The Conversation kisses the rump of religion again

I thought that The Conversation was largely a news and scholarly opinion website, but every once in a while they slip in some religious nonsense that baffles and saddens me. (For one example, see this risible argument for religiously based brain/mind dualism, and this ridiculous slice of tripe explaining why morality requires God). And now we have a piece from yesterday brought to my attention by reader RJC: “Five rational arguments why G0d (very probably) exists“. The author, Robert H. Nelson, is a Professor of Public Policy at The University of Maryland, which proves once again that scholars outside the field of religion can still be seduced by the blandishments of faith. In Nelson’s case, he simply adduces a few phenomena that science hasn’t yet understood (but may someday), or things that he doesn’t understand (like evolution) and triumphantly concludes, “Therefore God.” As RJC wrote me, “My quick, superficial read tells me it’s 5 “god of the gaps” arguments, gussied up a bit.”

And indeed it is. I’ll be brief (I hope) since we’ve heard most of these arguments before. Here are the phenomena that, says Nelson, convinced him that “the existence of God is very probable.” (He doesn’t give a probability.) He says there are five ideas, but offers six. I’ll put two together. (I covered God-of-the-gaps arguments, including the first two below, in Faith Versus Fact, pp. 152-177.)

  • The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”.  Nelson says this:

“In 1960, the Princeton physicist – and subsequent Nobel Prize winner – Eugene Wigner raised a fundamental question: Why did the natural world always – so far as we know – obey laws of mathematics?

“. . . How could two distant objects in the solar system be drawn toward one another, acting according to a precise mathematical law? Indeed, Newton made strenuous efforts over his lifetime to find a natural explanation but in the end he conceded failure. He could say only that it is the will of God.

“Despite the many other enormous advances of modern physics, little has changed in this regard. As Wigner wrote, “The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and there is no rational explanation for it.”

“In other words, as something supernatural, it takes the existence of some kind of a God to make the mathematical underpinnings of the universe comprehensible.”

Did that convince you that there’s some kind of a God? I didn’t think so. The ability of math to describe physics simply means that there are physical “laws”: regularities in the universe. (In fact, as I said in FvF, if there weren’t such laws, we couldn’t exist!) As I also said in my book (p. 159):

But if there are such laws, then the usefulness of mathematics is automatically explained. For mathematics is simply a way to handle, describe, and encapsulate regularities. As you might expect, there is in fact no law of physics—no regularity of nature—that has defied mathematical description and analysis. In fact, physicists regularly invent new types of mathematics to handle physical problems, as Newton did with calculus and Heisenberg with matrix mechanics. It’s hard to conceive of any  regularity that couldn’t be handled by mathematics. So “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences,” as physicist Eugene Wigner titled one of his scientific papers, simply reflects the regularities embodied in physical law. The effectiveness of math is evidence not for God, but for regularities in physical law.

Of course then Nelson might say, “But there wouldn’t be physical laws without God! Where else would they come from?” If I were snarky, I’d say “Satan,” but the best answer, and it’s a good one, is simply “We don’t know. Maybe that’s just the way things are.”

  • “The mystery of human consciousness.” Nelson says this

 “How can physical atoms and molecules, for example, create something that exists in a separate domain that has no physical existence, human consciousness?

“It is a mystery that lies beyond science.

“. . . Yet, our nonphysical thoughts somehow mysteriously guide the actions of our physical human bodies. This is no more scientifically explicable than the mysterious ability of nonphysical mathematical constructions to determine the workings of a separate physical world.

“Until recently, the scientifically unfathomable quality of human consciousness inhibited the very scholarly discussion of the subject. Since the 1970s, however, it has become a leading area of inquiry among philosophers.

“. . . The supernatural character of the workings of human consciousness offers a second strong rational grounds for raising the probability of the existence of a supernatural God.”

What hubris to deny that there can never be a scientific explanation for consciousness! It’s clearly a physical phenomenon that relies on the brain and its activity; you can change it with drugs; and you can take it away with ketamine. Doesn’t that suggest that consciousness depends in some way on physicality? Granted, we can’t yet explain the evolutionary and neurological basis of “qualia” (subjective sensations like pain), but surely the thoughts of other animals guide their bodies as well. Does that mean that when a cat jumps in a lap to get warm, it’s evidence for God?

Better here to say, “we don’t yet know” rather than pull a god out of your fundament. For there is no independent evidence for a god, and Nelson is postulating an immensely complex being as a solution for less complex phenomena.

  • Aspects of evolution have eluded understanding, and it appears to be a teleological process. Since this is my field, I’ll quote everything Nelson says:

“Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859 offered a theoretical explanation for a strictly physical mechanism by which the current plant and animal kingdoms might have come into existence, and assumed their current forms, without any necessary role for a God.

In recent years, however, traditional Darwinism – and later revised accounts of neo-Darwinism – have themselves come under increasingly strong scientific challenge. From the 1970s onwards, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould, for example, complained that little evidence could be found in the fossil record of the slow and gradual evolution of species as theorized by Darwin.

In 2011, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist James Shapiro explained that, remarkably enough, many micro-evolutionary processes worked as though guided by a purposeful “sentience” of the evolving plant and animal organisms themselves – a concept far removed from the random selection processes of Darwinism.

With these developments bringing standard evolutionary understandings into growing question, the probability of a God existing has increased correspondingly.”

If the fossil record were jerky, and this reflected the true pace of evolution and not just uneven deposition of sediments, that still would cast no doubt on evolution; in fact, Darwin noted this possibility in The Origin. Gould’s “non-Darwinian” theory for the process behind such a pattern, however, was wrong. And even if it were right, it was still a materialistic process involving small populations, genetic drift, developmental constraints, and species selection. Nelson clearly has no understanding of what he’s talking about.

As for Shapiro, he’s hardly a mainstream biologist, and is not an evolutionist. His ideas about “self directed evolution” and “adaptive mutation” have found no purchase in the evolutionary community, and nobody is talking about a higher probability of God. Teleological theories of evolution, adduced by people like Tom Nagel and Jerry Fodor, simply aren’t convincing, as we have no data leading us to such processes.

  • Advances in human thought and technology were sometimes concurrent, and that’s a Big Miracle.  I kid you not; Nelson says this:

“For the past 10,000 years at a minimum, the most important changes in human existence have been driven by cultural developments occurring in the realm of human ideas.

In the Axial Age (commonly dated from 800 to 200 B.C.), world-transforming ideas such as Buddhism, Confucianism, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the Hebrew Old Testament almost miraculously appeared at about the same time in India, China, ancient Greece and among the Jews in the Middle East – these peoples then having little interaction with one another.”

First of all, the Old Testament is not an advance in human thought. Further, Aristotle was Plato’s student; Buddhism and Confucianism aren’t all that similar to Greek philosophy; and there were interactions among people. Further, civilization had reached the point when there was enough leisure to ponder more abstract questions for all these people. It would be remarkable if there weren’t a transformation in thought prompted by changing human culture, and no surprise if some people, who are after all evolved animals with a shared evolutionary past and genome, happen to hit on the same abstract ideas or moral principles.

But what’s even weirder is what Nelson says about science:

“The development of the scientific method in the 17th century in Europe and its modern further advances have had at least as great a set of world-transforming consequences. There have been many historical theories, but none capable of explaining as fundamentally transformational a set of events as the rise of the modern world. It was a revolution in human thought, operating outside any explanations grounded in scientific materialism that drove the process.

That all these astonishing things, verging on miracles, happened within the conscious workings of human minds, functioning outside physical reality, offers further rational evidence in my view for the conclusion that human beings may well be made ‘in the image of [a] God.’”

Nelson, clearly desperate to find evidence for God (and which God? Zeus? Brahma? Allah?) ignores the social phenomena that gave rise to modern science, nor the fact that science and technology themselves are self-feeding processes, whose practitioners learned from each other. Steve Pinker has explained the rapid rise of Western science in several of his books, adducing phenomena like transportation and the printing press that spread ideas quickly. Here Nelson has produced the craziest evidence for God I’ve ever seen!

  • Humans have a need to worship, be it God or Marx. That itself is evidence for God. But wait. . . Christianity has persisted, and even Marxism is disguised Christianity! That itself proves God.  I kid you not—again. Have a gander:

“Even though Karl Marx, for example, condemned the illusion of religion, his followers, ironically, worshiped Marxism. The American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre thus wrote that for much of the 20th century Marxism was the “historical successor of Christianity,” claiming to show the faithful the one correct path to a new heaven on Earth.

In several of my books, I have explored how Marxism and other such “economic religions” were characteristic of much of the modern age. So Christianity, I would argue, did not disappear as much as it reappeared in many such disguised forms of “secular religion.”

That the Christian essence, as arose out of Judaism, showed such great staying power amidst the extraordinary political, economic, intellectual and other radical changes of the modern age is a fifth rational reason for thinking – combined with the other four – that the existence of a God is very probable.”

All this shows is that humans are credulous and have a need to follow leaders; they also are prone to adhering to superstition (as is Nelson!) when they don’t understand something. I bet Nelson would even claim that atheism itself is not only a form of worship, but Christianity in disguise!

Were I to have written Nelson’s article in, say, the 10th century, my five arguments for God would be Lightning, the Black Plague, Epilepsy, Magnetism, and Solar Eclipses. Now we see that as nonsense. But much of Nelson’s argument can already be seen as nonsense, and he should be well aware of claiming that our scientific ignorance of some phenomena constitutes evidence for God.  I suspect without knowing that Nelson is religious. And the evidence is increasing that The Conversation is soft on superstition.


  1. FloM
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Typo in “Since this is my field, I’ll quite everything Nelson says:” should be quote

  2. Terry Sheldon
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    It never ceases to amaze me that allegedly well-educated people can continue to hang their “a divine entity must exist” hat on the fact that there is Stuff We Don’t Know Yet.

    • somer
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes some people will fix on Any reason to believe in the numinous Creator based on mystery. They arrogantly assume that we must not even try to know many things as they Cant be Known. I actually think there is an infinite amount to know and we will never know everything – but likewise there is nothing we can say we will never know. The Creator explains Nothing and does not fit what we do know as evidenced by innumerable technologies and facts we stumble across each day. The religious are always suspicious of the senses and sensory evidence apon which science (and modern quality of life) depends. Moreover the Creator in religions is deeply Immoral, although I grant aspects of religions are moral (e.g. charity) and for societies in times when humanity was relatively helpless religion helped perpetuate family norms for reproduction and social cohesion. But life was pretty terrible and society extremely unequal and violent. In the modern era relgion needs to be kept in bounds.

      Why do these wallies keep coming out of the woodwork?

  3. Tom
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Sorry, people might as well see words in the same way Mr Wigner regarded mathematics.
    How can mere marks on paper be so fundamental to human communication and understanding of the Universe?
    Perhaps for maths and words the retraining of traits evolved for some other purpose might have something to do with it?

    • Kevin
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Most god-lovers see god in trees and mountains and landscapes. Others hear god in music. God is whatever pleases the believer the most.

  4. Geoff Toscano
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Interesting his reference to Marxism, and its similarities to Christianity. Hitchens used to say exactly the same thing, but in response to the religious claim that atheists were responsible for twentieth century genocides. ‘Hoist by their own petard’ comes to mind.

    • Zach
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Yes, Karl Popper made a similar connection in The Open Society and Its Enemies, although he never explicitly referred to Christianity. What the enemies of open societies share, said Popper, is a sense of what he called historicism: the idea that history is unfolding according to some universal law, and that it will end in accordance with that law.

      Marxism had this. And monotheism is, of course, the OG of historicist ideologies, what with its theodicy problem and its notion of Apocalypse.

  5. Sastra
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Some of Nelson’s arguments are (or appear to be) God-of-the-Gaps, but most of them seem to me to involve confusion and a lack of imagination. Some of the “questions ” aren’t even real questions– like the “extraordinary” success of mathematics.

    My understanding is that math, like logic, is a language which describes necessary relationships in a pure and clearly defined and distinct system which we create through abstracting from particulars. What is on one side of the equation is equal to what is on the other side. A thing is what it is, and it isn’t what it isn’t. Logical/necessary/conceptual truths are absolute, they’re not something we go out and discover empirically. Expressing amazement over this fact is like assuming that absolute chaos is the only norm we have the right to expect. It’s disingenuous. Who the hell are they kidding?

    The rest is just magical thinking unenlightened by any real curiosity or capacity to think outside the box of folk intuition.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      “Who the hell are they kidding?”

      Themselves, at least first. Later, after they’ve solidified their rationalization well enough to comfortably support the belief they are committed to, then they may use it to justify their belief to others.

  6. Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” argument really irks me. I always get the feeling that it’s offered by people who don’t work with mathematics at all.

    “How could two distant objects in the solar system be drawn toward one another, acting according to a precise mathematical law?” Precision is a matter of choice! Those precise mathematical laws are only precise at a certain level of magnification and in a certain context.

    • TJR
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      They could just as easily talk about the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics in macroeconomics.

      • Sastra
        Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        Or, as easily, of the unreasonable existence of something instead of nothing.

        I think their ‘default’ module is broken.

        • Dale Franzwa
          Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:13 am | Permalink

          Weather prediction is the real stumbling block for the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” argument. We can predict the return of Halley’s comet with “unreasonable effectiveness” for centuries into the future. Try that with your local weather forecast. Accurate weather prediction beyond about five days out is very iffy, despite all our weather sensors and weather prediction models. Tell me right now where the first hurricane of the season will make landfall in the US? Sometimes mathematics works apparent wonders. Other times it is next to useless.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:57 am | Permalink

            Well it’s not just the practical limitations of mathematics when applied to a weather pattern with millions of parameters, it’s a defect in the underlying physics. Even IF we could magically know the pressure, temperature, humidity and velocity of every ‘chunk’ of atmosphere (and how small each ‘chunk would have to be I don’t know), and even if we had a supercomputer the size of a planet to do all the calculations, the chaotic nature of the system would defeat us.

            At least, I think so.


            • Dale Franzwa
              Posted May 12, 2017 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

              I agree. Thanks for expanding on my example.

      • sensorrhea
        Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        Q: What’s the difference between a meteorologist and an economist?

        A: A meteorologist can tell you what the weather was yesterday.

        • Colin McLachlan
          Posted May 12, 2017 at 5:01 am | Permalink


  7. Zach
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    The rise of Eastern and Western philosophy in the 6th and 7th centuries BCE is one of the more interesting coincidences of history. Which means it probably isn’t a coincidence. But then again, the various philosophies are sufficiently different that one has to wonder what connection they had, if any.

    IMHO, the two best are Greek naturalism and Buddhism, and the absolute worst is monotheism. I take it as counter-evidence for the existence of a benevolent force that the latter has fared so prominently in world affairs.

  8. busterggi
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    “Waiter, bring me four gods-of-the-gaps and an argument from ignorance.”

  9. Frank
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    “many micro-evolutionary processes worked as though guided by a purposeful “sentience” … – a concept far removed from the random selection processes of Darwinism.”

    His mere use of the phrase “random selection” instantly shows that he has no understanding of evolutionary biology. It is interesting that this is one area of science that lots of folks are quite happy to discuss even if they don’t have the slightest idea as to how evolution actually occurs.

    And it is sad to see yet again the legacy of Gould’s needless, vague, and hyperbolic writings on the “death of neo-Darwinism”.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      I was going to mention that as well. A clear indicator that he is profoundly ignorant (channeling Reza Aslan) of the TOE. And he demonstrates the same, to comparable magnitude, regarding every single one of his arguments.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

        Yes, he’s just showing how far out-of-date his knowledge is. Surely *everybody* knows the story of Gould and punc-eq by now. I thought even Creationists had given up using it.

        But apparently not Nelson.


  10. Curt Nelson
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    The point about math could have been made better (by R. H. Nelson). It is considered mysterious by many mathematicians (e.g. Max Tegmark, Mario Livio) that math so permeates everything and in a sense seems to be a real thing, not just a way of describing natural regularities.

    I’ve heard that by some calculation (that I’ve never heard explained) that it is extremely likely that the universe is the product of a computer simulation – by some advanced beings. If that were the case “nature” would be mathematical and there would be “gods.”

    This explanation is not appealing to me, or to anyone else I imagine, but at least it makes sense.

    • Posted May 11, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      If that ‘calculation’ refers to Bostrom’s argument then I would not call it a calculation, nor the result extremely likely. He basically does something similar to CS Lewis’ trilemma, only with a bit more pseudo-probabilistic rationalisation: construct a limited set of choices, argue that the ones he does not prefer are improbable, and the one he prefers wins by default. Yay.

      Quite apart from the fact that I have no idea how it can even make sense to say that I and the table I can touch in front of me right now are part of a simulation, by analogy to all simulations we know which are extremely different to that, the problem for the purposes of discussing deities is that it would leave open the question why the simulators found a universe that followed rules, so we have turtles all the way down.

  11. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    This person is a fine example of where an education has not helped. I can’t find a critical though anywhere. Every loony idea ever uttered for the existence of god seems to stick to him, without questioning it.

  12. Paul Schoeckel
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    “How could two distant objects in the solar system be drawn toward one another, acting according to a precise mathematical law?”
    Isn’t this backwards? Those objects were being drawn together long before we figured out a way to describe their movement. Maths are a concept we use to describe what we see, not the other way round.

  13. Mike Cracraft
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    This kind of nonsense is cropping up in other places as well. In the June issue of the astronomy magazine “Sky and Telescope” there
    is a religion pandering article on the last page called “Two Routes to the Truth”. Naturally it postulates all sorts of godiness.
    I’m considering cancelling my sub in spite of the fact that it’s a fine magazine otherwise.

  14. Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t understand is how people can be seemingly so intellectually dishonest that they publically recycle old arguments with standard counterarguments. Even if the author doesn’t agree that the counterarguments are successful, you’d think that there’d be an “itch” to reply to them. But no …

  15. Heather Hastie
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Nelson has no qualifications in theology or religion. Therefore he doesn’t know enough to be talking about the existence of a god and we can safely ignore his arguments. 😀

    (If God-botherers can use that argument, so can we!)

    • Colin McLachlan
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 5:04 am | Permalink


  16. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Robert H Nelson smells of Templeton so I took a look…

    Perhaps Nelson is trying to grab Templeton attention – get himself a lakeside second home?

    [1] The article is a distilled rehash of a [322p in paperback] book Nelson wrote in 2015 called “God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways to Think about the Question of a God”. It appears to have bombed judging only from Amazon

    [2] Metanexus Institute got a $3M grant back in 2002 from Templeton
    I strongly suspect they continue to get Templeton grants under various guises, because their programs are worldwide at all sorts of academic venues. But I haven’t checked if any of their affiliates or programs got grants in addition to the $3M. They like to explore religion & science are compatible type stuff

    [3] Robert H. Nelson is [was?] on the board of a program launched by Metanexus [site not updated since 2006] “Spiritual Capital Research Program” is an interdisciplinary social scientific research initiative on the economic and social consequences of religion and spirituality, made possible with funding from the John Templeton Foundation. The program seeks to integrate the concept of spiritual capital into the human sciences by supporting rigorous and innovative research to build a network of scholars for a new field of study.

  17. Randy schenck
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    When Nelson closes his eyes, no doubt he sees an image of g*d there in the darkness. See, there is another reason for g*d. Odd that I only see darkness when the eyes are closes. Ah well, there goes all that evidence.

    • boggy
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I thought Nelson had only one eye.

  18. darrelle
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    This is the kind of crap that really gets me down. Gets me thinking that everything really is 90% shit. Especially human intelligence.

    Nelson might be a nice person, honest and genuine for all I know. But what he has written here are embarrassingly poor arguments demonstrating embarrassingly poor reasoning. And this person is a professor of something.

    I’d be much less negative if he merely demonstrated a poor understanding of the things he wrote about, for example the TOE, and boy did he ever. People can’t reasonably be expected to be well informed about everything. But the ludicrously poor reasoning demonstrated by him is a much bigger issue.

  19. loren russell
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    “Unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” — In particular number, which works for all objects in the universe. Not so much for god, who is unitary, trine, and probably bi- as well, all at the same time.

  20. nicky
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    “…if a cat jumps into a lap to get warm, it’s evidence for god?” Yes, incontrovertibly so.
    Just like 1+ 1 = 2, without god it could have been 42! QED.

  21. josh
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    “Granted, we can’t yet explain the evolutionary and neurological basis of “qualia” (subjective sensations like pain)…”

    This seems to me like Prof. Coyne is being far too generous. We understand a great deal about the neurological basis for pain, including how to block it in many cases, and the evolutionary basis seems trivial to me. Pain is how our brains are trained to avoid things which are, on average, harmful to our survival and reproduction. I’m sure there is much more to learn but we shouldn’t concede some exaggerated ignorance.

    The problem with the qualia-thumpers is that they can never give a clear statement of what they think needs to be explained or what an explanation would look like. I think they are confused because of our limited ability to step outside ourselves and experience what it is to be some other person/thing. But that is a trivially obvious effect of our being one thing and not another, it says nothing against the physical basis for our experiences. It’s like asking why a Windows machine doesn’t run Mac software and then insisting there is some mystical aspect because the full answer isn’t given in terms of Windows commands.

    • somer
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes theres a biological reason for pain. Moreover our emotions motivate our responses and some of our responses are instinctive. Its long been known now that the brain functions to regulate and respond to the processes of the body and is intimately connected to the body. Moreover nerve injury and loss of limbs, and illness fundamentally changes perception. The book Incognito shows how little of our brain activity is actually conscious. All thoughts derive from physical experience – a brain disconnected from he body could not be a brain because the brain is built to function from sensory inputs from the outside world – sight, sound, prioperception, touch, pain, hunger, sex, monitoring and regulation of the body. Our emotions motivate our interactions and our search for knowledge and imagination. Our imaginations just rearrange perceptions – second hand from an initial reality.

      Consciousness and the ability to plan and solve problems is of course critical but consciousness as a sense of clear self separate from the world is in many ways an illusion.

  22. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    The argument from math seems like a modified form of Pythagoreanism.

    But the classic Pythagoreans simply regarded number and numerical relations itself as being the core essence of the cosmos.

    If you then move to linking this to God (as the neo-Pythagoreans did in the 2nd century A.D.), it raises the question of whether math is something created by God [could then God have made it differently?], or woven into the fabric of being-itself, in which case math would have to be an actual part of God, or else that math exists independently of God and God had to consult mathematical wisdom in creating the cosmos.
    All three options are problematic though the second seems the least so.

    It’s a new version of the Euthrypo puzzle. Does God will something (such as the orbits of planets) because it obeys the laws of physics and math, or does it obey the laws of physics because God wills it?

    • Steve
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      The “existence” and use of math the prove “god” is a red herring and foolish. I think math is a useful concept and tool which we use to understand the workings of the world. A simple example. Four is not four because of divine edict; it is because we humans have decided that that particular collection of items of exactly such an amount will be referred to as four. It has as many different names as there are languages, but it always represents the same amount. If it did not, our world would be chaos.

  23. Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    That “ridiculous slice of tripe” does have some good points. After all, if you feel like eating a box of chocolates, it must be a “command” from God. You don’t want to upset God, do you?

  24. Posted May 11, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    “No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.” — Robert G. Ingersoll

  25. Posted May 11, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

    ― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

  26. Posted May 11, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    More farting in the wind and sniffing one’s own bottom for confirmation.

  27. somer
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    The US Conversation also engages in periodic PC “decolonisation” of science and maths e.g.
    “Traditionally universities have focussed on knowledge and hoped that identity will follow … Universities must do explicit identity work with their students” …”These include ethnomathematics, which excavates the mathematics in cultural objects, artefacts and practices; and critical mathematics, where mathematics is used to critique aspects of society and where students critique mathematics, for example, how algorithms structure our lives in ways which reproduce inequality.” Another article was overtly critical of all “western” mathematics and proposed we should rely on early methodologies developed in other cultures. Contributions to maths have been from all cultures at all times but maths got a big boost with the scientific revolution that the socio political revolution of the Renaissance and Enlightenment precipitated. The article entitled “To decolonise maths, stand up to its false history and bad philosophy” was fortunately quickly removed after a day or so.

    The Conversation in Australia is mixed. Some good informative science articles on everything from physics to agriculture to politics but I felt the politics to often predominated in areas where it should not. I haven’t read for a few years now but I saw several articles defending chiropractic as a useful thing, several endorsing consanguinous arranged marriages as something for the west to emulate, one endorsing a spread of government by “moderate” Hamas, one saying sharia is nothing to worry about, one appearing to endorse breast feeding children up to the age of nine in the west (anything to make parents feel guilty). Comments are also badly moderated with expletives and abusive language abounding on the occasional article though I imagine moderation of such sites can’t be formalised.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      FWIW, the UK version of The Conversation doesn’t seem to have much woo-based drivel on it at all, although (like your Aussie version) it contains far too much about politics. I can’t imagine it publishing either Nelson’s nonsense or either of the other two articles that PCC(E) links to.

  28. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Holy Moses. That’s the weakest effort I’ve seen in yonks. I can see the gaping holes in all five of his ‘arguments’ immediately without even trying. And if I can, anybody can.

    (And my view was pretty much what PCC wrote in each case, though much more sketchy, so I’ll save repeating it. But thanks PCC for nailing it down, somebody has to).

    I think I could summarise all his arguments as ‘Things happen, therefore God’. Though I do envy his childlike ability to marvel at phenomena that most people would not even recognise as being a thing.


    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 12, 2017 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      But what about “Shit happens- therefore no God”

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 12, 2017 at 3:41 am | Permalink

        Well that has equal validity, of course. 😉


  29. Posted May 12, 2017 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    “Why did the natural world always – so far as we know – obey laws of mathematics?”
    The world doesn’t comply with mathematics. Mathematics is an imperfect method we’ve invented and adapted to try to explain how the natural world works.
    If there were a god, wouldn’t Pi be a rational number?

    “The supernatural character of the workings of human consciousness….”
    He assumes that only human animals are “conscious”? Isn’t consciousness the ability to be aware of one’s own existence? Perhaps he means “intelligence”? (which would still be debatable)

    “Gould’s non-Darwinian theory…”
    I assume he would have been referring to “Punctuated Equilibrium”, which really doesn’t disagree with Darwin.

    Religions “miraculously appeared at about the same time”.
    Neither the bible nor any other religious doctrine “miraculously appeared”. All religions were (and continue to be) a product of their evolution over the ages, extending back into prehistory. The same is true for science. What might appear to be a “revolution” in science is simply the natural, exponential growth of knowledge. The more we know, the more it is possible to know.

    Religion and god seem to persist because of our mortality coupled with our ability to project our thoughts into the future. Death is scary and personal nonexistence is hard to conceive of, so an afterlife handily solves that.

  30. Posted May 12, 2017 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    He wrote: “In recent years, however, traditional Darwinism – and later revised accounts of neo-Darwinism – have themselves come under increasingly strong scientific challenge.”

    I clicked on the hyperlink at “strong scientific challenge.” It seems to link to a page full of books that have nothing to do with what he’s talking about. I don’t get it.

  31. CJColucci
    Posted May 12, 2017 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Where do the laws of physics come from? They come from physicists.
    The universe does what it does. Physicists look at it, see regularities, puzzle out some high-powered math to describe the regularities, and call it a “law” of physics.
    But the universe does what it does whether the physicists announce any laws or not. The “laws” of physics do not prescribe, they describe.

  32. Andrew
    Posted May 12, 2017 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” argument always sounds to me like “the physics that humans can understand is well described by the mathematics that humans can understand”. Which doesn’t strike me as especially profound, or evidence for anything in particular.

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