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A Secular Case for Intentional Creation

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

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“Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Stoic Philosopher and Emperor of Rome, in Meditations, circa 170 CE

“’He said that, did he? … Well, you can tell him from me, he’s an ass!”

– Bertie Wooster, fictional P.G. Wodehouse character, in The Mating Season, 1949

People have been arguing about the fundamental nature of existence since, well, since people existed. Having lost exclusive claim to tools, culture, and self, one of the few remaining distinctions of our species is that we can argue about the fundamental nature of existence.

There are, however, two sets of people who want to shut the argument down. One is the drearily familiar set of religious fundamentalists. The other is the shiny new set of atheists who claim that science demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that our existence is accidental, purposeless, and doomed. My intent is to show that both are wrong.

I do not mean to imply a false equivalence here. Concerning the fundamentalist position, my work is done. Claims of a six-day Creation, a 6,000-year-old Earth, a global flood, and so forth have been demolished by science. It has not only amassed evidence against particular claims but has discovered laws of nature that exclude whole classes of claims. To the extent we can be certain about anything, we can rest assured that all supernatural claims are false.

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.

But first, if you’ll pardon a brief diversion, I feel the need to hoist my flag. You may have inferred that I am a liberal religionist, attempting to unite the scientific narrative with some metaphorical interpretation of my creed. That is not so.

I am a secular humanist who is agnostic about many things — string theory, Many Worlds, the Theo-logical chances of a World Series win for the Cubs  – but the existence of a supernatural deity is not among them. What’s more, I am one of the lucky ones: I never struggled to let go of God. My parents put religion behind them before I was born.

I tell you this not to boast but in hopes that you’ll take in my argument through fresh eyes. The science-religion debate has bogged down in trench warfare, and anyone foolhardy enough to leap into the middle risks getting cut down with no questions asked. But here goes.

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.

The A Team

In the vanguard are its Four Horsemen: neuroscientist Sam Harris, philosopher Daniel Dennett, zoologist Richard Dawkins, and lion of letters Christopher Hitchens. Other notables in the New Atheist ranks include physicists Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, and Sean Carroll, and biologist PZ Myers. Plenty of intellectual heft there.

They have been joined by the world’s best-known living scientist. After decades of soft-pedaling “the mind of God,” Stephen Hawking came out as an atheist last year. The Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, author of A Brief History of Time, and cameo Simpsons star famously wrote: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Fine. Let us add that theory seems to imply a multiverse — an infinite card table where the deck of laws is continually shuffled to deal out every conceivable hand. It may be that the Totalitarian Principle — “Everything not forbidden is compulsory” — demands our presence in a biophilic bubble somewhere in the multiverse. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Until some evidence arrives, the pursuit of truth through science obliges us to entertain multiple hypotheses. When it comes to cosmic origins, that must surely include consideration of the idea that our Universe was deliberately created with a purpose in mind. Yet little authentically secular effort has gone into it.

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.”

They are indeed silly — if you assume that a supremely powerful and virtuous deity created the Earth. But that hardly exhausts the possibilities.

To name just one, it may be that the fundamental property of the Universe is information, and that life, the Universe and everything amount to a program running for an obscure purpose. That conceit is captured with mordant humor here.

Why are such secular ideas bruited only by cartoonists and humorists? To be sure, physicists have better things to do. But the deeper reason, I suspect, is social. Scientists adopt methodological naturalism — the working assumption that all phenomena can be explained in terms of impersonal laws and materials. To stray from that assumption is to risk ridicule and loss of credibility — as responses to this essay will no doubt show. Yet, it can legitimately be done. The SETI project’s search for a signal from ET is proof of that.

When it comes to cosmic origins, however, religion predisposes nearly everyone to commit to impersonal naturalism or theistic creation. Thus, in opposition to the New Atheists, we find a handful of scientists who are Creationists of varying religious stripe: biochemist Michael Behe, physicists Frank Tipler and Gerald Schroeder, and geneticist Francis Collins, to name a few.

Please do not suppose that in raising these names I salute them. It would be unjust to link my argument with religious Creationism of any calibre. If you’re looking for a proper pigeonhole, park me with the SETI scientists.

I am precisely as agnostic about the existence of intelligent life beyond the observable Universe as I am about its existence within it. That is to say, I stand in equipoise ‘mid skepticism and hope. And so, in the spirit (if you’ll pardon the expression) of T.C. Chamberlin, allow me to sketch an alternative hypothesis for our existence.

Life Is Good

Take the mainstream scientific narrative of cosmic evolution, abiogenesis, and biological evolution as given. Assume, for argument’s sake, that humanity will navigate the rapids of history through which we are passing and establish a peaceful, sustainable global civilization.

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?”)

But in the very long run, as John Maynard Kenyes 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.

Swell, you may think, but what has this to do with secular creation? Simple: the Principle of Mediocrity. It tells us that when we have only one data point, we should assume that it lies near the middle of the distribution curve. That being so, if we take the above as granted we would be foolhardy to assume that we will be the first proud parents of a Baby Universe. The ability to procreate a Universe would suggest that ours was so created, and for a similar reason: to keep life alive.

The extravagance and imperfections of the Universe are just what you might expect of imperfect creators doing the best they can with the materials on hand. SETI’s failure to date suggests they were none too extravagant! Indeed, nothing of which I am aware counts as evidence against this hypothesis.

All the same, it is falsifiable. I can think of at least two ways it might fail. Perhaps demographer Eric Kaufmann is right: the maximal reproduction rates of fundamentalists in an era of contraception may mean that by the end of the century they will swamp all others. In that case, we can expect that one prophecy, at least, will be fulfilled: Armageddon.

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.

Perhaps I’m an ass, but until it does I remain a hopeful agnostic — hopeful not that some ancient religious myth happens to be true but that life is a gift given in trust that we will pass it on.

Read the response to this post here:

A New Creation Story


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

Clay Farris Naff About the Author: Clay Farris Naff is a science writer with a special interest in the rational reconciliation of religions with science. An award-winning journalist and author, he has been a Tokyo correspondent for United Press International, a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, a science-and-religion columnist for the Metanexus Institute, and a freelance writer for Earth Magazine, The Humanist, and Scientific American, among other publications. He blogs on science and religion for the Huffington Post. You can follow him at Twitter: @claynaff Follow on Twitter @claynaff.

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

Comments 21 Comments

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

    You’re not a “secular humanist who is agnostic about many things”. You’re a poet. :)

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  2. 2. claynaff 11:43 am 11/18/2011

    Not many comments make me blush, but that one does! Thank you. Or, perhaps I should say, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!



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  3. 3. gtrmain 2:33 pm 11/18/2011

    I anticipated not liking this piece but found the premise plausible and fun entertaining the possibility.

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  4. 4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 3:21 pm 11/18/2011

    Naff claims he isn’t agnostic about creators, then he concludes that he is.

    If we take that at face value, agnosticism claimed as a choice between equally valid ideas is theology. Obviously we can’t have a “rational reconciliation of religions with science” since religion is about faith and science is about replacing faith with fact.

    The gist of the argument is that our universe could have been created by an agent, since, say, inflation can create pocket universes in a multiverse process.

    But already the year before we got validation of our inflationary standard cosmology, it became known that universes or our kind (FRW universes) are exactly zero energy. This means that universes may tunnel out of other universes but that no other system can participate. Or we would no longer have zero energy. ["ON THE TOTAL ENERGY OF OPEN FRIEDMANN-ROBERTSON-WALKER UNIVERSES", Faraoni et al, The Astrophysical Journal 2003.]

    So there can be no creators of natural universes.

    “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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  5. 5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 4:17 pm 11/18/2011

    I also meant to say:

    On the problem of creating universes, string theory gave us a handle on nothing. Recently a study of next-to-nothing results in that tunneling from nothing (up-tunneling) is excluded.

    While down-tunneling is fine, attesting what faithists call “nothing” is as much nothing as “something” on account of being zero energy systems.

    Presumably then universes can’t tunnel into existence, but multiverses are most likely eternal.

    “handful of scientists … biochemist Michael Behe”.

    Better to say Behe was a scientist, he stopped publishing a long time ago.

    And he has shown that he doesn’t understand even natural creation of species (evolution in biology). I fail to see the relevance of including anyone that supports anti-science in the form of creationism in a discussion on science and its ramifications.

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  6. 6. claynaff 11:29 pm 11/18/2011

    Mr. (Dr?) Larsson protests a great deal, including even my mention of theistic scientists, but right out of the gate he makes it clear that he, alas, cannot distinguish between theism and my hypothesis of a secular creation by technological means: “Naff,” he writes, “claims he isn’t agnostic about creators, then he concludes that he is.” No, I state that I do not now and never have believed in a deity or anything supernatural. I am, for reasons I hope I made clear, agnostic about the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in our Universe and indeed elsewhere in the universe. The latter, I claim, might have created our Universe. If Mr. Larsson has proof that this cannot be so, I recommend that he submit it to a peer reviewed journal.


    Clay Farris Naff

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  7. 7. Trold 9:09 am 11/19/2011

    I wish you had replied to Torbjörn Larsson’s complaint above that none of the atheists who come in for criticism in your article thinks our existence must, by science, be “purposeless and doomed.” Not only because it’s an irritatingly persistent misunderstanding, and attempts by those of us who consider ourselves “new atheists” to dispel the confusion go nowhere, but also because I think it might better illuminate some aspects of the purpose your idea gives us. You hope for the possibility of intentional creation over the universe being accidental because of the purpose it places behind our existence, but I do not see why that should then be our purpose.

    If we were created because we served the desires and ends of a preceding species, we know only, and only vaguely, what is wanted and expected of us, not what as a species we ought to be, nor what we ought to do, nor what we ought to value. These questions — and it is hard to think of a sense of purpose to which these questions are irrelevant — are still ours to answer. This is probably all familiar, and I am miles from thinking this will change anyone’s view of the subject, but any talk of our existence having a purpose through our intentional creation must address it head-on.

    Of course, it could be I am reading too much, and you only want to assert that someone (might have) had a purpose in putting us here, but not that their designs have any relation on our own sense of purpose. Fair enough, but then I don’t see what there is to be hopeful about, except perhaps it shows the possibility of bequeathing the gift of life ourselves, on the assumption we already value this because “Darwinian evolution compels” us. But then you’ve again appealed to some facts about how we came to exist to find a purpose, and shouldn’t our lived experience match this Darwinian purpose? (Not only good, but a purpose?)

    It may be a bit unfair to ask you to answer all this in a limited word count, but without clarifying what you mean by purpose, and what it is that makes you hopeful, I don’t think you can say you’ve refuted anyone’s position on our existence, or be much annoyed when a bunch of those dreadful new atheists complain that you misrepresent them.

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  8. 8. claynaff 11:31 am 11/19/2011

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Trold. Larsson surely overstates when he remarks “No atheist has claimed that at any time. This is a recurrent claim from faithists.” Nonsense.

    I presume it is uncontroversial to assert that New Atheists believe that human existence is accidental. Likewise, purposeless (excepting self-generated purpose). Sean Carroll, for example, got a good laugh at a conference of science writers recently by calling the universe “dysteleological”. That leaves the question of human survival. On this, it is quite possible that some New Atheists have differing views, so I was careful to define the viewpoint I am trying to rebut. Having listened and read widely among them, I believe I’m justified in imputing to them the general view that like others species ours has an expiration date that will eventually come due.(See for example.)

    However, let me take this opportunity to make it clear that I have enormous respect for each of the figures I identify as a New Atheist in my essay. I agree with them on most things, and where I disagree it is with due regard for their views.

    Which brings us to purpose. You say (quite rightly) that this needs to be addressed head on, but I suggest that I did so. We don’t need tablets from the mountaintop to tell us — our purpose is embedded in the Darwinian imperative. Let me quote, with no irony intended, from Dawkins, “…[G]ene survival is the ultimate Darwinian value. So, as a first expectation, all animals and plants can be expected to work ceaselessly for the long-term survival of the genes that ride inside them.” Unless you take the position that we are NOT animals, that includes us. But unlike all other organisms, we’ve become aware of the value and have *some* choice about whether and how to actualize it. For example, we can regulate our reproduction and invest heavily in a few offspring, or none at all. All the same, as a species I suggest that we will value our survival indefinitely. We might accidentally or greedily kill ourselves off, or nature might do it for us, but the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement doesn’t stand a chance.

    That being so, if we extrapolate into the far future, and if, pace Mr. Larsson and his stray citation, the laws of physics permit, I suggest that we’ll do what we can to perpetuate life in another universe.

    Ms. Zvan’s ideologically motivated mockery notwithstanding, this is an evolutionarily sound conjecture. As such I would think it would attract interest from those who have a science-based worldview. It’s a pity that many cannot get past their fight with religion to give it honest consideration.



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  9. 9. peterrrr 6:13 pm 11/19/2011

    In an attempt to refute Larsson, let me quote Naff, our author:

    “I am, for reasons I hope I made clear, agnostic about the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in our Universe and indeed elsewhere in the universe. The latter, I claim, might have created our Universe.”

    So “our Universe” and “the universe” are different things, and I suppose the former is in some sense a part of the latter. He apparently thinks that something from the latter might be the creator of the former, without going even the tiniest bit into any possible detail. I’m afraid this is just as non-useful as the apparently made-up stories of all the theologians. Having read it, one’s only reaction might be to ask why one has wasted
    any time doing so.

    As I imagine others have asked, what might be even roughly the definitions of those terms other than some vague understanding by the author of the scientists who speculate concerning so-called “multiverses”? If that is all he thinks he means, maybe he should leave it to people who actually know something about this, perhaps Larsson, but certainly not the author.

    As long as one is asking for definitions, the idea of ‘intention’ would seem impossible to define without it including the idea of ‘time’. Any notion concerning some sort of creation with intention of all there is physically (which apparently Naff is not talking about at all, generating that giant yawn referred to earlier) surely must include time in some sense, especially after what we learned from Einstein. That just seems clearly self-contradictory, unless the notion of intention can be de-coupled from time. Can you, Mr. Naff?

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  10. 10. claynaff 11:25 am 11/20/2011

    Peterrrr’s sarcastic and condescending tone makes me doubtful of this response getting a fair hearing from him, but I will try.

    Concerning “our Universe” and “the universe,” there is a convention, which I assumed would be familiar, of using the uppercase to refer to the visible “bubble” around us, while the lowercase refers to everything — whatever that might be.

    Lack of detail: I suppose that if, like L. Ron Hubbard, I were out to found a sci-fi religion, I might invent a richly detailed story. But as I say in my essay, I am trying to prod science-minded people into considering whether additional secular hypotheses about the origin of our Universe are worth considering. What that *requires* is an idea that does not violate the laws of nature and that is, in principle, falsifiable. (Whether that is sufficient to warrant investigation is another question, to be sure. Read on!)

    I believe I did just that: I proposed that if human civilization is able survive long enough to develop and deploy technology that would create a Universe, this would give us reason to lean toward the hypothesis that ours was so created, based on the Principle of Mediocrity.

    It may prove impossible to do this. Some critis claim that it has already been ruled out, though, ironically enough, they rely on theoretical speculations that are way out in front of experimental physics. (Please, don’t take my word for it; read Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics or Woit’s Not Even Wrong.)

    The fact that a) nothing I’ve proposed is inconsistent with the current state of mainstream, consensus science, and b) tomorrow, that could change makes my hypothesis categorically different from “made-up stories of all the theologians.”

    So, is it worth considering as a hypothesis? Well, as I suggest in my essay, I don’t expect any up-and-coming physics students to make this their doctoral focus. Still, I think it has both *potential* scientific merit and prosocial value. Investigation of whether it is possible to create a Universe may eventually be a practical, worthwhile scientific project. Meanwhile, belief in sustainable progress is itself a positive social value. I hope that is self-evident, but just in case it’s not, let me offer the opposite view: if we were to adopt the End Times theology, then we would feel absolutely no responsibility for well-being of the planet or our progeny, other than preparing them for the end.

    But I digress. Whether you agree about the social value or not, it is bad science to categorically exclude hypotheses for no other reason than that they *remind* you of religion.

    If there are better reasons, I have yet to hear them from my critics.



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  11. 11. peterrrr 7:52 pm 11/20/2011

    My apologies if my earlier submission seemed either sarcastic or condescending. Rather than either me or Mr. Naff, it is perhaps better for an interested 3rd party to comment about the extent to which I really was morally deficient there. That gets at the question of the misuse of the ad hominem in these arguments. So to begin I will do a little count of negative referrals to the other party as a person, in this exchange. That just deals with the nature of the exchange; in the remaining paragraphs I’ll deal with the content.

    Well, as long as one agrees that the ad hominem is a poor form of argument, I think I might be ahead 3-0 on that one: besides the two mentioned above, we also have “makes me doubtful of getting a fair hearing from him”. I may have said, twice no less, that I became bored with his article, but I assume that presuming to criticize an article is not referring negatively to the person himself, and I don’t think I did. Actually, in this respect, Larsson was treated even less well than me, and is more innocent than me of negative references to Naff himself. It is of course not always that easy to separate negativity about some action (e.g. writings) of a person from negativity about the person, especially if he is sensitive.

    As to the content, it is difficult to be brief:

    What has he proposed? Surely it is not merely ‘if us guys, or our descendants, create something like our Universe but definitely not literally our Universe or even within it, then it is possible that our Universe was similarly created’. Taken as a whole, and apart from so far being virtually meaningless (see below on that), if we stretch and take it to be meaningful, it is virtually tautological. Yet, in his response to me, that seems to be what he claims his proposal to be: “I proposed that if human…., (then) this would give us reason…” Quite apart from the undefinedness and triviality of this if-then statement, the possible empirical refutations in the article of his scientific proposal, namely

    (1) that the ‘if’ part didn’t happen due to an Armageddon more severe than its usual meaning (i.e. not only the destruction of the human species, but actually the destruction of all life, no I mean additionally the destruction of all possibility of later intelligent life on this planet; no,no more: of all possibility of all intelligent beings anywhere in our Universe (those overpopulating fundamentalists are really getting dangerous now!—actually I guess I am extending the human species to any intelligent beings in our Universe, earlier, now or later, but that seems quite fair, given the nature of the topic); or

    (2) the other refutation that somehow accepted science shows that the “if” statement cannot happen (rather bizarre as a Popperian refutation of a scientific theory, but let’s not get into that);

    certainly do not refute the if-then statement, just the “if” part.

    To be clearer to those not spending much time thinking about logic, the statement “if 0=1 then 0=0″ is true (say, multiply both sides of the first by 0 to get the second), despite the “if” part not being true. So the entire if-then statement is probably not intended by Naff to be his science to be studied, and I am probably too lengthy here and somewhat unfair to him, despite what he said in his reply.

    So it is just the “if” statement itself which is the science to be studied, not the entire if-then statement. Has that statement any meaning to be gleaned from the article itself? He refers to McCabe, whose title indicates he knows how to create a universe. But Naff seems to go along with that article, so surely McCabe does not do in his article what his title seems to imply, otherwise we would already know the “if” part above to be possible, and Naff would be far further ahead than he modestly claims.

    So what is my original complaint about the article being tedious for me because of a lack of detail by Naff? Well, one aspect would just be exactly that complete lack of any indication of what is in McCabe’s paper. And, in his response to me, it happens again when he refers to a book by Smolin (with whom I have much sympathy–one often gets much more from a question he asks than from the entire talk whose speaker he is questioning), and again with Woit. My recollection is that those works were mainly criticism of the present infatuation with string theory, but perhaps Naff is able to provide just a bit of connection of the “if” statement above to one or more of those three. I’d like to see it. Failing that and anything else by way of detail, his supposed scientific proposal is meaningless to me.

    I’m a bit surprised that he says that the usage of “our Universe” seems to coincide with what I thought was the common usage of “the visible universe”. The usage of “the universe” as Naff has it is so rife with vagueness and extreme variation by various popularizers as to be essentially meaningless in the context of Naff’s article, again without more detail.

    I might point out that he has stayed completely away from the one specific challenge I put to him in my last paragraph of the previous comment. That is said only to alert readers that he has not answered it at all. And perhaps it is unfair to have raised it as more-or-less a logical refutation of the meaningfulness of ‘creation of everything material with intention’, since that is apparently not what Naff wishes to talk about.

    Finally, as part of his response to me, we have from Naff: “Whether you agree about the social value or not, it is bad science to categorically exclude hypotheses for no other reason than that they *remind* you of religion.”

    I said absolutely nothing like that. A skyhook is just as non-useful as the stories of theologians. I have not just now rejected skyhooks because they remind me of religion.

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  12. 12. NBeale 4:40 am 11/21/2011

    It’s hard to imagine more arrogant nonsense than “To the extent we can be certain about anything, we can rest assured that all supernatural claims are false.”

    It is impossible to construct a logically valid argument for this that doesn’t beg the question.

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  13. 13. peterrrr 9:31 am 11/21/2011

    There is not much, other than the marvellous advances in mathematical logic since about 1890, for which one can “construct a logically valid argument” (quoting NBeale). It is some logic but mainly sensing the ‘world’ (taken together, doing science) by means of which reasonable people conclude that “all supernatural claims are false”. This seems perfectly agreeable to me, as long as “all” means “all up till present”. Perhaps the Pope will suddenly in future become cogent and come up with something interesting, for example confessing to serious fibbing in expounding the historically falsehoods he told about the Nazis being atheists in his speech in front of Elizabeth upon arriving in U.K., quite aside from his time-honoured arrant nonsense about resurrections, ascensions and the like.

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  14. 14. NBeale 11:42 am 11/21/2011

    I have no great logical objection to the statement “none of the supernatural claims I have heard so far seem to me to be true” although I would be curious to see a good definition of “supernatural” (eg “contrary to the known laws of physics” would be a very bad definition). But it’s an enormous leap (of faith!) to go from that to the “arrogant nonsense” of which I complain.

    Logically valid arguments have been around since at least Euclid. In this day and age if you can’t even offer a logically valid argument whose premises are not manifestly ridiculous and which does not beg the question* then you really should not make statements that “all Xs are Y” especially in a “Scientific” journal.

    PS Hitler was indeed an atheist from a Christian perspective, though he may or may not have followed some form of confused spiritualism/satanism and he certainly used Christian rhetoric when it suited him. You can hardly criticise the Pope from speaking from a Christian perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.

    * I mean this of course in the correct sense of “assuming what you are trying to prove” and not in the colloquial sense of “suggesting that a question should be asked”

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  15. 15. peterrrr 3:20 pm 11/21/2011

    Re-replying in reverse order to the response previous, NBeale may increase his education, concerning the enabling and even initiating of the Holocaust by christians, by reading the entirety of the careful article:

    which includes many exact quotations from various Nazi ‘dignitaries’, including Hitler. It makes very clear just how christian the whole ‘enterprise’ was, including the professed faiths over different years of its principal butchers. I will just include the initial two paragraphs from one later section, concerning the lies which Mr. Ratzinger told in his public speech in Britain, while wearing his popely costume:

    “8: Christian Denial (back to top)

    When he visited Britain in 2010 Pope Ratzinger gave a speech including the now-notorious description of the Nazi regime as “atheist extremism” that “wished to eradicate God from society”. This labelling of the Nazis as “atheist” is common among the religious, despite being — as shown above — the opposite of the truth. It is understandable that Christians want to disassociate themselves from the Nazi Holocaust — the vilest crime in Christendom, perpetrated by an overwhelmingly Christian nation. It is also fair to regard the Nazi ideology as having departed so far from mainstream Christianity, in mixing Christianity with Nazi racial ideology, that it was not mainstream “Christian”, even though nearly all Nazis regarded themselves as Christian. However, “atheists” they were not.

    Ironically, the blaming of “atheism” for the Third Reich is itself a Nazi-style tactic: the Nazis blamed the ills of society on Jews, building on centuries of antipathy towards a group that refused to acknowledge the Christian god. Blaming the ills of society and history on “atheists”, as by Ratzinger and other Christians, has the same motive: antipathy towards a group that refuses to acknowledge their god. One can excuse Ratzinger for having joined the Hitler Youth at the impressionable age of 14, at a time when it was expected of all German boys; but he should not be excused for displaying Nazi-style prejudice at an age when he should know better.”

    If NBeale can find anything at all suspect in this carefully researched article, by a man whose ‘day-job’ is the study of extra-solar planets, I will be very interested to hear it. But until otherwise convinced, I feel it is time for the Christians to stop lying about the relationship of the Nazis to atheism.

    As for me, possibly the Crusades qualifies by a whisker instead, as the “vilest crime of Christianity”, having read Pinker’s book and now realizing that, as a percentage of world population, the latter were able to kill more people for having the wrong ideology or skin colour than the Nazis managed to do. But perhaps the Nazis’ rate per unit of time was worse. Otherwise, that detailed relating of facts to counter the religious’ lies seems very accurate.

    Next, there is a difference between “arrogant nonsense” and “arrant nonsense”. NBeale can easily find the adjectives’ definitions. He should take more care when reading others’ submissions.

    Finally to logic:

    “if you can’t even offer a logically valid argument whose premises are not manifestly ridiculous and which does not beg the question* then you really should not make statements that “all Xs are Y” especially in a “Scientific” journal.”

    I’m unsure what that refers to, but the extra-logical properties of premisses in a logical argument have nothing to do with logic itself, other than perhaps the properties ‘true’ and ‘false’, which might be taken as extra-logical, and of course do relate to the applications of logic to reality. In any case, the properties “manifestly ridiculous” and “beg(ging of) the question” seem to come out of nowhere. So far as a logical argument is concerned, assuming it is valid, the premiss already ‘contains’ the conclusion, so to beg the question as defined in his footnote is beside the point logically. Of course, good theorems of mathematics do not seem to be begging the question, even though they are in any purely logical sense. Many people could profit from a careful course which makes clear the distinction between arguments which are logical in their entirety, and those that are not. There is at least one such course available for free on the internet which only requires the reader to have a bit of familiarity with working symbolically, not necessarily in mathematics itself. I would be happy to refer NBeale to that if requested.

    And (s)he seems to have also somehow misread my comment about modern mathematical logic, misread it as containing the first instances of logically valid arguments, which of course I did not say. It seems likely that this first instance far precedes even the advent of our species: there is a famous statement from one of the ancient Greeks concerning a hunting dog, after arriving at a triple fork in the path, and sniffing two of the three possible routes of its prey, immediately headed down the third without bothering to sniff.

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  16. 16. NBeale 6:11 pm 11/21/2011

    re Nazis, Coel should stick to his day job as a Prof of astrophysics at a university ranked around #325 in the world. The fact that one or more of the obscure writers who contributed to Nazi ideology professed some sort of demented half-Christianity says nothing about whether the Nazi leadership really believed in God. The fact is that “Goebbels and Hitler both agreed that after the Endsieg (Final Victory) the Reich Church should be pressed into evolving into a German social evolutionist organisation proclaiming the cult of race, blood and battle, instead of Redemption and the Ten Commandments of Moses, which they deemed outdated and Jewish.”

    Unlike Coel, Ratzinger is a world class philosopher and has first hand knowledge of German history.

    However this is tangential to the main point about the article, which is that the claim that “To the extent we can be certain about anything, we can rest assured that all supernatural claims are false.” is “arrogant (sic) nonsense”.

    Not only is no reasonable argument presented for this claim, it is very hard to see how a reasonable argument could be presented for this claim. Certainly there is no conceivable set of scientific observations that could substantiate it. Even if there were a known set of deterministic scientific laws whose predictions agreed completely with every experiment that had ever been performed (which is certainly not the case) that would not and could not demonstrate that “all supernatural claims are false”.

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  17. 17. peterrrr 9:27 pm 11/21/2011

    NBeale is correct, the peculiar religious beliefs of the Nazis, as such, are peripheral. We can leave it, and readers can consult the reference I gave, compare it to the 2nd hand quote (not from the Nazis themselves!) NBeale gave with no reference, and decide for themselves whether his (or her) purely ad hominem praise of the Pope and condemnation of the scientist actually has any validity. And I hope nobody falls any longer for the lie that the Nazis were atheists. The fact that religious leaders like Ratzinger are liars about plain facts, not just about supernatural claims, would seem however not to be peripheral. (See also the bottom paragraphs here.)

    I had thought you were quoting me, “arrant”, rather than yourself, “arrogant”, since it was in a response to me.

    The universal quantifier “all” in the claim that “all supernatural claims are false” presumably refers all particular claims so far made. There are only finitely many, so in principle, the author (of the SciAm blog, who should be defending himself, but I wonder whether that he’s capable of that) can argue against the truth of each. In practice, that is doubtful. But after all, NBeale, because he says “all”, you only, to show him wrong, need to find a single such supernatural claim and give a good argument as to why it is true. So, come on, find one, and stop this silliness about it being “hard to see how a reasonable argument could be presented for this claim”. Just disprove it with a counterexample, if you can.

    I am concerned that you believe that the “all” refers also to all future possible such supernatural claims. That “all”, in a sense, can be thought to be referring to infinitely many claims. We tend to feel their falsity is very likely the case simply because all supernatural claims to date are not merely false, but have begun to seem ridiculous in view of advances in biology particularly. That’s how a scientific minds work, not looking for some medieval, pseudo-logical general argument for which you appear to be asking.

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  18. 18. NBeale 4:45 am 11/22/2011

    The point about arrogance is that “we can be certain that all X are Y” is a ridiculously arrogant claim compared with “all the X that I have seen so far appear to me to be Y”.

    To falsify the arrogant claim I do not have to produce and X and show that it is Y beyond reasonable doubt, though it is sufficient (but not necessary) to show that you cannot be certain that a particular X is Y. For example you cannot be certain that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.

    BTW I’m more of a mathematician than a scientist but I have a first-author paper in PNAS this year which if I may say so gives me more claim to be contributing to cutting-edge scientific research than most.

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  19. 19. peterrrr 8:39 am 11/22/2011

    Let X be “an instance of a banana being released from the hand of a human standing on the 18th green of a golf course in Switzerland during the year 2011″. Let Y be “any instance of a banana NOT travelling at a non-negative speed away from the centre of the earth in a direction within 1 degree of vertical”. Doesn’t seem arrogant to me. It’s how science works. Either you’re a Swiss golfer and have seen enough, or, more likely, you extrapolate from a vast number of similar incidents within your experience, or perhaps you apply Newtonian gravitation theory despite your knowledge of Einstein. I am not certain about bananas rising from the dead, but am about whether they ascend into heaven.

    You either would make all scientists arrogant, or read far too simplistically into the word “certain”.

    I do realize that falsifying a universal statement need not be done by producing a specific counterexample (pace Brouwer). Mathematics would be hobbled if that were true. But thank you for the lesson.

    Certainty is of more like “Jesus, if he existed, didn’t rise from the dead.”
    That seems a pretty straightforward scientific conclusion, based on accepting what most of us do with respect to deciding about material truth. If the set of jesuses in the usual christian sense is in fact empty, then, as you know, the proposition “For all z, if z is jesus in the usual christian sense, then z did rise from the dead” is true.

    If you are a voted-in member of the NAS, then I salute you with honestly no sense of sarcasm at all, but at the same time I of course have an aversion to ad hominem arguments. And, failing other negative activities, I’m prepared to listen to people even at universities ranked below 300 in some rating (to refer to an earlier submission), despite certain British ‘Thatcherite universities’ offering degrees in homeopathy.

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  20. 20. klatu 7:50 am 11/23/2011

    “Perhaps I’m an ass,”

    Truth, when it is finally discovered often makes us all look a fool and the vacuous debates between science and religion are no exception. Only how one responds to it counts. With the humility that can accept correction in the name of right thinking or the arrogance which denies reality. As Shakespeare said: ” All the world’s a stage!

    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. More at

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  21. 21. bumluck 6:52 pm 11/24/2011

    As an atheist, I was set to jump in on the con side, however, I get it. This was a thought experiment, not an actual theory or affirmation of anything.

    I also understand how other atheists can be as pig-headed as any believer, and the responses were pretty much party line knee jerks.

    I once proposed on an atheist chat board (places I usually have the good sense to avoid), a similar non-hypothesis.

    It basically went like this: If consciousness is merely a fiction created in order to enable our physical bodies to navigate the world, then in the near infinite possible combinations of atoms available in the universe (and now perhaps in the multiverse), could some new combination possibly create another illusion of me, myself and I, thereby producing something remotely akin to reincarnation.

    Mind you that I qualified this thought beforehand ad nauseum as merely a thought, not in any way a theory, hypothesis, or even the suggestion of either.

    Never-the-less, I was bombarded with vitriolic arguments against my alleged defense and affirmation of religious-based reincarnation.

    Anyway, my two cents. I always wonder why atheists like to spend inordinate amounts of time arguing atheism 101 with fundamentalists. Seems rather Sisyphean to me.

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