Michael Ruse: New Atheism is as bad as the Tea Party

I can’t deal with this diatribe at the Chronicle of Higher Education:

If I say my love is a red, red rose, I am saying nothing about her mathematical abilities, and if I say (as today’s scientists do say) that the world is a whacking big machine, I am saying nothing about such questions as why there is something rather than nothing, why morality, or (and this is more controversial) why computers made of meat (aka brains) produce sentience.

I think science leaves these questions open, and if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so.  It doesn’t mean that we have to accept the answers of the religious, and it doesn’t mean that religion cannot be criticized – I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution – but I don’t think it can be criticized by science.

Science has tentative answers for the “something rather than nothing” question, and we’re working on the evolution or morality (its secular origin is also an empirical question) and the evolutionary and physiological bases of consciousness.  The questions may be “open,” but they’re not in principle beyond the purview of science.  The “answers” of religious people boil down to this: all these phenomena came from God.  End of story.  As Anthony Grayling notes, we may as well say that all these phenomena came from Fred. Religion has not, and cannot, provide good explanations for real-world phenomena.

And then there’s this ridiculous alarmism:

This is why, whatever is said about me, I am not about to change my mind – at least not without some arguments.  And this is why I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.  It is not so much that their views are wrong – I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements – but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.

Because, of course, the New Atheists are philosophically unsophisticated:

Perhaps it is just a turf war, but I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club.  I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science.  That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework.  Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.

No, we don’t have to show that Kuhn and Foucault are wrong about the nature of science.  All we have to show—and have shown—is that religion and science use different and incompatible ways to “understand” the universe, and that the religious way isn’t really a way of understanding at all.  All we have to show is that there is only one science, which is practiced by researchers of all creeds and nationalities, but that there are elebenty gazillion religions, all of which disagree about their “truths.”  All we have to show is that religious “truths”, like resurrection and parthenogenetic humans, violate scientific ones.  All we have to show is that we know a lot more about physics and biology than we did 200 years ago, but don’t know a jot and tittle more about the nature of supposed gods.  And all we have to show is that faith is considered a virtue in religion, but a vice in science.  We’ve already shown these forms of incompatibility.  QED.

I love it that Ruse, like Jeremy Stangroom and Jean Kazez, characterizes our philosophical naivité and so-called stridency as “immoral.”  Do these philosophers even know what “immorality” is?

156 Comments

  1. Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    What an absurd position. Our on-going discussions about evidence, gods and the supernatural has been a philosophical one. And, we are actually having the relevant discussions rather than sitting back cosily with the believers and simply insisting that different belief systems are compatible.

  2. Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    The problem with the Tea Partiers is not that “they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions” per se, it’s that lack of effort plus their opinions being hateful, bigoted, shortsighted, and downright dangerous.

    I think, for example, that certain environmentalists don’t think deeply about why they hold the positions that they do, but their position happens to be more or less right most of the time, so it’s not a threat on the level of the Tea Party. If you want to limit industrial pollution, say, because of some ill-considered notions of purity rather than concerns about preservation and sustainability, that doesn’t change the fact that limiting industrial pollution is a good thing. In contrast, if you oppose limits on carbon emissions because of the very rational notion that you seek to lose financially from those limits rather than ill-considered notions that anthropogenic global warming is all a big hoax, that doesn’t change the face that this is a bad thing.

    I’m not endorsing not thinking, and I think Ruse is way off base to say that the Gnus (well, most of us) don’t carefully consider our positions. But even ignoring that, he misfires on identifying what is wrong with the Tea Party. Not thinking is bad, but plenty of people don’t think very deeply and still lead perfectly reasonable lives and hold perfectly reasonable political opinions. The Tea Party is dangerous because they don’t think and they are dangerously wrong.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Also, even if we were to accept Ruse’s accusation that us gnus “wont’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions,” we’re still talking about a whole different level of not-thinking. Failing to “think seriously” enough about the faith-science compatibility question in order to have a coherent opinion about it is one thing; failing to “think seriously” enough to realize Obama is not a damn Muslim is a different thing altogether!

  3. Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I’m tired of hearing Kuhn misused in this way. Thomas Kuhn thought that the values of accuracy and consistency were essential to science. Religion does not have any similar commitments. End of story.

    • Mike B
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Seconded. Ruse’s use of Kuhn is a typical ‘google university’ comment, born of ignorance or cliche, or both.

  4. Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    And all we have to show is that faith is considered a virtue in religion, but a vice in science.

    That one sentence, I should think, is more than ample refutation to Ruse’s calumny.

    I think science leaves these questions open, and if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so. It doesn’t mean that we have to accept the answers of the religious, and it doesn’t mean that religion cannot be criticized – I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution – but I don’t think it can be criticized by science.

    With that simple statement, Ruse so powerfully demonstrates that he hasn’t a clue what science is. Really, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve known fundamentalists who have a better understanding of the scientific method.

    Cheers,

    b&

  5. Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Oh, jeezis, not again. Has anyone been keeping track of how many articles Ruse has done on the “new atheists are evil” theme? It must be at least 20 – many in the Huffington Blurt, several in the CHE, several in the Guardian/Comment is Free.

    Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      If he can’t have the book sales of Dawkins et al. at least he can make up for it in articles printed.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Mr Ruse should be careful what he wishes for. If the Gnus were to actually succumb to the Nu-Framers’ incessant non-arguments, people like Ruse will have nothing to write about.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        Are you under the strange delusion that he has something to write about as it is?

    • r
      Posted March 22, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      hes got a new one up at huffpo right now.

  6. Helen Wise
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Prof. Ruse says, “even I sometimes wonder why I am in such bad odor”.

    Later, he says, “this is why I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.” This is a bit of noxious hyperbole that is a complete discussion stopper.

    Prof. Ruse is not serious about discussing the topic.

    He wants vengeance because he’s been called out here and at HuffPo for the stupidity of his position, and his feefees are hurt.

  7. Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    There are so many different kinds of smug just in the quoted bits…I can hardly bear to look at the article itself.

    Ruse gets more detestable with each instantiation of this “newatheistsareevil” meme.

    • Helen Wise
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Oh, please don’t miss the article itself. It’s a delight. He confesses that he is “not much loved by a number of campus feminists”. The professor is tremendously full of himself, for absolutely no reason I can determine.

      • Anonymous
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        That statement made me do a double-take. I’d love to hear the backstory on that one.

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        No, don’t worry, I’m going to read it all. I just have to steel myself.

        I know it – the way he displays his narcissism in every single article he does is toe-curling.

  8. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Ruse is about as effective at philosophy as a male dog is at curtailing the licking of his privates.

    He has nothing to back up what he says and he is alway barking up the wrong tree.

  9. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    It is not so much that their views are wrong – I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements – but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.

    The man doesn’t get out much, does he? To accuse one’s critics of not thinking seriously about why they hold their positions simply because you disagree with those positions is a particularly reprehensible form of intellectual dishonesty.

    By the way, my dictionary holds the “goose” pronunciation perfectly acceptable.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      To accuse one’s critics of not thinking seriously about why they hold their positions simply because you disagree with those positions is a particularly reprehensible form of intellectual dishonesty.

      Quite. To me it just sounds like he hasn’t really been listening to his critics making their case. Which, if you will, is a moral failing as well.

  10. Uncle Bob
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I especially like the threat at the end. If your darn Gnu’s don’t shut up the Supreme Court will rule that science is a religion!

    Absorb that. All his attempts to make science and religion compatible just went into the garbage. He says none of that matters because we should pretend they are compatible as a political maneuver.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      He’s still pushing that idea? Wow.

      It turns out that the Great Philosopher Ruse can’t distinguish between the idea that the content of science and religion may be incompatible, and the idea that the methods of science and religion may be incompatible.

    • Cannabian
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      I think this point is worth considering given the large numbers of religious people in the U.S. I have been watching this battle from the cozy sidelines here in Canada and recently began to fear the inevitable backlash from the ‘faithful’ in your country.

      My atheist friends and I have been having lively discussions on the merit of the timing of this open warfare by the gnu atheists. I am of the opinion that the current generation of young people are seriously starting to question their beliefs and inevitably will become rational adults. In doing so they will break the chain of religious fervor that has gripped the U.S. for so long now.

      However, the generation that currently makes the rules have hardened their faith and take the assault on their beliefs personally. They are not going to roll over and play dead on this.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Quite. Michael De Dora reports that the legal eagles at CFI – Eddie Tabash in particular, I think he said – tried hard to explain to him why that was dead wrong, and he simply paid no attention.

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        What was that about listening to the experts again?

  11. Greg Esres
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so.

    Empty words. What does “perfectly legitimate” mean and by what authority does Ruse apply this to religion?

  12. Garnetstar
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    “Do these philosophers even know what “immorality” is?”

    Here’s Ruse’s account of his sworn deposition testimony in McLean vs. Arkansas, 1981:

    Q: “How do (you) regard morality?”

    A: “I intuit moral values as objective realities (Don’t ask me what that means…)”

    There’s the answer to your question, Jerry. No, Ruse doesn’t know what he means by morality, so also can’t know what he means by immorality is either.

    M. Ruse, “A Philosopher’s Day in Court”, Science and Creationism, Ed. Ashley Montagu (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984).

    BTW, Ruse also testifies that his religious beliefs are “agnosticism with flashes of deism”, though elsewhere he claims (sorry, can’t find the reference) that he’s been an atheist since he was seventeen.

    One confused guy! No wonder he makes no sense.

  13. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Most Anglo-American philosophers don’t believe there is any turf war with science at all and generally see the disciplines as cooperative and informed by science. I would suspect that many more are on the side of the New Atheists than on Ruse’s. This “New Atheists are philosophically unsophisticated” stuff is just getting old and boring.

  14. Drosera
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    The right-wing politicians now running my state of Florida just love to hear that scientists think that evolution is incompatible with the religious beliefs of their constituents.

    Therefore, according to prof. Ruse, scientists should not tell what they really think? Therefore they should shut up and pretend that there is no freedom of speech? Or spout worthless accommodationist drivel that passes for philosophy? With ‘friends’ like Ruse atheists don’t need enemies.

    • Drosera
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I can imagine that in the sixties Ruse would have criticized the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King for voicing their stand on civil rights. Mind you, not because Ruse was opposed to this stand, but because being too vocal on this issue might anger the Ku Klux Klan.

  15. S.K.Graham
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I just want to chime in on one error you have made in your response here.

    Science, and in particular Physics, does not, even remotely, have “tentative answers” to the “something rather than nothing” question, Steven Hawking’s latest statements on the subject notwithstanding.

    Physics can at best suggest that the observable universe may have come about as some sort of random quantum fluctuation in the vacuum, but this presupposes the existence of a vacuum in the first place — a vacuum that can be described by the properties of certain quantum fields. Such a vacuum is not “nothing” in the philosophical sense. As far as I’m concerned it is not even “nothing” in the pragmatic sense. It is a thing like any other thing, with properties and the potential to change over time.

    The question of why anything exists (including quantum vacuums or other versions of “nothing” from which we might have sprung) is sort of the “ultimate gap” in which the religious may hide God.

    A better response, rather than to incorrectly say that science is answering (or could ever answer, tentatively or otherwise) the “existence” questions, is simply to point out that 99.99999% of the claims made by religious people *are* in the realm of observation, and science keeps proving these claims false. The “existence gap” is a very small closet for God to hide in, and supposing that “God” fills that gap tells one absolutely nothing else about “God” (loving, merciful, answers prayers, chooses people and grants them promised lands, etc.).

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      If there’s an error here, it’s not mine but Victor Stenger’s, who’s discussed evidence for the notion that there is something because “nothing” is unstable.

      • S.K.Graham
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I assume you refer to: http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/why_is_there_something_rather_than_nothing

        Stenger here effectively defines “nothing” as the simplest possible state of the universe. He claims that his “nothing” has no properties, when in fact (without admitting it) he relies upon it having the property of being subject to the laws of quantum theory. Furthermore, because his “nothing” is the simplest possible state of the universe, he is already presupposing the existence of a universe that can be in a particular state, with the potential to be in other states.

        Any rationalist/skeptic/scientist/atheist who read Stenger’s article (or Hawking’s book) and accepted it as a scientific answer to the “existence question” needs to heed their own advice regarding “argument from authority” and “special pleading”.

      • stvs
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        The commented is wrong, and Ruse is plainly ignorant of the science. Guth’s quote on the subject suffices:

        The question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science — everything can be created from nothing…it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch. —Alan Guth The Inflationary Universe

        • stvs
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          I’m following this up to encourage everyone to read the appendix in Guth’s book explaining why it’s possible to get the universe from nothing. It’s a very simple freshman-level argument that nonetheless was missed by the likes of Newton and others.

          These arguments do not depend on the authority of Guth or Hawking (or, as Ruse would apparently prefer, the authority of Foucault), but on basic physical and mathematical arguments that any freshman can check themselves.

          It’s all the damning of Ruse that he demonstrates ignorance of these arguments yet cluelessly pontificates about their absence.

          • Joe Fatzen
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps he is just not sophisticated in his understanding of… understanding.

        • S.K.Graham
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          Guth is guilty of the same fallacy. Quoting him as authority does you no good.

          Guth’s “nothing” is just the vacuum, filled with quantum fields that happen to be in their simplest state. This might be “nothing” in teh sense of “absence of matter”, but it most certainly is *something*.

          • stvs
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

            Wrong. “Nothing” violates the uncertainty principle. If you don’t like the uncertainty principle, take it up with the Fourier transform, not us.

            And as I *just* explained, you don’t have to take Guth as an authority for the validity of ex nihlio. Just check the validity of his arguments yourself. Your posts show that you are unfamiliar with even the basic principles, so please read just a little before expounding on this subject.

            • S.K.Graham
              Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

              The “uncertainty principle” is a property of wave functions which are defined over the Hilbert space of possible states of a system. In other words, the uncertainty principle is a property of *something*. There is no basis to say that the uncertainty principle has any meaning, let alone any application to the question of something from nothing.

              If Guth’s argument is so simple, why not recreate it here, in your own words? At least provide a link, or a book title, edition, and page reference — maybe I can torrent it. I am entirely confident that you have either misunderstood Guth’s argument or conclusions, or else Guth was simply wrong on this point.

              • stvs
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

                <facepalm>

                I gave you a full citation in my very first comment.

                Perhaps now is a good time to invoke an argument from authority. You began with the incorrect claim that “Physics, does not, even remotely, have “tentative answers” to the “something rather than nothing” question, Steven Hawking’s … notwithstanding”. When shown how wrong this is with a single citation of Guth, now you just flat out say that Hawking and Guth are wrong but YOU are right about QM when you don’t even have the ability to read a comment thread or search for a book on the subject.

                This puts you deep into crackpot territory.

              • S.K.Graham
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

                No, this puts me in I-happened-to-overlook-your-citation territory. By the way, that was not a “complete” citation.

                In any event, I was unable to google up the text. It is highly unlikely that I will have the time to obtain a hard copy prior to this thread being long forgotten.

                As I said, if the argument you claim that Guth makes is so simple, you should be able to restate it here in your own words.

                Given your gross misunderstanding of the uncertainty principle, however, I fully expect that you did not understand what Guth was saying.

                Even the quote you provide smacks of a bit of poetic hyperbole on the part of Guth. That is to say, he was speaking partly literally, and partly tongue-in-cheek. Science does, indeed, have something to say about how matter might arise from empty vacuum. This is a kind of “something from nothing”. That is certainly fodder for physicists to make jokes about the universe being a “free lunch”. But the vacuum is certainly not “nothing” in the philosophical sense.

              • stvs
                Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

                Against my better judgment, I’ll replying here to a commenter who is traipsing around the crackpot zone. The intent is not to engage crackpotism, but to give a link to Guth’s nice ex nihilo exposition and his quote “everything can be created from nothing … the universe is the ultimate free lunch“.

                And, oh, what the hell &hellip now I can’t resist engaging our poster who says that Hawking and Guth’s QM is wrong. Here, let me Google that for you. Now back to reality.

                Here’s Guth on the scientific view of creating a universe from nothing:

                In 1973 Tryon published an article in the journal Nature, with the title “Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?” He had understood the crucial point: the vast cosmos that we see around us could have originated as a vacuum fluctuation—essentially nothing at all—because the large positive energy of the masses in the universe can be counterbalanced by a corresponding amount of negative energy in the form of the gravitational field. … A weak point of Tryon’s paper was its failure to explain why the universe had become so large. … Working within the general frame of  of accepted laws of physics, the inflationary theory can explain how the universe might have evolved from an initial seed as small as Tryon’s vacuum fluctuations. Inflation provides a natural mechanism for tapping the unlimited reservoir of energy that can be extracted from the gravitational field—energy that can evolve to become the galaxies, stars, planets, and human beings that populate the universe today. … If the inflationary theory is correct, then the inflationary mechanism is responsible for all the matter and energy in the universe. … Most important of all, the question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science. … Conceivably, everything can be created from nothing. … In the context of inflationary cosmology, it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.

                People can read further in Guth’s Appendix A the simple explanation of the negative energy stored in the gravitational field, and follow Wikipedia links for quantum fluctuations for an explanation of why the uncertainty principle abhors a vacuum.

              • Kevin
                Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

                Dear Mr. Graham: Please google “holes, first law of”.

              • S.K.Graham
                Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

                stvs,

                You apparently do not comprehend English. I never remotely implied anything was wrong with the *physics* of Guth, Hawking, or Stenger. What I have repeatedly made clear, and what you keep dodging, is that the various version of “nothing” in physics are not “nothing” in the sense of the questions “why is there something rather than nothing”. Even in the quote you just provided from Guth, he states that energy “can be extracted from the gravitational field … to become the galaxies, stars, planets, and human beings”. The gravitational field is certainly not *nothing*. To have a gravitational field, you must have a space-time manifold over which is is defined, so not only does the field exist, but so do space and time. These things are not “nothing”.

                It is clear from the extended quote that Guth’s “free lunch” quip was just that, a quip. It is true in a manner of speaking, but it is clear from the quotes provided that Guth is not intending to seriously engage the deeper philosophical question of “why is there something rather than nothing.” If you actually understood the physics you are talking about, you might also have a chance to clue in on nuances of humor and metaphor verses serious science in their statements.

                Hawking and Stenger, however, (and perhaps Guth, in other statements, but not those presented here) do both appear to seriously engage the philosophical question. And in this they are mistaken. They engage in a bait and switch with the definition of “nothing”. It is unclear whether they do this intentionally.

              • Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

                Why is there something rather than nothing? Is it simply because there is something, so nothing is not possible?

                Isn’t the whole ex nihilo question is meaningless? Without the universe, how can there be time or space? Ergo, how can there be “before” or “outside”? Ergo, how can you have the sequence, “nothing then something”?

                Surely, any physical idea that describes this universe, such as the uncertainty principle – which counterposes energy and time, or position and momentum – is nonsensical without a universe within which these concepts exist.

    • TheBlackCat
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      So I take it we are just supposed to take your word for it over Stephen Hawking (not Steven)? Care to explain exactly what is wrong with his specific statements?

      And even if you are right, what makes you so sure it is impossible for science to answer this question down the road? Just because we don’t have an answer new doesn’t mean it is impossible to come up with one.

      • S.K.Graham
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Of course. As anyone knows, argument from authority is the only basis for reaching sound conclusions. I am a higher authority than Hawking. You know because I just told you.

        I already did explain what is wrong — the “nothing” of Hawking (and Stenger) despite their hand-wavy attempts to avoid admitting it, is a state of a physical system that already exists and obeys certain quantum dynamical laws — ergo not “nothing”.

        Why can I be so sure? Because the question of “why does anything exist” cannot even be framed in terms of objective observables. It is at its heart a subjective question.

        I am not saying that “God” is a good answer to the question — just begs us to ask “why is there ‘God’ rather than nothing”.

        • stvs
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          You’re wrong. All the ex nihlio arguments are predicated on the adherence to some version of QM. Without that, any silly explanation, including Yahweh, could explain existence.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

          I am a higher authority than Hawking. You know because I just told you.

          I actually suspect you really don’t mean that as sarcasm.

          time for you to overturn physics!

          get out there and write up your remarkable observations for publication in your preferred journal of theoretical physics!

          or have you already tried?

          yeah, has that odor about it…

          • S.K.Graham
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

            What, exactly, have I proposed that has *anything* to do with overturning physics?

            The whole argument here revolves around the *definition* of “nothing”, and physicists are no more qualified to define the term than anyone else. This is especially true if they presume to be address someone else’s question which uses the term. They are not addressing the question unless they use the questioner’s definitions.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      I think we can see how science could start to take a look at the question of why something rather than nothing.

      We are a very long way from it yet, but when physics starts to look at situations where space and time are twisted in certain ways then we move beyond simple questions of causality that theology seems to think it is qualified to talk about.

    • scooty
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      So are you saying that god counts as a philosophical nothing, but the vacuum doesn’t? I’d say that knife cuts both ways.

      • S.K.Graham
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        No, I am not saying that. And I agree the knife cuts both ways.

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I don’t think philosophy has figured out what “nothing” is either. But physics (quantum mechanics in particular) seems to suggest that “nothing” doesn’t really exist in nature.

      • S.K.Graham
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        “nothing” doesn’t really exist anywhere you have a subjective observer capable of pondering the question. We don’t need physics or any other special brand of science to tells us that. All we need is the most fundamental science: observation and rational thought about whatever (i.e. not nothing) is observed.

        As rationalists we are on far steadier ground to simply say the question of “something rather than nothing” is ill-defined or just plain meaningless, rather than claim that science in any way has anything to say about it.

        • Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          Are you sure that the observation that empty space isn’t empty has nothing to do with this?

          • S.K.Graham
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            Or it has everything to do with it. It turns out that what we used to think of as “empty space” has all kinds of crazy shit going on it. “The vacuum” is most definitely something. And so it goes for anything physicists might call “nothing”. Why are there quantum fields? Why is there spontaneous symmetry breaking? If you want a physical explanation of “something from nothing” you *have* to give your “nothing” some properties which explain how “something” arises from it, in which case your “nothing” is really just “something which is not everything else”.

            • Marella
              Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

              Adding God to the equation doesn’t help matters at all. You go from asking “Why are there quantum fields” to “Why is there a God?”

              All you’re doing is adding an extra, meaningless step to the process that in no way impacts the result.

              • S.K.Graham
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                You have misunderstood my position and assume I am defending a position which I am not. I certainly am not asking “why is there a god?”.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I’m skeptical that physics can ever answer the “why something rather than nothing”, because it just leads to an infinite regression. If “nothing” is “unstable”, why is it unstable? Could another reality (whatever that means) exist where “nothing” was stable? If we discover an underlying cause of why the laws of physics are what they are, then what about the cause of those causes? And what does “nothing” mean, anyway? I’m not sure that’s a coherent concept.

      I’m not sure it’s a good idea to claim that science can answer that question, but rather focus on the truth that religion can’t answer it either.

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Why not do both? Claiming that science can’t answer this question is at the very least misleading, as there are many people working on trying to do just that, so we should call people out when they make this claim.

        The fact that the answer to this question may call up another question (and possibly even an infinite regression of questions) is another issue. It’s moving the goalposts. We should call people out on that too.

        Religion, of course suffers from the same problem – if not worse. If the answer to “why is there something, rather than nothing” is “God”, that only leads to the question “Why is there a God rather than nothing?” Never mind that religion can’t even explain what God is and how he will behave.

        • S.K.Graham
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          “Why not to both?”

          Because it is intellectually dishonest. Something we presumably abhor.

          • Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            How is it intellectually dishonest to point out that there are in fact scientists working on the “something instead of nothing” question?

            • S.K.Graham
              Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              because the ONLY thing scientist can do with the something from nothing question is to play a shell game or a bait and switch with the definition of “nothing”.

              If you cannot frame the question in terms of *observables* (at least in principle) then it ain’t science. If you *can* frame it in terms of observables, then you are talking about something and no longer talking about nothing. So do not pretend you are answering the philosophical question. The intellectually honest thing to do is attack the meaningfulness of the question, and also to attack any proposed answers from theology for the baseless made up fairytales that they are.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

              For what it’s worth, I think S.K.Graham has a valid point here. Physicists are not working on the “something instead of nothing” question; they’re working on the “standard model from primordial vacuum” question — which is an interesting question to be sure, but not what theologians mean when they talk about “something instead of nothing”. Of course it’s not clear what theologians do mean when they talk about that, so I think it’s appropriate (as Graham suggests) to press them on that point and force them to define their notion of “nothing”, instead of just conflating it with physicists’ notion of “nothing” and declaring victory.

              • stvs
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                You’re wrong too. Scientists really are working on the “something rather than nothing” question, and have many sensible things to say on the subject, as well as many open questions.

                Where did all the matter and energy in the universe come from? Simple conservation of energy: the “positive” energy is exactly cancelled out by the “negative” energy stored in the gravitational field. Measurements from WMAP confirm predictions made by ex nihilo related physical theories to spectacular accuracy.

                So to think, as Ruse does, that physics says nothing about “something from nothing” is inexcusably ignorant.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                Since you (stvs) insist on calling the primordial state of affairs that led to our universe “nothing”, I will rephrase the question: Why, at t=0, was there a kind of nothing that had within it the potential to become something, rather than nothing at all, with no potential to become anything? Why was there even a possibility that physics could happen? Talk of spontaneous symmetry breaking, quantum fluctuations, the Uncertainty Principle, balance of positive and negative energy, and so on does not address this question, since such talk presupposes a nothingness of the first kind, i.e. one compatible with physics of some sort. Now you might think that nothingness of the second, incompatible kind is an incoherent concept. (That’s what I tend to think, and so, apparently, does Graham.) But you can’t establish that by ignoring the question and simply assuming compatibility.

              • articulett
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

                This a picayune issue compared to the the big picture. No matter how “nothing” is defined or what existed at t=0, we can all agree that an invisible sky fairy is not a very good answer. (It’s about as good an answer as immaterial space gremlins.)

                In my opinion, gods become irrelevant once you point out that there is no evidence for souls. The only reason to try to make sense of proposed gods or to promote belief in such beings is the silly notion that you can live happily ever after for believing the right thing while being damned for eternity for doubt. Without souls, god believers lose all authority. There is no way to tell one invisible, immaterial being from the next.

                So long as souls are on the table, people will rationalize anything. They’ll be glad to engage you on the details of physics in order to have the opportunity to prop up their gods. In their minds, god is the answer to whatever science can’t explain. They have a vested interest in ignorance. But gods have never been an actual answer for anything.

              • stvs
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

                Uncertainty Principle sez:

                ΔEΔt > ℏ

                so the uncertainty of the energy E in the universe at t = 0 is infinite. That’s why you can’t say there’s “nothing” at t = 0 or any other exact time. And that’s what it means when we talk about a universe ex nihilo (“from nothing”) even as everyone understands that “nothing” is a physical impossibility.

                There are very good books on this subject available to you just by Googling.

                It’s obviously understood that not every blog commentor will know this material, but for Michael Ruse to botch this while writing about it in the Chronicle of Higher Ed should be deeply embarrassing.

              • Explict Atheist
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

                Philosophically, I think what we can say is just that the current version of the standard model framework is the answer that the available evidence appears to favor\suggest. Within this framework it appears to be entirely feasible for a universe to create itself ex-nihilo, so no god is needed within this framework for universe creation, just like no god is needed for life creation. We can only go as far as the evidence takes us, and the evidence provides us with this framework, so that framework in science functions as “god” does in religion, except its the evidence based explanation that we have instead of the faith based explanation.

              • S.K.Graham
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

                stvs,

                It it clear from your last response that you haven’t got a clue what the uncertainty principle means. The fact that fail to make the distinction the difference between t and delta_t makes that quite clear. Furthermore, the uncertainty principle can only be applied to a physical system that already exists, and as such has nothing whatever to do with the question of “nothing”.

              • stvs
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

                <facepalm>

                Δt = 0 at t = 0 or any other exact time.

                See above about “crackpot territory”.

              • Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                The uncertainty of energy is not infinite at t=0. It’s infinite if you try and determine the time with infinite precision. You can’t. It doesn’t make sense to talk about precisely t=0.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

                It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be something (in this case, nothing) philosophy/theology can imagine.

              • S.K.Graham
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

                stvs,

                Again you reveal your lack of comprehension. In overly simplified terms, delta_t refers to constraints (either due to uncertainty in an observe measurement of t or due to physical constraints on the possible values of t) of the timing of an observed event. You don’t just arbitrarily talk about some “exact” time and therefore declare delta_t to be zero, just because you happen to be talking about an “exact” time. That is not how the uncertainty principle works.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        …physics … just leads to an infinite regression

        That is only valid for philosophical agents, that sets up such a chain. Processes are different, say the standard cosmology that is at least future eternal without being blamed for “infinite regression”.

        If “nothing” is “unstable”, why is it unstable?

        As Stenger notes, we observe that symmetric states like it are prone to spontaneous symmetry breaking. The more symmetries the faster, so the perfect symmetry of “no laws, no nothing” will always be the most unstable.

        If we discover an underlying cause of why the laws of physics are what they are, then what about the cause of those causes?

        But that was the conceit of “old physics”, no doubt influenced by long time religious pondering, that the vacuum state, our physics somehow was uniquely constrained.

        Today we can recognize that various forms of environmental post-selection is one valid way to make for the self-contained universe that we need to have to be consistent with observation.

        There could still be something in the old conceit, which typically answer “because that is the way it has to be”.

        I.e. there is no “underlying cause” in such cases. It is “apparent cause” precisely in the same way that creationists see design out of selection respectively contingency.

        It seems very likely that science not only can answer this question but that it _has_ to, in order to validate cosmology and so on. This hasn’t changed from the old to the new physics.

        • S.K.Graham
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

          “so the perfect symmetry of “no laws, no nothing” will always be the most unstable.”

          This is a patently ridiculous extrapolation to a circumstance far, far removed from any observations upon which the laws of quantum field theory are based. To suppose that “spontaneous symmetry breaking” somehow applies to a system with “no laws, no nothing” is guesswork. It is also self contradictory, since you are supposing that some sort of “law of spontaneous symmetry breaking” still applies.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

            Actually it is an observation, as Stenger explains. No assumptions or “laws” involved. On the contrary, to assume that this state is different would be an (unwarranted) assumption.

            the laws of quantum field theory are based

            What are the laws of quantum field theory? Why do you suppose they hold, for instance in string theory QFT’s (or as some will have it, particles at large) is a special sector of the larger theory?

            • S.K.Graham
              Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

              The “laws” of QFT are just equations that fit (statistically) data from experiments. We have good reason (based on other observations) to suppose these “laws” would still fit data from hypothetical but impractical experiments, such as inside the sun, or in the dust of an intergalactic cloud 10 billion light years away. However, we have no reason, none, nada, zilch, to suppose that these laws would apply to an isolated system that consists of nothing — a system which does not even possess a Hilbert space over which the wave function may be defined, nor any of the fields of QFT, nor even a space-time manifold over which those fields are defined. We have no observations of any system which in any remote sense resembles such a “nothing” system.

              Observation? What observation? Please site the reference to any paper in which an experiment has been performed on a system of “no laws, no nothing”, or even close — a system which is also not contained within a larger system that does have laws and “something” (you know, like a lab).

              Observation, my ass.

            • S.K.Graham
              Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

              And, again, you talk in terms of “nothing” as a “state”. States are “of something”… that is you have a something, and it is “in a state”, presumably one of many possible states. States are defined by observable properties of the “something”.

              Where did the “something” come from that happens to be in the unstable state of “nothingness”?

              If you are doing physics, you are talking about “something” period. Or else you are playing a freaking word game.

              • Marella
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

                You seem to be assuming this ‘true nothing’ is a viable concept. I’m kind of curious as to what gives you the idea that you start at ‘true nothing’, because as far as i am aware there is no such evidence to support that concept.

              • S.K.Graham
                Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

                No, I have not asserted that “true nothing” (whatever) is a viable concept. But if you are going to pretend to offer an answer to the question posed by philosophers and theologians, you have to use their definition of “nothing”, and not substitute “the vacuum” or some other construct of physics.

                If you want to attack the philosopher or theologians question as “meaningless”, by all means do so. Just don’t pretend that science is answering or even can answer the question.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          As Stenger notes, we observe that symmetric states like it are prone to spontaneous symmetry breaking. The more symmetries the faster, so the perfect symmetry of “no laws, no nothing” will always be the most unstable.

          That’s not really an answer, merely substituting one mystery for another.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            How can an observation be a mystery?

            What you are saying is perhaps that the phenomena of spontaneous symmetry breaking is mysterious. It is not:

            “Though the process in itself is interesting from a mathematical point of view, it is fairly simple. … For spontaneous symmetry breaking to occur, there must be a system in which there are several equally likely outcomes. The system as a whole is therefore symmetric with respect to these outcomes (if we consider any two outcomes, the probability is the same). However, if the system is sampled (i.e. if the system is actually used or interacted with in any way), a specific outcome must occur. Though we know the system as a whole is symmetric, we also see that it is never encountered with this symmetry, only in one specific state. Because one of the outcomes is always found with probability 1, and the others with probability 0, they are no longer symmetric.”

            All we need is that the system “is used”, usually taken as evolved (over time) but with post-selection meaning inhabited. In the end, that we see what we see (because we must see something) doesn’t seem much of a mystery to me. 😀

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      one error you have made in your response here.

      Science, and in particular Physics, does not, even remotely, have “tentative answers” to the “something rather than nothing” question,

      That is not an error. You yourself mentioned Hawking that verifies and extends that has been known for a long time, we don’t need outside “agents” to get physics. No physicist have AFAIK shown Hawking wrong on the details.

      Stenger was also mentioned.

      Then we have your claim that selection over vacua like Hawking does, to get to those self-contained volumes that have the general relativity we know and see, is not valid. But even if that was true (and physicists believe not) you can still envision a backward eternal process of vacuum-spawning or eternal inflation.

      The exponential divergence of inflation or tunnel probabilities means that the process lacks memory of its past. While the a priori probability that it can be found close to its fix point behavior, i.e. its steady state, is low, it again reverts to a case of post-selection. We would see a universe that has always been because that is what we need to see to be.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        “The exponential divergence of … tunnel probabilities”. Meaning divergence of the process built on tunneling probabilities.

        Also I should note that lack of memory would make such a process likely untestable for the eternal case, all outcomes would look the same. Should that be the case, even if physics could be validated, there would be a remaining gap for religion.

        But I wouldn’t worry about it, there always is a gap since there will always be uncertainty. Religion today necessitate embracing unreasonable doubt.

      • S.K.Graham
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Hawking and Stenger are not “science”, they are scientists.

        Bothing Hawking and Stenger make their “something from nothing” arguments in terms of a “nothing” which has properties, so as far as I am concerned their “nothing” is “something”. Either of them might well be describing real physics which will one day be born out by actual observations, but that does not mean they have answer the “something from nothing” question. They have answered a “something from something else” question.

        To make “something from nothing” a scientific question, you must frame it, at least in principle, in terms of *observables*. It is inherently subjective. Arguably it is meaningless.

        But it is intellectually dishonest to claim that science is in any way approaching, or even suggesting that it might approach, an “answer”.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          Hawking and Stenger are not “science”, they are scientists.

          Ahh, sophistry. I remember that, it was the Greeks around ~ 600 BCE. And how has that worked out for you and your understanding of the world?

          Actually this is stronger than some scientists making science (so imploding your sophism). As I noted, Hawking has simply covered and extended what has been long known.

          so as far as I am concerned their “nothing” is “something”

          And the sophistry goes on. This has nothing to do with the question at hand, which was how to predict the universe and its physics. And Hawking and Stenger is advancing on that.

          You however is doing the “see no evil, hear no evil” routine that we all are so familiar with, and then portraying others as intellectually dishonest. If you are not interested in actual science, I suggest you refrain from pontificating on “errors” in others. Errors that are as fabricated as your concerns on physics by physicists.

          • Darrell E
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            Ahh, sophistry. I remember that, it was the Greeks around ~ 600 BCE. And how has that worked out for you and your understanding of the world?

            You now owe me a keyboard, and possibly a monitor.

          • S.K.Graham
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

            Accuse me of sophistry if you like. I merely point out that their is a distinction to be made between (1) the methods of science (reason and observation), (2) widely accepted scientific opinion, and (3) the pronouncements of individual scientists.

            Just because a scientist makes a pronouncement on a question or claims that some theory addresses the question does not imply that “science” (in the form of (1) or (2) above) has anything to say on the question.

            When I said that their “nothing” is, to me, “something”, I was intentionally emphasizing (perhaps poorly) the point that this whole discussion hinges on the definition of “nothing”.

            Any definition of “nothing” that physicists can work with (in any meaningful way) is going to be something that has properties that allow the physicist to make a connection between the the “nothing” and “something”. For someone pondering “why does *anything* exist? why does existence itself exist?” they do not have in mind questions of physics like “how could matter arise from the vacuum?” or “how could matter and energy arise from the ultra-symmetric ground state of everything?”

            • Ichthyic
              Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

              Accuse me of sophistry if you like

              you stand accused then.

              It sure does seem you like to wax on about this topic…

          • S.K.Graham
            Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

            Let em add that, by the same token, just because some scientists say that religion and science are “compatible”, it means neither that (1) religion and science are compatible; nor (2)”science” per se concludes that religion and science are compatible.

          • Posted March 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            Indeed. This “But that nothing is something so it is not nothing!!!” argument is reminding me of the supernatural/natural argument. Could it possibly be that people without enough knowledge (for various reasons) simply made up the idea of “nothing” the same way other people made up the idea of “supernatural”? Has S.K.G. even considered that?

            • Diane G.
              Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

              I’m no doubt enormously misunderstanding SKG, but it seems to me that’s exactly what (s?)he’s saying. I also do not get the idea SKG is claiming there’s any veracity to that view, only that some traditional “nothingist” conceptions of nothing and physical ideas of nothing are not the same thing. (Much ado about nothing, indeed!)

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      I just wrote about this on Friday, coincidentally. I agree that there can never be a satisfying answer to the something-rather-than-nothing question, but I suspect that may be our fault rather than physics’. The apparent infinite regress may simply be a cognitive defect on our part. Don’t get me wrong, I feel it too, but I suspect we might be just plain asking a meaningless question here.

      It’s not existentially troubling to say that there are certain fundamental particles to which the question, “Okay, but what are they made of?” is nonsense almost by definition. So why should it be existentially troubling to say that there are certain fundamental laws to which the question, “Okay, but why that?” is equally foolish?

      It sure feels to me like any possible answer to something-rather-than-nothing could be defeated by the infinite regress. But despite that feeling, I am increasingly suspicious that that feeling might just be plain wrong.

      • David
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        As a simple layman my understanding was that “nothing” doesn’t really exist and never has. It being a purely human construct. So saying “why something and not nothing is nonsensical as “nothing” is an imaginary state kinda like a square circle.

        • Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

          I was thinking the same thing, David.

          I’m sure it can’t be that easy though.:-)

        • Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

          My favorite commentary on this went something like this:

          In order to properly frame this question, we have to remember that at this very moment there are non-existent philosophers in a non-existent universe asking themselves, “Why is there nothing rather than something?”

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      I agree that the question of “why there is something rather than nothing” is incoherent, because it has embedded in it the notion of “instead of” or “rather than”, which implies some sort of primordial contingency or potentiality in which things could have gone either way. But that potentiality itself is surely something, not nothing. So the idea of nothing at all, no space, no time, not even an empty void, without the possibility of being any other way, seems problematic. We can’t even talk about it without using existence-laden words like “is” or “being”.

      • Explict Atheist
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes. The whole ‘why something instead of nothing’ question appears to be an incorrect framing of the issue. All questions are not meaningful simply because we can string words together to form that question.

  16. Egbert
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Micheal Ruse comes across as a bumbling idiot in his lectures. I’ve no idea why he’s such a respected writer in philosophy.

    A discussion over at RichardDawkins.net has a bit about Karen Armstrong on Sweden/Norwegian TV broadcasted on Friday, and she trash talks the New Atheists as being the same as religious fundamentalists.

    You can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Vw0UqVXBc

    The professor is not happy, to say the least.

    All these propaganda attacks against the movement are not helping, but they’re being done by people with very questionable motives.

  17. Patrick
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    “I think science leaves these questions open, and if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so. It doesn’t mean that we have to accept the answers of the religious, and it doesn’t mean that religion cannot be criticized – I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution – but I don’t think it can be criticized by science.”

    doing some quick find/replace…

    “I think science leaves these questions open, and if GAMBLING wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so. It doesn’t mean that we have to accept the answers of the GAMBLERS, and it doesn’t mean that DECIDING ONE’S BELIEFS BASED ENTIRELY ON RANDOM NUMBER GENERATION cannot be criticized – I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution – but I don’t think it can be criticized by science.”

    • Yahzi
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink

      Isn’t it funny that theists can always be refuted simply by repeating their arguments back to them, but substituting any other word for the word God.

      Seriously, you’d think at some point they would catch on.

  18. Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I think science leaves these questions open, and if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so.

    Oh, religion can try to answer them. What they can’t do, is make shit up. If he’s such a great philosopher, let him answer how religion can ever give a satisfactory answer to anything. If he can, maybe he shouldn’t be an atheist. If he can’t, he should stop complaining that New Atheists can’t either.

    • Jack van Beverningk
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      “What they can’t do, is make shit up”

      Actually, that’s the ONLY thing they can do. And do!
      Else it would be called ‘science’.

    • articulett
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Religion, unfortunately CAN and does make shit up. And then they tell their followers that they must believe the made up stuff or suffer forever. On top of that, they encourage their believers to distrust scientists and anyone who would tell them the truth while encouraging them to pledge money and allegiance to liars.

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        @articulett and Jack: well, OK, they can in the sense that they are capable of doing that. But they can’t in the sense that it is morally wrong to make shit up and claim it’s an answer anyway.

  19. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    And there is it AGAIN: “I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution”

    Exactly WHAT, Mr. Atheist Philosopher, IS the problem? (For YOU, as an atheist, I mean. So your problem definition can and should not contain the word ‘God’ or ‘almighty being’).

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Also, this:

    then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science.

    Because these questions are not “open”? Because to test a theory you need to test the alternatives?

    I think Ruse needs to polish up on his understanding of the nature of science.

    [I also note that Kuhn isn’t in high standing among scientists like physicists such as Sokal. They note that Kuhn never proffers a testable definition of his “paradigm shifts” AFAIU (but, it is said, ~ 20 different). And that newer theory build on older (say relativity confirming the rough force description of newtonian gravity).]

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis is little more than a metaphor, and has been rightfully criticized for using a mere metaphor as the central mechanism of his theory. But I don’t think people are doing justice to his views by entirely dismissing it on those grounds. The overriding point is that there are elements of choice involved when a theory changes. When it comes to explaining the history of science, he has done us a service by insisting that a framework has to accent those elements.

  21. Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    There’s no shortage of theories regarding “something rather than nothing,” as well as the origin of life. Figuring out a way to test those theories is another matter.
    Religion, based on authoritative scripture and pronouncements, doesn’t have to test its “theories.” Always an advantage.
    In science, a theory that is falsified is left by the roadside. In religion, any demonstrably incorrect claim becomes a metaphor.
    But obviously I’m not thinking very deeply here.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      I believe you are on to something here. But it needs finessing, as you yourself notes:

      There’s no shortage of theories regarding “something rather than nothing,” as well as the origin of life. Figuring out a way to test those theories is another matter.

      Ironically this isn’t the problem.

      For cosmology you can take Hawking’s and even Stenger’s notions and have them tested (Hawking would fall if GR falls, Stenger if some spontaneously broken symmetry is veeery low probability to happen. Boussou et al have even suggested a post-selected theory that pins down 6 parameters (some new), which is more than the 5 main ones that standard cosmology
      is capable of.

      For OOL, AFAIU it started with Wächtershäuser FeS world, and you have a continuation in Mulkidjanian et al ZnS world (unfortunately failed hence). Heck, even _I_ came up with a testable hypothesis during astrobiology class!*

      The problem is that they may test what they were designed for in the usual ad hoc fashion (Boussou et al doesn’t predict correlations between parameters much, while standard cosmology finesses very many parameters besides the main ones – it is a fruitful physics). Or that they leave much out. (Boussou again – a few parameters down, many to go!)

      These testable theories leave us with a partial explanation that may or may not be valid, when the chips fall down. But at least they are one up on religion. 😀

      *Concerning my inability to understand the oft repeated mantra of “we can’t say _anything_ on probability of life, from considering one observation” and its clashing with “we can say that perhaps it was coincidental, from considering _no_ observations”.

      The former is left untested. (Natch.) The later, in the form Monod describes it, doesn’t sound like a description of probabilities to me. Rather an image of a dynamical process with a vast but often visited phase space and a small volume of success.

      I took what you learn in basic stochastic process courses. Model repeated abiogenesis attempts; simplest model will be Poisson. (Really Levý, but already Darwin explained why first success is enough. Besides Poisson is good approximation in most cases, and yadda yadda.)

      Since we have observations of life within ~ 1 Gy out of ~ 5 Gy (stromatolites @ ~ 3.5 Ga out of 4.5 Gy), the process has a normalized rate >= 0.2. Due to exponential pdf stacking up its probability mass at the beginning, we can see that the tail <= 5 % mass for that set of processes. Equivalently we can test at 3 sigma for one-tailed test, because we were lucky.

      Never mind that we were lucky (which actually does not constitute a rejection of testing _this_ specific process). Never mind that this is one observation, so shaky statistics to say the least! It is a) testable b) informative. It says that attempt rate and/or success rate was great in the stochastic sense, so easy in the deterministic sense; it also says that ~ 5 Gy old planets in the habitable zone have at least ~ 0.32 % chance to have life, from Poisson process properties.

      So it is fully consistent with observation that life is common in the universe. But we knew that already. (~_^)`

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        “planets in the habitable zone”- really, Earth analogs.

  22. articulett
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I’ll put it simply for Ruse:

    Naturalists have a problem with “souls”.

    All religions manipulate by claiming to know what will affect the immortal soul. Without souls, religions lose all their claim to authority– they are just like anyone else proffering an opinion. Who cares what people believe about gods if humans can’t experience any more than their pets can after death? Materialism makes gods irrelevant.

    As long as people are afraid of their immortal souls suffering, religions will be able to manipulate others and convince them that faith deserves more respect than facts.

    So unless or until there is evidence for souls, this gnu atheist doesn’t care about the opinions of folks like Ruse, other accommodationists, or other apologists for supernatural beliefs any more than they care about my opinions and the opinions of naturalists whom they take issue with.

    I think believers in souls are as delusional as believes in fairies. The two are indistinguishable from each other by all measures.

    Promoting religion is akin to promoting belief in fairies, witches and demons in my book. The consequences can be (and have been) horrific. I want no part of it nor do I have any respect for Ruse or anyone giving the obfuscatory Courtier’s reply. Such people exacerbate bigotry of those who would tell the truth while appointing themselves as diplomats between the reality based community and those who believe in magic. They make it harder for scientists to educate the public.

    The only thing I can be thankful to Michael Ruse for is because some inane thing he wrote back in 2004 or 2005 resulted in a response which got me heavily involved in the online skeptical community. It was nice to find brilliant people that thought of Michael Ruse pretty much like I did. He’s a jealous blowhard who is miffed because everyone seems to be reading the new atheists when he’s so sure they ought to be reading him!

    Ruse ought to be glad that new atheists goof on him; posts like this from the new atheists he imagines so harmful probably do more to raise his readership than anything he actually says.

    • Tulse
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      All religions manipulate by claiming to know what will affect the immortal soul.

      While that may be true for many or even most religions, it certainly is not true of all of them. Judaism is generally indifferent to the notion of an afterlife, and while the afterlife existed in the Greek and Roman pantheons, it’s not clear that was the focus of their worship. Many religions are more immediately concerned with what the gods/spirits/ancestors/etc. can do for one in the temporal realm, rather than the final disposition in the afterlife.

  23. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    To arrogantly tell fellow scientists to leave sophisticated deep thinking to the expert philosophers who have done their serious homework, and then to come up with something like that shallow, naive and simplistic 2nd paragraph above .. is almost beyond embarrassing.

  24. Posted March 20, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Do you think Michael Ruse might shut up if they finally gave him the Templeton Prize he is so obviously angling for?

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think anything (short of physical force) would make him shut up. As he says right in this piece, he loves “a good dust up.” Of course he does, he revels in it.

    • stvs
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      No.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        But it might tar him a bit with ‘ulterior motives.’

    • mordacious1
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      In Ruse’s defense, it IS a really big check. 😉

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        So too much for atheists to club together buy him off then? How much might work? I have ten quid in my pocket.

    • mbee
      Posted March 22, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      No that would only give him more confidence and convince him to pursue his ideas more stridently.

  25. articulett
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Ruse says:

    And let there be no mistake, the positions we take on science and religion do have major political and social implications. The right-wing politicians now running my state of Florida just love to hear that scientists think that evolution is incompatible with the religious beliefs of their constituents. It gives them a perfect cover when, as is happening once again right now, they introduce bills to get Intelligent Design Theory taught in biology classes in the public schools of the state.

    First of all, what we are saying is that faith and science are not compatible– but people are free to glom their supernatural beliefs onto the facts as they wish and have been doing. And some of the facts don’t fit with some religions supernatural claims. This is not the fault of science any more than heliocentrism was the fault of Galileo.

    Evolution is no more incompatible with science than demon possession is incompatible with neurology and germ theory. You can insert whatever goofy magical beliefs you want onto the facts, just don’t ask others to defer to or respect such claims– and don’t interject them in science class!

    Now if only all believers in supernatural beliefs were to keep their beliefs as private as they want the those of other faiths to keep theirs!

    • articulett
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      oops

      I meant: “Evolution is no more incompatible with religion than germ theory and neurology are incompatible with demon theory.

      *grumbles about lack of edit button while chastising self about proofreading…*

  26. bigjohn756
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    The problem here is to convince scientists to make up stuff when they don’t know the answer. You know, just like the religious folks do.

  27. Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    You’re killing me, Jerry! You mean Fred isn’t god? I’ve been wasting my worship.

    Speaking of Fred, I think Lawrence Wright’s sensational dissection of Scientology via the experience and recantation of film director Paul Haggis, in the Feb 14 & 21 New Yorker, should be read by everyone concerned with religion of any kind.

    He offers a model for a horrifyingly successful “god” — in this case, Hubbard (sorry, not Fred) — and “god”‘s disciples, um, I mean spokespeople.

    The brilliance of Scientology (and other religions should study Scientology’s structure for how-to tips) is what a successful scam it is. Instead of going for free to a priest or imam or rabbi for whatever people go to them for (spiritual consult or whatever), you get advice only IF YOU PAY DEARLY FOR IT. And as every retail shopper knows, the more you pay for something, the more it must be worth.

    Wright’s article, very long and deservedly so, must be read.

  28. Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Hey folks… can anyone point me to this intellectually valid theology/philosophy that I’m supposed to be taking seriously? I keep reading these little missives chiding me for not putting in the hard work of deciphering all this supposed deep thinking on the subject, but I never see any links or references to the deep thinking itself.

    Can anyone help me out here?

    • articulett
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Check under the emperor’s new clothes.

  29. Darrell E
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Ruse is truly awful. He never attempts to argue against the actual arguments that the gnus have put forward. He continues to say the same things, what seem to have become the standard accommodationist party talking points, over and over again. He sounds much like a believer that has plugged his ears and is chanting whatever stale long demolished arguments their religious pundits have fed them in an attempt to fend off any intrusion of reality.

    It really is pathetic to see Ruse maligning better thinkers than himself with crap like,

    “That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework.”

    , simply to protect whatever academic reputation he thinks he has. He is revealing himself to be not very smart and not very gracious when his arguments are demolished.

    It is long past time for Ruse and his ilk to step up and attempt to answer some on target questions rather than continuing to obfuscate with crap about science not being able to answer certain questions therefore jesus, maybe. Forget about science, take science right out of the argument. I want them to explain how, step by step from the beginning, religion answers questions. I want them to explain the process. And I want them to explain how answers generated by this process are assessed and by what reasoning these answers are given any confidence.

    I really want them to explain how a belief system composed, from the very start, of incorrect beliefs (incorrect as in contrary to observed reality)that were then masticated into a fine puree over a period of thousands of years, and that has had truth claim after truth claim proven incorrect with monotonous regularity, could possibly have anything worthwhile to say about any aspect of the universe we live in. Except of course when studying human behavior.

  30. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Ruse also wrote in that article:

    “The right-wing politicians now running my state of Florida just love to hear that scientists think that evolution is incompatible with the religious beliefs of their constituents.”

    I’m absolutely sure that they would love it even more when ‘scientists’ claimed that the two ARE compatible!

    • Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      They also love hearing that “science doesn’t know everything” and “religion is just another way of knowing”. I bet Ruse is going to stop promoting these ideas any moment now, now that this has been pointed out.

      • Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        Religion is just another way of knowing… how to make a buck.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I’ll take “argument from consequences” for $400, Alex.

  31. Diane G.
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    …but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.

    …other than write entire books about it…

    • Posted March 21, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      …and a coterie of excellent websites with multiple essays and lengthy commentary largely devoted to it…

  32. Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club.

    Yes, it’s such a shame that all the Gnu Atheists are philosophically unsophisticated scientists, but none of them actually philosophers…

    Oh! Hello, Anthony. Hello, Dan.

  33. gruebait
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    The Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons wants the Gnus to STFU.

    • David Leech
      Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      Broomfondle and Magicthighs agree.

  34. Posted March 20, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Forget all these debates between scientists/rationalists and dishonest, anti-knowledge pro-ignorance theofascist buffoons like D’Souza & Craig; we already know what they think and how it doesn’t stack up to reality. We already know how vacuous their arguments are and how they’ll ignore anything that challenges the notion that they’re God’s special little snowflakes.

    What I would really like to see is AC Grayling, J Coyne, R Dawkins – going toe-to-toe with Ignorance Sympathisers like Ruse and Mooney. THAT would be a stoush. Throw in Matt “You’re Done” Dillahunty” and it’d be a goddamn bloodbath.

  35. Myron
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    “Religion has not, and /cannot/, provide good explanations for real-world phenomena.” – J. Coyne

    “So there is our universe (or multiverse). It is characterized by vast, all-pervasive temporal order, the conformity of nature to formula, recorded in the scientific laws formulated by humans. It started off in such a way (or through eternity has been characterized by such features) as to lead to the evolution of animals and humans. These phenomena are clearly things ‘too big’ for science to explain. They are where science stops. They constitute the framework of science itself. I have argued that it is not a rational conclusion to suppose that explanation stops where science does, and so we should look for a personal explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe. Theism provides just such an explanation. That is strong grounds for believing it to be true…. Note that I am not postulating a ‘God of the gaps’, a god merely to explain the things which science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain what science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains. The very success of science in showing us how deeply orderly the natural world is provides strong grounds for believing that there is an even deeper cause of that order.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. /Is There a God?/ 2nd rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 62)

    • articulett
      Posted March 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      So you think an invisible, immaterial, conscious agent that has no measurable qualities is an answer?! Did this answer have a son who was really him who was crucified as a sacrifice to himself to save all who believe this story from eternal hell, by chance? ‘Just curious!

      Do tell– which religion has provided a good explanation to real world phenomenon. How can we test, refine and hone this knowledge. (And do bad things happen if we don’t believe it?)

      • Myron
        Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink

        I think the idea of God as a nonspatiotemporal immaterial self-conscious living being is absurd, ludicrous, nonsensical—and thus a nonanswer; but what troubles me is the fact that there are quite a few professors who are more educated and more intelligent than I am and who do not. The behaviour of those people doesn’t seeem irrational at all; they know all the arguments and counterarguments, have studied them thoroughly, have understood them, and yet have concluded that theism is true.

        “I myself do not believe in God and I have always thought that, although the question cannot be settled definitively in this life, there is not much case for the existence of such a deity. That remains my position. But what should I think if I consider the question in the light of the epistemic principle I have argued for in this lecture? I have to recognize that there are a large number of persons who are in as good an epistemic position as I am, but who do not agree with me. Some of them are philosophers. They have thought about the matter, have gone over the familiar arguments pro and con, and have studied the literature. They are certainly as intelligent as I am, in some cases, I am able to recognize, more intelligent. There are, furthermore, plenty of natural scientists, of logicians and mathematicians, all of them at least as rational creatures as I am, who find themselves in disagreement with me. I must conclude that I do not /know/ the answer to the question, or at least that I am in no position to claim knowledge that there is no God. As a result I feel compelled to lace my atheism with a degree of agnosticism. I ought not, I think, regard the matter as settled.”

        (Armstrong, David. Lecture on /The Scope and Limits of Human Knowledge/, Lund University, Lund/Sweden, May 11, 2004.)

        • Yahzi
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

          Argument from authority is not rendered more compelling when offered by an authority.

    • Posted March 21, 2011 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      the conformity of nature to formula, recorded in the scientific laws formulated by humans

      Um, no.

      Nature doesn’t conform to formulae, it only behaves as if it does, in those circumstances where our scientific “laws” are seen to apply. For example, no apple “solves” Newton’s law of gravity (which is a good enough approximation for an apple; it doesn’t even need not to solve Einstein’s law of gravity); and no electron “solves” Schroedinger’s equations.

      Bottom line: Our scientific “laws” are, in general, essentially only models that best fit the observed or perceived order.

    • Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      I have argued that it is not a rational conclusion to suppose that explanation stops where science does, and so we should look for a personal explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe. Theism provides just such an explanation. That is strong grounds for believing it to be true….

      Let’s distill this down. Theism provides a personal explanation and therefore is liekly true. Really?

    • Posted March 21, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      I have argued that it is not a rational conclusion to suppose that explanation stops where science does, and so we should look for a personal explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe. Theism provides just such an explanation. That is strong grounds for believing it to be true….

      Let’s distill this down. Theism provides a personal explanation and therefore is likely true. Really?

      • Posted March 21, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        we should look for a personal explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe.

        We should look for a person as an explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe? A person?

        That seems such an obviously childish thing to say that I can’t get my head around it.

        • Myron
          Posted March 21, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          According to theism, the ultimate explanation of the spatiotemporal universe and its order and origin is a psychological explanation in terms of a personal divine agent’s beliefs, desires, intentions, interests, preferences, or purposes, i.e. an explanation in terms of conscious motives and reasons rather than blind, impersonal physical causes.

          • articulett
            Posted March 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            Gee, Myron, how could it have all those things when those things are the products of an evolved material brain? Why would a god evolve consciousness and how would it know without a brain to perceive the consciousness.

            How does consciousness outside of material make more sense than sound without matter exactly? Or is it “magic”?

            God is immaterial, immeasurable, and indistinguishable from an illusion. I would say that as an explanation, that makes him/her/them/it indistinguishable from a delusion.

            Can you tell us in what manner a non-material being can exist? What does that even mean?

    • Posted March 21, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      “I have argued that it is not a rational conclusion to suppose that explanation stops where science does, and so we should look for a personal explanation of the existence, conformity to law, and evolutionary potential of the universe.”

      Theism is about looking at reality and seeing Fluffy Mister Universe looking back.

      And we thought that Thomas the Tank Engine was just for kids. Now we have Jesus the Universe.

  36. MadScientist
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Well, Michael Goose is such a strident apologist for religious nonsense that I’ve put him on my Creationist list. Yes, I know, a lot of people think of him as a defender of evolution, but I see him defending religion far more than evolution.

  37. Kevin
    Posted March 21, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    And again, everyone seems to have overlooked the primary salient point.

    Ruse claims that there are questions that science cannot answer that religion can.

    OK, then. Please show me ONE question that religion has answered to the exclusion of any other process (including philosophy, Prof. Ruse) that is agreed upon with a reasonable degree of certainty by all parties.

    I’m pretty sure science can agree that c is the fastest thing in the universe. That photosynthesis works by converting photons to potential energy which can then be used as kinetic energy by plants. And on and on.

    Name ONE question that religion has answered. 3000+ years of trying, and not ONE answer.

    Not one.

    Time’s up. It’s meaningless navel-gazing. And the “answers” that the navel-gazers make up because they have no empirical way to test them are just as likely to be downright dangerous to a healthy society as they are to be useful. Or meaningless or anachronistic (…really, don’t eat pork? Shellfish is an abomination?).

  38. mbee
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Science is a way of knowing.
    Religion is a way of NOT knowing.


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