The Problem of Instructions

By Sean Carroll | April 6, 2012 11:01 am

Driving to work yesterday, my local public radio station was talking about a recent incident in which a student at Fullerton Union High School was disqualified from a competition by an assistant principal. The student, asked onstage where he’d like to be in ten years, said he hoped that gay marriage would become legal and he could be married to someone he loved. The assistant principle thought this was outrageous and immediately pulled him from the competition. Most interesting to me were the uniformly astonished reactions from the radio voices — how could it be, in this age of anti-bullying efforts and growing acceptance of homosexuality, that an authority figure could act so callously? You mean to say that there are still grownups out there who are willing to say out loud that homosexuality is immoral?

There are. And if you want to know why, at least part of the answer can be found in several discussions popping up in my newsreader about what Jesus thought about homosexuality. Here’s a Christian mother who travels the difficult road from hatred to acceptance once she learns that her own son is gay. Here’s a theological debate between Ron Dreher and Andrew Sullivan on the precise degree to which sexuality should be considered sinful. And here’s a moving speech by Matthew Vines, a 21-year-old man who tries his best to argue that the traditional understanding of the Bible as strongly anti-homosexuality is mistaken (essentially because that would condemn gay people to being tortured and unloved, and surely the Bible wouldn’t be in favor of that). Personally I think Jesus probably didn’t approve of homosexuality, but since the Gospels were written decades after Jesus died, by people who probably had never met him, I admit the historical record is not exactly definitive. Maybe Jesus was extremely compassionate toward gay people, although that would have been quite out of character for messianic figures from first century A.D. Palestine, so had that been true it would have been worth an explicit mention. It’s an inevitable problem when you are committed to taking your moral cues from two-thousand-year-old semi-mythical stories about a charismatic preacher, rather than trying to found them on reason and reflection.

Which brings me to the Problem of Instructions. This is a challenge to the idea that belief in God is a plausible hypothesis to help us account for the world, much like the Problem of Evil but much less well known, possibly because (as far as I know) I made it up. I mentioned the Problem of Instructions in our recent debate, but I’ve never written it down, so here you go. (I have no doubt that analogous issues have been discussed by real theologians.)

Let’s imagine that we were to take seriously the question of whether the idea of God serves a useful explanatory role in accounting for the reality we experience. What would we do to evaluate this idea? I would argue that we should use the dreaded hypothetico-deductive method. That is, we should try to forget what we actually know of the world, and imagine how the world would most likely be, under the competing hypotheses (1) there exists an extremely powerful, extremely benevolent divine entity who in some sense cares about human beings; and (2) it’s just the laws of physics, without any supernatural guidance or overseer. Then we compare those imaginations to the world we actually see, and decide which is a better fit.

Obviously there will be many aspects of the scenarios we imagine. Let me just focus in on one: the instructions God would give us if he existed, were very powerful, and cared about us here on Earth.

Now, I’ve written textbooks myself. I understand that it is sometimes difficult to write in a way that is perfectly clear to everyone. On the other hand, I’m not God. I would imagine that God’s textbook (if a book were the medium he chose for handing down his instructions, which seems to be the traditional choice) would be fantastically clear. He’s God, he can be as clear as he wants!

If God existed and cared about us human beings down here on Earth acting in the right way, I honestly believe that the very least he could do would be to make it perfectly clear what that right way was. I would expect God’s book of instructions to have several unmistakable characteristics: it would be unique (everyone would know that it was straight from God); it would be crystal clear (no ambiguities of interpretation); it might very well be challenging (no reason to think God’s instructions should be easy to carry out); and it would transcend the petty concerns of particular human places and times, conveying a truly universal perspective. God’s textbook would get nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon.

Now, let’s compare that to what I might expect if God did not exist. I have no trouble believing that there would still be books that claimed to be straight from God; that’s the kind of thing human beings tend to go around claiming. But there would be many such books. Some of them would be monographs from a single purportedly-inspired individual, while some of them would be edited collections of manuscripts collected over the years. In places they would offer good advice, while in other places they would say things that come across as pretty horrible. In parts they would be inspirational, in parts poetic and moving, in parts boring, and very often they would contradict themselves. They would generally reflect the local beliefs and politics of the environment in which they were composed. And, most tellingly, they would be unclear — some vague snippets of wisdom arranged in an unsystematic fashion, often ambiguous and possible to interpret in just about any way you like.

Now that we have our scenarios laid out, we ask ourselves: which of these is more like the real world?

Of course there’s no question that religious believers can wriggle out of the predictions of this thought experiment; wriggling out of the straightforward implications of belief in God is one of the primary activities of believers. It’s not hard to come up with reasons why God’s word might seem unclear to us mere humans, or be distorted over the years. And many will claim that God’s word is perfectly unambiguous to them — it’s just everyone else that has trouble understanding.

All of these apologetics carry with them the implication that God doesn’t really care that much about us down here on Earth. If he did, it would be the snap of his divine fingers to set us straight — absolutely everyone — on all possible issues of interpretation. Part of being omnipotent is the ability to be perfectly clear if he chooses. We can concoct reasons why God might want us to be challenged by the vicissitudes of life, or face an ongoing struggle to be better people; but there’s no reason at all for God to want to keep us in the dark about what being better people actually entails. Religion requires that we believe in a God who wants us to behave in certain ways, but refuses to be clear about what those ways actually are.

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  • wldmr

    Interesting. But I feel there is at least one assumption in that argument that doesn’t really track.

    For you “cares about humans” seems to imply “has clear advice” (right?). That, to me, is a non-sequitur. I don’t know how to clarify, but I don’t see why “instructions” are necessarily a means to express concern for his creation.

    Also, from what I understand, humans were created “imperfect”. They were well capable of making mistakes (hence the whole ordeal with the expulsion from Awesomeland for ingesting a piece of fruit). So it may even be that the instructions are perfectly clear, but not to us. And not because of some oversight on the part of the deity, but by design.

    This whole thing where when people argue about Gods by imposing some restrictions on them, and then argue the unlikeliness that arise from these restrictions, never works for me. You define something arbitrary and then you show that the arbitrary thing is somehow problematic. Which is fun and all, but I don’t see it accomplishing anything.

  • Lord

    Is it so difficult to believe the idea of God serves no useful explanatory role in accounting for the reality we experience, but still offers comfort and the strength to seek out those explanations on our own? Perhaps God is too sophisticated to think transcendent clarity is possible or desirable and that caring is best shown by letting us figure it out on our own even if that leads to doubt in him or to the equivalence of him with nature. {That, and he already tried this approach in heaven with the limited success of subservience or rebellion.) Omniscience implies he already knows the best way.

  • dlgrn

    Heaven is what religious people think the world would look like if God existed.

  • Sean Nicholson

    Absolutely fool proof. The human ego knows no bounds. Religion is straightforward sales technique aimed at the not very bright to make them feel good about themselves. Doesn’t cost very much. Promises to do a lot and ultimately doomed with your money back guarantee only effective after death. Brilliant!

  • http://www.flisser.com Bob F.

    The right-wing, Christian gay haters aren’t concerned with being hypocritical. They quote passages from the Old Testament (Torah) that prohibit homosexuality, but they simultaneously ignore other passages of what’s forbidden, like shellfish and using fabrics of mixed fibers, like cotton and wool (shatnis). Though curiously, the Bible doesn’t say anything about polyester.

    Whenever I ask one of these people why they eat shellfish, they tell me that as Christians, they don’t have to follow the original 613 commandments. So they pick and choose what they scream about and what they ignore. I tell them to go to http://www.GodHatesShrimp.com. Or I tell them to go somewhere else.

    But as an atheist, I just shake my head, wondering why adults still think there’s a bogeyman in the closet and monsters under the bed.

  • jld

    This is a waste of time and efforts, religion is INSANITY, a mild form of paranoia (fear of a hidden agency) there is no way you can argue with paranoiacs about their fears.

  • fraac

    If Jesus was intolerant of anyone except exploitative dicks it would have been out of character, no?

    I skipped the rest. Sean, when you talk about God you turn a respected physicist into a sophomoric berk.

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

      it is always telling when people boast about not reading the blog posts they leave comments on.

  • http://thefloatinglantern.wordpress.com Tim Martin

    Great argument!

  • http://www.NoGloww.blogspot.com NoGloww

    The whole idea of God, as expressed in Biblical terms, is a philosophical paradox in itself. If you accept the premise, for argument’s sake, that the Bible is fundamentally true, a book of divine instructions, stories, and poems that are directly from God sent through an inspired human, as the Bible claims to be, then the idea of God cannot be logically argued into or out of existence. The very nature of God defined by the Bible is impossible to prove or disprove because belief in such a god is solely based on faith. “Do not test thy God.”

    Personally, this is where Occam’s razor comes into play (whether Occam intended to or not) and rules in favor of such a god being nonexistent because of the sheer complexity and number of unsupported assumptions required to logically believe the Biblical God exists.

    I believe this same logic can be applied to the question of whether a set of divine instructions exists to be strictly applied to human life. Therefore, the usefulness and, hence clarity, of such instructions and guides is arbitrary.

    I’m glad that Discover magazine and Carroll gave attention to this line of questions and problems because I feel that it is a subject easily glossed over, if not downright ignored my many major publications.

  • http://www.matthewcputman.com Matthew Putman

    It is a great thought expirement. Thanks Sean. It is nice to see you dive into the world of us scientists who argue with everyone else over the existence of god, and you picked a much clearer one than my usual argument that that goes “are you serious? you think that bread actually turned into the body of your god?” You will though never win with this argument of course, as the claim that God works in mysterious ways will always be invoked, as you mention here. Still good one…

  • http://www.NoGloww.blogspot.com NoGloww

    Oh, and wldmr, as far as you claim of non sequitur, I believe the statement, “God loves us therefore give us clear advice on life” can be safely derived from the Bile itself (that being the premise on which we’re basing these arguments) in which the Bible defines a loving and caring God (in parts, at least) whom which has strict preferences about the way humans live, hence the use of terms like “The 10 Commandments”. I believe commandments by definition are written, at least in part, with a purpose of clarity in mind. Therefore, the Ten Commandments and previous 160+ in the Old Testament can safely be assumed to be written at least partly for the purpose of clarity as well.

    If humans are by design imperfect and the directions from God are perfectly clear, but impossible to understand by us mere humans, any attempt to make sense of such instructions would become a

  • GM

    1. wldmr Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 11:55 am
    Interesting. But I feel there is at least one assumption in that argument that doesn’t really track.
    For you “cares about humans” seems to imply “has clear advice” (right?). That, to me, is a non-sequitur. I don’t know how to clarify, but I don’t see why “instructions” are necessarily a means to express concern for his creation.

    Then what’s the point in praying to him, following the instructions in holy books or paying any attention to him to begin with??

    This is the core issue here – believers claim not only that there is God but that we should believe in him, modify our lives following the holy book, pray to him, etc. But this only makes sense if that God is of precisely the nature described in the original post, which, however, is inconsistent with the facts…

  • http://www.NoGloww.blogspot.com NoGloww

    Oh, and wldmr, as far as you claim of non sequitur, I believe the statement, “God loves us therefore give us clear advice on life” can be safely derived from the Bile itself (that being the premise on which we’re basing these arguments) in which the Bible defines a loving and caring God (in parts, at least) whom which has strict preferences about the way humans live, hence the use of terms like “The 10 Commandments”. I believe commandments by definition are written, at least in part, with a purpose of clarity in mind. Therefore, the Ten Commandments and previous 160+ in the Old Testament can safely be assumed to be written at least partly for the purpose of clarity as well.

    If you believe that humans are by design imperfect and the directions from God are perfectly clear, but impossible to understand by us mere humans, then you are also making a paradox of any attempt to make sense of those instructions.

    Furthermore, these discussions are anything but arbitrary considering the implications and consequences of the application of these divine rules have on other people, especially the people that do not subscribe to them. The case Carroll mentions about the boy being pulled from a school competition because he obviously doesn’t believe that homosexuality is a sin, is just one of many, if not moderate consequences of nonbelief in the Bible’s literal or fundamental usefulness. The consequences of the literal application of the Bible’s guides for living can and have been anything from personal guilt to murder. I think that deems discussion on this topic relevant and necessary.

  • fraac

    There exist some truly interesting questions about God. It’s been shown that atheists with Aspergers don’t refer to God at all, while nonautistic atheists are still reasoning teleologically but they consciously reject God. So there’s a biological, societal need for God. Then there’s the psychological need for comfort; defense mechanisms and such. Then there’s the energy field created by all living things: surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together.

    These are deep, distinct questions. When I see otherwise smart people wade in with “Yes but The Bible says…” I shake my head.

  • robert landbeck

    “Part of being omnipotent is the ability to be perfectly clear if he chooses.” That is exactly what has happened! But such clearity has not come from the theological obfuscations which characterize religious tradition, but from outside the existing religious milieu, to differentiate itself from all other claims. For what science and religion thought impossible has now happened. History has its first literal, testable and fully demonstrable proof for faith.

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called ‘the first Resurrection’ in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods’ willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence. Ultimate proof!

    Thus ‘faith’ is the path, the search and discovery of this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, Law, command and covenant, while at the same time realigning our human moral compass with the divine, and “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. To test or not to test, that is the question?
    More info at http://www.energon.org.uk,
    http://soulgineering.com/2011/05/22/the-final-freedoms/

  • https://twitter.com/#!/ambisinistrous J.C. Shafer

    Hypothesis (1) is incomplete; it doesn’t accurately represent Christian dogma. Moreover, it doesn’t follow that “care[ing] about human beings” means clarity of instruction.

    This is well-trod theological ground. The dogmatic view of divine benevolence toward humanity includes ensuring moral liberty. A omnipotent, omnipresent God issuing inarguable instructions precludes the possibility of free will; humans would be compelled to obedience by fear. “Clear instructions” from God would be indistinguishable from coercion.

    This argument serves equally well to refute biblical literalism :)

  • Vta

    God’s textbook, short form: 10 Commandments.

  • Lord

    My conception of God is a four plus dimensional being who creates a four plus dimensional universe(s) and free will determines our path through it but there exists a quantum overlay of all other paths and possibilities but while it can be said he created it, intercession and intervention, making decisions and changing his mind, existing in time and causing actions, are all attempts to place God into the universe, which while easier for us to contemplate, are fundamentally misguided and the best we can hope for is to tap into what knowledge we can of what should be, control our own thoughts and path, and hope for the best.

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  • trj

    You could argue that the Bible is deliberately unclear. Sometimes figuring the solution out for yourself will provide a greater level of insight than simply having things pointed out to you. Maybe God wants us decode his cryptic instructions in order to gain experiental wisdom in some Zen kind of way.

    The problem with that, of course, is that there’s a significant difference between being vague and being self-contradictory. The Bible can’t even agree with itself whether you are saved by faith or by works. As a minimum you’d expect the basic instructions on salvation (which I’d argue ought to be the primary instructive purpose of the Bible) to be consistent.

  • http://www.NoGloww.blogspot.com NoGloww

    Shafer, you state that, ” A omnipotent, omnipresent God issuing inarguable instructions precludes the possibility of free will”. I fail to see how giving instructions on how to conduct one’s life negates the possibility of freewill. Because guides or instructions are given does not force one to follow them. There are rules and instructions everywhere for just about everything in life, from the laws of a government to rules of proper social interactions to the rules of grammar, yet an individual is not forced to obey them, pressured perhaps, by society or government, but the fact is people activity and consciously break, ignore, and bend them all the time. If that weren’t true we would have no use for punishment, consequences, or enforcement of said laws and rules. And the conclusion that if such laws from the Biblical God were given, that people would be compelled to obey them out of fear is very true, because the Bible does so happen to issue laws and rules regarding human life (again, reference The Ten Commandments or other 160+ commandments in the Old Testament) and threatens eternal punishment in hell for breaking those laws without believing that Jesus already died for one’s sins and that he is the son of the one true (Biblical) God. Some people ARE compelled to obey them

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    semi-mythical stories about a charismatic preacher,

    I would instead call them “semi-literary”, seeing that there is no contemporary historical evidence but the expected texts (romans, sanhedrins) do not mention such a preacher, and that it is expected since this is the state for all pre-Enlightenment religious figure heads from Buddha over Muhammad to K’ung-tzu.

    And the stories are hardly describing a charismatic preacher that were a dime a dozen at that time and place, but a miracle worker with a following. The “charismatic preacher” concept is a modern exaptation of old religious texts, and makes the resulting development of a greek syncretic religion hard to understand.

  • http://www.NoGloww.blogspot.com NoGloww

    This damn thing keeps sending my comment before I’m finished. What I was trying to say is:

    Shafer, you state that, ” A omnipotent, omnipresent God issuing inarguable instructions precludes the possibility of free will”. I fail to see how giving instructions on how to conduct one’s life negates the possibility of freewill. Because guides or instructions are given does not force one to follow them. There are rules and instructions everywhere for just about everything in life, from the laws of a government to rules of proper social interactions to the rules of grammar, yet an individual is not forced to obey them, pressured perhaps, by society or government, but the fact is people activity and consciously break, ignore, and bend them all the time. If that weren’t true we would have no use for punishment, consequences, or enforcement of said laws and rules. And the conclusion that if such laws from the Biblical God were given, that people would be compelled to obey them out of fear is very true, because the Bible does so happen to issue laws and rules regarding human life (again, reference The Ten Commandments or other 160+ commandments in the Old Testament) and threatens eternal punishment in hell for breaking those laws without believing that Jesus already died for one’s sins and that he is the son of the one true (Biblical) God. Some people ARE compelled to obey them and sometimes force their beliefs, or at the the consequences of non-belief, onto others.

    The issue here is whether those instructions from the Biblical God are relevant and applicable and whether it is acceptable regardless, to enforce them on non-believers, such as the previously stated case of the boy being pulled from a school competition because he said something that goes against what a lot of Christians believe to be acceptable behavior.

  • Chris

    (1) there exists an extremely powerful, extremely benevolent divine entity who in some sense cares about human beings;

    I’ll offer a competing hypothesis “there exists an extremely powerful, extremely divine entity who in some sense does not care about human beings.” Then wouldn’t we expect to get exactly what we have? A bunch of competing books which agree in some parts, disagree in others just so this being can see how we puny humans react. Then he’d put all the “evidence” about dinosaurs, big bang… in place just to mess with our heads. God is screwing with us.

  • tim Rowledge

    (1) there exists an extremely powerful, extremely benevolent divine entity who in some sense cares about human beings;

    Well that would be Dr Who, but outside that particular mythology I think you’re whistling in the dark.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/ambisinistrous J.C. Shafer

    >Shafer, you state that, ” A omnipotent, omnipresent God issuing inarguable instructions precludes the possibility of free will”. I fail to see how giving instructions on how to conduct one’s life negates the possibility of freewill.

    We’re not talking about *merely* “giving instructions.” As things are now, Christians already beleive they are given instructions. In Sean’s words, we’re imagining “everyone would know that [instruction] was straight from God; it would be crystal clear (no ambiguities of interpretation).”

    I’m saying this scenario would be indistinguishable from coercion and humans would be inexorably compelled by fear.

    In a universe with a fully revealed God who interacts plainly and directly with humanity, disobedience would not truly be an option. We’d walk around knowing with absolute certainty what God wanted and that he was always right. Transgression would be insane.

    A benevolent omnipotent who values human agency could hardly tolerate such an arrangement. It would have to remove itself from direct contact to prevent oppression.

    To paraphrase CS Lewis, the God of Christan theology does not want slaves who become property or cattle who become feed, he wants servants who become sons.

  • http://www.NoGloww.blogspot.com NoGloww

    Shafer, even if these instructions are clearly laid out, with no opportunity for misunderstanding, you still have a choice, or freewill, to obey them or not. Even if there is threat of punishment, the fundamental choice is still yours to make. Unless you view other such laws in place that we deal with on a daily basis, eg. state and federal laws, the rules of speech, traffic rules, etc., as violating your personal freedoms, and that you are “inexorably compelled by fear” to follow them, then the same logic should follow for divine law. Either way, that’s your opinion, but I don’t see that as the krux of this topic as a whole. I think the issue is (correct me if I’m mistaken) the plausibility of such instructions existing in the first place and the consequences that follow from people believing that they do in fact exist and subjecting others to punishment in one way or the other for not believing and following the same instructions.

  • Jay

    frac wrote:

    Then there’s the energy field created by all living things: surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together.

    Apparently, it’s not just this post he hasn’t read.

  • Chris

    @15 fraac

    Then there’s the energy field created by all living things: surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together.

    Isn’t that from Star Wars?

  • Will

    “frac wrote:

    Then there’s the energy field created by all living things: surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together.

    Apparently, it’s not just this post he hasn’t read.”

    I assumed he was referring to “The Force” and was making a joke… at least I hope so.

  • Martin

    Hi Sean,

    I skipped the comments, but read the blog post. I have thought about the non-existence of God in many ways, but I have never thought of it this way (Problem of Instructions). It seems so obvious to me now that I learned it from you. There’s no problem of instruction from you, as far as I can tell!

    Thank you very, very much.

    I always love reading your posts…because I tend to always agree with you! Promise, I’m not trying to be a sheep!

    Best Wishes and Happy Easter,

    Martin

  • Martin

    On a related note (and I’m sure this is not a groundbreaking idea), I have thought about what I call the “Problem of Birth.” We tend to learn the religions of our parents or our guardians, and it stays with us (with some exceptions). For instance, if you were born in Iran, there’s a strong chance you’d be Muslim, and a small chance you’d be Buddhist.

    So, if you isolate a child at birth, and have him live in a room for 20 years, he/she is more likely to come up with explanations about how our Universe works that are vastly different than what is written in the Bible(s). However, they would tend to discover the rate of a falling object stays the same regardless of its mass, and so forth…

    It would not be fair to this person (whether raised in a room or born in Iran) to go to anti-heaven if they break any of God’s rules, since it was out of their control to learn God’s ways.

    One could argue that God has a plan for everyone, etc… but then why even need God at all ? You can say He exists, but whether He does or not makes absolutely no difference to your life, unless you give value to having faith and a reason for believing in something [not based on observations of the real world].

  • sciens

    You lost me with your personal comment on the Gospels. In the New Testament the Gospels mention nothing of homosesuality. Only Paul talks against it, and the letters of Paul were written years, not decades, after Christ’s death. Not only that, but the clearest Biblical arguments against homosexuality comes from the Torah –which predates the Gospel writers. If you can’t get these details straight, then how can I take the rest of your claims seriously? This attempt at scripture is akin to a Creationist’s attempt at science. This is preaching to the choir, while poking at the mob.

  • sean h

    hi sean —

    i don’t consider myself religious and am not especially theologically literate. in high school i wrote an essay with an argument similar in spirit to the one you’ve presented. the problem with the argument, as has been very, very widely discussed by philosophers for centuries (does one not have a duty to educate oneself just a little bit before writing to the world?) concerns the ethical role of human freedom (kant might be a fun place to start, but the person to read here is kierkegaard — it really is cool stuff, and it directly touches on the interpretation issues), which has played a central role in christian thought (to my limited understanding). i see this blog post as a rather unsophisticated contribution to a potentially interesting question. sentences like “but there’s no reason at all for God to want to keep us in the dark about what being better people actually entails” are, i would say, almost obviously making overly strong assumptions that there is an ideal or that it can or should be articulated. i also think that tacking your discussion onto a legitimate outrage about people’s bigotry is unhelpful — much as it might seem in the US, homophobia is not unique to believers.

    sean

  • Gary O

    On a different tack, I am curious as to the first comment by wldmr was first, and tracked in a mere 50 minutes after the post. Sean, I think you’re being watched closely, good on you.
    I enjoyed the argument, but the comment stream it generated fascinates me.

  • GM

    27. J.C. Shafer Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 5:12 pm
    In a universe with a fully revealed God who interacts plainly and directly with humanity, disobedience would not truly be an option. We’d walk around knowing with absolute certainty what God wanted and that he was always right. Transgression would be insane.
    A benevolent omnipotent who values human agency could hardly tolerate such an arrangement. It would have to remove itself from direct contact to prevent oppression.
    To paraphrase CS Lewis, the God of Christan theology does not want slaves who become property or cattle who become feed, he wants servants who become sons.

    But such a God is indistinguishable from no God so why posit his existence in the absence of no evidence for it?

    Related to this:

    33. Martin Says:
    April 6th, 2012 at 8:58 pm
    On a related note (and I’m sure this is not a groundbreaking idea), I have thought about what I call the “Problem of Birth.” We tend to learn the religions of our parents or our guardians, and it stays with us (with some exceptions). For instance, if you were born in Iran, there’s a strong chance you’d be Muslim, and a small chance you’d be Buddhist.
    So, if you isolate a child at birth, and have him live in a room for 20 years, he/she is more likely to come up with explanations about how our Universe works that are vastly different than what is written in the Bible(s). However, they would tend to discover the rate of a falling object stays the same regardless of its mass, and so forth…

    The relevant experiment is to have children raised without the concept of a God, i.e. nobody teaches them to believe in God but nobody tells them there is no God either, it is just never mentioned, while in the same time they are given comprehensive scientific education so they have the current scientific cosmological model fully internalized. How many such children, when then confronted with the idea of God, would take it seriously? I am ready to be almost none.

    The problem is that because we live in a society that carries thousands of years of religious cultural baggage and which is still very much religious, that experiment is almost never played out in practice, and everyone takes the idea seriously.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    The other day two men knocked on our door, wanting to talk to me about god, waving some leaflet into my face. I was carrying a half-dressed toddler on my arm, another toddler crying in the background, and was supposed to be on a phone conference five minutes earlier. I mumbled something like “We’re atheists, thank you, and good bye,” upon which the younger of the two threw his arms in the air and said “Oooh-ohh, we have to talk to you!” I was like “No, actually it means you better don’t talk to me.” and he said “Well, one isn’t born as an atheist!”

    I actually had to laugh about that. “I completely disagree,” I said, “We’re all born atheists. But some of us are later told funny stories about gods, stories we’re not supposed to question. Luckily my parents were enlightened enough to save me from that.” And with that I finally closed the door.

    But as you can tell I was thinking about that later. I’m not anti-religious. But I can be quite hostile to people who think they can tell what’s right and wrong from stories that a handful of men invented some thousand years ago. Here is what I’d like to ask then. If you had never been given a Bible, what’s the chance you’d have figured out all these alleged rules you’re supposed to live by? And if you can’t, why should anybody care?

  • MNb

    @1: “I don’t see why “instructions” are necessarily a means to express concern for his creation.”
    You imply that your god is a bad teacher. Ask any who cares about his/her subject and pupils.

    “not because of some oversight on the part of the deity, but by design.”
    Who, in this argument, designs?

    @2: “still offers comfort”
    This implies that god does play an explanatory role.

    “Perhaps God is too sophisticated to think transcendent clarity is possible or desirable”
    Perhaps god is so sophisticated that he doesn’t care or doesn’t play any role. Moreover the instructions Carroll wrote about don’t belong to a transcendent reality. As soon as they are formulated they belong to our naturalistic reality.

    “Omniscience implies he already knows the best way.”
    This is a circular argument, so you can’t conclude that how we received the instructions is the best way.

    The only way you can wriggle out of this is assuming that your god is like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or accept the Ancient religion of the Olympic gods or something similar. Both the problem of evil and the problem of clear instructions show that the Abrahamistic religions are inconsistent.

  • http://www.drivebyplanet.com j_200

    The bible brigade cherry picks what backs up its ideological positions from the book and glosses over whatever doesn’t. They suit “god” to their own ends.

    Why the god speculation anyway. Bit redundant innit? As for what Jesus might have thought. Who knows… or cares. Did he even exist? Does it matter?

  • MNb

    @17: “humans would be compelled to obedience by fear.”

    From Psalm 34: “O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him.”

    Not to mention that presumably in christian heaven souls ánd have free will ánd invariably chose to do the right things. That’s the theodicy though.

    @19: “there exists a quantum overlay of all other paths and possibilities.”
    Your god plays dice.

    @25: “does not care about human beings”
    Like the Flying Spaghetti Monster indeed.

    @34: “the Gospels mention nothing of homosesuality.”

    Carroll wrote:
    “Maybe Jesus was extremely compassionate toward gay people.”

    It rather looks like the personal comment is lost on you.

    @35: “the person to read here is kierkegaard”
    Kierkegaard detached ethics completely from religion, reducing it (following Feuerbach btw) to mere faith. Hence the debate reduces to:

    Theist: Credo.
    Atheist: Non-credo.

    Religion then is robbed from all rationality. That’s very OK with me – in fact I notice that most non-sophisticated believers believe that way – but understandably Kierkegaard never has enjoyed any popularity amongst religious authorities.

    ” homophobia is not unique to believers.”
    No and what exactly does that prove, except that ethics are man made?

    @37: “The relevant experiment is to have children raised without the concept of a God, i.e. nobody teaches them to believe in God but nobody tells them there is no God either.”
    That’s a bit like my son. His mother was muslim (now she’s kind of christian), I’m an atheist. He went to a catholic school for three years and to a muslim school for another three years; both of the very liberal kind. He also knows since he was 6 that I’m an atheist, but until he was 13 or 14 I never discussed it with him. He took the initiative.
    He is as firm an atheist as I am.

  • Phil

    “… but there’s no reason at all for God to want to keep us in the dark about what being better people actually entails.”

    Well, that’s why God sent us Jesus! Read the four Gospels. QED

  • JimV

    Before Dr. Carroll usurps all the other musings that have occurred to me (I could have sworn, but maybe I actually read them in another of his blog posts), besides the Problem of Instruction (great title, wish I had thought of that), let me also mention the Problem of Technology (all the biblical miracles involve technologies and myths current to the times, e.g., tablets carved in stone rather than etched in titanium so they would last longer, walking on water and water into wine borrowed from Greek mythology, etc.) and the Problem of It Never Happens When The Cameras are Rolling (needs a better title), that is, God or his angels used to show up all the time (and still does, to the bi-polar–in my experience and I don’t mean to make fun of them, they can’t help it), but not to anyone who has a camera phone.

    All these things can be rationalized by the faithful, of course. I have seen an apologist argue that believing the moon is made of green cheese is rationally defendable.

  • fraac

    “I assumed he was referring to “The Force” and was making a joke…”

    I was referring to God – the stuff that’s beyond our reckoning, although maybe particle physicists can get close. As opposed to God the biological or psychological need. Each interesting unique subjects, none commonly discussed by self-described ‘atheists’ would who rather engage in the most pathetic, illogical, juvenile debates with the only people they could beat in a fight.

  • chemicalscum

    “I was referring to God ”

    Fraac it is very easy to mistake your posts as a parody. I suggest you calm down and read a book on the origin of religions. J. Anderson Thomson’s “why we believe in god(s)” would be a good start. It is a nice simple short read. You should be able to understand it.

  • fraac

    Chemicalscum: no one believes in gods because the Bible or any religion’s origin story is logically consistent. To argue on that basis is to utterly misunderstand human nature.

    Haven’t you noticed that the only famous astrophysicist to recognise that everyday religious people need to be seduced, not argued with, is Neil Tyson, a big sexy guy? You pick the fights you can win in a need to feel good as a man, I guess.

  • Jerry Schwarz

    Sean’s argument is a good one. I frequently make what I think is essentially the same argument in a semi-humourous way when some one asks me if I’ve heard from Jesus or some similar question, I say “no, but my number is in the phone book. Next time you talk to him tell him to call. me” (Yes I deliberately make it a sexist remark)

  • http://rijkaanvitaminen.blogspot.com/ Rijkaanvitaminen

    @Lord Says Revised: God díd create us as perfect beings, but we became imperfect by the deed of Eve who ate from the forbidden fruit. A perfect argument for holding back women for at leatst 19 centuries!

  • Al Cibiades

    Yeah! This is a cool discussion by a lapsed catholic on the week before easter….

    It is NOT self-evident that “instructions” need to have been written. In transformational therapy a direction and mentors react to the situation and “client” to evoke change – no proscriptions are available.

    Guidance is a valid form of education.

    The “bible” is a collection of fragments written over a long period of time; most not contemporaneous with the events described, so internal inconsistencies are not at all surprising – And there are not only the Aramaic/Greek versions of the “bible” – there is the Q’uran, the Bhagavad Gita, the creation tales of the plains indians, the inuit, the south american indians, African tribes, even the old Greek myths, and the Sumerian and Akkadian creation stories and religious beliefs — there ARE some similarities and consistencies. Which does NOT prove or disprove the existence of a/the god – only that most people are human, have a mother and father, and may have children of their own.

    There IS NO rational test which which can prove or disprove a phenomenon which is defined as being “beyond man”.

  • John R Ramsden

    Most Biblical strictures against homosexuality were based on circumstances and assumptions which have long since ceased to apply. such as worries about population decline, and taboos relating to magical fertile fluids such as milk and sperm (Onan was in trouble just for spilling his seed; so on that basis one can well appreciate that sodomy would have been frowned on even more.)

    Also, although it may be hard to believe today, other religious cults competing with Judaism in Old and New Testament times were financed, and made inviting to would be converts, by temple prostitutes of both sexes. See http://www.ralliance.org/CultTempleProstitutes.html St Paul’s criticism of homosexuals, for example, was obviously directed against male temple prostitutes.

    As for God handing down to mankind the ultimate and categorical manual of ethics, it won’t happen. God is obviously an avid scientist, and having evidently endowed matter with the ability to create life itself by evolution, including the freedom to make mistakes, why should God suddenly choose to limit and ordain our ethical decisions (which are arguably simply a continuation of evolution) just when the experiment is getting interesting?

  • Ray Gedaly

    Stop with the bickering and accept as fact this giant rabbit who lays chocolate eggs for us to find.

  • David Lau

    Sean Carroll is absolutely right. The beliefs in a God can be so convoluted. When people say “God has a plan”, it is an easy way out of a debate when they run out of things to say. In conclusion, there is no God. Religion is pure man made for comforting reason. God did not create man, it is man who created God.

  • Phil

    Happy Easter, everyone! May God bless every one of you!

  • John R Ramsden

    http://img535.imageshack.us/img535/2002/odinq.gif

    Took me a second or two to spot the flaw ;-)

  • jaco

    Earth to Sean, WTF is this doing in a physics/cosmology blog? Slow news day or just getting an ego rush from lots of clunky comments?

  • Martin

    jaco – Yes, this blog is written by [astro] physicists. However, [astro] physicists have ideas on things besides [astro] physics. I think it’s useful to see perspectives of different issues from different professions.

  • GM

    55. jaco Says:
    April 9th, 2012 at 1:11 pm
    Earth to Sean, WTF is this doing in a physics/cosmology blog? Slow news day or just getting an ego rush from lots of clunky comments?

    So according to you, the existence of God is a cosmologically irrelevant question?

    That’s all cosmology was about for most of humanity’s history….

  • Zach

    I apologize in advance if this comment is redundant, there are a lot of comments and I did not read through them all.

    As a student of Political Science it is hard for me not to consider organized religion and divine texts without considering their utility. Religious individuals typically consider deriving utility from religion to be a perversion of the faith. By deriving utility I mean exerting control. To use the “word of god” for such purposes is often considered wrong and or evil, but it is hard for me (as an individual who doubts the existence of a higher power) to understand the development of any widely but not universally accepted spirituality unless it was invented specifically for this purpose. That is to say, shared spirituality is a tool one can use to organize or create a community.

    If one is to accept the premise that religions are invented to create communities (this concept follows from Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” which explains the flow of power and its relationship to language, i.e. printing press breaks Church monopoly on academia) then the commandments of these religions start to make a whole heck of a lot more sense! You create laws that keep your populace from eating dangerous foods like shellfish and pork, both of which can kill you if they are not properly prepared. You prohibit homosexuality because when your populace gives in to that natural inclination they are not producing offspring at peak efficiency (and since we are talking about a time before prenatal care the vast majority of kids wont reach maturity due to disease, etc.). You establish a hierarchy that centralizes the educated at the top echelons where they will be provided for by the workers and you restrict the flow of information (by not teaching folks to read or by writing in a dead language) so that information can only trickle down from that top echelon to the working populace. Essentially, you do exactly what all religions have done! Now, Benedict Anderson can explain this far better and far more thoroughly than I and illustrate how this transitioned into the forms of government we are familiar with today, but I hope I have made my point. Religious texts are just a set of laws designed to make the best use of a population and designed to give that population the most competitive edge possible.

    The following is my argument for why these religious concerns no longer matter. We live in the 21st century, we have 7 billion people on the planet, decent medical care, and a much deeper understanding of our food and how to consume it safely. We are not concerned with a tribe of heathens cresting the hills on the horizons and slaughtering us for our cattle, we are not at risk of losing our harvest because there aren’t enough kids to help around the farm, therefore religious laws designed to increase our population and keep us from preparing our food wrong are outdated and do not need to be adhered to. In fact, if we do continue to adhere to these laws we would restrict our access to foodstuffs and encourage an unsustainable rate of population growth eventually dooming not only our local community but endangering the global community. In conclusion, religion is killing humanity. So please, for the love of humanity, put a condom or play with someone you can’t impregnate/that can’t impregnate you, procreation is NOT a civic duty.

  • Ray Gedaly

    Sean, I useed the hypothetical-deduction method and came to the sad conclusion that there is no Santa Claus. But now that I know Santa isn’t there to check on whether I’ve been naughty or nice, I no longer have a reason or need to be good.

  • Ray Gedaly

    … and thanks for ruining Easter, Sean. I used the hypothetical-deduction method again and have to conclude that zombies aren’t real either.

  • David Lau

    Sean certainly had not ruined Easter. Yes, zombies are not real as much as Easter bunnies are not real. Religion is destroying humanity. Science, on the other hand, is improving the quality of lives and prolonging lives for many people. All religions have created is hatred and wars among us to this very day. Nothing has ever changed about religions, but science has made tremendous progress and it still is as we speak. Sean Carroll is absolutely right!

  • Paul Reisberg

    The works of Shakespeare seem to me to follow your expectations of what an instruction manual would be like.

  • Ray Gedaly

    To #61 David: Oops … I forgot to paste the :) sign after my earlier comments. I’m a devout atheist, though perhaps if I die and discover an afterlife, then I may become an agnostic.

  • Ray Gedaly

    To #61 David: Don’t knock religion so much. It gave us such great role models as Abraham, who was willing to kill his son to show his faith. Too bad we didn’t have HNN (Headline News?) back then to cover that story.

  • KWK

    I can’t speak for religions other than Christianity, but if the primary purpose of the Christian Bible were to serve as an instruction manual for ethical behavior, then I agree that it could be more perspicuous. But further, if the primary purpose of it were simply to convey “Be excellent to one another”, then the Bible itself is mostly pointless and we should all just be Buddhists, since the ethical systems are nearly identical anyway, while the latter has a lot less added baggage.

    On the other hand, if the goal of the Bible were to convey stories of how people encountered God, and how others might do the same, then it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. I don’t know if it can get any clearer than “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him…might have eternal life.” The rest is just details, the public portrayals of school principals and pundits and Rick Santorum notwithstanding.

  • http://fatherdaughtertalk.blogspot.com/ Montag

    “I think Jesus probably didn’t approve of homosexuality, but since the Gospels were written decades after Jesus died, by people who probably had never met him, I admit the historical record is not exactly definitive.”

    I really do not see the point of such a hypothetical. I suppose it is nice to know how you feel.

    Furthermore, what is the necessity for definitiveness? Divorce is condemned outright, and I do not see that such a definite condemnation has had much effect. I suppose we could say that we can be sure divorce is an evil, but we shall ignore this fine ethical point.

    I hate to quibble, but Buddhism has a lot of baggage, metaphysical, logical, … you name it.
    I think many people are drawn to a stripped-down form of Buddhism, which is interesting.

  • joset

    We’re born with the neurobiological ability to believe; however, we’re not born believers.
    Evolution-wise, the idea of the construct of god-like personifications arose, most probably, from the interplay between self-consciousness and the environment. Nature became transcendental beyond understanding. ‘Faith’, that deep and moving feeling, must be a recent one (in evolutionary terms), and the closest one gets to an exterior, “anthropo-independent”, magical entity (with or without ‘instructions’).

    Disclaimer: This is an educated opinion of an non-scientist.

  • http://ckames.blogspot.com Charles Ames

    Sean– you return to this subject often, and your arguments, as I read them, generally aim either to defend the legitimacy of Science or challenge the claims of Religion. Why? I submit that this approach has no hope of changing minds, either directly, or by arming the like-minded reader to go forth and argue. A more interesting approach might be to ask, what purpose does Religion serve in human life? How has that changed over the course of recorded history, and how has it remained the same?

    Scientists have entirely displaced priests as the source of knowledge about how the world works. In my humble opinion, this is an idea that no longer needs to be defended. Governments and lawmen now offer practical answers to questions like “Why shouldn’t I kill my neighbor and take his stuff”, and psychologists at least offer a shoulder to cry on if you are bothered by thoughts like “Why am I here? What am I supposed to do before I die?” All of these were previously the domain of the priest and the shaman.

    What is left for the priest to do? People are still tormented by the challenge of growing from childhood to maturity, facing death, find a sense of purpose, etc. and there is really no modern institution available to offer support. The choice is to embrace a 6000 year old tradition that conflicts with just about everything else we know about the world, or to face the “void” head on.

    Attacking the Bible from the standpoint of Reason is comically. A more worthy question for a formidable mind might be “why does this phenomenon persist? What human need is being fulfilled by Religion — or at least isn’t being fulfilled elsewhere — and how might it be filled more effectively?”

  • Dennis Z.

    Unfortunately, this type of argument won’t work on anyone who thinks they are religious. As you say, there are ways to wriggle out of this if one wants to. On the other hand, I think that most “believers” really aren’t religious – they like to pretend. I base this statement on the fact that if I actually believed doing something – anything – would lead to everlasting joy, life, or any other good thing, I would do that to the exclusion of everything else (eg. watching sports, going to the mall, playing golf, etc.). I base this statement on my personal experience – for something as insignificant as a career in science, I’ve spent way more time working my way through text books, journal articles, colloquia, etc. than most religious people have spent being religious (i.e. going to church, reading the bible, doing good works, etc.).

  • Matt Mulkeen

    Thanks for writing this down, your idea of the problem of instructions. I like the expression, and this is the first I’ve heard of it phrased this way.

    There has been the debate over appeal to the authority of Scripture. In the historical criticism of the Bible, the German scholar Strauss is famous in this field – The Life of Jesus (1846) (looks like the Wiki has a good intro). Although not mentioned on this Wiki page, Thomas Paine in his Age of Reason concludes there is no way that that God (Paine was a Deist, believing in the creator God but not the Christian God) could have anything to do with the Bible, which could have not been divinely inspired. Spinoza was apparently of the same mind set. (I am in no way an expert on these things and cannot study such issues as a full time occupation.)

    Although the divinity of the Bible and its historical accuracy has long been in dispute, I really like your term of the problem of instructions and think it is a novel take on the problem of appeal to Scripture (and which was expressed very eloquently at your recent debate). For lack of a better phrase, it is touching how you relate this to your experience as a text book author, not that I could ever hope to understand at a meaningful level your text on general relativity.

    I hope your framing of the issue in terms of the problem of instructions catches on as a meme.

    And great job with your recent debate! Thanks for taking time away from your full time job to engage the public on matters both scientific and religious. More scientists like you are needed, who can at least engage the public on some level.

  • Stephen McCloud

    “If God existed and cared about us human beings …” First you have to define “God” then define “care”. But how to define “define”? The answer is probably more complicated than the English language. Such a waste of time.

  • Nev
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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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