Dr. Karl continues his critique

I’m sure that, like the readers of Oliver Twist who couldn’t wait for each month’s installment, you’ve all been anticipating the latest addition to Karl Giberson’s obsessive multipart critique of my views.  He’s now up to part four.  This time he faults my failure to engage his points. (I plead not guilty.) He also says that I’ve misrepresented the views he set out in a HuffPo piece, a piece in which he claimed that the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” could be taken as “evidence that there is something out there.”  Giberson says that he didn’t necessarily mean that that “something out there” was God.

At no point did I suggest that the transcendent mystery of mathematics was grounded in God. In fact, I intentionally quoted from three mathematical physicists who had no conventional religious beliefs to make my point: . .

Oh for crying out loud!  Of course he meant God; he knows it and we all know it.  After all, the title of his HuffPo piece was “Mathematics and the religious impulse,” and it contains statements like these:

When it comes to science and religion, I think the onus is on the religious believer to justify the existence of religion. .

. . .So why religion?

I want to offer, by way of a short parable, a partial explanation for the religious impulse and why so many of us are driven to embrace realities that go beyond what science can establish with clarity. . .

. . . But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there. Whether they encounter something depends on factors that elude many of their less imaginative peers. This is a deeply religious impulse: one that goes beyond science, but not one without motivation.

“Transcendent mystery” is a code word for “God” in precisely the same way that “states’ rights” used to be code words for “segregation.”

Giberson is a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, and by his own admission a deeply religious man.  Nearly all of his blog posts address the BioLogos mission of reconciling science and God—his own Christianity in particular. (They worry a lot, over at BioLogos, about whether Adam and Eve were real people.)  If he didn’t mean religion, what did he mean?

Finally, he wonders why I called him Uncle Karl, and some of his supporters claim that the term “uncle” was mockery.  That’s certainly not true. I called him “Uncle Karl” because he was avuncular and seemed like a pretty nice guy, almost like a religious teddy bear.  I sort of liked him!

But I don’t any more: he seems muddled and even mean-spirited.  From now on he’s “Dr. Karl.”


  1. Ken Pidcock
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Giberson seems to be accusing Coyne of reading more into his argument than he had intended. There seems, to me, something to that. However, Giberson should acknowledge that he presents himself as a principal at BioLogos, the mission of which is to reconcile science with evangelical Christianity. So Coyne’s presumption that Giberson was arguing for supernaturalism isn’t entirely unfounded.

    I wonder if Collins knows his attitude toward biology.

    • Christopher Sarda
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Whenever someone has to write six posts on how someone didn’t understand the “semantics” of there writing it’s time to stop arguing with that person.

      Also some of us like the idea of ‘states rights’ and don’t like the idea of segregation and saddened that that’s what the idea of ‘state’s rights’ means now. 😦

      • Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Well it’s meant that for quite a long time. Not that that’s much consolation, but it has.

  2. Don
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    This confusion (Giberson’s) points up the fundamental problem we face on account of no one’s being able to say what God is. Or isn’t. For Giberson, the sense of “something out there” is such a loose feeling that it’s not correct to term that something “God,” because God, after is . . . what, exactly? And if religion isn’t essentially about Godishness, what’s it about?

    • Don
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      . . . because God, after all, is . . . what, exactly?

      • yesmyliege
        Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        It will always elude you. You obviously don’t have the imagination for it. ;D

      • Dominic
        Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink


        Well, Odin means ‘the furious one’!

    • GrueBleen
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      Kind of makes you feel some empathy for the apophatic deists, dunnit.

      I think Prof Coyne should have a nice afternoon tea chat with Karen Armstrong and leave the Gibersons of this world to their infinite regress fate.

  3. Joe Fatzen
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    To be fair, it’s hard to use “Uncle” without people thinking there’s an “Uncle Tom” snipe in there somewhere.

    • Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      I had assumed it was a take-off on “Uncle Joe” Stalin.

      • GrueBleen
        Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        Or ‘Uncle Sam’, maybe ?

    • sasqwatch
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I think “Uncle Jerry” has a really nice ring to it. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable typing “Dr. Jerry” or even “Dr. Coyne” for some reason. Now I know why.

    • Sili
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Not on this side of the pond. I merely think of the crazy uncle in the loft.

      Or perhaps the wicked uncle Ernie.

  4. Gary Allan
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    I am not disappointed with Giberson for his religious confusion of reality – this is everywhere and we are all confused to some extent. But now I learn that he is a physicist! and I teach physics. Physicists may certainly be confused like all humans, but a physicist should be a bit less confused … Very sad …

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Intelectual dishonesty thy name is Gibberish

  6. Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Wait, so a universe governed by simple computable rules suggests an omniscient tinkerer controlling the whole thing — but a universe composed of a series of ad hoc events wouldn’t?

    Methinks Uncle Karl has things backwards!

    • Posted October 16, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Emma Goldman pointed this out when she stated a law does not imply a lawgiver — only that *we* observe things to be a certain way. It’s our developed calibration technique.

      • Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Yes yes. Mathematics is something that doesn’t need a creator or even allow for one. There’s no design freedom in mathematics. The fact that the universe obeys mathematical laws suggests exactly the opposite than that it has a divine creator. Rather, it suggests it’s a mathematical object itself, and needs or admits of no willful creator.

        I think this is the only possible non-circular explanation for existence of universes. At the least, it’s the only non-circular explanation I know of, and it fits the data very well.

        • Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          So…you mean…we can’t use our god-given contra-causal free will to change the math and make the universe break the rules?

          Oh nooooooooooooooooo

          • Posted October 16, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            Hi Ophelia! Remember me from July when PZ was in Seattle? I gave you that book.

            I know you are joking but it’s still an interesting question. I think our emotions and our apparent free will (which I do not discount) are all in principle entirely describable and derivable mathematically. They are mathematical properties of an abstract mathematical object that requires no time or place to exist within. Rather, time and place are mathematical properties of the structure or relationships betwteen its sub-elements. So you can’t get around the mathematical rules through free will because your free will is built out of the same axioms itself.

            This idea is supported by Einsteinian relativity in which there is no unique “present” that all observers can agree on. Past, present and future all have equal existence. I think it’s a reasonable proposition that ultimately all of our perceptions including self-awareness and free will can be ultimately related to mathematical properties of a sufficiently-elaborate mathematical structure.

            I don’t think this precludes taking free will at face value, myself, however.

        • Sili
          Posted October 16, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          There’s nothing *but* design freedom in mathematics. We just choose the axiomatic basis that helps us describe reality.

          Zermelo-Fraenkel are not given from on high; they’re a carefully selected set of axioms that give us the minimal basis we need to do selfconsistent arithmetic and calculus.

          Mathematics is unreasonably useful, because *we* have designed it to be so.

          • Posted October 16, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

            I’m using Hilbert’s definition of mathematical existence here, that it is equivalent to being free of contradiction.

            Seems to me whatever mathematical structures you could build where you couldn’t do arithmetic at least wouldn’t be interesting. There’s a physical basis for thinking that the universe is a discrete-mathematics structure, so I don’t think calculus is a necessity.

            But anyhow, do you agree that after the axioms are selected, there’s no more design freedom? If so then we aren’t far apart. I wouldn’t disagree that there are different axiomatic bases available. But the choice has been made for us by nature or by circumstance of the particular mathematically structure that we’re part of.

            I suppose to agree with me that there’s no design freedom for a creator, you’d have to provisionally accept as I do that all contradiction-free mathematical structures exist and that physical existence is a special case of mathematical existence. This is Max Tegmark’s conjecture. I find it a very compelling idea, but I don’t claim that’s a scientific position. Tegmark tries to argue that it is, but his argument seems flawed to me.

            • Sili
              Posted October 16, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

              I wouldn’t disagree that there are different axiomatic bases available. But the choice has been made for us by nature or by circumstance of the particular mathematically structure that we’re part of.

              I don’t think it sounds right to say that Nature has made of choice of axioms for us. We may most of us stick with ZFC(CH?), but that’s not imposed on us from the outside. It’s still our choice. Other choices give the same description of the outside world – their differences lie only in the ‘useless’ mathematics, if you’ll pardon the expression.

              all contradiction-free mathematical structures exist and that physical existence is a special case of mathematical existence.

              I’m not sure that mathematical structures “exist”. That smells a lot like Platonism to me. That physical existence should be a subset of mathematical existence sounds completely backwards to me.

              Stuff need not exist for us to describe it. I know what a unicorn and an angel is, and I can describe them in great detail. Isn’t AC and Banach-Tarski much the same?

            • Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

              I think it’s fair to say that mathematical structures certainly exist. It may require a more flexible definition of the word exist than you’re used to, however. Certainly they exist in a certain sense, and the beauty of it is that that sense can be very concisely stated. So it is at least an interesting conjecture to suppose that physical existence is equivalent to mathematical existence. This conjecture would be demonstrated for practical purposes (I deliberately avoid saying proved here) if everything we observe and experience could be described and derived from a single set of axioms or as part of a single mathematical structure, to use Tegmark’s terminology.

              I’m not a mathematician and I am not familiar with all of your terms. (But, I did take a few pure math courses long ago, in addition to the many applied ones.) I don’t know what AC stands for. I looked up the Banach-Tarski paradox on wikipedia. These kind of problems, and like also the space-filling curve, don’t present a problem if the universe is built out of discrete mathematics, would you agree? I think it’s plausible that univeres are only built out of discrete mathematics. That may be tantamount to saying that continuous mathematical structures may not be free of contradiction, but I would be willing to accept that. It doesn’t mean they’re not useful for calculating stuff.

            • Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

              I want to add that when I offered that nature might have made the choice, I also offered the alternative that nature doesn’t choose, it treats them all equally. That is Tegmark’s proposition, perhaps in essence, and the proposal I favor.

              If nature makes the choice, then deity is soon to follow, but there will never be a description of how the deity decides or implements its choice, seems to me.

              On the other hand, if all structures exist equally, then the ones that can support physical existence as we know it can be simply special cases.

              Platonism in this modern form is fine with me. Is there something wrong with it? As I try to state it, it seems quite parsimonius and consistent with all observations, and non-circular and compelling. Can you tell me another universe-explaining hypothesis that can do this?

              I don’t disagree with that we are made out molecules, made out of atoms, made out of more elementary particles, probably made out of superstrings, probably made out of membranes or curved spacetime, and spacetime possibly made out of quantum loops. But ultimately it seems to me we have to arrive at an abstraction as the ultimate explanation. The integers have a more real existence than unicorns, because I can invent the integers, but when they are invented by the people on Alpha Centauri their integers are exactly the same as mine (isomrphic) though they may use different symbols to represent them.

    • GrueBleen
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Quite so. At the risk of repeating myself, if you are ‘amazed’ or ‘delighted’ or whatever that the universe can be described by mathematics, then you should have no trouble at all defining a universe that can’t be described mathematically. Has Giberson got one of those handy for Part Five d’you reckon ?

      It really is very simple: if there is any regularity whatsoever in the universe, then that regularity can ineluctably be described by mathematics.

      And if there is no regularity in the universe, than neither is there us, or God.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted October 17, 2010 at 12:44 am | Permalink

        You ask for a universe that cannot be described mathematically.
        For that question to make sense, you need to say whether the describer is *inside* the universe to be described, or *outside* of it. If inside, then by definition the observer could not function rationally, and could not describe anything.
        If completely outside, the observer would not be able to observe anything at all, as it would have no way to act with said universe.
        Either way, the question is rendered meaningless.

        • GrueBleen
          Posted October 17, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink

          Perhaps you could see your way clear to tell Karl Giberson that. Oh, and Paul Davies while you’re at it.

  7. Kevin
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    At the risk of going Godwin…Herr Dr. Karl?

    Seems to fit.

  8. Stephen P
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    This form of ultra-literalistic response seems to be rather common among religious people. “I didn’t use the word God, so I wasn’t talking about God and you’re mean to say I was!” No, Dr Giberson, but you mentioned religion 11 times. So what were you arguing for – Zen Buddhism?

    I think the strongest criticism you could make of Jerry Coyne’s remarks was his assumption that Giberson knew what point he (Giberson) was trying to make; it’s possible that he was merely waffling aimlessly.

  9. Filippo
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    “But I don’t any more: he seems muddled and even mean-spirited. From now on he’s ‘Dr. Karl.'”

    Just congenially curious – “mean-spirited” by the standard of, say, Dr. P.Z. (“Collins is a clown”) Myers?

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      But he is a clown.

      Truth counts.

      • KG
        Posted October 19, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        I object to this vile slander on clowns! – Bozo

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    he claimed that the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” could be taken as “evidence that there is something out there.”

    This is one of the more stupid gaps of the gods out there, as you really have to pry it open with massive forceps: what pray tell would “reasonable effectiveness” of physics methods be?

    It is true that some mathematicians and physicists have been pondering why a chosen tool has been chosen, but it is easily seen as use of confirmation bias. For every piece of math that sticks to empirics, there are noodles of FSM (Flying Spaghetti Math) thrown around that never does.

    Moreover, the math used is often directly empirically developed to suit, and takes the form of physico-math algorithms. A premier example is 2nd quantization, where AFAIK a) there is no axiomatics, and severe doubts there ever will be, and b) the result must be checked for physical reasonableness afterwards as the physics-math heuristic alone won’t suffice.

    To return to math on its lonesome, its proof methods are heuristically developed as well as some of its results quasi-empirical. (Say, algorithms for deciding Chaitin’s constant, where the last bit can be simplest chosen by picking it from a uniform stochastic distribution. Or computer proofs, too large for checking methods involving humans.)

    There simply isn’t any tool used in science that hasn’t been developed and chosen for reasonable effectiveness by humans. And that tests the exact opposite of what Giberson suggests, namely that there isn’t “something out there”.

    And as some crack commenters note, if you pry that gap open, it will only spew natural processes and no supernatural exceptionalness at you. Giberson hopes for a Ginnungagap, but only gets natural order.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      “Or computer proofs”

      Actually, considering human fail-ability, it has been suggested that most math is prone to uncertainty every as much as pure empirical methods. (Except less quantifiable such.)

  11. Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    “But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there. Whether they encounter something depends on factors that elude many of their less imaginative peers.”

    I interpret this to mean: “You would know God is real if you just used your imagination.”

    • steve oberski
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      … and are willing to make stuff up.

  12. Steven Carr
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Mathematics is unreasonably effective.

    The universe might not obey Euclidean geometry, but our Euclidean geometry works unreasonably effectively on planet Earth.

    God has arranged things so that even when we use the wrong geometry, we still get unreasonably effective answers.

    Isn’t God great? He arranges things so that even our mistaken ideas turn out to work just as well as the correct ideas.

  13. Zoe
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    “. . . But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there. Whether they encounter something depends on factors that elude many of their less imaginative peers.”

    Ah, so people who do not ‘understand’ the eternal mystery have poor imagination? That’s quite an admission! Does Dr Karl not know the difference between understanding and imagination?

  14. Andy
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the “Uncle Karl” thing.

    Well, I have to admit, I’ve been calling him “Uncle Karl” because I was mocking him (and his ideas). But I was never just mocking him. It was always in the context of arguing against his ideas. It’s just “ball-breaking,” as my father used to say—which is to say, it’s a way of cleverly ribbing someone without descending into outright invective. Now that I think about it, you do have to kinda-sorta like someone in order to “break their balls.” (Apologies for the Goodfellas-esque language.)

  15. Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Giberson says he was talking about the religious impulse, as opposed to “God,” in the HuffPo article. That’s a reasonable enough thing to do – it’s part of the subject but not the whole of it, so “God” could be set aside for the purpose of discussing the impulse itself.

    But, the fact is that Giberson is a Christian, and we all know that, so an argument of that kind does raise the question for skeptical types – “yes but how do you get from there to the highly specific and idiosyncratic beliefs of your religion?”

    I suppose I get Giberson’s frustration if he really did want to address just the religious impulse in that particular post, but…at the same time, given all his baggeg (Eastern Nazarene, BioLogos, all this theistic blogging, his book) he can’t really expect people to ignore it.

    • GrueBleen
      Posted October 16, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      So, ‘religious impulse’ is what you have when you’re not having a ‘religion’ ?

      None of that gods and theities and churches baggage that you have to defend against ravenously logical atheists ?

      Yeah, I can kind of go for that. I think I’ll just go now and have a nice little ‘religious impulse’ all about my own infallible omnipotence if that’s ok with everybody.

  16. gillt
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Gibberson: “[…]because they know in their bones”

    However, the marrow biopsy suggested nothing of the sort.

    I question an imagination that resorts to cliches in their central argument.

  17. truthspeaker
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “If he didn’t mean religion, what did he mean?”

    Whatever you, the reader, would like him to mean. Whatever makes you most comfortable. That’s what he’s trying to do – use language that is deliberately vague, so you can read whatever you want into it.

    In our world we see such vagueness as a hindrance to communication. In his it passes for profundity.

  18. AdamK
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I think that at this point Jibberson knows he’s been pwned on the actual arguments, and is just reduced to trying to drown Jerry out with a load of meaningless jibberjabber. Pointless to argue–he’ll just inflate another dozen contentless similes until he’s had the last word.

  19. Tim Harris
    Posted October 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Dr Karl should have a conversation with the ghost of G.H. Hardy, who would soon put him right about the foolishness and self-indulgence of leaning over railings, gazing into abysses that aren’t there, feeling things in your bones, maundering on about ‘the eternal mystery’, and congratulating yourself on the superiority of your imaginative powers in comparison with the hoi-polloi.

  20. Posted October 17, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    How about leaving it at Uncle Karl, as Dr Karl is taken by possibly Australia’s best known science geek, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki http://www.drkarl.com.

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