Category Archives: Science versus Religion?

Popping the Bubble Universes

3132081787_df9045a1fa_zIn yesterday’s post, I claimed that I respect those atheists who defend the multiverse as an explanation for the fine tuning of the universe more than those who refuse to adopt a position on the matter. That is for good reason, their position is clearly stronger. But I should explain why I don’t find it persuasive.

It would be misleading of me not to mention that I suspect that there is a multiverse. I actually leaned toward it on theological grounds (that God would have made multiple universes) long before I’d heard of String Theory. What I have a hard time believing in is the idea that the multiverse gives the naturalist a legitimate alternative to belief in God.

That is, I reject the idea that God and the multiverse are on equal evidentiary grounds. There is no evidence at all that points to a multiverse which does not equally point to a designer of the universe. However, there are a number of good reasons for believing in God which don’t point to a multiverse.

As to those reasons (the arguments for the existence of God), it would take me too far off topic to rehearse them in this post. The point is that the atheist must show that they all fail completely in order to support the claim that the multiverse and God are equally valid. The bold declarations of the New Atheists aside, no one has come close to doing this.

But this would only get us to equality. It would take still more work to get us to the point that the multiverse is the better option. The only argument on this point, so far as I know, is the idea that the multiverse is simple.

The problem with that statement is that it is false. I’m not sure what definition of “simple” is being used, but astronomically high numbers of universes, each with its own set of constants and quantities, and an external mechanism which randomly sets these constants, is not simple by any definition.

But, as complex as it is, the multiverse doesn’t explain nearly so much as people tend to assume. The idea of the multiverse, after all, is that if there were a great number of universes, then we would find ourselves in the universe that can support us (this is known as the anthropic principle).

Of course, this leads us to the problem of the Boltzman Brain: the overwhelming majority of observable universes (given naturalism) would be observed by brains which randomly fluctuate out of quantum vacuum energy, complete with false memories in many cases.

That is to say that the naturalist, if she is a believer in the multiverse, has good reason to think that she is more likely a delusional brain fluctuating out of the quantum vacuum than a person in a relatively stable universe. This, in turn, is reason to doubt everything she believes, including science.

Part of me suspects that the multiverse is protected mostly by a vaguely scientific aura that it wears like armor. It seems to enjoy some of the mythos of science without having any of the supporting evidence which is usually required. And, followed to its logical conclusion (if one is a naturalist), it actually undermines science.

But, once one realizes that it isn’t a scientific theory, it is very hard to believe that this position is intellectually superior (or even equal) to theism.

Dawkins Promoting Science?


Prominent New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have released a trailer for an upcoming film, which seems to follow the same pattern as previous New Atheist productions: Documenting one or more of the New Atheists travels as they interview and debate people on the subject of religion.

Quite a few things struck me about this, actually. But my key issue is this:

The film claims to be promoting science

I don’t see how there can be people in western culture who are convinced that science’s main difficulty is a lack of trust being placed in it.

For my money, the biggest obstacle to a clear understanding of what science is and does is the scientistic philosophy being promoted by Dawkins and Krauss themselves.

That they have put so much energy into convincing people that science addresses spiritual questions, gives us an approach of how to live life, and is somehow advanced through political activism puts them more in league with the Scientologists than anyone doing legitimate research.

Personally, I’d be very interested in a film that promotes good science, rather than the creator’s personal philosophy masquerading as science.

Russell XII: Shouting “Science” isn’t Evidence

funny-science-news-experiments-memes-dog-science-fuzzy-logic1Continuing on with our examination of Russell’s “Why I’m not a Christian”, we get to an argument from justice.

Roughly stated, the argument claims that, if one believes that there will ultimately be justice, then one needs to believe in an afterlife because there is so much gross injustice in this life.

Personally, I have my reservations about making this argument, not the least of which is that it is highly unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe in an afterlife. It struck me as odd, then, that Russell’s response is equally unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already reject an afterlife:

If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, “After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.

This simply ignores the entire premise of the argument: that justice will eventually be served. Russell is free to reject that premise, but he isn’t making a case until he gives us a reason why he rejects it. As it is, he raises the idea only to avoid answering it.

More significantly for the current debate over atheism, Russell is arguing that his disbelief in justice is more “scientific”. As a lover of science, nearly as much as a believer in God, I find myself offended that science is so often being misappropriated for anti-theistic philosophies that aren’t in the least bit scientific. The New Atheists, in fact, seem to have trouble getting through a page of text without making this error.

Science is silent on metaphysical questions. That is part of its strength, actually. To say that the next life will be like this one, because this is all we know, is no more “scientific” than a British child deciding that Chinese breakfasts consist of oatmeal, toast, and jam because that is all she knows. It is pure assumption, nothing more.

Far too many have no ethical misgivings whatsoever about co-opting science in order to bolster what are actually philosophical assumptions. As much as many Christians need to be reminded not to put words in the mouth of God, it seems that the New Atheists require the same with respect to science.

If science is silent on an issue, one shouldn’t claim to speak for it.

Why Russell was Wrong V: Let’s forget about Paley


Here, we get to Russell’s treatment of Darwinism. To be clear, I am discussing philosophy and theology–not science (as much as I adore science). I’ll not be speaking about the Evolution debate, which receives far more attention than I think due it. Instead I’ll focus on philosophical mistakes I’ve seen made in this debate.

Here, Russell criticizes Paley’s famous “Watchmaker” argument (which states that Creationism is true on the grounds that living things appear as designed as a watch does):

It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation.

I’m often left wondering what so many of the disciples of Russell (Dawkins most of all) would do without Paley. Few arguments from design run counter to Darwin’s theory, and so don’t tend to validate the false “science or religion” dichotomy that drives their rhetoric.

To his credit, Russell does not fall into this trap. Many seem to think that, so long as a discovery of science can be made to counter a theistic argument, we can imply that future discoveries will do the same (so we needn’t waste our time with other arguments). At least, this seems to be the reason why Darwin’s name is so frequently mentioned on topics like cosmology.

For me, the most significant thing about Darwin in the context of a debate on God’s existence is the fact that opponents of theism have a hard time producing a more recent idea which runs counter to (their concept of) theism.

This seems rather like the Galileo argument, where a single person, who lived quite some time ago, is seen as proof of a larger pattern. This is doubly true when one studies closely enough to see that there is nothing about Darwin’s theories which can get the one to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist (nor anything about Galileo’s trial which reveals that “science” was being persecuted, but that is another topic).

If the practice of science in the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that it does not progress along a predictable course. To infer that science will ultimately establish atheism because of a single, questionable, example (as, say, Richard Dawkins does) is a hasty generalization fallacy, a non-sequitur, and a simple category error. Really, I’ve encountered few positions which pack logical fallacies as tightly as this one.

But, more simply, this is to pretend both that science is philosophy and that we know our future better than Paley knew his.

And this is what Paley did right: rather than try to predict what will be discovered some day, he worked with the information he had. It is sheer intellectual laziness to say that one isn’t going to accept a position until all the facts are in (as many seem to be doing as of late); all the facts will never be in.

I believe that we should trust science. What we should not trust, however, is some concept of what science will one day discover. This is doubly true in answering a question which is, manifestly, not a scientific one.

Why Russell was Wrong II: Natural Law

bigstockphoto_Theory_Of_Relativity1Given the unfamiliarity of the natural law argument to most modern people, and the length of Russell’s discussion of it, I’ll be breaking my response into a few parts.

Briefly, the Natural Law argument proposes God as an explanation for the fact that nature behaves according to regular patterns (as opposed to the essentially chaotic universe most everyone thought we were living in before the rise of monotheism).

It shows something of the change in culture that Russell feels the need to deal with this, while contemporary atheists do not. In fact, most of them seem to think that order in nature, traditionally and correctly understood as a point in favor of the monotheist, lends itself to arguments against God’s existence.
Russell states:

People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation.

The ease with which Russell, and many others, accuse theists of intellectual laziness has always astounded me. While there are many lay-people who tend to seize on a simple answer to complex questions, this is hardly limited to believers in God. Many atheists, for instance, insist that we should halt inquiry into the cause of the universe (simply acquiescing to ignorance) when considering the matter starts to point to God’s existence.

There are intellectually lazy, as well as thoughtful, people on both sides of the argument. To imply that one position is simply the result of laziness is completely out of touch with the facts.

As this keeps coming up, both in Russell’s statements and contemporary discussion, the point is worth some attention:

The Natural Law argument is, most emphatically, not the use of the phrase “God did it” to explain some gap in our current knowledge. Rather, it is attempting to explain why we can have scientific knowledge about the universe in the first place. It is not obvious that the universe should have particular patterns of phenomena, and a rational God is a good explanation as to why that might be.

As such, it is what we know about nature (how well science works) that is the basis of this argument, rather than anything that we do not know. Whether you are convinced by it or not, this is important to keep in mind as we consider Russell’s remaining objections to it.

This is even more important in our current cultural moment, in that so many of the opponents of theism understand God almost completely in terms of the “God of the gaps”, rather than the way God has traditionally been understood.