National Geographic allows Francis Collins to spout theology in its pages

Okay, this really burns my onions: the latest National Geographic has a piece by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in both the paper and online version: “Why I’m a man of science—and faith.”

Aside from science popularizers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Collins is probably America’s most visible (and certainly its most powerful) scientist—and he’s also an evangelical Christian. I’ve written before about how his faith creeps into what he tells the public about science. He’s baldly claimed, for example, that our instinctive and distinctive human morality could not have evolved or developed by culture alone, so God’s behind it. And he wrote a book, The Language of God, that describes not only his conversion to Jesus after encountering a frozen waterfall, but also argues that things like morality and the “fine tuning” of the universe cannot be understood by science, but only by faith.

Well, Collins has now managed to sneak his Christianity-infused science in to the pages of a respectable magazine. He gets to answer three questions about his faith and his science, and the answers are even worse than usual. To wit:

Are science and religion compatible?

I am privileged to be somebody who tries to understand nature using the tools of science. But it is also clear that there are some really important questions that science cannot really answer, such as: Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are we here? In those domains I have found that faith provides a better path to answers. I find it oddly anachronistic that in today’s culture there seems to be a widespread presumption that scientific and spiritual views are incompatible.

Here he’s espousing the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) reconciliation rather than the “god-of-the-gaps” reconciliation (but see below), but note that what he’s saying is that science and religion are not compatible but complementary. I hate having to to address this issue yet again, but I have no choice.

First, science can answer, at least in principle, answer those hard questions; it’s just that Collins and his fellow believers don’t like the answers. Why are we here? Because of the Big Bang, the laws of physics, and evolution. Why is there something instead of nothing? Well, if you conceive of “nothing” as a quantum vacuum, then the answer is that such a “nothing” is unstable and will produce a universe. But of course you can ask Collins the reverse question: why must nothing rather than something be the default state? Why couldn’t the Universe or its antecedents (or a multiverse) have been around for eternity? Finally, if Collins says the answer is God, where did God come from? Theologians love to sneer at that question, but it remains trenchant. For if they answer that God, by definition, was always around, well, one could say the same thing about the Universe! Was God just hanging around in empty space (not a quantum vacuum), twiddling his Metaphorical Thumbs until, after a long eternity, he decided, “Hey, why don’t I make a Universe!”?

But what’s really ludicrous about Collins’s response is his claim that “faith provides a better path to answers”. It doesn’t, for faith has no way to verify that any answer is right. Saying that “there is something rather than nothing because of God” is not an answer. It’s an untestable guess. At least science has some answers (re the quantum vacuum) that are testable. And “Why are we here?” seems to me to be answered more adequately by saying “because life originated through material processes and then evolved” than by saying, “Well, a God whose existence I can’t prove must have done it.” The second part of that answer, about evolution is true; and the first is actually addressable by science.

In our children’s lifetime, I think, science will have demonstrated an origin of life in the lab under early-Earth conditions. When we do that, then Collins’s question “Why are we here?” will have been answered to our satisfaction. It could have happened through pure, natural chemistry and the subsequent evolution of naturally-originating and replicating molecules.

Finally, different religions give different answers to these “why” and “meaning” questions. Could Collins tell us why his answer (a creation by the Abrahamic God) is superior to that of the Inuit, Muslim, or Hindu answers? Science will eventually converge on one answer (if it can find an answer), but religion never will.

When people think of those views as incompatible, what is lost?

Science and faith can actually be mutually enriching and complementary once their proper domains are understood and respected. Extreme cartoons representing antagonistic perspectives on either end of the spectrum are often the ones that get attention, but most people live somewhere in the middle.

Seriously, “mutually enriching and complementary”? How is that? What does religion have to add to science these days, given that most scientific advances are made by atheists? Certainly science “enriches” religion, but does so by showing that its epistemic claims are wrong.  The “dialogue” between science and religion consists in reality of a one-way monologue: science tells religion that its claims are wrong, and religion then grouses or, if it’s of a liberal bent, eventually accepts the science, rationalizing that of course that’s the way God would have done it all along.

When Collins says “most people live somewhere in the middle,” he means that most Americans accept the bulk of science (except perhaps evolution and the Big Bang), but also accept superstitions like God, Heaven, miracles, and the afterlife.  But that’s just a mixture of rationality and superstition, not a rational and coherent stance. As P.Z. Myers once said, such a view doesn’t mean that you’re standing on some inclusive middle ground, but are only halfway to crazy town.

You’ve said that a blooming flower is not a miracle since we know how that happens. As a geneticist, you’ve studied human life at a fundamental level. Is there a miracle woven in there somewhere?

Oh, yes. At the most fundamental level, it’s a miracle that there’s a universe at all. It’s a miracle that it has order, fine-tuning that allows the possibility of complexity, and laws that follow precise mathematical formulas. Contemplating this, an open-minded observer is almost forced to conclude that there must be a “mind” behind all this. To me, that qualifies as a miracle, a profound truth that lies outside of scientific explanation.

I doubt that many physicists would agree that it’s a “miracle” that there’s a universe at all. If there was an eternal multiverse, then our own universe with the proper physical laws becomes inevitable. If not, well, then what Collins is saying is the same as saying that whatever hand we draw at bridge, it’s a miracle.

Frankly, it’s offensive (and antiscientific) when Collins claims that “an open-minded observer” must conclude from the “fine tuning” argument that there is God. Such blather impugns every physicist (and that’s most of them) who thinks that there’s a physical answer to the fine-tuning argument—but we may never know it. Or, at bottom, the answer might be “that’s just the ways the laws of physics are.” Saying that the answer must be “God” because of the Argument from Frozen Waterfalls is nonsensical. It’s caulking the gaps in our knowledge with unsubtantiated and superstitious claims.  Remember that God or demons used to be the default explanation for lightning, mental illness, the orbits of the planets, magnetism, the remarkable design-like features of organisms, and so on. The “fine tuning” argument is just the latest version of this natural theology.

And here we see not a NOMA-ish complementarity, but the bald claim that religion provides answers about the Universe not accessible to science. In this case, God is the explanation for fine-tuning: the laws of physics allow us to exist because God made those laws. And here Collins distorts science in a way that’s harmful to public understanding. Does he not know that physicists have addressed the fine-tuning problem? Has he read Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll’s non-theistic response to his argument?

Here we see, in the pages of National Geographic, America’s most powerful scientist telling the public—and that magazine has a huge audience—that God is the “open minded person’s” best answer to “why is there a universe, and why it has order.”  That, dear readers, is a corruption of science by a public official who should know better. Collins has averred—and I document this in Faith versus Fact—that god-of-the-gaps arguments are treacherous, for those gaps may narrow as science advances, squeezing out God. Yet here he adduces such a gappy argument for the Universe. He does the same thing for morality. Because he don’t understand how humans could evolve (or acquire through secular culture) instinctive feelings of morality, and sometimes behave altruistically, God must have done it. But, as I show in my book, there’s suggestive evidence that morality can evolve through both evolution and the rationality that we also evolved.

Why did National Geographic publish this kind of stuff, using theology to answer scientific questions? It is, of course, because of the penchant of “scientific” magazines and organizations (viz., The American Association for the Advancement of Science) to coddle religion under the misguided (or at least unproven) idea that if we say that religion is compatible with science, or even useful to it, religious people will be more willing to embrace science. But of course there’s no evidence for that idea, and some evidence against it. (Recent surveys, for example, show that people who reject global warming and evolution on religious grounds are even more obdurate when they know more about the scientific consensus on these issues!)

In the interests of fairness, I ask National Geographic to allow me to answer three questions as well, in a short piece called “Why I am a man of science—and no faith.” Or if that’s too provocative: “Why I am a man of science—and naturalism.” What do you think the chances are that they’d allow me to write such a piece?

Slim to nil, I’d say, but when I get to Boston I’ll put my offer in the comments on Collins’s piece. (They’re in the upper right bit of Collins’s piece. If you wish to comment on his piece, I’d urge you to weigh in in that section. (The existing comments are a mix of naturalism and goddy-coddling.)

142 Comments

  1. Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Answers are easy. Showing your work is hard.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    sub

    • rickflick
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      sublime

      • Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Superlemon?

        b&

        • merilee
          Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          superlemon??

          • merilee
            Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            never mind – just got it:-((

            midorange?

            • Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

              I suppose the midorange should be coupled with bass and tweeters for optimal reproduction characteristics?

              b&

              • merilee
                Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                ;-)) Not sure about reproductive fidelity, put tasty nonetheless.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                o’reproduction o’characteristics

              • Filippo
                Posted April 1, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                Here, in at least some sound reproductions, one can count on finding at least a few tweets of substance.

      • Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        Ridiculous.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

      Hi Diana:

      This has nothing to do with this thread, but I just had to pass along this cartoon to you.

      So, how does it feel to know that approximately 30,000 people think about you every time they hear or see any discussion about the proper direction in which to hang TP? A small fame, but thine own…

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 2, 2015 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        Ha ha!

  3. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I will grant Collins that science can go a long way to promote an attraction to Deism. It completely refutes any organized human attempt to explain the ontological origins of the universe, namely through religion.

    I am not certain Collins has ever talked to a physicists about what he claims they must surely conclude about the universe. Illogical and inconsistent with empirical evidence. He puts his faith in front of everything. It does not stand with science, it stands in front of it.

  4. marksolock
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  5. Sastra
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Science and faith can actually be mutually enriching and complementary once their proper domains are understood and respected.

    In this argument Collins, like most theists, trades on the confusion between the fact claims in religion and what legitimately falls into the category of “meaning” — aesthetics, ethics, principles, ideals, dreams, appreciation, wonder, joy, and living a good life which is worth living. If we can see how science and an approach involving meaning “can actually be mutually enriching and complementary” then the work is done. Or so they wish.

    All they did was avoid it.

    Contemplating this, an open-minded observer is almost forced to conclude that there must be a “mind” behind all this.

    Hey, Francis — nice job of poisoning the well!

    Seeing as how you’re so “open minded” an observer, I’m sure you won’t mind telling us what would change your mind about a “mind” being behind all this.

    Or did you mean “receptive?”

    What do you think the chances are that they’d allow me to write such a piece?

    I think they’re pretty good, actually. Atheism is starting to sell. That’s partly because it’s growing, and partly because resentment over it is growing (that is, resentment over atheists trying to “convert” others.) If Angry Reader hates your piece but doesn’t cancel, National Geographic wins.

  6. Jeff Rankin
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    The comment I left at National Geographic:

    “In those domains I have found that faith provides a better path to answers.”

    How do you know it’s better? How is that measured? I’m just speculating but what I think you’re saying is that this path is more comfortable for you, and the answers are more consistent with your preferences.

    “most people live somewhere in the middle”

    Therefore it must be the case that science and faith are complementary? Here do you know this? You seem to be suggesting that because most people think it’s true, it is true.

    • Shwell Thanksh
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Sure, for some definition of “better”. So long as you’re not particular that they be the sort of “answers” that can be shown to be true, based on evidence.
      As a matter of fact, I highly recommend the Magic 8 Ball for this sort of “answers”. It’s clearly a “better” path than even religion, since it’s much quicker and you don’t have to put up with all sorts of silly balderdash in the process.

  7. Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this piece. It touches all of the important bases.

    I feel really embarrassed for people who use the “fine tuning” argument or the “morality ergo god” argument” to support their superstitions. I immediately see that person as hardly worthy of reasoned debate. Think William Lane Craig or DeSouza, two laughable and thoroughly embarrassing people. For such a distinguished man of science as Collins to ascribe to such infantile arguments is triply embarrassing.

    • Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I don’t understand the fine-tuning argument at all. To say that “should this or that universal constant be a fraction off, our universe couldn’t exist” strikes me as irrelevant.

      It’s essentially saying “if our universe wasn’t exactly as it is, it would be different”. Well, d-uh. The important point is that we DO have a universe, and when we analyze it we realize that its nature implies some precise physical constants. Were it different, its constants would be as well. Nothing mystical about that!

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        That’s my opinion of the fine-tuning argument too. It’s ridiculous imo. I’ve never seen why people consider it such a big deal.

        Further, it’s an argument you could use about anything, including that each of us was even born. The fact is, in this version of the multiverse, if there is such a thing, we were, and everything we do changes something whether we’re aware of it or not.

      • Zetopan
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        The fine tuning argument, like all theistic egotistical presumptions, assumes that the central point of the universe is exceedingly pious human life. Thus, the universe was “designed” so that humanity could exist, rather than the infinitely more supportable view that all life, including humanity, is a natural product of the universe. If the universe were unsuitable for human life we would not be here to observe it.
        In short, their aggressive egotism starts by getting the cause and effect exactly backwards. Recall when theologians proved that the Earth was at the center of the universe? While there are now a tiny minority of geocentrists still holding that view, the more “sophisticated” religionists have dropped that view but still insist that they are the reason for the existence of the universe. Hence the fine tuning nonsense. They are forced to continually retreat as science advances, and their “new” arguments are always just new paint sloppily applied over their previously discredited arguments.

        • Posted April 2, 2015 at 4:52 am | Permalink

          The Argument from Spaghetti:

          I had spaghetti last night for supper and now I have just gone the bathroom. It took exactly 12 hours for those events to occur (down to the millisecond). Considering all of the other things I could have had for supper, and the different spice amounts and combinations I could have put in the spaghetti, and the number of noodles I consumed, the probability that that particular combination of noodley goodness and that particular exact passage of time before the holy micturition occurred, and sequentially in that particular order to boot, and, and, and, and

          — well all I have to say is

          Ergo The Flying Spaghetti Monster

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

        Couldn’t agree more! And IMO some scientists have taken it too seriously, and have ended up giving it more clout than it would otherwise would have had if they’d just dismissed it in your terms.

        It’s just the Adams’s puddle-fits-hole idea gussied up.

  8. Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    PS. There’s a three-tiered waterfall near my home. I’m headed out for a walk and when I get to it I’m going drop down on my knees and beseech it asking that the National Geographic welcome your offer with open arms (and wallet).

    • harrync
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      I once saw a frozen waterfall, but it only had one stream. That’s why I am a Unitarian.

      • kevin7alexander
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        I saw a frozen waterfall from the discharge pipe of the sewage treatment plant. So it’s all crap then. See, science is so easy.

      • Posted April 2, 2015 at 4:55 am | Permalink

        I saw linguini flowing out of a pasta maker, just like a waterfall. And then it was put in the freezer. That’s why I’m a Pastafarian (BHNA)

        • Posted April 2, 2015 at 5:02 am | Permalink

          Linguini? Splitter!

          /@

          • Posted April 2, 2015 at 8:53 am | Permalink

            Never mind the linguini — He froze the boiled one! Such blasphemy is simply intolerable!

            It is acceptable to make extra dough, lovingly wrap it tightly in protective plastic, and safely stow the proto-noodles in the safety of the refrigerator for a period of at most a few days before actualizing the potential of His Noodliness to its fullest glory.

            But freeze the poor bastard!?

            Boil him!

            b&

            • Posted April 2, 2015 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

              Then toss him in olive oil?

              /@

              • Posted April 2, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

                Not a bad idea — though I typically go for butter.

                Even if I follow up with the olive oil.

                …and, no, I’m not joking…for example, one of my favorite meals…usually starts with an Italian sausage and an artichoke or some asparagus or the like, and then I’ll run the pasta through the machine, cook it, toss it with a little bit of butter, and then toss it with the cloves of garlic from at least one, maybe two heads that’s been veeeeeery slowly simmering for some time in olive oil, plus some ground pepper and some herbs from the mint family (oregano, thyme, basil, etc.). And top with generous amounts of fresh-grated Reggiano.

                But, typically, the first thing that happens to pretty much any pasta after coming out of the strainer is it goes quickly back in the pot to get tossed with butter until the butter is melted. Keeps it from sticking and the flavor is never unwelcome.

                For that matter, it’s also the first step in Fettuccine Alfredo…along with a dash of nutmeg, followed by a generous splash of whole cream, heated until the cream is significantly absorbed by the pasta and thickened by the heat; then, an equally generous handful of grated Reggiano, stirred in off the heat just until smooth (or maybe stop stirring just before then to avoid it getting stringy).

                …erm…sorry…where were we…?

                b&

              • kevin7alexander
                Posted April 3, 2015 at 5:31 am | Permalink

                Ben, what angel sent from His Noodliness (parmesan be upon him) revealed that sacred rite to you?

              • Posted April 3, 2015 at 8:54 am | Permalink

                Hmmm…the pasta tossed with whole cloves of garlic thing is something I grew up with. The Alfredo recipe is the bog-standard original one, as I understand it.

                b&

              • Posted April 3, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                Macaroni.

                /@

              • kevin7alexander
                Posted April 3, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                Macaroni! Good one.
                One thing I’ve never understood about the Mormons, If the angel that revealed to Joseph Smith the sacred business plan was named Moroni, why aren’t his followers called Morons?

              • Posted April 3, 2015 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

                But they are, by many!

                /@

              • Posted April 3, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                Indeed. The second “m” is silent.

                b&

              • Posted April 3, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                So that’s who the mystery person with a feathered cap was!

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 3, 2015 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

                Now I keep getting of Seinfeld and Macaroni Bette Midler.

  9. Randy Schenck
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    This is a great response to Collins and National Geo. It needs to be published regardless of whether this magazine does so. Twiddling his Metaphorical Thumbs…you can’t beat it.

    I’m pretty sure National Geographic has done some slippery things in the past. Recall some pretty sorry actions during the early 20th century on some of the discoveries/explorers to the poles. Maybe this was suppose to be their April Fools article?

    • Zetopan
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      Firstly, National Geographic advertises itself as a photo-journalist organization. This apparently absolves them from any actual skeptical scientific reporting.

      Secondly, for a truly wonderous example of just how “slippey” Nat Geo can be, go back and read their wall to wall religious apologetics about STURP (the Shroud of Turin Research Project). Religious pseudoscience at its best.

  10. Acolyte of Sagan
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I can feel nothing but sadness at the thought of such a great mind gone to waste.

    Fine tuning; why something from nothing?; morality has to have come from God.
    This is almost Ken Ham level stupidity!

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    This is probably not as bad as the lengthy piece NG did in March 2012 on the Christian apostles: In the Footsteps of the Apostles
    In which they repeat pious legends without digging too deep. For example, they include the story of Thomas going to India to start a church.

    Good luck in getting your own piece.

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Collins does his usual two-step:
    It’s all about faith, not evidence.
    By the way, here’s my evidence.

  13. Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    “..it is also clear that there are some really important questions that science cannot really answer, such as: Why is there something instead of nothing?”

    In light of A Universe From Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss, that statement by Collins reminds me of “Tide goes in, tide goes out. You can’t explain that.”

    • Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I was expecting to see a simple URL. I didn’t realize the link would work like that, and that the time stamp I included wouldn’t work. Jump to 1:52 to hear the infamous Bill O’Reilly quote.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        I saw that one live. I’ve always been disappointed that Silverman didn’t tell O’Reilly about the moon.

        • kevin7alexander
          Posted April 1, 2015 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          I saw that too. I was hoping Silverman would mention gravity. Oh, wait…. gravity is just a theory too! It must be Jesus or else the twenty million a year that keeps O’Hindenburg’s fat ass in that seat.

  14. Sabunim5Dan
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Jerry said, “In the interests of fairness, I ask National Geographic to allow me to answer three questions as well, in a short piece called “Why I am a man of science—and no faith.” Or if that’s too provocative: “Why I am a man of science—and naturalism.” What do you think the chances are that they’d allow me to write such a piece?”

    Speaking as someone with a B.A. degree in journalism (and +33 years experience), I’d say that NG ought to be receptive to your piece in the spirit of equal-time POV fairness. A less provocative, yet more pointed, title: “Why I’m a man of science – and evidence-based thinking”.

    Collins is clearly in the throes of cognitive dissonance and willful indulgence of observer-relative thinking. How else to explain his disregard of scientific evidence in cosmology and evolution?

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      Nat Geo wants to sell magazine/attract clicks. Nothing helps as well as a little controversy. 😉

  15. rtkufner
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    A more honest title for this piece would be: “A Case Study in Severe Cognitive Dissonance in Wild Geneticist Populations”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Ha ha “Wild Geneticist Populations” – I love it!

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        + 1! 🙂

  16. Derek Freyberg
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    “Fine tuning” has always struck me as a “Texas sharpshooter” argument.
    Sure, if you altered one of the constants the universe would be different or nonexistent, but the universe is what it is (to the extent we are capable of observing it) because the constants are what they are; the constants weren’t made for the universe (or our anthropocentric view of it), the universe was made for/by the constants.
    Imagine the silliness of claiming “fine tuning” of the rotation of the earth on its axis taking 1 day.
    Real physicists can rubbish me now.

    • Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Actually, it is a real problem worth thinking about. The constants may have been free to be anything, though most likely there are still-undiscovered connections between them, much as we now see all kinds of connections between the speed of light and other quantities. Some of them do seem to have rather special values appropriate for life as we know it, though obviously we know nothing about forms of life that are vastly different from what we know and which may thrive in some exotic (to us) universes. And while some, like the late Vic Stenger, point out that the range of life-supporting universes is vastly greater than what most religious people present, it is still the case that life-supporting universes have to be extremely special in the space of all conceivable universes.

      To me the best answer to this, the one that most agrees with the evidence, is the multiverse hypothesis–that there are many universes. Those with life are a miniscule fraction of these, but since intelligent beings invariably will be in one of those universes, it can come as no surprise that we are in one of them.

      This theory makes an interesting prediction, which seems to be confirmed: if (as all on both sides of this debate seem to agree) life-supporting universes are rare and hard to achieve, then most of the life-supporting universes will just barely support life. Therefore, if our universe is drawn randomly from the set of all possible life-supporting universes, then our universe is most likely to be one of those that barely support life. And that’s true—the fraction of our universe that is suitable for life is about the same fraction as a drop of water in relation to the world’s oceans. So this theory explains the most striking thing about our universe–its overall great hostility to life– while god-based explanations don’t make a clear prediction (as usual).

      • H.H.
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        But “conceivable” universes aren’t the same thing as possible universes. As you say, we still don’t know why reality’s basic elements have the properties and values they do. There very well could be some constraining factors that limit the variables.

        • Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

          Absolutely; that’s why I said what I did. But even if all the constants are constrained,it might still be puzzling why the constraints take the form that they do.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          If you need to get a handle on possible universes there is the one mathematical theory that does so, string theory. It gives you a vast, but finite, set of ~ 10^500 possible physics for universes, which is compatible with (and indeed used to describe) Lou’s “small-fraction-of-life” multiverse.

          There are some inherent constraints, which may limit variables. 1D time is a given, and 3D space universes seem to be preferred. (Because if you start out with small string theory 10D spaces, 3 large dimensions stop the unfolding process. Just don’t ask me how. =D ) And if you have a fractal like multiverse with a varying cosmological constant, the fractal likes to push the c.c. to livable conditions. But mind they are still a small fraction, because the process “sink”, its end result, with zero-ish c.c. is unlivable. (Susskind has some papers on this.)

          But as for the rest… The string landscape is a NP hard space, if I remember correctly, meaning that computer scientists can show that computers find it hard to answer any questions on it. Physics, which do mind resources, agree with computers of course (or we could build tremendous ‘dualistic’ such). I would expect that nature would be as hard pushed to find other constraining factors as we are, given a multiverse.

          If you want other constraining factors you may have to pull out multiverses from physics, despite them being natural outcomes. Then we are back to a difference between what looks possible and what you deem “conceivable”…

          [Off topic, and even more handwaving, but now I see why I find “Theories of everything” on the basics of physics annoying. That is, apart from that physicists entertaining them often want to claim an untested singularity at the start of the process that resulted in our observable universe as given as it may help fix the parameters.

          The religious finetuning argument, that the physics at hand necessarily had to give humans, differ from physics finetuning where you have a certain result and discover that it is rare (hard) to get it by adjusting parameters. (As Ben notes in another comment.) It is the vital difference between prior probabilities (which may be small) and posterior likelihoods (which may be large). If you insist on undue constraints to get a TOE, you are doing something similar to the religious.]

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        I have enjoyed Stengers’ take on the fine tuning argument. One thing that I think I recall he was saying was that the original fine-tuning argument was done with bad math. What they did was to assume that one could alter a constant independently of other constants, like the rest mass of the proton could have been different while all else was the same.
        But in fact that is not a realistic way of how would play out. At the moment of ‘creation’, there would be a set amount of energy available to set the different levels of these values, and one value will effect another value. So if the mass of the proton had came out a little heavier, say, then the mass of neutron would be a little lighter (or something like that).
        I too would like to be corrected if I am wrong.

        • Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          You are right about Stenger’s argument. It seemed to me he was claiming to solve the fine tuning problem with this (correct) observation. However, even with this correction, the set of universes which could support life as we know it was still vanishingly small, just not as small as religious people claimed.

          • Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            That “life as we know it” is more anthropocentricism. It presumes, depending on how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go, that life requires a terrestrial biosphere, that it requires carbon-based chemistry, that it requires our particular table of the elements, that it requires atomic matter, and so on.

            In reality, all that it would seem that life actually requires is some sort of framework of adequate complexity and the equivalent of an energy gradient (even if the “stuff” that comprises energy doesn’t even vaguely resemble electromagnetism).

            Once you break it down that far, you realize that life as we don’t know it could trivially arise in an alternate universe whose physics is so radically different from ours that you’d have to invent entire new branches of mathematics just to come close to describing a vague approximation of it. As well as, of course, arise in universes of varying degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity between those two extremes.

            b&

            • Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

              No Ben, it does not assume a terrestrial atmosphere, nor a carbon base, nor a particular table of elements. The assumptions I mentioned in my response to you are quite similar to the ones you just gave: adequate bit not excessive complexity and adequate time. Again, these conditions don’t seem to be very common (relative to universes that lack those properties) in the space of all conceivable universes.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

                oops. “adequate BUT not excessive…”

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

                And double-oops- my response to you was in a comment farther down; you might not have seen it when you wrote the above.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

                I just wrote a reply that I hope addresses the points….

                b&

      • BillyJoe
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for that Lou.
        It is equally annoying to me when theist use the fine tuning segment as proof of god as when atheists claim that it does not need explaining. It does need explaining and there is an explanation.
        The multiverse does not require any additional concepts to explain fine tuning and it is a natural extension of modern cosmological theory.

        • Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

          The only reason we’d need an explanation for fine tuning is if you start with the assumption that humans are somehow so special and unlikely that nothing even remotely like us could possibly arise without the Universe being just the way it is.

          But that’s quite clearly not the case. There’re all sorts of variations on the basic theme of physics that would include both the complexity and thermodynamic imperative to support self-replicating entities with computational abilities…and, indeed, our own universe is rather inhospitable to such in the big scheme of things.

          If you take it as reasonably likely that intelligent life could arise in any physics coherent enough to sustain a cosmos, then anthropocism takes over. Why should we be the particular intelligent agents pondering the questions? Well, some intelligent agent was going to wind up pondering them, and we just happened to be the lottery winners.

          Or, “TL;DR:” geocentricism is a fucking hard yoke to cast off. The Earth really isn’t the center of Creation; humans really aren’t the crown jewel of life on Earth; and you really aren’t the most important human to ever live…even though every waking moment of your life gives the appearance of the contrary.

          b&

          • Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

            And it also would not surprise me a bit if we discover in the future that these constants move in lock-step with each other. The universe couldn’t have been any other way (maybe).

            And in any case, if they weren’t like they are, we wouldn’t be here to observe it.

            You are right to ID this as human exceptionalism — that is what is at base of all these kinds of arguments.

            Well, from my perspective, I certainly am the most important human. 🙂

            Fine-tuned for life is rather a joke anyway. Only in a vanishingly tiny portion of the universe is life of any sort possible.

            You’d think Collins would be stopped by the parallel:

            1. God had to have designed life as we see it

            2. God had to have designed physics as we see it

            How is that, exactly?

            • Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

              You’d think Collins would be stopped by the parallel:

              1. God had to have designed life as we see it

              2. God had to have designed physics as we see it

              How is that, exactly?

              Clearly, God had no other choice in the matter, because he lacks Free Will, thus demonstrating that this really is the best of all possible worlds….

              b&

              • Derek Freyberg
                Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                Lou and others (this is a “reply” to Ben because he was the last commenter before I got back to it):

                Thank you for your thoughts. I’m aware of the multiverse concept, though not at all educated in (perhaps even capable of understanding) its ramifications.
                My point is, essentially, that THIS universe “is what it is”; and while speculating on alternatives in which the cosmic constants are different may be an interesting exercise in cosmology, it’s about as meaningful theologically in terms of “fine tuning” as (I think it was) Douglas Adams’s “fine-tuning” of the puddle to fit its borders.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I think that’s where most of us come down on the subject.

                b&

          • Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Ben, I think you are only partly right. Sure, in order to see a fine-tuning problem, we have to make assumptions about what kind of universe could produce life, and we can only do that on the basis of our own earthly experience. This experience really could be way off. But the fine-tuning problem appears even under very generous and broad assumptions. Most choices of constants and laws lead to universes which don’t stay long enough in a state where chemical-based evolution seems at all likely to produce intelligent life, regardless of its chemical basis. Still, we don’t really know.

            • Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

              Most choices of constants and laws lead to universes which don’t stay long enough in a state where chemical-based evolution seems at all likely to produce intelligent life, regardless of its chemical basis.

              But that’s again Adams’s puddle. Most of the surface area of the mountainside couldn’t sustain a puddle; the water would just keep rolling down the slope. But here, in this one particular spot, there happens to be a depression in the ground deep enough for the water to collect and form a puddle…and isn’t it amazing that this puddle just happens to have a shape that just perfectly fits the bottom of the depression!

              There don’t have to be very many other parts of the mountain with depressions conducive to puddle formation. Or, there could be an entire inland sea on the other side of the ridgeline from where we can see. The point is that we know that puddles can form, and we know that there’s lots of theoretical variation in the shapes puddles can come in, and that puddles themselves don’t require any particular shape in order to form. You just need a certain local gravitational gradient and a source of water — and there’s your puddle!

              b&

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                But apparently most universes can’t produce puddles, and of those that do, in most of them the puddle-making epochs don’t last long enough for evolution of intelligent beings…

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

                Again, still not a problem. Puddles are scarce on mountainsides here on Earth…but they’re still there to be found nonetheless.

                Or, if you prefer, there are damned few lottery winners.

                The question isn’t whether or not an event is unlikely for a single roll of the dice. The question is whether there’re enough rolls of the dice for there to be any winners.

                We don’t know if there’re any multiverses, if there’re any other possibilities for the laws of physics, or the answers to any of those related questions.

                But, what we do know is that, no matter how we look at it, we always come up with there being more than one way to do it — with “it” being complex life. So, if you’re going to posit alternatives of any variety, be they multiverses or the possibility that our singular universe could have been different, those alternatives might have complex life as a rare thing, sure, but there’re enough rolls of the dice in the alternatives that we shouldn’t be surprised that somebody won the lottery…nor should we be surprised that the lottery winner should be surprised by the astonishing luck of the circumstances that caused that particular individual to actually win the lottery.

                Richard’s “we are going to die” passage is especially relevant here if you’re still not convinced.

                b&

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

                We are going to die… 

                /@

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                That’s a setting of it I’ve not encountered before…heavy metal symphonic secularists????

                b&

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

                Just out. The whole album is inspired by Dawkins and Darwin (with quotations read by Dawkins) and, well, science generally. There is also a non-album track called “Sagan” …

                /@

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

                Ben, what you are describing in this last comment is actually the same as the multiverse hypothesis.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

                Yes, and intentionally so.

                But I’m also trying to make a broader point.

                If you’re going to propose “fine-tuning,” then you’re necessarily proposing a range of possible universes.

                It doesn’t matter if those universes are actually realized (in the multiverse theories) or simply something Jesus could have picked from when designing our one-and-only universe but didn’t.

                What matters is that there’s a range of options…and we already know that, from that range, at least one set of options could and did result in intelligent life.

                Fine tuning is only a valid argument if there is exactly one set of options out of an overwhelming number of options that could result in intelligent life.

                As soon as you get into even a small handful of options in a really big set of options, Adams’s puddle takes charge.

                Or, mere improbability is insufficient justification to invoke fine tuning. The situation really does have to be truly unique, or else simple anthropicism offers more than adequate explanation for the realization of the improbable.

                …else we’d have to invoke fine tuning for all lottery winners to explain why they won, rather than some other random schmucks.

                b&

          • rickflick
            Posted April 1, 2015 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

            I’m reading “Revolutions that Made the Earth” – Lenton and Watson. They discuss the likelihood of intelligent life (language using creatures) in our universe and come up with a conclusion that its very rare. The constraints are greater than a quick look would suggest. For one thing, we are familiar with the Goldilocks zone of habitability for planets around a star, but there are a lot of other factors. One is that it appears to take quite a long time, 5 billion or so years, to generate smart apes. At the same time, a planet in the Goldilocks zone will eventually, and perhaps rather quickly, depart the Goldilocks zone since the star will gradually increase its rate of energy production and fry the inner plantes. So there is a distance from the parent star constraint as well as a fairly small time window within which to achieve intelligent life. Numerous other constraints are also discussed. Star type, meteor bombardment, a suitable moon to stabilize oscillations, etc. They don’t mention gods as participating factors though.

            • Posted April 1, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

              Microbial life is quite possibly ubiquitous. If we find it elsewhere in our solar system — and I’m not at all going to be surprised if NASA finds it on Mars — then we can be pretty sure that it’s in orbit around basically every star we can see in the sky.

              And complex biospheres, I suspect, are likely somewhat plentiful.

              Technological civilizations such as ours? I’d be very surprised if you need more than one hand to count the total number existing at this moment in our galaxy.

              But, even if only one in a million galaxies has even a single technological civilization, that’s still hundreds of thousands of such civilizations in the universe.

              So I’d say the odds are overwhelming that there actually are other technological civilizations out there, somewhere — and, in the same breath, suggest that it’s quite likely that physics renders the odds of any two of them ever coming into contact with each other basically nil.

              Space is big. You may think it’s a long way to the chemist, but….

              b&

              • Zetopan
                Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

                You said:
                “But, even if only one in a million galaxies has even a single technological civilization, that’s still hundreds of thousands of such civilizations in the universe.”

                I have a bit of a quibble with that.

                My quibble, and I have seen this error a lot, is that you should qualify “universe” with visible; as in the “visible universe”.

                The reason why it is erroneous without the qualifier is that the universe could be, and all current observations support, infinite in size. Hence there may not be an upper limit on the number of galaxies that your example assumes, and hence the number of intelligent civilizations could just as easily be infinite.

                The size of the visible universe is about 93B LY across,
                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shape_of_the_universe
                However, measurements indicate that the universe is either flat (infinite in size) or extremely close to being flat.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

                Fair quibble. When context matters, I try to be clear about differentiating between the observable universe, various proposed multiverses, the Cosmos, and so on. In this case, I meant the volume of space that traces its causal chain to our own Big Bang.

                b&

              • rickflick
                Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

                As the numbers soar I gulp. Perhaps doing an estimate of how rare or common intelligent life is is a bit of a hazard. I would think the most interesting question is, is there a civilization out there we could detect? Maybe not phone home to, but just pick up some signal as the planetary society wants to do. There are some, I believe, who think smart aliens arise very commonly. Once you get life going on a rocky planet, it just naturally leads to communicating beings. If this were the case (easy life) our chances of detecting these E.T.s would perhaps be excellent. On the other paw, if smart-as-us beings are exceedingly rare we are wasting our time pointing dishes and spacecraft in hopes of finding another Earth.

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

                I would think the most interesting question is, is there a civilization out there we could detect?

                Almost certainly not. Our own earliest detectable signs — radio and TV broadcasts from less than a century ago — are already beyond our current ability to pick out from the background noise at their current extant. Since then, and increasingly of late, we’ve quieted down dramatically, as we’ve increased the efficiency of our communications. We broadcast much less power into the sky today than we did decades ago, with the obvious and inevitable trend to better and better such efficiency as we forge ahead.

                About the least-worst hope we can have at this point for detecting another civilization would be through the spectral signature of a Dyson Sphere. And a civilization operating at that level of technology is as far beyond our own as we are beyond the chimpanzees and ravens that I’m not at all sure it’s reasonable to expect such civilizations are even possible — let alone exist in any quantity.

                b&

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                Then there’s the possibility that we are “the Ancients” …

                /@

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

                True. Somebody has to be first….

                b&

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted April 2, 2015 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                Somebody has to be first – and that it could be us is suggested by the surprisingly old age of the earth, and life, compared to the age of the universe. After Galileo and Hutton and Darwin and Hubble moved our species from occupying the whole of time at the centre of a tiny space, to an afterthought at the periphery of nowhere special in a vast cosmos, one would naturally assume that the age of the earth would be as nothing to the time since the Big Bang (the height of the skin of paint on the ball capping the flagpole on the Eiffel tower, as Twain put it). And yet! Only a third-generation star, more than one-third as old as time, with cellular life kicking off probably within the first billion years after planets formed. It’s all happening so fast, surely most (imaginable) places it would happen later if at all?

              • Posted April 2, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

                Your comment covers it nicely.

                The movie makers of Contact put the words into Drumlin’s mouth: It’s overwhelming likely that “they” have: Never existed, destroyed themselves, or are too far away to ever make contact.

                At the same time, it seems overwhelmingly likely that “they” are “out there” — somewhere, in the great vastness of our universe.

                Dawkins’ We Are the Lucky Ones passage is one of the things I’ve asked to be read at any memorial gathering following my passing. It’s a wonderful reiteration of carpe diem and/or memento mori.

              • Posted April 2, 2015 at 10:01 am | Permalink

                It’s overwhelming likely that “they” have: Never existed, destroyed themselves, or are too far away to ever make contact.

                And that last one is depressingly easy to be the case. Even a couple dozen lightyears is pushing the limits of detectability, and the window of detectability seems to be on the order of a couple dozen decades. Even if every Earth-like planet has a civilization comparable to ours, chances are slim we’d ever have the means of discerning such a fact — let alone communicate with any of them.

                It’s that damned bigness of space, again….

                b&

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      If you insist that the physics at hand necessarily had to give humans it differs from physics finetuning. In the latter case you have a certain result and discover that it is rare (hard) to get it by adjusting parameters.

      Since these two cases differ in vital parts, I like to call what the religious do “the religious finetuning argument” to distinguish it from finetuning as observed in physics. The vital difference lies between prior probabilities (which may be small, as in religious finetuning) and posterior likelihoods (which may be large, as in so called “weak”, varying physics, anthropic multiverses).

      And hence, yes, what the religious do is walking the “Texas sharpshooter” fallacy around, as if it wasn’t yet another religious zombie which innards they like to fondle.

      • Posted April 1, 2015 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        And hence, yes, what the religious do is walking the “Texas sharpshooter” fallacy around, as if it wasn’t yet another religious zombie which innards they like to fondle.

        Never did care for chitlins. Chicharrónes, on the other hand….

        b&

    • Posted April 2, 2015 at 5:02 am | Permalink

      I once had a lovely educational assistant who was not so sharp on the science, but was very goddy; say out loud to the learning disabled students she was helping in my class;, “Isn’t it amazing how the first 20 atoms all follow that pattern (of number of orbits and number of valence electrons) while we were learning Bohr-Rutherford diagrams”.

  17. Michael Michaels
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    ” I hate having to to address this issue yet again, but I have no choice.”

    This reminds me of the cartoon of the woman asking her husband, who is on the computer, if he’s coming to bed. He replies “In a little while, someone is wrong on the internet.”

    As usual you do a fine job of pointing out the ‘wrong’, Mr. Coyne. It’s a shame Mr. Collins is unlikely to profit from your words, but if nothing else you’ll mitigate the damage done by him.

    I’ve been asking creationists ‘Why do you believe nothing is the default state instead of something?” for a while now. It always seems to make them a bit, well, wonky. They just don’t seem to be able to fit it into their mental model, or even grasp the concept. Instead they either ignore the point, or they throw the kitchen sink at it. Usually something about thermodynamics, followed by “Science doesn’t know everything!”. Well, yes. That’s the point. How they “just know” that thermodynamics before or outside our universe is equivalent to our model in our universe, they can’t answer.

    Do teenage boys read NatGeo, or do they still just flip through the pictures looking for breasts?

    • Dave
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I suspect the internet has replaced Nat Geo as the default supplier of breasts for randy teenage boys.

      I wish it has been around when I was one.

      • Dave
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        “had been around”. The flashback to being a randy teenager must have momentarily affected my spelling.

    • Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      On *both* views, the default state is something – a god or the universe. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” really means “Why did god create the universe?” and there’s not any good answer from believers on that. To a naturalist, the universe just is, so …

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      It is often said that the religious are unable to perceive a problem with their assumptions. There must be a purpose b/c Jesus and eternal salvation and Gods’ plan for my life. There is no need to think further than that b/c that is the right answer nomatterwhut.
      So all assertions of scientists, however evidence-based and factual sounding, must be wrong.
      It reminds me of those who believe in conspiracies like the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks and other conspiracies. Their world view must be right because there must be great and powerful machinations working behind the scenes of any event. It does not matter how many facts you bring forward supporting a more mundane story — that story must be a cover-up and you are either a tool or a patsy. Momentous events must have a greater purpose behind them, and the Big Bang is the ‘motha of all events.

      • Posted April 2, 2015 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Well put.

        There was a conspiracy behind 9/11 — just not the one the Conspiracy “Theorists” posit. It was a conspiracy within Al Qaeda, headed by KSM.

        • Posted April 2, 2015 at 10:18 am | Permalink

          And, not helping matters, the US government clearly took advantage of the attacks as an excuse to both launch the war in Iraq and to impose the domestic proto-police state (U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, etc.).

          Doesn’t matter whether or not the Bush administration et al. knew of the plot before hand. Doesn’t even really matter if their hearts are pure and they had no clue about how evil their actions were. We’re still stuck with the neverending war in Iraq and a domestic police state that’s not just the “new normal” but continues to expand its powers and can no longer be excused as merely a temporary necessary evil.

          b&

  18. Tom
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    As the late Christopher Hitchens noted ‘Religion Poisons Everything’

  19. nickswearsky
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Very disappointed in National Geographic right now.

  20. Randy Schenck
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I hope everyone is going over to the National Geo site to leave a comment. I said something about it looking like an ad from the Templeton foundation and how could National Geographic publish such a thing….

  21. Les Robertshaw
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    If these people are going to be permitted to write their theology in National Geographic it is time to cancel my subscription,

  22. Roy Black
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I would leave out the response that the laws of physics explain why the universe exists, because we don’t know why the laws of physics–including quantum mechanics–exist. Krauss never explains why any space existed to begin with or why it was governed by quantum mechanics.
    Just stick with the response that religion doesn’t have an answer either, and that there’s certainly no reason to think that something like the Abrahamic God was sitting around and decided to create a universe.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      Unless you return to the extraordinary claim that there is an nondescript “nothing”, we do know, at least superficially, why physical laws exist (due to symmetries) and at the bottom why quantum mechanics is handling our physics.

      Maybe there are some fancy arguments on Hilbert spaces, which is where quantum mechanics lives, which makes them inevitable. They naturally gives convex, solvable, systems, so they are the only known spaces that have particles and their motions (think chemistry), I think. “Hilbert spaces are complete: there are enough limits in the space to allow the techniques of calculus to be used. Hilbert spaces arise naturally and frequently in mathematics and physics, typically as infinite-dimensional function spaces.” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilbert_space ]

      However, it can be motivated more simply: quantum mechanics is the minimalist physics.

      A naive argument is that relativistic quantum fields (based on wavefunctions) with particles as epiphenomena are simpler than a bunch of classical particles and ad hoc forces.

      But deeper, QM minimizes the number of variables (famously it has no hidden variables) and the number of parameters as well [for which I have a ref … somewhere].

      And as if that wouldn’t be enough, it turns out that if you make a toy probability theory you see a huge simplification. Classical mechanics that describes initial and resulting states of a process is described by a classical “1D” bit probability. Quantum mechanics that has no unnecessary, ad hoc state separation but takes states to states by a differentiable function is described by a quantum “2D” qubit probability. You exchange an unnecessary physical “dimension” for a mathematical inconvenience.

      • Roy Black
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        All very interesting, but I don’t see why simplicity is a criterion for existence. This is the kind of argument that theists make, for example there’s only one God because one is simpler than two. As I recall, even Krauss admits that there’s no justification for assuming quantum mechanics; he just hopes we’ll find one.

        • Posted April 2, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

          Alternatively, on a naturalistic understanding there have to be objective patterns. A naturalistic world view alsomore specifically predicts conservation laws (broadly construed- i.e., not *what* is conserved). And guess what – we have discovered both. These just are laws. (Personally I am for an expansive notion; any sufficiently long period pattern can be called a law, but if anything can be, the conservation laws are such, since they are eternal.)

          The supernaturalist – especially one which believes in miracles – cannot account for these.

  23. Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    “And now we’re back where we started,
    here we go round again.” — Ray Davies

  24. Les Robertshaw
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I can understand the various reasons why POF cling to their unjustified superstitions and those reason do not flatter their intelligence.
    The National Geographic publishing the theology of any religion is so depressing that I may have to have a couple of drinks. The editors should be red faced. For Christ’s sake this is a popular science magazine! Religion and science are NOT compatible. Look around. Is evolution compatible with the Lunney (that’s his name) tune creation myths of Xtianity, Islam and Judaism? Holy water, relics, prayer beads, magic and science? Nah!

    • Posted April 2, 2015 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      I watched Lunney on Power and Politics with Evan Solomon on CBC last night (Wednesday). Holy smokes!!!!. He was roundly dismissed and criticized by the panel after his interview. Rob – the lawyer liberal panelist guy excoriated him very nicely saying something like “that was incoherent.”

  25. Larry Cook
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    National Geographic long ago lost any credibility it ever had as an organization of science and nature. All you have to do is check out the television schedule for NATGEO and NATGEO WILD. You’re as likely to find a show featuring pseudoscience as you are to find a legitimate science program.

  26. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    [In a quiet, David Attenborough-ish voice]:
    We approach quietly, downwind, so as to not disturb their tranquil interactions. Here we see the male Evangelical Scientist grooming his intended mate, the Templeton Queen. She is in full estrous now, and will soon produce an enormous pile of cash which the male must then fertilize with all his scientific acumen if they are to breed a new kind of being; a being that is at once a brilliant seer of the inner workings of nature and its secrets, but also a being that is in touch with the true, deeper threads of the cosmos — which is of course the mind of God.
    Sadly, after 800 years of such attempts to breed, no such progeny has ever been produced and probably never will be. The Evangelical Scientist keeps trying, though, undaunted in what will surely be yet another futile effort.

    • Derek Freyberg
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Well said, Mark!

    • rickflick
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      A pilot for a new PBS special?

    • Lee
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Love it!Love it! Love it!

    • Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      Very good! I can hear Attenborough’s voice now. (I’ve also heard he’s an atheist.)

      • rickflick
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        Attenborough gives his opinion in an interview:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HGFigUOUfA

      • merilee
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

        I love the way Attenborough waves his arms around with enthusiasm;-)

      • Posted April 2, 2015 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        Hi Jerry:

        As two comments above (one from me) mention, creationist loonytunes have once again reared their head in Canada’s (of all places) Federal Conservative party — quite a story here in the big north. MP Lunney is his name, creationism is his shame.

        I’m betting you are getting emails from the north-guard of the rational even as I type this. If I can find an Internet copy of his crazy interview with Evan Solomon on CBC Power and Politics Wednesday around 6:20 pm, I will email it to you.

  27. Chewy
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never been able to understand — and I’ve been trying now for over 50 years — what people like Collins think they mean when they say/write “God”. I think I know what they probably mean, but since most “faith based believers” probably have a more or less different idea of what “God” or “god” or Allah or Baal or Krishna or whatever it is means, all their grandiose pontifications fall to ruin. Jerry Falwell and Paul Tillich both used “God” but I doubt agreed on a single aspect of that person.

  28. merilee
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    and sub

  29. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    National Geographic is on a roll. Their TV channel is airing a movie based on Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted April 1, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      It was not very long ago when I said in WEIT that NatGeo tv was one of the last bastions of televised science, since the Disco Channel and the Sigh Channel had gone over to the dark side non-stop big foot, ufos’ and sharks sharks sharks.
      *Sigh*

      • rickflick
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        That reminds me. All those dreadful shark videos on TV and Youtube are probably responsible for a general fear of recreational diving. See what sensationalism can do? It spoils the fun and adventure. When you see those sharks sharks sharks on TV, keep in mind that the real risk to well behaved divers is microscopic.

  30. Jim Gutel
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    “Well, if you conceive of “nothing” as a quantum vacuum, then the answer is that such a “nothing” is unstable and will produce a universe.”

    What evidence is there that this is true? This answer to why there is something rather than nothing has as much “evidence” for it as God created the universe or the universe is a construct in the mind of Xenu.

    • Posted April 1, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Lawrence Krauss wrote a book and has given several lectures (available on YouTube) on that exact subject: A Universe from Nothing.

      That’s the only kind of “nothing” that you can actually point to as something that we can meaningfully describe as being real in any sense of the word.

      Philosophers and theologians like to push that back even further and claim that the vacuum is some form of “something” rather than “real” nothing. But what they’re groping towards is a definition of “nothing” that’s congruent with that which is north of the North Pole, and their question makes no more sense than asking why there should be nothing north of the North Pole rather than something there.

      b&

      • Roy Black
        Posted April 1, 2015 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        He’s postulating not just a vacuum but a vacuum governed by quantum mechanics. That hardly seems like “nothing” to me.

        • Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

          Well, again. To answer the question meaningfully, we need to have a definition of what “nothing” is supposed to be.

          “Nothing” has a very reasonable meaning in the context of physics: the vacuum.

          And we know with more nines than you have appendages that the Standard Model is complete up to the energy level of the Higgs. It’s known to be incomplete after that, of course…but, then again, we also know that whatever comes after the Standard Model must reduce to the Standard Model at the domain of the Higgs. As such, we don’t need to worry about the frontiers of physics for these sorts of questions; if you want your “nothing” to refer to a phenomenon even remotely applicable to humanity, the vacuum is your only choice.

          Now, if you’re going to push that beyond physics, beyond the natural, to the metaphysically supernatural and ask why there should even be physics in the first place as opposed to “not-physics” being the case…that’s again like asking what’s north of the North Pole. There’s just no way to even attempt to phrase a coherent thought. You might be thinking of, for example, Polaris as a possible answer…but it’s above the North Pole; it’s not north of it. (And, indeed, Polaris is actually slightly south of the North Pole, since it’s not quite on axis.)

          So, you basically have two possible answers to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The first is that something akin to the “stuff” we’re familiar with is an inevitable consequence of a vacuum; the second is something snarky along the lines of, “For the same reason there aren’t any married bachelors who live north of the North Pole who live death in Spartan luxury amidst squalid splendor.”

          b&

        • Posted April 1, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          Roy, I think you are right, Krauss is assuming an awful lot. Basically be is assuming a large part of what he is being asked to explain.

          • Mark Sturtevant
            Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

            As I understand it, there is no such thing as nothing. ‘Nothing’ still has space and is thought to be constantly producing virtual particles that wink in and out of existence.

            • Roy Black
              Posted April 1, 2015 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

              Thanks to Lou and Mark for weighing in on this and–I think–supporting my perspective.
              Ben–I don’t think we really disagree, we’re just getting hung up on semantics. I understand that there’s no intelligible starting point beyond the vacuum, and I’m sure we agree that it’s a more informative starting point than “God”. I just think we have to admit that we’re saying “that’s just the way it is.”

              • Posted April 1, 2015 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

                I just think we have to admit that we’re saying “that’s just the way it is.”

                Hmmm…not the way I’d phrase it.

                Rather, I’d state that, per Lawrence’s description, “something” is the natural and inevitable evolution of a system that starts in a state of “empty nothingness.”

                If you want to go beyond that which we reasonably know from observation — to go beyond science and rationality into the realm of religion and philosophy — then the results are as incoherent and meaningless and undefinable as those fields themselves. “Nothing” in this context is what married bachelors do north of the North Pole, and so on — and if you need to ask why something so irrational can’t meaningfully have existence, something’s quite worng with you.

                b&

        • Posted April 2, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

          Ask yourself the logically prior question: *Can* there have been nothing?

          On a naturalistic world view: no, since the conservation laws are eternal.

          On a theistic world view: no, traditionally, since god is eternal.

          (almost) QED.

          • Posted April 2, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            Flip it around a bit more, to those who ponder how we got “something” from “nothing.”

            Again, of course, Lawrence has answered that for lay audiences — but never mind the science. We’ll take the theologians and philosophers at face value.

            And, for that kind of “nothing” to make sense, it must be a “nothing” that not only has no objects in spacetime, but no spacetime itself — especially if they’re going to go so far as to further state that it also includes a lack of physics itself.

            So, the claim is that we went from a state of philosophical nothing, including a lack of spacetime, to, eventually, the Big Bang and the inflationary era and so on.

            That, it just so happens, is an empirically testable claim. To support it, one would have to observe a lack of everything, including one’s self — obviously something of a challenge.

            …but, to invalidate the claim, all one must do is make an observation. Any observation will do, in fact — because your observation is only possible if spacetime exists.

            In other words, if you’re reading these words, you have empirical proof that the claim that “nothing (in the philosophical or theological senses) exists” is, indeed, an invalid proposition, no matter how you choose to slice it.

            b&

  31. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    One is forever hearing this “mutually enriching and complementary” bit about science and religion from believers. What they mean, as best as I can figure, is that they manage to keep science and faith in separate mental compartments, and that doing so helps them feel good about themselves and the world around them. This, in turn, appears to be based on their rote, unexamined acceptance that human wellbeing is built on a tripartite mind-body-spirit base (an assumption they make without considering whether one of these things is not like the others).

    I’ve asked believers to explain how their faith in, say, a virgin birth or the resurrection of the dead enriches and compliments their understanding of science. I’ve yet to hear a coherent answer — if they’re willing to give an answer at all — let alone a meaningful one.

  32. Posted April 1, 2015 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    MIght have been said earlier, didn’t read every comment…but National Geographic is now a News Corp (Ruppert Murdoch) property.

  33. Posted April 2, 2015 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    What’s funny is that the fine-tuning argument is actually a good argument against the existence of god. At least, against the existence of an all powerful god; it might make sense for a limited god like the Greek pantheon or something.

    The fine tuning argument assumes that there’s a premade template for humanity’s existence that god had to conform to in order to make humanity. Much like in the same way that there are laws of physics that restrict what type of car or airplane we can build. This makes sense for a non-all powerful being, like us or the Roman gods, but not for an *all* powerful god.

    There’s nothing stopping an all powerful god from placing us on Mercury and simply remaking the laws of physics so that we could survive there. Or have us live on a comet that orbits the sun every 200 years. There’s literally no constraint with an all powerful god, yet fine tuning assumes constraint. The two concepts are at odds.

    Furthermore, the fact that god could be responsible for any infinite permutations of universes that could allow for any permutations of humans (e.g., why didn’t god make the strong nuclear force at a level where only one star could exist? Nothing’s stopping him) makes it infinitely unlikely that he’s responsible for *this* particular instance of the universe. It’s like if you had a choice between a magic 8-ball like device that could roll any number imaginable versus a normal die. If I told you I rolled a 3, it’s much more likely that I chose the normal die instead of the infinite-number 8-ball die.

    Fine-tuning is pretty much one of the best arguments against an all powerful god.

  34. DrDroid
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I hope NG does allow you to post an article. This be-kind-to-faith stuff is no doubt due to the approach of Easter.


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