God and Cosmology Conversation

By Sean Carroll | August 9, 2011 9:20 am

Here is the video of the panel discussion from Discovery Channel’s Curiosity Conversation last Sunday. Not sure how official it is, so it might not last. Jerry Coyne was motivated to dig them up, since he doesn’t have cable TV. I’m putting the panel first — this is all about me, baby — and the Hawking program under the fold.

The participants were me, David Gregory, Paul Davies, and John Haught. But there were also short video interventions from Jennifer Wiseman, William Stoeger, and Michio Kaku. Actually seeing the program made me even more frustrated about the lack of time and inability to discuss any issue in depth. Also, while the makeup of the original panel seemed fair (committed atheist, wishy-washy physicist, Catholic theologian), the pre-recorded videos all took the line that science shouldn’t be talking about God. That gave the final program more of a “gang up on the atheist” feel than I would have really liked. I don’t think the videos added much, other than to eat into our valuable time. An hour-long program would have been better, and it probably would have been a much sharper conversation if there had just been two panelists rather than three. But again, credit to Discovery for having the event at all.

Specific thoughts on the participants:

  • David Gregory: I thought he did fine. Not sure why some people were complaining about the questions; his job was just to get the conversation going and keep it moving, which he did with admirable professionalism.
  • John Haught: He actually had a very difficult job, since his take on the nature of God isn’t easy to boil down to a sound bite. Still, I personally don’t think there’s any there, there. If you can’t imagine a universe in which God doesn’t exist, you need to work on your imaginative skills.
  • Paul Davies: A very clear speaker and strong communicator, but again not a sound-bite kind of guy. He did win the Templeton prize, but isn’t very explicitly religious. (At least, not that one can discern, which is part of the problem.) But he does strongly believe that it’s not okay to simply say “the universe is like that” — he thinks there is necessarily a deeper explanation for the laws of physics.
  • Jennifer Wiseman and William Stoeger: Neither really even tried to argue in favor of God’s existence. They just took the angle that religion talks about value while science talks about facts. I think it’s important to get the facts right before you start talking about values, and said as much, but we didn’t have time to dig into that issue.
  • Michio Kaku: I tease Michio. The guy is a brilliant science communicator, but I don’t think he added anything of value here.
  • Me: This isn’t an easy format, and I would probably grade myself a generous B. I don’t feel like taking back anything I said, but I definitely could have been more forceful about it. Still looking to improve at things like this — any suggestions?

Okay here are the videos, judge for yourselves. First the panel, in two parts:

Here’s the episode of Curiosity, hosted by Hawking, in four parts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CvZD9TIb-M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJ3ffZEar8Y

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGnUw2JL6sM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpEUejJmphY

  • Erik

    Thank you thank you thank you for posting these! =) I meant to show this to my family last night and completely forgot (we *never* watch TV). I was more upset about missing the after-show panel than I was about missing the show, though – and the, um, torrent sites don’t have it available for download. =P

  • http://garrettlisi.com Garrett

    Sean, I thought you did a good job. And I’ve always liked the argument that a god that affects the physical world is within the realm of science, and is simply a bad physical model, and that if a god does not have any physical effects, why should we care about it? But this panel discussion was a little painful to watch because you were… so alone. Next time you’re on a panel about the existence of god, I’d like to see that panel include Lawrence Krauss, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Cristina Rad, and one horrified theologian.

    As a side note, Paul Davies kept pushing his vision of a god that made the laws. But the laws of the universe are mathematical, in the same way that a circle is mathematical, and can exist as mathematics without needing a creator.

  • http://about.me/elibressert Eli Bressert

    In regards to your question about the show and the participants. Your points were valid and your questions were well placed. It was good not to appear dogmatic about the topic either. The only part I’m worried about is that your points may have been a bit to subtle. In the case of informal logic it was great, but some viewers could have missed the reasoning behind them. In summary, you were there debating a controversial topic and pulled it off well :). Thanks for sharing the youtube links for the show.

  • Phil

    Garrett,

    I’m curious to know what you think about the question, “Why these laws, constants, etc., and not some others?”

    I gather you disapprove of string theory, which postulates many possible laws unified within the framework of string theory and that, maybe, each set of laws can govern a different universe which may exist separate from ours. Do you dislike the concept of a multiverse? If so, how do you answer the above question? But then you have to ask, “Why this framework (i.e., string theory or M-theory, or whatever) and not another framework?”

    The same question cannot be asked for a circle, for example. A circle is, by definition, the set of points equidistant from a given point. You can’t ask “Why this definition and not another definition?” All you need is a continuous 2 dimensional space and circles can exist.

    But why these sets of laws and not another set of laws?
    Thanks.

  • Paul

    I am not sure why you feel that it was a pick on the Atheist feel. As a Christian I felt that the show had a definite anti God slant, though I do believe it to have been very civil and polite. I appreciated that. You are right that there was not enough time dig deep into the discussion and I plan on using the videos as a springboard for further discussion. I also thought it was a good balance to Hawking’s presuppositional bias. I thought the science very interesting but Hawking’s conclusions are still open for conversation.

  • Neal

    Disappointing that they portrayed the Big Bang as an explosion from a point.

  • Phil h

    Sean, I think you did a great job. How you come across in these scenarios is almost as important as what you say. You came across very well in my opinion. Im curious how does Kaku get on every bloody science show? He implies that string theory leads to a bubble universes. But I believe he means eternal inflation ? Whilst the landscape of string theory may give rise to the diversity of features in the multiverse, eternal inflation doe not require string theory for its formulation. Do you agree?

  • sjn

    Garrett: I think it’s perhaps unfair to say that Paul Davies was pushing a vision that a god made the laws of physics. He merely noted that the laws of physics remain unexplained and not that a god provides an explanation for those laws. I think that Davies would probably agree that replacing one mystery with another explains nothing and merely adds complexity.

  • victor R

    The theologian needs to take some classes on analytic philosophy and formal logic. If he accepts the fact that the universe created itself(emerged), then the existence of god and the universe are independent. Thus, the universe exists even if god did not exist. If this inference is not valid, in what non-classical logic are the statements ‘the universe created itself’ and ‘the universe was created by god’ both true? Now, if god is the answer to the question why there is something(meaning laws of physics,space-time and math) rather than nothing–he said that god brought non-being into being–, then why there is god rather than no god? Because god is something.

    In addition, Science is not equipped to answer questions of value and meaning but are theologians, using ambiguous terms product of cultural evolution and ancient texts, heavy equipped to answer then?

    Thanks Sean for the videos and your blog. Next time, being a little more aggressive ,i think, would give more credentials to your position.

  • KWK

    Sean,

    Incredibly well done. I’d give you higher than a B, for sure–but I’d also give the other panelists at least a B as well, so take my (grade-inflated) notions for what they’re worth. Though we disagree on the conclusions we draw from the data of our experiences and observations, I think you did a fantastic job of laying out what the relevant issues are for how theology and science can and should interact (despite being obviously edited in the videos, such that some significant substance must have been left on the cutting-room floor). In particular, the idea that Reality impacts value questions–without necessarily being the sole factor in such questions–is often missed by the more, shall we say, wishy-washy amongst (in particular) religious believers. And the question of how (one’s conception of) God interacts with empirically-verifiable data truly is the most relevant question one could ask on the matter.

    At the same time, I do think there is a subtle epistemological issue that was left unaddressed: there seem to me to be several different categories of Reality-based questions, depending on the manner in which empirical data impinges upon them. “Is there evidence for the creation of Earth in 4004BC?” is pretty much solely a scientific question, the answer to which, alas, has still not been universally accepted. The tricky part is that the correct answer in other cases it is not so obvious. For example, the question, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” is likewise answerable by means of scientific exploration (at least in principle), though a definitive answer is much less tractable than for the previous question. One can fulminate about “extraordinary claims”, of course, if one wishes to dismiss such notions out of hand, but to me the data are exactly of the sort one might expect to find if such a claim were true, despite what amount to (in my opinion) rather naive expectations to the contrary. But the further fact that so many individuals’ and communities’ values are inextricably linked to the answer to such questions means that the Fact/Value dichotomy is not always that straightforward to disentangle.

    In that regard, one statement in particular that you made during the show about having an “open mind and an open heart” really struck me. Such an approach is fiendishly difficult for people, given that we are Bayesian creatures, nearly always operating as if our (value-laden) assumptions were correct, regardless of how much (or how little) they are actually supported by separate validation from relevant data. And it is that very assuming that makes conversation between two incommensurate sets of priors very hard to negotiate. That you think you “scored points” on Haught by getting him to “admit” that he can’t imagine a world without God (at least, that’s my impression of your reaction to him), is a good example of this. If God is the ground of all being, as Haught assumes, then it is obvious that nothing would exist without God–not even the equations governing probabilistic fluctuations in a vacuum. Thus, imagining something without God is truly nonsensical, given such a framework. In similar fashion, you have in past blog posts said that you could imagine there being some sort a god, but not one (for example) who cares about what people do in their bedrooms. In both cases, it seems to me that it is nothing more than one’s unstated priors that lead ineluctably to such a “lack of imagination”.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, if you (or any of your often significantly less irenic commenters) have never encountered a theologian with any “there” there, is it simply a “lack of imagination” on the part of one (or both) parties that is getting in the way? And might such interactions ever actually warrant a re-evaluation of one’s priors? After all, one can be just as circumspect, or just as dogmatic, about one’s theism as one’s atheism…

  • JimV

    @KWK:

    I can imagine there being a god and there not being one, and not makes more sense to me. The theologian who can’t imagine there not being a god – well, I guess that’s why they aren’t scientists. Any scientist who forms a hypothesis has to consider the null version of that hypothesis, and be prepared to go to great lengths not to fool himself. Haught’s reply “It wouldn’t exist,” to the insightful question, “How would the universe be different if God did not exist?” revealed the utter paucity of theology: the ultimate non-testable assertion!

  • T.

    Very convincing Sean – how you could actually manage to stay calm and talk sense despite statements like those of the theologian’s …”I’m trying to save science here”, and Kaku’s overblown ego is . . . very impressive. So thanks for showing atheism on its good face.

    (Also, when will this childish crush and all the sensation about Stephen Hawking stop..I mean this is not our best scientist -anymore, if he ever was- and his reason not to believe in god forbids any prior event to the bigbang, so maybe it isn’t that smart..and why does Hawking get the credit of expanding scientific thinking to notions like morality and god, whereas obviously people like Dawkins and Harris should be much more rightfully credited for that..ah well)

  • Phil

    So, did the narrator make the argument that the universe came into being from nothing? Or was the point that one cannot talk about a cause because time itself came into being with the Big Bang, so there was no “before” in which a cause occurred?

    Unfortunately, the show didn’t make it clear that we really know nothing about the laws of physics at that tiny scale (quantum gravity). Hence, the statement that the universe could have come into being without violating any of the KNOWN laws of physics is incorrect since we don’t know what those laws are at that tiny scale.

    Sure, one can say that the total energy of the universe is 0, so a universe can pop into existence without needing any energy or violating energy conservation. But if the universe, for example, came from “nothing”, then why did the universe come into being at all? The total energy of “nothing” is 0 as well. Thus, why isn’t there still nothing? And one cannot make the argument that the universe could have popped into existence from nothing as a result of quantum mechanics, because there IS no quantum mechanics if there is nothing. And even if, somehow, the universe could have come into being from nothing, why THESE laws and constants, and not others?

    So I’m surprised that, to my knowledge, the show didn’t mention the multiverse idea which could resolve these questions by saying there may exist a “universe-generating” mechanism that can make a universe from a pre-existing universe. If a multiverse had always existed “for all eternity”, that could completely do away with the need for a “first cause”. One could just say that the multiverse had always existed with the set of laws that it does, laws which also include some sort of universe-generating mechanism. But that still doesn’t address the question, “Why those laws and not others?” Unfortunately, our knowledge of the laws of physics is still incomplete, so we cannot say for sure whether such a mechanism exists, nor whether other universes exist.

    All they referred to was the notion of virtual particles randomly coming into existence from the vacuum of space-time, but this is just an analogy. The vacuum of space-time is not nothing. It is part of the universe.

    So concluding that these ideas render a creator unnecessary is, in my opinion, misleading and incorrect.

  • Dan

    Sean,
    From my pov the only difference between your stance and that of Paul Davies is that he left open the possibility for a creator, albeit a non-intrusive one, where you did not. I agree that this fascinating program should have been at least an hour long, perhaps even ninety minutes. I also believe that the panel could have benefited from an agnostic philosopher, one well versed on the rational arguments for and against a creator.
    As for a non-intrusive creator, science can always suggest that there is absolutely no evidence. However, if the future is undetermined, in a quantum uncertain universe, containing complex, chaotic, and emergent phenomena, and considering our substantial lack of understanding of the conscious mind, how can divine intervention, ever be ruled out? One man’s coincidence is another man’s correspondence. After all the mathematics is done, science still requires interpretation. Is interpretation ever truly objective? Wouldn’t that be a contradiction of terms?
    God cannot be proven *not* to exist, since logically, we can never prove a negative. Isn’t it possible that the requirements under the scientific method are so stringent as to omit possible subtle correlations, especially if they are not subject to the controls of an experimenter? BTW, what scientific experiments have been done by which you base your conclusions? If they are not based on empirical evidence, are they not based upon your own beliefs and a paradigm that has no tolerance for God’s existence and therefore aren’t they basically unscientific?
    The illogical behavior and reasoning from zealous followers of myth and superstition are not valid arguments against God’s existence, but unfortunately, imho, they have fueled a substantial backlash against a rational belief in God.
    There is, however, a reason for the saying: “there are no atheists in foxholes”, since it is easy to be dispassionate when your life and the lives of your friends and family are comfortable. What do you tell your loved ones when they are on their deathbed? What do we tell our sons and daughters, who face possible death everyday while fighting terrorism? What do you tell the man on the street, who can see no reason to continue his miserable existence? Perhaps there are rational reasons to believe in God, spirituality, and existence of the soul that transcend our current science and perhaps even the scientific method in general. As much as we think we know, can we ever know everything? On matters of our mortal existence, if not scientifically, at least philosophically, shouldn’t we, at the very least, keep an open mind?
    Dan

  • Esmail

    Thanks for posting the vids Sean. I think at the present time discussions like this althought illuminating for a small margin of the public remains regrettably only an amusement for most people just as a source to get their “debate-vein” pumping ferociously specially for a topic as sensitive as this. The rift between science and the public perception of it and what they know about it has grown so large in the past centuary that with the current flow there’s no way that somebody with no trarining in math and science can catch up to knowledge achieved by his fellow men and therefore never knows how and why scientists are led to tackle questions like what Hawking is asking.
    I find all the “theologians” arguments stagnated and lame. There’s no sane scientist wasting his time disproving “God”, the goal of scicene is to look at the world with a set of unbiased eyes; I think Science and the scientific methodology has been shaped as a decree of some sort in eyes of the public, if there’s ever a more concise and fruitful way devised to investigate a natural phenomena the sceintific method will adopt it. Lack of knowledge in the present world has given most people false groundings in defending their beliefs.
    I don’t see any clear line between scicene and the values or “hope”.To me hope is only the large amount of possiblities that exist at each moment of time with their probablility of being beneficial and practical.
    At the current rate of progress in science and the tendency of ppl going for what comforts them I don’t see a future for a real discussions about topics like this.
    This sounded like a rant from a mad man but I’ll have you know that I was having beer while watching the videos. Beacuse a “theoligian” in panel with two physicist only struck me as an entertainment.
    Sean and Paul Davis are the men but a real conversation about these topics takes an enlightenment ver 2.00.

  • Phil

    If the universe came from nothing, then on what grounds can we say that the universe arose from a random quantum fluctuation? If there’s nothing, literally nothing, then the idea “quantum fluctuation” makes no sense — it doesn’t even exist, it’s not possible. If you have nothing, you stay with nothing.

  • Russell

    Before tackling the idea of does God exist, it seems we should ask the question of how do we know anything at all exists? I’m not talking about cogito ergo sum, but I’m asking about the existence of other things. It seems to me, that you know things exist because they can affect the Universe in some way, albeit the effect may be very, very small or inconsequential. This is different than the tree falling in the woods question, since it’s still possible (in principle) to measure the falling of the tree — even if someone didn’t hear it. So is the opposite true? Can something exist and have no effect (or measurability) whatsoever on the Universe?

  • Mike

    People should really try to analyze their thought processes to get a deeper understanding of what is going on here. Most people find the warm coziness of blind faith more palatable than the cold reasoning of objective logic. It is also easier to accept blind faith rather than trying to figure out the answers to difficult questions.

    The fact is that this “GOD” idea is a concept created in the minds of men. How this “GOD” concept plays out depended a lot on the individual’s own imagination, what was ingrained in the individuals subconscious as a child and what region of the planet did the individual grow up.

    What you’re doing when you think of GOD as a creator is projecting, in an egotistical way your own self. GOD was created in the minds of men and in the image of men, because creation is a man made concept.

    Only man “creates” things. You can humble yourself by getting some clay and “create” a coffee cup. But when you create this “super creator” that can form universes and solar systems. You have become nothing more than a bird on a wire fluffing up your feathers to seem bigger than you really are.

  • Phil

    Anything that exists IN the universe influences other things nearby (everything that exists in the universe has a gravitational influence) and can, in principle, have effects which are measurable by us. It’s just a question of whether the influence has had enough time to reach us and whether or not we have the technology to detect the influence.

  • KWK

    @Mike (#18), you may or may not be intending to paint all religious believers with such a broad brush, but if you are, then your comment contrasting “blind faith” with challenging oneself by “trying to figure out the answers to difficult questions” mostly just shows you don’t get out very often. I can assure you there are plenty of theists who regularly challenge their fondly-held beliefs by applying reasoning and objective logic to their analysis of evidence for (or against) theism, and there are plenty of knee-jerk atheists who have “blind faith” despite any evidence they may encounter. In my experience such positive or negative psychological traits are not generally very strongly correlated exclusively with one or the other belief system.

    The argument that man has created God in his own image has a long and distinguished pedigree, of course, but keep in mind that man has also conceived of things like electrons, which few who know about them bother to doubt nowadays.

  • Owlmirror

    That you think you “scored points” on Haught by getting him to “admit” that he can’t imagine a world without God (at least, that’s my impression of your reaction to him), is a good example of this. If God is the ground of all being, as Haught assumes, then it is obvious that nothing would exist without God-not even the equations governing probabilistic fluctuations in a vacuum. Thus, imagining something without God is truly nonsensical, given such a framework.

    This is something that atheists have to watch out for — the New Idolatry. Of course, it isn’t really “New”, any more than New Atheism is “New”. But it’s something theololgians really like to do, nowadays.

    In the past, idolatry was straightforward. Some religious group would point at some thing — the sun, or the earth, or grain, and say “That’s the God we worship.” And someone questioning that belief would not be able to communicate with them by phrasing the question as “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God existing?”, because it would be ludicrous in that context — if there were no sun, everything would be cold and dark and dead; if there were no earth, there would be nothing to stand on; if there were no grain, there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone, and they would all starve.

    So the question would have to be phrased as “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God being a person; without it having any awareness or capability of awareness or consciousness?”

    The New Idolaters basically do the same thing as the old idolaters, but instead of pointing at some physical thing, and saying “That’s the God we worship,” they slyly move away from any particular thing and into the lofty intellectual heights of the metaphysically abstract. They smugly declare that existingness is God. Oooooh. Sooooo sophistimacated.

    Now, any sane person would be sorely tempted to smack them in the face with a halibut and tell them to stop being such a silly cack-headed chundering sophist. But I understand that that’s frowned upon in modern academic discourse.

    So instead, when discussing the matter with them, and they say they cannot imagine God not existing (because existingness itself is God, and nothing can exist without existingness, ha ha, what an absurd and logically contradictory idea!), atheists need to pause and say “Ah. Hold up a moment. Are you one of those silly cack-headed chundering sophists who say that existingness is God?”

    And (assuming they don’t start fum-faffing about how insulted they are, blah-blah-blah) when they respond in the positive, rephrase the question as above: “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God being a person or anything like a person; without it having any awareness or the capability of awareness or consciousness?”

    How would the New Idolaters respond to that? Well, if they can indeed imagine existingness as not having awareness or being a person, then they’ve responded to the original question in its actual intent. If they can’t, then you can indeed accuse them of having a ludicrous failure of imagination, and of being someone who believes in absurdities to boot.

  • David Santo Pietro

    Intellectually, Paul Davies was the star (sorry Sean). I am not sure why you call him wishy washy. He was the only person to address the question that was being begged, that is “Where did the laws of physics come from?”

    Once you have quantum field theory, or string theory or whatever, you can have a universe pop into existence from “nothing”. But you can imagine a universe with different laws, no laws, or just no universe and laws whatsoever. So it is hard to claim, as Hawking flirts with and uses in his argument, that we fully understand where the universe came from.

  • HB

    A quick comments about the videos – part 4.

    At about 8:00 Hawking says “The clock would actually stop.” And we see a stopping clock.

    In reality, if you were inside the clock you would not see it stopping, because it would not stop. It would stop only for the outside observers who are very very far away from the black hole.

    Then he says ‘Inside the black hole itself time does not exist.” That is a wrong statement.

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

    Since the laws of physics are simply descriptions of how things behave, they are coeval with the universe. Unless you revert to the ancient notion that natural laws are like human laws, i.e. the dictates of a legislator, it doesn’t seem necessary to have a separate explanation for ‘em.

    By the way, when people marvel at the supposed beauty and simplicity of physical laws, I find myself wondering just how simple laws have to be to count as simple since most of us find the ones in quantum field theory textbooks sufficiently complicated. At a minimum, aren’t we entitled to an example of what would count as ugly and kludgy physical laws. Anyhow, one hears that it is surprising that the universe is explicable at all, and yet it is far from obvious that it is maximally explicable. In a rational world, for example, wouldn’t there be an even number of days in a solar year? Wouldn’t astrology be valid since it would certainly be a more rational world if there were a simple relationship between the position of the planets and one’s character and destiny.

  • Avattoir

    I think it would have been difficult for Prof Carroll to have been more aggressive without channeling Feynman and trashing the entire exercise; he did a great job of getting in his points while respecting the tone of the set-up conversation; after all, the producers could have gone another direction, such as bringing in say Pastor Rick Warren, or the cartoonish Hagee.

    As it was, to me the conversation was more satisfying than the production involving Prof Hawking, which just had me thinking about all the alternative theories to his own of how natural forces can produce a universe. I mean, the one articulated in the show didn’t even fit all that comfortably within his own book on the subject with Leonard Mlodinow.

  • Bob

    God doesn’t exist because he was killed by Kratos in GOW3!!!

  • Yair

    I liked your performance very much, Sean, but there is one thing I don’t agree with you on – when you say that science cannot address questions of meaning and purpose. Now, there are two levels to this.

    At the human-scale, science most certainly can address questions about what people mean, and what are their purposes. This is very much a psychological question. But it is also a question in moral philosophy, for what we mean by “good” and what we desire when we desire the good are the questions the ultimately ground morality. You can build up sophistry around it, but rational morality is ultimately about what humans value, and so values are not at all outside the purview of science. The traditional position, that morality and values should left to philosophers or religion, is mistaken.

    At the cosmic-scale, it makes no sense to speak of a god creating all of existence with a purpose or meaning as that would ignore its own existence, and science also allows us to see how petty and anthropomorphic this picture is. On the other hand, science can in principle find that the pattern of the universe is such that it has a purpose or a meaning, in the simple manner in which a book might have those properties. So while the case is somewhat weaker, I still think that at this level too science can determine meaning and purpose.

    In short, then, it’s just not true that science cannot touch purpose and meaning.

  • Bob

    Wow. Did Yair listen to a single word Sean said? Its bizarre how Yair got it so back to front.

  • Yair

    Bob:

    At 08:35 at the first video, Sean says: “…I agree that there are questions that science doesn’t answer. Science tells us what happens in the world and how it happens. That’s a little different than questions of purpose and meaning.”

    It certainly appears to me that Sean is saying that science cannot answer questions of purpose and meaning. It can inform the discussion, but cannot answer them. If my interpretation is incorrect, I’ll gladly rescind my comment.

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  • David Santo Pietro

    Jim, you said, “Since the laws of physics are simply descriptions of how things behave, they are coeval with the universe. Unless you revert to the ancient notion that natural laws are like human laws, i.e. the dictates of a legislator, it doesn’t seem necessary to have a separate explanation for ‘em.”

    Not sure how you can be so sure of this. Plus, saying the universe same into being because “the laws of physics, which have no explanation, did it” seems unsatisfying (at best) and logically faulty or circular (at worst). Admittedly, we use this for all other explanations (e.g. apple falls to Earth because space time curvature) and don’t really explain where the root cause comes from (why should space time be able to get curved at all?). Those seem a bit unsatisfying as well if you think about it for awhile.

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

    Yair, my point was that conversations about purpose and meaning must be based on (and therefore certainly informed by) science — but they cannot simply be “answered” by science in the same way that actual science questions can be. See here and here and elsewhere on the blog for more about this.

    Philosophers need to talk to scientists to make progress, but ultimately values are about philosophy, not science.

  • Phil Osopher

    Most working mathematicians and a lot of cosmologists do have a Platonist view of mathematics. It is entirely possible to refuse this platonist interpretation of mathematics, but it makes it very difficult to define the concept of “law of nature” or to understand whether or not Fermat’s theorem was true or not before it was demonstrated. There are of course other philosophies of Mathematics, but while these can easily be embraced by philosophers, biologists, or even many physicists who just use math as a tool, it is almost impossible for pure mathematicians to embrace any other view of math than the platonist one because it is the main motivation behind their research: discovering uncharted territory in the world of mathematics. Not many mathematicians believe they are inventing this territory indeed. Now if I decide to accept this Platonist view of Mathematics, and if I decide to redefine Mathematics as “God”, doesnt it have precisely all the attributes needed for it to be God indeed? Mathematics did create the world through the laws of physics. Mathematics organizes the world, Mathematics influences our lives. Would the Universe look different without Mathematics? Of course, it would not exist at all… And finally to the question “Does Mathematics exist?”, the Platonist must answer “yes”.

  • Owlmirror

    Now if I decide to accept this Platonist view of Mathematics, and if I decide to redefine Mathematics as “God”, doesnt it have precisely all the attributes needed for it to be God indeed?

    [*hefting a halibut, and looking at sentence with an expression that is impossible to describe.*]

    Would you agree that these “attributes” do not include personality, awareness, or consciousness, or anything like them?

    Mathematics did create the world through the laws of physics.

    In the same impersonal sense of the term “create” as in “Vulcanism did create the island of Hawai’i”?

    Mathematics organizes the world, Mathematics influences our lives. Would the Universe look different without Mathematics? Of course, it would not exist at all… And finally to the question “Does Mathematics exist?”, the Platonist must answer “yes”.

    And also, welcome to the New Idolatry, Church of Platonic Mathematics.

  • Bryan

    Life/existance = Time
    Death/Non existance= No Time/Eternity

    Huh?

    You say God cannot exist without time? God is eternal and does not need time in order to exist. The bible says that after this life (time) we will spend eternity (no time) in heaven or hell, therefore you don’t need “time” in order to contemplate the existance of God or heaven or hell because where they came from, time does not exist! The idea of time gives us a reference point that things have a beginning or an end, let me point out that since the beginning the bible has said that God is the Alpha and the Omega all rolled into one. Why stick with this idea that “time” determines our destinaton after this life, clearly the Bible has ALWAYS been preaching ETERNITY. But why preach this idea? Is it because the concept is just so perfect and well refined… eternity…. In heavenly bliss or eternal damnation. That is it for us.

  • Jens

    You did very well, Sean.

    It was clear that much conversation had been edited away. A shame. It was also clear that the format didn’t really allow participants to challenge the views of other participants. Such a format would have been better in my view.

  • Phil Osopher

    @Owlmirror: Spinoza’s God (the one I referred to) is certainly not personal. I’m not sure I understood your point of view though: do you believe that the platonistic existence of mathematical objects is trivial or that it’s absurd? Or both? (which we could call the “Owlmirror paradox” if you like) Yours, Phil

  • Farhad Keyvan

    Sean, you were definitely the best here. The most rational of all. I loved how you made the point that even our decisions and purpose in life ought to be based on reality and not some supernatural magician in the sky. That really blows away arguments by those who keep saying science and religion can co-exist because science does not have anything to do with our purpose in life.

  • KWK

    @Farhad,

    Actually, though some aspects of that statement were great (see my comment #10 above), that also turns out to be one of Sean’s weakest rhetorical points, primarily due to his conflation of “what science tells us about reality” with the whole of reality. Only by having a prior commitment to the metaphysical doctrine of materialism (or related views) is that a valid logical move–and its mere validity, of course, is not dispositive as to its soundness.
    Those who hold to materialism would probably already claim to base their decisions and purpose on (their view of) reality, while anyone who has a broader view of metaphysics than the materialist will hold that reality might very well include “some supernatural magician in the sky”. So while Sean’s statement does provide a useful check for those who are tempted to completely divorce “facts” from “values” for whatever reason, in terms of dialogue between science and theology it does nothing more than recapitulate Sean’s philosophical assumptions in a less-than-clear way.

  • Sai S.

    “The rift between science and the public perception of it and what they know about it has grown so large in the past centuary that with the current flow there’s no way that somebody with no trarining in math and science can catch up to knowledge achieved by his fellow men and therefore never knows how and why scientists are led to tackle questions like what Hawking is asking.
    I find all the “theologians” arguments stagnated and lame. There’s no sane scientist wasting his time disproving “God”, the goal of scicene is to look at the world with a set of unbiased eyes; I think Science and the scientific methodology has been shaped as a decree of some sort in eyes of the public, if there’s ever a more concise and fruitful way devised to investigate a natural phenomena the sceintific method will adopt it. Lack of knowledge in the present world has given most people false groundings in defending their beliefs.
    I don’t see any clear line between scicene and the values or “hope”.To me hope is only the large amount of possiblities that exist at each moment of time with their probablility of being beneficial and practical.
    At the current rate of progress in science and the tendency of ppl going for what comforts them I don’t see a future for a real discussions about topics like this.”

    @ Esmail

    I think it was e.e. cummings who said Progress is a comfortable disease. It is exactly this sort of scenario that has sadly alienated the public from science and made it so that every time there is a problem, it’s science to the rescue. In the absence of problems, it is back to the old status quo between the public and science while pure research carries on answering whatever questions it can with the available grant/financial resources with no communication to the rest of the population.
    This might have worked in the past, but as our technology and scientific knowledge progresses, we are at a level where not interacting with the public or discussing the issues is becoming less of an option (even in the US). I don’t know about physics, but the vast majority of biological research relies on the taxpayers dollar at the end of the day.

    I don’t know if this debate/discussion is a sample of the ideas modern physicists are having to deal with, but its great to see the field of physics finally have to address the ‘public perception of science crap’ that evolutionary and regular biologists have dealt with for decades! If it gets big enough in the media, maybe biologists will have a few good years at doing viral and stem cell research in relative peace. God’s Existence Denied makes for way more controversial headlines than the Humans Come From Monkeys one.

  • Owlmirror

    Spinoza’s God (the one I referred to) is certainly not personal.

    I note that you did not specify that reference (until now).

    I’m not sure I understood your point of view though:

    Oh, my point was simply to express annoyance at the equivocation and deliberate confusion of something fundamental and abstract with a personal entity by use of a term historically used to refer to a person (or as I like to put it, an invisible person with magical superpowers).

    do you believe that the platonistic existence of mathematical objects is trivial or that it’s absurd? Or both?

    Hm. I think I would have to go with “absurd”, at this time — and calling them “objects” rather than “concepts” or “abstractions” seems to me to implicitly beg the question.

  • Alan

    “conversations about purpose and meaning must be based on (and therefore certainly informed by) science”

    But purpose and meaning for us are to do with our experiences and we value these experiences but maybe they could be valued as something in themselves. Suppose there is something which essentially contributes to experience – you can’t have experience without it. Part of the origin of an experience could be tied to the matter (energy) of which we are composed and the present science-based explanation hasn’t got this solved.

    So still purpose and meaning can be based on science and answered by science but science hasn’t actually got there yet. Not far enough in yet is my point. I am of course for the search. And meaning for people is most deeply known in relationships observed and felt/experienced – science and other fields, say art, music etc., but of course between people. Also there is a connection here (between people) that hasn’t been worked out. I would argue somehow tied to the nature of space.

  • Farhad Keyvan

    Sean:

    Some suggestions for your next debate. I think what you could do is take the believers in god to task by asking them what if any “scientific” proof they have for the existence of the supernatural. And let’s assume they come up with some “evidence”, then why they think their “god” is the right one. Why I am suggesting this is because in the current debate, and I assume in future debates, the believers always choose a careful diplomatic posture by making statements reassuring everyone they do support science and merely want to distinguish it from religion. The believers, as in this debate, are also mostly Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic monotheists, therefore there is a great deal they are assuming already by rejecting other types of world religions. The point is that the burden of proof is on them and a scientist in such a debate ought to make sure it stays that way even though the believers try their best to turn the tables.

  • KWK

    @Farhad-

    Now that is a really great idea. Much better than disparaging theists for their assumed lack of evidence is actually asking them why they believe what they believe. There are certainly plenty of crap answers to that line of questioning, but you may be surprised at some of the more well-thought-out responses.

    That said, making a positive case for belief in the supernatural is on some level a separate issue from keeping science “honest”–i.e., ensuring scientists don’t make any metaphysical claims on behalf of science beyond what the empirical evidence will bear.

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  • vel

    I wish someone would take these theists to task about how they can prove the universe was started by their *particular* god. None of this wishy-washy nonsense. I want to see evidnce that the god that they profess to believe in exists and did anything of the sort. Without that, it’s all the usual pascal’s wager nonsense.

  • Alan

    Farhad and KWK

    If you go to my comment number 101 here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/08/02/hawking-and-god-on-the-discovery-channel/#comments

    These scientists are clearly onto something – and if it’s part of the universe I would call it natural not supernatural.

    Farhad – they are clearly collecting challenging data and some have seen remarkable things as well. Would that make one into a “believer”? I can’t see that as a problem. But certainly good subjects (those who are still around!) for an interview. Of course a lot of interviews are out there already.

    KWK – I agree. Scientists shouldn’t make any metaphysical claims on behalf of science beyond what the empirical evidence will bear. But if this kind of evidence in coming in, what then?

    I’d say it’s still science.

  • http://www.groupsrv.com/science/about193612,html Anthony A. Aiya-Oba

    Zwitterion is configuration of salvation; the essence of religion.-Aiya-Oba (Philosopher).

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  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    Interesting discussion and I applaud all the participants for being able to conduct one of the calmest discussions I’ve seen in the media of late. If there was anyone I was disappointed with, as a theology graduate myself, it was Haught simply for missing a few of the easier targets… Sometimes, I assume because of a lack of familiarity with even basic theology, some atheists will make a statement that they think catches religion on some fatal point only to be met with confusion because it’s what theists have believed all along. In this case, the idea that before time there was no time and therefore no God, even though being outside of time is widely considered one of the Abrahamic God’s defining characteristics. (It’s popped up in the comments as well… “God is existingness” isn’t some recent sophistic trick [and some people love accusing arguements they don’t understand of being mere sophistry]: it’s actually the most common conception of God found in mystic religious traditions across the board dating back thousands of years… It’s one of the few telling areas that I think the field of comparitive religion is actually onto.) He also missed a plum opportunity of observing that science is itself a sense-making imposition that the human mind lays over reality, however functionally useful it may be.

    I don’t think Haught fails on the imagination test for the reasons explained above by KWK. I think he did try to go for a the provocative answer with the expectation that it would engender further questioning. My own answer would be to shoot the question of definition right back: what do you mean by God? If you were to clarify that you’re asking about my personal conception of God, then I would answer the same as Haught but probably want to elaborate more on what I mean about God being existingness and all that comes with that. The issue is how the question sounds to Haught, which is basically you asking him to imagine what existence would be like if the foundational conditions of existence didn’t exist. Contrary, again, to what some commentors have said (that any possible answer to any such question is dissmissible because they think it’s silly), William James actually defined Godhood or God-like things in exactly this manner as a question that could be posed to any person, theist or atheist or pantheist or nontheist or polytheist or animist or whatever.

    To quote from “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: “Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine… [given that non-theistic movements can act functionally as religions, including strident belief in No-God] accordingly when in our definition of religion we speak of the individual’s relation to ‘what he considers the divine,’ we must interpret the term ‘divine’ very broadly, as denoting any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not… For one thing, gods are conceived to be first things in the way of being and power. They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape. What relates to them is the first and last word in the way of truth. Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true might at this rate be treated as godlike, and a man’s religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, towards what he felt to be the primal truth.”

    Haught might just as easily have asked you to imagine the universe without physical laws, to the same effect. You might have gotten a more substantive answer out of Haught if you had asked him how the universe would be different if some other deity was in charge than the simple question if existence could exist without existence.

    Anyways, all that aside, the conversation was a bit simple but that’s okay given that most of what we see on the Idiot Box nowadays is “YOU RELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE MORANS!” followed by “YOU ATHEISTS ARE GOING TO HELLLLLL!!!” and then both shouting at each other “HITLER IS YOUR FAULT!!”

  • Davide

    Thanks for posting this, Sean. Very interesting indeed.

    This debate could have occurred 3000 years ago, if only humankind had understood enough science back then. I mean, the debate went on as if Jesus had never existed.
    To try to answer your question, Sean, about how would it be the universe without God, well Jesus would have never been existed. I don’t think it’s a small difference, at least on our planet.

    Even if it was a biased debate (David Gregory was obviously leading the public towards the atheistic view), I appreciated two important points which came out of it. First, I appreciated your point about reality. We all have to start from reality, but sometimes scientists don’t realize that they are also biased by the mainstream atheistic view. For example, the gospel is a tale of FACTS, not of opinions, not of abstract speculative philosophy, not so much of moral teachings, but of facts. Now, a honest discussion about the God of Christians should start with an evaluation of the credibility of historical documents talking about facts: the gospels. If you state a priori some of those facts are impossible, you don’t have an open scientific attitude. Second, I appreciated the sort of conclusion implied in the debate, that God should be relegated into the moral sphere and kick out of reality. That’s exactly the dogma of the dominant ideology of our times.

  • Yair

    Sean @32:

    In your latest post you rightly came after first-philosophy when it comes to understanding the world, to natural philosophy. I urge you to adopt the same skeptical approach when it comes to moral philosophy. Moral philosophy cannot produce values, any more than natural philosophy can deduce the structure of reality. Values exist in us, they’re scientific facts, not conclusions of first-philosophy.

    “Philosophers need to talk to scientists to make progress, but ultimately values are about philosophy, not science.”

    But what is the role of philosophy in morality? I submit that it lies at the foundations, in clarifying concepts and creating conceptual frameworks. Philosophy can lay out the concept of “value”, but finding out which values are present in humans is a scientific question.

    This does not mean that scientific research “is going to produce a quantitative answer to the question of exactly how much harm would need to be averted to justify sacrificing someone’s life”. But the important point is – neither is philosophy! Values aren’t something philosophy can derive. Human values are an empirical fact of human psychology. And hence the answers – plural, for there is no “objective” answer, only a host of “subjective” ones – are ultimately about science, not philosophy.

  • Mike

    > Michio Kaku:
    > The guy is a brilliant science communicator,
    > but I don’t think he added anything of value here.

    I don’t know Sean,
    I thought Dr. Kaku’s analogy of using bubble bath to represent The Miltiverse was worth noting.

    Now I know that in your book “From Eternity to Here” Paris Hilton was mentioned
    While I can’t seem to visualize a connection between Stephen Hawking and bubble bath.

    There may be something worthy regarding further research provided grant money could be acquired for the work necessary in proving the other side of the equation.

    Another thing, it looks like Dr. Kaku who is from the East coast is trying to move in on your turf!
    He hosts a Saturday radio show at 10:00 am on KPFK called Exploration.

    Just lett’en you know….. Bro!

  • http://www.telecomsg.com F16JetJock

    Until someone can substantiate the source of intelligence of the Mind of Man, Chance, Evolution, Spontaneous Generation and the perfect ecological, geological and atmospheric harmony to support life on earth, common sense dictates that only a Creator could have designed all life forms and all Physical Laws.

    Remember, for the simplest life form the odds of its 239 protein molecules each consisting of a minimum of 439 amino acids formed in left-handed chains (in order to replicate itself) is one chance in ten followed by 29, 345 zeros. Indeed, a little impossible wouldn’t you say? Indeed, even Charles Darwin remained a Christian after writing Origin of the Species.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “Remember, for the simplest life form the odds of its 239 protein molecules each consisting of a minimum of 439 amino acids formed in left-handed chains (in order to replicate itself) is one chance in ten followed by 29, 345 zeros. “

    That might be true if you are computing the odds that it came together by chance, but not if it evolved. How probable is a good novel? Not much if it is monkeys on typewriters, but higher if if writer is writing it.

  • Escuerd

    Until someone can substantiate the source of intelligence of the Mind of Man, Chance, Evolution, Spontaneous Generation and the perfect ecological, geological and atmospheric harmony to support life on earth, common sense dictates that only a Creator could have designed all life forms and all Physical Laws.

    In other words, the God of the Gaps is the default assumption because that great, reliable arbiter of all things outside the realm of human experience, “common sense”, dictates that it must be so.

    Remember, for the simplest life form the odds of its 239 protein molecules each consisting of a minimum of 439 amino acids formed in left-handed chains (in order to replicate itself) is one chance in ten followed by 29, 345 zeros. Indeed, a little impossible wouldn’t you say? Indeed, even Charles Darwin remained a Christian after writing Origin of the Species.

    Of course, the assumption that in the entire space of possible sequences, only a unique one would correspond to life is totally justified. Clearly then, life must have been created by conscious intent. This is not question-begging at all.

    Seriously, this argument boils down to little more than “It’s improbable that things would end up exactly as they have,” which is trivially obvious for anything that’s fairly complex and does not imply what you seem to think it does.

  • http://www.telecomsg.com F16JetJock

    Secular men, especially those of academia, are their own worst enemy. Indeed, they insist that only human beings can conceive, create and manufacture material things. However, they refuse to accept that a Creator had to have conceived and created themselves, all other life-forms, and their ability to procreate. Especially since the latter are incomprehensibly more complex and in fact “miracles”.

    How sad that no one on the show discussed the Laws of Probability that states that even for the simplest life form the odds of 239 protein molecules, with each having 410 amino acids, could create itself by chance is one chance in ten followed by 29,345 zeros. And this doesn’t even include its DNA instruction set for procreation and male/female X/Y chromosome determinations. Indeed, all Probability Mathematicians know that any chance of one in ten followed by only 50 zeros is absolutely impossible no matter how much time and space is allotted.

    So life began by chance you say??

  • David

    Sean,

    The subject matter of religion is either unidentifiable and thus vacuous or identifiable and unsupportable. The debate should argue towards identifiability because well-defined concepts live in a space of consequences that can be dealt with. The religious apologist is thus inevitably forced to clothe a concept in some sort of unidentifiable dress. That’s where the tug-of-war takes place. The religious apologist wants the freedom to access a space that science hasn’t yet filled in order to insert his/her non-scientific, poorly defined, or poorly constrained, entity, to construct its invisible home there until science forces it to relocate by restricting the space of conceptual unidentifiability.

    Regarding your video, I was surprised by the clarity and weight of your arguments and the poise of your demeanor.

    Thanks again for reviewing my paper.

    David

  • Dennis

    The theologians are all wet. I have one statement/question: Prove it. Prove it with the tiniest of evidence of a god and I will be on board all the way.

  • Dennis

    The Vatican spokesman “says” these things, but saying things do not mean they are true because you are religious and simply say it. Being from the Vatican does not make you an expert. Again…simply prove it. The simplest of all statements/questions.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

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

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