“Ignorance = God”: Dawkins’s replacement makes noises about abandoning his nonbelief

Charles Simonyi, who made millions at Microsoft, is a lover of science. You may remember him, for in 1995 he endowed the Simonyi Professorship of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. The first recipient of that chair was of course Richard Dawkins, who held the position until 2008. The second and current occupant is currently Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics.  So far du Sautoy hasn’t produced a body of popular writing anywhere comparable to that of Dawkins, but really, who could?  Still, can you name any popular works du Sautoy? Surely he should be very well known by now for his science writing.

Well, perhaps I’ve missed it. But he published a “trade” (popular) book in April: The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Sciencewhich Amazon describes this way (my emphasis):

In The Great Unknown, one of the world’s most brilliant mathematicians takes us into the minds of science’s greatest innovators as he probes the many mysteries we have yet to solve. From the very large to the very small, from the distant future to the deep past, from the complexities of the human brain to the infinities of mathematics, Marcus du Sautoy invites us to join him on a journey to the seven frontiers of knowledge, the outer edges where scientists are actively grappling with the unknown. Can we locate consciousness in the brain? What is dark energy made of? Can we speak of time before the Big Bang? Is it possible to predict the future?

At once exhilarating and mind bending, The Great Unknown will challenge you to think in new ways about every aspect of the known world. Du Sautoy reminds us that major breakthroughs were often ridiculed at the time of their discovery and invites us to consider big questions—about who we are and the nature of God—that even the most creative scientists have yet to answer definitively.

Oy! God? What kind of successor to Dawkins is this man? Well, du Sautoy explains a bit more in a new profile by John Farrell in Forbes, “It’s time to add the human element to the ‘great unknown'”, and what he said is a bit distressing (I’m sure it would distress Richard as well). Read and weep; note that the piece is two pages long:

Just out from Viking, The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys To the Frontiers of Science certainly holds its own in the genre. The book reviews seven of the great puzzles challenging science: in chaos theory, fundamental particles, quantum mechanics, cosmology, the nature of time, the origin of human consciousness, and the very limits of the universe. Towards the end of his book The Great Unknown, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy finds himself reconsidering the question of God’s existence. . . .

“I wonder, though, whether, as I come to the end of my exploration, I have changed my mind about declaring myself an atheist,” he writes. “With my definition of a God as that which we cannot know, to declare myself an atheist would mean that I believe there is nothing we cannot know.”

Du Sautoy no longer believes that. “In some sense I think I have proved that this God does exist. The challenge now is to explore what quality this God has.”

Here in this tortured logic we see the most explicit statement of the “god of the gaps” argument I’ve read in a while. Du Sautoy proved that God exists because he defines “god” as “our ignorance about some phenomena”—and most of those phenomena, like the origin of consciousness, could in principle be addressed by science. Other phenomena, like how life really began, may forever elude us, but not because God is responsible. We just have no good way of getting the data!  It’s as if you said “I will never know what Julius Caesar had for breakfast the day he was assassinated, and I will define that ignorance as God. Therefore I have proven in some sense that God exists. I am no longer an atheist!”

That is of course palpable nonsense, but Farrell at least calls him on it a bit:

In another sense, though, du Sautoy’s statement highlights the problem with so many recent popular science books.

They always end without deeply considering the human element, an element that has given rise to entire fields of study–anthropology, sociology, comparative religion–that very rarely get any attention in popular science books dealing with the big questions.

Well, that’s not so, for there are tons of discussions of why people believe in God in popular science books, though that doesn’t really belong in popular science books. (It is treated, for instance, in The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell.) And the human element is a central part of science books like The Double Helix. And Farrell admits that:

But back to the human element. Du Sautoy shares with many physics-centered science writers the opinion that the version of God offered by most religions and cultures is a rather impoverished one. But I’m skeptical that he’s really devoted much time to looking into fields that study religion even just as a human activity, or to study the source texts of any particular tradition even if only as an exercise in how written texts themselves evolve and how each generation responds to their problems and contradictions.

That’s what’s yet to be explored more fully in books like this latest otherwise absorbing entry in the genre of ‘what science hasn’t figured out yet’.

I don’t know if I’ll actually read this book, because the goddy stuff is just weird, and the argument, at least the one presented here, is ridiculous. If you’ve read it, weigh in below. It seems that in his Sophisticated Natural Theology™, the Charles Simonyi Professor may be bucking for a Templeton Prize.

du Sautoy: for others ignorance is bliss, but for him it is God


  1. TJR
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Agreed, it does sound a bit disappointing from him.

    Not sure about his printed output, but he’s done some good stuff on TV.

    His History of Maths series from 2008 was just repeated on BBC4. Heavily dumbed down of course, but still enjoyable. He even went to Damascus and Palmyra, which rather dates the series……

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    His taste in neckties is nearly as bad as his flawed ‘logic’.

    Remember the old children’s poem:
    “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back”?

    du Sautoy seems to believe in:
    “Step on a crack and land on god’s back”

    • noncarborundum
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I have no idea why he chose to wear that tie. I will probably never know. Therefore his reason for wearing that tie is God.

      • nicky
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 9:46 pm | Permalink


  3. Geoff Toscano
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I know of Du Sautoy from his BBC appearances, but have read nothing he’s written. He actually presents well (I think his speciality is maths) but his eagerness to court TV fame suggests he’s probably amenable to anything that gets him noticed.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      As long as the programmes are good, I don’t have a problem with the TV thing. These days, that’s how he’s going to reach the biggest audience.

  4. Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Du Sautoy is author of several easily accessible books about maths (The Music of The Primes and Number Mysteries to name two that adorn my own shelves – they are both splendid reads btw).

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      His books and articles on maths are terrific. He’s definitely well known here in the UK.

      Disappointed the thinks that something being ‘unknown’ proves the existence of god. I’ve no idea why there are so many Fast and Furious films but that’s not evidence of the supernatural.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        …I’d also say that the Fast and Furious franchise is pretty compelling evidence for the non-existence of a benevolent creator.

      • serendipitydawg
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        The Terminator franchise got there first… should have stopped at two. The TV series is evidence for the devil though 😉

      • Posted May 16, 2017 at 5:18 am | Permalink

        I’ve no idea why there are so many Fast and Furious films

        I think you probably do really. The answer is obvious: it’s because they make lots of money.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read two books of his respectively on prime numbers and symmetry and they were both brilliant. I’ve never read anything as good on the subject of mathematics. He also did a couple of terrific documentaries for the BBC. I think he’s one of the best science writers I’ve read, up there with Dawkins, Pinker, Deutsch, Goldacre, etc..

    • jimroberts
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      It’s a while since I read “The Music of The Primes” and I won’t reread it, nor could I recommend it. It contains silly little mistakes on unimportant topics which raise suspicions about how well-researched more difficult topics might be, and the maths is dumbed down to the point of complete uselessness.

  5. busterggi
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    “With my definition of a God as that which we cannot know, to declare myself an atheist would mean that I believe there is nothing we cannot know.”

    So if I define god as that lilac bush in my front yard then I know god exists while if I define god as the wisteria bush which isn’t in my yard then god doesn’t exist.

    Wordplay pretending to be profound.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Now…watch what happens when you define “God” not merely as, “that which we cannot know,” but rather, “that which doesn’t exist.” Your wisteria bush that isn’t there therefore becomes God; Ergo Deus existit.



      • BobTerrace
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        Look at you with that Latin:
        Third-person singular present active indicative of existō.

        Wait, in Christianity, singular for god is a no-go, missing the other two.

        • Kevin
          Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          The other two that are three that are one. There is a set, I believe, that satisfies that condition. It’s called a null set.

          • Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            …and, for a low, low price of only $19.95 plus shipping and handling, the entire set can be yours! Act now, and we’ll include this deluxe travel case for absolutely nothing! That’s right — the complete set plus travel case, a value of over an hundred dollars if purchased separately, yours for as little as $19.95 plus shipping and handling! Certain restrictions apply. See our ad in your local defunct newspaper for details. Ask your doctor for satisfaction if your erection lasts for more than four hours.




            • Kevin
              Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              I got that set. Very disappointed. Sent it back. It came without a candle of Mary…come on…who forgets mom! 3+1=1

              • Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                Sorry ’bout that; you probably didn’t mention the secret upgrade code word, “MAMA,” when you placed your order.

                But don’t worry! For just $24.99, you can buy a complete pantheon! That’s right! You’ll get all the Hindu gods in one package for that low introductory offer price — and, if you act now, we’ll throw in a free lifetime subscription to the Shinto pantheon, as well!




              • rickflick
                Posted May 15, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Permalink


            • Richard
              Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:49 am | Permalink

              And for a modest (actually, very exorbitant) fee I can provide an implementation of that null set which will run on any processor (x86, x64, SPARC, etc.) and on any O/S (Windows, MacOS, Solaris, Linux)…

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      You’re right, the logic falls short. I think his point is he is open to the belief of God because God is the best explanation of what he doesn’t know. It’s evidential, not logical, so it’s different based on his experience.

  6. Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    In another sense, though, du Sautoy’s statement highlights the problem with so many recent popular science books.

    They always end without deeply considering the human element, an element that has given rise to entire fields of study–anthropology, sociology, comparative religion–that very rarely get any attention in popular science books dealing with the big questions.

    Is he suggesting that there aren’t any popular science books about anthropology, sociology, or comparative religion?

    Is he complaining that popular science books on those subjects don’t sell as well as those on physics and cosmology?

    Is he upset that physicists and cosmologists aren’t writing popular science books about anthropology, sociology, or comparative religion?

    This, of course, ignores that physicists do sometimes tackle such subjects — such as Sean Carroll, who often does so, and who does so very well in his latest book, The Big Picture.



    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      Immediately thought of Sean, too. And Pinker.

      But also, nitty-gritty science is“human”. Just because most potential book buyers don’t find nitty-gritty science interesting doesn’t mean it’s not human. Way to throw science under the bus, Marcus.

      • Posted May 16, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Also, what would be the human element? (Of non human-related fields, anyway.) Biography and history of the scientists and so on involved? Popularizations are full of those!

        Even a sober academic volume like _Physical Chemistry from Ostwald to Pauling_ (for example) has remarks about the life and times of the people.

        • Posted May 19, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          Sean Carrol, again, wrote about that type of “human element” in The Particle at the End of the Universe. It’s the story of the search for the Higgs, and includes both the various human dramas and the physics of the particle itself.

          ..and it’s an excellent read….




  7. Mark R.
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    As I was reading Amazon’s description, I thought this was another example of science books pandering to religion mainly for profit. At the end you wrote: “bucking for a Templeton prize.” That’s pretty much how I see it.

  8. Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Mathematicians cannot be trusted with this kind of debates because the empty set is a subset of every set… This logic makes mathematical sense, but not real sense because even if god is a ‘big fat’ null value, a sphere of darkness that perpetually recedes, a made-up default explanation for everything… it still exists in every set of theories!!!

  9. Kevin
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    du Sautoy: God is everything science does not know.

    Science is unable to predict how many times my one and a half year old cat will have diarrhea for the rest of her life.

    Ergo, part of the definition of God must be the knowledge of unanticipated soupy poopies flowing my cat’s butt.

    du Sautoy needs to flex his ideas online for dismantling before he formally reaches conclusions.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      And if god is what we don’t know, then god is getting smaller and smaller every day.

      • E.A. Blair
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

        God’s come down in the cosmos. First there was the creation of the universe, then flooding the whole world, smiting Sodom & Gomorrah, turning water into wine and rising from the dead. Now the best god can do is appear on toast, dog’s butts and whisper in the ears of crazy televangelists.

    • nicky
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Yes, du Satoy’s is right, his God can only be a ‘God of the gaps’. He is right in a sense, nothing but gaps….

    • Posted May 16, 2017 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Actually he defined God as “that which we cannot know”. We can know how many times your one and a half year old cat will have diarrhea for the rest of her life. All we have to do is follow her around and count them until she dies.

      My problem is that Du Sautoy is plucking a definition of God out of his bottom that is plainly not adequate. For me, any reasonable definition of God would include that it created the Universe. Under Du Sautoy’s definition, if we discovered the being that created the Universe, we would not be able to call it God because we’d know it and therefore it would not be part of the which we cannot know.

  10. docbill1351
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    “In some sense I think I have proved that this God does exist. The challenge now is to explore what quality this God has.”

    Isn’t this just Aquinas all over again?

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Aquinas simultaneously believes there are definite knowns about God (knowing God through the “via positiva”) and there is also a great unknown (“via negativa”).

      But Aquinas does not equate God with just anything that is unknown. He holds that God lies beyond the frontiers of possible human knowledge. “One reaches the highest point of one’s knowledge about God when one knows that one does not know him.” But Aquinas also believes in “supernatural truths” known by revelation.

      To say as this fellow does that there is something beyond the frontiers of human knowledge is not to establish that the word “God” is an appropriate name for it. As such the argument seems semantically confused. It is one thing to say we cannot know God, another to say God is that [everything] which we cannot know.


      My own problem is that even if this fellow came up with a much more coherent version of this argument I would still agree with the sentiments of Arthur C. Clarke:
      “One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion. So now people assume that religion and morality have a necessary connection. But the basis of morality is really very simple and doesn’t require religion at all.”,
      The failure of Templeton to see this (as evidenced by their awards to Billy Graham and Mel Gibson) is my own problem with them.

      Western Christianity (including Aquinas) tells you that you are infected by a fictitious disease “original sin”. It then tells you that it has the solution to it, which involves holding your personal life hostage. This ‘solution’ than creates a host of other problems.

      Templeton both honors folks with a broadly generic religiosity (like Paul Davies) which does not (to me) seem explainable by the Dawkins mind-virus model, but then it also honors some excruciatingly blatantly toxic forms of religion as well.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        meant to italicize only the word “still”

    • darrelle
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      And didn’t he just say that God is that which he can not know?

      It seems to me that the only reasonable interpretation of “can not know” is that you can’t know anything about it. At the other end you have merely “can’t know everything about it.” And that is the positively mundane normal case so I don’t see how he could mean that.

    • Posted May 16, 2017 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Q: “Why did your god allow 10s of thousands to die horribly in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of Dec-2004?”

      A: “God is mysterious. We mere humans cannot hope to know His great Mind! It is certainly for the good – in the long run. Our view is too limited as mere humans …

      … BUT! We know that he hates gay people, doesn’t want them to have full legal rights, only wants us to have sex in order to procreate, doesn’t want us to eat meat on Fridays (but marine mammals are OK, since we’ve “defined” them as fish), no sex before marriage, no idols, no saying his name, you must go to church every Sunday (not Friday or Saturday!), must give 10% of your income to my agents, ….”

  11. Tom
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    This is termed trimming the sails in accordance to the direction of the wind. The UK’s political wind has changed direction, we now have an even more rightist government (god, family and profit) so colleges are eager to attract the necessary funding.
    If St Jeremy is elected the same colleges will develop a fondness for beer and skittles

  12. John Hamill
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    So disappointed in this. He made some programs for the BBC that were great. This one on algorithms was really wonderful …

    • rickflick
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 9:11 pm | Permalink


  13. sponge bob
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Don’t we normally refer to our measure of ignorance as “entropy”?

    • sponge bob
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Therefore God = Entropy?

      • BobTerrace
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        …and then a community organizer would be an anti-god?

      • sshort
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        And didn’t Shannon say “information is entropy”?

        Therefore… god is information?

        Douglas Adams was right. The earth is a vast calculating engine in a universe that may well be a greater calculating engine for another universe… and so on… till entropy eventually makes all the bits stop flowing once and forever.

        And the final answer is…?

        • Colin McLachlan
          Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:51 am | Permalink

          42, of course.

        • Richard
          Posted May 17, 2017 at 4:01 am | Permalink

          Perhaps God has got caught in an infinite loop somewhere. That’s why he hasn’t shown up for the last 2,000 years.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      “Entropy” has many meanings, often depending on the field. In physics, it’s a statistical measure, a count of the number of ways that you could rearrange the microscopic elements of a system and get the same macroscopic state.

      If you carefully layer your cream on top of your coffee without intermixing the two, that’s a system of low entropy. Of all the possible arrangements of the molecules in the cup, comparatively ver few have all the cream on top and all the coffee on the bottom. After you give it a good stir, the entropy is basically at a maximum: count up all the ways to arrange the molecules, and the overwhelming majority are an homogeneous mix of creamy coffee.

      One of the big mysteries in physics and cosmology at this point in history is that the Big Bang had mind-bogglingly low entropy, and nobody really knows what caused such a condition of low entropy to arise.

      But, at the same time, one of the very satisfyingly settled not-a-mystery in physics is time at macroscopic scales — it’s all entropy. There’s no “up” nor “down” in Newton or any subsequent physics, but there is “up” and “down” here on Earth because we’re in close proximity to the Earth’s gravitational field. The arrow of “down” points to the center of mass of the Earth. In the same way, there’s no “future” nor “past” in physics, but there is “future” and “past” in the Universe…and the arrow of “past” points to the Big Bang, when entropy was at some sort of a minimum. (Local minimum or absolute minimum…we don’t know.)

      Again…other fields use “entropy” in their own way….




      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        Information theory refers to entropy as “loss of information”.

        • Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          …which is a problem in physics, because, ever since Laplace, one of the bedrock foundations of physics is that information (as defined by physicists) is conserved, along with matter and energy, and never created nor destroyed.

          (Black holes present a challenge to that principle, as information is one of a trio of sacred cows, at least one of which must be sacrificed to the solution to black holes.)

          As physicists use “information”…if you’re given the complete state of a system at any given point in time and the rules by which it operates, you can extrapolate the entire past and future of that system. That state is “information.”

          (Yes, chaos and similar concepts quickly make hash of the idea of actually performing such an extrapolation. Physicists know this full well, and it’s entirely irrelevant to what they’re discussing.)




          • JonLynnHarvey
            Posted May 15, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

            Well, Stephen Law compares irrational points of view to “intellectual black holes” so maybe someone can find a connection there.

  14. Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    “I wonder, though, whether, as I come to the end of my exploration, I have changed my mind about declaring myself an atheist,”

    He wonders if he has changed his mind? Shouldn’t he know? Perhaps a little Templeton dough will help him know his own mind.

  15. Franklin Abrams
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read the book. There is nothing in it that suggests a belief in gods. The equivalence of what is not known is developed historically from what has been the origin of god beliefs in human history. His only stated religious belief is in his local football team, Manchester United, and he considers following of sports team the most viable form of modern religion that fulfills the basic positive community aspects of religion without postulating a deity. The book is interesting and provocative and a local football based religion seems authentic and innocuous.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      I thought he was an Arsenal supporter.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Burn him.

      • Franklin Abrams
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, I likely confused the football teams.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Then why does he drag his own belief/nonbelief into the area, and say that this stuff has made him abandon his atheism? I never said that HE believes in the theistic god, but HE says he believes in god as a form of ignorance. Sorry. but if that’s the case, it’s ridiculous.

      • Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Even worse…gods are, by their very nature, supposed to be an object of worship and devotion. What does it say of a scholar to devotedly worship ignorance?

        (Of course, the true nature of all gods is to provide an unquestionably unimpeachable authority to speak the words put into its mouth by its priests, but that’s another story….)




    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      “…a local football based religion seems authentic and innocuous.”

      Not that innocuous in my opinion. There’s a lot of violence around football. But surely more innocuous than god based religion.

      • Pierluigi Ballabeni
        Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:53 am | Permalink

        Sorry, I put this in the wrong place. I refres to something written further above.

  16. Taz
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m not much of a philosopher, but isn’t there an inherent contradiction in wanting to explore the quality of “that which we cannot know”?

    • BobTerrace
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Cognitive dissonance minds want to know.

    • Posted May 16, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Well, if done in an appropriate way one can explore (for example) undecidability, or incompleteness, or limitations of instruments and senses, etc. – but I don’t see any of that here.

  17. Christopher
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Du Sautoy is a reasonably well known figure in the UK. He has written/fronted several excellent programs on mathematics over the years, on both TV an radio (BBC R4).

    He is quite a lively character with huge enthusiasm for mathematics – both applied, and its history. He is a superlative communicator of science, bringing an often-feared subject to the masses in an entertaining and informative way.

    I’d be somewhat disappointed if he levered open some kind of ‘god of the gaps’ position, but perhaps this is a means to an end, to extend his reach to the wider public? Some found Dawkins confrontational (i prefer the term ‘robust’), and right or wrong, a more accommodating approach may soften entrenched religious positions.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I liked “School of Hard Sums” with Dara O’Briain. It came across as corny, embarrassing, had goofy scenarios, things that didn’t work, and was poorly marketed.

      But the puzzles were like stepping into an empty elevator shaft. I worked on some of the puzzles on my own. The only really embarrasing thing was not being able to whip out solutions like O’Briain (he had a bunch of L’s on a board once), or to know the answer in a snap to the questions.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      I’d be surprised if this was a proper change of heart on his part – I just get the feeling he’s a little easier and less precise with his language when it comes to religion, spirituality, the ‘numinous’ and all that balls.
      I don’t like it, there’s no reason for it, I don’t understand why he said it – but not everyone cares as much about ‘policing the borders’ as we do.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      More accommodating approaches are usually interpreted as support for old entrenched assumptions.

      “Hey, let’s think about God in a NEW way, one that throws out every single comprehensible attribute of God which fires up the believer!”

      “Did you hear that? He believes in God! Praise him! Praise Him! I’m so fired up now!”

  18. Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I call this the God of the sticky label — it’s as if some people have a sticky label with the word God written on it, and they won’t be happy unless they can find something to stick it onto. (Some people are just more easily satisfied than others.)

    • Sastra
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I love that description.

      And DuSautoy’s definition of God is going right into my extensive “Definitions of God” file. It fits in with the other breathlessly vacuous ones.

      Though apparently the good mathematician does commit the faux pas of emptying God of every attribute in one breath, and then prostrating himself before it in lovesick devotion and suspiciously traditional language in the next.

  19. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ll defend Du Sautoy’s writing, and he’s given some interesting talks. Sure, “real” mathematicians probably frown upon him.

    this news, however, is disappointing. I recall, when Du Sautoy was named to the post, it was a big deal if he was going to go after religion, however, it seemed that the choice of a mathematician was – at the time – really supposed to be almost unrelated to religion as compared to evolution. Du Sautoy’s only religious quote was something along the lines of his only religion is Arsenal, and he’s got enough math to cover that religion is off the table. I was satisfied.

    Later, I heard Dawkins debate John Lennox, who was the first mathematician to mash religion into the subject’s ambit. So much for a pure subjects.

  20. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink


  21. Mark Cagnetta
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    And I just bought that book. Ugh!

    • Sastra
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Some readers above have suggested that the book is quite good. At least he didn’t title it The Mystery of God or something and make it a dominant theme.

  22. Steve Vanden-Eykel
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I define God as a really good tuna sandwich. I hereby announce that I am no longer an atheist.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      You can’t just keep un in suspense like that! Where are we to find the Great God of a Really Good Tuna Sandwich?



  23. Paul Topping
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    My guess is that many scientists bringing God into their writings are simply trying to broaden the appeal of science and avoid the negative connotations, in the eye of the general public anyway, of “godless scientist”. Using “God” as a label for stuff we don’t yet know is the safest way to do that. Sure, it is intellectually dishonest but a means to an end. I wouldn’t choose to go this way, though.

  24. peepuk
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    At least I agree with du Sautoy that what we know is not god.

    Science is the art of discovering the unknown. I think it’s fair to say that, so far, science has not discovered god.

    Knowledge is increasing faster and faster every year, if we follow du Sautoy we must conclude that God is in decline.

  25. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    He has concluded that there exists a god not because he needed to, but because he wanted to.

  26. John
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always said that “God” is the name mankind gives its ignorance, so to that extent I agree with du Sautoy. But unlike him (apparently) my point is that most people are deifying and worshiping their own ignorance–which is in no sense either a “god” or something anyone should worship.

    Another way to put this is that there’s not only a “God of the gaps”, but God is the gaps.

    • nicky
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      That is how I read him too, God is the gaps.

  27. Nilou Ataie
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I have read a good portion of the book which I find interesting and engaging. There is no doubt that Marcus du Sautoy is a brilliant man which makes it all the more distressing when he makes the Unicorn in the Gaps argument. Perhaps the song of Templeton was too seductive 😦

  28. Stephen Barnard
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m about halfway through his book, The Great Unknown. I’m disappointed. It’s a rather shallow rehashing of various problems and open questions in physics, and as I move along I suspect he’ll address neuroscience and the hard problem of consciousness. I’m not sanguine about the prospect. He strikes me as an over-the-hill mathematician who is turning his attention to science popularizing.

  29. Jenny Haniver
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interview with du Sautoy in Natl. Geographic http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/science-great-unknown-marcus-du-sautoy/ in which, along with other imponderables, he discusses his theistic beliefs, and references Polkinghorne, apparently to ‘explain’ the Ressurection: “John Polkinghorne talks about the idea of information never being lost. He believes our souls are encoded information in the universe, and that there is a Resurrection because quantum physics gives him a way of saying that the information about what makes me me, never gets truly lost—even when I die and get burned in a crematorium!” This is all too mystical for my pea brain.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      When physicists describe information as being conserved, there isn’t even the slightest implication that any sort of resurrection is possible.

      Conservation of information is the Laplacian concept that, given the current state of a system and the rules by which it operates, you can predict the entire past and future of that system. It’s really just another way of describing reality as deterministic or mechanistic or whatever your favorite metaphor is.

      But there’re also all sorts of barriers, many of them truly perfectly insurmountable, to actually rewinding or fast-forwarding the clock like that. In a nutshell, you’d need something bigger than the universe itself to do the trick — at which point you’re proposing a conspiracy theory indistinguishable from the Matrix, or Alice’s Red King, or the Holodeck, or whatever other story-in-a-story fantasy you want to suggest. Or, there’s exactly as much reason to believe the Christian story of an afterlife as there is to believe that the CIA is controlling your thoughts through your dental implants using alien mind rays.

      …and, for that matter, there’s also serious debate that black holes might destroy information.




      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        It was the Red Queen. There was never a Red King in Alice.

        (I say that not having read the book for 50 years, so someone more knowledgeable may contradict me. But I don’t think the scenario of Wonderland or The Looking-Glass was the sort of conspiracy theory to which you refer – Alice (in the books) knew who she was and she knew there was an ‘outside’ reality from which she had come.)

        Sorry for the nit-pick 😉


        • Posted May 15, 2017 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

          There is, indeed, a Red King in Through the Looking-Glass. And the Red King is asleep…and dreaming. Of what does he dream? Why, of course, everything that happens. All of the story — nay, all of reality itself, is the Red King’s Dream. The Tweedles tell Alice that, should the King wake up, his Dream will end and she will “go out — bang! — like a candle.”

          We all better hope that the King doesn’t wake until our lives have played out….




  30. Posted May 15, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I could understand if, having considered the possibility of god, he had gone from an atheist to an agnostic.
    To not be certain is a very scientific position. In fact, it’s what Dawkins describes himself as (albeit agnostic to the point of being a de facto atheist). Dawkins describes himself as a #6 on his own 7 point belief scale. So “i don’t know” is a perfectly good position.

    I can’t imagine how any scientist could come to the conclusion that there’s a god using science.

    • Posted May 15, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      I assure you, Richard is exactly as “agnostic” about any god you or anybody else might care to offer as an example as you yourself are about the faeries at the foot of the garden or Russell’s orbital teapot.

      Any good physicist is, technically, agnostic about whether or not her keys will fall when she drops them (in a typical environment). And, in practice, has absolutely no doubt whatsoever that her keys will fall.

      Putting the nonexistence of gods in the same category of practically (though not theoretically) unshakable certainty as “keys fall down” is the only reasonable conclusion of modern science.




  31. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    “I will define [my] ignorance as God.”

    Well done! You’ve got it! *My* ignorance is definitely God. I can be ignorant about things I haven’t even heard of. I can be ignorant about things nobody else has ever heard of either. My ignorance is capable of encompassing the entirety of creation. What could be more God-like than that?

    Others may think their ignorance is different from my ignorance but really, like Yahweh and Allah, they share almost all the same attributes – they are just facets of the same all-encompassing Great Ignorance.

    All hail the God of Ignorance!


    • Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:24 am | Permalink

      “Why bother learning when ignorance is instantaneous?”

  32. Richard
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    du Sautoy is a highly intelligent man. Unfortunately intelligence is no barrier to stupidity.

    • nicky
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

      I disagree, it is not stupid, he has reduced God to gaps: God = ignorance. Nothing I can find fault with.

      • peepuk
        Posted May 16, 2017 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        Then what’s the fault in “God is nothing”. I doubt that ignorance is the same as nothing.

        And we all know that ignorance is bliss.

  33. Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    ‘The god of the gaps’ must be one of the longest-running farces in the evidence-free world of theology and the various proper academic disciplines it tries to recruit to give it credibility.

    Those of us who are intelligent and, via childhood indoctrination, clung on to (Christian) theism for decades of adulthood are perfectly aware it is possible for ‘smart people to believe dumb things’.

    I’m totally on board re debunking the Templeton Foundation, which basically is a fat cat proselytising for ‘non-overlapping magisteria’.

    What any scientist tempted to take its shilling or three has to explain is how a deity variously described as benign, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and revelatory singularly fails to manifest itself with any measurable effect in a physical universe.

  34. Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    Hmmm… Mathematicians are not scientists.

    • peepuk
      Posted May 16, 2017 at 7:17 am | Permalink


      Mathematicians create fiction about fictional worlds constrained by human logic.

      Only when we empirically prove such a piece of fiction to be happening in the real physical world we may have reason to believe that it captures a truth about the world.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 16, 2017 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I don’t buy this argument anymore.

      Just because an individual is a professional in one field does not mean they are not a scientist, it only means they are not a professional scientist, or a professional in another field.

      Everyone in the world at this moment is more of a scientist than everyone in the world hundreds, thousands of years ago.

      My plumber is a scientist. My mechanic is a scientist. You can witness the process unfold in front of your eyes and ears.

      • peepuk
        Posted May 16, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        It’s an argument about how narrow we define “science” and “scientist”.

        A Wikipedia definition:

        “A scientist is a person engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge that describes and predicts the natural world.”

        If we could agree on this definition, I doubt plumbers and mechanics are part of the scientific research program. Some mathematicians, especially theoretical physicists, are, without a doubt, scientists.

        I would like to note that I consider plumbers and mechanics more useful than scientists, but I wouldn’t underestimate the prehistoric hunter gatherers.

        They had a much more engaging environment for their brains than most modern humans and they had to discover and describe much more things.

        I think it’s much easier to replace a surgeon or cab-driver with a robot than the average prehistoric hunter gatherer.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted May 16, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          I think I have two broad things going on here:

          1. I assert that everyone is fundamentally a scientist. After that, they are either a professional or not. This does not exclude them from being other “ist”s in addition. Not everyone is a doctor, plumber, etc. I suppose everyone could be a mathematician as well. This conversation could obviously go on forever, but:

          2. If we want to say Du Sautoy has no say in the existence of God on the basis of his professional credentials … I think that’s irrelevant. He makes arguments, we evaluate them – to be bunk – and there’s no problem there.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 18, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        I wrote:

        “Everyone in the world at this moment is more of a scientist than everyone in the world hundreds, thousands of years ago.”

        .. I think what got me thinking like this is a Chomsky quote that – while not directly relevant to my claim – I’ll paraphrase but give links about after: essentially, lots of people are exquistely sophisticated about numerous obvious things, for example sports, sports scores, teams, rankings, etc.


        quote is from “The Chomsky Reader”

        the quote can be found here :


  35. Franklin Abrams
    Posted May 16, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    The earnestness in which these words are being parsed is somewhat disconcerting. Such discussion seems more appropriate for the theists and religious fundamentalists. Here, a god of vanishing ignorance has been introduced, probably tongue in cheek, and we have an engaged “religious like” dispute on this thread. At least this wonderful new conception of god should be received with humor and mirth!

  36. Craw
    Posted May 16, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    To me it sounds like irenic noises to lure theistic viewers. Mr Fuzzy-wuzzy as opposed to Dawkins’s Mr Buzz-saw. I doubt he’ll be leading a prayer group anytime soon.

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