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A New Creation Story

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The God of the Gaps must be feeling mightily squeezed these days. Is it any surprise that someone wants to give him/her/it a whole new universe in which to hang out?

Clay Farris Naff tries to do just that in a post today on the Scientific American guest blog titled, “A Secular Case for Intentional Creation.” The post isn’t about the creation of Earth or humanity, which Naff kindly considers settled, but about the creation of our universe itself. It’s one of those happy-middle arguments that insists that both extremes must be wrong.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with these arguments, the position of one side is pushed a bit further in order to make room in that middle.

In this case, Naff is unhappy with the usual suspects, the New Atheists. (In the interests of disclosure, I consider myself a New Atheist and derive a small income from blogging as one.) Where are the New Atheists wrong about the origin of the universe?

The “New Atheist” position, by contrast, demands serious consideration. It has every advantage that science can provide, yet it overreaches for its conclusion. The trouble with the “New Atheist” position, as defined above, is this: it commits the fallacy of the excluded middle. I will explain.

After presenting his credentials as a nonreligious person in the hopes that he will be taken more seriously, Naff does so.

Science indeed excludes many possibilities. The conservation laws rule out ghosts who deploy photons to be visible, electromagnetic force to hurl objects, and kinetic wave energy to moan. Miracles are bunk. Like LaPlace, we’ve no need for a Creator to explain how the world works. But we might in searching for our ultimate origins.

The claim I aim to rebut is that science forces us to conclude that life is accidental, purposeless, and doomed. It’s a stance with quite a claque.

There, in the “might,” is that pesky God of the Gaps. It’s there, too, in the idea that science is a process of exclusion.

Excluding possibilities that don’t fit our observations is, of course, part of science. Just as critical, however, is making the observations to begin with, so that our hypotheses and our tests are based in the best approximation of reality we have. Science is a finite enterprise; it behooves us to manage it well. We do not have so many scientists and so much funding that anyone is writing grant proposals aimed at finding the orbit of Russell’s china teapot.

Note that we don’t say the teapot has been proven to not exist. We simply say that without evidence, we are comfortable dismissing it as one person’s fantasy, unworthy of the time and attention of scientists as they work to uncover the reality behind those events we can and do observe.

So what observations does Naff make or cite that would require us to spend time and attention on the idea of intentional creation? Well, actually, none at all. What we are presented with instead is a story about one possible creation scenario.

Darwinian evolution compels most of us to act as if the persistence of life into the future is good. In fact, for those of us in advanced nations, life has become really good in just the last few generations. (Consider how few of us starve to death, lose a child to infectious disease, or risk enslavement.) Assuming that civilization persists, it is reasonable to infer that life will be even better in the future, and that our descendants will want to keep it going.

In the long run, that will require moving beyond Earth (Brace yourselves, Trekkies!), and eventually into the kind of galactic colonization whose absence Fermi famously noted. (“Where are they?”/a>)

But in the very long run, as John Maynard Keynes wryly observed, we are all dead. Everything we know about the Universe, with its dark energy and its goshdarn Second Law, tells us so.

Faced with this inevitability, what will our descendants do? If possible, they will follow the Darwinian imperative: Keep life alive! They will attempt to create a Baby Universe capable of giving rise to life like us.

That’s it. A little science fictional story is the reason we shouldn’t dismiss the idea of a creator for our universe as a fantasy. Sadly, it isn’t even a story based in good science. Evolution doesn’t “compel” us to do anything. Standards of life in modern industrial nations rely on a use of resources that appears to be unsustainable. Stories of galactic travel rely on hand-waving to get around the problems of moving astronomical distances with only the resources we can carry. Similar hand-waving is required to move from the need for a new universe to the possibility of creating one.

All that is fine for a science fiction story, but Nash isn’t asking us simply to be entertained. For making a compelling case that an intelligent creator may be more than fiction? Well, like Russell’s teapot, there just isn’t much here to go chasing after. It’s just a story.

I could write you a story about accidental creation of the universe, rather than intentional. I could posit a grand orgy of energy beings creating so much tension that its release cannot be contained in a single universe and creates a new one. I could also write you a story about a universe that is collapsing, with a single strain of life that tragically views events backward and doesn’t understand that it’s actually in decline. I could write about a petulant child who creates a universe because no one else wants to spend time with it.

I can write all the stories I want (though they’re not likely to get published, as creation is a hoary old science fiction trope). That doesn’t make any of them true. It doesn’t make any of them worth paying particular attention to, except as artistic endeavors that tell us more about us than about the nature of the world. It doesn’t give us any means to choose between them. The only thing that can do that is our observations of the real world, which is where we come back to Naff’s irritation with us New Atheists.

Naff can’t seem to understand why more scientists don’t entertain the possibilities he mentions, unless it is because they fear ridicule. He’s particularly unhappy with Dawkins on this score:

Indeed, any talk of teleology seems to infuriate Dawkins: “What is the purpose of a mountain? What is the purpose of a tsunami? What is the purpose of bubonic plague? Surely you can see that these are just silly questions? Same with the universe.”

Even granting for the sake of argument that this typed text is Dawkins being infuriated, Naff is mischaracterizing this as “any talk of teleology.” The question to which Dawkins was responding was, “Richard, one might as well ask, equally, why assume there is no purpose?” That question is central to the debate in which Naff is inserting himself. It is, in fact, the question on which his entire post hinges. Why not assume there is a purpose instead of none?

Naff’s answer is, in essence, that we can imagine a purpose. So why not assume a purpose exists and study it?

The best reason not to go chasing about after a purpose for the universe is simple. It’s already there in Dawkins’ answer, if you read it for content instead of simply as an emotional outburst.

The universe is, according to everything we have already observed and tested, a natural phenomenon, like a mountain or a tsunami or Yersinia pestis. At one time, we considered mountains to be gods or the abodes of gods. Tsunamis and plague were considered the visitations of unhappy spirits. We imagined many things about these natural phenomena. It was then, as it is now, easy to do.

What we did not do was learn much. Knowledge didn’t come until we began to treat all these things as natural occurrences. Until then, all we had was imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. Imagination is a very powerful tool of science, but science puts constraints on imagination, requires it to work within the bounds of observation. And like many an artist, science does its best work under constraint.

We could, as Naff does, create stories about the origin of our universe, because we hope that we have a purpose, or in order to get along better with those who are certain that we do. However, if we want to know how the natural phenomenon of the universe came into being–to understand those origins rather than to gaze at them wistfully or chat about them free of conflict–then we are better off doing what we do when we study all natural phenomena and reining in our imagination. We are better off treating other stories as fantasies until they are supported by observation.

Even if someone thinks we’re overreaching when we do so.

Related:

A Secular Case for Intentional Creation.
Physics and the Immortality of the Soul
Forgotten dreams? A call to investigate the mysteries of humanity
What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?
Dubitable Darwin? Why Some Smart, Nonreligious People Doubt the Theory of Evolution
The deity by any other name: Army resilience program gets a thumbs down from atheists

Stephanie Zvan About the Author: Stephanie Zvan is a science fiction and fantasy writer with a career-stunting dedication to reality. She blogs at Almost Diamonds about whatever strikes her fancy, but her fancy is often struck by the necessary and uncomfortable intersection of science and politics. She also finds it difficult to resist the lure of arguments, particularly those that continually restart from the same points. Follow on Twitter @szvan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. JDahiya 10:16 am 11/18/2011

    Occam’s Razor?

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  2. 2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 4:36 pm 11/18/2011

    Good analysis.

    To add to that, I commented on Naff’s post on the problems of creating universes. They are zero energy systems (Faroni et al), so can’t be created willy-nilly such as by external creators. And a recent result may invalidate those proposals like Hawking’s, where universes tunnels “up” from “nothing” (absent spacetime). Eternal multiverses may be our best bet.

    Also, he mentioned Behe as a scientist. But Behe has stopped publishing AFAIK, and attacks evolution.

    But what really got my goat was the religious strawman on atheists. You can find my reply there, but FWIW:

    “the shiny new set of atheists who claim that science demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that our existence is accidental, purposeless, and doomed.”

    No atheist has claimed that at any time. This is a recurrent claim from faithists.

    What scientists say is that chemical evolution and biological evolution are deterministic process with contingent result, expect species but not your particular species. What scientists say is that individuals dies so that species may live under evolution. And what scientists say is that nature is filled with natural processes, which can have no purpose.

    What atheists say to that is that purpose can be had in our lives by us creating our own purpose, everyone has purpose.

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  3. 3. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 4:50 pm 11/18/2011

    To drive the point home I should have said that individuals perish. Because if you go really axiomatic on this, if evolution is the process that life obeys under, and since it is a process on populations and not individuals, “life is a property of populations”. (Which ties in to the observation that a single sexual individual nevertheless can’t continue a species.)

    To tease faithists, our individual existence is also “life-less”. =D

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  4. 4. Jim Bechtel 12:23 pm 11/19/2011

    “Stephanie Zvan is a science fiction and fantasy writer with a career-stunting dedication to reality.” Intriguing self-description; “career-stunting”? Why should reality inhibit creative imagination?

    .As a lifelong atheist and reader of sci fi and fantasy, I found Clay Naff’s imaginative essay not guilty of the charges Stephanie levels against it.
    Physicist Brian Greene talks of multiple universes and tells his TV audience, with a straight face, that our universe may be a holographic projection off the surface of a black hole. Clay asks why we should limit other no less fantastic speculations to the musings of “cartoonists and humorists.” Why not think seriously about them? Clay challenges us to conduct a little Gedankenexperiment.

    He poses a “Big If” (actually a series of big ifs, qualifiers overlooked by Ms Zvan). The biggest one is: What if, at some point, humans really do learn to replicate the Big Bang? This week ABC proclaimed “physicists create light out of nothing,” not quite accurate, but the point is physics is the final frontier and we know far too little (what is dark energy?) to rule out what we may be capable of in the distant future. If we can do it, maybe somebody else did, and this universe is the result. That’s blasphemy only if you’re religious, but we all know atheism isn‘t a religion. (Right?) Or maybe we’ll prove a negative (!), that creating Baby Universes is absolutely impossible. But let’s take an empirical approach to it. As Clay says “It may also be that new knowledge in physics will conclusively demonstrate that it is simply impossible to create a baby Universe. That day has not yet arrived.” So relax, we’re just gedanken-ing here.

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  5. 5. claynaff 12:52 pm 11/19/2011

    I find it fascinating and rather sad that those who step in to defend the “New Atheists” against my critique cannot seem to help invoking religion. Stephanie Zvan does it in the very first line of her rebuttal, and then as if to make clear that this wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish brings God back into the argument after quoting my atheist credentials. Torbjörn Larsson accuses me of introducing a “religious strawman” into the argument and thereafter refers indirectly to me as a “faithist.” Yet another critic thinks I’m self-contradictory because I disavow belief in theistic creation and yet end up *hypothesizing* creation via technology.

    If nothing else, I hope my essay gives fellow atheists a moment of pause and reflection. Not about whether my scenario is right or wrong, but about whether some have become so deeply invested in their fight against religion as to become ideologically blinkered and subject to groupthink.

    How else to explain this insistence on labeling and dismissing an essay so clearly and explicitly nontheistic as “religious”?

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  6. 6. cfct99 9:36 pm 11/20/2011

    Perhaps Zvan’s science fiction career is being stunted less by her dedication to reality than to her lack of imagination. Naff places plenty of qualifiers throughout his essay in order to suggest a fascinating, however remote, possibility that is justified by its sheer magnitude and ability to stimulate speculation in the scientific thinker. She sits squarely in the camp at which Naff is poking.

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  7. 7. claynaff 7:12 am 11/21/2011

    Stephanie,

    The embers are dying on this little fire, and I don’t suppose anyone but you and I is any longer by the hearth, so I will address this directly to you. Let me reiterate: my argument is not with you but with your argument. That said, I am disappointed by your response.

    I had anticipated a serious critique. Instead, aware that you were playing to a hometown crowd, you chose to score rhetorical points rather than come to grips the argument. You tried and you continue to try to discredit rather than refute. Let me try to show you how I come to that conclusion.

    Having been duly warned that this would be a charged environment, I took pains to explain where I was coming from and to distinguish my argument from religiously based ones, and even to give an example of yet another secular creation argument that is distinguishable from religion (the universe as a program running for obscure purposes). Then, in an explicit plea to keep this discussion outside the stale, flat, and unprofitable arena of “God vs Materialism,” I wrote: “It would be unjust to link my argument with religious Creationism of any calibre.”

    So, how did you respond? You opened your rebuttal with “the God of the Gaps,” and then for good measure you reintroduced the trope midway through. Now I know how Obama felt after he brought out his birth certificate and still the Birthers insisted he’s a Kenyan. Well, let me say it again: Obama is not a Kenyan, and I am not a theist.

    It is hard to see your tactic as anything but an attempt to delegitimize my argument before even addressing it. On your personal blog you attempt to shake off this objection by saying that “The God of the Gaps is not a religious argument. It is a denialist argument.” If so, it remains irrelevant. As I make abundantly clear in my essay, I do not deny any scientific findings, and as for the various Multiverse and Cosmic Landscape theories, I’m open to the possibility that one at least may be right.

    But even as you try to exculpate yourself of bringing religion into the argument, you try to have to both ways by hinting that I’m a theist. “(I’m not confident about him on this point, but oh, well.)” Shots don’t come much cheaper than that. Oh, wait, they do: you go on to insinuate that I’m a plagiarizer.

    If you had some evidence that my argument was theology in disguise, it would be another matter, but you don’t. You can’t, because I am not a theist and have no theology to put on offer.

    So, in your Sci Am rebuttal, you move on to another familiar trope: Russell’s teapot. Here at least, you make the effort to draw a connection, however inapt:

    “We do not have so many scientists and so much funding that anyone is writing grant proposals aimed at finding the orbit of Russell’s china teapot. Note that we don’t say the teapot has been proven to not exist.
    “We simply say that without evidence, we are comfortable dismissing it as one person’s fantasy, unworthy of the time and attention of scientists as they work to uncover the reality behind those events we can and do observe.”

    All true. so far as it goes. But there are important distinctions that you plow right over. First, had you been fair-minded in this rebuttal, you might have acknowledged that in my essay I wrote: “Why are such secular ideas bruited only by cartoonists and humorists? To be sure, physicists have better things to do.”

    Indeed, I have never suggested that the NSF or CERN should drop everything and put their shoulders into discovering whether it is possible to create a baby Universe. I do think that this will be seriously investigated in time. Physicists are curious about the question and there are practical reasons for trying to ascertain an answer. If they find that the answer is yes, I argue, this would imply, based on the Principle of Mediocrity, that our Universe was likewise created. Your response? To pretend that there is no argument there. Talk about denialism!

    Second, the point Russell was making in 1952 was that the existence of the teapot was an unfalsifiable claim: “…nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes..”

    You are no doubt aware that there are major ideas in physics that suffer from this problem — string theory being a leading example. They are taken seriously because they are mathematically consistent and are generally considered the best available solutions to otherwise intractable problems. But there are many physicists who readily admit that such theories do not constitute science — at least not yet — because they are in no way testable. The mistake that many science-supporters make is to think that the final answers are in hand. If you look back over any quarter-century period of the last two hundred years, you will find ample evidence to suggest that The End of Science (as John Horgan put it) is nowhere in sight. We can, as I wrote, exclude many possibilities, but we’re far from putting the clamps on reality. As of this moment, we don’t know if the Higgs boson is out there, if dark energy really is a manifestation of lamba in Einstein’s equation, or whether neutrinos really can travel faster than light, let alone whether our Universe is one of an infinite set of bubbles with randomly set parameters — or just one of 10^500 such bubbles.

    The idea I put forward is incomparably less sophisticated than string theory, but it does have this virtue: it is falsifiable — as I explained in my essay. That you chose to disregard this and instead disparage the idea by comparison with Russell’s teapot and crude sci-fi sketches demonstrates conclusively a lack of serious intent. You are mocking rather than critiquing.

    That impression is amplified by your mischaracterization and dismissal of my claim that “Darwinian evolution compels most of us to act as if the persistence of life into the future is good.” By construing “compels” narrowly and “persistence of life” abstractly and ignoring “most,” you can, I suppose, rebut this statement. But if you are trying to come to grips with an argument, then you will give it the interpretation that the context and qualifier suggest: that we, along with all other organisms, are evolved to function as if the survival of our genes into the future is the most important thing in the world. We humans have more ability to deviate from that Darwinian imperative than any other creature but *most* of us follow it nonetheless. Do you honestly disagree?

    As a defender of Dawkins, I doubt it. Again, it appears that you are mocking rather than critiquing. That’s too bad, because we could all learn from serious criticism — even the one being criticized. Indeed, I believe that’s the best test of an open mind.

    Regards,

    Clay

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  8. 8. Stephanie Z 4:33 pm 11/21/2011

    Jim and cfct99, the only reason my interest in reality is career-stunting is that I spend a fair amount of time writing about reality instead of writing fiction. My time is a finite resource too. Nobody’s complaining about my lack of imagination in the story that was recently published here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v478/n7367/full/478148a.html

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  9. 9. Stephanie Z 5:51 pm 11/21/2011

    Clay, mind reading is also not even science fiction but science fantasy. Assuming you can do it here does you no credit. I gave you as serious a critique as your post merited. I addressed the meat of the post. You haven’t mentioned anything I failed to address. You simply say that I’m being unfair.

    Nor do you seem to understand (as I was afraid) that I am not calling you a theist, not presuming or concluding or hinting that you believe in any god. The problem us pesky New Atheists complain about isn’t that supernatural arguments invoke a god or gods. The problem is with the entire swath of supernatural arguments, including those made to support a god or gods. Theistic arguments are a subset of supernatural arguments. That doesn’t mean that when I point out that you make a supernatural argument, I am saying you’re a theist.

    And yes, your assertions about evolution are still entirely science fantasy. The process of Darwinian evolution says that those of us who behave in ways that pass on our genes to another reproducing generation are more likely to have our genes extend into future generations. However, for the purposes of your “Hey, let’s create a new universe!” argument, that simple description of evolution will not suffice. Your argument requires both that evolution affect our values–something which is contradicted in humans, fewer of whom are choosing to breed as we come to be able to consider the proposition abstractly, as you yourself note–and that it affect them in ways that extend beyond our own genes. A new universe in which life in the abstract may continue as our own genes die is, by definition, not something that falls under any imperative to pass on our DNA.

    Also, I’m rather infamously *not* a defender of Dawkins in any abstract way. Feel free to search on both our names if you need some kind of confirmation of that. But it’s sweet of you to try to read my mind once again on that score.

    You don’t want scientists to take your ideas seriously enough to check them out, at least not based on our present knowledge of the universe. This is, in fact, precisely what I’ve said. So, what exactly was the point of your original post? What is it that you think New Atheists have to answer for? Should they be doing something you don’t want scientists to do? Who *should* be taking you seriously, Clay?

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  10. 10. klatu 8:03 am 11/23/2011

    “Imagination is a very powerful tool of science, but science [or truth] puts constraints on imagination, requires it to work within the bounds of observation”. And rightly so. Yet that most important characteristic, which defines ‘specific purpose’ is what has been lacking in the religious milieu that so often brings science and religious ideas into conflict. The divisiveness of this contradiction or paradox or however one wishes to describe it is self evident; two competing conceptions of truth and knowledge cannot long endure. And that end may now be in sight! But who will cheer?

    It would now appear that all sides squabbling over the God question and history itself have it wrong! The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” So like it of no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution appears to be getting under way.

    The tragedy for our species will be if existing religion and theology, skepticism and atheism have all so corrupted and discredited the very idea of God, that humanity is unable to re-imagine, discover and experience just how great this potential is? http://www.energon.org.uk

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  11. 11. stevewriter 11:57 am 11/25/2011

    The universe as we observe it is a performance of energy in space-time. Matter is localized energy. The behavior of common matter is driven by liberated energy.

    We do not know what energy is. Atheists treat energy as if it is objective eternal stuff. However energy works just as well as subjective dependent stuff. Energy could part of a mind, or a simulation in a computer. Until we have a better idea about energy, we cannot tell if the universe is real or imaginary.

    Without evidence as to the nature of energy, assertions one way or another are simply speculations rooted in emotion.

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