The Curse of Certainty in Science v. Religion

By Adam Frank | March 6, 2008 11:58 am

Adam FrankSeattle may be the most beautiful city in the country (oh New York do not worry—I still love thee). I did my graduate work here in the physics department, and it’s always a little hard to come back because it is just so green and groove-o-tronic (so does everyone here need a tattoo sleeve now?).

In spite of my heartsickness, I have been lucky to have the chance to give a bunch of talks here on science, religion, and many topics in between. The Pacific Science Center holds a vibrant Science Café in a pub near the Seattle Center. I gave a presentation on time and cosmology there to a very engaged, very thoughtful audience on Tuesday. It’s a topic that clearly washes up against the shores of mythology and religion, and we all made the most of it. On Wednesday I spoke with Steve Sher on KUOW, a wonderful NPR station here in the emerald city. In both cases the issue of certainty came up for me. Steve Sher is both funny and insightful. His questions pushed me to spend much of the day reflecting on the role of, and desire for, certainty in both science and religion.

Certainty, I think, is the problem. Not in individual scientific work, of course—I really want to be certain that the massive astrophysics simulation code my research group has been working on for the last 7 years accurately reproduces the physics of stellar blast waves and turbulent star forming clouds (two of the topics we work on). And my colleagues at the University of Rochester want to be absolutely certain that the detectors they developed for the Spitzer Space Telescope function exactly as planned. With each investigation we undertake, and each paper we write, we want and need as much certainty as possible. That is a given.

Certainty becomes a problem when people are looking for some kind of ultimate all-encompassing answer.

That is where the science v. religion debate becomes important. When religious institutions demand rigid adherence to dogmas and creed in the name of certainty, scientists like me—used to open-ended discourse and discovery—rightly cringe. But when, in the name of science, the argument is made that all truth must follow from a narrow reductionism, others with broader views cringe.

When science becomes scientism in the name of certainty, some essential creative response to the world is lost, just as it is in the rush to religious dogma. In both cases, certainty can be seen as reaction. It can be really scary out there, and in response, people want to something “Big” to hold on to.

As a species, I think we have a choice bearing down us, and which choice we make will likely determine our fate. The harder we clamp down in the name of certainty, the more likely we are to end up with unyielding intolerance in one form or another—which is not likely to help much with the large, looming and potentially lethal challenges we face.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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Comments (54)

  1. This is something that, as a child, I regularly dealt with. My parents, to this day, are certain that they know the truth. That nothing else even comes close. And one of the big problems with this, is when science meets it. A new discovery is made, one that is utterly above and beyond anything that we could conceive of. An open minded person allows this to broaden his horizons, whereas a person who already “knows” the ultimate truth will either shake it off as heresy, or attempt to fit it into their already established “truth”. I only wish that more people (and I do mean religious people) would stop and think about these things more often. But alas, they know the “truth”…so what am I thinking?

  2. Lucy

    I think the very idea of certainty opposes the main tenants of science…We should always be questioning and revisiting and refining ideas. This is why few things are considered absolute truths in science, and are rather called “theories”. Science should be proud of its ability to discover errors in its own thinking and do everything in its power to correct those errors.

  3. mike

    You are hitting the nail on the head. I think atheists / skeptics and fundamentalists are in the same category because of their attraction to making bold, sweeping statements. The phrase “I don’t know for sure” has somehow become bad. But it must remain at the heart of religion and science. To say that I know something for sure, which I do not, is a lie. (And it is not that hard to be convinced that I actually no nothing, if you have ever studied deconstruction). Yet this practiced is encouraged and even required in most religion. How did religion ever come to value lying so highly ? Please read The End Of Faith by Sam Harris.

  4. 1) That which supports religion supports religion.
    2) That which ignores religion supports religion.
    3) That which contradicts religion supports religion – test of faith!
    4) Anybody who criticizes is thereby proven unqualified to comment – and must be destroyed lest god(s) take offense.

  5. Charles Schmidt

    Mike is right you cannot be certain of anything really, what is true to day may not be tomorrow and being prepared, willing and able to admit the change is not just a requirement but a necessity in life. However, with religion things are constant without allowing for change since if a so-called fact that has been looked at as a truth where in anyway modified the possibility that others could too be in error would be there also and since it is based on faith there is no way to know.

    Think of the parent that says that my child would not do what ever, that is based not on knowledge but more on faith and often parents find that they have a misplaced faith in that child. Our understanding must change with new evidence presented or discovered but that is not possible when it comes too belief because it is base on faith not on any substantiation by evidence.

  6. BobK

    This is a simple misunderstanding (misuse?) of terms. True believers are absolutely certain their God exists, even when their personal definition and understanding of that God is logically inconsistent, easily refutable or patently absurd. They force themselves to believe unquestioningly and when challenged, claim their beliefs are simply beyond mere human understanding and rest on faith. That is not the “certainty” of any scientist’s work I’ve ever seen. While Einstien had great difficulty accepting the implications of Quantum Mechanics, no one seriously claims he was certain Quantum Mechanics was false in the same sense the men who flew passenger planes into buildings on 9/11 were certain. Not even close!

    But that is not the most serious flaw here. Worse is the proposition that being a little (or a lot) less “certain” in expository statements about science will somehow bring religious people to the table where a meeting of the minds will propel us into a safe and sane future.

    First of all, religion is at least as divisive as politics – and we all see how bipartison things have gotten thus far during the current “post partisan” administration.

    Second, any hedging at all – not regarding any unwarranted degree of certainty – but of the undeniable superiority of the scientific method over received wisdom and faith, simply invites creationists and others to use the words of scientists against science.

    Third, even if this “lets all be (or pretend to be) less certain about the body of scientific knowledge” tactic worked better than anyone could have hoped for, the problem isn’t the moderately religious folks who would be influenced by that tactic. The problem is primarily the fundamentalists.

    If you could gather every well known scientist currently alive, and put them in a room with every moderate theologian currently alive and gave them an audio/video feed directly into Osama Bin Laden’s cave, they collectively have zero chance of convincing him to change his behavior.

    But I am saying much more than that. If you likewise brought that same pressure to bear on George W Bush 8 years ago it would not have changed his mind about stem cell research or even force him to see how his position was wholey inconsistent for not having tried to stop the practice of invetro fertilization which produces so many fertilized eggs which will ultimately be destroyed.
    You may dislike the methods used by Dawkins, Harris and Dennett. But at least their focus is on the real problem and danger of fundamentalist inspired violent and anti-science behaviors. And if you really think about it, your own perceived need for science to move to the center is based on the very existence of Dawkins, et al. All of whom, incidentally have contributed greatly to the body of scientific.

    Finally, it is ludicrous to place (primarily) 3 scientists who happen to be outspoken in their objection to the reality eroding effects of religious belief, one the one side and all believers on the other. In the first place the mjority of moderate (ie: convinceable) believers accept science as a valid route to knowledge, so they are for the most part not in need of convincing. And the rest are in no need of a real enemy in the form of a few outspoken scientists to warrant violence or retrogressive behaviors.

    The one area of agreement I have with the author’s book is that science and religion likely do share a common and fundamental impetus – call it spiritual, aspirational, or just “awe inspiring”. That’s exactly why it is misleading to say that Dawkins and Harris dismiss spirituality outright. A cursory review of their books and other writings and appearances lays waste to that claim.

    It might be wise to remember that there is truth in the old adage (which I may butcher a bit here due to fading memory) that an ounce of ridicule is worth a pound of reason. It may be true that ridicule can harden the hearts of those being ridiclued – but they are not convinceable, and they are not the future. The future lies in the hearts and minds that have not yet been hijacked by seductive but false and destructive world views. We need to give them the tools not just to do science, but also to evaluate religious claims using reason and logic, which are far superior to faith in that the end result will produce a far more exciting, interesting, and yes spiritual world view.

    “God said it, I beleive it, and that settles it” is as dangerous and retrogressive as it is bereft of meaning and content.

    ‘Nuff said… My apologies for any typos – this post was composed on an iPhone!

  7. Mike Gottschalk

    @BobK: Bob, Uncle Al should take lessons from you. I felt your passion, but yours is quite intelligible. I feel like I could have a dialogue with you.

    I agree with you that there is a misuse of terms. Yet to see this misuse of terms as an incorrect labeling of a phenomenon is to chase a symptom instead of engaging its cause. I would argue that our misuse of terms arises from how, we in western culture, confuse the epistemological and the ontological together: undergirding western culture, whether scientific or religious, is a belief that right knowing will equate to right being. But in reality, knowing is different from being. Not without connection though; we differentiate a heart from lungs because they’re separate in terms of function and underlying logic. Still without the other organ in place, neither can exist.

    Knowing is an activity conducted from the epistemological domain while faith and certainty are both activities conducted from our ontological domain. In the epistemological we ask how do we know? In the ontological we ask, how do we act? and, who are we in this world? When we act on our ontological questions, we will decide and act from a personal interior environment that we could characterize as faith or certainty.

    Certainty and faith belong in the same set together because they condition our acting not our knowing (to a point- ‘heart and lungs’). This is where and how I see you misusing terms, and where this turns ironic.

    Whenever a situation exists where we have complete knowledge, we can utilize certainty. Case closed. Whenever we we are involved in a situation where our knowledge is incomplete, we have to utilize faith. For instance, were we certain that Kepler would launch successfully into orbit before it got there? No. Did we believe or in other words, have faith in its possibility? Of course. Otherwise we wouldn’t have launched it. Some situations lend themselves to certainty. Some, if not most, require our use of faith. Confusing the two wreaks all sorts of havoc that you described so well.

    Proper faith is a brilliant strategy with which to act through situations where it’s impossible to attain complete knowledge (such as the Kepler launch) because faith by its nature keeps an empty chair at the table for new knowledge. Certainty tends to remove empty chairs. The huge irony is that those to whom you described above as retrogressive, are really utilizing certainty. Not faith.

    The proper question to ask anyone improperly engaged in certainty is to ask them if they deem themselves large enough to know their object of certainty completely. And if they are wise enough to acknowledge their comparative smallness, we can ask them where their empty chair is stored.

  8. Mike Gottschalk

    @Adam and a continuation of my last comment.

    In my own quest to alleviate the curse of certainty, I’ve engaged in rescuing another concept in jeopardy- faith. Faith is a vital human dynamic, that properly exercised, helps us guard against delusions. To be at home in this world through the means of the faith of which I describe above, is to also be at home with ignorance. Because inherent in the proper concept of faith is the concept of trust. Faith and trust are intertwined; I can’t believe in something that I don’t trust and neither can I trust something that I don’t believe in. Without trust there can’t be faith and without faith, people often compensate for its absence with a misapplication of certainty. But ignorance threatens certainty. So if all I have is certainty -and my sense of self is intertwined in my certainties- then any change to my certainty feels like a threat to my existence. An existentially induced delusion that proper faith avoids because faith is a good friend with ignorance.

    What I see you insightfully alluding to Adam, is that certainty can be an underlying strategy used by people to get themselves out of bed and face a big scary world. Therefore, being more than some mistaken cognitive function of logic, a nuanced discussion of certainty will entail a discussion of what real human need does certainty fulfill? And are there better ways of fulfilling this need?

    I’m admiring the humility in which you’re approaching this curse of certainty. I wish the curse and its sideways expressions could be transformed by something akin to simply adopting a different algorithm. The problem with this wish though, is that if such a solution were possible, then it might mean that Human Being isn’t that much more than a Macintosh.

  9. BobK

    One more well intentioned jab at Adam’s post and one clarification of my earlier comments:

    First the jab. I have never heard any scientist say or imply that all truth must come from narrow reductionism. My understanding of reductionism is that it is a tool used to increase understanding. If I see a phenomenon which I know little or nothing about and want to understand, one method which has proven effective is to discover the pheomena’s constituent parts and their listable attributes.

    While reductionism almost always yields a greater understanding, the understanding attained by simple, mechanical reductionism is not claimed by scientists to be the last word. A healthy dose of reductionism, however, is required as input for another tool commonly used by scientists: systems thinking, which adds knowledge about how a phenomenon’s constituent parts are related to each other and act in concert to produce the observed phenomena.

    Phase transitions are a good example. Take the transition of water to ice. One is highly unlikely to achieve a thorough understanding of this phase transition without applying reductionism to both water and ice, but reductionism alone will not lead to an understanding of the water/ice phase transition and I know of no scientist who would claim otherwise.

    Another important tool for the advancement of scientific knowledge is the unexpected leap of insight – the “Eureka!” experience – as in the vision of two snakes wound around each other leading to the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule. No scientist worth his or her salt (pun intended) would claim the brain reached a eureka insight by a process of pure (unconcious) reductionism alone.

    A valid caution regarding reductionism would be that it’s over use may lead to diminishing benefit. For example it’s probably not necessary to describe water and ice in terms of string theory to understand the water/ice phase transition. If a good understanding of the behavior of subatomic particles over a range of temparatures can adequately explain the water/ice phase transition, then it would be fair to criticize a scientist who rejects the explanation and stubbornly continues to apply reductionism to absurdity.

    But common sense argues against limiting reductionism for fear of being accused of being too narrow and reductionist as the author’s post suggests. Newton’s use of reductionism lead to a perfectly adequate description of how gravity works. But it was further reductionism of the relevant phenomena which revealed it’s limitations and lead to Einstein’s acheivement of a deeper understanding of gravity. Another good example would be Darwin’s theory of evolution prior to the discovery of genetics. In that case, reductionism in the field of chemistry lead to a deeper understanding of evolution.

    ‘Nuff said on that topic. Now for the promised clarification:

    I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that no good can come from finding a common language and common ground between moderates in science and religion. I actually applaud and encourage that. Specifically, I believe that sort of discourse is beneficial in a wide range of topics such as global warming, stem cell research and even common social concerns – as in the goal of making abortion rare but safe and the need for population control via family planning and birth control, where science can inform the opinions of religious moderates.

    My earlier diatribe was intended to address the narrower issue of terrorism and the fundamentalist war on science addressed by Dawkins and Harris – which cannot and should not be minimized by throwing the few scientists willing to address those issues publicly, under the bus.

    (BTW: my assumption that Adam is referring to Dawkins/Harris in his post is based on his comments during the question/answer period last night after his talk at the University Book Store in Seattle, which I attended and thoroughly enjoyed)

    @Mike: if you read this in anticipation of a response to your reply to me, my apologies. Thank you for the compliment and interesting read. I’ll reply later today or tomorrow with what I hope will be some challenging thoughts which I think continue to relate directly to Adam’s original post.

  10. Mike Gottschalk

    @Bob:I like what you have to say about scientists using methods of reduction in understanding underlying processes. I’d like to explain what I liked.

    A trend that I palpably feel in the day to day making of our lives together is one of reducing human living to simple algorithms which can be reliably executed and replicated without much thought. I don’t know that we appreciate being human as an art. At least it seems to me that science is driven to replace the art with something analogous to step by step instructions- as if knowing all there was to know about the mechanics of a Ferarri contains the experience of driving it at speed on a track.

    In your above defense for the use of reduction, I saw you voicing trust in the art of being human and in such art, we can utilize reduction without distorting a reality. I know this comment only approaches this topic of certainty obliquely, never the less, it touches a huge concern of mine in this dialogue: how do we grow in our art to be human? How do we develop a hunger for wisdom over algorithms? I definitely look at reductionism with a finer eye having read your comments.

  11. “The harder we clamp down in the name of certainty, the more likely we are to end up with unyielding intolerance in one form or another—which is not likely to help much with the large, looming and potentially lethal challenges we face.” I thought that was worth repeating. Certainty seems to have been some sort of a key to unlocking this discussion. Great discussion! I think many people are uncomfortable with ambiguity and need to learn how to be but it should not be ignored that the religious have historically had their doubts as well as those scientific. And I have met people who claimed with certainty that science was the only way to think as well. As ecological/economic collapse deepens perhaps the non-essential beliefs will be left behind or at least rendered unimportant enough to cause trouble in light of our circumstances.

  12. BobK

    @Mike: Unforunately, I’m having difficulty following a lot of what you’ve written here, probably because my primary exposure to philosophy is limited to discussions around atheism. I think our understanding of the words “certainty” and “faith” is quite different.

    In my view the word “certainty” is not equivalent to “absolute certainty”. I would argue that your use of the term certainty renders the term “absolute certainty” an oxymoron – but it isn’t. The related term “degree of certainty” has meaning and is often used to describe the confidence brought to bare on a proposition by the available evidence.

    I understand “faith” to mean belief without evidence. It can also mean belief in spite of evidence to the contrary. Thus where there is evidence, there is no need of faith. In a sense, the need for faith is inversely proportionate to the available evidence. When we choose to believe a proposition, the more evidence we have for the proposition, the less faith is required to reasonably hold the proposition to be true.

    I think the scientific endeavor is different in that scientists base their degree of certainty about a proposition on the availability and reliability of the evidence, but actively avoid filling the gaps in knowledge with faith. That is why it’s not uncommon to hear scientists say they are not absolutely certain about anything. Which of course is seen and leveraged as a weakness by religious fundamentalists in their war on science.

    There are a couple of cases where “absolute certainty” about a proposition is valid. The first case is tautological statements, and the second is “by definition”.

    It is this second sense in which I am certain to a high degree (never absolutely certain because you can never prove a negative) that there is no god. Thus far I have never heard a definition of god that is logically possible – other than the redundant case where “god” is defined in completely naturalistic terms like “god is the sum total of the natural universe” or “god is simply everything that exists”.

    For example, Christians believe that God is omniscient AND they believe this God has given freewill to mankind. Those attributes contain a logical contradiction. Apologists try to get around this by saying that we really make decisions even though He knows our decisions before we make them. But obviously we can never make a diiferent choice than the one God knew before hand we would make. The only way to save free will in this arrangement is to emasculate what is meant commonly understood by the term “free will”. There is also a moral implication here because we are punished for making the wrong choices – for example choosing not to believe in God. So acording to the Chistian definition of God, a person may be doomed to an eternity in hell for say, the sin of being an atheist millenia before he or she is ever born!

    Believing in a god which, by definition, embodies this and many more logical contradictions takes faith, which as I have suggested is belief without evidence – or more accurately in this case, belief in spite of contrary evidence in the form of logic applied to the claimed/definitional attributes.

    I doubt Adam intended for his post to be the jumping off point for a debate about the exisence of god, so I won’t pursue this any further. I just wanted to clarify my understanding of the terms certainty versus faith which make it difficult for me to understand your point based on your usage of those terms.


  13. Mike Gottschalk

    @BobK: Good morning Bob, I join you in your criticism of the simplistic ideas so many Christians have about god and I would add about being human. This simplicity though, doesn’t preclude an intelligent discussion of ‘god’; I just think such a discussion is best done over a couple of beers when participants are willing to share in the imponderable awe of existence together.

    My interest in this dialogue that Adam has set up, hasn’t involved ideas of god as much as ideas of being and being human. This is where the concept of faith comes in. Faith is part of a word group that points to common but uniquely human dynamic of living with free will and uncertainty- or probabilities.

    Etymologically speaking, I’m using the words correctly. You seem comfortable in your usage of believe; well, believe is merely the verb form of the noun faith: I believe that I will return home from the pub is equivalent to I have faith that I will return home from the pub. However, inherent in this situation, is that you can’t be certain of your safe return until you are indeed home safely: that is unless you hook up a rheostat to the word certainty. You don’t have to hook up anything to the word group of, faith believe and trust, because they aptly fit their task of denoting our common experience of having to make judgments in situations of probabilities and commit to them.

    As I’ve written previously, crappy thinking is just that: crappy thinking. We don’t need to misapply another word like faith to replace words more appropriate to their task.

    To the extent one is willing to originate their action from an idea is the extent to which they believe in, or have faith in that idea, whether that idea embodies a trip to the pub or the non-existence of a god. Existentially speaking, we need to experience faith as much as we need to experience love and hope. Suicide bombers show us that. They also show us that intelligence with faith needs to become common practice. This is why I’m trying to rescue such an astute word group.

  14. Mike Gottschalk

    Oh- and regards to you Bob, sincerely. Thanks for the dialogue.

  15. “Thus far I have never heard a definition of god that is logically possible – other than the redundant case where “god” is defined in completely naturalistic terms like “god is the sum total of the natural universe” or “god is simply everything that exists”.

    So by this, Bob, are you saying that god does not exist and no larger conception of god is allowed? That religion is not allowed to evolve a bigger view based on further evidence but science is? Do atheists insist on all conceptions of god being a ‘supernatural god’ so they can deride the idea that they themselves cling to? I think we need to get beyond the debate in order to engender a sustainable worldview that can enrich the human experience as well as the rest of the species by moving forward in both science and religion. Not being very well versed in either religious or scientific study I wonder, how is consciousness is considered by science?

    I was in a conversation with someone recently who was worried about the future and cited “The Tragedy of the Commons” as scientific evidence that I’d better start getting guns and ammo to protect my food garden and timber. Natural science of course is full of evidence to the contrary, that cooperation is a better survival strategy than conflict.

  16. PeterS

    Adam you say “… some essential creative response to the world is lost…” as the result of dogma of whatever kind.

    This is a powerful insight which was also brought home to me by Edward de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats where he proposes a way of deliberately adopting alternative points of view as a means of breaking away from dogmatic responses and stimulating creative responses instead. The hats are an easily understood metaphor for the practice of deliberately adopting different points of view.

    If I am really honest with myself I must admit that for the most part I have only one or two ‘thinking hats’ in my wardrobe and therefore my ‘creative response to the world’ is limited to certain outcomes.

    So thank you for the timely reminder that I must stock up on more thinking hats in my intellectual wardrobe so that I can broaden my range of creative responses to the world.

    You characterise the creative response to the world as ‘essential’ and this is what I think makes your insight so powerful.

  17. Another issue I’ve had in recent times is my sister. She is confident that she can actually exit her physical body every night (better known as “astral projection”), and when I am permitted to have my say, she ignores me half of the time, and the other time merely plugs her ears. When it comes to belief, all that those who believe have is certainty. Without it, they are mere shells of their former selves (I don’t speak of this aftermath as being ubiquitous, but instead a local phenomena-wyoming is filled with conservatives). In the cases I have observed, people robbed of their certainty (and let’s face it-that’s way too easy) are lost puppies. The ground I take on this matter is to leave them alone, unless they are genuinely open to reason. ..which is VERY rare.

  18. Peter, thanks for pointing Edward de Bono’s book out. As an architect I tend to express that idea with a drawing; The more viewpoints one can integrate into one the more realistic the perspective, …to a point. As “a way of deliberately adopting alternative points of view as a means of breaking away from dogmatic responses and stimulating creative responses instead” Jim Rough’s work with Dynamic Facilitation is showing great promise in getting people to really sit and listen to each other, wear their hat so to speak, and is bringing people together over some divisive issues. I think with the issues of climate, corruption and energy we face that is very important and we need much more of it so communities can be communities hopefully getting beyond the science/religion debate, as well as a few others dealing with beliefs. After all we can’t eat words, can we?

  19. BobK

    @Howard: Your putting words in my mouth. Of course religions can evolve their conceptions of god over time. That is exactly what has happened throughout history. It is, however redundant to define god only in terms of natural phenomena. No one needs my permission to look at the universe (or a box of cheerios) and call that god. Just don’t expect me to go along with that by referring to those things as god. But it is a bit inconvenient for religion that the concept of god has evolved so significantly and so publicly over the millenia. It’s good evidence that god is a human construct and not an apriori idea or entity that we simply discovered.

    Although his work has largely been refuted on various grounds, Julian Jaynes’ book. “The Origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” covers a lot of the evolution of the cocept and experience of god(s) over the millenia and has some interesting things to say about anomalous experimces we have today and how they might relate to brain evolution.

    In regards to conciousness, I would highly recommend Daniel Dennett’s Conciousness Explained – although you may not be comfortable with his naturalistic explanation.


  20. Mike Gottschalk

    @BobK, Howard: Since we’re throwing out book suggestions, I’ll toss in David Bohm’s “Wholeness and the Implicate Order. He makes the case that the basis of reality isn’t found at the atomistic levels of observation and understanding per se, rather, the atomistic or -distinct bodies- unfold from a wholeness in a state of constant flux of enfolded order. He includes the math for you math heads. I’ve been working with Bohm’s ideas for a few years now and it wasn’t until I read Byer’s “How Mathematicians Think” did I really get the = sign and understand the significance of Bohm’s Ideas.

    The question, “does god exist?” is as obsolete as theism itself. For us who choose to live as adults with genuine thoughtfulness, the question is a compound question that goes something like this.

    Is Human Being the novel pinnacle of intelligence, or does this intelligence reside in the wholeness from which we emerge? Does Human Being generate its intelligence that we could consider novel to the universe, or does it participate in intelligence that we would consider enfolded into the flux that is our universe? Would it be useful for us to distinguish ‘being’ from ‘existing’? What is the nature of aliveness?

    A brief synopsis. If E=mc2 is true, and the = sign is profoundly significant and not trivial, then all that is, stems from this “acorn” if you will. Included would have to be intelligence and consciousness etc. Within the signal structures of this flux from which we emerge, all potential orders are broadcast. What can be received from this ‘broadcast’ first depends on a being’s ‘appliance’ for reception if you will: I receive signals that squirrels can’t because of brain differences. In Human Being, we have other apperatices for reception, something beyond an appliance- we also have theories and ideas. Here, Bohm rightly corrects a typical use of theory by arguing that they are not entities to be proven right or wrong; they are more like tools that let us see into something. They are our means of insight. They may be effective in one domain and not another: Quantum mechanics is not a more complete theory than Newtonian mechanics but they each serve their domains well. I think this is a better context for discussing ideas about god and naturalism.

    Bob, Dennett explains only some of the underlying mechanics of some of our of consciousness. But he doesn’t explain the phenomenon of consciousness itself. He can’t. No one can: just as no one can explain the existence of matter, energy, god or life itself. Dennett can describe some of the mechanics that transpire as we participate in consciousness, but this does not equal explaining consciousness the phenomenon. I swear- scientists can use the concept, ‘explain’ with the same sophistication of the middle age Christians who saw demons behind every illness. The conflation of description with explanation is another barrier to the creativity we need in our time; the populace is lulled by the opiate that science has everything under explanation: instead of creativity being democratized, creativity is attributed to the priesthood of experts. Likewise, the concept ‘natural’ is bandied about with the same dulled non-chalance of, ‘ god made it.’ If you’re interested in peer criticism of Dennett et al, see Merlin’s ‘A Mind So Rare’. He’s a neuro-biologist and researcher from Canada. I think we get valuable insights from Atheism Bob, but I want to utilize other theories as well to see into and experience the fullness of being.

    Just a note: I didn’t raise the question of god. And Peter, I’m predominantly a green hat so I know first hand how much I need others with their non-green hats. I’m surprised to see his ideas pop up again. I’m glad.

    Thanks guys, lovin the dialogue.


  21. @Bob: I don’t mean to put words into your mouth. I am not at all attached to the word, or name, god, and I’m not insisting that you call the universe god, call it what you like. But why do you consider it so inconvenient for religion to accept such a view? I would think this is exactly what we want, to embrace science as a way to the truth. It sounds like you want to hold religion to this old place where it can be ridiculed instead of the bringing the debate to a resolution and allowing science and religion to evolve together. Why is it a problem to consider religion, not as some dogma or proscription, but simply as ones inner life relationship with the whole?

    I remember this horrible piece written after 9/11 called The Day Religion Died, I think, that spewed such hatred it sounded like fundamentalist atheism, even using some of the same terms. First of all it was absurd to imagine that religion had anything to do with the demolition of those buildings except as a useful scapegoat for political positioning to pursue a war for very non-religious reasons. My point is such anti-religious bigotry is as toxic as some religious fundamentalism can be.

  22. BobK

    I read a book by David Bohm close to 30 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact while reading Brian Greene’s “The Fabric of the Universe” recently, I remembered David Bohm’s description of two fluids of different viscosity slowly being stirred together and then being able to carefully unstir it back to it’s original configuration – showing that even though when stirred it appeared to have lost all of it’s original structure, that structure remained. I wondered if maybe something akin to that might be involved in quantum entanglement.

    Regarding Dennett’s inability to explain the phenomenon of conciousness: Yes! Exactly! Dennett is very clear about that. His point is that what we experience is the activity of a set of mechanisms and when all of those mechanisms are accounted for, there’s nothing left which needs to be explained. I have read some criticisms of Dennett, but not the one you mentioned. From what I’ve seen and read, he welcomes critcism and handles it well. To see a good example, check out his talk titled, “Is Evolution an Algorithmic Process” in which he adeptly responds to criticisms leveled by Gould, et al.

    I’m currently reading a book titled “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” and there is a chapter on free will which I think fits nicely with Dennett’s view in that regardless how strongly the impression is that we use free will to make sentient decisions, it’s pretty much an illusion. I find it especially compelling in light of relativity theory in which there are scenarios that violate no know laws of physics, where one observer can see another observer’s future. If we are to take that effect of relativity at face value (and we do! ie: the effect must be accounted for to keep GPS satallites in synch) then there is no reason to think there is a limit to how far into the other observer’s future one might peer. And as far as I know, once an observer has witnessed another observer’s future, that other observer is not free to change his own future. Someone has already seen it so how could any “act of free will” change that already observed future? (although the “multiverse” explanation might provide a way out in that the one observer just saw one of many possible futures of the other observer – but that just feels too extravagent to be true, and it nullifies free will since all possible decisions ARE made. Its also almost “anti-Bohm-ian” because when all possible things that could happen DO happen, Bohm’s ideas aren’t really necessary)

    Sorry I’ve gotten so far off Adam’s original topic here. It’s been an interesting discussion. Thanks!


  23. Mike Gottschalk

    @Howard and Bob: …’consider religion…simply as ones inner life reationship with the whole.’ Well said Howard; and Bob, I can imagine your frustration that could only be maddening when I consider what it must be like for you to watch a band of humans destroy life over beliefs, that anyone with common sense, would consider goofy. As an aspiring follower of christ, (I use lower case c to denote the non-religious person) I share in your fears.

    Howard, I think your views and spirit are correct; and Bob, behind our shared fear, I see your thoughtfulness. I hope you’ll join this dialogue with a willingness to shape as well as be shaped; insights no matter their form, when born in thoughtfulness are crucial to our human enterprise.

    I think I level some valid criticism toward science when scientists use the word explain in areas where, there will only ever be, description. Here, science pushes reason beyond its own boundaries: who among us can come up with a reason for anything to exist -including god- rather than
    nothing? Yet, here we are on a rock cruising through space, not knowing where we came from or where we’re going, while blythely chatting with each other over the True and Real in conditions that even allow for boredom and ignorance of the awe.

    God? Nature? Both are convenient handles to grab ahold a terrifying awe and make it bite-sized. Neither are sufficient. It’s impossible to make an awe of such immensity fit our bite; in the end, we can only make ourselves small enough for its bite. And so, this has been the religious question that science can’t eradicate: are we to trust this Awe, or are we to fear this Awe? Myself, I’ve found this Awe to be quite trustworthy: it’s the bite-sized awes that we have to be wary of.

  24. Mike Gottschalk

    @Bob after reading your last comment: Yes, far off Adam’s original post, but well within his mission: ah- the beauty of dialogue, I’m always amazed at where it leads, along with the connections it can engender. I’d like to continue the discussion of consciousness along the vein we are finding here. If you’re interested, my email is, This way we don’t have to compress it into the time constraints of a comment section. i.e. I may not come up with my next contribution on this topic for another month. I really like the input you gave me here.

  25. Mike Gottschalk

    @Bob, One more idea I want to throw in the mix here, is the phenomenon of consideration.

    I got an insight while reading in a NY Times Magazine article a couple years back in which the author described, that out of the 7 trillion cells in our bodies, only about 3 trillion were actually ours. I imagined all these other cells doing their thing. And as I did, I saw them carrying out their wills. As I extrapolated this out into the rest of the animal kingdom, I recognized that when it comes to will, there are other animals with wills much stronger than human will- a big game cat for example.

    And that’s when it hit me- while we measure will in terms of power, for human being, we have to measure it in terms of consideration. Power of will is common to all living species; considering is unique to human levels of consciousness. To say will can be free like markets can be free is misleading.; while the lion’s share of human being is determined, I think there somehow exists an actual space in which to engage this phenomenon real consideration

  26. Patrick

    Mike, You’re absolutely right about consideration. It may be the only thing that makes us unique in the animal kingdom. It is hard to apply this virtue to all hominids because consideration implies the use of logic, reasoning, and not only awareness of one’s self, but awareness of others and an interest in their needs. I believe this is why many people need to be told what to do. They become so overwhelmed with life that they forget that other people have things to do.
    I believe it was Plato who speculated the world only existed in one’s line of sight, which is exactly how 75% of the world seems to think. Driving in traffic is a prime example. How many times have you been delayed by one individual, who, without obvious reason, seems hell-bent on bottlenecking the flow of traffic? Is it a sadistic need to interfere with the schedules of others, or is it sheer negligence? Which is worse?

  27. Mike Gottschalk

    Patrick, you’re reminding me of a joke-

    A masochist, jonesin’ for some serious pain hooks up with his buddy who he knows to be radically sadistic. Trembling with the shakes of deprivation, the masochist begs his sadist friend for pain- “any pain man, just make me hurt!” The masochist closed his eyes and winced- waiting for the battering blows. Meanwhile, the sadist folded his arms and standing with the confidence of power, simply and smugly said, “no.”

  28. Mike Gottschalk

    I’m glad you see the significance of considering Patrick; I think it gets overlooked as a real phenomenon.

  29. Patrick

    There really are beasts among men.

  30. Steen

    @Adam. Certainty is many things. 2+2=4. 3+1=4 1+3=4. Does that lead to Holy War? Given that you are in Seattle, I encourage you to take a tour over to your illustrious University of Washington and visit the behavioral health department. Track down Marsha Linehan, who has developed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (strongly rooted in Faith and Mindfulness), where “Dialectical” refers to what also is known as “Radical Acceptance,” the knowledge that two opposites can be true at the same time. You really HATE your kid because he just wrecked your car, but you also LOVE your kid because it is your kid. And yes, two completely different and contradictory beliefs/feelings can exist at the same time in the same mind and not be contradictory.

    You can KNOW that God created the world you live in, and you can KNOW that we are all stardust and life arose and evolved through biochemical processes. And you can know both with absolute certainty at the same time.

    So the ultimate, all-encompassing answer might just be that it is all “true,” that everybody are right at the same time. It is not necessarily a zero-sum outcome.

  31. God has been proven to exist based upon the most reserved view of the known laws of physics. For much more on that, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

    F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers,” Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything,” arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

    Out of 50 articles, Prof. Tipler’s above paper was selected as one of 12 for the “Highlights of 2005″ accolade as “the very best articles published in Reports on Progress in Physics in 2005 [Vol. 68]. Articles were selected by the Editorial Board for their outstanding reviews of the field. They all received the highest praise from our international referees and a high number of downloads from the journal Website.” (See Richard Palmer, Publisher, “Highlights of 2005,” Reports on Progress in Physics website.)

    Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists. Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal (one, incidently, which Prof. Tipler has been published in more than once). A journal’s impact factor reflects the importance the science community places in that journal in the sense of actually citing its papers in their own papers. (And just to point out, Tipler’s 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper could not have been published in Physical Review Letters since said paper is nearly book-length, and hence not a “letter” as defined by the latter journal.)

    See also the below resources for further information on the Omega Point Theory:

    Theophysics: God Is the Ultimate Physicist (a website on GeoCities)

    Tipler is Professor of Mathematics and Physics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Profs. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point Theory has been published in a number of prestigious peer-reviewed physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world’s leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters B, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

    Prof. John A. Wheeler (the father of most relativity research in the U.S.) wrote that “Frank Tipler is widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics” on pg. viii in the “Foreword” to The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) by cosmologist Prof. John D. Barrow and Tipler, which was the first book wherein Tipler’s Omega Point Theory was described. On pg. ix of said book, Prof. Wheeler wrote that Chapter 10 of the book, which concerns the Omega Point Theory, “rivals in thought-provoking power any of the [other chapters].”

    The leading quantum physicist in the world, Prof. David Deutsch (inventor of the quantum computer, being the first person to mathematically describe the workings of such a device, and winner of the Institute of Physics’ 1998 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his work), endorses the physics of the Omega Point Theory in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997). For that, see:

    David Deutsch, extracts from Chapter 14: “The Ends of the Universe” of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997); with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler. Available on the Theophysics website.

    The only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to resort to physical theories which have no experimental support and which violate the known laws of physics, such as with Prof. Stephen Hawking’s paper on the black hole information issue which is dependent on the conjectured string theory-based anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence (AdS/CFT correspondence). See S. W. Hawking, “Information loss in black holes,” Physical Review D, Vol. 72, No. 8, 084013 (October 2005); also at arXiv:hep-th/0507171, July 18, 2005.

    That is, Prof. Hawking’s paper is based upon empirically unconfirmed physics which violate the known laws of physics. It’s an impressive testament to the Omega Point Theory’s correctness, as Hawking implicitly confirms that the known laws of physics require the universe to collapse in finite time. Hawking realizes that the black hole information issue must be resolved without violating unitarity, yet he’s forced to abandon the known laws of physics in order to avoid unitarity violation without the universe collapsing.

    Some have suggested that the universe’s current acceleration of its expansion obviates the universe collapsing (and therefore obviates the Omega Point). But as Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner point out in “Geometry and Destiny” (General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999), there is no set of cosmological observations which can tell us whether the universe will expand forever or eventually collapse.

    There’s a very good reason for that, because that is dependant on the actions of intelligent life. The known laws of physics provide the mechanism for the universe’s collapse. As required by the Standard Model, the net baryon number was created in the early universe by baryogenesis via electroweak quantum tunneling. This necessarily forces the Higgs field to be in a vacuum state that is not its absolute vacuum, which is the cause of the positive cosmological constant. But if the baryons in the universe were to be annihilated by the inverse of baryogenesis, again via electroweak quantum tunneling (which is allowed in the Standard Model, as baryon number minus lepton number [B - L] is conserved), then this would force the Higgs field toward its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant and thereby forcing the universe to collapse. Moreover, this process would provide the ideal form of energy resource and rocket propulsion during the colonization phase of the universe.

    Prof. Tipler’s above 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper also demonstrates that the correct quantum gravity theory has existed since 1962, first discovered by Richard Feynman in that year, and independently discovered by Steven Weinberg and Bryce DeWitt, among others. But because these physicists were looking for equations with a finite number of terms (i.e., derivatives no higher than second order), they abandoned this qualitatively unique quantum gravity theory since in order for it to be consistent it requires an arbitrarily higher number of terms. Further, they didn’t realize that this proper theory of quantum gravity is consistent only with a certain set of boundary conditions imposed (which includes the initial Big Bang, and the final Omega Point, cosmological singularities). The equations for this theory of quantum gravity are term-by-term finite, but the same mechanism that forces each term in the series to be finite also forces the entire series to be infinite (i.e., infinities that would otherwise occur in spacetime, consequently destabilizing it, are transferred to the cosmological singularities, thereby preventing the universe from immediately collapsing into nonexistence). As Tipler notes in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity (pp. 49 and 279), “It is a fundamental mathematical fact that this [infinite series] is the best that we can do. … This is somewhat analogous to Liouville’s theorem in complex analysis, which says that all analytic functions other than constants have singularities either a finite distance from the origin of coordinates or at infinity.”

    When combined with the Standard Model, the result is the Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics.

  32. Steen

    Hey, James. Circular reasoning is pretty meaningless. Your argument is as bad as Pascal’s Wager.

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