Category: Religion

The Lesson of Adam and Eve

By Sean Carroll | August 18, 2011 10:28 am

There’s a bit of discussion going around concerning the ontological status of Adam and Eve — is the story literally true, useful metaphor, not really true but based somehow in reality, or what? For me, it would be hard to think of a less interesting question. But I do have a serious issue with the A&E story, which I rarely see discussed: it’s a terrible lesson on which to found a system of belief.

The story is told in Genesis, chapter two and chapter three. God sets up Adam in the Garden of Eden, and soon takes one of his ribs and makes Eve. For the most part the Garden is a pleasant place, and there doesn’t seem to have been any duties more onerous than coming up with names for the different animals. But for reasons that are not explained, God placed in the Garden something called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and commanded that Adam and Eve not eat from it. (Translational difficulties being what they are, there is a school of thought that argues that “good and evil” should be understood as simply meaning “all things, both good and evil.”) Eventually, of course, they take a bite, with a little urging from a crafty serpent. God gets angry, curses them, and casts them out of the Garden forever — the Fall of Man, as Christians would have it.

The choice given to Adam and Eve was a simple one: (1) obey, or (2) attain knowledge, in particular of good and evil. If those are my two choices, I’m choosing “knowledge” every day. Count me on Team Eve on this one. As far as I’m concerned, this wasn’t the Original Sin, it was the Original Heroic Act.

I want to see a religion founded on exhortations to disobey authority and seek the truth at any cost.


What Can We Know About The World Without Looking At It?

By Sean Carroll | August 11, 2011 8:54 am

One last thought on all this God/cosmology stuff before moving on.

The crucial moment of our panel discussion occurred when John Haught said that he couldn’t imagine a universe without God. (Without God, the universe couldn’t exist.) It would have been more crucial if I had followed up a bit more, but I didn’t because I suck (and because time was precious).

Believing that something must be true about the world because you can’t imagine otherwise is, five hundred years into the Age of Science, not a recommended strategy for acquiring reliable knowledge. It goes back to the classic conflict of rationalism vs. empiricism. “Rationalism” sounds good — who doesn’t want to be rational? But the idea behind it is that we can reach true conclusions about the world by reason alone. We don’t ever have to leave the comfort of our living room; we can just sit around, sharing some single-malt Scotch and fine cigars, thinking really hard about the universe, and thereby achieve some real understanding. Empiricism, on the other hand, says that we should try to imagine all possible ways the world could be, and then actually go out and look at it to decide which way it really is. Rationalism is traditionally associated with Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, while empiricism is associated with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume — but of course these categories never quite fit perfectly well.

The lure of rationalism is powerful, and it shows up all over the place. Leibniz proclaimed various ways the world must work, such as the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Lee Smolin uses Leibnizian arguments against string theory. Many people, such as Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, feel strongly that the world cannot simply be; there must be a reason for its existence. Paul Davies believes that the laws of physics cannot simply be, and require an explanation. William Lane Craig believes that infinity cannot be realized in Nature. Einstein felt that God did not play dice with the universe. At a less lofty level, people see bad things happen and feel the urge to blame someone.

But the intellectual history of the past five centuries has spoken loud and clear: the dream of rationalism is a false one. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion, Top Posts

God and Cosmology Conversation

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

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

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

Specific thoughts on the participants:

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

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

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

Live-Blogging Curiosity, Hawking, and God

By Sean Carroll | August 7, 2011 12:43 pm

Tonight’s the premiere of Curiosity on the Discovery Channel, featuring Stephen Hawking talking about cosmology and God, followed by the “Curiosity Conversation” panel that I’m on along with David Gregory, Paul Davies, and John Haught. Hawking’s hour-long show is scheduled for 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific, and will then repeat 3 hours later (11E/8P). Our half-hour panel discussion follows immediately afterward — you do the arithmetic.

There’s a lot to say about these shows, and in particular there’s a huge amount that we didn’t have time to say during the panel. So as I sit in front of the TV, I’ll be live-blogging along by adding updates to this post. This will be the early show, so the fun will happen 8pm-9:30pm Eastern. Hey, Nathan Fillion live-tweets during Castle, so why not me? There is also a chat going on at the Discovery site.

The main attraction of Hawking’s program is not that he has disproven the existence of God. Certainly I don’t think he’s going to be changing the minds of many religious believers. His argument is essentially that the universe is self-contained, and doesn’t really have “room” for God (nor any need to invoke a creator). It’s very easy to wriggle free of that conclusion, if you are inclined not to accept it.

But “changing people’s minds” isn’t the only reason to talk about something, even about controversial issues. Religion, like sex and death, is one of those topics where it’s very difficult to simply have a dispassionate discussion without making people uncomfortable. It can happen within a group of similarly-minded people, of course, but once a wider range of views gets involved, it’s hard to maintain comity. (Comedy, on the other hand, is pretty easy.) I don’t mean everyone has to agree — just the opposite. We should be able to talk about things we completely disagree on, while still maintaining level heads.

That’s why I think this episode of Curiosity is potentially important. It’s a forthright statement of a view that doesn’t often get aired in American media. Even if nobody’s mind is changed, simply talking rationally about this issues would be a step forward.

Pre-show update: I should note ahead of time that I was not wearing a tie. Haught, Davies, and Gregory were all wearing ties. But Hawking wasn’t. Maybe atheists don’t wear ties? (Although I’m pretty sure Jesus never wore a tie, either.)

Start: We begin with a disclaimer! These are Stephen Hawking’s opinions, not those of Discovery. :)

4 minutes: I hope the analogy here is clear. “People who believe God made the universe are kind of like the Vikings shouting at the Sun to stop a solar eclipse.”

8 minutes: Snark aside, the message here is a fundamental one. Nature obeys laws! Something that’s certainly not a priori obvious or necessary, but a really profound truth.

14 minutes: I wasn’t able to find an independent confirmation of this story about Pope John XXI condemning the idea of “laws of nature.” (It’s true that he did die when the roof collapsed.) Presumably this refers to the Condemnations of 1277.

20 minutes: The universe is a big, messy, complicated, and occasionally quite intricate place. On the face of it, the idea that it’s all the working-out of some impersonal patterns of matter and energy, rather than being constructed by some kind of conscious intelligence, is pretty remarkable. (But true nonetheless.)

27 minutes: Hey, a tiny ad for Discovery Retreats!

28 minutes: Hawking says Einstein might be the greatest scientist ever. He has long favored Einstein over Newton, I’m not sure why. Hawking appeared on an episode of Star Trek: TNG, where he was a hologram playing poker with Einstein, Newton, and Data. He actually wrote the script, and Newton doesn’t come off well.

36 minutes: Ah, negative energy. Depends on what you mean by “energy,” but this isn’t the venue to get overly technical, obviously. Roughly, matter has positive energy and gravity has negative energy. That’s hopefully enough to help people swallow the crucial point: you can make a universe for nothing. There isn’t some fixed resource, out of which we can make a universe or two, before we hit Peak Universe. There can be an infinite number of universes.

41 minutes: People on Twitter are asking why Hawking doesn’t have a British accent. He easily could, of course; voice-synthesis technology has come quite a way since he first got the system. But he’s said that he now identifies with that voice he got years ago, and doesn’t want to change it; it’s identified with him.

47 minutes: Okay, here’s the payoff. He’s saying that generally we’re used to effects being caused by pre-existing events. (The first step toward a cosmological argument for God’s existence.) You might think that a chain of causation takes you back to the Big Bang, which then requires God as a cause. But no! The Big Bang can just … be.

50 minutes: The point of the black hole discussion is to get to the idea of a singularity, a conjectural point of infinite curvature and density. The Big Bang, in classical general relativity, is also a singular moment. But classical GR isn’t right. We need quantum gravity. Hawking believes that quantum gravity smooths the singularity and explains how there was no pre-existing time. (At least in the TV show, unlike A Brief History, he doesn’t start talking about “imaginary time.”)

56 minutes: Ultimately Hawking’s argument against God is pretty simplistic. He assumes that if God created the Big Bang, God must have existed before the Big Bang, but there was no “before the Big Bang,” QED. It’s easy enough to simply assert that God doesn’t exist “within time” (if that means anything). It would have been better (IMHO) to emphasize that modern cosmology has many good ideas about how the universe could have come to be, so there’s no need to rely on a divine creator.

58 minutes: Final thought from SWH: no life after death! Enjoy it while you’re around, folks. An important message.

Panel discussion starts: Forgot to mention that Paul Davies has shaved off his moustache. Disconcerting.

4 minutes: Also disconcerting: watching myself on TV. Hate it. But I persevere for the greater good.

5 minutes: Here’s Michio Kaku, not saying very much.

7 minutes: Jennifer Wiseman and I were actually grad students together! She’s good people, even if we disagree about the whole God thing.

9 minutes: I come out in favor of basing purpose and meaning on reality. But I’m pretty sure a longer remark was cut off there. Arrrrgh! Nothing nefarious, we intentionally recorded a bit more than they had time to show. But enormously frustrating that there was so little time.

13 minutes: Not sure why we kept talking about the multiverse. Hawking didn’t bring it up, did he?

17 minutes: I thought a lot of what Haught said was not even really trying to argue in favor of God’s existence, but simply expressing a desire that he exist. “God is the grounding of hope” isn’t evidence for God’s existence.

22 minutes: Haven’t said anything completely silly yet, so that’s good. But so little time…

27 minutes: Always time for more Michio!

30 minutes: Arrrrgh again, this time for real: in the live conversation, I had the last word and it was a pretty good one. In the televised program, not so much. Had to end wishy-washy.

Thanks for tuning in. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have the time for a real conversation? But big ups to Discovery for hosting the panel at all — it’s a rare event on TV.

Hawking and God on the Discovery Channel

By Sean Carroll | August 2, 2011 10:23 am

Last week I got to spend time in the NBC studio where they record Meet The Press — re-decorated for this occasion in a cosmic theme, with beautiful images of galaxies and large-scale-structure simulations in the background. The occasion was a special panel discussion to follow a Stephen Hawking special that will air on the Discovery Channel this Sunday, August 7. David Gregory, who usually hosts MTP, was the moderator. I played the role of the hard-boiled atheist; Paul Davies played the physicist who was willing to entertain the possibility of “God” if defined with sufficient abstraction, while John Haught played the Catholic theologian who is sympathetic to science.

The Hawking special is the kick-off episode to a major new Discovery program, called simply Curiosity. I predict it will make something of a splash. The reason is simple: although most of the episode is about science, Hawking clearly goes all-in with “God does not exist.” It’s not a message we often hear on American TV.

The atheistic conclusion is really surprisingly explicit. I had a chance to talk to someone at Discovery, who explained a little about how the program came about. The secret is that it was originally produced by the BBC — British audiences have a different set of expectations than American ones do. My completely fictional reconstruction of the conversation would go something like this. Discovery: Hey, blokes! Do you have any programs we could use to launch our major new series? BBC: Sure, we have a new special narrated by Stephen Hawking. Discovery: Perfect! That’s always box office. What’s it about? BBC: It’s about how there is no God. Discovery: Ah.

[Update: Alas, reality is intruding upon my meant-to-be-funny imaginary dialogue. The episode was actually originally commissioned by Discovery, not by the BBC, although it was produced in the UK. More power to Discovery!]

At first, I will confess to a smidgin of annoyance that an opportunity to talk about fascinating science was being sacrificed to yet another discussion about religion. But quickly, even before anyone else had the joy of pointing it out to me, I realized how spectacularly hypocritical that was. I talk about religion all the time — why shouldn’t Stephen Hawking get the same opportunity?

The more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought the episode really was. I can’t speak for Hawking, but I presume his interest in the topic stems from similar sources as my own. It’s not just a coincidence that we are theoretical cosmologists who happen to go around arguing that God doesn’t exist. The question of God and the questions of cosmology arise from a common impulse — to understand how the world works at its most fundamental level. These issues naturally go hand-in-hand. Pretending otherwise, I believe, probably stems from a desire on the part of religious believers to insulate their worldview from scientific critique.

Besides, people find it interesting, and rightfully so. Professional scientists are sometimes irritated by the tendency of the public to dwell on what scientists think are the “wrong” questions. Most people are fascinated by questions about God, life after death, life on other worlds, and other issues that touch on what it means to be human. These might not be fruitful research projects for most professional scientists, but part of our job should be to occasionally step back and look at the bigger picture. That’s exactly what Hawking is doing here, and more power to him. (In terms of his actual argument, I’m sympathetic to the general idea, but would take issue with some of the particulars.)

Nevertheless, Discovery was not going to feature an hour of rah-rah atheism without a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Thus, our panel discussion, which will air immediately after the debut of Curiosity (i.e., 9pm Eastern/Pacific). The four of us had fun, and I think the result will be an interesting program — and hopefully I did the side proud, as the only legit atheist participating. Gregory seemed to enjoy himself, and joked that he might have to give up politics to do a weekly show about cosmology. (A guy can dream…) But we all agreed that it was incredibly frustrating to have so little time to talk about such big issues. The show will run for half an hour; subtract commercials, and we’re left with about 21 minutes of substance. Then subtract introduction, questions, some background videos that were shown … we three panelists had about five minutes each of speaking time. Not really enough to spell out convincing answers to the major questions that have troubled thinkers for centuries. Hopefully some of the basic points came across. Let us know what you think.

The Atheism/Religion Turing Test

By Sean Carroll | July 10, 2011 10:52 am

[Update: the “Christian” answers are now available, and voting is open.]

A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman set off a debate by claiming that liberal economists could do a very good job at explaining what conservative economists think, but the conservatives just don’t understand the liberals. Regardless of the empirical truth of that statement, the idea is an important one: when there is a respectable disagreement (as opposed to one where the other side are just obvious crackpots), and important skill is to be able to put yourself in the mind of those with whom you disagree. Conservative economist Bryan Caplan formalized the notion by invoking the idea of a Turing Test: could a liberal/conservative do such a good job at stating conservative/liberal beliefs that an outsider couldn’t tell they were the real thing? Ilya Somin, a libertarian, actually took up the challenge, and made a good-faith effort to simulate a liberal defending their core beliefs. I actually thought he did okay, but as he himself admitted, his “liberal” sometimes seemed to be more concerned with disputing libertarianism than making a positive case. Playing someone else is hard!

Obviously it would be fun to do this for religious belief, and Leah Libresco has taken up the challenge. She came up with a list of questions for atheists and Christians to explain their beliefs. She then recruited some actual atheists and Christians (they’re not hard to find) and had them answer both sets of questions. You can find the (purported) atheist answers here — I think the purported Christian answers are still forthcoming.

Now, of course, the fun begins: vote! Go here to take a short survey to judge whether you think each answer is written by a true atheist, or a Christian just fudging it. At a brief glance, it looks like there are a few answers where the respondent is clearly faking it — but it’s not always so easy. I’ll be curious to see the final results.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Religion

Preaching to the Unconverted

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion

Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

By Sean Carroll | May 23, 2011 11:02 am

[Cross-posted at Scientific American Blogs. Thanks to Bora Z. for the invitation.]

The topic of “Life after death” raises disreputable connotations of past-life regression and haunted houses, but there are a large number of people in the world who believe in some form of persistence of the individual soul after life ends. Clearly this is an important question, one of the most important ones we can possibly think of in terms of relevance to human life. If science has something to say about, we should all be interested in hearing.

Adam Frank thinks that science has nothing to say about it. He advocates being “firmly agnostic” on the question. (His coblogger Alva Noë resolutely disagrees.) I have an enormous respect for Adam; he’s a smart guy and a careful thinker. When we disagree it’s with the kind of respectful dialogue that should be a model for disagreeing with non-crazy people. But here he couldn’t be more wrong.

Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)

Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science, Top Posts


By Sean Carroll | April 25, 2011 8:29 am

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

A couple of rhetorical questions posed by Ross Douthat, who does us all the favor of reminding us how certain ideas that would otherwise be too ugly and despicable to be shared among polite society become perfectly respectable under the rubric of religion. (Via Steve Mirsky on the twitters.) In this case, the idea is: certain people are just bad, and the appropriate response is to subject them to torment for all time, without hope of reprieve. Now that’s the kind of morality I want my society to be based on.

The quote is extremely telling. Note that the first question is never actually answered — is Gandhi in hell? And there’s a good reason it’s never answered, because the answer would probably be “yes.” Hell is an imaginary place invented by people who think that eternal torture for people they disapprove of would be a good idea. And it’s the rare religion that says “we approve of all good people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs.” Much more commonly, Hell is brought up to scare people away from deviating from a particular religious path. Here’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire”, and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

Do you think that, at the end of his life, Gandhi decided to believe in Jesus and converted?

The second question is equally telling, because even Douthat can’t bring himself to use a non-fictional person as an example of someone who deserves Hell. He’s trying to make the point that “we are defined by the decisions we make,” and if there is no way to make bad decisions then making good decisions is devalued. Which is a fine point to make, and many atheists would be happy to agree. The difference is that we don’t think that people who make bad decisions deserve to be tortured for all of eternity.

This enthusiastic stumping for the reality of Hell betrays not only a shriveled sense of human decency and a repulsive interest in pain inflicted on others, but a deplorable lack of imagination. People have a hard time taking eternity seriously. I don’t know of any theological descriptions of Hell that involve some version of parole hearings at regular intervals. The usual assumption is that it’s an eternal sentence. For all the pious musings about the centrality of human choice, few of Hell’s advocates allow for some version of that choice to persist after death. Seventy years or so on Earth, with unclear instructions and bad advice; infinity years in Hell for making the wrong decisions.

Hell isn’t an essential ingredient in humanity’s freedom of agency; it’s a horrible of invention by despicable people who can’t rise above their own petty bloody-mindedness. The thought of condemning millions of people to an eternity of torment makes Ross Douthat feel good about himself and gives him a chance to indulge in some saucy contrarianism. I tend to take issue with religion on the grounds that it’s factually wrong, not morally reprehensible; but if you want evidence for the latter, here you go.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Top Posts

Debating William Lane Craig

By Sean Carroll | April 5, 2011 9:23 am

William Lane Craig is a philosopher and theologian, most famous for advocating the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. As far as I can tell, he is fairly well-respected in the theology community; I cited him among other people in my recent paper. He’s also a frequent participants in debates against atheists. These are slightly weird events; everyone says they’re a terrible idea, but everyone seems to willingly participate in them. Personally I think they can be a very useful forum, if done well.

Craig recently debated Lawrence Krauss in an event that got a lot of publicity. You can read Craig’s post-mortem reflections here; in response, Krauss has offered his own thoughts on how things went down, which are posted at Pharyngula. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, but be warned it’s a long multi-part extravaganza.

As to who won, it’s a mixed bag. Craig is a very polished debater, and has his pitch honed to a fine sheen; every sentence makes a succinct point. On the other hand, many of his sentences are simply false. For example, he argues that the universe can’t be eternal, because infinity is an self-contradictory notion, because “infinity minus infinity” has no correct answer. This is not an unfair paraphrase.

In response, Lawrence was game, but much more impressionistic, with a style more appropriate to a public talk than to a formal debate. It depends on what you’re looking for, of course; he did have the advantage of being right. Craig is sufficiently good at debating that atheists are now advising each other to stay away from him for fear of looking bad — e.g. here and here. I sympathize with the general message — don’t get into something like this unless you know what’s coming and are truly prepared — but not with the final impression, that atheists should just steer clear. We should be good at presenting our arguments, and ready to do so. Craig is wrong about many things, but he’s not an out-and-out crackpot like Hugh Ross or Ken Ham. A good debate could be very interesting and helpful to thoughtful people who haven’t yet made up their minds. Being correct is already a huge advantage; we should be able to make our side clear using the force of reason, like we’re always telling people we do.


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