Scientists debate philosophers and theologians at CERN—but why?

Unlike some of my readers, I don’t dismiss all academic philosophy as worthless. The discipline imparts the tools of logic and throught that can clarify questions and bring contradictions to light. I think it’s of most value in illuminating (but not necessarily solving) ethical problems and dilemmas, but of less value for working scientists.

But in an ongoing meeting in Geneva described by the BBC, its value would seem to be nil (the CERN-sponsored conference, which ends tomorrow, is called “The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?“)*

Worse: at this conference philosophy is rendered even more ineffectual by diluting it with theology—a form of intellectual homeopathy. As the BBC reports:

Some of Europe’s most prominent scientists have opened a debate with philosophers and theologians over the origins of everything.

The event, in Geneva, Switzerland, is described as a search for “common ground” between religion and science over how the Universe began.

It will focus on the Big Bang theory.

The conference was called by Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in the wake of its Higgs boson discovery.

And, at the outset, the the theologian-philosophers parade their hauteur, trying to tell physicists that they’re doing it rong (Pinsent, mentioned below, has degrees in physics and philosophy and is on the theology faculty at Oxford):

The first speaker at the conference was Andrew Pinsent, research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University.

He said that science risked “trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

“Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas,” he told the BBC.

“Einstein began by asking the kinds of questions that a child would ask, like what would it be like to ride on a beam of light.”

That, Dr Pinsent said, was what science should return to.

Not so good for producing ideas? That claim is what comes out of the south end of a horse facing north.  First of all, many scientists do engage with religion and philosophy, but I suspect the kind of engagement Pinsent wants is not debate (as occurs on this site), but mutual back-patting.

And in the case of this conference, that engagement is useless. What do theologians, or philosophers for that matter, have to say about the origin of the universe that’s of any value to scientists? Any “philosophizing” about things like multiverses can be done perfectly well by scientists on their own.

The stuff about “turning society into a machine” is alarmist hype; nothing like that would happen without the vaunted “dialogue”, even if all scientists buried themselves in their labs like hermit.

Finally, who the hell does Pinsent think he is telling scientists that we’re not coming up with new ideas in the right way? Isn’t string theory a remarkable imaginative achievement, even if we can’t yet test it?  So is the idea of multiverses; and Lee Smolin‘s theory of “cosmological natural selection” is highly original, even if it proves to be wrong.

Sadly, the BBC article doesn’t report any dissent, or pushback, by scientists. It reports only annoying statements by philosopher and theologians, and one rump-osculating statement by the director of CERN:

Prof Rolf Heuer, director of Cern, explained that the Higgs results provided a “deeper insight and understanding of the moments after the Big Bang”.

He added that he hoped, by the end of the conference, that delegates from very different backgrounds would be able to “start to discuss the origin of our Universe”.

Yeah, but only scientists will be able to make progress in understanding the origin of our universe.  The rest of the attendees will stare at their navels and aver that scientists can’t answer the Really Big Questions, like why there was a Big Bang:

Co-organiser Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, said that the Higgs particle “raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer”.

“They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers,” he added.

No they don’t. That’s a waste of time, and gives theologians and philosophers unwarranted credibility in what is a purely scientific problem. That looks good on their c.v.s, but not so good on the physicists’. As scientists’ efforts continue to shrink the bailiwicks of both philosophy and, especially, theology, practitioners of these disciplines are desperate to retain a seat at the Big Table and anxious to show that they, too, have something to contribute to the progress of science.

The thing is, they don’t. Philosophy of science is a meta-discipline, which can analyze the sociology of our field, often in enlightening ways, but hasn’t, as far as I can see, contributed to science’s progress. Yes, insofar as scientists themselves ruminate about the meaning of their achievements (philosophers love to count this as philosophy), that leads to progress. But with few exceptions (for me, Dennett and Kitcher, because they know a lot about evolution), formal academic philosophy of science has not advanced science itself. Most honest philosophers of science will admit this. And of course theology is useless for advancing knowledge—it only impedes science by confusing the public and raising “science stoppers” like the fine-tuning argument and the claim that morality implies a God.

This is what you get when a conference is co-organized by a physicist and a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury: a few shreds of meat floating around in a bowl of porridge:

The organisers are expecting some disagreements during the three-day event.

For example, one of the speakers, Prof John Lennox from Oxford University, has been an outspoken critic of atheist scientists in the past.

Most recently, he took issue with Prof Stephen Hawking’s assertion that God did not create the Universe.

In an article in the Daily Mail, he said that he was certain that Prof Hawking was wrong.

Prof Lennox wrote: “When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?”

Well, maybe it lit itself, Dr. Lennox? Have you ruled out that possibility?

But the theologian-philosphers press on, like kids who beg to sit at the adults’ table at Thanksgiving:

Dr Wilton, though, said he was hopeful that “scientists, theologians and philosophers alike might gain fresh insights from each other’s disciplines”

“This is such an exciting conference,” he told the BBC.

For him, maybe. He gets the cachet of getting to debate real scientists and pretending that he has something meaningful to say to them. But the conference isn’t so exciting for physicists.

And since when did the estimable scientific organization CERN start acting like the Templeton Foundation?

h/t: John, Matthew Cobb


*The answer is “no.” You can download a pdf of the conference program here; warning—it’s infuriating.


  1. cherrybombsim
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    “ ‘They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers,’ he added.”

    And also with astrologers, flint-knappers, airline pilots and all the rest of the people who have not studied particle physics, but have an intuitive knowledge of it.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:18 am | Permalink

      I think your list is missing the name of Deeprak Chopra. He’s necessary in order to explain all the Quantum Theory bits to everyone.

  2. Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Pinset’s concern that science will turn ‘society into a machine’ is related to John Seale’s philosophical objection to any neurobiology of consciousness. Searle’s worry was that science will make consciousness disappear! I am not kidding around. He thought that if a science reduces a macro phenomenon to a micro phenomenon, then the macro phenomenon is not real or disappears. Using this conception of ‘reduction’, he then reasoned that because it is observably obvious that conscious thoughts and feelings are real, they cannot be reduced to neurobiology.

    Searle is wrong. His misunderstanding trades on an idiosyncratic understanding of reduction, where it is expected that in science, reductions make macro phenomenon disappear, which is typically not true: Temperature was reduced to mean molecular kinetic energy, but no one expects that temperature therefore ceased to be real or became scientifically disrespectable or redundant. Scientific explanations of phenomenon do not typically make them disappear. Thus, the reduction of a macro phenomenon means only that there is an explanation of the phenomenon.

    I hope this demonstrates the value of philosophy! :)

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      Re Searle, sometimes I just cannot understand how people’s minds (however constituted!) work, how they can just be so obviously (not even) rong!

      Did the germ theory of disease make diseases disappear? Did quantum theory make chemistry disappear? Did the discovery of DNA make heredity disappear? Sheesh!


      • Sastra
        Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Well, when I found out that the face in the mirror was nothing more than a reflection of myself, both my doppelganger and an entire looking-glass world just disappeared like — poof!

    • raven
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      I hope this demonstrates the value of philosophy!

      Science is notorious for removing the mystery from life. It’s a real tragedy to some people.

      1. Why did half my kids die before they reached 5 years ?

      2. Why did the potato plants turn black and die?

      3. Why did the Black Plague kill 1/3 of us?

      4. Why did overgrazing our hillside pastures cause landslides?

      5. Why isn’t there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? For that matter, what causes the rainbow?

      6. Why didn’t Columbus fall off the edge of the earth?

      • FastLane
        Posted October 16, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Magnets. How the fuck do they work?!?! ;)

  3. Modeler
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Permalink


    > “Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas,”

    I could not disagree more. Arguably the key thing – the very essence – about science is that it produces (and evaluates) ideas. I think it’s *engineering* and business that produces stuff, and that comes after science (although engineering does often offer up questions and discoveries of new behaviour to the scientists for further experimentation and cogitation).

    I personally have had many very thought-provoking conversations with philosophers, and they the ideas engendered have definitely improved both my personal development and the ability to think critically. Dan Dennett’s work on thought, mind and AI in particular shows that philosophy combined with evidence can be a very powerful combination.

    I think it’s the theologians that are the worms in the apple-barrel.

    • Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Totally agree with you, Modeler.

      Your point is especially pertinent to neurobiology of consciousness. Since neurobiology is a young science, and has not yet produced a general theory of brain function, what is urgently needed in consciousness studies are prototheories which fruitfully combine philosophical imagination (yes, I did say that), and extant neurobiology. These primitive theories may become explanatorily powerful once the neurobiology of consciousness firms up and matures.

      • Modeler
        Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Permalink


        I’m certainly not against philosophical imagination if it comes up with ideas that are consistent with reality and are testable.

        Heck, many scientific advances occurred through accidents and even dreams (Kekule’s dream of the mysterious ouroboros solving the structure of benzene springs to mind). So ideas coming from pure mental logic seem positively scientific…

        • Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:58 am | Permalink

          As Deutsch notes, “… knowledge consists of conjectured explanations — guesses about what really is (or really should be, or might be) out there in all those worlds. Even in the hard sciences, these guesses have no foundations and don’t need justification. Why? Because genuine knowledge, though by definition it does contain truth, almost always contains error as well. So it is not ‘true’ in the sense studied in mathematics and logic. Thinking consists of criticising and correcting partially true guesses with the intention of locating and eliminating the errors and misconceptions in them…”

          Dream, intuition, flights of fancy, thought experiments, are all valid ways of coming up with hypotheses. Where science differs from theology is that those are exposed to criticism and correction by analysing their explanatory power, applying Occam’s razor (parsimony) and finally empirical falsification (in principle), rather than just saying, “of course, yes, that must be it”.


        • eric
          Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:39 am | Permalink

          Nor, really, is any (good) scientist. Hypothesis formation in science is completely open – you can get your ideas from anywhere.

          Add to Kekule, for example, the story of Newton sitting under an apple tree or Archimedes in the bath tub. Whether these stories are true or not, they point of them is to show that it doesn’t really matter where or how you get your ideas. Read them from a holy book, shake a magic 8-ball, meditate on a mountaintop – doesn’t matter. Just get them…then test them.

          One of the key traits distinguishing science from theology (or possibly philosphy, though I won’t defend that strongly), is how hypotheses are treated. Specifically, in science, the source of an hypothesis does not lend it any special credibility. Hypotheses you get out of a holy book are treated just like hypotheses you get while sitting in the bath tub.

          • Modeler
            Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink


            A lot of theology is not ideas creation – it is using language to ‘explain’ how the religious text and tradition is somehow correct in the face of advancing knowledge and obvious contradiction. For example, where the point is made that the ‘day’ in Genesis creation myth is apparently compatible with a period of time, perhaps even billions of years.

            Only at a stretch could this be considered a hypothesis – it makes few if any predictions and so is not directly falsifiable. If is just a new ‘just-so’ version of the myth.

            While this theological approach technically is producing ideas, they are not in the same class as the hypotheses you and I listed from history.

            From my computer science background, I would say theology ‘hacks’ science and religion to work together or to overcome some inherent contradiction in their lore: Rarely these hacks are elegant, but their essence is still a kludge. Sometimes I would go as far to say the hacks are very clever, but almost as an insult.

            OTOH, science is about the creation and refinement of the different programs and processes in an increasingly competent operating system. Most programs and processes are elegant – some are extremely powerful – and most interface with other programs rather well. There are hacks present (for example the cosmological constant was a hack), but as knowledge increases these hacks seem to be replaced with ever more elegant code.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

          (Kekule’s dream of the mysterious ouroboros solving the structure of benzene springs to mind)

          So Kekule dreamt up Dave Lister?

  4. Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    Stenger keel hauls theology by noting that the world looks as it does without God, and were it different, then God, but no,Lamberth’s the ignostic-Ockham reduces God to either a square cirlce or despite Alister Earl McGraath, a useless redundancy. The Ockham makes him such in that He has complex,convoluted ad hoc assumptions whilst naturalism fits reality.
    Aquinas keel hauls theism with his superfluity argument, which boomerangs on his five failed ways. Percy Bysshe Shelley notes:” To suppose that some existence beyond, or above them [ the descriptions-laws- of nature,L.G.] is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis for what is already accounted for.” To then clain that the argument rests on a category mistake is to beg the question thereof.
    For that simple-minded superfluity people murder others!
    That superfluity is no more than reduced animism as Lamberth’s reduced animism argument notes about theism as superstitious as full animism as no intent lies behind either [ the C.-M.L. mechanism argument] abd as Kanberthls argynebt from pareidolia notes, people see intent and design when only mechanism and patterns exist. Scientists are investigating how people see patterns and pareidolias as patterns.Peope see the superstitious pariedolias like people see the man in the Moon or Yeshua on a tortilla.
    That pareidolia, that superfluity makes me a gnu atheist. No intent and no need exists for that superfluity as any kind of explanation.
    Theology is the subject without a subject.
    Theists use misinterpretations of evidence for evidence!

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 2:58 am | Permalink

      Alex Vilenkin, in “Many Worlds in One” 2006, explains how the multiverse must originate in a singular state, and describes how that state can be accounted for by “tunneling” from “nothing”. This is from his last page:

      “The tunneling process is governed by the same fundamental laws that describe the subsequent evolution of the universe. It follows that the laws should be ‘there’ even prior to the universe itself… The laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations. If the medium of mathematics is the mind, does this mean that mind should predate the universe?”

      Whatever the answer to that last question, the need to ask the question demonstrates that serious physicists/cosmologists do not regatd an explanation for the laws as “superfluous”, unlike the teenage poet Shelley – who was a pantheist later in his short life.

  5. Jim Jones
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    “He said that science risked “trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.”

    When religion held total sway it produced a world infested with fear, torture and murder, where life was brutish and short. In parts of the world where religion still trumps all, the same conditions still apply.

    I’ll take the science-machine world over the witch torturing and murdering world all day long.

  6. Posted October 15, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Lamberth’s argument from pareidolia
    “Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr.Griggs
    [[ Fr, Rabbior Lord Griggs; Naturalist or Rationalist or Skeptic Griggs; Carneades- Thales- Strato ]
    Yes, Billy Grahams worships a simple-minded, superstitiouss uperfluity of woeful, wiley woo!

  7. Geoff Egan
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Oh well, whatcha gonna do?

    After all, Prof. Lennox’s views were published in the rigourously peer-reviewed Daily Mail.

    Give me a break.

  8. Fergus Gallagher
    Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    “I can’t find a CERN announcement of this three-day meeting, so it’s not clear from the report whether it’s actually begun.”

    You can find the info via the Wilton Park site:

    “MONDAY 15 – WEDNESDAY 17 OCT 2012

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink

      Posted above, thanks!

  9. Stonyground
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    “Who lit the blue touch paper if not God?”

    And where did God come from – Duh?

    • Ludo
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      Out of the stuff that dreams are made of…

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

      That’s the point. One of the theological/philosophical definitions of God is “First Cause” and (therefore) “Causa Sui” (self-caused). Science traditionally works by tracing a chain of causes (though determinism becomes fuzzy at the quantum/macro interface). To say the “blue touch-paper… lit itself” is a philosophical rather than scientific suggestion, a unique “event” which doesn’t fit into the determinist chain. Whatever resolution you prefer, there is certainly something in need of resolution.

      • Tyrant
        Posted October 16, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        “Whatever resolution you prefer, there is certainly something in need of resolution.”

        It’s not at all obvious to me that there is, really. Causes and causality are concepts we’ve invented to make sense of our universe. They don’t even really work in our universe at the microscopic level, why should they represent anything *outside* of it, whatever that means. It’s terribly simple to ask questions that sound deep but actually are nonsensical, and unless someone demonstrates that this (“what caused the universe” etc) is not one of them, that should be our default attitude towards it.

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted October 16, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

          No causation, no science. End of story.

          BTW At the quantum level the wave function evolves completely deterministically (so all quantum theorists tell us). It’s only in the transition from the wave function to the phenomenal world that there is a possible violation of strict determinism. That depends on which of the competing theories is adopted. Many Worlds (the front-runner?)and Hidden Variables, for example, are completely deterministic.

          • Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

            Particles can spontaneously be produced out of the quantum vacuum, entirely uncaused.

            • Tyrant
              Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

              Thinking about deterministic interpretations of Quantum Field Theory is really really unintuitive.

              I would say that unless shown otherwise, Occams razor compels us to assume that everything including observers simply evolves according to the Schrödinger equation (which is well-tested experimentally) all the time. Then you kind of get the many worlds interpretation out of this premise.

            • Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

              Measurable things occur. That’s all.

              1. We don’t know if-how they are caused
              2. We never be able to comprehend even if some such event-cause exists
              3. Time does not exist outside of our natural language and brain’s perceptual abilities

              In fact, apparently the ideas of before and after don’t really exist. We make ‘em up.

              To say something is “logical” simply means it follows local socially accepted conventions in language. Big whoop.

              • Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

                In fact, apparently the ideas of before and after don’t really exist. We make ‘em up.

                Not entirely. The second law of thermodynamics hints at a direction of what we perceive as time, where “before” is analogous to “a state of lower entropy” & “after” to “a state of increased entropy”.
                I agree with points 1 & 2 though, but disagree with logicophilosophicus’ statement “No causation, no science. End of story.

              • Tyrant
                Posted October 16, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

                The second law is statistical in its nature. It only holds exactly as an average of effective quantities over an infinite number of systems, it is meaningless at the microscopical level. The only known thing that could give a fundamental distinction between directions in time is the violation of CP symmetry.

              • Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

                A fair point, I was confusing the original discussion of microscopic processes with a more general notion of the concepts of before & after.

          • SLC
            Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

            Not true, radioactive decay is wholly a stochastic process, no different then roulette. Take C14 for instance. All we can say is that there is 1 chance in 2 that any given C14 atom will decay sometime in the next 5500 years. If it is still around 5500 years later, then, again, there is a 1 chance in 2 that it will decay sometime in the next 5500 years. There is no “cause” of C14 decay, other then it happens to have positive binding energy.

      • wads42
        Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

        Why should “First Cause” necessarily therefore mean Causi Sui? How can a First Cause cause itself? –and why is God necessarily the result of a First Cause, rather than a duplication of the First Cause. Why bring God into it at all. Come on theologians,–answer this extra “why” question.

        • Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

          Why should the anthropomorphic and natural language driven idea of “cause” even exist outside of philosopher’s self-talk?

        • Sastra
          Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          God is brought into the explanation because of an underlying assumption that what the mind does — wishing, willing, imagining, deciding, valuing, thinking, and choosing among options — is an uncaused cause which can have no explanation simpler than itself.

          Minds also exist nowhere — outside of space — and transcend the physical stream of events — outside of time.

          Once you recognize the intuitive truth of this (I mean, you “have” a body and can’t “hold” a thought in your body”s hand, can you?), then God just makes common sense. The ghost in your head is a smaller version of the Ghost in the universe — and the Ghost in the universe is a bigger version of the ghost in your head.

          Really. I think that’s it. “Agent causation” is supposed to be a psychokenetic form of magic.

          • wads42
            Posted October 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

            But if I did not have a material, physical head, there could not be a ghost in it; therefore material is primary, and “mind” is an emergent property of it.

            • Bebop
              Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

              “To find the way, you have to lose your head.”
              -Lao Tseu

  10. Occam
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Dr Pinsent had a point:

    “Einstein began by asking the kinds of questions that a child would ask…”

    Dr Pinsent may not relish the questions, though.
    He may like the answers even less.
    If centuries of deference were to be suddenly dropped, and simple, hard questions asked without regard to polite conventions and political convenience, the way a child would ask them, much apanage, prestige and influence may be at risk.
    One-way tickets for the ‘B’ Ark beckon.

    “But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last.
    (Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes)

    • Sastra
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink


      Apparently, theologians think a child would only ask “okay … now how should I find a way to believe in God?”

  11. Barry Pearson
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    “The expanding scope of science; the shrinking scope of religion”

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:10 am | Permalink

      I think Robert Ingersoll encapsulated that post thus:

      “But,” says the religionist, “you cannot explain everything; you cannot understand everything; and that which you cannot explain, that which you do not comprehend, is my God.”

      We are explaining more every day. We are understanding more every day; consequently your God is growing smaller every day.

      — “The Gods” (1872)


  12. wads42
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Theists think they have a monopoly on “why” questions; so please answer this lot:

    1. Why did God (allegedly) create the Universe?
    2, Do you have an answer to th above question?–if not why not?
    3. If you do have an answer, then what is it?
    4. Why do you think your answer is the correct answer?
    5.If God told you personally, why did he do that?
    6. Why did God not say why he created the Universe (in Genesis)?
    7. If you think it was from His “Love”, why do you think that?
    8. Why does God need to love?
    9. Why do you think God is Love?
    10. What’s Love got to do with it anyway?-and why?

    • Sastra
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Why are you asking such unloving questions? Sorry, I won’t answer until I hear questions which I think are properly motivated by Love.

      • wads42
        Posted October 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        Very amusing; I presume you are joking.

  13. Tyrant
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    “Einstein began by asking the kinds of questions that a child would ask, like what would it be like to ride on a beam of light.”

    That, Dr Pinsent said, was what science should return to.

    What? What the hell is that even supposed to mean? “Drop the stupid math that you make all those filthy predictions with and restrict yourself to strange thought experiments because they sound vaguely poetic”?

    What the hell does to buffoon think particle physicists *do* think about? Well, CERN has it’s share of smart and strident people, I hope some of them attend (although my suspicion is the event will be largely ignored). The theologians might be in for a surprise.

  14. Cremnomaniac
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    This is one large mass of nonsense, sponsored by scientists. The intent being, what? To appease religion or philosophy? At a time when science is being attacked, and its value minimized, these scientists are shooting all of us in the foot.

    The deplorable ignorance of it is almost more than I can stand. I agree absolutely, these people have zero to add to any understanding that we may eventually acquire regarding the origins of the universe. Philosophy is an interesting exercise that retains some value, but religion has none left, if it ever had any.

    To the folks a CERN, “cease and desist”. The only reason theologians get excited is because it feeds their delusion of relevance. Theologians know it, and science needs to stop feeding the delusion. They are irrelevant and insignificant in explaining life, the universe, and its creation.

    “There are many aspects of the universe that still cannot be explained satisfactorily by science; but ignorance only implies ignorance that may someday be conquered. To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”
    Issac Asimov

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

      If only Prof. Brian Cox were a participant! “Hey, theologists: It’s all bollocks!”


      • Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:18 am | Permalink

        His partner in science (Jeff Forshaw) is though, from looking at the programme. But that’s in the session on what we actually know about the BBE, possibly the only useful session of the entire event.

        • Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

          Problem is that the typical format is that the scientists are often honest, tell their side of the story, admitting how limited their knowledge, is and then shut up.

          And that’s where the theologian crosses his legs, clasps his hands, stares up into space, contemplates his own wisdom for a moment, and then pontificates on the mystery and wonder that the scientist has just been unable to explain.

          And out of courtesy the moderator stifles any bruising a more assertive scientist might attempt.

          And the whole thing is followed by a few accommodationist pieces in various newspapers saying how wise the theologians and philosophers were, but how the scientists couldn’t tell us enough about reality or were telling us too much.

  15. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    I was quite interested in the agenda item:

    “1515-1645 1. Philosophy, religion and the nature of scientific knowledge”

    …until I realised it was a debate time slot rather than an historic period.

    • Tyrant
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      Heh, and a surprisingly good match, too.

  16. Bruce Gorton
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    He said that science risked “trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

    Science is incapable of doing any such thing. All science can do is reveal reality, and if society is already a machine not knowing that wouldn’t make it any less of a machine.

    “Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas,” he told the BBC.

    Boko Haram is not a scientific movement.

    What new idea has arisen in theology in the five hundred years? One of the top religious philosophers around is still debating Kalam’s Ontological Argument.

    The greatest artwork in history is not found in some jumped up conman’s church, it is found in the illustrations of old biology textbooks, drawn in the margins of the great astronmers, in the music of the mathematician.

    Science sparks the imagination, religion kills it. Science is saying “here is a question, how can we figure out an answer?” Religion is saying “Here is a question, that is the answer, and if you don’t agree with that answer you will burn in hell for all eternity.”

    • Sastra
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      Bruce Gorton #16 wrote:

      What new idea has arisen in theology in the five hundred years?

      What, have you not been paying attention? The science journal Newsweek just published an impressive study by neuroscientist/neurosurgeon Alexander which provides several new lines of evidence challenging our current model of theology, and forcing theologians to re-evaluate many of their previously assumed theories in light of this impressive breakthrough:

      The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

      “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

      “You have nothing to fear.”

      “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

  17. Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    Anger,disgust and sadness are my immediate responses. I had hoped the Brits and EU folks were beyond all this craven pandering to silly pop beliefs.

    Clearly CERN feels that, for future funding and political support, they need to pretend to respect the public’s magical beliefs.

    They do this, like the Temp Foundation, by getting “big whig” academics to spout utter nonsense and simply lie.

    These statements go beyond opinion to misstatements of fact. Of course, all polemic is lying.

    Never make nice with bullies. Ideologues are always bullies.

  18. Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    Please excuse a few egregious typos in the above article! :-)

  19. gravelinspector
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    That claim is what comes out of the south end of a horse facing north

    It’s a spinal column?
    There’s enough flexibility in the various horses that have tried biting or kicking me that the only hole I’d guarantee to be facing south on a north-facing horse is the foramen magnum.

  20. eric
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Sadly, the BBC article doesn’t report any dissent, or pushback, by scientists.

    This is not surprising. Polite silence in response to a conference presentation is pretty much the scientific equivalent of a C or D grade.

    Perhaps the philosophers at the conference don’t get that part of science culture, but getting zero questions or only questions from the session moderator is generally a bad sign, not a good sign. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but it most often means that nobody cares enough about your work to bother arguing about it; it means that they’d rather hear the next talk than have any more conversation about your work.

  21. Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    That conference is in need of a banner behind the podium: Beware the Pineal Gland (this means you William Lane Craig)

  22. Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    The BBC it seems to me is pro religion. It creeps in everywhere. As for ‘Thought for Today’ on R2 and R4 why are they so against non-religious ‘Thought for Today’?

    • wads42
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      It’s the establishment.

    • zendruid1
      Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      BBC = “Bow Before Christ”

  23. S.E. Eberly
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Let’s let the theologians continue dancing on the heads of pins, while science gets on with its far nobler work: the development of testable theories that actually expand our knowledge of ourselves and our universe.

  24. Posted October 16, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    I agree with your criticisms. For what it’s worth, I don’t think philosophy has very much at all to contribute about the origins of the universe, or indeed about any contingent, physical facts. That’s not really our job, although some theist philosophers of religion think otherwise.

    Really, our job is to discover modal truths (about necessity and impossibility), nonphysical truths (about abstract, nonspatiotemporal objects, if they exist), essences (what justice, truth, and knowledge really are), normative truths (about value, including ethics, including morality), and in general, other a priori justified truths: truths justified not by observation. An explanation of the origin of the universe doesn’t really fall into any of those categories.

    The closest thing I can think of as far as employing philosophy to help learn about the origin of the universe is just the general foundational use of philosophy, to non-circularly justify science and observation themselves, which (as I’ve mentioned) science can only do circularly, by assuming that observation is reliable in order to “prove” that observation is reliable. But that’s fairly distant from the first-order questions about why the universe exists.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      What, perchance, can philosophy contribute to — at all?

      • Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        Hi Kevin,

        All the things I mentioned in my second paragraph, plus the foundational project I mentioned in my third paragraph. I’m happy to clarify anything that seems unclear. I’ll summarize the third point more explicitly if you’re curious:

        (1) Circular arguments are unsound and weak.
        (2) The only scientific argument for trusting observation is circular.
        (3) Therefore, the only scientific argument for trusting observation is unsound and weak.

        Even track-record arguments for observation are circular, since they presuppose that our apparent observations of the reliability of observation are, themselves, trustworthy.

        • Posted October 16, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Well, it’s all measurable data and predictions. Words are rarely needed. The fewer words the better.

          How are equations circular? Like physics, the best science is basically math, avoids natural language and mainly calculus.

          Of course, natural language is circular and self-referential but few empirical statements are based on natural language anymore.

          If they are they must refer to data replicated in many different labs and settings.

          In fact, there is no such thing as “science” or a “scientific argument” except with philosophers trying to falsely label it as an ideology.

          There are really just evidence-based equations with dependent and independent variables predicting the future.

          There is no such thing as “science” independent of specific data and research studies. Except in the speech of ideologues-philosophers-theologians-etc.

          • Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink


            If you don’t think that science exists, maybe I can re-cast my argument in terms that don’t mention science. How about this?

            (1) Circular arguments are unsound and weak.

            (2a) The only empirical argument for trusting observation is ‘Observation has been observed to be reliable; therefore, observation is reliable.’
            (2b) But that argument is circular; it appeals to the very evidence it is trying to justify trusting.
            (2c) Therefore, the only empirical argument for trusting observation is circular.

            (3) Therefore, there is no sound or strong empirical argument for trusting observation.

            Now, we might still disagree about the implications of (3). Maybe you think it’s okay to assume for no reason that observation is reliable. But then it’s difficult to see why you shouldn’t be awfully epistemologically promiscuous. For example, why can’t the fan of Ouija boards assume for no reason that Ouija boards are reliable? Why can’t the Christian assume for no reason that the Bible is reliable? And so on.

            • Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              I am always glad to be promiscuous. However, we assume only that all measurements are within error terms and unreliable and severely constrained by our brains, local conditions, etc..

              So we avoid natural language and higher order concepts.

              Thus, we are able to predict measurements to the limits of comprehension, use anti-biotics, create gadgets and predict experiments about quantum level events.

              Philosophers-ideologues-theists attempting a rear-guard, and very human attempt to protect natural language create simplistic, straw men notions of evidence-based knowledge.

              The fact is we find neither evidence, consistency, meaning, information value or usefulness for the higher order concepts of natural language.

              This exchange is idle chit chat until it refers to specific data and research.

              • Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink


                Maybe I’m not seeing something, but I still haven’t seen an argument that science is more trustworthy than Ouija boards, much less a non-circular argument that it is. (Maybe you don’t believe that it is, or care whether it is.)

              • Posted October 16, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

                Let’s replace evidence-based treatment for science. You and your family use the Ouija Board next time you go to the hospital. RIP.

            • wads42
              Posted October 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

              How about an evolutionary answer? We consider our senses to be broadly reliable, because if they were not, we would go extinct.
              “O look, I can see a tiger stalking me, but it’s alright because our senses are unreliable and the tiger is not real;–arrrgh!!”

              • Posted October 16, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink


                Thanks for your reply.

                I think that argument initially makes sense, but unfortunately, unless we have a non-circular reason to trust our senses, we don’t have any non-circular evidence that the Theory of Evolution is true, or that there are such things as tigers in the first place.

                I want to emphasize that I do accept the Theory of Evolution, and I do believe in tigers. But that’s because I think we can non-circularly justify science, by using philosophy.

              • wads42
                Posted October 17, 2012 at 1:42 am | Permalink

                Do we have non-circular evidence for anything?
                Analytic arguments are circular ie self-referential by definition. Empirical arguments rely on our senses, but support for their reliability comes from the fact that our senses produce the same, but enhanced observations when using artificial aids, eg radio and optical telescopes, and whose observations all converge on the same result; rather like “green” being a reliable qualia if a million people all look at the same square on a colour chart; it is reliability by consensus and consilience.
                In the absense of non-circular information we have to ignore it as a criterion of reliability and then compare and contrast “scientific” and “religious” findings and deduce their relative truth from the practical results they give; like planes really do consistently manage to fly, and the light always come on when you press the switch.
                But consistent results from praying to God?–I don’t think so.

  25. revjimbob
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    The Archbishop of Canterbury has a representative in Brussels?
    How much does that cost?

  26. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    “In partnership with the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva”

    It’s being assumed from this line on the Wilton Park page that CERN is a co-sponsor, but the cynic in me wonders if the god-botherers have merely rented a room, and are (at least implicitly) lying about it.

    (click clickity click…)

    That hypothesis would explain the apparent absence of any mention of this meeting on CERN’s website.

    Did I miss something? Anyone?

  27. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I’m encouraged to see Lawrence Krauss is on the program. He always holds his own graciously.

    Ironically, there was an anxiety in the public that CERN might create an artificial black hole, and Stephen Law has called various forms of fallacious thinking (including theology) with “intellectual black holes”

  28. raven
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Unlike some of my readers, I don’t dismiss all academic philosophy as worthless.

    I don’t either. Just most of it.

    There are some philosphers doing valuable work, Barbara Forest, Dennett, and a few others.

    There are a lot more that make the whole field look worthless. The ones who attack science without understanding it are the worst. Some “philosophers” have learned that attacking science is an easy paper or book.

    They do this for the same reason a disturbed adolescent smashes a bottle in the street. For attention. Unfavorable attention is better than no attention at all, or so their reasoning goes.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      Valuable how?

      • raven
        Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        Daniel Dennett is an atheist leader and looks at the intellectual basis of religions and how they arise and keep going. Quote: All supernatural testable claims of religions have been falsified.

        Barbara Forest keeps track of creationists and dissects their lies. Creationists hate and fear her, which gives some idea of how valuable her work is.

        • Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

          Personality aside, what statements have they made that help us predict anything?

          • JonLynnHarvey
            Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

            Even at its best, philosophy is in the business of interpreting what has been, framing questions, and pointing a direction for inquiry. Philosophy does not claim to be in the business of predicting anything. That is science’s job.

            • Posted October 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

              That’s not true. What value is any knowledge that doesn’t predict the future?

              Of course, philo is saying using natural language and local meaning and logic helps predict. Why else speak at all?

              • Bruce Gorton
                Posted October 16, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

                It is not the predictive strength of philosophy that makes it useful, it is its ability to reduce internal noise.

                Philosophy’s major strength is that is that it promotes disciplined thought, it helps to untangle the meaningless bullshit from the meaningful claims.

                Thus for example Dennet’s popularisation of the concept of deepities has advanced thought, giving an elegant means of summarising something that is trivially true and monumentally false.

              • Posted October 17, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

                OK, why is less noise and disciplined thought useful? To make statements more predictive, of course.

              • Posted October 17, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

                Philosophy is noise. It carries zero information value, is mainly academic pop ideology and is entirely self-referential and local natural language. That is, it it valued/used mainly on the basis of it’s ideological support of the local status quo.

                The fact is that language without reference to data is useless and just polemic.

                If we add in the no free will findings, it is epiphenomenal, at best. The farther language gets away from empirical referents the more noisy it is.

                Thus, it is also the least disciplined since it never adheres to anything other than it’s own local and internal preferences.

          • raven
            Posted October 16, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            I just posted one quote from Dennett.

            Which you must have missed even though it is part of a 4 sentence comment.

            You really expect me to summarize the lifetime work of two well regarded scholars in one comment box? Sorry the world doesn’t work that way.

            Read Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell. It’s a well regarded book on religion written by an atheistic philospher.

            Read Barbara Forest’s books on creationism. She BTW, testified at Dover and was quite helpful to the science side.

            Personality aside, what statements have they made that help us predict anything?

            This is so vague as to be meaningless. I’m not even sure what you are asking or why but I’m not going to waste my time trying to figure it out.

  29. raven
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    The event, in Geneva, Switzerland, is described as a search for “common ground” between religion and science over how the Universe began.

    The common ground for a lot of religionists is a scientist tied to a pole on top of a pile of firewood. That is about to be ignited.

    We don’t let them burn people alive these days, a tragedy the religions haven’t gotten over yet. But I wouldn’t let these guys get behind me. Just in case.

  30. Daniel Lafave
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why you describe Andrew Pinsent as a “philosopher”. He isn’t one by training or vocation. He holds degrees in Physics and Theology, and is a member of Oxford’s Faculty of Theology. He holds no position in academic philosophy. He’s a theologian, not a philosopher or theologian-philosopher.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    For a moment I thought it was the Templeton-conference on ‘New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology’ that my blog-feed spit out the other day:

    “First an introduction by Don York from U Chicago who actually put this all together, for which he deserves a big thanks.

    Then Jack Templeton introduces the Templeton Foundation and the motivation behind the funding of this scheme.”

    The “Why” question loomed large there too.

    Well, maybe it lit itself, Dr. Lennox? Have you ruled out that possibility?

    Well returned.

    The discipline imparts the tools of logic and throught that can clarify questions and bring contradictions to light. I think it’s of most value in illuminating (but not necessarily solving) ethical problems and dilemmas, but of less value for working scientists.

    Here is ground for agreement for me. Certainly there seems to be a utility of ethical rules in science, work places and as a basis for legal systems.

    I don’t think there is any research that predicts any one method to do such lists (eg utilitarism) is better than another. That being the case I think it is best to have an open mind.

    I will say though that I prefer “realmoral” akin to “realpolitik”.

    Maybe this year’s Nobel Prize in Economy will be helpful here, since it seems to use game theory to make stable allocations. “A key issue is to ensure that a matching is stable in the sense that two agents cannot be found who would prefer each other over their current counterparts.” [Press release.]

    Here we would like to make a a stable matching in the sense that two moral agents cannot be found who would prefer each other’s moral over their current counterparts. The largest such stable group’s moral would be the most acceptable society norm in the sense of social stability (here “well being”, according to utilitarians).

  32. Faustus
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    John Lennox is a creationist crackpot.
    His book “God’s Undertaker” has chapters
    on evolution containing nothing but the
    usual creationist nonsense and dishonesty.

    Why anyone would have any interest in what
    he has to say is beyond me.

    • Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      The answer to your wonderment is really quite simple and straightforward: Increasingly, we are seeing the results of living in a deeply fractured culture. On one side of the fence we have an ever-increasing population of politically and information-challenged booboisie who distrust science, work tirelessly against their self-interest, take steps to destroy their public education system in favor of vouchers to schools immersed in racism and religious fundamentalism and feel that the heavens will befall them if they fail to genuflect before their plaster idols on a daily basis. On the other side of the fence is a group of serious thinkers who are invisible to everyone but those who are actually able to understand their insights and contributions to sanity and reason. It’s becoming a 10-1 proposition.

      Look around a little more intensely. Beware though: the more intently you observe, the scarier it gets. Joe Badgeant has chronicled amurka’s de-evolution beautifully.

      If these jackasses get control of ship’s wheel, we are totally fucked.

      • Faustus
        Posted October 17, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

        I agree with you, it was more of a rhetorical question. It just seems so unfortunate that within academia (he is a reputable mathematician), there are people who use their reputation in such nefarious ways, and get away with it. The chapters on evolution in his book are dreadful, it often takes a 2 minute google search to show he is completely mistaken for so many points he makes, and yet he has not been laughed out of the academy. John Lennox happens to be locate in Green Templeton College, Oxford. Why does that not surprise me?

  33. Rob
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Isn’t string theory a remarkable imaginative achievement, even if we can’t yet test it?

    Except for the $(*&@$@(& name. Whoever named it needs to be slapped upside the head. I’m not complaining about the “string” part of it.

  34. W.Benson
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Darwin Calls Out CERN Physicists for Their Inanity

    In December 1881, a little more than a year before his death, Charles Darwin was invited to a conference sponsored by the Archbishop of Canterbury and petitioned by eminent Christian physicists, chemists, biologists and the like, so that “men of Science” might “bring the weight of their authority” . . . “as a counterpoise” . . . to the “assumption that the proved conclusions of modern Science are hopelessly at variance with the fundamental doctrines of both natural and revealed religion.” (quote stitched from the brochure accompanying the Archbishop’s letter)

    Different than the CERN pussies (no offence intended to kitty cats*), Darwin responded with integrity, saying that he saw little use for the meeting and adding, “in my opinion, a man who wishes to form a judgment on this subject, must weigh the evidence for himself; & he ought not to be influenced by being told that a considerable number of scientific men can reconcile the results of science with revealed or natural religion, whilst others cannot do so.” The “eminent Christian” scientists, putting integrity aside, unanimously endorsed a plan to organize scientists to use their prestige to promote religion.

    Once again at CERN the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dirty finger stirs the stew.

    All four letters are available at the Darwin Correspondence Project as letters exchanged with W. R. Brown.

    *Webster Dictionary (1913) definition: “fat and short-breathed; fat, short, and thick; swelled with pampering …” (from Wikipedia)

  35. RodW
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Laurence Krauss is talking today so I dont think the conference will be one big circle-j

  36. Posted October 16, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink


  37. Kevin
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Well, maybe it lit itself, Dr. Lennox? Have you ruled out that possibility?

    No – only the possibility that it existed of itself. No matter how much matter is analyzed, one never gets past the principle of contingency.

    Other than that, it is true to say that the physicists will never make any real progress until they start studying evolutionary theory.

  38. 5ecular4umanist
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on 5ecular4umanist and commented:
    I 100 percent agree with Jerry Coyne on this. It is the usual political correctness (don’t offend religious sensibilities) but on a CERN-like scale.

  39. theland1
    Posted October 20, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Eben Alexanders’ book, “Proof Of Heaven,” describes his experiences whilst in a coma, brain dead due toa meningitis infection.
    Is not this the type of subject matter that the CERN conference would be looking at?

  40. Posted October 21, 2012 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    FYI Only about 15% of professional philosophers believe in any sort of god (philpapers survey). Please don’t lump us together with theologians. If you want to know what I, and many other philosophers, think philosophy is – check:

  41. Posted December 17, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Here’s the problem: you complain that philosophy/theology can’t contribute to science. Fair enough. You say this in context of a quote about scientists not being able to answer questions about the origin of the universe alone. But the origin of the universe is not necessarily a scientific question (i.e., if you can’t irrefutably verify something, don’t call it science). So while your statement is true that theology has nothing to contribute to “science,” it is an entirely irrelevant and misleading statement, since CERN did not seek scientific knowledge from them (which is not the only form of knowledge, if you are a human), but seeking knowledge beyond science. If you retort that science is the only knowledge, weare differing only on arbitrary word usage differences.

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