Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Something From Nothing

Physicist Lawrence Krauss recently had an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) inspired by his participation in a panel discussion at the recent World Science Festival in New York City (and as an aside, I so wanted to be able to attend but was not able to) titled "Science, Faith and Religion."

Krauss refers to "J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, [who] understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science."

Krauss goes on to conclude "while scientific rationality does not require atheism, it is by no means irrational to use it as the basis for arguing against the existence of God, and thus to conclude that claimed miracles like the virgin birth are incompatible with our scientific understanding of nature."

As can be expected, Krauss's op-ed provoked a number of spirited responses in the Letters to the Editor page in the July 3rd edition of the Journal. Again, a subscription to the online edition of the Journal is needed to see the letters in their entirety.

First up is Catholic bishop William Lori, who maintains that science cannot "without ethical limits and respectful conversation with other disciplines, including the humanities and theology, can eventually explain all there is to know about human life and the universe in which we live."

Maybe so, but how can theology explain anything about the universe in which we live? And whose theology? This conceit rests on the assumption that certain people have had insights about our universe personally communicated to them by its creator. For example, before Galileo first peered into the night sky with his telescope, in what way were his observations informed by Catholic theology? Galileo in no way expected to see moons orbiting Jupiter, rings around Saturn, or sun spots on our sun.

What I would concede, though I don't expect my fellow atheists to agree with me, is that theology can provide a framework by which we can choose to see ourselves in relation to the universe, as well as to each other and our environment. But such a framework would be necessarily subjective.

Next in the firing line is one David Cartwright of Lake Zurich, Illinois. Cartwright evidently was too obtuse to understand Krauss's reference to Haldane when he asks "Atheism provides no foundation whatsoever for science. On what basis can an atheist assume there should or will be order in the universe? And when he sees order, where does he think it came from? And on what basis can he even trust his reason?"

On what basis? How about observation or experimentation? I would ask, in a universe with an interventionist god, how can we trust anything? After all, if the god of the Bible exists, I can't rule out the possibility that when I wake up tomorrow, the moon will orbit the Earth in the opposite direction or that a volcano will emerge here on Long Island, where there is no history of vulcanism.

Next, Cartwright burps out "Further, the atheist has no explanation for where the world came from, yet science indicates it had a beginning." I am going to be charitable and assume that Cartwright meant the "universe" instead of the "world," because science does have an explanation for where our world came from. In short, small particles orbiting the sun billions of years ago collided with one another to form protoplanets which continued to grow as they accreted more materials. Contrast that with the Biblical account in Genesis, which claims that the Earth was created by God and plants grew upon it before the creation of the sun around which the Earth orbits.

As for the universe, I am constantly amazed that a theist thinks that an atheist's inability to explain the origin of the universe means that the theist wins by default. Rather, to me, the two sides can be summed up as "God did it" versus "We can't be certain at the moment, but it is a fascinating and important subject and we expect that continued study will reveal more and more clues to how it happened."

Cartwright then goes on to roll out the popular canard that "atheists, if honest, will admit they have no basis for objective morals, or the dignity and freedom of man." And as I keep saying in response to this allegation, religious believers have no objective basis for morality either. What they subscribe to is a set of subjective beliefs that have been wrapped up in the guise of divine command to give them the appearance of objectivity. After all, if atheism is to be blamed for the Holocaust, then Christianity must be to blame for the vicious pogroms against the Jews during the Crusades and at various regions and time periods in Europe. When you believe that someone who does not share your religious beliefs is an enemy of god and deserves to suffer for an eternity in the afterlife, then I fail to see how you can believe in that other person's right to dignity and freedom.

Following Cartwright is Martin Bednar of North Stonington, Connecticut. Like Carwright, Bednar asks "If the universe was not ultimately created by an almighty God, then where did it come from? Without an eternal omnipotent being, Mr. Krauss must conclude that the universe, ultimately, came from nothing." But why limit ourselves to one omnipotent being? Maybe there is an entire race of higher beings who collectively created our universe. However, even if one eternal and omnipotent being created everything, it does not necessarily follow that this being picked our little speck of a planet in the vast cosmos to promise a patch of land in the Middle East to a man named Abraham, and then a couple of thousand years later this deity decides to impregnant a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee.

Bednar laments that under atheism, "the truth would always be a moving target and always relative, defined only by the individual or by the society the individual lives in." Well, I already addressed that above in response to Cartwright. That is always going to happen, no matter what moral system one lives under, because humanity will never reach a state where everyone agrees on everything which will last in perpetuity from then on. There will always be conflict between those who feel the system does not give them a fair shake and those who want to deny others a fair shake, or deny that inequity even exists, because they feel it would violate their own privileged position. And while the Catholic Church's requirement for celibacy for priests is viewed as a matter of immutable doctrine, if the number of Catholic priests continued to shrink until it threatened the very existence of the Church itself, does anyone really doubt that a future pope would not find some theological hook upon which to hang the newly conferred right of priests to marry in order to increase the number or priests? If this does occur at some point in the future, would it be fair to say that doctrinal truth was adjusting to a change in social conditions?

Now we turn to Brett Alder of San Diego, California. Alder claims that "It is a religious notion that 'all men are created equal.'" No, Mr. Alder. It is a secular notion that we are all to be equal under the law. It is a religious notion that we are created equal in the eyes of a loving god, though of course that equality seems subject to modification. What one believes about whether god exists or what god wants seems to make some people more equal than others according to the doctrines of various religions. Evangelical Christians believe that I as an atheist deserve to burn in hell. Muslims believe that I as an atheist deserve to burn in hell. Evangelical Christians believe that Muslims deserve to burn in hell, and Muslims feel likewise about the Christians. All I can say is that they are both equally deluded.

Lastly, there is Professor Thomas Woolley of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Woolley claims that it "is this Western religious belief in a reasoned creator that laid the foundation and became the catalyst for the scientific revolution, ultimately leading to the crowning of the modern priesthood of scientists." I have seen this argument before, that Christianity was necessary for bringing about the scientific revolution. To be honest, I have not devoted a lot of time to trying to come up with a response to this argument. But let's pretend it's true. It still does not prove that the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee who gave birth to a man who would perform miracles and rise from the dead. What it would suggest is that the intellectual climate in late medieval Christian Europe served as a scaffolding for erecting the edifice of scientific inquiry and advance. As with any building or structure that is constructed though, the scaffolding is eventually torn down and the structure still remains in place.

In parting, I wish to thank the gentlemen I quote above for giving me something to blog about.


Brett said...

Hi Tommy, Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my letter (among others). I spent a number of years as an atheist so I'm assuming that in general I see the world much like you do.

Please allow me to explain what I meant. You are right that equality under the law is a secular notion. I would argue that it's a secular notion with absolutely no basis in evolutionary biology or science, i.e. it does not follow from any empirical observation or scientific theory.

Therefore, you may call it secular, but a scientist could easily call it irrational (superstitious, religious etc.).

"All men created equal" being religious may seem like a stretch, but the liberal philosophers that inspired Jefferson to write this were heavily influenced by the judeo-christian tradition. The idea is a derivative of the view in Romans 2:11 that "For there is no respect of persons with God." A restatement of that scripture might be that, "God applies his law equally to all," which is very close to your phrasing (minus the God part).

In my search for truth, I did not find evidence of God in the Universe...but I also didn't find any basis for objective morality.

Anyway, thanks for letting me explain my viewpoint.

Tommykey said...

Hi Brett,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with me.

Anonymous said...

Simple conjecture.
"Nothing can be above thought"
Regardless of your rebuttal it is what you think. Therefore if all thinking stopped what would be left?

Brent said...

I have written a book that I believe clarifies the atheist position with the theist position. It can be found at I have proven that the universe is the ultimate free lunch in that at the root of everything is Nothing. But Nothing is not what we think it is. It is far larger and more inclusive than imagined. An experiment in Quantum Mechanics bears my position out and goes on to to show us how we are all connected. Finally I show that God is as much a part of us as we are a part of God, but that God is not what you think. I look forward to your feedback.