Intelligence Squared 3: Refuting the Trinity

Intelligence Squared 3: Refuting the Trinity

iq2-logoNo, not that Trinity. I refer to Lawrence Krauss’s trinity of claims about God that he feels must be refuted in order to refute God. A trinity of ideas he claims are based on faith rather than evidence.

First, let me remind you of the story so far. There are two teams: Team Atheist is composed of physicist Lawrence Krauss and writer Michael Shermer, arguing the motion that “science refutes God”. Team Believer is composed of political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and physicist Ian Hutchinson, arguing against the motion. Here is Dr. Krauss’s statement about the trinity:

Now, to refute God means refuting several claims.  One that are all based on faith, not evidence.  One, that God is necessary, two, that there is evidence for God; and three, that that belief is rational.  And the point is that the progress of science has shown over and over and over again that the answers to all those three questions are no.  No, no, no.  Now, my own scientific field is cosmology.  And that’s the study of the origin and evolution of the universe as a whole.  And it’s where science and religion sort of confront each other.  And creation myths have abounded throughout human history, and science confronts those creation myths.  And we’ll talk about that, I’m sure, at some point in the debate.  But I want to point out that our opponents, I’m pretty sure, are going to argue first that one aspect of science that supports perhaps the belief in God is this notion that the universe is apparently fine-tuned for life.  I hear that a lot, and because it was fine-tuned so life could exist.  That is a remarkable and, in fact, cosmic misunderstanding, because it’s the same kind of misunderstanding that led people to believe in special creation for life on earth before Darwin. 

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Okay, so the trinity of claims Krauss aims to refute are:

  1. God is necessary.
  2. There is evidence for God.
  3. Belief is, ergo, rational.

As Krauss laid out his argument that science refutes God, I thought I was at last going to get something to sink my teeth into. I was disappointed. It’s not the first time I’ve had that reaction. The huge claim that science not only refutes God, but replaces God and faith, is potentially earthshaking to a person of religious faith.

I admit that I entered the debate with anti-theists several years ago with some trepidation. I was, in a word, intimidated. I knew why I believed and I could articulate it fairly well, but so far I’d really only been called upon to defend my views to fundamentalist Christians. The idea of discussing faith and religion with anti-theists must surely be a vastly different experience and therefore alien. I expected to be out of my depth, in terra incognita. But once I’d read Hitchens, Harris, Dennet, Myers, and Dawkins, trepidation turned to disbelief. I remember finishing “God is Not Great” and thinking, “Really? That’s it?” It was, in its essentials, no different from the arguments I’d been fielding from fundamentalist clergymen: assumptions based on expectations and couched in emotional and often mocking or condemning terms. The overall message—repeated throughout the works of these philosophers is—”you’d have to be stupid, irrational, and delusional to believe anything but what I’m proposing”.

No one wants to be thought stupid, irrational, or delusional, and the fact that some of these men have stellar street creds in their chosen disciplines—Hitchens is (or was, if you prefer) a world-class analyst of political history; Harris has a degree in neurology from Stanford—only increase their persuasive power. These are very smart people and much is made of that. You are supposed to be intimidated by them because they’re smarter than you are. If they’re smarter than you are, and they don’t believe in God, what’s wrong with you?

But here I have pause to puzzle over a paradox. We are asked to be impressed with the scientific credentials of the A Team, and the fact of their extreme intelligence. What of the noble opposition? Aren’t these also very smart people with impressive credentials—people who not only have great intelligence but know how to use it?

question-mark2Beyond D’Souza and Hutchinson, we’re also talking about people like Francis Collins (the scientist in the forefront of the effort to map the human genome), and mathematician William S. Hatcher. Yet it’s been repeatedly brought to my attention that their intelligence does not have the same cachet that the intelligence of their anti-theist opponents does. The intelligence of the anti-theist, we are asked to believe, is evidence that really smart people (Futrell and Geisert’s Brights) don’t believe in God. The intelligence of the theists, meanwhile, is evidence that, as the French say, “tout le monde peut se tromper”—anyone can be fooled.

The assumption is that people who do not believe in God are incapable of being mistaken in their views, are not prey to irrational ideas and are proof to dogmatism or wishful thinking. I leave it to the reader to consider how logical is that premise.

Krauss assures the listener that the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a “cosmic misunderstanding”—one that his fellow physicist, Ian Hutchinson, has somehow fallen victim to. I waited for evidence that this was so, but none followed. He simply made the assertion. But that, in itself, is interesting. Krauss and others seem to seize on the “fine tuning” of the universe as a critical “proof” of the existence of God, whereas it is only a single piece of evidence that, taken with all other evidence, implies the existence of God in the same way that the light shining on the surface of the moon at night is a piece of evidence that implies the existence of an invisible light source. Krauss continued:

It looked like everything was designed for the environment in which it lived.  But what Darwin showed us was that a simple proposition, namely that there’s genetic variation among a population combined with natural selection meant that you didn’t need supernatural shenanigans, that in fact all the diversity of life on earth could arise from a single life form, by natural law.  And he didn’t know — what he showed was it was plausible, based on the evidence — he didn’t know about DNA.  He didn’t know about the details of genetic replication, but he showed it was plausible.  And as I’ll say, that’s where we’re at now as far as the understanding of the universe is concerned.  

Now, our — my opponents, I suspect, will argue the universe is equally fine-tuned for life, and they — in fact, they will point out that certain fundamental parameters in nature, if they were different, we couldn’t exist.

Or they may boldly assert that, in fact, certain of these parameters are so strange and unnatural that they must have been established with malice aforethought to ensure our existence.  This too is an illusion.  Just as bees need to see the color of flowers but they’re not designed to do it, if they couldn’t see them, they couldn’t get the nectar and reproduce.  So what we’re seeing is a version of cosmic natural selection.  We would be quite surprised to find ourselves living in a universe in which we couldn’t live.  In fact, that might be evidence for God. (emphasis mine)

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An argument I hear frequently, and which Krauss seems in jeopardy of making, is that the theory of evolution explains the genesis of life in total. It does not. The missing piece of the puzzle is where that single life form came from and what caused it to begin its upward spiral. Mere physical environment cannot account for some of the twists in evolution—especially the peculiar evolution of human beings. His opponents might actually point to evolution as one of the evidences of the existence of a God. And the discovery of DNA seems not to have caused Francis Collins (Dr. Human Genome) to believe less. In fact, he seems quite gleeful about the role of DNA in the genesis of life. Simply saying something is an illusion is not the same as proving that it’s an illusion or even giving significant evidence that it is. I found myself hoping there was more to the argument.

Our Inhospitable Universe

Finally, Krauss got down to it. See those last two bold sentences above? Keep those in mind as you read Krauss’s next contention.

But I want to point out that in fact the universe isn’t particularly fine-tuned or conducive to life.  Most of the universe is rather inhospitable to life.  And in fact — perhaps the biggest fine-tuning problem in my own field of cosmology, something I’m, in fact, very proud to have proposed in a sense is that the energy of empty space is not zero.  The weirdest thing you can imagine, that empty space weighs something, but remarkably the energy of empty space is 120 orders of magnitude smaller than we would naïvely predict.

Pardon? Let’s walk back through that.

  1. Team B might propose that the universe is fine-tuned for life and suggest that is evidence for God.
  2. But Krauss argues that if it weren’t fine-tuned for life that would be the real miracle and, therefore, “might be evidence for God.”
  3. He then states, “Most of the universe is rather inhospitable to life.”

What was almost as surprising about this sequence of ideas as their contradictory nature was that no one (not even D’Souza and Hutchinson) seemed to catch it (or if they did, they didn’t comment on it). Heck, I didn’t catch it until my second reading of the transcript as I was highlighting the two statements. Here, too, Krauss’s argument does something that tickles my irony bone. Back in the day when we were beginning to realize that our lovely blue marble wasn’t the only planet in the only solar system, atheist philosophers suggested that religion would be undermined by the discovery of other planets with other life on them. Two points here: 1) I write science fiction for a living and 2) I believe absolutely that there is life on other planets in part because … wait for it … the sacred texts of my faith say that there is and made that claim long before any evidence of this presented itself. However, Team A has taken a narrowly defined Christian doctrine about creation as the proxy for all religion and proposed that the fabric of all faiths would be undone if life is not found elsewhere. Krauss’s argument then seems to flip the notion on its head—he proposes that the less life is found in the universe, the worse it looks for religion and God … well, except for the previous assertion that it might actually provide evidence for God. I haven’t fully digested this wonderful anomaly, but I’ll let y’all know what happens when I do. I have to say, too, that I find this claim of the inhospitable nature of the universe an odd one. We are discovering more and more planets in the “sweet spot” for life and discovering the elements for life even in such seemingly inhospitable places as Mars and our moon. What sort of universe would Krauss consider “fine-tuned for life”? One that was completely uniform?

Most of the Universe…

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But here’s something even more basic: the contention that “most of the universe is rather inhospitable to life” assumes the speaker has knowledge of most or all of the universe. Such is not the case. It also assumes that we would recognize all forms of life if we saw them. A colleague once asked how one would register a sunset if the only sense one possessed was hearing. If our way of measuring the energy of space (or any other universal element) is limited by our own senses, how can we presume to have measured it accurately? The scriptures of the Bahá’í Faith comment on this as well. One of my fellow Common Ground bloggers sent this quote out this morning:

“As to thy question whether the physical world is subject to any limitations, know thou that the comprehension of this matter dependeth upon the observer himself. In one sense, it is limited; in another, it is exalted beyond all limitations. The one true God hath everlastingly existed, and will everlastingly continue to exist. His creation, likewise, hath had no beginning, and will have no end. All that is created, however, is preceded by a cause. This fact, in itself, establisheth, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the unity of the Creator.” – Baha’u’llah

I find Krauss’s contentions somewhat hubristic. This does not make them wrong, but it does mean they are not the product of empirical knowledge, but of an emotional assumption that our knowledge—or more specifically, his knowledge as a cosmologist is complete enough to assert as fact his opinion about “most of the universe”. The fact that one of his opponents is a physicist of equal credibility does not seem to give him pause. I find that bemusing. When I encounter very intelligent people whose beliefs differ from my own, it always gives me pause. I am intensely curious about why they are so different.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

Case in point—Christopher Hitchens. He and I had very similar experiences within the Christian community as children. We both encountered dogmatism, meanness, irrationality, ignorance and hypocrisy. Of course, I also experienced a profoundly Christian family, a keen sense of relationship with Christ, and a church in which the individuals had bonded deeply. I don’t know if he ever experienced that. And perhaps that is why our reactions to the negatives were markedly different. He imputed the vices of individual Christians to Christianity itself (“Mine is a Protestant atheism.”) and concluded—on the basis of the behavior of some believers and their interpretations of doctrine—that religion poisoned everything. He did not, according to his own testimony, investigate the scriptures himself to see if they were supportive of the dogmas he found so disturbing. I did. And that led me to impute vices to the individual believers and conclude—on the basis of the actual teachings of Christianity and the other faiths I studied—that human beings were capable of incredible flights of self-deceit. They could even poison the sacred and beneficial. They could profess a faith, then behave in ways that were tantamount to a rejection of its teachings. Had I read the Qur’an at that point in my life, I would have seen that Muhammad remarked on this propensity when He said:

Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! — Qur’an, Surih 107:1-7

As it was, I did have the words of Christ who, after describing the behavior of those who followed Him, noted that “many shall arise in that day, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men”. More painful yet, He foresaw a time when those who considered themselves believers would say to Him “Lord, Lord” and He would reply, “I never knew you.” Here’s the irony: If Chris Hitchens had applied the test of reason to his experiences with professing Christians (as Christ suggested in one of His most oft-quoted talks), he might have noticed that those Christians who caused him to reject faith had already turned away from it themselves. That is the nature of hypocrisy, after all; a person’s behavior belies what they claim to believe. What I have yet to work out, logically, is how reason would lead one to call faith itself into question rather than the hypocritical behavior. Next time: A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

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6 thoughts on “Intelligence Squared 3: Refuting the Trinity

  1. There’s an old saying:

    Don’t judge the merits or validity of an idea or principle by the actions of some of the people who claim to aspire to or follow it.

  2. This is very good Maya.

    Regarding the argument that most of our universe is inhospitable to life as proof of no God, Abdu’l-Baha seems to make an opposite argument in the first passage of ‘some answered questions’, and that is that humans exhibit characteristics that nature as a whole is bereft, hence there has to be an invisible Hand.

    Here and in other occasions he makes an argument that how can ‘nature’ create something that can break its own laws. One example being the fact that we went and landed on the moon even though physically we are incapable of doing such a task. It is the supernatural power of abstract thought and understanding that allows us to manipulate the laws of nature to our own advantage

  3. For some time it has seemed to me that the greater threat to religion is not science but history. I’m a Buddhist, with a degree in chemistry, studying the history of Buddhism and I must say that history makes clear just how much of the received tradition is recent invention – we don’t in fact know the name of the Buddha for example, we only know what the tradition ended up calling him some centuries after he was supposed to have lived (if he did live). I’ve already published a paper showing the important Zoroastrian influence on Buddhism (Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3). The same goes with Christianity. Many of those ideas we take to be central to the religion are late inventions, often with obvious influence from other sources. A history of the idea of gods and their supposed role in the universe is a better bet for atheists. If god means one thing at one time, and another thing at another time, then he is clearly just a convenient fiction. One of the powerful drivers of religious narratives has been Darwinism.

    The idea that the scientific method, or the body of knowledge which we somewhat mistakenly refer to as “Science” , can disprove a vague statement like “God is necessary” is a bit bonkers. In order to disprove it one has to enter into the fiction that God exists in order to prove he doesn’t. If one’s belief is that “god doesn’t exist” then the statement that “god is necessary” is nonsense and there is no way to engage with it. If god doesn’t exist then there is no need to prove that he is not necessary. Why would a scientist even bother to think about it?

    The very broad nature of the statement, the lack of specificity, the lack of definition (especially since not everyone, or indeed anyone, can agree on what god is), means that designing an experiment to test the proposition is impossible. Sorry but the scientific method does not work like that.

    The enterprise is doomed because it is bad science.

    I think the battle between scientists and religious fundamentalists in the USA is giving rise to some strange arguments. The fear that religieux will overwhelm the education system for example is genuine. But the response is hardly very inspiring at times.

    I’ll skip over the middle part of your argument and point our that “rational thinking” is an emic belief particular to our culture. Both neuroscience and philosophy are providing challenges to the assumptions underlying this idea. The statement “belief is rational” and its opposite are in dire need of deconstruction. I’ve made a stab at something like this on my recent blog post Thinking it Through. Thought is always emotional as well as intellectual; thought is always embodied. The abstract is ultimately understood through metaphors which draw on our experiences of embodiment and physical interaction with the world and structure our thoughts. “Rational thought” is simply a category error. Our assessments of information are always emotional in nature – this is how we experience the value or salience of facts. Whether they are empirical or non-empirical. Which is why simple facts are almost never persuasive for someone with strong beliefs, and why in turn why scientific paradigms, like religious beliefs, are slow to change. Both do change though, which is why history ought to be more interesting for atheists interested in attacking religion. Trouble is that people have beliefs about what the scientific method is capable of that are not rooted in the scientific method. Yes?

    1. Personally, I think the greatest threat to religion is human invention.

      You state that history makes it “clear just how much of the received tradition is recent invention.” But it is precisely the lack of historical clarity that makes it difficult for some believers in any of the pre-literate faiths to distinguish between the revealed teachings of the Avatar and what you called “received tradition”. I think you are absolutely correct in saying that this received tradition (i.e. that Buddha was born from a slit in his mother’s side, or that believing Jesus died to atone for our sins and not His life and teachings that should form the centerpiece of Christian belief) is of recent invention.
      Hence, I think it’s important to distinguish between the received wisdom of the Avatar (what I mean when I say the word “religion”) and the later accretions to His teachings (which is what most people think of as “religion”). I think you capture it well when you say that a God that is different at different times must be fiction.
      I came from a Christian background and understood “scripture” to refer only to the Bible. Bahá’u’lláh’s statements about the reality of the Prophets challenged me to look past the “received tradition” I had been taught to the scriptural record of other faiths and see that the God revealed there was not different at different times. If it seemed so, it was because WE are different at different times.

      The Sanskrit Dhammapada has a marvelously concise statement of this principle attributed, of course, to Gautama Buddha:
      And as all things originate from one Essence, so they are developing according to one law, and they are destined to one aim which is Nirvana. Nirvana comes to thee when thou understandest thoroughly and livest according to that understanding, that all things are of one Essence and that there is but one law. Hence, there is but one Nirvana as there is but one truth, not two or three. And the Tathagata is the same to all beings, differing in attitude only so far as all beings are different. The Tathagata, however, knows the law whose essence is salvation, and whose end is the peace of Nirvana. He is the same to all, and yet knowing the requirements of every single being, He does not reveal Himself to all alike. — Sanskrit Dhammapada

      This idea—that the great Teachers educate us according to our capacity, is a cornerstone of the teachings of Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá’u’lláh, as well. That is certainly one of the factors that contributes to the idea of “different” gods. I just find it interesting that we blame any inconsistencies we perceive on the concept of God rather than our limited perceptions of it. Considering the history of mankind’s knowledge about anything, it’s bemusing that we have such great humility in the face of our evolving knowledge of the universe that does not translate to an understanding that perhaps our knowledge of God should also evolve.

      I’ve heard repeated arguments that Buddha or Christ or even Muhammad were not real people, but simply invented by some nebulous group for their own purposes. To use your phraseology, that seems a bit bonkers. Occam’s Razor would slice on the side of there having been a personage at the core of the legend who taught things that people thought worthy of remembering, repeating and eventually writing down. Certainly, humans edit the message, but there seems to always be enough of it left to be discernible beneath the dogma.

      We are, of course, hampered in the study of pre-literate Avatars, in that we have a fragmentary record. We also have a fragmentary fossil record supporting the theory of evolution, but it is enough of a record that, taken with other evidence, we can be reasonably certain that evolution is the mechanism by which life progressed on this planet. The teachings attributed to Buddha or Krishna or Christ are fairly well agreed-upon at this stage (which really does make one wonder where some of the “received tradition” came from) and they are, in a sense, a spiritual “fossil record” from which

      As we advance through time, this record becomes more solid. Hence, the surihs of the Qur’an were written down as a body of work far closer to the revelation of Muhammad than they Gospels, say, were in relation to the ministry of Christ which was recorded in a piecemeal fashion until Luke rather intentionally went out seeking “testimony” about Christ. But if a 2000 year old revelation is hard to chart, there is the 1000 year old Muslim revelation, where the picture becomes a bit more clear. Much closer to hand are the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, who both wrote a record of Their teachings as well as having contemporary chroniclers—friendly, hostile and neutral—marking Their progress.
      Bahá’u’lláh wrote copiously, in fact, and affirmed that the pattern of revelation we see dimly in the scriptural record is really there. I personally believe that the lives of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh offer a window into the lives and experiences of earlier Avatars.

      As far as the “scientific method” goes, that is, I am finding more and more at least as vague a notion as (or at least one with as many variations) as faith. Stephen Friberg’s series on the Enlightenment goes into that in some depth—in fact, he gave a presentation a couple of weeks ago on the evolution of the scientific model.

      I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it is we mean by a scientific method. Some people (not scientists) think that science applies only to what is consciously experimented with in a lab. Some think “science” is just a collection of “facts”. There is also the notion that any knowledge worth having is scientific knowledge and that only science (or math) can make meaningful pronouncements about worthwhile knowledge. That last is a staggering claim and I’ve never seen any convincing evidence to support it.

      I think the scientific process, in its broadest sense, is a way of looking at the world. It’s a way of gathering evidence for or against a proposition, reasoning out what that evidence suggests, perhaps arriving at a theory and then seeking further evidence for or against that theory. It requires floating ideas, testing them against reality and seeing what works. Faith, to me, and to a great many other people, is what happens when we organize our world view around the way we have found the world to work. Science is based, for example, in the faith that the universe is a place we can understand.To others—notably, some of my antitheist confreres—the word “faith” comes with the flavorful “blind” appended. Given the Bahá’í Faith’s emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and its ideal of synergy between the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, blind faith is no virtue.

      To me, the affirmation “God exists” is a reasonable statement inferred from the evidence at hand—which includes such things as the nature of the universe and human intelligence, the historical and scriptural record and a variety of other sources—and an application of the rational faculty.

      I’m often asked to produce a single scientific proof of the existence of God, but that is also a bit bonkers since none of the people who have so far demanded that proof were able to produce a single proof for anything they accepted as fact, either (i.e. evolution or the existence of a particular subatomic particle).

      Mathematician William Hatcher says of this that: “It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole.” — William S. Hatcher

      So, the statement “God exists” is something I accept as true because of everything else that I accept as true and because it is consistent with my experience and understanding of life as a whole.

      But in terms of the Intelligence Squared debate, I agree. There was bad science and not terribly clear reasoning on either side.

      I loved your comment: “Trouble is that people have beliefs about what the scientific method is capable of that are not rooted in the scientific method. Yes?”

      Yes, indeed. And part of my disappointment in Hutchinson’s argument was that though he wrote eloquently about this in Monopolizing Knowledge, he did not make the argument that what Krauss and Shermer were promoting was not science but scientism. Frankly, after Krauss’s opening statement framing the argument as reason against blind faith, fear, and wishful thinking, they were playing defense.

      Having said that, I was pleased that they didn’t follow their “adversaries” into the valley of emotional labels.

  4. Theism can offer some plausible explanations of this fact. First, as Leslie argues, we could easily imagine that God has a strong preference for variety for variety’s sake. This would give God a good reason for creating an infinity of universes, in which physical and cosmological constants take every possible value. Second, God might have had in mind creating such a large ensemble of universes that interesting things, like life, would be bound to happen in at least a few of them by chance alone.

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