The other day I discussed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer to the question, “Does the universe have a purpose?”, a question that the Templeton Foundation posed to 12 scientists, theologians, and other luminaries. I’ve since found that those who answer are remunerated handsomely. (Oh, and for those who said that they’d gladly take Templeton’s money despite its nefarious aims—if only to deplete its ample coffers—let me ask you this: would you also take money to answer that question if it was asked by the white-supremacist Council of Concerned Citizens?)
Templeton’s aims, as stated in the pdf (my footnotes):
The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research on what scientists and philosophers call the Big Questions. We support work at the world’s top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief. We encourage informed, open-minded dialogue between scientists and theologians as they apply themselves to the most profound issues in their particular disciplines*. And, in a more practical vein,we seek to stimulate new thinking about wealth creation in the developing world**, character education in schools and universities, and programs for cultivating the talents of gifted children.
*There is no point of a dialogue between theologians and scientists, at least from the point of view of science. Theologians, of course, can always learn that some of their tenets are wrong.
“Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton’s charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming.”
Anyway, here’s my summary of and reaction to their answers:
Lawrence Krauss (physicist; answer: “Unlikely”): Good solid answer: we can’t prove there’s a “purpose” (read “God”), but it’s exceedingly unlikely. He does note, agreeing with me but not with the Squidly One or many of my readers, that there could be empirical proof of God:
Of course, nothing would stop science from uncovering positive evidence of divine guidance and purpose if it were attainable. For example, tomorrow night if we look up at the stars and they have been rearranged into a pattern that reads, “I am here,” I think even the most hard-nosed scientific skeptic would suspect something was up.
But no such unambiguous signs have been uncovered among the millions and millions of pieces of data we have gleaned about the natural world over centuries of exploration. And this is precisely why a scientist can conclude that it is very unlikely that there is any divine purpose. If a creator had such a purpose, she could choose to demonstrate it a little more clearly to the inhabitants of her creation.
David Gelertner (computer scientist; answer: “Yes”): This answer is an unholy mess, and has some disturbing comments about sexuality. His answer seems to be based on the supposition that the human desire to seek good proves God. He says that such a desire “defies nature,” but of course that’s not true: cooperation and altruism could easily be products of either natural selection or secular reason. It’s amazing how muddled his answer is.
Paul Davies (physicist, answer, “Perhaps”): Davies’s evidence for God is that science works—a common answer among “sophisticated” believers:
Where, then, is the evidence of “cosmic purpose”? Well, it is right under our noses in the very existence of science itself as a successful explanatory paradigm. Doing science means figuring out what is going on in the world—what the universe is “up to”, what it is “about”. If it isn’t “about” anything, there would be no good reason to embark on the scientific quest in the first place, because we would have no justification for believing that we would thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about the world. Experience shows that as we dig deeper and deeper using scientific methods, we continue to find rational and meaningful order. The universe makes sense. We can comprehend it.
Science is a voyage of discovery, and as with all such voyages, you have to believe there is something meaningful out there to discover before you embark on it. And with every new scientific discovery made, that belief is confirmed. If the universe is pointless and reasonless, reality is ultimately absurd.
But of course the universe has to exhibit regularities if life is to exist at all! But I’m not sure that the order we find can be described as “rational and meaningful”. It is discoverable by reason, but what is its “meaning”?
Peter Atkins (chemist; answer: “No”). Good old Peter, who never pulls his punches. Here’s a nice slap at theology from his answer:
Theologians typically focus on questions that they have invented for their own puzzlement. Some theologians are perplexed by the nature of life after death, a notion they have invented without a scrap of evidence.
Some are mystified by the existence of evil in a world created by an infinitely loving God, another notion that theologians have invented but which dissolves into nothing once it is realized that there is no God. The question of cosmic purpose is likewise an invented notion, wholly without evidential foundation, and equally dismissible as patently absurd. We should not regard as great the questions that have been invented solely for the sake of eliciting puzzlement.
The last sentence is wonderful.
Nancey Murphy (Christian philosopher; answer: “Indeed). The usual apologetics, with a “Fermat’s-last-theorem” approach to her evidence and a misguided critique of science (my emphases):
If one cannot infer the purposes of a benevolent creator from evidence in the natural world, then how can I (and my co-religionists) claim to know the world’s purpose? The answer is too complicated to spell out here, but I take it to involve detailed comparisons of competing traditions on the basis of the support they draw from their own peculiar kinds of evidence (for Christians, historical events as in the life of Jesus and the early church, and carefully evaluated religious experiences). In addition, each tradition must be evaluated on the basis of the intellectual crises it faces. Two crises facing what I call the scientific naturalist tradition (originating in Hume’s and others’ writings) are the questions of whether it is possible adequately to explain the phenomenon of religion naturalistically, and whether the tradition can provide grounds for morality. Scientific research on the practices and beliefs of religious adherents is relevant to the first.
Her margins are too small to contain her proof! And the two “crises” that face science are bogus. Yes, we don’t understand how religion arose, but we do know something about the evolutionary basis of morality. These are hardly “crises,” but unsolved questions.
Owen Gingerich (astronomer; answer: “Yes”). He adduces what believers now see to be the most powerful argument for God: the “fine tuning” of physical constants. This, in fact, is raised by three of the “yessers”:
Had some of the basic constants of nature been only slightly different, there would be no major abundance of carbon. And it is extremely difficult to imagine intelligent life without something like carbon.
One swallow does not a summer make. But in the fine-tuning of the universe, the abundance of carbon is only one of many such remarkable aspects. There are enough such “coincidences” to give thoughtful observers some pause. Scientists who are loath to accept a fine-tuned universe feel obliged to take notice. Of course, if the universe were any other way, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, but that is hardly a satisfying answer.
Gingerich doesn’t like one possible scientific explanation: multiverses.
Suppose, however, that there are myriad universes, each with different properties. In that case we would naturally be found in the universe that, like the little bear’s porridge, is just right. Those other barren universes, many with no stars or planets, would exist in their own forever unobservable space. Somehow this is an unpersuasive counter-argument. Even one congenial universe out of many would be miracle enough.
It’s only unpersuasive to those who have a prior commitment to God. In an infinity of universes, one is sure to have the right constants, and that’s the one where people will be thinking themselves special.
Bruno Guideroni (astrophysicist; answer: “Very likely”). He again relies on fine-tuning:
Modern science has produced something quite unexpected. Even to a scientist such as myself. It turns out that the observed features of the natural world appear to be fine-tuned for biological complexity. In other words, everything from the mass ratios of atomic particles, the number of space dimensions, to the cosmological parameters that rule the expansion of the universe, and the formation of galaxies are all exactly what they need to be to create stars, planets, atoms, and molecules.
But where does this apparent fine-tuning come from?
Is it the manifestation of a plan for the universe? An arrangement by a superior will to prepare the way for complex creatures? Is it God’s signature? People of faith believe it is so. They read purpose in the universe as a painter sees beauty in a view on the ocean.
Like Gingerich, Guideroni doesn’t like the multiverse answer:
The fundamental scientific theories that support the multiverse require complex mathematics. The fact that these fundamental theories are even accessible to our brains, which, in a purposeless universe would be nothing but a by-product of our ability to find prey (and avoid being prey), in the millennia of Homo sapiens’ evolution is something I find quite . . . puzzling.
“Puzzling,” ergo God. Here he reverts to another familiar argument: humans’ ability to reason beyond what would have helped us on the savanna must mean that God made our brains.
Christian de Duve (biochemist; answer: “No). His essay is a bit of a mess, as he argues that despite there being nothing special about our universe (he invokes multiverses), he still intimates that there is an “Ultimate Reality” behind our universe. But he does ask the question that theologians scoff at, because they’re afraid of the answer:
It will be noted that there is no logical need for a creator in this view. By definition, a creator must himself be uncreated, unless he is part of an endless, Russian-doll succession of creators within creators. But then, why start the succession at all? Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator? The question is worth asking.
Indeed! It’s not kosher to just define God as “that cause that is itself uncaused”. You have to demonstrate that, not assert it.
John Haught (theologian; answer: “Yes). This essay is so bad as to be hilarious. Starting from the first sentence (“The fact that we can ask such a question at all suggests an affirmative answer.”), it proceeds through an argument that is incoherent, for there are lots of questions we can ask, which are not answered by a “yes” simply by virtue of our ability to ask them. But if you want a good, bracing dose of theological nonsense, have a look at his answer.
Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist; answer “Not sure.”). Actually, he is pretty sure: his answer is “almost certainly not,” as we saw two days ago. But, as some readers have noted, if he’s that certain that there’s no God and therefore no “purpose” behind the universe, why not just say “no.” After all, to a scientist all such answers are provisional. This pulling back is, to me, a bit of a waffle. It’s as if one asked, “Is there a Loch Ness monster,” and Tyson replied “”Not sure.”
Jane Goodall (primatologist; answer: “Certainly”). OMG! If you’re an admirer of Goodall and her work, as I have been, this answer will shake your admiration. It conflates emotional response with God, and with “purpose.” I can hardly bear to read it, but here’s an extract:
When I was a child, born into a Christian family, I accepted the reality of an unseen God without question. And now that I have lived almost three quarters of a century I still believe in a great spiritual power. I have described elsewhere the experience I had when I first visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When, as I gazed at the great rose window, glowing in the morning sun, the air was suddenly filled with the glorious sound of an organ playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It filled me with joy, brought tears to my eyes. How could I believe that blind chance had led to that moment in time—the cathedral, the collective faith of those who had prayed and worshiped within, the genius of Bach, the emergence of a conscious mind that could, as mine did then, question the purpose of life on Earth. Was all the wonder and beauty simply the result of purposeless gyrations of bits of cosmic dust at the beginning of time? If not, then there must be some extra-cosmic power, the creator of the big bang. A purpose in the universe. Perhaps, one day, that purpose will be revealed.
I, for one, do believe that blind chance (plus natural selection, which is not blind chance) led to her epiphany. And yes, it all comes from the gyrations of cosmic dust. How can someone whose work is so implicitly tied to evolution utter such nonsense?
Elie Wiesel (writer, Nobel Laureate, and professor of humanities; answer: “I Hope So). To me, this is the biggest disappointment, for it’s hard for me to believe that someone who survived the Holocaust (Wiesel was in Auschwitz), and wrote so movingly about it, can still believe in God. Yet his essay takes God for granted from the outset. And that despite these words in his piece:
So many wars, massacres, and hatreds sweep over Creation that one wonders if God will lose patience.
Did he lose it before, when evil and misfortune seemed to reign over a Europe occupied by Hitler’s army? Each time that a child died of hunger, fear, sorrow; each time a child expired in flames lit by men, it was right to wonder: Where was God in all of this? What could his goal possibly have been when, over there, the Kingdom of Night had replaced his own?
I admit that all these questions remain open for me. If an answer exists, I challenge it. The brutal and cruel death of one and a half million children neither could nor should have an answer.
An answer does exist: there is no God. But Wiesel won’t buy it. He concludes with this sentence:
Man’s task is thus to liberate God, while freeing the forces of generosity in a world teetering more and more between curse and promise.
I weep for those who cling to their childish beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. The most powerful evidence against God is the Holocaust.