A secular humanist really, really wants there to be a creator

November 19, 2011 • 12:27 am

Last year I posted about Clay Naff, science writer, PuffHo blogger, and accommodationist who seemed to want to find Jesus in evolution. Now he makes a similar plea for creationism at Scientific American blogs, “A secular case for intentional creation.”

He first equates creationists and atheists in how they regard “the argument 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. . .

The trouble with the “New Atheist” position, as defined above, is this: it commits the fallacy of the excluded middle.

And what is that “excluded middle”?  God, of course, even though Naff professes himself  a secular humanist who is agnostic about many things”:

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.

And the data that forces Naff to entertain the possibility of a creator? Simply that science can’t disprove the idea of a deistic creator-god, who made the universe and then went to lunch:

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.

I’m baffled at what kind of “authentically secular effort” could find evidence for a purpose in the universe. Naff goes on:

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.

Click the link; it shows a universe controlled by aliens for whom bad stuff is part of the plan.

So where does the goddy stuff come in? Naff speculates that, when our Universe comes to its inevitable end, the “Darwinian imperative” (i.e. to keep life going, which he sees as a human principle but is really only the result of differential gene replication) will force us to create another universe.  And if we can do that, then so others could have as well!  Ergo Jesus:

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.

And of course there’s a bit of amateur theology:

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.

To be fair, Naff says that his hypothesis is testable: we have to be able to create a new universe. (He adds that nothing has yet shown that this is impossible for us, but neglects the possibility that while it may be impossible for us, maybe it’s possible for a race of super-aliens, and those might as well be God.)

This is the craziest idea I’ve ever seen adumbrated in a respected scientific magazine.  The “excluded middle” tells us that it’s not crazy to assume that we could create a new universe, and that others might have as well, and those others might be creators of our own universe, aka God?

As P. Z. Myers said about stuff like this, assuming that a “middle position” is reasonable doesn’t mean you’re intellectually more honest: sometimes is just means you’re halfway to crazy town. And that’s exactly where Naff is.

Why on earth is this on the Scientific American site? Shouldn’t it be on BioLogos? Oh, I forgot—they explicitly posit God and Jesus rather than aliens.

67 thoughts on “A secular humanist really, really wants there to be a creator

  1. Scientific American went down the plug-hole decades ago.
    It remains a shell of its former self, and has deteriorated into a bizarre and pathetic pulp of Popular Mechanics & the Reader’s Digest.

    It used to be a globally respected scientific journal, in which many physicists and other were proud to publish ground-breaking research.
    Alas, this may be reaching the bottom of the barrel.

  2. “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.”

    What a bunch of nonsense. Sure this guy didn’t write that just to pay the rent?

    Atheists or science doesn’t say that our existence is accidental, purposeless, and doomed.

    Accidental sure, although even that is very debatable. Intelligence has been evolutionarily wildly successful. So far.

    Purposeless? We make our own purpose. Even the majority of religious do, although they won’t admit it. And what is that great xian purpose. To die, go to heaven, and worship a powerful supernatural being that probably doesn’t even exist.

    Doomed? What in the hell is he talking about? No afterlife, I guess. If it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist. Billions of people get along without it. Ancient Judaism, the parent of xianity had prominent sects that didn’t believe in an afterlife. The Greeks didn’t have much of one, the Buddhists don’t either.

    1. “What a bunch of nonsense. Sure this guy didn’t write that just to pay the rent?”

      It doesn’t pay the rent, and that is the problem. If they would pay journalists for blogs, they would watch where their dollars are going.

    2. By “doomed” he means that the universe must eventually end one way or another, by heat death, Big Crunch, or Big Rip (as currently seems most likely).

      However it doesn’t follow that life is doomed. Various ideas have been put forward by Dyson, Tipler, Deutsch, and others to the effect that even in a doomed universe, there may still be scope for infinite subjective time, so that life and civilization need not experience a final end.

      1. It’s true our universe is changing.

        The current data says it will last forever but undergo a lack of heat death. Because of expansion it will eventually be cold, dark, and very low in density.

        But that is trillions of years from now. Our universe is just a baby, just getting started. Who in their right mind is going to come down with existential angst because the universe runs out of active stars 10 trillion years from now? We have more immediate things to worry about.

        And it isn’t even current Cosmology. Most current Cosmology theories lean heavily on our universe being part of a multiverse. Models of spontaneous creation imply that our universe is one of countless. If that is the case, universes are probably eternal and eternally forming.

        1. So theologians would have even more of an imagination than our best science-fiction writers—as a matter of fact they have!

            1. No, the best SF writers respect science and reject supernatural and unphysical plot gimmicks. Theology is a branch of fantasy, not SF.

      1. “The discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization will surely upset a lot of theologians.”

        Naw. Theology is all make believe and let’s pretend.

        They will just retcon the aliens in and claim that the bible predicts them.

        Religions are pretty stretchy. Despite some of them hating evolution, they evolve and change all the time. It’s all Darwinism in action.

  3. Suppose we grant Naff’s premise that intelligent aliens in some predecessor universe would have sought to evade the death of their own universe by spawning another. Why in the world would they do it in such a way that life must start over again from scratch, with no memory of what went before? How does that satisfy their Darwinian urge to propagate themselves?

    If you’re going to spawn a baby universe, the sensible thing to do is to imprint it from the getgo with a working copy of your existing civilization. By Naff’s logic, we have no evidence that this is not possible; therefore we should assume that this is what his creator-aliens would do. But this is manifestly not what we see in our own universe. Ergo, ours was not created by this process, and Naff’s argument collapses.

    1. Gregn you’re not thinking sci-fi enough: ancient alien artifacts, cosmo-archeology, the 2001 Monolith, life seeded by the “creators”…

      I say, a great sci-fi novel it would do indeed (albeit original).

      1. My point is that Naff isn’t thinking big enough. In fact this sort of thing has been explored in various SF novels by the likes of Poul Anderson, Fred Pohl, and Greg Egan (just to name a few off the top of my head).

  4. I’m of two minds about this.

    Sure, it shouldn’t feature in a scientific journal, but it offers fun philosophy. I find this idea nice, poetic and elegant, and I’m sure it would make a great background story for a sci-fi novel.

    Come to think of it: Quick Robin, to the typewriter!!!

  5. Sounds like a lame basis for a sci-fi movie that I would not pay money to see, but might watch at 2AM in the morning if I could not sleep. I’ve watched worse.

    1. Dunno about a movie, but I think T. Pratchett et al cover the creation of a new universe in The Science of Discworld series.

      As for this, Naff by name, Naff by nature.

  6. “Indeed, nothing of which I am aware counts as evidence against this hypothesis.”

    Well, Naff, nothing of which I’m aware counts as evidence against my hypothesis that the universe was created by an invisible pink unicorn. And I can present exactly as much evidence supporting my position as you have to support yours: namely, zero.

    1. Au contraire.
      Unicorns are entirely plausible, and could well have evolved from related creatures.
      Nothing physically extraordinary would have to be conjured in order to explain them.
      The existence of Unicorns would break no known laws, nor require ‘miracles’.

      1. Although you have to admit that to be pink, those unicorns would have to diet exclusively on tiny shrimps, like flamingos do. Most common here in Camargue (relate this to Moorcock’s Kamarg and the cover of one of his books where a double-horned unicorn appears).

        That proves it!

        But, invisible pink unicorn is still a puzzle. If the unicorn is invisible (and thus doesn’t receive light), how can it be pink?

        FSM is way more plausible…

        1. No, no, no. You’re going about it backwards.

          Science informs us that She (May Her Holy Hooves Never Be Shod) is invisible, for we cannot see Her (Peace Be Upon Her Holy Hooves).

          It is our Faith that informs us that She (Blessed Be Her Holy Hooves) is pink.



        2. A double horned unicorn? Uni surely means one, therefore a double horned unicorn can’t be a unicorn.

  7. Clay “Naff”, eh? What’s in a name? Tee hee. There goes my commitment to “rigorous logical argument”(tm).

    The only reason I can think of for wanting there to be a creator is that then I would have somebody to blame.

  8. Why does Naff think that the new atheists have committed the fallacy of excluded middle? If he thinks that they claim certainty that god doesn’t exist, he hasn’t been reading the literature.

    The fact that he’s not even making a theistic argument only adds to the oddness of him attacking the new atheists.

    As to the argument itself? Well, sure, it isn’t impossible that aliens created our universe. It seems pretty implausible. Why believe that?

    1. In that respect it’s not unlike Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument. If you assume that naturally occurring universes are rare, and that intelligent life routinely creates (or simulates) artificial universes, then odds are we’re in the artificial kind.

      But I don’t buy either of those assumptions.

  9. His alien alternative only moves the god question up one level. If other contingent beings created this contingent universe, then most theologies would just point out that you need to ground it all in a non-contingent being, i.e. [insert preferred creator ex nihilo here].

  10. Wait, wait … a collaborative research proposal to the Templeton Foundation is right here before our eyes. I have an idea for how we begin:


    Two sets of people want to shut down the greatest debate in human history. 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. In this project, we intend to demonstrate that there is a middle way wherein a the concept of a Creator is compatible with the scientific worldview …[still working on this part]… and so, having created a Baby Universe, we will have conclusively demonstrated that it is possible that our own Universe is also purposeful, ergo Jesus.

  11. “Like LaPlace, we’ve no need for a Creator to explain how the world works. But we might in searching for our ultimate origins.”

    Translation: “I’m going to make a really rational, sensible point, and then immediately contradict it so that I will have a topic to write about this week.”

  12. “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.”

    Oh come on. Life, The Universe and Everything? He gets his philosophical inspiration from Douglas Adams in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe and never realized it was a joke? I guess we should all start to worship mice.

    1. Does Naff actually know where the concept he quotes came from? One might assume so, since he names the book, but he’s assiduously name-dropped everyone from Behe to Dawkins, yet when he quotes the underlying theme of LTUAE, he curiously omits to mention the immortal Doug Adams. I’m quite prepared to believe that Naff doesn’t know that whereof he speaks.

      Of course, in Doug Adams’ cosmology, the Man in Charge of the universe was a hermit living in a hut and talking to his cat. I implicitly believe that Adams got it right.

  13. Floating around in this discussion is the idea that a longing for there to be a Doginthesky is wishful thinking, nothing more, nothing less.

    Yes, I wish a sex partner with attributes X, Y, and Z (especially Z!) would sweep me off my feet and molest me endlessly in between dishes of ice cream, but I’m adult enough to know that it ain’t gonna happen. Alas.

    Wishful thinking does not equal reality.

    There’s an essential childishness about religious belief, and this isn’t its only manifestation. Over at Pharyngula, there’s a current posting about a Skeptics’ visit to a creation museum, with some recounting of the bizarre interaction with the denizens thereof. It struck me that those people are unable to free themselves from fairy stories drilled into their heads when they were kids. How very childish!

    Most people abandon childhood beliefs in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Great Pumpkin, etc. as they mature. Why can’t they also see that a belief in Doginsthesky is on the same level, no matter how warm and fuzzy a comfort blanket it may provide?

    Maybe the only productive thing a skeptic can do to speed the death of religion is to say, whenever possible, “You are wrong. Most people stop believing in Santa Claus when they grew up. Why do you still believe in D.i.t.s, a belief no different except that it’s culturally acceptable.”

    The goal is to make religious belief culturally outside the norm, something that adults frown on. We can only wish!

    1. The other difference between the D.i.t.s. (as you put it) and Santa, the Tooth Fairy, etc. is the gravitas / dignity / “holiness” with which God is invested.

      This enables religious people to be affronted at the comparison and refuse to consider it as an argument. On PuffHo, I’ve just seens someone take complete umbrage at the “cosmic Jewish zombie” retelling of the Jesus myth.

      Is “Argument by Indignation” a recognised fallacy?

  14. I would like Naff to show me just one human being who believes god is an advanced alien. No? Well then, why are we wasting our time with this?

  15. …Naff professes himself a secular humanist who is agnostic about many things”

    Naff is apparently not just agnostic about many things, he is also confused about many things — including what it means to be a ‘secular humanist.’ This egocentric sort of speculative wanking really isn’t acceptable by the rational, scientific standards of secular humanism.

    Not only does this article not belong in Scientific American — it wouldn’t belong in Free Inquiry either.

    1. For what it’s worth, reputable physicists such as Lee Smolin and Greg Benford have speculated about the possibility of creating baby universes, and that there might be some sort of cosmic Darwinian selection favoring universes compatible with life. So it’s not like Naff is just making stuff up out of whole cloth. These ideas have been in circulation for a while (although I don’t find Naff’s take on them particularly persuasive).

  16. Naff just created Mormonism.

    In Mormonism, God used to be a man just like us on another planet long ago and far far away. He lived by all the rules. Was a good little Mormon. And was rewarded in his afterlife with godhood.

    He created us. And if we’re good little Mormons we will become Gods in the afterlife and get to create our own worlds with little followers to love and worship us.

    Who will grow up to be gods themselves.

    It’s Mormons all the way down AND all the way up.

  17. As I noted over there besides the obvious problems with physics (and I see now, logics, as the principle of excluded middle is contested), he has characterized atheists with a religious strawman.

    The one claim that is not religious (“accidental”, “doomed”) is wrong, atheists claims we have purpose (by creating it).

  18. So Naff’s super-alien can create a universe billions of cubic light-years in size, but they can’t put, say, four or five habitable planets around each sun instead of one or — in the overwhelming majority of cases we know of — none? How come? That would improve the odds on intelligent life enormously, wouldn’t it?

    And if the answer is ‘they were constrained by natural forces’, then that just makes it all the harder to try and show that ‘natural forces’ couldn’t have done it all in the first place.

  19. 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.

    You know, on modern hand sanitizers there are these disclaimers that say “Eliminates 99.9% of germs”. Of course, this means that .1% of germs will be left on your skin after using the hand sanitizer.

    When it comes to the scope of the universe, we are the .1%. Hell, it’s probably more like .0000001%. So according to the logic of this guy’s arguments, this means that hand sanitizers are purposefully designed for that .1% of germs left on your hand.

Leave a Reply