The Absolute Limits of Scientistic Arrogance

By Sean Carroll | November 4, 2012 5:08 pm

I have redefined them! Those limits, that is. This is the view of Father Robert Barron, in response to — well, something I said, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what. But I know it was me and not some other Sean Carroll, because there’s a video in which my picture appears a couple of times.

I think his remarks were spurred by Natalie Wolchover’s article about my piece on why the universe doesn’t need God. (Here is a related article, not quite a transcript of the above video but close, in which he mentions Natalie’s piece but not mine.) He may have read the original piece, although it’s unclear because he doesn’t link to anything specific, nor does he reference particular arguments from the essay itself. He also refers to a book I’ve written, but none of my books actually fit the bill. And he talks a lot about my arrogance and hubris. (I’ve finally figured out the definition of “arrogance,” from repeated exposure: “you are arrogant because you think that your methods are appropriate, when it fact it’s my methods that are appropriate.”)

In any event, the substance of Fr. Barron’s counter-argument is some version of the argument from contingency. You assert that certain kinds of things require causes, and that the universe is among those things, and that the kind of cause the universe requires is special (not itself requiring a cause), and that special cause is God. It fails at the first step, because causes and effects aren’t really fundamental. It’s the laws of nature that are fundamental, according to the best understanding we currently have, and those laws don’t take the form of causes leading to effects; they take the form of differential equations, or more generally to patterns relating parts of the universe. So the question really is, “Can we imagine laws/patterns which describe a universe without God?” And the answer is “sure,” and we get on with our lives.

As good scientists, of course, we are open to the possibility that a better understanding in the future might lead to a different notion of what is really fundamental. (It is indeed a peculiar form of arrogance we exhibit.) What we’re not open to is the possibility that you can sit in your study and arrive at deep truths about the nature of reality just by thinking hard about it. We have to write down all the possible ways we can think the world might be, and distinguish between them by actually going outside and looking at it. This is admittedly hard work, and it also frequently leads us to places we weren’t expecting to go and perhaps even don’t much care for. But we’re a flexible species, and generally we adapt to the new realities.

Which reminds me that I still owe you a couple of reports from the naturalism workshop. Coming soon!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • BlakeG

    (a) Differential equations etc. are abstract objects. You say they are fundamental. Does that make you a Platonist?Why so confident that the differential equations etc. don’t merely model reality? Why give them ontological import?
    (b) What do you think a “law” is? [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/laws-of-nature/]
    (c) Are the fundamental “laws” themselves contingent?
    (d) You seem really confident that we can’t “sit” in our studies and “arrive at deep truths about the nature of reality just by thinking hard about it.” If that’s true, few would deny that it’s a pretty deep truth about the universe! How did you arrive at it?
    (e) Its our “rational intuition” that grounds the belief that cause/effect are fundamental. Rational intuition is all that grounds a number of beliefs that are required to do science (Notably, as you admit, the belief that ; our evidence so far for and are identical, so how do you discriminate between them if not “just by thinking hard about it”? In fact, science gets you out of no philosophical skepticisms, and these skepticisms have some pretty far-reaching implications about realities “deep truths” [if you're a verificationist, then that has huge implications as well]).

  • BlakeG

    Sorry, looks text bracketed with arrows doesn’t show up, here is (e) fixed:

    (e) Its our “rational intuition” that grounds the belief that cause/effect are fundamental. Rational intuition is all that grounds a number of beliefs that are required to do science (Notably, as you admit, the belief that “Nature is simple/uniform”; our evidence so far for “masses attract up until 2013 and beyond” and “masses attract just until 2013″ are identical, so how do you discriminate between them if not “just by thinking hard about it”? In fact, science gets you out of no philosophical skepticisms, and these skepticisms have some pretty far-reaching implications about realities “deep truths” [if you're a verificationist, then that has huge implications as well]).

  • GM

    You have to marvel at the ability of people to claim that they are presenting logically consistent arguments while accusing others in committing logical fallacies, when not only are they committing logical fallacies themselves but they are not even actually presenting arguments in support of their own position.

    The debate is not really about whether God exists, the debate is whether the God of the Bible exists, or at the very least, a God that created humans and cares about their actions. Because this is what matters to our lives and it is what Christians (and Muslims, Jews, etc.) believe in.

    But none of the philosophical arguments about God’s existence has anything to do with the God of the Bible. Let’s say they’re valid – they’re not but let’s accept them for the sake of the arguments – all they support is the existence of a deistic God who created the Universe, but there is absolutely nothing in them that supports the Christian (or Muslim, or whatever other religion one believes in) narrative.

    In practical terms a deistic God who set the universe and motion but has no interest in whether humans would evolve and what humans are doing is indistinguishable from no God at all. So the whole discussion about contingency is absolutely pointless.

  • Brett

    Of course he can’t support “scientism” because “scientistic” evidence would prove his extreme views on religion and life to be idiotic; he would have to admit to himself that he’s been both stupid and a purveyor of stupidity making the world a worse place.

    Fr. Barron’s belief is that “scientistic formulations” are used to attack god. That immediately lets you know this is the stereotypical religious cultist who perverts a religion because of their own lack of faith in that religion. That’s all there is to it; dude’s an a-hole looking to put a quarter in the machine and receive his piece of candy. He’s trying to rally a very small and very ignorant group of christian extremists.

  • dmck

    There’s a whole world out there of people “thinking really hard”. It first showed up for me when I couldn’t seem to get As in English composition. I call it “reasoning without data”.

  • Moah

    What I don’t understand when theologians criticize these sorts of debates over (a)theism or (a)gnosticism by saying that science cannot adjudicate the existence or non-existence of a deity is that they are starting from a position where they profess to believe a large number of claims that are verifiable and can be evaluated. There is an enormous amount of material that these people hold to be truth which is in the scientific sense “debunked”. That is, claims to such things as resurrections, miraculous transmogrification of matter, faith healings, levitation, etc. are all subject to scientific scrutiny and have, on the balance, been shown to not be phenomenological in the sense that they don’t represent a phenomenon that can be repeated or observed in a controlled fashion. So their arguments that science can’t touch god seem fatuous. Scientific investigation disproves their notions of god on a pretty regular basis. Every time god doesn’t interfere with an observation or an experiment, the null hypothesis cannot be disconfirmed, after all.

    So why the arrogance on the part of the Father Barrons of the world? They are adopting an argument that is essentially a glorified shell game where God is put into nebulous and undefinable categories that defy observation or inductive reasoning and instead rely on, they freely admit this, blind faith. From that, they have to develop an entire cosmology that ignores the observable universe in favor of some sort of social construct surrounding reading material they hold to some higher standard of plausibility than others as well as the personal testimony and emotional bias of the community of people who come to hold beliefs in these doctrine. I don’t see how they can be comfortable with this state of affairs at all.

    Do the religious just think that the devil has somehow gotten most of the scientists to their side? They cannot deny that most scientists don’t take their claims seriously… so it seems that they must be stuck in some sort of state of either denial or must believe that they are truly the only ones gifted with the ultimate knowledge of the universe.

    It’s actually quite startling to think.

  • kelly

    @Brett, I wouldn’t say a “very small” group of Christian extremists. The US is full of them

  • BlakeG

    Moah, I don’t know how science weigh in on the question of whether or not Jesus resurrected. Science can tell us that people don’t naturally resurrect from the dead, but that’s uninteresting because nobody says Jesus resurrected naturally from the dead. The hypothesis is “God resurrected Jesus from the dead”.

    Miracles are considered extraordinary acts of providence which should not be conceived, properly speaking, as violations of the laws of nature, but as the production of events which are beyond the causal powers of the natural entities existing at the relevant time and place.

    Tim McGrew has a nice article on it in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He writes “One way to get around all of these problems and still retain the Humean formulation is simply to redefine the laws of nature. J. L. Mackie [my insert: an atheist] sums up this perspective neatly: The laws of nature … describe the ways in which the world—including, of course, human beings—works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it. (Mackie 1982: 19–20) With the notion of “natural law” thus redefined, the “violation” definition becomes virtually equivalent to the earlier definition of a miracle as an event that exceeds the productive power of nature. And in Mackie’s formulation it has the desirable feature that it makes evident the connection between a miracle and supernatural agency.” [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/miracles/]

  • BlakeG

    GM, I don’t think you’ve been following. The debate *is* over whether God (deistic or not) exists: That’s what Carroll is going after.

  • Mark

    The problem with the argument from contingency is that God is never shown to be non-contingent–that is, a necessary being. Fr. Barron argues that matter/energy/anything physical cannot be a true explanation because all of those things have a specific state/configuration.[*] Matter is distributed one way instead of another. Well, God favors one people over another. He set down these laws instead of others. He communicated to these profits instead others. The only god that can be said to exist through the argument from contingency is Einstein’s God: “…Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

    [*] Apologies for all the slashes.

  • GM

    9. BlakeG Says:
    November 4th, 2012 at 7:11 pm
    GM, I don’t think you’ve been following. The debate *is* over whether God (deistic or not) exists: That’s what Carroll is going after.

    I am following and I know very well what has been written and said. It’s irrelevant to the point I was making – Sean Carroll would not be going after God in general if it wasn’t for the fact that such a large fraction of the population believes in a personal God. In the absence of that gigantic cultural influence on everyone’s thinking, he would be doing his research and developing various cosmological models and we would be discussing those but we would not be arguing about contingency and God.

    And Christian apologetics would not be full of arguments that only support a desitic God is it wasn’t for the fact that Christians needed to somehow justify their belief in a personal God and most of them are more than willing to take those arguments as supporting it even if they aren’t.

    If anything, it is somewhat of a mistake to spend so much time refuting those arguments – it is much better to point out how much of a non-sequitur it is to go from that kind of reasoning to “Therefore Jesus Christ is you lord savior and the Bible is his word”.

  • Paul Benoit

    This is all well and good, well intentioned discourse on both sides. The real issue here is that one CANNOT prove or disprove the existence of god or God. I am not a believer, but know many sincere folks who are. Belief in a supreme being or a God is a matter of faith, if you have faith, you need no proof. Good for you if you do have faith, good for me if I don’t. Whatever floats one’s boat is a good thing. Arguing about the existence or not…..of god ,or a supreme being or first cause is futile, because people’s beliefs and faith are not a rational thing. All the awesome science will not change a faith filled person’s mind, Similarly, all the Father Baron’s of the world and their philosophical and religious beliefs are not going to change the mind of, or give faith to people who who do not have it. As much as I admire and respect Dr. Carroll and all of his colleagues, i am certain the counter parties will never be dissuaded or change their minds. Dr Sean will never be influenced by Fr Baron, and Fr Baron will never be influenced by Dr Caroll. That’s just the way it is.

  • Josh Andrews

    Whenever a theologian talks somehow it always ends up sounding like this to me.

    http://www.twitlonger.com/show/jt50q6

    Nurbling courtesy of http://shipbrook.net/nurble

  • BlakeG

    Paul Benoit,

    You say one can’t prove or disprove theism. Do you realize that you’ve single-handedly dismissed the entire academic field of “philosophy of religion”, which is virtually devoted to that topic? Am I right to assume you haven’t done any work on the subject or read even one relevant peer-reviewed article or book? I’m not trying to be mean/arrogant or anything (if you’re a science-buff too, I call you friend), I’m just trying to make a point: Why isn’t this like someone dismissing any other academic field, like all of geology, by saying “you can’t prove or disprove that the earth is billions of years old; its a matter of faith”? Or “you can’t prove or disprove evo-devo; it’s a matter of faith”?
    As atheist Quentin Smith noted in 2001, “there are now over five philosophy journals devoted to theism or the philosophy of religion… in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, ‘academically respectable’ to argue for theism,… A count would show that in Oxford University Press’ 2000–2001 catalogue, there are 96 recently published books on the philosophy of religion (94 advancing theism and 2 presenting ‘both sides’). By contrast, there are 28 books in this catalogue on the philosophy of language, 23 on epistemology…, 14 on metaphysics, 61 books on the philosophy of mind, and 51 books on the philosophy of science.”
    For what it’s worth, I’ve been personally involved in the mind-changing (not all in the same direction) of four other college students who have changed their minds directly as a result of considering some of these advanced arguments. Consider googling for the academic websites of various philosophers of religion and taking a peak at some of their papers. If you enjoy Carroll’s work and cosmology in general, and would like a taste, consider looking over this (unedited) chapter recently published Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology: http://home.messiah.edu/%7Ercollins/Fine-tuning/Abridged%20Version%20of%20Fine-tuning%20book.doc

    You might be surprised.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Wow, that guy sure was good at putting giant auditory quote marks around “science”.

    Whenever I encounter arguments for God as something like “the unconditioned ground of contingency”, I point them to Sean Carroll’s earlier blog post The God Conundrum, which says basically that sure, such metaphysical abstractions might make sense, but they have little to do with the personal God of the Bible, and even less to do with “existence”.

  • David Lau

    I am waiting to view the reports from your Naturalism workshop. Hope it’ll come out soon. Great work as always, Sean.

  • Richard M

    But he has Latin phrases! “Ens summum” and “ipsum esse”! That trumps science, surely. No arrogance there!

  • Peter Morgan

    Why am I commenting on this? I’m not, which is probably for the best.

  • martenvandijk

    Best video 2012 in horror category sofar.

  • matt

    i could not sit through that.

  • Doug Little

    I thought the argument was that God is not required to exist, that there is no need for the super natural to explain our universe and the laws that govern it.

    It’s a whole other massively convoluted ballgame to get from a supernatural beginning to a personal god that answers prayers and gives a damn about one particular species on one particular planet in one particular solar system that is in one particular galaxy that is part of one particular local group that is part of a particular supercluster in just the observable part of the universe that we know of.

  • Ben

    Father Barron would have us all in the dark and the church in power if he could. He doesnt care about real knowledge, only his own agenda. Father Baron is anti-human.

  • MarshallB

    I’ve never understood how people can think of the very idea of a self-creating universe as absurd, but think that a self-creating deity is inherently obvious.

  • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

    I’m not Sean, but I’d answer BlakeG’s points as follows:
    (a) Carroll’s not saying he’s a Platonist. He writes that our best understanding is a model in which causes and effects don’t feature.
    (b) Carroll doesn’t spell this out (and I’m not quite sure why it matters).
    (c) How would you tell either way?
    (d) We learn that sitting in our studies doesn’t work by comparing the results of sitting in our studies to the results of going and looking at the world. (Nice try, though, I always love that form of argument.)
    (e) This mistakes science for some sort of religion, where there’s an official doctrinal basis (OK, so maybe a Protestant, evangelical sort of religion) from which the rest of the system follows. But the uniformity of nature is not a foundational belief of science, it is a provisional result of it (and perhaps a necessary condition for science to work at all, but are you then claiming that science only works if you believe in the uniformity of nature?) I think this is put best by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, a philosopher of science: “The fundamental problem with the Plantinga distinction [between ontological and methodological naturalism] is that it effectively assumes the primacy of ontology over epistemology. By this I mean that it assumes that to understand science one must begin with the ontology of science. This is very much understandable from the point of view of someone who was brought up on a christian religion that is presented as having its basis in a number of ontological claims that must be taken as true. It is also a profound misunderstanding of what science is. It would be better to think of science in terms of various methods that are used to investigate the world. The scientific ontology is an a posteriori result of the application of those methods to the world. To put it in other terms again, ontological naturalism is the a posteriori result of accepting epistemic naturalism. Yet, even that is not quite right as it suggests that science can be identified in terms of some set of methods. This is quite incorrect because, just as the contents of scientific ontology, the contents of scientific methodology undergoes under constant change. The reason it does that is that scientists allow their results to shape their methods and beliefs. In effect, it is best to think of science in terms of an attitude – that attitude being of actively seeking to alter one’s beliefs and methods on the basis of what knowledge one does possess in order to better understand the world. The contents of scientifc ontology and the nature of scientific methods follows from this, again, only a posteriori.”

    (Also, are you really claiming that appealing to God will solve the problem of induction?)

    > The hypothesis is “God resurrected Jesus from the dead”.

    I detect a graduate from the William Lane Craig school of advanced apologetics.

    What might it mean to say that science cannot weigh in on the Resurrection? Surely not that we shouldn’t do an empirical investigation of some sort: even the Christians do that (when faced with miracle claims from other denominations, or other religions, at least).

    Perhaps the claim is that there is a category of things (the supernatural) that science (rather than other forms of empirical investigation) can’t investigate. I think we’d want to know why not, though. I mean, either “God did it” is a claim we can tag on to other unlikely claims as we please (“Pigs obviously don’t fly naturally, but my claim is that God made Porkie fly” and so on ad infinitum), or we must suppose that there is some regularity in this parallel supernatural realm. That seems fertile ground for some sort of science, doesn’t it? Surely what the religious seek is actually an extension of science.

    To return to the specific case, Craig’s problem with his usual 5 arguments is that he hasn’t shown that the gods of the Kalam (as Hume says, why assume there’s only one?) are interested in resurrecting Jesus. But if a god didn’t do it, the resurrection is, as Craig says, fantastically improbable, which I think means the New Testament evidence alone shouldn’t convince us unless we assume there’s at least one god who would be really likely to raise Jesus from the dead. So why should we assume that? Remember, we need that assumption to bolster the NT evidence sufficiently for us to believe it, but the main “evidence” for that sort of god is the resurrection itself, the very thing he’s seeking to prove. Craig has some waffle about “religio-historical context”, but AFAICT what that means is that he’s asking you to believe that the Old Testament is really true as well. I mean, seriously?

  • Mr. Anthony

    His ‘rehearsal’ makes the most sense to me if you listen to it as a response to the question: “Is your job obsolete?”

    ‘Fire me and you’ll be guilty of SCIENtistic arrogance’. Oh, ok. We don’t want that, do we?

  • BlakeG

    Hey Paul, thanks for the response.

    (a) I understand that he thinks our best understanding is “a model in which causes and effects don’t feature”, but he said its differential equations that are fundamental. Differential equations are abstract objects, so prima facie he’s saying that abstract objects are fundamental: that’s Platonism (though he may not have realized the consequences of his language; maybe he meant something else).

    (b) I think Carroll should spell this out, because it will allow us to move to the next stage of the discussion. If he doesn’t accept the fundamentality of cause/effect, then he’s going to be straddled with some kind of other view that I’m going to have complaints about. But I need to know what view that is.

    (c) I’m not sure of the relevance of this question. If he admits they are contingent, then the argument from contingency might not go away. If he rejects that they are contingent, then I think he’s going to run into other problems.

    (d) Can you elaborate? I don’t think you’ve “gone out” and tested how good philosophy is at getting truth. At best, you’ve sat in your armchair and thought about the history of philosophy and science, and drawn some conclusions after thinking hard about it. But, other people have thought hard about it too and disagree with you (in fact, I’d say most philosophers reflecting on the history have thought about it a lot harder than you have, and have a sea of rebuttals in their back pocket that could lead you to change your mind). Noone doubts that empirical testing is a good way to learn, but the question is whether “sitting in our studies and thinking hard” isn’t also way to learn deep truths.

    (e) You say “the uniformity of nature is not a foundational belief of science, it’s a provisional result of it”, but this is response is naive. The problem was precisely developed to avoid that response.
    No scientific evidence discriminates between the two hypotheses I listed in my OP; both predict the observations that we’ve seen so far. For what it’s worth, the Problem of Induction is an old problem, and nobody in academia to my awareness tries to answer it the way you just tried to. I’m also having a hard time discerning the relevance of the quote by Konrad Talmont-kaminski. Can you help me understand? [Note: No, even if theists face no PoI, that's not the point I'm making here; the point just is that the future will resemble the past with respect to law-governed action, but we can't know this from scientific investigation. No philosophical scepticisms or egocentric predicaments can be solved by scientific investigation: that's like the whole point of the scepticisms.]

    RESURRECTION/MIRACLES:
    You’ve misunderstood. And no, unlike the much broader “rational investigation”, empirical investigation is a very special type of investigation meant for very specific purposes: Empirical investigations are generally repeatable investigations primarily meant to discern *regularities* of the natural world. Insofar as miracles, trivially, aren’t claims claims about regularities, the proper investigation for miracle claims is rational/historical investigation (which at most make take into account pre-established deliverances of empirical investigation), not empirical investigations in and of themselves. Investigating whether Alexander the Great conquered Tyre isn’t discerned by scientists camping out at Tyre and seeing if people named Alexander the Great regularly take over the city.
    Regarding any case for Jesus’ resurrection, that’s too far off topic; I’m not arguing for or defending Jesus’ resurrection here. I’m just explaining that a particular kind of objection raised by Paul Benoit is confused. I’m not an atheist, but I’d make that point to Paul even if I were one.

  • Tony

    I have yet to see an argument that will convince those who refuse to believe in God, and the reason is, I would propose, is that God wants His followers to have faith, a faith that moves mountains, a faith most of all in the Love who is God. Reason is a tremendous ability of the human mind, but it doesn’t have the power to conceive of God’s existence, it’s powerless when it comes to those who for whatever reason cannot or will not believe, even the Love that is God cannot make or force belief, for than it would not be Love at all. Ultimately it all comes down to faith, a simple belief and trust in God, and choice, either you choose to believe or you don’t, those who wish to believe will be given that grace, those who don’t won’t, though the doubting Thomas may yet see the nail wounds and believe, we can only hope, though it wasn’t that Thomas didn’t believe in God, but that he couldn’t conceive the possibility of Christs resurrection. Some may point to all the suffering in the world and wonder why an all Loving God would allow it, but each of us, if we Love, has that All Powerful God within us, that power to help end suffering, to help, to protect and to serve our neighbor as ourselves, but there is so little of that Love in this world, so very little, we are the driest of deserts.

  • Paul Benoit

    Hi BlakeG. First thanks for your response to my response .and yes I am a science buff, and if I did throw out the entire academic field of “Philosophy of Religion,” then I apologise to all the practitioners, but to be honest, I was never a philosophy buff. I think Hegel, Kant, Aquinas, et al are basically self righteous windbags who are trying to convince people they know the truth. As an intellectual pursuit or an academic pursuit, I guess it’s ok, but in reality, my thoughts and opinions are e

  • Doug Little

    Tony @27,

    Hogwash.

  • Neil

    It is amusing that when scientists point out that there is no evidence or scientific need for god, they are called arrogant by those who claim to *know* there is a god, and even claim to know what god thinks and wants.

  • Cosmonut

    @11 GM: You hit the nail on the head with a wham !!

    I think people like Sean Carroll waste a lot of time in philosophical arguments over a deistic God, which are really quite tricky.

    All they need to point out is that even if it were proven beyond doubt that there is a deistic Creator who “breathed fire into the laws of physics”, there is absolutely no reason to believe that such an entity has any relation to the deities of any of the religions of the world.

    And the evidence against a personal god who actually cares about humans and intervenes in the world is so strong that usually the religious folks entering these debates don’t even bring it up.

  • Paul Benoit

    Sorry Blake, I’m having great technical difficulty completing my thoughts here. I’m going to leave it all by saying that if you have faith you need no proof or validation. Similarly, if you do not have faith, you need no validation of that either. We all believe what we believe. If we think we understand the truth, then amen, If we are seeking more or different answers, then we know where we can turn.

    I don’t find any validity in Philosophy, just major sets of ideas all of which can never be proved and are what they are, ideas without proof, or opinions, just like mine. Just because there is a refereed journal does not increase the validity of philosophical arguments for or against anything. So we can agree to disagree. I should not have jumped into this discourse, and am sorry to have risen to the bait.

    I do however, wish you all well!!! and hope that the truth you seek can be found and that it will help make you happy and content.

    And Neil really hit the nail on the head: “It is amusing that when scientists point out that there is no evidence or scientific need for god, they are called arrogant by those who claim to *know* there is a god, and even claim to know what god thinks and wants.”

  • JimV

    How do I know that experimenting and finding out things is better than navel-gazing and thinking deep thoughts? Well, I look around and see roads, bridges, cars, refrigerators, printed books, computers, medical equipment, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth, and I ask myself what among all this came from sitting and thinking deep thoughts and what came about by people like Edison trying 999 things for light-bulb filaments before finding the 1000th that worked, and the percentages I come up with are about 0.01% to 99.99% in favor of the latter. So it seems very obvious to me, but maybe some people don’t use any of that stuff and would rather sit in a cave, thinking deep thoughts. To each his or her own.

    I also think there’s a subtle difference between believing in the existence and utility of mathematical processes – all thinking is math and all math is thinking, to me – and being a Platonist, but I’m not an expert in Platonism. It just seems to me that numbers and equations are real things that exist in this universe, not reflections from some other reality, or whatever the heck Plato thought they were. In this universe, if you have five goats and sell two of them you have three left, so numbers can be discovered empirically, as in fact they were, and as a lot of math has been (the Nakamura-Tamagawa Conjecture leading to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for example*).

    * source: “Fermat’s Enigma”, by Simon Singh; his “Big Bang” is also excellent, detailing the hundreds of years of observations which led to the Big Bang Theory (not much contribution from philosophy, that I recall).

  • Tony

    Like it says in the Bible where Satan deceives Eve, know and you shall be like gods who know what is good and evil, the scientific community is trying to make itself into a god. The intellect deceiving itself into thinking that it is the god that determines what is good or evil, and especially in modern science, that it is the pinnacle of creation and a god unto itself. Science does not know where mankind came from or where it is going, yet science wants all to bow down and worship it as mans salvation.

  • David Lau

    Sean
    after reading most of these comments , I must say I laughed a lot like you did, most likely. People talking about God and resurrection and evils, satan , all those nonsense, its not even science. I am not commenting anymore here as I find very irritating. But all I need to say to you Sean, is that you are a great physicist, an excellent writer, and a professional presenter. Never mind what people say on line as the religious fanatics will never come to understand how science works, and most of them need to grasp onto something for comforts. Sean, you and I know that science will eventually be able to uncover most of the mysteries, and of course, there will always be more for us to uncover. It is like taking care of a home, a never ending work, but we get it done and keep it going.
    Waiting for Nov 13 , Sean.

  • Doug Little

    Tony @34

    Hogwash.

  • Richard M

    BlakeG: You say Sean said that differential equations are fundamental, but if you think so, then you did not read very carefully. He said laws are fundamental, and that laws *take the form of* differential equations. I think it is pure pedantry to insist that this means the laws *are* differential equations. The equations are descriptive of fundamental patterns in nature. I don’t think Sean meant anything more than that, and there is nothing that requires us to read his statement otherwise, so this is a straw man. Last time I checked, Sean was a materialist, not a Platonist.

  • Dan

    “The equations are descriptive of fundamental patterns in nature. I don’t think Sean meant anything more than that, and there is nothing that requires us to read his statement otherwise, so this is a straw man. Last time I checked, Sean was a materialist, not a Platonist.”

    Anything more than that? This is a rather huge leap in itself for a ‘pure’ materialist to make considering the lack of *any* physicalist perspective whose epistemology doesn’t invoke some sort of 1:1 correspondence with an abstract object (a tacit reliance on set theory, for example).

    Saying that differential equations are ‘merely’ descriptive does not make scientific methodologies any more free from skepticism, as BlakeM said. I’m not sure if he’s religious or not (I’m not at all), but I agree with every word he’s said.

  • James

    Ok, I’ll quibble:
    I get the sense that some of us think that the *laws* of nature are prescriptive. Consult any introductory physics or chemistry textbook and you’ll find that any natural “law” is merely a summary statement of a series of similar observations of natural phenomena.

    A natural law isn’t wholly different from the differential equation describing the theory that seeks to account for such observations. In particular, it’s not the case that natural law is fundamental / inheres in nature while theory is derivative / a human construction. (No one’s really claimed as much explicitly, but it seems like it’s a background assumption in some of this. But maybe I’m reading too much into the pixels.)

    One could certainly argue for another, more ambitious (more platonic?) conception of natural law, but to me these always end up sounding like unscientific enthusiasms.

  • Dan

    “I don’t find any validity in Philosophy, just major sets of ideas all of which can never be proved and are what they are, ideas without proof, or opinions, just like mine. Just because there is a refereed journal does not increase the validity of philosophical arguments for or against anything. So we can agree to disagree. I should not have jumped into this discourse, and am sorry to have risen to the bait. ”

    You likely won’t see this if you’ve left the debate, but it is this viewpoint that I find extremely pervasive among pro-science people (I am as well, but the value I place on it is one of utility– but like all of my values, I admit that there is no absolute justification for them. For what would this irreducibly fundamental assumption about the world even look like? I don’t know nor do I think anyone does.) The “ideas without proof” comment directed at philosophy is one that I don’t quite get. The proof that science amasses can only be called such because it fits within a framework supported by assumptions about our world that really are, at root, based on intuition.

    Science is great–evidenced by me typing gingerly on a laptop– and works incredibly well for predicting outcomes of events. I do think, however, that it is really important to peer in at what ‘first assumptions’ science makes (the rational intuition argument made by Blake is a great point).

    One thing I did like about the article was this statement: “As good scientists, of course, we are open to the possibility that a better understanding in the future might lead to a different notion of what is really fundamental.” Though I get the feeling he is completely closed off to the idea that this better understanding might not come from empiricism.

  • Jim McCann

    Thank you Mr Carroll for once again demonstrating the exact kind of arrogance that Father Barron was talking about. To quote the pinnacle of your pomposity — “What we’re not open to is the possibility that you can sit in your study and arrive at deep truths about the nature of reality just by thinking hard about it. ”

    Just what the hell do you think Da Vinci, Newton, and Einstein did?

  • Brett

    Da Vinci was a master of engineering and architecture. He built countless machines to test his ideas.

    Newton was an alchemist, which was the precursor to chemistry. Chemistry is often used as a way to describe Newtonian Mechanics to high school students.

    Einstein proved his theory by solving a problem with Mercury’s orbit that was a complete mystery until he solved it.

    We can’t just sit around and think really hard about it, we must show how it applies to nature. Religion stops at thinking really hard about it. Science goes past that point by showing us that it does apply to nature. Religion has yet to prove it applies to nature. Therefore, science is superior to religion until religion can prove something. But it’s the same old BS argument from religion: “hey; noticed you have a dent in your car. I happen to be a mechanic. If you give me your keys I can pop out that dent and have it fixed for $20 while you’re inside the grocery store”….

    (in case you didn’t understand that last sentence; you just had your car stolen because you’re an idiot)

  • David Lau

    @ Brett
    Very nicely said. Science is not only superior to religion, it is actually much less arrogance than religion. Thanks for what you wrote.

  • BlakeG

    Neil,

    I notice you didn’t say “many scientists THINK there is no evidence for God”. You rather said “I notice scientists POINT OUT that there is no evidence” (this statement doesn’t leave open the epistemic possibility that there is evidence for God [how much Phil of Religion have you read?]). You’re unwittingly begging the question against all the people (including the priest in that video, as well as other scientists) who believe there is evidence for theism.

    What’s dangerous is, you apparently didn’t even realize you were begging the question. Why doesn’t that put you in the same group as the Biblical inerrantist who appeals to the Bible to convince a non-beleiver that God exists? Both of you are begging the question without realizing it; neither of you even seem to be aware of the possibility that you could be wrong. Religious dogmatism isn’t the only kind of dogmatism.

    Secondly, when did the priest say he “knows” (i.e. is philosophically certain) that God exists? I didn’t see that. He may just think the evidence on balance favors theism. That’s my view, and that of a lot of my colleagues.

  • BlakeG

    Paul,

    Be careful, you can’t escape philosophy. E.g., when you say philosophy is “just major statements of ideas all of which can never be proved”, then you should be aware that you’re making a deeply philosophical statement (which would be very interesting if true). It’s self-stiltifying. I happen to disagree with you, but the major difference between you and me is, and I think you’ll admit this, is that your opinion wasn’t formed after having spent a lot of time thinking about the issues, and working hard at learning and evaluating the competing perspectives, and getting familiar the ins and outs of the intricate debate between them. Make no mistake: If you did read philosophy, it’s very likely that your worldview would sharpen and you wouldn’t be the same coming out as you were coming in.

  • Irenist

    As a Catholic who rather enjoys this blog, I thought Fr. Barron’s decision to call Mr. Carroll “arrogant” was unhelpful and, so far as I can tell, unwarranted.

    That said, I’d like to offer some elucidation of his remarks. I think the argument from contingency is only part of the substance of Fr. Barron’s argument; when he talks about potentiality and actuality, he seems to be referencing the sophisticated (as opposed to popular) version of Aquinas’ First Way, the Argument from Motion (i.e., from change, not just from local motion). That argument is summarized here:
    http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=6002

    When Fr. Barron alludes to science being able to understand the chemical composition of ink and paper but not the meaning of a book, I take him to be alluding to the difficulties that intentionality presents for a reductionist materialist account of the mind. Similarly, I take his references to morality and painting to be perhaps references to the difficulty of giving a non-teleological account of these things, since to follow the early moderns in abandoning any idea of final causality is to be led into Hume’s fact-value problem.

    In all of this, the response of folks on Mr. Carroll’s side of the debate seems to be Adolf Grunbaum’s sense that to think that the universe has a cause is to commit a fallacy of composition: just because each brick weighs a pounds, the wall as a whole does not; just because events may be caused does not need the cosmic concert of them must be caused rather than a brute fact. This is a reasonable (if not conclusive: if the bricks are red the whole wall is red; not all compositions are fallacious) reply to the cosmological argument, but doesn’t engage the Argument from Motion or concerns that reductionism cannot adequate account for intentionality.

    All that said, I think that Fr. Barron’s calling Mr. Carroll “arrogant” was unhelpful. There’s a lot of wonderful science on this blog, and I never find Mr. Carroll anything other than engaging and a delight to read. Sorry about the name-calling from my side of the debate.

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

      Irenist, thanks. All sides engage in name-calling now and again.

  • collins

    If there is a push for Naturalism then as S.C. wrote “Once you accept that we live in a self-contained universe governed by impersonal laws of nature, the hard work has just begun, as we are faced with a daunting list of challenges.”
    Including : “Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?”

    And if the conclusion is there are no objective standards, it’s quite logical to see naturalism has a strong flow to an atheistic utilitarianism; here’s the high visibility proponent and his lines of reasoning, Peter Singer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer
    taking things to their rational conclusion. The irony of his thinking and what happened to his ancestors is, for me as a simple man, stunning.

    This, Dr. Carroll, is what people get upset about. Consequences. History.
    And the record of the last century shows that ideas about mankind moving forward (national socialism, Leninism) can have horrific consequences, no religion necessary. Highly recommended in this regard, the recent book “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder. 14 million non-combatants in 12 years losing their lives. Or as the author reminds us at the end, “think of it as 14 million times one.”

  • N.

    Let’s get to the source of it:

    What is religion? Your choice?

    They take you (a toddler) to baptism. Your choice?

    Then they (yor parents) fill your developing brain with (their) projections – illusions of hell, where you shall burn for eternity (if you masturbate, e.g.). Your choice?

    Then you go to school where the same ritual goes on and on!! What??

    And after this process is finished and your brain is washed down to the skull, yes, than you can say “I believe in God”. Of course you do!

    “Indoctrination” is a feeble word.

    In my view, it is nothing short of crime. A Criminal Act. Against human nature. Aganst a free mind, which we are all born with, until it is spoiled. By Indoctrination. By Religion.

    I Am Mad as Hell!!

  • Brian Too

    Once again, two sides talking past each other.

    The theists feel their truth and have faith. They are immune to logic (though they often try to use logic to bolster faith).

    The scientists deduce their truth and have logic. They are immune (professionally) to feelings.

    While I fall into the scientific camp, I have a cautionary tale to share. I was watching Bill Moyer’s Journal (& Company?) recently, and saw an illuminating interview with, well I forget the gentleman’s name. Anyhow he was talking about the limits of reason and made a penetrating statement.

    The gist of his argument is that we reason as lawyers do, or as debaters do. Most people adopt a position because it feels right, then they seek out evidence that supports their position. Contradicting evidence is discounted or devalued.

    Is this against the scientific method? Of course it is. However we are all susceptible I suspect. Will peer review catch and correct? Yes, eventually, but it can take a long time.

    Why do I believe in science? I’m not sure I know. Look, I can blow smoke up your kilt about rationality, logic, reason, the primacy of intellect and all that. However I was attracted to science at a very young age, long before I knew any of that stuff. And equally, I was suspicious and rejecting of the religious experience.

    Yes, my parents and upbringing had something to do with it. However my parents were not anti-religious, just pleasantly skeptical and detached. They often speak with respect about religion, while speaking openly about the flaws. What I know is that I knew my own mind at a very early age. My parents respected me enough to pay attention to my inclinations, although they insisted that I at least try out Sunday school.

    I believe I have good parents.

  • Richard M

    Jim McCann, do you not see arrogance in the idea that someone might dictate a view of how the Universe works, because he or she thought up this view, without recourse to empirical evidence? Yet somehow it is arrogant to point this out. Go figure.

  • Tony

    There is a great deal of arrogance in the Christian communities as well, religion as well as science looks for truth in the created universe, each with their own objectives. I like to think that the universe is a shadow cast by God, within which we dwell, and by studying learn a little of that uncreated Creator that is Love itself.

  • Pingback: A priest goes after scientism (again) « Why Evolution Is True

  • Reginald

    BlakeG answers Paul Benoit this:
    “You say one can’t prove or disprove theism. Do you realize that you’ve single-handedly dismissed the entire academic field of “philosophy of religion”, which is virtually devoted to that topic? Am I right to assume you haven’t done any work on the subject or read even one relevant peer-reviewed article or book?”

    Maybe Paul apparently dismisses the “philosophy of religion” by saying theism is not subject to proof or disproof,– not because he has not read up on the subject,- but-because he has; that is if he is anything like me personally who has studied the subject as an amateur for 55 years (I am now 72), and find the “philosophy of religion ” an empty waste of time, and that the natural result of studying it is to reject its conclusions.
    The fact that there are endless writings about religion and philosophy of religion seem to suggest that no conclusions have yet been reached which might support its veracity. Or to put it briefly; it’s all just words.

  • Reginald

    ” Make no mistake: If you did read philosophy, it’s very likely that your worldview would sharpen and you wouldn’t be the same coming out as you were coming in”.

    So are you implying that we have not read philosophy, because if we had, we would be agreeing with you that God is in his Heaven and anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant? Bit patronising , no?
    Incidentally, I give regular Philosophy talks to my own U3A Philosophy group.

  • Reginald

    ” Empirical investigations are generally repeatable investigations primarily meant to discern *regularities* of the natural world. Insofar as miracles, trivially, aren’t claims claims about regularities, the proper investigation for miracle claims is rational/historical investigation (which at most make take into account pre-established deliverances of empirical investigation), not empirical investigations in and of themselves. Investigating whether Alexander the Great conquered Tyre isn’t discerned by scientists camping out at Tyre and seeing if people named Alexander the Great regularly take over the city.”

    So then are you saying that empiricism is invalid if a particular piece of empirical evidence is not regularly repeated, thus disallowing us from drawing inductive conclusions about it?
    Must therefore every phenomenon be duplicated or infinitely repeated before it is acceptable as evidence? If you see a man kill another man will you refuse to believe it happened unless he kills several more? Are there no one-off events at all,–ever? If you say no,–then that is obviously false. If you say yes, –then every one-off event must be a miracle;if you drop a particular jug on a particular floor, is that a miracle because that particular jug cannot be re-smashed again on the identical point on the floor. I would say that it is empirical evidence for the existence of the now broken jug,–but presumably you would say it never happened as it is not repeatable;–or else that it is a miracle. Are all one-off events miracles?

  • Reginald

    Perhaps Father Robert Barron has not seen Daniel Dennett commenting on “scientism”?

    http://old.richarddawkins.net/videos/517674-daniel-dennett-on-scientism

    John Haught is also present.

  • http://blog.noctua.org.uk/ Paul Wright

    Back again to reply to BlakeG some more:

    Carroll takes the priest’s argument to be about causes and says that causes are not fundamental, so reasoning like “all things have a cause, but there can’t be an infinite regress, so there must be one thing which doesn’t, et hoc dicimus et cetera et cetera” won’t work, because Carroll won’t concede that all things (or perhaps anything) has a cause. Given this, why would he think that an argument over whether the laws of nature have a cause made a difference to whether or not there might be a god?

    On (d), of course I didn’t carry out every experiment in the history of science, but Carroll (and you) are talking about rationalism and empiricism. The history of science was not in my mind without first being in my senses. I doubt Carroll is claiming that it’s illegitimate to reflect on that history, rather he’s complaining about claims like “Everything that begins to exist has a cause, I mean, it stands to reason, dunnit?”

    On induction: One sometimes sees theists saying stuff like “science relies on faith, therefore you atheistic scientists are just like us, really”. If that’s your argument, it is wrong, though we’d need to tease out what “faith” means here to see which wrong argument is being made. As Talmont-Kaminski says, doing science does not need commitment to believe an ontology (“faith”) in the way that being an evangelical does. Sometimes the argument is that we all need “faith” to avoid radical scepticism. Chris Hallquist says “belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions.” So I don’t think it’s that either.

    Perhaps you meant to argue specifically that the claim that “there are causes” or “all things have causes” is as justified as our rejection of grue as a silly category. I think that might be right until we encounter evidence to the contrary, but Carroll is claiming he has it in the case of causes. If we got to 2013 and stuff stopped having mass, we’d probably reconsider that too.

    I’d include history in what I mean by empirical investigation: historians don’t learn stuff by sitting in their armchairs and thinking about it, either. I don’t think repeatable experiments are necessary for science: I don’t imagine geologists do many of those.

    Religious claims are subject to examination by our best tools for finding out about the world, which are empirical ones including (but not limited to) science. Attempts to rule out such investigation with claims like “science cannot investigate the supernatural” end up effectively saying “well, what if anything could happen in my favourite special case?” In one sense this gets something right: the results of these investigations are subject to revision in the light of new evidence, and to set the prior probability of anything to exactly zero is irrational. If pigs do in fact fly occasionally, clearly we’re missing something. But I don’t see why we should take flying pig claims more seriously if the claim is that God did it than if the claim is that advanced aliens levitated the pig with their tractor beam (a naturalistic claim): merely saying “supernatural” isn’t going to make me think “oh it was supernatural, why didn’t you say so? Obviously that’s much more reasonable.”

    Here’s Russell Blackford over at Talking Philosophy (“Religion and science: the issue that won’t go away”: I’d link to it but I think links get moderated here): “Recall that the rise of science did not subtract from our pre-existing resources for investigating the world. Rather, it added to them; and the old pragmatic and scholarly methods and the new, distinctively scientific, ones can always be used together in any given case. We need to know whether such claims as that Jesus rose from the dead and that the universe was created by God are plausible when set against what we know overall about how the world works, both through methods that we could have employed anyway and through the distinctive methods developed by science. When the question is framed like that, surely we don’t think that these claims come under no pressure at all from our best empirical investigations of the world?”

  • http://www.seo-testing.org Andrew

    I guess the real issue here when it comes to Christianity and science is that snakes don’t talk, seas don’t part, bushes don’t burn without being consumed, you can’t walk on water, and before Christianity was invented everyone was into Ammon Ra, Zeus, and Thor. Let’s just look forward to whatever brilliant crazy new ideas humans come up with next. Maybe Scientology will actually continue growing outside of its rather violent mother organisation to the extent that we’ll all be following Hubbards ramblings. Of course, there is always Mormonism, another triumph of making up gibberish rather than growing up and facing the stark reality, namely that snakes don’t talk.

  • http://predelusional.blogspot.com Stephen

    Here are a few ideas that came up during the video.

    The use of the word ‘Scientistic’ seems to be to frame science as a belief system. Science is a skeptical system, if anything. Do scientists refer to themselves as ‘Scientistic’? Creating a label for your opponent is disingenuous. It’s name-calling.

    Predicting what questions Science won’t be able to answer has been a bad bet in the past. Beauty, for example, is subject to scientific inquiry already.

    Definitions of God that put God outside of the Universe, or give God special properties, have not been biblically based. Where do these come from? This is Christian theology based in quicksand.

    Indeed, coming up with a definition of God is not a great idea. Before “The act of ‘to be’ itself”, an Ontological Argument had it as “The most perfect being.” No one uses this Ontological Argument definition anymore. But both definitions define God to exist. It’s pretty silly. The idea that ‘Serious believers’ believe this definition of God is totally arrogant. Where is the reference to a survey? How does one define ‘Serious believers’?

    Philosophy brought us forward. That’s what Aristotle used. But once the scientific method required evidence, it turned out that much of what Aristotle and others had proven was wrong. Though philosophy continued to aid in the search for truth, of late, philosophers have added little, and even mislead the search. But philosophers do care if their ideas are correct.

    While “Can we imagine laws/patterns which describe a universe without God?” is great, it is not a disproof of the existence of God. It does say what God isn’t.

    On the other hand, God’s role in the Universe has shrunk with time. Pinning your hopes for a proof of God’s existence on a required role is not a good bet.

  • John

    IS THE FACT that you’re a Howdy Doody Puppet for the atheistic establishment starting to bother you?

    The daily tirade by this frightened community has become nothing more than a clown show. You and others like you are sooo transparent. Keep trying to reenforce you’re not whistling past the graveyard but the noise is becoming deafening.

    The obviousness of Design has been backing you guys into the corners of absurdity for a while now—first by what we can plainly observe and experience and Now, without question , by the Math itself. You’re own discipline has betrayed you guys. You entered the field of origins to make sure their was no piper to pay and now its clear you’re gonna be broke. The “appearance of design” is gone. The math matches the appearance.

    A prudent man would just zip it from here on out but I guess its your very nature that leaves you guys in the shadows defending your creepy little worldview.

  • Jennifer

    The things with Fr. Barron discusses as that which the sciences cannot explain (ie: beauty, truth, goodness,….) are precisely that which Dennett, a cognitive scientist, is trying to naturalize and explain.

    It is absurd that this person has chosen to lump Dennett in with Dawkins, since they are dealing with very different parts of the human experience of religion, and that, specifically, IT IS COGNITIVE SCIENCE WHICH ATTEMPTS TO NATURALISTICALLY BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN THE MATERIAL AND QUALIA. We may not need “God” for this at all.

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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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