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!
My article in the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, which asks “Does the Universe Need God?” (and answers “nope”), got a bit of play last week, thanks to an article by Natalie Wolchover that got picked up by Yahoo, MSNBC, HuffPo, and elsewhere. As a result, views that are pretty commonplace around here reached a somewhat different audience. I started getting more emails than usual, as well as a couple of phone calls, and some online responses. A representative sample:
I admit that last one is a bit hard to interpret. The others I think are pretty straightforward.
A more temperate response came from theologian William Lane Craig (a fellow Blackwell Companion contributor) on his Reasonable Faith podcast. I mentioned Craig once before, and here we can see him in action. I’m not going to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of his comments, but I did want to highlight the two points I think are most central to what he’s saying. Read More
Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel are well-known senior philosophers at Notre Dame and NYU, respectively. Plantinga, a Christian, is known for his contributions to philosophy of religion, while Nagel, an atheist, is known (nevertheless) for his resistance to purely materialist/naturalist/physicalist theories of the mind (e.g. in his famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?“).
Now Nagel has reviewed Plantinga’s most recent book in the NYRB, giving it a much more sympathetic reading than most naturalists would offer. (For what it’s worth, Plantinga is a supporter of Intelligent Design, and Nagel has often spoken of it approvingly, while not quite buying the whole sales pitch.) Jerry Coyne offers a reasonable dissection of the review.
I wanted to home in on just one particular aspect because it was instructive, at least for me. There is a long-standing claim that “faith” is a way of attaining knowledge that stands independently of other methods, such as “logic” or “empiricism.” I’ve never quite understood this — how do we decide what to have faith in, if not by the use of techniques such as logic and empiricism? Read More
I took part in a conversation about contemporary atheism, which appeared on The Point, which is a web series spin-off of The Young Turks, which itself is both a web series and a show broadcast on Current TV. (Got all that?) My co-panelists were Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and Edward Falzon, author of the (satirical!) book Being Gay is Disgusting, and it was hosted by Cara Santa Maria, science correspondent for the Huffington Post.
The format of the show is that we hear three very brief pre-recorded “points,” to which the panelists then respond. In this case, all the points and all the panelists were already confirmed atheists, so we could put aside for the moment the endless arguments about whether God exists and focus on the very interesting questions of what to do about the fact that he doesn’t. The points we heard were from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson of American Atheists. I wasn’t familiar with AJ before this event, but her video was very strong; I think (hope) we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the future.
“Atheism” is a fine word, and I’m happy to describe myself as an atheist. God is an idea that has consequences, and those consequences don’t accord with the world we experience any better than countless other ideas we’ve given up on. But given a choice I would always describe myself first as a “naturalist” — someone who believes that there is only one realm of reality, the material world, which obeys natural laws, and that we human beings are part of it. “Atheism” is ultimately about rejecting a certain idea, while “naturalism” is about a positive acceptance of a comprehensive worldview. Naturalists have a lot more work to do than simply rejecting God; they bear the responsibility of understanding how to live a meaningful life in a universe without built-in purpose.
Which is why I devoted my opening statement at “The Great Debate” a few weeks ago to presenting the positive case for naturalism, rather than just arguing against the idea of God. And I tried to do so in terms that would be comprehensible to people who disagreed with me — at least that was the goal, you can judge for yourself whether I actually succeeded.
So here I’ve excerpted that opening ten-minute statement from the two-hour debate I had with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson. I figure there must be people out there who might possibly be willing to watch a ten-minute video (or watch for one minute before changing the channel) but who wouldn’t even press “play” on the full version. This is the best I can do in ten minutes to sum up the progress in human understanding that has led us to reject the supernatural and accept that the natural world is all there is. And I did manage to work in Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.
I am curious as to how the pitch goes over (given the constraints of time and the medium), so constructive criticism is appreciated.
I love Jon Stewart’s work on The Daily Show, which manages to be consistently fresh and intelligent. Their segment on the Large Hadron Collider was sheer brilliance, and I’ve often said that between Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central is the best place to go to hear insights from real working scientists on TV these days.
Which is why it was so crushing to listen to this interview he did with Marilynne Robinson, a leader among the movement to reconcile science and religion. I didn’t agree with much of what Robinson said, but then again I didn’t really expect to. Nor did I expect Stewart to challenge her in any way; a “why just can’t we all get along” perspective is very consistent with his way of thinking. But I admit I was hoping he would not misrepresent modern science as thoroughly and lazily as he managed to do here. (It’s a 2010 interview, brought to my attention by Scott Derrickson’s Twitter feed; apologies if these complaints were hashed out elsewhere two years ago.)
|The Daily Show with Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
If you skip ahead to 2:50, here’s what Stewart has to say: Read More
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.)
Took a little work, but the spark of human willpower was ultimately able to overcome the stubborn resistance of technology, and the video from our science/religion debate at Caltech on Sunday is finally up. Michael Shermer and I took on Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchinson. Short version: we won, but judge for yourself if you want to sit through all two hours.
YouTube comments — always an enlightening read — seem to be mostly about Dawkins and Hitchens, although I don’t remember either of them being there.
[Update added below. Further update: here’s the video.]
I’m participating this afternoon in an intriguing event here at Caltech:
Affirming the proposition will be Skeptics Society president Michael Shermer and myself, while negating it will be conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and MIT nuclear engineer Ian Hutchinson. We’ll go back and forth for about two hours, after which Sam Harris will give a talk about his most recent book, Free Will.
Festivities begin at 2pm Pacific time (5pm Eastern). I hadn’t previously mentioned the debate here on the blog, because tickets sold out pretty quickly, and it didn’t seem right to taunt people by mentioning an event they couldn’t come see. But the Skeptics folks have been working hard to set up live-streaming video of the event, and it looks like they’ve succeeded! So you should be able to watch all the fun live on YouTube — and feel free to leave comments here.
[Live-streaming didn’t work, but here’s the video.]
I’ll come back when it’s all over and add some post-debate thoughts.
Update after the debate: first off, very sorry that the live stream didn’t seem to work for many people. (Although the YouTube comments are occasionally funny.) That’s just what sometimes unfortunately happens when you try something new. Pretty sure that video will eventually be available, I’ll link when it appears.
Also I deleted a bunch of comments about string theory from people who don’t take instructions well.
As for the debate, it’s very hard to judge when up on the stage, but I hope there were some enlightening moments. I’m not sure it worked well as a “debate.” I tried to engage a bit with what Ian and Dinesh were saying, but I didn’t feel that they reciprocated — although they might make the same claim about our side. I’m thinking that four people is just too much to have in a debate; it could have been more direct confrontation if there had only been two, with twice as much time for each little speech.
I don’t think I did a very good job in the cross-examinations, but hopefully the actual speeches came across clearly.
The audience was pretty clearly biased toward us from the beginning. Which is great in some sense (go forces of reason!) but I’d actually like to do something similar before an audience that was tilted the other way, or (best of all) completely uncommitted at the start. Preaching to the choir is fun, but doesn’t really change the world.
We had a great crowd, and I very much appreciate everyone who braved the not-that-great-by-Southern-California-standards weather. Would love to hear reactions from people who were actually there.
Chattering classes here in the U.S. have recently been absorbed in discussions that dance around, but never quite address, a question that cuts to the heart of how we think about the basic architecture of reality: are human beings purely material, or something more?
The first skirmish broke out when a major breast-cancer charity, Susan Komen for the Cure (the folks responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons), decided to cut their grants to Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed after facing an enormous public backlash. Planned Parenthood provides a wide variety of women’s health services, including birth control and screening for breast cancer, but is widely associated with abortion services. The Komen leaders offered numerous (mutually contradictory) reasons for their original action, but there is no doubt that their true motive was to end support to a major abortion provider, even if their grants weren’t being used to fund abortions.
Abortion, of course, is a perennial political hot potato, but the other recent kerfuffle focuses on a seemingly less contentious issue: birth control. Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort, objected to rules promulgated by the Obama administration, under which birth control would have to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance plans. The original objection seemed to be that Catholic hospitals and other Church-sponsored institutions would essentially be paying for something they though was immoral, in response to which a work-around compromise was quickly adopted. This didn’t satisfy everyone (anyone?), however, and now the ground has shifted to an argument that no individual Catholic employer should be forced to pay for birth-control insurance, whether or not the organization is sponsored by the Church. This position has been staked out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and underlies a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Mark Rubio.
Topics like this are never simple, but they can be especially challenging for a secular democracy. Read More