Theologian gets pwned by physicist in The Guardian

Reader Adrian sent me the following two links from the Guardian, which comprise a critical but humorous exchange between a theologian and a physicist (the humor is all on the physicist’s part). You already know who is going to win.

The first “Comment is Free” piece is by Giles Fraser, described this way:

Dr Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. He writes the column Loose Canon for the Guardian.

His piece is called, “Good luck, physicists, with those tricky ‘meaning of life’ questions,” and of course it’s about non-overlapping magisteria. His beef is that scientists are impinging on questions that used to be the purview of theology. And he starts off by asking physicist Jim Al-Khalili what caused the universe. Fraser is reviving the cosmological argument. As any physicist would, Al-Khalili answers with something like, “It’s like asking what is south of the South Pole”, he says. “In other words, it’s a mistaken question.”

That gives Fraser his chance to gloat:

. . . a hundred years ago, these questions would have been asked of theologians – if God created everything who created God? And, of course, we had no answer either. Or gave some similarly evasive version of the South Pole answer. But now that people don’t care what religion has to say, it is physicists who are facing a very similar interrogation. My smile was … good luck, mate. Over to you. And what made the situation even more delicious was that Al-Khalili is also now president of the British Humanist Association. We are turning our physicists into theologians – even the atheist ones. What are gravitational waves, I ask my scientist friend Adam Rutherford. “Think of them as divine burping,” he says.

As least Fraser says that religion couldn’t answer that question, though he beefs about people not caring what religionists have to say about that.

But why should we? Theologians can never answer questions like that, or tell us anything definitive about the universe. Is there one God, or many? Was Jesus reincarnated? (Muslims say no, Fraser probably says yes.) What the hell is the Trinity? Do Catholics think that Jews go to hell?

Theology has always addressed questions, but never answers them. It can’t because it doesn’t have the tools. At least science can tell us something about the origins of the universe, and maybe, just maybe, that our universe is only one of many universes that pop into existence. Theology couldn’t tell us that, no matter how many revelations they get, so they shouldn’t be so smug. Fraser is playing the old game of “Science is just as bad as theology,” not realizing that he’s implicitly admitting the flaws in his own area.

But then Fraser says that although science can answer empirical questions, it doesn’t matter existentially. 

It seems odd to argue that science is long behind the curve, and way behind theology, but when it comes to cosmology it feels very much like that to me. It’s not that I think what they say is untrue. Science is better at dealing with truth questions than theology. Rather, I think that it doesn’t much matter existentially. At least, I can’t see how something that happened 13bn years ago helps me understand anything about what I am up to this morning.

That is, it doesn’t help Fraser live his life, though such knowledge does enrich life for many of us.  And perhaps Fraser might think about how science (not cosmology, granted) has helped him survive disease, get better food, and travel about in airplanes.  Did you take any pills, Mr. Fraser? If so, thank science. Are you using a cellphone? Thank science.  And the good thing is that you don’t have to understand how those things work, because science has done the understanding for you.

How solipsistic you are, pastor Fraser, thinking that a). the sole value of science is helping you figure out what you’re up to at the moment, and b). that science doesn’t really ease your life in any meaningful way. Think about it; of course it does! You are, in fact, acting like a spoiled brat whose toys have been stolen by Big Bad Science.

And about those big questions, well, Fraser tries to fly the dead canard about religion answering the Big Questions that science can’t:

Likewise, there is no answer to the meaning of life hidden behind an exploding gas of atoms. So why do the Sheldons of this world persist in aping the theologians and looking for deep meaning in so distant a place? It’s not just that there is no God of the gaps – there is no ultimate meaning in the gaps either. Neither science nor theology can provide any sort of answer by looking in this non-place. But the popular imagination still assumes that there is something about cosmology that is a big deal for the human condition.

Well, yes, cosmology does tell us something about our condition: that we are largely alone in a hostile universe, the product of unimaginably powerful physical forces that exploded stars, which made our lives possible.  Most of the universe is hostile to life, and, as far as we can see we arose through the naturalistic process of evolution, which involved, and still involves, terrible suffering. In about four billion years we’ll go extinct on Earth as the Sun expands.

That all has implications for our condition, including the absence of a beneficent and powerful God. How could he burn us to a cinder? Can’t he keep the Sun from giving us a heat death, or even save a kid from leukemia? In response, theology just makes stuff up. It can’t convey meaning because it can’t convey truth—for, in the end, the meaning conveyed by faith depends on the truth of what faith reveals; and faith, by its very nature, can’t reveal truth. What meaning can you get from the Resurrection if you can’t show that the Resurrection happened? Only the meaning that you can derive from any work of fiction. Personally, I get more meaning from Zorba the Greek (read it!) than from the Bible.

Fraser winds up as follows:

What is so amusing about the current interest in popular science is that we too often assume it has come to replace theology as a way of answering ultimate questions. And the problem with this assumption is that turns scientists into the very thing they were supposed to be replacing. The best of them stick to the cool reason of experimentation. But at the point where science bleeds into metaphysics, some have started sounding surprisingly like Thomas Aquinas banging on about the “uncaused cause“.

I’m a scientist, and I don’t see my colleagues telling me that science gives clues about how to live. They may offer opinions on how to live, but everyone does that, and most don’t claim the answers come from science.

The truth is that theology has no way of answering questions like “how should I live?” except by answers like “follow Jesus.” All other answers, about morality and such, are not the privileged domain of religion, but can be answered even better by philosophy and secular reason. Secular reason, for one thing, deals with questions about sexual behavior much better than does theology.  And, frankly, I don’t see how Al-Khalili’s answer says anything about the “how should we live” or “what does it all mean” type of “ultimate questions.”

Happily, I have a physicist, Jon Butterworth, right behind this sign, and he tells Fraser that the good pastor knows nothing about his work.  Butterworth is described thusly:

Jon Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London. He is a member of the High Energy Physics group on the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. His book Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs is published in May 2014

Butterworth’s response, also in the Guardian, is great, starting off like this:

 I enjoyed [Fraser’s] article “Good luck, physicists, with those tricky ‘meaning of life’ questions”, and I appreciate the good wishes as he acknowledges the perceived transfer of intellectual leadership from theologians to physicists

Then, pwn #1:

Fraser talks about two desires that many (though perhaps not all) of us have. One is to understand the world we live in; the other is to find a meaning to it. I see these as quite distinct, though it’s possible Fraser does not.

On the first, the understanding front, physics – or science in general, I would say – does seem to have theology beaten, for the same reason that actually looking at the clues gives you a better chance of doing a crossword.

I would have written it a bit differently, for theologians do think they have “clues”—it’s just that the clues are the stuff they make up in their head, what their predecessors have told them, and what’s written in ancient works of fiction. What Butterworth means is that science has the proper tools to understand the universe, while Fraser is trying to hammer a nail with a wet noodle.

Pwn #2 (it’s clear Butterworth doesn’t think much of religion!):

When it comes to meaning, well, that’s different.

The ability to juggle atoms, quarks or chromosomes may help you understand what life is, but that is different from telling you its meaning, or a moral code to live by. On the plus side, this means that Higgs boson doesn’t, as far as we know, have an opinion on your sex life, and is unlikely to encourage martyrdom. On the other hand, it is pretty clear uranium 235 doesn’t care one way or the other about mass killings.

And then the sensible response, with a bit of snark at the end:

Personally (and remember I am not especially qualified to pontificate on this*), I think it seems very likely that we are the result of the random interplay of a set of physical laws, the origin of which we may or may not ever fully comprehend. Once the bunch of atoms that constitute my self stop being able to maintain themselves in this arrangement, I see no reason to think there will be any essence or soul that is scooped up by a higher power for continued existence on this or any other plain or brane.

But none of that makes life meaningless. Meaning is something that goes on in our heads. It is something this bunch of quarks and electrons (me) finds within itself. And the more I know about physics, the more robust will be the meanings I come up with, because they’ll be based on better data. [JAC: I’m not quite sure about this last bit. Will understanding how our brain works truly help us give meaning to our lives? Perhaps, but it’s a stretch.]

Within this, we have to accept that there are some questions that are unanswerable in their own terms, because they are badly posed. “What is south of the south pole?” is one of them. “What came before the big bang?” may be another, unsatisfying though that may be. Mysteries will remain, though I see no need for a “God of the gaps” to inhabit them, and no reason to stop trying to find out more about them.

And that footnote:

I’m not sure who is qualified to pontificate on this, really. Etymology would suggest Popes are, but their track record doesn’t look too hot to me.

That’s pretty much all there is to be said about life being meaningless without religion.

h/t: Adrian

~

120 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Subscribe

  2. Marella
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Science tells us lots of stuff about how to live: don’t smoke, eat lots of fruit and veg and get plenty of exercise if you want to be healthy. Deciding if you want to be healthy is up to you.

    • samphire53
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      “…get plenty of exercise…”

      Not according to “Paul” in 1 Tim 4:8 –

      “For bodily exercise profiteth little”

      except for owners of gyms and manufacturers of trainers perhaps.

      • Filippo
        Posted March 29, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        Considering that most people endured hard physical labor as their daily lot.

        Paul apparently couldn’t bear up under the physical labor of writing down his own thoughts, instead dictating to his amanuensis.

  3. gbjames
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    sub

    • francis
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      //

  4. Mattapult
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    The truth is that theology has no way of answering questions like “how should I live?” except by answers like “follow Jesus.”

    Apparently, Jesus told the Westbougho Baptitst Church to live their lives by protesting funerals. Question for Dr Fraser, did they get the right message, or wrong message from Jesus?

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      Arthur C. Clarke once asked, “f God is talking to all these people, how come He’s telling each one of them something different?” L

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        Apparently, god is like the Squire of Gothos, an unruly little kid who enjoys tormenting his pets.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          A wonderful episode.

        • Filippo
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          “Greetings and Felicitations!”

          “Aw, why can’t I? I just want to play with them!”

  5. Posted March 28, 2014 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I might go along with the non overlapping magisteria thing, if the other magisteria were literature, art, music and other humanities. But religions have no claim to be moral or aesthetic arbiters, unless they stop referring to stuff that doesn’t exist. If you assume the existence of the Loch Ness monster based on faith, what possible authority does that act of faith give you to pontificate on how we should live our lives? Is it morally superior to believe in imaginary monsters?

    It seems that the latest bunch of theologians who have appeared / been mentioned on this site are trying to equivocate between religion as truth and religion as some kind of moral system. But, in reality, whenever you push Christian buttons hard enough, it all boils down to a pretty hard core belief in the literal truth of concepts from the bible based entirely on faith.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      The thing is, the humanities don’t need to fear a little overlap with the sciences. Science does have some useful things to say about vision, pigments, hearing, how musical instruments work, linguistic, dating of artifacts, etc.

      Due to the cultures divide, this overlap isn’t always as amicable as it could be, but it’s not the existential threat that theology rightly perceives any overlap with science to be.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        Sorry, 2nd graph should start “Due to the two cultures divide”, a reference to C. P. Snow’s famous observation.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        I agree that there should be no conflict between the humanities (especially ‘art’, in its various forms) and science, but many in the humanities seem fearful of science.

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

          Yes, there’s always been some friction there.

          In terms of funding, prestige, and career opportunities, it’s even tougher for academics in the Humanities. And bad university administrators (of which we have all too many) do pit departments against one another.

          A little resentment is probably understandable, and most people in the Humanties are honestly just trying to do their thing in peace.

          There are some vocal “scientism!” howlers who get more attention than they deserve.

          The thing is, religion, with it’s anti-intellectualism and desire to control expression in all forms is just as implacable a foe of the Humanities as it is of the sciences. There’s a lot of room for common ground for the two cultures in resisting the religious mission to spoil everything.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          The more I think about it, the more I think most people in the Humanities are just doing their thing and wouldn’t even know what the heck this “scientism” is and would respect their science colleagues. I was looking at my old history textbook, reminiscing about how I didn’t want to take that course – it was a course about the formation of the modern nation state. I wanted to take the Mediaeval history class but to make it fit my schedule, I’d have to take it at night & I didn’t want to take the late bus, which required that I transfer in a neighbourhood I didn’t feel safe in at night & take 1.5 hours (vs the normal 1 with the express bus).

          I’m now glad I took it because it’s really interesting & important stuff to know and there was a lot about Darwin and his times and many other scientific advances within their historical context.

          Anyway, this is all extraneous to my point. I came across a paragraph in the back of the book that I found interesting because it talks about understanding history through facts and by using science. It actually said the word, “science”. This is why I am always perplexed when I hear about these fights in the Humanities and that Humanities folks don’t like science. I think these folks who are like this are the vocal minority and I suspect the loudest of this vocal minority are theologians. Here is the quote:

          The appeal of History to us all is in the last analysis poetic. But the poetry of History does not consist of imagination roaming at large, but of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it. That which compels the historian to “scorn delights and live laborious days” is the ardour of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in that land of mystery which we call the past…The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them. In men’s first astonishment over that unchanging mystery lay the origins of poetry, philosophy and religion. From it, too, is derived in more modern times this peculiar call of the spirit, the type of intellectual curiosity that we name the historical sense. Unlike most forms of imaginative life it cannot be satisfied save by facts….It is the fact about the past that is poetic; just because it really happened, it gathers round it all the inscrutable mystery of life and death and time. Let the science and research of the historian find the fact, and let his imagination and art make clear its significance.

          – Fisher, A History of Europe, and Trevelyan, The Present Position of History, quoted in Charles P. Curtis Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, eds., The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker’s Anthology (New York: Houghton Mifflin 1983), pp. 123-124. 147-148

          • gbjames
            Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

            That’s a very nice quote. Excellent, in fact.

            • Latverian Diplomat
              Posted March 28, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

              +1

    • Sastra
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      To carry your Loch Ness Monster analogy over, it’s as if the people who believe there’s a sea serpent in an inland lake in Scotland simply take over the concepts of conservation, animal rights, and love for nature and call dibs. “Mine!” It’s all of a piece. One believes in the monster because they love the environment, and one loves the environment because they believe in the monster. One calls forth the other as they harmoniously blur and equate.

      Those who deny the Loch Ness Monster can now be envisioned as wanting to hunt it down and kill it. This is how it is framed. The Nessie believers can appreciate the need to protect endangered species. They have a reason and the skeptics … have revealed their nature through their choice.

      It is morally superior to believe in imaginary monsters if you tell a story where yes, it is.

  6. Dominic
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    I think Matthew is acquainted with Adam Rutherford – ? Perhaps from The Infinite Monkey Cage…? I am surprised that he is mates with Fraser, who is the most irritatingly pompous person I hear regularly on Radio 4.

    “What is so amusing about the current interest in popular science is that we too often assume it has come to replace theology as a way of answering ultimate questions” – Replace? Theology never DID answer any ‘ultimate questions,’ rather it made up stuff like a snowball picking up dirt.

    Questions about god are as meaningless as asking what colour a unicorn is.

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Theology never DID answer any ‘ultimate questions,’ rather it made up stuff like a snowball picking up dirt.

      And since the scientific method has been conclusively proven to be a far more reliable method of answering questions (or, if not, at least formulating them correctly in the first place), the snowball of theology has melted and is, for all intents and purposes, all dirt.

  7. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Likewise, there is no answer to the meaning of life hidden behind an exploding gas of atoms. So why do the Sheldons of this world persist in aping the theologians and looking for deep meaning in so distant a place? It’s not just that there is no God of the gaps – there is no ultimate meaning in the gaps either. Neither science nor theology can provide any sort of answer by looking in this non-place. But the popular imagination still assumes that there is something about cosmology that is a big deal for the human condition.

    Wow. Game over.

    This guy has thrown in the towel and is being arrogant and downright irresponsible while doing it.

    I’m glad this kind of thinking is on the way out…

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      If he thinks Sheldon Cooper is a typical scientist, he needs to get out of his church more. I think all that incense and organ music has rotted his brain.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Looks like it.

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      Sheldons? I must wonder if this used-god salesman realises that the socially awkward, unemotional (quite possibly autistic spectrum resident) Sheldon is, and is meant to be, an unflattering parody of a scientist. Hell, Sheldon isn’t even an original parody, he’s a freaking archetype that goes back decades.

  8. Daoud
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    The thing is, I DO really really want to know what came “before” the big bang. I don’t think that’s a poor question, and I think it is extremely poor form of physicists to dodge the question. If inflation is eternal and our universe is not the first universe (actually, whether it is or isn’t is irrelevant), what kicked it all off? I am NOT asking these questions because I want to put God or religion in there. And I am NOT asking from a “meaning to life” perspective. I am talking from a purely naturalistic, secular pov.

    Maybe it is and will remain physically impossible to ever scientifically investigate what or why (in physical terms) the universe began. But I find it endlessly frustrating to cut off our scientific curiosity about the origin of the universe at the point of its beginning. I would appreciate at least speculation from cosmology.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      But there are several cosmological hypotheses out there :http://scholar.google.dk/scholar?hl=en&q=cosmological+universe+hypothesis&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=

    • gbjames
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      The Big Bang defines the beginning of space-time. “What came before time?” is not a meaningful question. You may think it “poor form”, but to assert that this is a “dodge” by physicists is simply to confuse meaningful and meaningless questions.

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Many cosmologists do make models that don’t assume that the big bang is the beginning of everything:

      “One sometimes hears the claim that the Big Bang was the beginning of both time and space; that to ask about spacetime “before the Big Bang” is like asking about land “north of the North Pole.” This may turn out to be true, but it is not an established understanding. The singularity at the Big Bang doesn’t indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension. It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time. But it is equally plausible that what we think of as the Big Bang is merely a phase in the history of the universe, which stretches long before that time – perhaps infinitely far in the past. The present state of the art is simply insufficient to decide between these alternatives; to do so, we will need to formulate and test a working theory of quantum gravity.” (Sean Carroll).

      This seems to me like a much more sensible way of addressing the question.

      • Daoud
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        Well a better response than the lame “like what’s south of the south pole”? Sorry, the opposing Guardian articles are almost solely focused on “deriving meaning”. Which I am not interested in (I am content with meaning in my life), so to me, both these articles are pretty lame. Of much more interest to me is why did that singularity exist? If it was just one of many in an eternal inflation multiverse, how did the whole show begin? Why does existence exist? (again, all my “why’s” are implied with a non-meaning, non-religious intent).

        • gbjames
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

          Again, simply because a sentence takes the grammatically correct form of a question does not mean it is a meaningful question. Asking things like “Why does existence exist?” is not an answerable question. Those sorts of issues should be taken to the Theology Department. They won’t be able to answer them either, but the’ll entertain the idea that the questions make sense.

        • Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

          Well Sean Carroll is being a little cagey there, since his own model (see his debate with WLC) is one, where singularities arise in a greater low entropy background multiverse. So, I’d say he among others definitely favour that kind of hypothesis, they are just showing some scientific humility.

          If we do eventually come to identify what the fundamental fabric of the universe is (say everything is made of mini strings vibrating in 11 dimensions or something) it isn’t clear to me whether or not we will ever be able to go further than that, or not. Maybe the final theory we come up with will be so elegant that we immediately can perceive that it is absolutely the only way there could be something, maybe not… Like you thou, I do find the question interesting!

          • Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            Woops, I mean high entropy background multiverse, easy slip to make and I gave someone a hard time for that the other day :(.

          • Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

            P.S. For Brits: Think I heard that Andrei Linde will be appearing on “Desert Island Disks” next week – Now he has some seriously interesting ideas, so definitely worth catching.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        If the time was created as part of the universe, then anything else that was not part of the created universe could be timeless. A timeless existence is very hard to imagine, since we are part of that universe. It could be something that is more than the four space-time dimensions – maybe 6, 10, 11, 12 dimensions. The concept of time may or may not be relevant part of the physics of that.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        “The singularity at the Big Bang”.

        That is about as bad as claiming that big bang defines the beginning of spacetime. (See my response to gbjames for that.)

        Here is a sensible companion article to the one that lays out the most common definitions of big bang:

        “Did The Universe Really Begin With a Singularity?”

        [Notes that a similar extrapolation of biology would imply that a person began from an infinitely small fetus.]

        “The notion that the Universe started with a Big Bang, and that this Big Bang started from a singularity — a point in space and/or a moment in time where the universe was infinitely hot and dense — is not that different, really, from assuming humans begin their lives as infinitely small eggs. It’s about over-extrapolating into the past.

        The connection with some kind of singularity dates back to the original Big Bang idea, the one which precedes the notion of cosmic inflation that’s been in the news over the past few days.”

        “I’ve talked over the years with many experts in “quantum gravity” [the poorly understood but required blend of Einstein’s gravity and quantum physics, a blend that will be needed to explain extreme gravitational phenomena] and I’ve never spoken to one who believed that the universe began with a real singularity. Why? Because

        the singularity arises from using Einstein’s equations for gravity
        but we know Einstein’s equations aren’t sufficient — they aren’t able to describe certain extreme gravitational phenomena.
        Specifically, when the density and heat become extremely large, quantum physics of gravity becomes important. But Einstein’s equations ignore all these quantum effects. So we already know that in certain extreme conditions, Einstein’s equations simply don’t apply. How could we then use those very same equations to conclude there’s a singularity at the beginning of the universe?

        We can’t.”

        “So I’m honestly very confused. Who is still telling the media and the public that the universe really started with a singularity, or that the modern Big Bang Theory says that it does? I’ve never heard an expert physicist say that. And with good reason: when singularities and other infinities have turned up in our equations in the past, those singularities disappeared when our equations, or our understanding of how to use our equations, improved.”

        • gbjames
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

          I think it comes from physicists, although filtered through the world of science journalism.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

          I think it comes from physicists, although filtered through the world of science journalism.

        • Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Are you sure you read this passage from Sean Carroll correctly? Carroll is saying that when we get to the scale where relativity and QM are not compatible we need a theory of quantum gravity in order to proceed further… So we don’t have to accept the infinities that would be implicit in a relativistic interpretation. A point that (confusingly!?) I think you are your self making later in your post! I suggest you read Carroll’s explanation a bit more thoroughly :).

        • gordon
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

          I used to think singularities were neat until someone told me it just meant the equations gave meaningless results. I assume sort of like going up a steep mountain road in an underpowered car that can go no further. You suspect there is a pass and a land of plenty but you won’t see it until you get the new car. In the meantime open the beer and speculate

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      It is deeply ingrained in many people, even physicists apparently, to label the Big Bang as the beginning of space and time. But there was never any reason that I know of to assert that except as a quick way to avoid trying to wrap our heads around the question of what was there before the B.B.
      Of course now it is widely considered possible that there was space and time before the B.B. Once that is admitted, then it becomes possible to model what could have caused our bubble universe to form some 13.8 bya.

      • Daoud
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        Pocket universe in a multiverse is a real possibility, but again, where and how and why (non-religious!) did that multiverse begin? I realize it may forever be impossible for any human learn anything about it, but it strikes me as just bizarre to then shut off our curiosity and declare “nope, it’s like asking what’s south of the south pole/we just don’t go there” (no it’s not!)

        • Isaac
          Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          From a debate I had at Caltech a couple years ago on God and cosmogony:

          “The problem is that ‘the universe BEGAN to exist’ bears in itself a temporal and spatial connotation. That is, the beginning of something can only be conceived in the context of time and space. Combine this with the fact that our language evolved within the constraints of natural law, particularly, space and time, which ineluctably deprives us of all linguistic means to describe whatever conditions gave rise to this universe, and we’re left with a conundrum that is inscrutable – by definition.”

          At the risk of sounding conceited, I don’t think there is a more perspicuous way to put it.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        The problem is that the hubble volumes are self-contained and traditionally the universe as a whole was thought to be connected. We now know these come apart, at least possibly.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        Yeah, it just makes so much more sense than that our one universe started on the 5th June 13.8 billion years ago. When you see some arbitrary number you’ve got to ask why. And if you walk into a forest and see a black raven it would be odd to then conclude that that was the only black raven in existence.

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      In some cosmologies, that’s like asking what is north of the north pole …

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Maybe there is a “before the big bang” and maybe there isn’t.

      That’s irrelevant to the theists’ claim that god gives things “meaning”.

      That’s why “what’s south of the South Pole” or “what does the number 9 smell like” are ill-posed questions.

      There is no transcendent meaning, just as the number 9 has no smell.

      They look like questions, but they are really gibberish.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        (I should clarify: those are both ill-posed questions, but they are good examples for showing why “what is the meaning of existence” is a similarly ill-posed question.)

      • Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        Number 5 smells like May rose, jasmine and aldehydes …

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          Ahhhh synesthesia. I wish I could smell numbers.

          • Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

            Perhaps you and Ant can discuss synaesthesia over a cup of hot Coco.

          • Filippo
            Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

            What are the colors and odors of an Fma7 chord (on a piano, not a harpsichord)?

            • Posted March 29, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

              Actually, you’ve struck on an issue that highlights the silliness of some composers’ and music theorists’ attempts to characterize keys: G major is happy, E-flat major is noble, F minor is dolorous, etc.

              Well, not all “As” are created equal. The modern standard is A = 440 Hz, but there is plenty of deviation, both substantial and slight. So there may be several Hz difference between an FM7 on one piano and an FM7 on another, yielding different “colors”.

              People still try to describe keys like this today, but it’s especially perplexing that thus was a favorite conceit of Baroque theorists like Mattheson. More naive musicians will talk about the Baroque tuning standard being A = 415 Hz, but in reality, there was no standard, and A meant something different from region to region. To complicate matters further, within regions there was Chorton (choir tuning) and Kammerton (chamber music tuning). Often, works that included choir would use a tuning system in which A equaled something considerably higher than what would have been used, in the same geographical region, for purely instrumental works.

              You can maybe come up with a system of characterizations for frequencies (which will of course vary from individual to individual ), but not for pitch names or keys.

              • Filippo
                Posted March 29, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                I’m fascinated by how our brains are apparently hard-wired to interpret major chords as “happy” and minor as “sad.” Why should that be? I play these chords for elementary students, and they readily come to the same conclusion of their own volition. (I certainly don’t detect any qualitative emotional difference between, e.g., any two major chords.)

                The emotional colors get more complicated with Major and Minor 7ths, 6th, 9ths. (I revel in the four-part modern vocal jazz machinations of The Four Freshmen.)

                I play the guitar “a bit.” I’ll run through a sequence of several diminished chords up the neck, telling students the nickname “train track” chord. They agree, though none of us can rationally articulate why that should be so.

                Fooling around on the guitar, I’ve found a couple of different chords – I don’t (yet) know their formal names (maybe they’re 11ths or 13ths) – but they strike me as, and I call them, “Lost On A Faraway Lonely Planet” chords, and students tend to agree though, again, we can’t say just why.

                I gather that “Concert A” is generally held to be 440 Hz, though it has been defined as a whole number a few “cycles” plus or minus that figure. Could it be tuned to, e.g., 440 and 1/2 Hz? Or 438 and 1/4 Hz? Could one tune the remaining strings of a guitar to conform to that, or would get a chaotic sonic mess traumatizing the ear? Seems like tunings would have to be whole-numbered; but I don’t rationally know (yet). (The whole-numbered energy level-jumps of electrons come to mind. That was Planck, right?)

                Enough.

              • Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                As someone who is very unmusical, making a guess: could it be that we are all just a little synaesthetic?

              • Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

                @Keith

                Well, I don’t know. Perhaps.

                But synaesthesia refers specifically to getting senses “crossed”.

                Emotion is not a sense, so associating a major tonality with happiness is not synaesthesia, and is much more parsimoniously explained as a learned behavior.

            • Posted March 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

              I suppose if there is one nearly objective, nearly universal way of hearing a given sonority it would be the “major = happy / minor = sad” dichotomy. But even this could be learned. Conditioning will generally start at just a few months of age. But it’s not an absolutely universal phenomenon. There are some minor key pieces I can hear as happy, and of course sad pieces in a major key are extremely common.

              I don’t see any reason why pitches must correspond to whole number frequencies. If you take your A as 440.25 Hz, the octave above will be, theoretically, 880.5 (“theoretically” because many instruments are tuned with “stretched tuning”, where an octave is tuned just a little sharp of an exact frequency doubling; this is done for a few different reasons). Of course, the difference between 440.25 and 440 is not really going to be perceptible. But there is a modern composition technique that uses “microtones”, or pitches you find in between the semitones of the chromatic scale.

          • Posted March 29, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

            Well, maybe Coco could …

            /@

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      To note that the question is poor in a physics sense, because some hypotheses don’t predict a beginning or even for those who do we currently can’t test it, is not the same as “dodging” the question. It is to tackle it heads on, and stare it in its eyes.

      Speculation on that question, however, is truly rampant.

  9. Les
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Christianity is not a reliable way to find the right moral answer. For example, lets take Southern Methodist University, where a former proselytizing colleague got his brain washed. see https//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodist_Episcopal_Church,_South for reference.
    It originated because of slavery
    Which was justified by biblical passages in both the New and Old books.
    According to its own website,

    http://www.smu.edu/StudentAffairs/Chaplain/CRP

    During the Civil Rights era, the church that controlled SMU
    when it mattered and civil rights was being decided, had a broken moral compass. It now is trying to assuage its guilt over its evil role in the Civil Rights movement generations after it no longer matters what they do.

    South Carolina at the time of Slavery through the Civil Rights era was one of the most religious places in the country and the most racist.

    You might argue that among the white churches of the South you could have been lucky and found one that was not immoral. But, you would have had better luck finding the right answer flipping a coin. Even better, you could have asked a secular humanist.

  10. E.A. Blair
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Is Fraser being solipsistic or is it just me?

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      well, if he were being solipsistic,wouldn’t it be just him? :)

      I just couldn’t resist.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        LOL!

  11. Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I demand to know the meaning of that rock! Not how it was formed. Not what forces put it there. What does that rock MEAN?!?! What is its PURPOSE?!?!

    Theists have simply manufactured this pseudo hard problem. The problem of meaning doesn’t exist, so they get no points when science produces no answers.

    “What meaning can you get from the Resurrection if you can’t show that the Resurrection happened? Only the meaning that you can derive from any work of fiction. Personally, I get more meaning from Zorba the Greek (read it!) than from the Bible.”

    Bingo. Although for me, it’s the music if Bach (listen to it!). YMMV.

    • Dominic
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      “I demand to know the meaning of that rock!” – it is something for the Johnson in us to kick when annoyed with the Berkeleys of this world!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      I demand to know the meaning of that rock!

      That sounds like a geological question. And as a geologist, I shall attempt to answer the question in the least complicated (if still headache-inducing) manner that I can.
      I shall need your assistance.
      And one of your socks.
      Observe how the rock fits into the sock, almost as if the one were made for the other.
      Observe the sock, whirling around my head, imparting centripetal force to the rock to counteract it’s intertia.
      Observe the sock, containing the rock, coming towards the middle of your forehead.
      Do you now understand the Tao of the rock?
      Sorry, I failed my Philosophy 1.1.1 entry test. It’s probably why I’m a geologist.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        It’s a good thing the rock I was pointing to was very small.

    • Posted March 28, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Religionists are the ultimate marketers: first, invent a problem. Second, offer the cure at a price that’s reasonable (to them, not the customer).

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      For me, it’s science. That is, learning how the world works, and how we know that.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        Oh, absolutely. I just thought that went without saying ’round these parts.

  12. Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    all I see are theists who want to claim that their “meaning” is better than anyone else’s. That’s all their prating about how great their particular religion is comes down to.

    I am happy to have my own meaning based on what is important to me. I do not need to play pretend that this meaning comes from some primitive power fantasy.

  13. Chris
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    I’ve read Giles Fraser’s columns in the Saturday Guardian for years. They’ve never once made the slightest bit of sense.

    • Dermot C
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Fraser is a weird character, an articulate speaker and writer with a rackety CV. He’s the one who challenged Richard Dawkins on radio to reproduce the full 26 or so words of the title of ‘The Origin…’.

      He is also the ex-Dean, or whatever he was called, of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral who encouraged the anti-globalization protesters to camp out on the steps of the church: with the entirely predictable consequences that they stayed there and a court order had to be sought in order to get them to move. For that he was sacked.

      He is unusual in that he is an ex-member of the Socialist Workers Party, a small, allegedly Trotskyist sect, and you can feel the continuity in his demeanour in the evident pent-up anger in his vocal delivery.

      Speaking of which, he regularly appears on the 90-second God-slot of Radio 4’s Today programme in the morning – ‘Thought for the Day’. In which, like all his liberal co-religionists, he objectively and a little bit bitterly reports some aspect of current affairs: and in the last 15 seconds, he predictably concludes, ‘This is a little bit like Jesus when He…’.

      I read a recent Guardian column of his which almost in passing detailed his attempt(s) to kill himself: you have to feel sorry for the bloke, but there was something vaguely look-at-meish about the whole tone: uncomfortably and self-regardingly narcissistic.

      You get the feeling from him that his Christianity, rather like that of Johnny Cash (if JC really was a Christian), does not give him solace, that his guiding thoughts are anger and despair: and that his Christianity hangs by only the most tenuous of threads – his perception of it as poetry.

      Slaínte.

  14. Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    This bit from Fraser: “It seems odd to argue that science is long behind the curve, and way behind theology, but when it comes to cosmology it feels very much like that to me.”

    While reading that I mentally translated it to: “The tissue of lies from religion comes from a much longer roll of toilet paper than that of science.”

    • bric
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I’m completely stumped by Fraser’s remark; what can it mean? I can’t think of any contribution to cosmology by theology. He may not feel that science has got very far in that area, but compared with the wholly negative contribution of theology it is somewhere.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Well, religion has been wondering about “the beginning” for thousands of years, modern science only for a couple of hundred tops.

      Therefore, theology is clearly going to be way ahead of science. I mean it had a head start of several millenia. How could science possibly compete with the ramblings of primitives armed only with such things as the Hadron Collider and BICEP2?

      Or in other words: he pulled that one out of his derriere.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

        I think you need a comma after primitives. ;)

  15. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Sub

  16. Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    The lack of any purpose to nature very much does inform us how to live in one vital respect. Since there is no way we ought to be, there is no way we could ever fail ourselves. All the self suspicion and self recrimination that accompanies the belief that we could fall ourselves becomes pointless.

    Cheers,

    Jack

  17. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Dear Christians:

    Keep the good fiction books coming. Otherwise, please shut those arrogant, whiny pie holes.

    XXOO

    • gordon
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      ..but next time employ a decent editor

  18. Sastra
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Science is better at dealing with truth questions than theology. Rather, I think that it doesn’t much matter existentially. At least, I can’t see how something that happened 13bn years ago helps me understand anything about what I am up to this morning.

    Astronomy can tell you about the stars, but it can’t tell you what the stars mean. For that, we must turn to astrology.

    Really, it seems both childish and narcissistic to be so focused on your life that you can’t imagine a universe which isn’t also focused on your life. Sure, cosmology may give us information about the Big Bang. Big deal. Who cares?

    Astrology answers the Big Questions: should I change my job? Who should I marry? Is it a good idea to invest in my brother-in-law’s business deal? The idea that the stars and planets and comets are just zipping around up there with NOTHING to say about IMPORTANT issues is just ludicrous. And unsatisfying.

    And arrogant. Astronomers should a little humility and give astrology more credit.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      +2

  19. Caleb Jablonicky
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    “And the more I know about physics, the more robust will be the meanings I come up with, because they’ll be based on better data. [JAC: I’m not quite sure about this last bit. Will understanding how our brain works truly help us give meaning to our lives? Perhaps, but it’s a stretch.]”

    I think all Butterworth’s getting at is that the meanings we create will simply be better informed and less contrary to reality as our general understanding increases. He doesn’t indicate, for instance, that the process of learning about the brain will directly impart meaning, but it will inherently result in the ability to concoct meanings that are more in-tune with the actual nature of ourselves and reality.

  20. Haris Basit
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Religion’s answer to the meaning of life is that we are here to serve a being that has absolutely no need for us. If this isn’t the definition of meaningless existence then what is?

    • DV
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Are you sure? Maybe God needs us otherwise his existence would be pointless.

      • Posted March 28, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know – the notion that an omniscient, omnipotent, extratemporal, pandimensional and allegedly perfect being would “need” anything, much less the thoughtless adoration of an insignificant number of nigh-infinitely lesser beings beyond their mortal lives and throughout infinity is completely incoherent.

  21. HaggisForBrains
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    …tries to fly the dead canard…

    Lovely turn of phrase!

    • Posted March 29, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Here comes another dead canard! Duck!!!

      /@

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:54 am | Permalink

        :-D :-D

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 30, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

          Ant should be this site’s official punster. I’ve never heard of anyone better at puns!

          • Filippo
            Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            Truer words never came through falser teeth. ;)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              Are you saying I wear dentures?

              • Filippo
                Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                No. Just heard it years ago, thought of it, couldn’t resist.

          • Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

            Oh, come now. Others have come up with better ones. Who had *ad homophone attack*? I wish I had thought of that!

            /@

            • gbjames
              Posted March 30, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

              I thought it was an ad homonym attack. Two attacks in one, actually, although they sound the same.

              • Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

                As it is earlier in the day for you, it may be your memory is the better.

                /@

              • gbjames
                Posted March 30, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                A rare occasion, if true. ;)

            • Dermot C
              Posted March 30, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

              Ant did coin ‘internicene blood-letting’ for the 4th century Christian bloodbath. Which was peerless. And which I have used myself elsewhere, and sometimes without attribution, to my shame. The trouble is that only 4 people in the world understand the joke. Natheless, I do believe in recycling.

              Heard a good one today, and miles OT.

              Oscar Wilde challenged anyone to nominate a subject for him to produce a pun.
              The reply came, “Queen Victoria.”
              “Queen Victoria is not a subject,” he replied. Ker-tish!

              Slaínte.

              • Filippo
                Posted March 30, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

                How about the Internicene Bleed?

  22. Posted March 28, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    And the more I know about physics, the more robust will be the meanings I come up with, because they’ll be based on better data. [JAC: I’m not quite sure about this last bit. Will understanding how our brain works truly help us give meaning to our lives? Perhaps, but it’s a stretch.]

    In context I do not get the feeling that he was referring to data about the structure of the brain but rather to data about all of reality, just like you pointed out yourself earlier: we are alone in an indifferent universe etc.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 29, 2014 at 4:38 am | Permalink

      +1

  23. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Two responses to the eternal whine that “science doesn’t provide the Meaning of Life™” and “religion does”. Both have been posted here before, by me, in fact, but they nevertheless bear repeating:

    From Jack Vance: “Of all questions, why? is the least pertinent. It begs the question; it assumes the larger part of its own response; to wit, that a sensible response exists.” For the religionist to say that the universe has a purpose is a claim in need of evidence. For a religionist to push it further, and say that since science does not provide purpose or a meaning for life, it is therefore wrong, is commit the fallacy of Appeal to Consequences.

    From Christopher Hitchens (two quotes, actually): “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.”
    And: “Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made.” In other words, we now know where to look for answers to questions. Any questions.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted March 28, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      Mark – thanks for the quotes. Meaning is something we have always invented – either via religious fairy tales, or more honestly via existentialism. There is no narrative of essence – we have concocted it and are improving it. Somehow, some geniuses worked out that slavery was abhorrent – and it wasn’t any of the religions! It was certainly missing from that much vaunted ’10’. Each of us has a story to tell about how we found and honed our values. Religion stops people from thinking – often above their’s and other people’s navels. Thankfully we have modern philosophical geniuses who are willing to write the tomes, such as Sam Harris.

      http://www.samharris.org/

  24. Jim Thomerson
    Posted March 28, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    I read a story about Steven Hawking receiving a medal from the Pope. Who congratulated him on the Big Bang setting the limits of science. Hawking gave a presentation at the meeting, with an innocuous title, which treated studying pre Big Bang using something called imaginary time.


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