiguous map from God to a particular set of laws of physics, or a particular configuration of the universe. If there were, we would be using that map to make predictions. What does God have to say about supersymmetry, or the mass of the Higgs boson, or the amplitude of gravitational-wave perturbations of the cosmic microwave background? If we claim that God “explains” the known laws of physics, the same method of explanation should work for the unknown laws. It’s not going to happen.

It’s not clear to me that anyone who believes in God should actually want it to happen. There is a very strong tension between what scientists look for in a theory — clear and unambiguous connections between premises and predictions — and the way that religious believers typically conceive of God, as a conscious being that is irreducibly free to make choices. Does anyone really want to reduce God to a simple set of rules that can be manipulated by anyone to make clear predictions, like we can in theories of modern physics? If not, God will always remain as a theoretical option of last resort — something to be invoked only after we are absolutely convinced that no possible naturalist option can explain the universe we see.


Obviously these very simple points don’t come anywhere near addressing all the possible issues in this area. In particular, I haven’t made any real attempt to argue that a purely naturalistic explanation actually is a better fit to the observed universe than God or similar ideas. Instead I’ve just tried to explain the mindset of someone like me who does end up coming to that conclusion. In my paper I’ve tried to lay out why invoking God doesn’t seem to provide an especially promising explanation of the world around us. Others may disagree, but I hope this has made things more clear.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion
  • Ian Ward

    I’m pretty sure I saw a Goddess, anyway, just the other day :’)

  • Tyro

    Good work at taking a stab at presenting a clear, coherent response. From my perspective it seems to be bending backwards to be respectful and courteous and to avoid even the hint of offence. I’m interested to see what sort of responses will be posted at UD (none were up when I checked).

  • A. Moony Sun

    It would seem to follow, that concepts and ideas of any type of deity would be sub-set to the laws of nature; a product of, rather than progenitor to natural laws. In this way a deity is quantifiable by the output or byproduct of its “existence”. One, “in theory” could then surmise its mass, calories spent and even the energy needed to maintain its existence.

  • Sili

    How long before your guest post slips down the memory hole?

  • Cristi

    Congratulations for openness and for explaining the methodology of science with patience, even if some may think it’s a lost cause. I think that the “against dialog” positions of some from one side or the other is not constructive, even making them look arrogant, dogmatic or cowards. It is always better to have an open dialog. Even if for the moment most humans are tempted to reject arguments contradicting their own precious opinions, these arguments are like seeds that in time will grow up. One possible explanation for long-term changes is that good and straight arguments, even if rejected by the conscious mind, reside somewhere in the unconscious mind, and reveal themselves initially in situations which are less personal, gaining weight in time and eventually surpassing superstition and dogmatism. I think that the best toolbox is critical thinking, promoted with neutrality, as a powerful and useful toolbox, not as a mean to attack. This kind of changes takes time.
    Again, congratulations for promoting dialog and believing in the human reason, while respecting the individual freedom.

  • DaveH

    I have been reading Uncommon Descent recently (I used to browse the Flat Earth Society forums but no-one there seemed to be taking it seriously), so I look forward to being amused by some of the responses over at UD.

  • DaveH

    Commenter “Mung” at UD wants to know if you think a reductionist explanation of your blog post is the best possible explanation. Apparently anyone who can grasp the point of that question will be closer to understanding Intelligent Design.

    …ID is more like Sociology or English Lit than Physics or Biology?

    (There’s no point me posting this at UD – It’s very heavily moderated)

  • Tyro

    Some of the comments on UD have made it through moderation and they’re hard to read over the deafening whooshing noise.

    Most of the responses totally ignore everything Sean wrote and just try to pipe up with logical arguments, weird semantic arguments, or conspiracy theories. Very few seemed to think that anything in Sean’s piece actually applied to them. One of the weirdest responses was from DonaldM who says that, when talking about simplicity, Sean was really talking about the simplest naturalistic explanation even though DM actually quotes Sean when he explicitly considers God.

    Two of the comments really stand out. First is Mung who asks about definitions of “the universe” and concludes by saying that if you understood his question you’d understand ID. Since ID has always ostensibly been about inferring design based on genetics not cosmology, I don’t think that even Mung understand ID. Second is DonaldM who, after a long discussion saying that scientists reject God a priori and generally attacking naturalism, he concludes by saying that ID has nothing to do with gods at all and is about determining cause. Aside from the absurdity of defending God and then saying it has nothing to do with God, there’s the big whoosh that Sean wasn’t talking about ID at all, he was simply explaining science. The fact that Sean’s points missed some subtleties about ID when he wasn’t talking about ID in the first place is really not a failing of his.

    Oy. I was hoping that a couple of them would show more signs of having “got it” but so far, it looks like a blank. I mean, only one or two seem to have even read it.

  • spyder

    You might think that if there were such a thing as ID, the believers would be more, i don’t know, intelligent?

  • Sean Strange

    Warning: irrational, non-scientific, marginally off-topic ranting ahead

    “The primary sin a scientist can commit is to decide ahead of time that the universe must behave in certain ways.”

    Doesn’t this include assumptions like “the world is comprehensible” and “everything is measurable via the scientific method”? Isn’t science founded on such unprovable assumptions? If I start from different assumptions, such as “the universe is incomprehensible”, or “everything that matters is unique and irreproducible (i.e. magic)”, then I get an entirely different worldview – probably the default one for all of human history prior to the Enlightenment.

    Science is spectacularly effective at delivering hydrogen bombs precisely and reliably on target, or systematically converting the world’s resources into garbage, but as a basis for a lasting civilization it is very much in doubt. It may turn out that rolling back the Enlightenment and placing strict limits on human inquiry is the only thing that can save us from the destructive powers science has unleashed!

    Leaving aside theism vs. non-theism, the big blind spot of science is thought itself. Since all scientific observations are filtered through consciousness, any comprehensive science needs to start there. This is where the pre-scientific mystics were ahead of us in many ways, and why scientific materialism scares so many people. If you have no place for thought in your models, you have no place for the things we really value as human beings. You might as well rearrange the atoms of the entire universe into paperclips — what’s the difference? Why should anyone care how random particles interacting in a void behave, independent of human consciousness? I know I don’t. For that matter, given that our lives are so short, why do we need science at all? Isn’t a good myth that gives meaning to our lives enough?

  • cybertraveller777

    Two as yet not fully understood phenomena could make GOD the simpler
    explanation. The fact that all galaxies are accelerating outward
    hence dark matter/dark energy. If a being/entity/ultimate power repository,
    exists as a hemispherical containment of the universe, and this absolute
    infinitely dense beings energy, pervades and impells all things, then this
    would explain why the gravity calculation cannot account for the missing
    matter. What if GOD deposits a small part of himself as he departs
    instataneously outward spherically creating the void, and his energy
    left in the center of the void becomes all matter, which is now in the
    process of being pulled outward toward that energy from which it originates.

  • TimG

    @Sean Strange: Science is certainly based on assumptions, but it uses a minimal set of assumptions. Mostly stuff like “The world follows consistent laws”, and “inductive reasoning is valid” that everyone already assumes implicitly just to live their lives.

  • Daniel

    Unable to finidh the article at this time. Yet and still, there are 11 dimensions according to string theory. Who says there is absolutey nothing in those other 7 or 8 dimensions, is etiher no scientist or no clear thinker. my opinion only…sometimes I believe in direct observation only, sometimes I let my intuition carry me away to the land of new ideas, and sometimes I just sit and think nothing.
    “i just don’t believe in Zimmerman”

  • Ronald Lett

    @TimG: Everyone does not assume those “basic” assumptions. Just today, I was debating with a very religious older gentleman who would not back down from an abstract argument that “anything is possible”, which contradicts “The world follows consistent laws.”

  • JonJ

    I shot this post over to my Facebook page with a comment roughly saying that this guy (Prof. Carroll) is one of the best writers on the Intertubes for my money, and I don’t even have to shell out any of it to read him! Keep up the good fight!

  • TimG

    @Ronald Lett: People certainly might *argue* against those assumptions, but their actions suggest they still believe them. Someone might claim to dispute the idea that the world follows consistent laws, but the next time they get hungry, they’re still going to reach for a snack. Why? Because food always cured hunger before. No one thinks, “Well, I’m hungry, but maybe this time the answer is to stand on my head for an hour.”

  • Mila

    How much synaptic self-(creating)-indulgence must we ejaculate before we arrive at “om”?

    Just sayin’.

  • rob j

    I am both an avid Christian and scientist, and after painstaking side by side study of both Jewish and Christian creation accounts, and quantum physics, I have found that they actually operate very well together, and the studies have actually complemented eachother wonderfully. I am a scientist simply because I am intelligent and curious, a Christian simply because I have experienced things I cannot deny, with proof that cannot be discounted. Convenient? Maybe. But I find this an excellent topic.I think Max Planck had a lot to say in the topic aswell. It’s a good research topic.

  • Darth Dog

    You are a brave man Sean. Well done though.

  • Alan

    For me the universe is God-like if this kind of evidence is true:

    “…Fontana believes that many claims to the paranormal are true and that they provide credible evidence that a soul or spirit survives beyond physical death.”

    “Scholarship, personal experience and high quality always show. This highly accessible, detailed and authoritative book will become a classic. After reading it and assessing the evidence, there can no longer be any doubt that there is life after death. David Fontana’s book should be mandatory reading for all those involved in the care of the dying – and of course for the rest of us who know we will have to face it one day! Dr Peter Fenwick, Britain’s leading clinical authority on Near-Death-Experiences.

    Prof. David Fontana was as distinguished a psychologist as any scientist is distinguished in his/her field, yet looked and concluded after years of investigations that there probably is an afterlife. This is why Stephen Hawking cannot be taken seriously, for instance, as an authority on this issue – no look, no see. I remember meeting Fontana briefly at a few talks in London and had discussions with his colleagues. They were fascinated by this evidence.
    Also many physical scientists don’t like this kind of evidence – but it’s there, waiting for an explanation.

    So again there is this question – if this is true why is the universe structured in such a way that allows meaning generated during a lifetime to continue in another “realm”.
    A little like the recent film Solaris, it creates another level of reality (or our universe has this built in) and that’s where you go – but also maybe one of many alternatives.

    People’s definition of God vary but for me there is something God-like about this universe with evidence like this.

  • Solitha

    “Would you also agree that the best way to answer questions like “Why does God favor three generations of elementary particles, with a wide spectrum of masses?” is to try and establish whether a universe built in this way exhibits a higher degree of Kolmogorov simplicity than one which does not?”

    Is it just me, or did Mr. Torley imply here that God is bound by Kolmogorov simplicity? Doesn’t that kind of… well, totally… derail the idea of the creator making all the rules?

  • DaveH

    I must just comment on this syllogism that’s appeared in the comments at UD:

    1. Either there is a natural or non-natural explanation for the origin of nature.
    2. A natural explanation is logically impossible (due to the circular fallacy)
    3. Therefore, there is a non-natural (i.e., supernatural) explanation for the origin of nature.

    This is a restatement of the cosmological argument, with the assumption of First Cause built in.

    My favourite comment at UD so far is the statement that solipsism is even simpler than a theory that does not invoke God. I think we can grant the point that a non-explanation of the world is simpler than an explanation.

  • Scientist

    Great post, Sean, congratulations!

  • Tyro


    “My favourite comment at UD so far is the statement that solipsism is even simpler than a theory that does not invoke God. ”

    In a weird way, he’s sort of onto something though I’m sure it’s an accident. Look into some of SC’s great books about entropy for a long discussion on Boltzman Brains. I’m sure I’ll mangle something key but AFAIR, this is the idea that, in a universe which extends sufficiently far into the future, random movement of particles will assemble to form disembodied brains with the illusion of memory. Under a naive description of the universe, these are more likely than imagining the whole universe had an extremely low entropy past.

    I don’t know if (and don’t think that) the commenter had any clue about any of this but even if it was sheer coincidence, he happened to stumble onto the first passably interesting reflection. And like all ID comments, it takes a few sentences to ask and a chapter or more to answer.

  • Tyro


    “Doesn’t that kind of… well, totally… derail the idea of the creator making all the rules?”

    Re-read what Sean said about “rules” in science. They aren’t like traffic laws which sufficiently powerful things can break, they’re more like descriptions of how things work. In this case, complexity and information theory isn’t even like physical theories which rely upon fundamental constants which we can imagine a god bending but actually relies upon mathematics which can’t be bent.

    One commenter on UD just said that God was described as simple, case closed. Instead of undermining complexity, that just seems to show that this description of God is wrong.

  • DaveH

    @Tyro #24,

    (From Sean,) We can say that we aren’t Boltzmann Brains because the rest of the universe isn’t in thermal equilibrium. If we were typical Boltmann Brains we shouldn’t see much.

    Both solipsism and the notion that I am a Boltzmann Brain are cognitively unstable. At best, the solipsist is arguing with himself.

    It’s possible that the consistent narrative we have regarding the empirical world (13.72bn yr old universe consistent with The Standard Model of physics, quantum mechanics and GR; cosmological evolution of solar system and planets; 4.5bn yr old Earth; Darwinian evolution etc etc) could be the work of a deceptive demon, but it’s not an idea we should take seriously.

    So I don’t think the commenter is onto something. And solipsism doesn’t get him closer to justifying his belief in God.

  • Jim Cross

    The belief in God and the belief in the scientific method actually seem to have a great deal in common. I find it somewhat curious that each side of the argument seems to want to draw such sharp distinctions.

    For one thing, both sides start with belief and it is, in fact, belief about the almost identical thing – the inherent orderliness of the world. Without orderliness and predictability, the entire scientific effort would be impossible. The scientific enterprise is an effort to explain the world through discovery of its inherent order. The fact of its order is unquestioned. Religious belief begins also with orderliness and merely adds a Deity as the Original Cause. Proponents of the scientific method may argue that adding God into the explanation is unnecessary; however, the scientific method is left with an inexplicable orderliness of the universe at its foundation.

    When we think as mathematicians we have no problem in understanding that there is no highest number. We have created the concept of infinity to express this. Yet when we come to search for causation as scientists we seem unable to accept a similar concept – that there may be an endless (literally) chain of causation. Some may some choose to conceptualize this endless chain of causation that gives order to the world as God.

  • AnotherSean

    Its certainly fair to say God is ambigous and undeffined. Whether this is a matter of logical necessity or rehtorical convenience is a matter of opinion. Either way, I think it means the concept of God cannot be used as a logical symbol or natural explanation.

  • bob

    God is not a necessary progenitor of, or component of the universe, considered from the point of view of astronomy. But viewed from the perspective of what it means to be human, God is necessary for our emotional well being. I think that, as our neocortex emerged, there was not the recognition of “self”. That inner voice that we recognize as the avatar of our own consciousness, may not have been so in our early developement. The voice in our heads may have been experienced as coming from outside ourselves, thereby creating a meme for God or gods early on in our evolution. I feel a sense of wonderment when I think about “God, the Universe and Everything”, which maybe is the whole point.

  • ohwilleke

    Even if the universe doesn’t need a god, humans may need a religion, theistic or otherwise.

  • bob

    For Sean. “the Anthropic Cosmological Principle” and “Godel, Escher, Bach”.

  • bob

    ohwilleke: I think I just said that.

  • Jessie Desmond

    For a god to be instantaneously aware/interactive of the universe, and consistent with observation, he must be entangled with it. Observation causes entanglement collapse. The only consistent compromise is a very large number of very small incremental observations. Anybody claiming to know god is then either wrong, or correct and kills god instantaneously throughout the universe.

    Sign a pact with the Devil and all the pressure is off. Locality rules!

  • vel

    “: God is simply the most perfect being conceivable, and what could be more unambiguous than that?” Well, who is doing the conceiving? Why is this “prefect” being, given vastly different traits by each religion of what it “wants”?

    and I have no need of “god” to make me emotionally well. I get along quite well contemplating the universe without having to have a bogeyman to make me feel like a special snowflake.

  • Tyro

    “: God is simply the most perfect being conceivable, and what could be more unambiguous than that?”

    If there is such a thing as perfection and it’s singular rather than being a broad landscape with many peaks, surely science can investigate it. In fact, only science can do so. As a part of this perfection, wouldn’t this also mean that there would be a singular, perfect moral code which this being would possess/embody and which we could derive independently? Well, would anyone care to step up and try this task? Sam Harris just wrote a book about how morality can be investigated scientifically and he was heavily criticized for this – let’s see some theists making this perfection argument stand up and defend him.

    Okay, let’s set aside morality. What other qualities are a part of this perfection? Skin tone? Favourite ice cream? Is it a tenor or baritone? What is the perfect gender or is perfection gender-less (and does this mean that sex is not a part of perfection, no matter how pleasurable it feels)? Please sketch out some of the attributes we can infer based on this premise.

  • spyder

    I come at this from the study of religions, and this is my short take. Charles Long wrote a book a long time ago called ALPHA: Myths of Creation, in which he describes around 40 different creation myths from around the world. The book makes it easy to pick and choose which one fits the ID model best. It also allows the reader to understand that there certainly is no one god or goddess or other supernatural beingness, but hundreds of possible ones. Much like Herzog in his new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the capacity for human creative thinking far surpasses those of his gods.

  • ttsuchi

    “One commenter on UD just said that God was described as simple, case closed. Instead of undermining complexity, that just seems to show that this description of God is wrong.”

    I think one way to get the point across is to phrase the “simplicity” from the perspective of making falsifiable predictions. “Simple” doesn’t refer to the complexity of the explanation itself; it refers to the number of free parameters of the theory. (Simple explanation is good in terms of *understanding* the theory, but that’s a different matter…) Theories with smaller number of free parameters can make larger number of falsifiable predictions, and that’s why “simple” theories are more valued in science. Omnipotence and solipsism are terrible because they explain everything (not only what does happen, but also what could happen) too well. Those theories have infinite explanatory power and zero predictive power…

  • Unclellama

    @27 Jim Cross: the problem here is the ambiguity of the word ‘belief’. It covers two wildly different notions: information about the world filtered through our senses (I believe that I am typing this message, because that’s what my senses and knowledge of the message-typing situation are telling me; I believe that the Universe follows certain laws because it keeps on acting as though it does), and faith.

    While it is quite possible that the existence of some kind of creator could be argued for along scientific lines (so far none of the arguments I have read are in any way convincing, but that’s not necessarily God’s fault), all the religions I know of are 100% reliant on that other kind of belief. And THAT kind of belief is a long way away from science. My ‘belief’ in the scientific method is simply that I have noticed how good a job it has done so far. That has nothing to do with faith, unless you bend that word almost to breaking point.

  • SLC

    I think that Prof. Carroll is missing the biggest problem with accepting god as an explanation. It is that a theory based on god is unbounded, since god is all powerful and can therefore do anything. Thus,it is impossible to make a prediction based on god did it.

  • Lord

    Science is great for doing science. Where it has problems is when people try to use it to go beyond it. Science is an explanation of the natural world. It can’t say anything about the supernatural world without making it part of the natural world. Science considers all manner of ideas that have no evidence in the natural world; it could hardly progress otherwise. Do wormholes exist? They aren’t simple. They aren’t known. There is no need for them. Yet they don’t dismiss them on those grounds. They attempt to determine whether they could exist or do exist and any such attempt must center around possible data or a model that data could be gathered that could confirm or refute it. We may have no such data but would we even have such data or recognize it as such without such a model? Science will not be able to say they don’t exist without a model of them and even then only say that that model of wormholes cannot exist, not that there might not be some other model that might. On the other hand, it might discover or create them with such a model. Does God exist is a meaningless question to a scientist without a model that could be tested and useless as an explanation without such a model, but there will always be areas beyond the natural world unamenable to science, perhaps only currently but perhaps eternally.

  • Gunner

    You should have just told them to read your post “Physics and the Immortality of the Soul”, it could have been quite possibly the most logical thing they have ever read.

  • Charon

    To Kepler, understanding why exactly five planets orbit the Sun was a question of paramount importance.


    Kepler’s system was heliocentric, as you say, so… there were six known planets. The five Platonic solids were supposed to separate the orbits of the planets.

    Try as I may, I generally agree with everything Sean writes, so when I don’t, I have to point it out. Even if it’s incredibly nitpicky 😉

  • Charon


    there will always be areas beyond the natural world unamenable to science

    This is a common claim, yet not one I’ve ever seen actually explained. This is a really vexing problem for those who claim there is a “supernatural” realm that can’t be studied physically, but that also interacts with the natural realm (otherwise, it clearly has no impact on our lives, and is equivalent to not existing). This is why Descartes’ separation of the body and the soul then proceeded to confuse everyone for hundreds of years, leading to utter nonsense like the Occasionalism of Malebranche.

    Somehow science can study the extremely subtle effects that dark matter and neutrinos have on ordinary atoms, but it is claimed, for no apparent reason, that science can’t study the much stronger effects of a supposed spiritual realm? This is called special pleading.

  • Charon

    @rob j

    I have experienced things I cannot deny, with proof that cannot be discounted

    And this is what Sean means when he talks about that being fine, but the antithesis of science. In science, there is nothing you can’t deny, and nothing that can’t be discounted, given sufficient evidence to the contrary. Even things we hold very dear, like causality and locality (see Bell’s theorem). Bayes’ theorem provides a fun little example (okay, I have a weird idea of fun): if you set the probability p=0 or p=1 exactly, then it can never change! Regardless of the amount of new data collected! So there’s a tip – if you ever set p=0 or p=1, as you’ve just done, you are no longer doing science. What you are doing is utterly incompatible with science.

    That might be fine for you. But you’re not allowed to claim it is compatible with science when it’s clearly not.

  • math

    @ ALL
    I think its fairly obvious that when one talks of the soul, the one is really referring to the recorded knowledge in one’s brain. It should be obvious to even the most closed minded physicist that we can discuss whether the physics of the universe supports the continued recordation or recurrence of the quantum states associated with that knowledge. However, where physics breaks down, and where physics becomes unphysical is the question of “why?”. To date the only answer has been, “why not?” Physicists may attempt to show that one can use an assumption of non-agency and achieve the same results, but they can not prove such a thing…no more than they can prove that there is a precise classical microstate that describes all of the universe at any instant. The result is that we must leave these questions to philosophy. “Proving a negative” might be extraordinarily difficult, but it is hypocritical to accept the need to do so in so many cases and yet say it is unnecessary in others.

  • Jim Cross

    #38 Unclellama

    Quite a bit of modern physics (string theory? multiverse?) is probably as untestable as a God theory and there is a quite a bit of “faith” that the world is describable mathematically. What if it ultimately isn’t? Or that the order is so complex it cannot be reduced to a simpler description than the universe itself?

    I am not arguing for a God but just saying the scientific and religious viewpoints both begin with a fundamental belief in the orderliness of the universe and the differences between them are not all that great when we are looking for Theories of Everything. If we are simply talking about what works or is useful, I would rather rely on science to build a bridge rather than faith.

  • Lord

    Do wormholes exist? It is really a vexing problem for those who believe they may but cannot be studied physically without a specific model but that they also interact with the natural realm. Now if you find one to study or a model that makes testable predictions, it is a different story, but until then wormholes are as supernatural as God.

  • DaveH

    @Jim #46,

    there is a quite a bit of “faith” that the world is describable mathematically. What if it ultimately isn’t?

    We already know it is. What if all of it isn’t? Then, we won’t be able to describe it mathematically. It’s an empirical question.

    the differences between them are not all that great

    Yes they are. One method actually looks at the world.

  • DaveH

    @Lord #47

    wormholes are as supernatural as God

    No-one thinks wormholes are supernatural, except you.

  • Personalized

    I love the debate. Personally, if I can see it, smell it, or touch it, its not real 😉

  • bob

    #46 jim cross. speaking of building bridges…….the pope is refered to as the pontiff, which means “bridge builder” or “bridge”. he represents the bridge of faith between God and man. i don’t have a particular point in mind……..

  • Jim Cross

    #48 DaveH

    “We already know it is” – quite a bit of faith in that remark.

    Image yourself in a Rorschach Test that you both observe but participate in. I know that might be difficult since you seem to “believe” you can actually look at the world.

  • DaveH

    “We already know it is” – quite a bit of faith in that remark.

    We do know. Science has observable results. No faith required.

    Image yourself in a Rorschach Test that you both observe but participate in. I know that might be difficult since you seem to “believe” you can actually look at the world.

    Jim, see my post at #26 re solipsism.

    And if the external world doesn’t exist, who are you arguing with?

  • Anchor

    From the piece (under “Clarity”) Sean offers an avenue of counter-response which seems to follow a popular rut: “One might object: God is simply the most perfect being conceivable, and what could be more unambiguous than that?” By its raising, the rest of that paragraph promises to address that point of view. Instead, Sean deviates into the typical (if entirely sensible) territory of tackling it from the aspect of AGREEMENT, that the concept of perfection automatically lands on a non-ambiguous (and quite frankly, frustratingly popular) conclusion.

    However, from one point of view (at least) which does not so simply follow the deep traditional rut of ‘thinking’ (WHAT actual thinking?), the putative ‘perfection’ and closely-related ‘omniscience’ attributed to a creator being doesn’t so easily wipe out the ambiguity so automatically concluded whenever the issue is brought up. Instead, to my mind, it raises a number of rather interesting questions within the context of what we can in fact observe.

    Fortunately, we CAN, in fact, consult the PRODUCT of the allegedly ‘perfect creator’. In the context of the natural world which we are obviously obliged to consult (indeed the ONLY thing we can EVER consult, if one is at all brave enough to discount claims of divinely-inspired insight and knowledge from some ‘supernatural’ source) whenever we wish to check or verify the validity of any imaginary hypothesis or conclusion or whim of any kind, we may have decent reason to reexamine our conventional (and popular) conclusions, especially on this particular issue. After all, we have no other recourse to settle the problem but to examine the putative products of the allegedly ‘perfect’ creator.

    For the moment lets grant that a ‘perfect creator being’ exists.


    1. What reasoning would support the existence of a perfect and therefore omniscient creator responsible for a created product (the world we observe) riddled with imperfections? Why should the product of a perfect and omniscient creator contain imperfections?

    2. Given that such a creator may ‘set it up’ in such a way to ‘test’ its complex products (such as we, supposedly, to test our free will ostensibly so generously bestowed upon us), why should proponents of an existing perfect and omniscient creator-being insist that such tragic imperfections of circumstance we all innocently endure in life are the aim and result of some perfect plan orchestrated by that perfect and omniscient being who, by definition, already ought to know the outcome? In other words, why should a perfect and omniscient creator be moved to perform such an obnoxiously pointless ‘test’ in the first place?

    3. Given that the fundamental laws of physics may in any sense be ‘perfect’, how should this circumstance be reconciled with the existence of obvious imperfections in the arena of complexity which those laws of physics give rise to and which are far more parsimoniously explained as an inevitable consequence of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and entropy in concert with evolved complexity?

    4. Why isn’t the complex ‘fruit’ of that creation (living beings like us) not given – by ANY credible observational evidence over the course of thousands of years of surveillance and hopeful hypotheses to explain what’s going on, in recorded human civilization that has undoubtedly been well-primed by these natural human talents of imagination we continue to be endowed with, otherwise variously known as make-believe, fantasy, and actively outright deception – the slightest smidgeon of a break offered by supernatural intervention when circumstances turn sour? In other words, why isn’t the ENVIRONMENT not always as friendly as proponent believers require of a perfect, omniscient and benificent creator-being GIVEN that that environment frequently and quite mortally assaults them? Why should ANY created living entity (including humans) be imperiled by an environment which is not 100% in its favor? WHY should any living entity possess a physically crucial viewpoint at all which does NOT always harmoniously match the environment within which it is obliged to struggle to make a living?

    5. Why should a perfect and omniscient being be amenable to solicitation in the form of ‘prayer’ to change ‘his’ mind, invariably to intervene in ‘his’ presumably ‘perfect’ creation – to change ‘his perfect plan’ – and thus grace us with occasional opportunity to entertain us with a DEPARTURE from ‘his’ original (presumably ‘PERFECT’) plan in the form of that hopeful and historically thoroughly unsubstantiated (again, unless one utterly discounts the human gift of imagination) spectacle of ‘miracle’? A ‘miracle’ is often given high importance; why do believers give hopeful prayer-induced responses (DEPARTURES from the natural order allegedly created by a perfect creator) more weight than the ‘Original Plan’?

    6. Given the existence of ‘perfection’ and the ready admission of believers themselves that we humans are all anything BUT ‘perfect’ (indeed, often characterized as “wretched”), what justification is there for the assumption that any fallible human beings can, as a matter of verifiable fact, KNOW the will and intentions of a perfection of being WITHOUT flashing the handy dandy elitist divine revelation card? Just how does any fallible human being manage to become a reciever of perfect goods without being utterly deluded or WITHOUT CONSCIOUSLY LYING THROUGH THEIR TEETH? Why is this considerable and well-documented talent for misrepresentation in order to achieve a socio-political advantage in human beings for promulgating a potentially profitable falsehood – either through delusion or through active LYING – NOT a better explanation for why so many of us are trapped beyond the ability of any remedial education?

    Like Sean, I admit to having fallen short of a comprehensive accounting in these posed questions. I do not feel satisified I’ve covered all of my basic concerns. But, like in his excellent treatise, I think what I have managed to blurt out here, however imperfect, will encourage some rethinking on the grievous automaton thinking (the automatic acceptance of what has been traditionally accepted based on a LACK of thinking) that entertaining a concept (like ‘perfection’) can in any way be construed to possess the property of any serviceable DEFINITION, let alone bringing with it any real knowing with the property of being ‘unambiguous’.

    We, as fallible and chronicaly under-educated beings in the face of our natural environment, cannot possibly have in our possession, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the means to ‘understand’ that which is beyond the capacity of our observable environment to enlighten us EXCEPT as a loud and consistent refutation of the fantasy of perfection.

    That such a large proportion of the population currently entertains the notion that they may tap into a supernatural entity APART from the product of a perfect creator is a ghastly commentary on the state of lunacy in the popular mind, in the shear lack of scientific literacy to be sure, but also in the day-to-day behavior which finds no connection to scientific, empirical or otherwise rational thinking based on verifiable evidence, and a far more gigantic problem than most scientists are willing to acknowledge with regard to this issue, which most of them blithely continue to regard as a mere matter of corrective education. We live in an era of big science, and the big solution is to establish ‘public outreach’ programs…a scheme which basically preaches to the converted, and scares away those youngsters who can smell a lousy advertisement campaign from a remote distance.

  • Brian W.

    There are two points that seem to be coming up in the replies to the original post on the UD blog. First, that science can’t answer the question “why is there a universe at all?” This is obviously true. If there is an answer to this question, and I’m not sure there is, it is something outside of science, and probably outside of our comprehension. You can call it God if you want, but you would need separate justification to go further and say this God designs life, answers prayers, or is intelligent in any way.

    Second, there is the issue of why we should expect the laws of the universe to be simple. This is actually related to two objections an ID advocate could raise: Is the argument against God from simplicity really valid, and is the regularity of nature evidence of an intelligent creator? For the first, I think there is a relatively simple response. If there are two proposed explanations of the behavior of the universe, one which invokes no god, and one which invokes a god who does nothing at all (modulo the issues in the first paragraph), it makes sense to prefer the former option. In fact, you would probably want to say that science *by definition* takes the simplest explanation fitting the data. There would be no way to settle whether there are things that have literally no effect at all, so there’s no point in discussing them.

    The other objection is more interesting. It is extremely fortunate that the universe is so simple. It’s likely intelligent life could not have developed without this fact, since there would be little survival value in intelligence if the world was utterly unpredictable. Still, the world needed to be complicated enough that life could evolve at all, so there’s some kind of balance going on, and it’s not obvious that the window we find ourselves in (not too simple, not too complicated) needed to exist at all. These kinds of questions are also outside of science, but seem more meaningful than those of the previous paragraph. I’m not convinced this line of thought could be turned into an argument for or against an intelligent god, but I’d be interested to see someone try.

  • Joseph M

    I just want to compliment Prof. Carroll on so effectively encapsulating the mindset of a scientist and how it differs from that of someone who jumps to the “God” explanation too early. These are indeed heavy considerations but they must be grappled with and I’m glad i was able to come across this discussion.

    A small correction the last line of the second paragraph under the subsection “Clarity”: *with

  • DaveH

    @Brian #55,

    science can’t answer the question “why is there a universe at all?” This is obviously true.

    I don’t think it is true. There is this model, for example.

    Even if you mean “why is there something rather than nothing”, then science can inform that. We observe that a vacuum is not empty. There are quantum fluctuations. As Frank Wilczek puts it, there is something rather than nothing because “nothing is unstable”.

  • Brian W.


    I did mean “why is there something rather than nothing?” And by “something,” I’m including a quantum vacuum that can fluctuate. So quantum mechanics might move the question one step back, but it doesn’t answer it, and I don’t think any scientific approach (or non-scientific approach, for that matter) can answer it.

  • DaveH

    Of course, God does not solve their problem, since the next question is “Why is there God rather than nothing?”.


    My take is that the question is borne from a misconception about the world. At the everyday macro-scale, we perceive “thin air” to be the simplest state of affairs. However, when we look at the world on the quantum scale, we see that there is no absolute nothing. The empirical world trumps our preconceptions, even our preconceptions about nothingness.

    There must be nomological facts. That there is stuff is one of them.

  • David Derbes

    It’s admirable to try to bridge gaps between two different camps; thanks for this often thankless effort. I think your very well written essay could be improved and made even more persuasive.

    1. The examples chosen are unnecessarily sophisticated. With respect to laws, instead of talking about the Copenhagen interpretation or Hamiltonians or excitations of the electromagnetic field, why not use simple examples: All objects fall at the same rate. Once a mass is moving, it continues to move, unless acted on by a force. A cynic might think: Aha, this guy is talking about gee-whiz physics because he wants to awe us with his brilliance, not because his arguments are strong. The arguments *are* strong, but they would be, in my opinion, all the stronger the simpler and closer to everyday experience you can make them.

    2. You haven’t made the single most compelling reason (to me) why a belief in God is unscientific: it’s non-falsifiable, in Karl Popper’s terminology. When a scientist makes a hypothesis, she or he is always aware (as Feynman put it) that the most beautiful theory may be killed with a really ugly experiment, at any time. There is no experiment yet devised (or in my opinion, capable of being devised) that could prove the non-existence of God. Maybe God exists, but that’s outside of science, period.

    3. Some of your statements seem to me a little fuzzy. For example, you write “we think of every possible way the world could be, and then we go out and look at the world to see which is the simplest description that fits the data.” I don’t think that’s accurate. Phenomena are observed, and supremely inventive people try to come up with a correct understanding. They don’t imagine every possible way the world could be, because nearly all of those ways are scratched before they reach the starting gate. Maybe there are on the order of ten explanations for new phenomena, two or three quickly finding broad support (whether or not any one is correct); e.g. the discovery of pulsars and Gold’s rapid analysis. There might be fifty ways to make a pulsar, but forty-seven of them don’t merit ink.

    4. Finally, you write “The primary sin a scientist can commit is to decide ahead of time that the universe must behave in certain ways,” and that seems to me unassailable. But people use working hypotheses all the time, and *expect* that an idea will be borne out by a new experiment or result. (In fact it’s just about impossible to do science at all without working hypotheses.) You’ve probably told your students, “Don’t fall in love with a hypothesis,” because the break-up can be very messy. It’s a thin line between expecting the universe to behave in certain ways and believing it does, one that is often crossed with disastrous results. Maybe this is too subtle for an essay.

    Steven Jay Gould called religion and science “non-overlapping magisteria”; I guess I think of them as orthogonal.

  • Tyro

    @David Derbes

    There is no experiment yet devised (or in my opinion, capable of being devised) that could prove the non-existence of God. Maybe God exists, but that’s outside of science, period.

    Why do you say that?

    I think there have been many observations which have already shown the non-existence of God. Theists have responded by doing one of two things: redefining their god to be something so squishy that the term “god” is meaningless (eg: apophatic theology) so that it becomes unfalsifiable. This is in the great minority. The other approach has been to simply reject evidence, reject science and proclaim their faith even louder (eg: many of the folk on UD). Don’t make the mistake in thinking that merely because they still believe their god hasn’t already been falsified. Think of the Noachian Flood and the 6,000 year old earth – all clearly falsified, yet we still have a lot of people sticking with it.

    The key here is that God as most people accept has specific behaviours and interacts with the world in a consistent manner (eg: is said to be loving, omniscient, omnipotent, etc). We can go further and look at specific bibles and the claims made within them.

    When they retreat to a deistic or pantheistic god things change of course but since this is in the tiny minority, we can safely ignore them.

    Steven Jay Gould called religion and science “non-overlapping magisteria”; I guess I think of them as orthogonal.

    I never understood that. As a description it’s evidently wrong as religion is always trying to mess with science and 400 years of history have shown that science is ever altering and encroaching on religion. As a prescription it seems useless – no religionists care to limit their belief and it’s preposterous to set whole realms of investigation off limits to empirical investigation. Just how is NOMA supposed to work, anyway?

  • Tyro

    @Brian W

    First, that science can’t answer the question “why is there a universe at all?” This is obviously true

    This isn’t obvious at all.

    I agree that science can’t currently answer the question, but that isn’t obvious, it’s a conclusion we draw after careful examination of the state of knowledge. And it’s certainly not obvious that this must be the state of affairs forever into the future. There are many physicists and cosmologists working on models which would give us insights into the origins of the universe and while they may not bear fruit, it isn’t obvious at all that they won’t. It certainly isn’t obvious that they can’t.

    Let’s not forget that quantum mechanics and the Big Bang are less than 100 years old. It’s incredibly presumptuous for anyone to be proclaiming the limits to our knowledge after such a short period of time. That these claims come from the UD crowd make it presumptuous and self-interested. Their whole schtick is to try to find things that we don’t understand and proclaim that to be the work of God. They aren’t good models of an unbiased observer. In fact, they’ve made this call a dozen times and with tiresome predictability they’ve been wrong each time.

    We’d be a fool to join them on this bet when we’re still making new discoveries.

  • AnotherSean

    Brian W is surely right. At best science may unify the forces and express the laws in some finite form. Still, we don’t believe science will ever “explain the explanation” any more than religion will. Now we can say its a pseudo problem, and there is no explanation, but it’s still true that it leaves a fundamental part of reality outside the realm of logical deduction. This is the way it is, and we must accept that the universe owes us nothing more.

  • Tyro

    I wonder if we could be clashing because we’re using different definitions. Once you start talking about multiple universes, origins, etc then the term “universe” starts to get a little sloppy.

  • cybertraveller777

    There is no reason to complicate the matter, when the fundemental
    consistancy of matter at all relative sizes and masses, behave
    similarly. Everything in the Universe, is in the process of regaining equilibrium, that said, obviously there exists an imbalance which is surely the original cause of the mode of order, the polar duality. All things are moving in a helical pattern vibrating resonantly, this is the manner in which the energy is dissipated, the path of least resistance. The summatiion of the total resonance, is the Universal standing wave, the ringing of the bell that vibrates for billions? of years. Very important to acknowledge that there is no conflict in the mode of the structure of the Universe that I previously described, there is a void because of the
    absence of something, an unimaginable quantity of energy, in a state which is beyond our present understanding, must be the source from which matter as we know it,emanates.We know that all matter is in a dance of polar duality, and we ourselves live an existence of polar duality, I don’t believe this is coincidental. The really interesting thought experiments have to do with the cause of duality, the effects of duality, and the yet unknown final results of duality. There is no reason to relegate all this to philosophy, or religion, just as the universe vibrates, an energy sufficient enough to have generated it, must also vibrate, although at a rate, and in a mode, not yet detectable, which permeates the void providing the matrix of the framework which governs the machine-like precision of the elementary particles, the only thing left to do is to quantify what the density of the sperical container of the void must be, to satisy the equation for gravity. The most simply elegant construct of the universe, is a bubble, which contains the void, the most precise form of distribution of force. The energy of GOD contains the void and is using the void to regulate
    expansion which would infinitely stretch the sphere of energy, acting
    as a correction to the remainder of the equation. The necessity for humans,
    and moral cause and effect, can be seen as analogous to the genetic code and gene epression on the scale of the organism. One makes the other possible, the correction of the imblance of forces, also codifies the correction of moral imbalance. So in condensed form, there is the WHAT the WHY, and the HOW.

  • cybertraveller777

    If anyone is interested in my musings, I have a small book for sale
    on Amazon called, “Because the days are Evil” which more eloquently
    communicates my understanding of existence.

    Humbly submitted to you by Michael York
    “If a butterfly flaps its wings?”

  • Kevin

    @ Brian W. #58:

    Sean addresses this point in his essay.

    States of affairs only require an explanation if we have some contrary expectation, some reason to be surprised that they hold. Is there any reason to be surprised that the universe exists, continues to exist, or exhibits regularities? When it comes to the universe, we don’t have any broader context in which to develop expectations.

    There is no reason, within anything we currently understand about the ultimate structure of reality, to think of the existence and persistence and regularity of the universe as things that require external explanation.

    The question you’re asking is really something like “Why does existence exist?” and that simply doesn’t make sense, despite our ability to phrase it in language. Existence is the context in which everything exists; it’s not just another thing.

  • ohwilleke

    One issue with science as justification for god belief is that the decision to belief is not made by the collective of humanity, but by the individual.

    The individual often doesn’t have personal knowledge of either the miracles and wonders that support god belief or the scientific experiments that support a scientific worldview. Accounts of both, indeed, are sometimes falsified. We live in a world where some individuals in every endeavor are liars, or pass on lies that they believe to be true uncritically from someone who did lie.

    For the individual, who may have no special form of expertise of any kind, the question often presents itself as “do I trust one group of highly professionally educated people who say that they are experts or another group of highly professionally educated people who say that they are experts?” Do I believe mom, dad and my pastor, or some people I see on TV who say that they are scientists. Generally, it is beyond the reasonably available resources of the individual to even confirm that people really have the expertise and credentials that they say that they do.

    When the issue comes down to who to trust as the popularizer of discoveries and conclusions admittedly made by others, the resolution of that issue for the individual trying to figure out what to believe is much less obvious than it is if one simple accepts mainstream science or mainstream theology as logical and rational.

  • gr55

    Science is only concerned with what is observable. God is outside the system science is observing. Where’s the conflict?
    As computer programmer I create a program to run on my machine. Let’s say that my program creates “life” at “random” times via a random number generator. Each “life” is its own thread that can monitor the status of the program that created it as well as the status of all the other threads currently running on the machine. Each thread identifies itself by its location, a representative drawing, on the computer’s wallpaper desktop. No two threads can occupy the same location. Lets say that each thread can make up to 4 decisions during a minute… a decision is made through a complex algorithm that selects from a library of actions, all of which I’ve pre-programmed such that actions have various effects on the other threads, based on proximity of location on the wallpaper.

    Science in this system would be concerned with explaining why the processor of the machine that all “life” lives in only processed 4 lives at a time (or however many cores the processor of that machine has) in slices and also science would be concerned with the dynamics of why the Operating System runs the way it does and also trying to understand and predict the results of “actions” in the system.

    Meanwhile I am watching my program run, entertained by the “life” on my screen.

    Now take it to a mind blowing new level of complexity where the life is 3D; the creator of the program lives in extra-dimensions (just as I lived in a dimension outside the computer) and the creator interacts at rare times to encourage the frequency at which certain actions are chosen by the decision algorithm.

    That’s an illustration of how I see this divide… there’s no conflict because God is outside the system that science is concerned with. Essentially God created science; Science can derive explanations for everything within the system because it IS the system… but nothing outside the system. Science itself suggests a beginning to the universe, but it really cannot suggest where the singularity of the Big Bang came from. God is my answer.

    Where’s the conflict?

  • David Derbes

    Tyro Says:

    “@David Derbes

    There is no experiment yet devised (or in my opinion, capable of being devised) that could prove the non-existence of God. Maybe God exists, but that’s outside of science, period.

    Why do you say that?

    I think there have been many observations which have already shown the non-existence of God.”

    Hey, if you’ve got an experiment or an observation which shows the non-existence of God, terrific! Put an end to a lot of speculation and strife. It would be great!

    Surely this has been published in a peer reviewed article? Would you mind citing the reference?

  • randommuser

    To #69 gr55:

    If all that a religion asserts is that God created the universe, then there indeed isn’t much of a conflict. However, I don’t know what, if anything, follows from this belief. In my view it doesn’t even solve the creation problem, since then you have to explain how God and his world is created. In the example you gave, the little guys in the computer program will, after believing that you created them, have to confront the problem of how your world is created. So believing that the universe is created by a sentient God only makes the creation problem much bigger. (and if you assert that God can exist a priori, then why can’t I assert that the universe can exist a priori?)

    A bigger problem is that most religions today assert much more than that. Most Christians believe that living things are specifically created by God, instead of emerging through evolution as a result of the environment on Earth (which is, by the way, the crowd Sean wrote the article to). Most believe that the human mind works in mysterious ways outside science, instead of by the interactions among molecules in the brain. Many still believe that the Earth is 6000 years old, and that God is still affecting today’s world through miracles. If you read through the above again, you’ll see that all issues raised there are directly within the purview of the natural sciences, and that science gives quite different answers to these questions.

    In my view, the main difference between science and religion is not even on those issues. The main difference is the attitude toward how to answer the questions we have. Science purposes that we try to answer them using empirical data and logical deduction. Religion purposes that we answer them by directly claiming certain things to be true, perhaps those supported by intuition. Sure, that will answer more questions than science will, but how certain are you in those answers? For the source of the Big Bang, anyone can say “God is my answer”, but how certain are you of that answer? How are you going to convince anyone else that that answer is correct? If you are certain of that answer because it “feels right”, be aware that at one time it “feels right” that time is absolute, and that particles always have a well defined location and momentum. Those are two big ones. I don’t think it is necessary to list the many other ways “feelings” have already led us astray. (This is not to say we never use intuition in science. As Sean probably has already said, we use them to formulate hypotheses, not to reach conclusions).

    I certainly agree that people should reach their own conclusions, especially considering that I believe there is no God to punish you for reaching the wrong ones. Looking at the current political climate in the US, I can just hope that the Christians can do more of this in return.

  • cybertraveller777

    The obsession the human race has with the paradox of perfection,
    cause and effect, and sacrifice must have arisen from somewhere
    outside genetic predisposition alone. We are subject to a specific
    set of stimuli which we call existence. Can we really separate
    the observable phenomena of our universe from the human drama
    we experience. Is the universe nothing more than collection of
    expanding matter and energy governed by physical mechanics, and
    our human experience nothing more than random interactions between
    talking animals during a brief moment in the lifespan of the universe.
    To believe that there is a higher order cause and effect plan which
    dictates the mode of existence gives the universe, and mankind,
    a reason to be while providing the answer to the paradox. Ultimately
    GOD will not have to convince us that perfection is just a good thing,
    it will be understood that it is the way it must be. The watchmaker
    does not have to apologize for having made a perfectly precise timekeeping
    device, you would not ask him to alter the mechanism to be not so perfect
    in order for you to feel better about your imperfections. It is necessary
    to negate the effect of imbalance, which is played out in the universal
    material realm, and in the interdependant interplay of human interaction
    within the confines of an imblanced system. I am compelled to believe that
    everything is progressing to a resolution in a systematized process. Why must scientifically observed phenomena be an external construct which
    arises out of nothingness for no purpose, and our personal need to embrace
    purpose be referred to as mythological fairie tale. If GOD is executing
    a plan to reveal himself to humanity, He would by necessity have to be
    inherently unprovable by human calculation, else faith would have no
    purpose. It’s all about the resolution to a seeming paradox that
    dictates creation.

  • gr55

    The natural followup question of how then was God created indeed makes the whole system more complex; but again… science is not concerned with that outside system. It’s concerned with our system, our universe. So what you’re doing is dismissing a possible answer to your original question by changing the question itself. The original question was how was OUR universe created?

    I also have no problem with the concept that living things were created by God. In fact in my example, something would have to be initially created to get evolution going. If the programmer programmed every possible mutation that evolution eventually catalogs as must have occurred could you not say that the resulting creature was created by the programmer (albeit indirectly) through creation of the code? Now the account of this happening is being explained to primitive lifeforms… do you explain the C++ programming language or do you simply tell them you made it all?

    In your final thought you bring in the idea of religion, striking a difference in how science vs. religion attempt to answer our questions:
    First let me say that I separate the idea of God and the idea of religion. I think that religion is not really concerned with explanations of the physical world as its purpose (as you implied by comparing it to science). I think religion is fully concerned with morality. And further I’d say that science is completely unconcerned with morality. In short they answer different sets of questions.

    That begs the question: why then does the Bible cover creation at all?
    It must. It must, because it is conveying a moral code. The only reason the Bible spends any time talking about creation is that it’s a beginning and the basis for where the authority for the morality the rest of the religion conveys originates. The entire rest of the Bible is chiefly concerned with morality for societies.
    A code of morals must be rooted in some authority… otherwise there is no reason for any one person to agree with them and follow them. Religion does this by assuming that God created our existence. For the non-religious, those individuals make themselves the authority for their moral code or make the government the authority for their moral code.

    You asked:
    For the source of the Big Bang, anyone can say “God is my answer”, but how certain are you of that answer?
    I am certain, but it really doesn’t matter whether I am certain. It seems a more plausible answer to me that our universe, which had a beginning, also had a creator who started this program.

    How are you going to convince anyone else that that answer is correct?
    I cannot. Since I live inside our universe I cannot prove the existence of anything outside it… your question is like asking a fish in a pond in Hawaii to prove the existence of Niagara Falls.

    A case of “it feels right”:
    It’s not a feeling, it’s that the moment science proved the universe had a beginning with the Big Bang, and is expanding, there had to be a creator somewhere to start it off.
    The first explanation from Sean above is regarding Simplicity… citing “God + the natural world” is less simple than “the natural world.”… the problem with this is: of course it is… but this is like saying “Solar System + Earth” is less simple than “Earth”. One does not then proceed to conclude that the solar system does not exist.

    As the universe expands, what is it sitting in which gets displaced by expanding universe?

    We can only observe the inside of our universe… so why does science dismiss the concept of a creator which sits outside the universe… in that same space that gets displaced as the universe expands?

    Just as “turtles all the way down” was an insufficient explanation for gravity, infinite bubble or infinite universe containers does not suffice; there must be an origin, there must be a creator for existence.

  • Alan

    Tyro @61

    “I think there have been many observations which have already shown the non-existence of God.”

    I think you may be wrong because there is evidence that perception occurs beyond the brain. Why could this lead to God? Well, how about saying that the universe is God-like, in that it “looks after you” at the end of life. The universe is structured this way.
    One must seriously consider other ways of perception as a key tool for investigating this question of God, God-like etc. properties of the universe. See radiation oncologist Dr. Jeff. Long’s huge studies re this:

    Another scientist Dr. Pim van Lommel talks about skeptics on this issue and the “acceptance by the medical community” – “The gap is not as big as you presume. It just looks that way because the skeptics are very active. The skeptics have their own truth and they don’t listen to somebody else who has a different opinion. So there’s a gap and there will always be a gap. There is no discussion possible with skeptics because they have the truth. But a lot of physicians are a little bit more open, but they won’t write articles. They won’t write or tell about it in public. I know some physicians who have had a near-death experience. They said to me and wrote to me that, what happened to me now I’ve always said this is impossible, and now it happened to me”.

    I think these are fair comments but they do fascinate me because there seems to be a perception negating some of these findings among science in general. Yet this is crucial – medical personnel at the hard end of these observations see another interpretation.

    Also the problem with these kinds of “observations” is that they are anecdotal but when they are also evidential you move beyond the anecdote. So valid data.

  • Tyro

    @David Derbes

    Hey, if you’ve got an experiment or an observation which shows the non-existence of God, terrific! Put an end to a lot of speculation and strife. It would be great!

    Surely this has been published in a peer reviewed article? Would you mind citing the reference?

    Euthyphro’s dilemma is the obvious one which showed that the observations of suffering/evil are not consistent with the existence of a powerful, benevolent god (certainly not with an omnimax god). Christians today make this even worse by describing their god as “Love” which highlights the conflict between claims and observation even more.

    Sean also commented on the Kolmogorov complexity of a god which was something Dawkins dealt with in TGD in more depth. You can see the responses on UD: simply reject the science and declare that God is described as simple and therefore is simple, QED.

    And since you seem to be giddily anticipating some stats, Francis Galton analyzed the health of the British Royals since the nation prayed for their health and found no evidence of efficacy. There have been many subsequent studies, and still no demonstrable effect. Again this shows that, despite the claims and beliefs of many religion folk, God is not listening to prayers and responding to us as we’d expect (or rather, if God is, the effect is bounded and minimal). Again, the most common response has been to reject the evidence out of hand.

    There are probably many more examples but I think the general thrust is clear – wherever God is said to interact with the world, we can study it scientifically. When we do, no effect is detected. This shows some conceptions of God do not exist. People can and do redefine their god so that it doesn’t interact with the world. Just because people will call physics “god”, it doesn’t mean it is and at some point the honest thing to do is to say that we have shown that gods (by any reasonable definition of the word) do not exist.

  • shams

    If one considers religion through the lens of evo theory of culture and SBH and EGT, religions make perfect scientific sense.
    And the reason I, as a muslimah, can believe in Al-lah, is that my genome and phenome give me the individual genetic and memetic substrate to do so.

    And again, Al-lah is unknown and unknowable.

    It may be possible to trip up christians with science pretty easily because their concept of god is crude, mechanistic and primitive…unsophisticated. A god that mucks about with cell biology?


    “Francis Galton analyzed the health of the British Royals since the nation prayed for their health and found no evidence of efficacy”

    Yet there is an emergent body of scientific evidence seemingly showing that thought can affect matter in studies of meditation increasing the volumne of grey matter in the brain. Perhaps the efficacy of prayer only works when one prays for the in-house system.

  • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM

    From a neuroscientific point of view, there is nothing that compels a belief that the mind can function or exist when the brain is dead. In fact, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that it cannot.

    Near death experiences have been thoroughly debunked. The oddballs who continue to believe in this kind of thing can only quote anecdotal evidence and studies done in the past that have failed to be repeated. I cannot think of any one of my licensed or academic colleagues who believes that such a phenomena is evidence for an”after-life”.

    We commonly watch minds that die piecemeal as the brain cells die in clumps. Cases of cementia such as Alzheimers, Picks and Korsakov’s syndrome, kill off parts of the mind bit by bit: memory, language, thinking, moral activity and consciousness. There is no evidence that these progressively lost parts of the mind exist in a disembodied state apart from the deteriorating person or that they recombine at some point after the person’s brain ceases to function and the cortical cells begin to break down. There is no evidence that a decerebrate body that is kept alive by machines has deposited its previous mind in the ether somewhere.

    Then there is the problem of how to account for the fact that disorders and surgeries that result in the separation of the right and left brains can be shown to have two separate personalities, one of which believes in the existence of a god and the other of which does not. {There are records of such cases.} Does this individual have two “souls”, one of which will be “saved” in an after life and one of which will not be? If so, would the resulting separated personalities be identical with the previous fully integrated mind of that person?

  • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM

    @Alan, #20
    The comment at #77 was meant for you.

  • Robert Cooper

    Sorry for the bit of a necropost here, but you made a number of points I felt cross over with mine in a (slightly less public) reply to a friend of mine:

  • Jim Cross

    #73 gr55

    As I tried to explain in an earlier post, the concept of a necessary chain of causation originating with God or whatever may be fallacious. There is no need to have any point of origination just as there is no highest number.

    #77 Rosemary

    This is a rather tired old argument. Mind in the bigger sense of the word, not its localized manifestation in neurology, may exist outside the the body in a sort of participatory field that includes observer and observed. This isn’t the same as some individual personality fragment existing outside the body and surviving death but is a recognition that there is no point where an objective observer can exist – that observer and observed are like poles of a magnet (I mean this in a highly metaphoric sense) where each require the other. Whether we as individuals can tap into this greater field is an interesting question and not quite as closed.

  • Alan

    Rosmary @ 77

    The reference I gave above at 20 was actually to do with afterlife investigations in general by Professor David Fontana. Him and his colleagues certainly were not “oddballs” but serious academics. I would advise you to read the book below and follow up the extensive references before making such comments. You will also find some interesting phenomena there, many multi-witnessed.

    Regarding NDEs I think you should follow up the ref. I gave in 74 very closely and corresponding studies before this work. Also there is a very large study, the international AWARE study, which has collected data and soon will evaluate this.

    The point in many previous studies is veridicality and there are many cases. How does an NDEer get precise information? You should look at these cases but combine this with studying Prof. Fontana’s book and others which investigate very different independent and multiply-witnessed physical phenomena. I also recommend the Cardiff case by Fontana.

    Finally it is important to remember that experimental data (such as early measurements of magnetic fields) precede the theoretical model and certainly this kind of data above needs one.
    I don’t know how information can be stored outside the brain, I think Stuart Hameroff in particular is working on this, but to reject good data just because you are not able to fit it in to the biochemical model of the brain is not scientific.

  • Brent

    Although I freely admit to being a ID proponent, I wanted to commend Sean for this well written and (especially) non-confrontational article. I have a some problems with some of his points, but it is very refreshing to read such well reasoned post without any of the usual concomitant vitriol.


  • PCJ

    Will some one look at this like a real scientist? This is not about god, it’s about minds. I believe that people as a whole need “magics” religious or otherwise. I this was not true the “end of superstitions” acclaimed by various ages of reason, would have taken root. Maybe what is needed is a new mythos that is not so offensive to your sensibilities. Try reading some Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell – even some James Frazer would help you understand the psychological NEED for religion (excluding the rationalist outliers of course). I for one think that your narrow, uncreative, version of science that is supercilious, dismissive in it’s attitudes to religion and the arts , is a large part of the problem, – you are as literalistic as the worst of the fundamentalist.


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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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