The setting for the conversation is an Intelligence Squared debate in which we have two teams: Team A, composed of physicist Lawrence Krauss and writer Michael Shermer, arguing the motion that “science refutes God” and Team B, composed of political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and physicist Ian Hutchinson, arguing against the motion.
During his promotion of the proposition that science refutes God, Lawrence Krauss made the following remark:
Human beings were clearly programmed by evolution to impute intentionality to the world around them. Meaning and purpose was infused in all everyday events to make sense of a dangerous, difficult, and uncaring world, so we had rituals behind the sun, the moon, the planets, the wind, the earth, the oceans, in all societies. The rise of our physical understanding has slowly caused us to do away with those many gods; we no longer have Mars, the god of war, Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, Thor, the god of storms. As Michael has said, everyone here, or maybe everyone, is now an atheist with respect to those gods, and there’s a reason for that. Science has taught us that instead of capricious beings, there’s an order to nature, and that order does not appear to involve a divinity.
Programming is an act that itself requires intention. Programming does not randomly occur. Krauss asks us to believe that a process with neither a rational and abstract intelligence nor intention somehow imbues one type of creature out of the billions on the planet with both. He puts this idea in passive terms (“purpose was infused”) so that there seems to be no infuser, but logic dictates that if purpose was infused someone must have done the original infusing. The fact that human beings are the only creatures who infuse their lives with meaning—and whose thoughts, words and actions actually have meaning—is not explained by the simple expedient of claiming that we were programmed without a programmer or learned to infuse meaning without a faculty that does the infusing and someone to give instruction in its use.
I appreciate his invoking a “rise in physical understanding”. I think the distinction is important because it draws into question a key assumption that Krauss makes. This is that a physical understanding of the universe is the only understanding either possible or valuable. The very fact that we’re having a discussion about non-physical realities seems to undermine that supposition. Those non-physical realities are where a great many of us live. We spend more time considering intangibles than we do our most critical physical needs such as what we will eat or when. For most people, these things have become secondary to the activities they use food to fuel—chiefly, thought about non-tangibles.
There’s no need for a divinity; laws of nature describable by mathematics make predictions that allow us to — not only to predict the future, but control it, without the need for any supernatural shenanigans. And, in fact, it amazes me that asking the question, “Is God necessary?” is somehow an evil thing. When we stop asking questions, that will be an evil thing. Science has taught us also that we want to believe, in the words of Fox Mulder.
Wow, that’s quite a claim: that we can predict the future and control it. I’d love to see evidence of that. If we could, indeed control the future, I doubt we’d be staring down the barrel of so many seemingly intractable problems. And here I cannot stress enough that these problems can be controlled only by the marshaling of attitudes and the application of forces that are, according to Krauss, unscientific, based as they are in religious teaching. Whether we’re talking about poverty, gun violence, war, racism, or climate change, the mere application of mathematics or scientific principle will not allow us to control the future. There is an element missing that is not a scientific truth, but a spiritual one. As I’ve commented before, science may be able to at last confirm what religion has told us for millennia—that we are all members of one human family—but it cannot tell how to act on that knowledge. That must come from elsewhere.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that Krauss knows this, too.
And that brings me to his point about asking the question about the need for God. The question itself is not evil. Questions are good; and if we answer them honestly, they help us clarify the world within and around us. What is evil is the dogmatic assertion that God is not necessary and that, therefore, we need pay no attention to anything that comes to us from a religious or spiritual sphere. With an attitude that intractable, all the math in the world is just a meaningless pile of numbers.
Going further with his Fox Mulder connection, Krauss continues:
And we should be skeptical of those desires. As the physicist Richard Feynman told us, the easiest people to fool are ourselves. As scientists, we have to train ourselves to be skeptical of wanting to believe. And we should try and overcome our natural tendency to assume special significance to events. And human being are also inevitably programmed to ask, “Why?” as we’ve heard it. But the “Why?” question is ill-posed, because it presumes purpose; it presumes the answer to the question before you ask the question.
What if there is no purpose? Does there need to be purpose? And science tells us there’s no evidence of purpose. So the “Why?” question is ill-posed. Our opponents want to keep the clock from ticking by avoiding the evidence of reality; and, therefore, science, by telling us there’s no need for purpose, has refuted the need for God, and that’s why you should support our position.
Despite his seemingly arbitrary assertion that “science tells us there’s no evidence of purpose”, Krauss makes a good point about belief and skepticism. But this applies equally to his own cherished beliefs. The parallel to the X-Files is ironic in that context, because ultimately, most viewers understood that Mulder was the real skeptic, while Scully was the dogmatist. Scully was a poster child for the idea that we should be equally skeptical of the desire to make science (or ourselves) god. Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, in one of His most oft-quoted passages notes that the true seeker after knowledge:
“ …must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.” — Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p 282
Krauss suggests that there is no answer to the “Why” question and that even asking the question is, if not evil, at least wrong-headed. If there is no purpose, then human philosophers really are, as Abdu’l-Bahá suggests, not nearly as wise as cows, who have come to their contentment with a lack of purpose without study, thought, or angst.
In fact, I think Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments on this (made at a meeting of free-thinkers in 1912) seem to answer Krauss directly.
If it be claimed that the intellectual reality of man belongs to the world of nature—that it is a part of the whole—we ask is it possible for the part to contain virtues which the whole does not possess? For instance, is it possible for the drop to contain virtues of which the aggregate body of the sea is deprived? Is it possible for a leaf to be imbued with virtues which are lacking in the whole tree? Is it possible that the extraordinary faculty of reason in man is animal in character and quality? On the other hand, it is evident and true, though most astounding, that in man there is present this supernatural force or faculty which discovers the realities of things and which possesses the power of idealization or intellection. It is capable of discovering scientific laws, and science we know is not a tangible reality. Science exists in the mind of man as an ideal reality. The mind itself, reason itself, is an ideal reality and not tangible.
Notwithstanding this, some of the sagacious men declare: We have attained to the superlative degree of knowledge; we have penetrated the laboratory of nature, studying sciences and arts; we have attained the highest station of knowledge in the human world; we have investigated the facts as they are and have arrived at the conclusion that nothing is rightly acceptable except the tangible, which alone is a reality worthy of credence; all that is not tangible is imagination and nonsense.
Strange indeed that after twenty years training in colleges and universities man should reach such a station wherein he will deny the existence of the ideal or that which is not perceptible to the senses. Have you ever stopped to think that the animal already has graduated from such a university? Have you ever realized that the cow is already a professor emeritus of that university? For the cow without hard labor and study is already a philosopher of the superlative degree in the school of nature. The cow denies everything that is not tangible, saying, “I can see! I can eat! Therefore, I believe only in that which is tangible!”
Then why should we go to the colleges? Let us go to the cow. — Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 451
Human beings without purpose are the most dangerous, destructive and self-destructive creatures on the planet. The evidence of this is incontrovertible. But I think the issue here isn’t that Krauss and company believe that there is no purpose in the universe or in human life (and therefore in their own lives), it’s that their disbelief is only skin deep. Their behavior indicates a belief in both purpose and human uniqueness that is so immersive, they fail to recognize it.
Biologists assert that we are programmed genetically to reproduce and continue the existence of our species—which is a purpose we share with all life. But it IS a purpose. It is a purpose acknowledged by every biologist I’ve read or spoken to. So when Krauss speaks of natural laws having no purpose, I have to ask how that applies to genetics and evolution. If purpose exists at so basic a level, how can it not exist at the level of human consciousness? Indeed, where did that unique consciousness arise from in a purposeless universe that is governed deterministically by natural laws? And if natural laws are deterministic, whence the randomness Krauss would assert is a property of evolution? The very determinism of certain laws implies purpose.
But let’s look at the idea of purposelessness in the realm of human consciousness—the place where all of us actually live. If there is no purpose, why do science at all? Why build human communities? Why have families, schools, hospitals, medicine, governments? Why give a rat’s hiney about the environment, or cruelty to other humans—much less to animals, some of which we use for food? Why create laws of human conduct if there is no purpose to them but to allow us to imagine ourselves in some way superior to other creatures? Why should we educate our children or protect them from such things as sexual predators—other animals don’t make the distinctions we do between “healthy” sex and abusive sex, why should we? Indeed, why invest so much in the care and feeding of children since it only serves to distract us from the purely animal pleasures that a purposeless existence would afford (and actually does afford) many?
Being human is exponentially more complicated than being a cow, and while I appreciate the impulse behind Krauss and Shermer’s need to simplify and order human existence by assuming it is only a matter of a “rise in physical understanding”, it seems to trivialize that existence. We may now blame our genes and laws of physics for our estate, and need not concern ourselves with the sorts of nonsense that religious teaching asks us to embrace—such as a need to evolve spiritually as we have physically so that we can put all that mathematic and scientific truth to good use.
Next time: Wrapping up with a look at purpose and determinism.