Templeton pays 12 people to discuss whether the universe has a purpose

December 1, 2012 • 10:03 am

The other day I discussed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s answer to the question, “Does the universe have a purpose?”, a question that the Templeton Foundation posed to 12 scientists, theologians, and other luminaries. I’ve since found that those who answer are remunerated handsomely. (Oh, and for those who said that they’d gladly take Templeton’s money despite its nefarious aims—if only to deplete its ample coffers—let me ask you this: would you also take money to answer that question if it was asked by the white-supremacist Council of Concerned Citizens?)

At any rate, you can read all twelve answers here, and download the pdf here.  A screenshot of the co-opted luminaries and their answers:

Picture 4

Templeton’s aims, as stated in the pdf (my footnotes):

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research on what scientists and philosophers call the Big Questions. We support work at the world’s top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief. We encourage informed, open-minded dialogue between scientists and theologians as they apply themselves to the most profound issues in their particular disciplines*. And, in a more practical vein,we seek to stimulate new thinking about wealth creation in the developing world**, character education in schools and universities, and programs for cultivating the talents of gifted children.

*There is no point of a dialogue between theologians and scientists, at least from the point of view of science. Theologians, of course, can always learn that some of their tenets are wrong.

**This is a generally right-wing organization that supports and tries to justify free-market capitalism (see here and here, for instance). As The Nation notes:

“Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton’s charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming.”

Anyway, here’s my summary of and reaction to their answers:

Lawrence Krauss (physicist; answer: “Unlikely”):  Good solid answer: we can’t prove there’s a “purpose” (read “God”), but it’s exceedingly unlikely. He does note, agreeing with me but not with the Squidly One or many of my readers, that there could be empirical proof of God:

Of course, nothing would stop science from uncovering positive evidence of divine guidance and purpose if it were attainable. For example, tomorrow night if we look up at the stars and they have been rearranged into a pattern that reads, “I am here,” I think even the most hard-nosed scientific skeptic would suspect something was up.

But no such unambiguous signs have been uncovered among the millions and millions of pieces of data we have gleaned about the natural world over centuries of exploration. And this is precisely why a scientist can conclude that it is very unlikely that there is any divine purpose. If a creator had such a purpose, she could choose to demonstrate it a little more clearly to the inhabitants of her creation.

David Gelertner (computer scientist; answer: “Yes”):  This answer is an unholy mess, and has some disturbing comments about sexuality.  His answer seems to be based on the supposition that the human desire to seek good proves God. He says that such a desire “defies nature,” but of course that’s not true: cooperation and altruism could easily be products of either natural selection or secular reason. It’s amazing how muddled his answer is.

Paul Davies (physicist, answer, “Perhaps”): Davies’s evidence for God is that science works—a common answer among “sophisticated” believers:

Where, then, is the evidence of “cosmic purpose”? Well, it is right under our noses in the very existence of science itself as a successful explanatory paradigm. Doing science means figuring out what is going on in the world—what the universe is “up to”, what it is “about”. If it isn’t “about” anything, there would be no good reason to embark on the scientific quest in the first place, because we would have no justification for believing that we would thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about the world. Experience shows that as we dig deeper and deeper using scientific methods, we continue to find rational and meaningful order. The universe makes sense. We can comprehend it.

Science is a voyage of discovery, and as with all such voyages, you have to believe there is something meaningful out there to discover before you embark on it. And with every new scientific discovery made, that belief is confirmed. If the universe is pointless and reasonless, reality is ultimately absurd.

But of course the universe has to exhibit regularities if life is to exist at all! But I’m not sure that the order we find can be described as “rational and meaningful”. It is discoverable by reason, but what is its “meaning”?

Peter Atkins (chemist; answer: “No”).  Good old Peter, who never pulls his punches.  Here’s a nice slap at theology from his answer:

Theologians typically focus on questions that they have invented for their own puzzlement. Some theologians are perplexed by the nature of life after death, a notion they have invented without a scrap of evidence.

Some are mystified by the existence of evil in a world created by an infinitely loving God, another notion that theologians have invented but which dissolves into nothing once it is realized that there is no God. The question of cosmic purpose is likewise an invented notion, wholly without evidential foundation, and equally dismissible as patently absurd. We should not regard as great the questions that have been invented solely for the sake of eliciting puzzlement.

The last sentence is wonderful.

Nancey Murphy (Christian philosopher; answer: “Indeed).  The usual apologetics, with a “Fermat’s-last-theorem” approach to her evidence and a misguided critique of science (my emphases):

If one cannot infer the purposes of a benevolent creator from evidence in the natural world, then how can I (and my co-religionists) claim to know the world’s purpose? The answer is too complicated to spell out here, but I take it to involve detailed comparisons of competing traditions on the basis of the support they draw from their own peculiar kinds of evidence (for Christians, historical events as in the life of Jesus and the early church, and carefully evaluated religious experiences). In addition, each tradition must be evaluated on the basis of the intellectual crises it faces. Two crises facing what I call the scientific naturalist tradition (originating in Hume’s and others’ writings) are the questions of whether it is possible adequately to explain the phenomenon of religion naturalistically, and whether the tradition can provide grounds for morality. Scientific research on the practices and beliefs of religious adherents is relevant to the first.

Her margins are too small to contain her proof! And the two “crises” that face science are bogus. Yes, we don’t understand how religion arose, but we do know something about the evolutionary basis of morality. These are hardly “crises,” but unsolved questions.

Owen Gingerich (astronomer; answer: “Yes”). He adduces what believers now see to be the most powerful argument for God: the “fine tuning” of physical constants. This, in fact, is raised by three of the “yessers”:

Had some of the basic constants of nature been only slightly different, there would be no major abundance of carbon. And it is extremely difficult to imagine intelligent life without something like carbon.

One swallow does not a summer make. But in the fine-tuning of the universe, the abundance of carbon is only one of many such remarkable aspects. There are enough such “coincidences” to give thoughtful observers some pause. Scientists who are loath to accept a fine-tuned universe feel obliged to take notice. Of course, if the universe were any other way, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, but that is hardly a satisfying answer.

Gingerich doesn’t like one possible scientific explanation: multiverses.

Suppose, however, that there are myriad universes, each with different properties. In that case we would naturally be found in the universe that, like the little bear’s porridge, is just right. Those other barren universes, many with no stars or planets, would exist in their own forever unobservable space. Somehow this is an unpersuasive counter-argument. Even one congenial universe out of many would be miracle enough.

It’s only unpersuasive to those who have a prior commitment to God.  In an infinity of universes, one is sure to have the right constants, and that’s the one where people will be thinking themselves special.

Bruno Guideroni (astrophysicist; answer: “Very likely”).  He again relies on fine-tuning:

Modern science has produced something quite unexpected. Even to a scientist such as myself. It turns out that the observed features of the natural world appear to be fine-tuned for biological complexity. In other words, everything from the mass ratios of atomic particles, the number of space dimensions, to the cosmological parameters that rule the expansion of the universe, and the formation of galaxies are all exactly what they need to be to create stars, planets, atoms, and molecules.

But where does this apparent fine-tuning come from?

Is it the manifestation of a plan for the universe? An arrangement by a superior will to prepare the way for complex creatures? Is it God’s signature? People of faith believe it is so. They read purpose in the universe as a painter sees beauty in a view on the ocean.

Like Gingerich, Guideroni doesn’t like the multiverse answer:

The fundamental scientific theories that support the multiverse require complex mathematics. The fact that these fundamental theories are even accessible to our brains, which, in a purposeless universe would be nothing but a by-product of our ability to find prey (and avoid being prey), in the millennia of Homo sapiens’ evolution is something I find quite . . . puzzling.

“Puzzling,” ergo God.  Here he reverts to another familiar argument: humans’ ability to reason beyond what would have helped us on the savanna must mean that God made our brains.

Christian de Duve (biochemist; answer: “No). His essay is a bit of a mess, as he argues that despite there being nothing special about our universe (he invokes multiverses), he still intimates that there is an “Ultimate Reality” behind our universe.  But he does ask the question that theologians scoff at, because they’re afraid of the answer:

It will be noted that there is no logical need for a creator in this view. By definition, a creator must himself be uncreated, unless he is part of an endless, Russian-doll succession of creators within creators. But then, why start the succession at all? Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator? The question is worth asking.

Indeed! It’s not kosher to just define God as “that cause that is itself uncaused”.  You have to demonstrate that, not assert it.

John Haught (theologian; answer: “Yes). This essay is so bad as to be hilarious. Starting from the first sentence (“The fact that we can ask such a question at all suggests an affirmative answer.”), it proceeds through an argument that is incoherent, for there are lots of questions we can ask, which are not answered by a “yes” simply by virtue of our ability to ask them. But if you want a good, bracing dose of theological nonsense, have a look at his answer.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist; answer “Not sure.”).  Actually, he is pretty sure: his answer is “almost certainly not,” as we saw two days ago.  But, as some readers have noted, if he’s that certain that there’s no God and therefore no “purpose” behind the universe, why not just say “no.” After all, to a scientist all such answers are provisional. This pulling back is, to me, a bit of a waffle. It’s as if one asked, “Is there a Loch Ness monster,” and Tyson replied “”Not sure.”

Jane Goodall (primatologist; answer: “Certainly”). OMG! If you’re an admirer of Goodall and her work, as I have been, this answer will shake your admiration. It conflates emotional response with God, and with “purpose.” I can hardly bear to read it, but here’s an extract:

When I was a child, born into a Christian family, I accepted the reality of an unseen God without question. And now that I have lived almost three quarters of a century I still believe in a great spiritual power. I have described elsewhere the experience I had when I first visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When, as I gazed at the great rose window, glowing in the morning sun, the air was suddenly filled with the glorious sound of an organ playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It filled me with joy, brought tears to my eyes. How could I believe that blind chance had led to that moment in time—the cathedral, the collective faith of those who had prayed and worshiped within, the genius of Bach, the emergence of a conscious mind that could, as mine did then, question the purpose of life on Earth. Was all the wonder and beauty simply the result of purposeless gyrations of bits of cosmic dust at the beginning of time? If not, then there must be some extra-cosmic power, the creator of the big bang. A purpose in the universe. Perhaps, one day, that purpose will be revealed.

I, for one, do believe that blind chance (plus natural selection, which is not blind chance) led to her epiphany. And yes, it all comes from the gyrations of cosmic dust.  How can someone whose work is so implicitly tied to evolution utter such nonsense?

Elie Wiesel (writer, Nobel Laureate, and professor of humanities; answer: “I Hope So).  To me, this is the biggest disappointment, for it’s hard for me to believe that someone who survived the Holocaust (Wiesel was in Auschwitz), and wrote so movingly about it, can still believe in God. Yet his essay takes God for granted from the outset.  And that despite these words in his piece:

So many wars, massacres, and hatreds sweep over Creation that one wonders if God will lose patience.

Did he lose it before, when evil and misfortune seemed to reign over a Europe occupied by Hitler’s army? Each time that a child died of hunger, fear, sorrow; each time a child expired in flames lit by men, it was right to wonder: Where was God in all of this? What could his goal possibly have been when, over there, the Kingdom of Night had replaced his own?

I admit that all these questions remain open for me. If an answer exists, I challenge it. The brutal and cruel death of one and a half million children neither could nor should have an answer.

An answer does exist: there is no God. But Wiesel won’t buy it. He concludes with this sentence:

Man’s task is thus to liberate God, while freeing the forces of generosity in a world teetering more and more between curse and promise.

I weep for those who cling to their childish beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary.  The most powerful evidence against God is the Holocaust.

184 thoughts on “Templeton pays 12 people to discuss whether the universe has a purpose

  1. It’s as if one asked, “Is there a Loch Ness monster,” and Tyson replied “”Not sure.”

    That’s just Tyson’s way of talking, though he would probably answer “unlikely” to the Loch Ness question.

    1. I think he’s being a smart politician – putting fewer skeptics off with his mushy answer than believers he’d put off with the blunt answer (no).

  2. I’m not a luminary and most scientists would probably answer highly unlikely (they’re like that you know, always leaving a small space [no pun] for doubt), but I’d go with absolutely not.

        1. That’s why the list is unfair, it gives a wrong impression about the common view in the scientific community.
          Eight yesses against four no’s is not representative I think.

          1. I agree – and Tyson asked the question, why do 15% of those that belong prestigious scientific bodies still believe in some kind of God? I happen to be a theist but find these discussions fascinating!

          1. I suspect that wasn’t actually a random sample. Let’s apply for Templeton funding to do more replication…

            Oh, but all the Science Nobel laureates have already been asked, and AAAS members and fellows, and Fellows of the Royal Society, so the odds that Templeton’s 12 were selected randomly from eminent scientists can probably be calculated without spending that money after all.

  3. Overall, those answers are about what I would expect. The “yes” answer are, with one exception, from people of whom I have come to be skeptical. The one exception is Jane Goodall – I suppose that’s the exception that proves the rule.

      1. The fact that Neil is surprised by Goodall does show that Neil has expectations/rules about who believes what, does it not?

        1. I had formulated no expectations about Goodall. The “proof of the pudding…” aphorism means you find out what something is like by experience. We now know what Goodall thinks.

  4. A quick thought about multiverses and fine-tuning:

    The next step in the dialectic about the fine-tuning argument is often for the theist to say that a multiverse raises the probability that some universe would permit life, but does not raise the probability that our universe would permit life. That is still (allegedly) extremely unlikely, and so once again (allegedly) requires some explanation.

    The lottery analogy, continued: Suppose you won the lottery. That’s extremely unlikely. Suppose you learned that millions and millions of tickets were sold, and none of those tickets won. Are you less surprised that you won the lottery? You probably shouldn’t be; the probability that your ticket (with, e.g., six randomly-generated numbers) would match six other randomly generated numbers is still extremely low. (Maybe you could argue that it’s unlikely that some lottery cheater singled you out to benefit out of everyone, if other tickets were sold. I think there’s the seed of a reply there, but it needs to be spelled out a lot more.)

    Of course, the lottery analogy doesn’t help the fine-tuning argument much, but here it might suggest that the multiverse hypothesis isn’t obviously enough.

    1. I think perhaps we don’t take Darwin’s dangerous idea far enough. We are selected from the bits of the universe that was selected as possible from all the other universes which were not. It’s more of the illusion of design, as if the universe were designed with us in “mind”. As a designer, I maintain that all design is a function of selection and selective processes. The idea that there is ever a mind behind design is an illusion, even when used to refer to functional human fabricated artifacts.

      So it should come as no surprise that we somehow “won the lottery”. Some shit had to happen and this is some of what was possible.

    2. The lottery is the wrong analogy. Life isn’t assigned to universes at random, like winning lottery tickets; life arises in universes that are capable of supporting it. So it’s no surprise that that’s where we find it. The number of uninhabitable universes is simply irrelevant to that question.

      It’s like checking into a brand-new hotel with a million rooms, 99.99% of which are still under construction. What are the odds of being assigned one of the few habitable rooms? Excellent, because those are the only rooms available.

      1. Hi Gregory Kusnick,

        The fine-tuning argument doesn’t maintain that life itself is assigned randomly. Instead, it maintains that sets of constants are assigned randomly, only a small fraction of which permit life. So “winning the lottery” is analogous to ending up in a life-permitting universe, not to ending up in a universe that has life in it. Proponents of the fine-tuning argument think that this was extremely improbable, but happened nevertheless.

        1. So “winning the lottery” is analogous to ending up in a life-permitting universe…

          No, it isn’t. This is precisely my point. There is no possibility of ending up in any kind of universe other than the life-permitting kind, whereas it is not only possible but highly probable to find yourself in possession of a non-winning lottery ticket. The analogy fails because the two situations simply aren’t comparable in any meaningful sense.

          1. The first time I heard the anthropic/fine-tuning argument for a god, I put my hand up at the first opportunity to say “But observers can only be in a universe that allows them to exist, so that doesn’t prove anything!” and the visiting maths-professor/god-botherer said “You hit the nail on the head!” and then proceeded to ignore the vacuity of his argument and continue pandering to the crowd of Crusaders, just like the Yes-men physicists.

            I was getting really sick of religion around that year at school: Liars lying all the time, maybe fooling themselves some of the time, or maybe not even.

            1. Completely agree. I have never quite figured out why such an intellectually and scientifically vacuous ‘argument’ has been taken so seriously by so many. Seems trifling as you succinctly point out.

              1. Yes it is vacuous only because it is so obvious. Nevertheless it has to be pointed out to Creationists who keep stating the fine-tuning argument because they cannot even understand the obvious.

    3. Leaving aside multiverses, which I regard as a God-type explanation,i.e., untestable; if God fine-tuned the universe, who fine-tuned Her?

      1. Multiverse theory is testable in sense that if the best available explanation of our own universe also turns out to predict the existence of other universes, then it’s reasonable to conclude that those other universes do in fact exist. Even if we can’t directly observe them, we can test the observable consequences of the theory that predicts them.

      2. The first successful test of multiverses were 1987, when Weinberg derived the cosmological constant out of the theory.

        And since then a series of parameters have been successfully attributed to anthropic theory.

        Meanwhile the contenders (TOEs) are pitching exactly 0. And they started much earlier.

        Who exactly are “untestable” here? (Correct answer: none of them. But multiverses are currently the most predictive.)

      3. thh1859,

        Proponents of the fine-tuning argument hold that a God has a higher prior probability than a naturalistic life-permitting universe. They say, for example, that the prior probability that whatever controlled the universal constants intentionally preferred life is not very low. Perhaps if this being is intelligent and good, it’s very likely to prefer life, and perhaps the probability of this being actually being intelligent and good is not nearly as low as the probability of a life-permitting universe.

        1. It assumes of course that the constants can be tuned, and are not instead a logical necessity.
          It assumes that other constants could not eventually produce life, or else very different kinds of life. It assumes that Life is good, necessary and desirable,-notwithstanding the fact tht it took over 3.5 billion years to get to our version of it, and in the mean time appalling suffering and destruction has been a necessary part of its evolution, -with everything feeding on everything else. I’m sure I could have found a better way myself.

    4. Fine-tuning arguments rest, either implicitly or explicitly, on Bayesian, or Bayesian-type, reasoning. If we want to evaluate how much confidence we should have in God given the fact that life exists in the universe, Bayesian analysis requires answers to the following questions:
      What is the probability of life existing in the universe, given the existence of God?
      What is the probability of life existing in the universe, given the nonexistence of God?
      What was our prior confidence in the existence of God, before we learned that life exists in the universe?

      The multi-universe hypothesis confuses the issue, because now we have to be clear about whether we’re discussing life existing in any universe, or in this particular one. If the former, then the answer to the second question increases, because there are more chances for life to arise. If the latter, then the answer to the first decreases; if there are lots of universes without life, then the probability that God would choose this one to have life is very low.

      But all of this completely ignores gaping holes in the foundation: what probability distribution can we apply to life existing given God? What probability distribution can we apply to life existing without God? And most importantly, what is our confidence in God existing, prior to learning that life exists in the universe? This question is nonsensical, and without an answer, any attempt to engage in Bayesian analysis is fallacious. Anyone who has assigned a probability to God existing is surely already aware that life exists in the universe, so trying to claim that this fact constitutes additional evidence for God is illegitimate.

      The whole argument is simply fallacious attempt to invoke our implicit understanding of Bayesian analysis, but in a situation where Bayesian analysis is completely inapplicable.

      1. Well put.

        It has always seemed to me that the question of probabilities is slanted in favor of simple ‘folk’ heuristics. Like

        “Is it more probable that THIS pebble is on THIS beach in THIS spot if somebody WANTED this pebble on this beach in this spot — or if there is no such person?”

        The first one.

        I mean, the first way is certain to get that special result. The other way is chance. Someone out there wanting us looks reasonable, given our specialness.

      2. RF,

        I think you’re right that the correct objection to the fine-tuning argument is somewhere in that vicinity. Specifically, I think that to get some of the probabilities to come out right, you have to lower other probabilities, and vice-versa. And I think this is true without the multiverse hypothesis.

        But I don’t agree that Bayesian reasoning is totally inapplicable here.

        Theists believe in a God Who is very likely to create life, so that posterior probability is very high. And proponents of the fine-tuning argument also insist that life-permission in a naturalistic universe has a very low prior probability. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be difficult about either of those assignments.

        I agree that the crucial question is the prior probability for God, and that, I think, is where the argument really falters. In this case, though, Bayesian reasoning isn’t inapplicable. We don’t need to consider whether life exists in order to assign a prior probability to God; that’s why it’s a prior. So as far as I can tell, it’s difficult to assign a prior for God, but it’s not as if that makes applying Bayesian reasoning somehow, e.g., a category mistake.

        1. First, you’re not using the terminology quite correctly. P(life|God) is the conditional probability. P(God|life) is the posterior probability.

          As for the conditional probability, it depends on the exact hypothesis: one can simply declare that the God hypothesis includes the certainty of life, in which case it’s one, but that’s a rather particular conception of God. One might think that declaring that one believes in a God that is likely to create life increases the probability, but that view is based on a intuitive understanding of probability that is quite wrong; the probability of a set of hypotheses cannot possibly be increased by adding a hypothesis. The probability of “God exists” must be greater than the probability of “God exists” and “God is likely to create life”. This applies to both prior and posterior probabilities: P(God exists|life) > P(God exists and is likely to create life|life).

          The probability of life in a naturalistic universe is even more problematic. Simply declaring that one believes that the probability is low is completely invalid. If we’re going to allow that sort of argument, we can dispense with the fine tuning argument entirely and allow theists to simply declare that they believe that God exists and be done with it. It is indisputable that there are naturalistic universes in which initial conditions are such that life will arise; the only question (which is frequently begged) is what the probability of such a universe is. There is simply no way to assign a probability to life arising in a naturalistic universe. Doing so is nonsense.

          As for the prior probability, I don’t understand your argument. I’m saying that it to be a prior probability, we can’t consider whether life exists in calculating it. And yet, the fact that life exists will necessarily influence the calculations, for the simple reason that the calculations are being performed by living beings. No living being has ever done anything, let alone calculate probabilities, prior to there being life in the universe.

      3. I have alwys distusted Bayesian arguments because it has to determine the status of “evidence”; I think this is a weak link, since no-body can agree what is evidence for God; eg “look at that Rose–therefore God”,-or, “what a pretty sun-set,–therefore God-did-it”.

  5. If the CofCC wants to pay me to tell them that they are a bunch of racist ass-holes, I’ll do it. The fact that I am willing to do it for free is irrelevant.

    1. Another vote for “exactamente”.

      Do you think I would welcome the chance to go back to the church I left (and where I taught for 20+ years) and give a series of talks explaining what evolution really is, rather than the straw man they all pretend not to believe in? Or to present the arguments against the existence of (any) god, or the probable non-historicity of the man Jesus? Or the scientific evidence showing the universe to be 13.7 billion years old, and the earth 4.5 billion? Damn right I’d welcome it. However, in the past dozen years, no such invitation has been forthcoming and, shall we say, I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Isn’r it amazing, the Templeton organization’s aim is to promote a purposeful god and yet their right wing affiliations promote no national healthcare for Americans and eliminating other social safety nets for disadvantaged people.

      1. Very strongly predictable, I’d say. In fact, if you count up the number of positions/beliefs/conclusions held by people from among the following set: {biological darwinism, social darwinism} you will almost always obtain the number “one”.

      1. Drinking like a fish is probably what zapped Hitchens. Of course, you could argue that the chemical properties of alcohol allow two (at least) functions, one of affecting brain function, and the other of being a poison, and god screwed up the design in yet another aspect here.

  7. “Where, then, is the evidence of “cosmic purpose”? Well, it is right under our noses in the very existence of science itself as a successful explanatory paradigm.”

    We need a version of the Blind Watchmaker for the universe. Someone get Dawkins on the phone!

    1. Good point. Evolution gave a naturalistic explanation for something that seemed virtually inexplicable without a cosmic designer. It’s possible that the mysteries of existence and fine tuning may be similarly addressed. It’s been said many times but ‘we don’t know’ doesn’t imply ‘our particular version of god did it’.

      1. I thionk the fact that the Universe is (at least so far) explicable by humans is quite reasonable seeing as how we are part of it.

  8. The Holocaust is not an argument against God. But it is an argument against the idea that God is benevolent.

    Life on this planet is horrible and violent with no regard for the suffering of sentient beings. The universe is even more so. I can think of nothing more hopeless than to think it’s all intentional, the inescapable will of an evil divinity.

    My only hope is that such divine evil does not exist, and my greatest comfort that there is no reason to suppose it does.

    1. I live in comfortable, civilised Jersey (U.K.) which some sour-grapes merchants vilify as a “tax-haven”. Some of the residents are so cosy that they cannot imagine that in other places, eg the barbaric U.K. mainland, life can be nasty, brutish and short. So they still thanks God for providing just themselves with a nice place to live; rather like the one person who survives a shipwreck and thanks God, forgetting the say, 2000 who went straight to the bottom.

  9. i like Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think he’s a very smart dude, but he does come off, quite often in my opinion, as a little artificial and self-righteous.

    After he tweeted about his response on “purpose”, he tweeted this:

    “The world needs more “badassitude” — the state of knowing you’re right because you did the required
    research to justify it.”

    Well Dr. Tyson, labeling oneself a non-believer is justified, reasonable, and just plain Bad Ass! So it would be nice if you would stop pretending that you are somehow above it all.

    and this:

    “Don’t look to me for opinions. They are rare, if given at all. I offer perspectives.”

    Ha. I mean, come on, who tweets that? You are not Yoda!

  10. Owen Gingerich: “Of course, if the universe were any other way, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, but that is hardly a satisfying answer.”

    Bravo! Gingerich dismisses the Anthropic Principle and commits the Argument from Incredulity fallacy all in one fell swoop. Is he an astronomer or an astrologer?

    Why isn’t “Because it’s entirely possible for us to be here” a scientifically satisfying answer?

    It most certainly IS possible for us to be here! And look… HERE WE ARE!

    David Deutsch would call most of these answers “bad explanations”. And indeed they are.

    1. Exactly. Gingerich’s “that is hardly a satisfying answer” is up there with the way of thinking that Sam Harris often refers to: “but I don’t want to live in a Universe in which there is no huge diamond buried in my back yard”.

      Well, possible replies include: “grow up” and, in the immortal words of Sir Mick, “you can’t always get what you want”.

        1. One of said facts is now void: Since she attended Jade Jagger’s wedding earlier this year, it is clear that a Rolling Stone gathers Kate Moss.

        1. Which, to extend abrotherhoodofman’s Argument from Rolling Stones, we might rephrase as “Live long an roll Tumbling Dice” (giving at least equal credit to the decidely non-peerage-holding Keith Richards).

          1. OM=Order of Molly. On Pharyngula, it means commenters have chosen someone for the honor based on excellent writing. Molly is Molly Ivins.

    2. “Of course, if the universe were any other way, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, but that is hardly a satisfying answer.”

      You know what would be a satisfying answer? If the universe were incapable of supporting life — AND YET WE EXIST ANYWAY! A miracle! God exists!

      God could allow us to observe all sorts of universes which would absolutely require His existence in order to make that happen. But no, He apparently put us in the only one which makes atheism plausible.

      I find THAT unsatisfying.

    1. Yep. A god that feels compelled to allow free will, even in the face of genocide, makes more sense to me than a god that would let the Spanish influenza virus kill 50 million people.

  11. I love the visual of one of the Biggest Questions answered with one and two words, it just tickles me. Does the universe have a purpose. Dr. Krauss: yeah, probably not. Oh, ok, thanks then. Off to Panera’s now.

    I have to agree with Steve Pinker on this one, actually, it’s just not a good question to begin with. When you dissect it enough the question itself doesn’t even make sense. What is purpose, really? We can say that things are happening in a deterministic way in the universe, so they happen ‘because’ of something else. We can say that any time we do something purposefully, purposefulness exists within the universe, at least per our definition. We can say that the universe will end up doing something or other twenty billion years from now (even if it ceases to exist, that’s something,) so if you want to equate ‘outcome’ with ‘purpose’ you could say that of course the universe is likely to have a purpose. I suppose what we want to know is if it has a mankind-centric sort of purpose.

    1. Yes. Just because every action happening within the universe is caused doesn’t mean the universe itself has a cause.

      Just because every firework needs its blue touch paper lit to function doesn’t mean the firework display itself has a blue touch paper that needs lighting.

      1. I like pointing out logical fallacies. That one is The Fallacy of Composition, (The whole is (somehow) greater than the sum of its parts).

        1. I think RF’s point was that the answers in the original discussion look like they were acquired by having the person consult a magic 8-ball.

    2. The question about purpose is identical to ‘is there a god?’ because a purpose is a characteristic of an agent, and by definition the agent that caused the universe, for most people would be god. It is possible to believe the universe was created by a god with no purpose (accidentally perhaps), though this is not a popular idea, but I don’t see how the universe can have a purpose without a god who created it to fulfill that purpose.

      1. One could reasonably answer “The Universe almost certainly didn’t start out with a purpose, but it has one now. In fact, I have many, and probably so do you.”

        So it’s not at all the same question as “Is there a dog?”

  12. Wait…


    You didn’t know Jayne Goodall was spiritual?


    Every single talk I’ve ever seen her give about evolution always at some point includes an assurance for the audience that she’s not an atheist; that she does believe in a higher power of some sort.

    I thought this was common knowledge. I could have anticipated her answer if I had known she was one of the people asked. More shocking would have been an atheist-like declaration from her. The answer she gives here is exactly what I would expect from her.

    For the record, I still admire Jayne’s work immensely and I’m hoping she may be the one who can help me with my thesis on the origins of fanaticism. One of my teachers at FAU, Kate Detwiler (who was part of a team that discovered a new species of monkey! [no, i was not on that team]), has worked with Jane closely, so she’s a contact.

    But Jayne’s spirituality is something that I assumed was quite well known.

    As for the Holocaust… leave it alone. Tragedy has a strange way of bringing out the God-bothering from people. It’s incredible how many people did not question the idea of God leaving a cross in the middle of the destroyed World Trade Centers on 9/11. God can’t lose with believers. hey always have an excuse to let God off the hook.

    So just leave it alone. It isn’t worth it.

    1. No, I didn’t know that and am glad to hear the facts. However, your comment is snarky, implying that my ignorance is somehow surprising. More disturbing, you’re telling me what to write about and what not to. You’re new here, aren’t you? You don’t know stuff about not insulting the host. . .

    2. I guess it can be quite weird when you’re very familiar with someone’s views, and someone else isn’t. Like when Piers Morgan said he was surprised by Kirk Cameron’s views on homosexuality.

    3. I’ve gone two two Jane Goodall lectures in Chicago, and god or spirituality was not mention at all. Not once.

      And, for someone who admires her work immensely, I would think you would get her name right: Jane, not “Jayne.”

      1. I’ve seen probably her at least 4 times, and every time she mentioned her spirituality in some capacity.

        And sorry, but I was operating one about 1.5 hours of sleep when I wrote that. By the time I realized I wrote “Jayne” instead of “Jane”, it was too late.

  13. We are paying a lot of attention to Dr. Tyson in this discussion. I read into his comments various crumbs of evidence that he IS sure there is no purpose to the universe and no designer. However, because of his position as public voice for science and NASA he unfortunately also has to be careful in this country.

  14. Dumbest statement in the entire lot (from Haught, of course):

    Purpose, after all, means quite simply the bringing about of something undeniably and permanently good.

    Right, because nobody ever did anything bad on purpose.

    1. To be fair, here’s one from Krauss that’s almost as dumb:

      And all the stars and all the galaxies we see could disappear in an instant and the universe would go on behaving more or less as it is doing right now.

      I know what he’s trying to say: that stars and galaxies are just minor components of the universe. But this is an extraordinarily bad way of saying it. If all the stars and galaxies disappeared in an instant, that would definitely not be business as usual in the universe. On the contrary, it would indicate something seriously wrong with our understanding of how the universe ought to behave.

  15. As usual, there is this yawning chasm between the fine-tuners and theological (non)thinkers. The anthropic-principle-dismissers adduce a purpose of the universe from the existence of carbon, but have no coherent way of showing what the hell the purpose is. The “coreligionists” are orders-of-magnitude lower on the cluelessness scale – as if they don’t even notice the wording of question: “Does the UNIVERSE have a purpose?” How can an adult, educated person persist in believing their tiny bronze-age god has any significance on the scale of the UNIVERSE?

    1. A better question would be, “Dark Matter and Dark Energy composed 96% of the universe, so why is it beyond our understanding, if a deity who gives us science, exists?”

      1. That is a better question?

        Well for a start it begs the question that a deity does exist. (This seems to be a varient of the Argument from Incredulity.)

        Then “who gives us science” has two meanings:
        1. Who made the universe so coherent that it can be undestood (somewhat) by the principles of science. Could it be called a universe if it were less coherent than that? And certainly by the weak anthropic principle, we could not exist in a less coherent universe.
        2. Who set up the universe so that we could evolve to figure it out? I think the human species can take all the credit for devising the scientific method (a work in progress) with our imperfect brains. (I certainly hope you’re not saying he poofed our ability to do science into existence like our “souls”.)

        “Dark energy” and “dark matter” are just placeholder names for things we haven’t figured out yet. They may not prove to be kinds of energy or matter at all.

        “The Universe having a purpose” is meaningless since the universe is not sentient. This is a weaselly way of implying a god who made it with His/Her/Its/Their purpose. If He/She/It/They did, it was certainly bizarrely wasteful to create a universe umpteen billion light-years across and let it simmer for 3,000,000,000 years before life could emerge and evolve for another 1,000,000,000 so that we could live on this tiny planet for a few decades being tested to see whether some of us could believe that He/She/It/They had incarnated blurself and thereby be worthy to be disembodied and play harps and sing blur’s praises forever.

    2. The universe is, to almost any level of precision, uninhabitable. Heck, it is essentially just vast cubic light-years of vacuum at 3C. The profound hubris to imagine that this endless cold deadly emptiness is somehow “fine tuned” for us always staggers me.

      1. Which, in combination with the religious notion of “existence” (creation & fine-tuning) is compounded by multiverse theory and especially the currently best motivated such.

        Classically habitable universes are a smaller volume in a vast parameter space.

        Then string and/or inflation landscapes were introduced, where in many cases a habitable universes could be an enumerable handful of configurations in a finite configuration space.

        And now we have simple theories of dynamical causal structures with fractal-flow attractors where habitable universes are literary ephemeral “pond scum” on their way to join the vast uninhabitable ocean of lowest vacuum energy.

        The universe is virtually uninhabitable. The multiverse, which is likely what allows life, takes that to an infinite degree.

        It is ironic that only in this sense do the christian death & zombie gods myths meet their maker.

  16. I still aver there could have been evidence for any number of deities.

    But we have mountains of evidence that there aren’t, and any new evidence must be reconciled with the evidence we already have.

    In light of existing evidence, any new evidence supporting the case for a deity must instead be considered evidence of deception or insanity.

    If you woke up tomorrow and saw a pink unicorn floating above your bed, you’d think it was a gag. If all attempts to verify its existence proved successful, your conclusion still wouldn’t be that flying pink unicorns are real, but rather that you’ve gone nuts or that somebody’s really good at messing with you.



    1. Your argument proves too much; it makes non-belief unfalsifiable (in the Popperian sense) and, thus, definitionally non-scientific.

  17. “Yes, we don’t understand how religion arose”

    Don’t we? We see new ones spring to life every year. We know exactly how they start, and that’s all the more troublesome for those that claim theirs as an exception!

    1. That isn’t quite right. We may witness the start of new religions as you suggest, but these are popping up in context of societies where religion already exists. Knowing how religion in general came to be in the first place is a different question, one that remains much more speculative.

      1. I might have some sympathy for your objection if I could tell the difference between the type of fraud that goes under the label of “religion” and any other confidence scam….


        1. Not all that tough if you think about it. One kind of fraud relies on belief in invisible sprits. The other, not so much.

          1. Well, sure. Any scam is going to have its own particular flavor.

            But why give special consideration to a scam that involves invisible spirits that don’t exist as opposed to another that involves beachfront property that doesn’t exist, or mortgage-backed derivatives that aren’t derived, or aliens that aren’t there, or vortices that are ordinary dust devils, or magic water, or anything else?


            1. Because this particular type of scam is more powerful, more pervasive, more long-lasting, and more destructive than other types of scams.

              1. And does it not therefore make sense that the scam most likely to succeed should be the one that has succeeded?

                Methinks that you’ve answered your original question, and now all that’s left is to figure out which of the peculiarities of the scam lend it its success.

                In addition to the commonalities it shares with all other scams, I think you’ll find that the fact that it plays off of our tendency to see agency everywhere, its usurpation of traditional tribal power hierarchies, and its subversion and perversion of sexuality that lend it the most power.


              2. If “you” is me, I don’t remember asking an original question. Maybe I’m just tired, but looking upstream I don’t see it either.

              3. Knowing how religion in general came to be in the first place is a different question, one that remains much more speculative.

                That’s what I was going off of….


              4. My non-question was not really a very controversial statement.

                Religion playing off agency, etc., are all explanations (or parts of explanations) that have been offered/explored/advocated. Still, we don’t really know what the process looked like in any detail, when it happened, how far back in time it occurred. We know what has been recorded historically. We know what we can gather from cross-cultural studies. We get a few hints in the archaeological record. But this gods-stuff doesn’t fossilize well. Details are obscure. Explanations remain difficult to test.

                Or, to put it in my original terms, knowing how religion in general came to be in the first place is much more speculative than observing the formation of the latest cult-du-jour.

  18. I don’t suppose anyone is willing to entertain the likelihood that the universe serves the purposes of an evil deity who enjoys wars, suffering, explosions, etc., and who only allows the good because its temporariness is ultimately a sorrow. There is some empirical evidence.

    1. I actually do think that if there were a God, he would have to be evil, judged by the past and present evidence. So, it is perhaps wishful thinking on my part that I really, really hope there is no God. If there is one, we have no hope for the future, because whatever good and contructive we do, it would be sabotaged by this sadistic omnipotent deity.

      Luckily the past and present evidence also seems to indicate there is no God, no perverse purpose to the universe. So a bunch of good hominids may actually have a chance of making this one planet a better place.

      By the same token, I find it contemptibly treasonous of theists to ally themselves with such an evil ruler.

      1. I dunno. An indifferent universe that pointlessly permits life only to destroy it and obliterate all traces seems a little perverse, too. Don’t seem to be many good options here. Best move on to a food post.

      2. “It is true. I am a sceptic. I have never seen a sign that there is in the scheme of things an intelligent purpose. If the universe is the contrivance of some being, that being can only be a criminal imbecile.”
        –Somerset Maugham, in his story “French Joe”

  19. Awesome, will read.

    But I think this is what we are faced with:

    We can say that for all purposes the purpose of the Temple Fund is religious.

  20. “The most powerful evidence against God is the Holocaust.”

    I would say no, that is not the most powerful evidence. Very few of us alive today witnessed that in person, and no one person witnessed even a significant fraction of the six-plus million deaths. And no one person witnessed a meaningful fraction of the 25 million deaths, over 1400 days, of the German-Russian War: that is 17,800 deaths per day! And, by scant evidence admittedly, there was an event in China in the 1850s-60s period (Taiping Rebellion) with even more deaths.

    The use of numbers, increasing numbers, to reach a conclusion, is the real argument behind the “Black Swan” question: “How many white swans do you have to see, before you can conclude that there is no such thing as a ‘black swan’?”

    The answer is, there is no upper number. And I do not feel that six million killed, or twenty-five million killed, or numbers higher than that (“Black Plague”??) can be asserted as “powerful evidence”. Arguments based in numbers invariably lead to ontological defenses that dismiss “mere numbers”.

    No, the powerful evidence needed to conclude that there is no deity is available to all at any hospital (and many other locations). I myself have witnessed two family members die (as in, alive at one moment, then dead). Many, many of us (cats included) in this world have done this. And no one, I can be certain (because of a total lack of reports) has ever witnessed, measured,or found evidence for, the vanishing and transportation of any physical body part as the person, alive, then alive no more: no vanishing noses, tongues, fingers….certainly nothing from under the skin, and, emphatically, nothing from inside the skull. All those billions of sodium, calcium ions, complex enzymes, and more, from which your memory is constructed, located in an unimaginably vast network, remain in place. Nothing in a person’s brain moves or is transported when they die. Measured, measured, tested, tested, many times. The memories you have, which is essentially “You”, are now unplayable, unavailable throughout the universe (or, any multiverse). What was ‘You’, your memory, is as unplayable as a music CD would be if that CD was to be dropped in the Marianas Trench.

    Ergo, ‘You’ (<the memory compilation) can't "go to heaven" or hell, or meet god, or meet any departed loved ones when you die. The "fuzzy question" invented by religions, involving purpose and deities, morals, are all as useful as having the right answer to the number of moons circling Saturn:

    Neither worth prayer, nor contemplation.

  21. Owen Gingrich, David Gelernter, Nancy Murphy, John F. Haught, Jane Goodall, and Paul Davies are each excellent examples of the phenomenon described by skeptic and social scientist Michael Shermer in his book How We Believe. They are all truly intelligent people who have been seduced by an irrational idea and then, using their intelligence, constructed an intellectually satisfying (to themselves and some others) and seeming rational argument in its defense. Even smart people can and do believe weird things. T

    1. Belief is fundamentally an emotional endeavor. As Woody Allen said about love, “the heart wants what it wants”.

  22. Gelertner spewed crapola from start to finish. I am now convinced–as if I needed any more convincing–that the Templeton crew have no shame. In fact, if anyone needs to have an example of the bald nonsense associated with Tempteton, just copy and paste this absolute garbage from Gelertner.

    One of the lesser bits of dreck from his answer: “When we seek goodness and sanctity, we defy nature. The basic rule of Judeo-Christian ethics is, the strong
    must support the weak. The basic rule of nature is, the strong live and the weak die.”

    I guess he never heard that the ‘selfish’ gene leads to an altruistic society.

    1. And who created nature, according to Christianity? Odd how “nature” is such a overwhelming authority that we must shun homosexuality because it’s “unnatural”, but then Christianity says it’s so great because it raises humans above the natural state.

  23. I noted the link to the Counsel of Concerned Citizens leads to the Counsel of Conservative Citizens in Wiki. The counsel of Conservative Citizens website is here with a new domain topconservativenews.com. (Do not read it immediately after a meal.) I found no Counsel of Concerned Citizens… I’m concerned.

    Also, I don’t think the universe has a purpose, but if it does it’s to give us something to think about… “What is…?”

  24. Hooray for de Dave and Atkins. 🙂 I’m not familiar with de Dave, but Atkins really gets stuck into the stupidity and is not quite as diplomatic as Dawkins.

    I’m disappointed with Elie Wiesel – how can one hope for a god after the horrors of the Holocaust?

    1. This seems like the right place for this comment/question. I’m trying to remember a quote which was the first thing I thought of when I saw the part on Elie Wiesel. Though I know about how memory is fallible (especially mine), I thought it was by Primo Levi, and went something like this: “Those Jews who still believed in God after the Holocaust simply weren’t paying attention.” However, I’ve been unable to locate the quote, or verify its originator. Can anyone help out with this?

      1. I cannot trace it either, but it sounds too flippant for Primo Levi.

        What I found is from the final of a series of conversations Levi had with Ferdinando Camon between 1982 and 1986. It is widely quoted in the orginal Italian, but I haven’t found an adequate English translation so far, so here’s my try:

        Camon: You are not a believer?
        Levi: No; I’ve never been; I wish I were, but I cannot.
        Camon: So what is your Jewishness, then?
        Levi: Purely cultural. But for the racial laws and the Lager, I probably would no longer be a Jew, except for my surname. However, this twofold experience, the racial laws and the Lager, have stamped me like sheet metal: now I am forever Jewish, they have sewn the Star of David upon me, not just upon my coat.

        I must say that the experience of Auschwitz was for me such as to eradicate whatever remnant of my religious education may have been left.
        Camon: Meaning: Auschwitz is the proof of God’s non-existence?
        Levi: There is Auschwitz, therefore God cannot be.

        [On the typewritten manuscript, Levi added this note in pencil:
        I don’t find a solution to this dilemma. I seek it, but do not find it.]

        Devo dire che l’esperienza di Auschwitz è stata tale per me da spazzare qualsiasi resto di educazione religiosa che pure ho avuto. … C’è Auschwitz, quindi non può esserci Dio. Non trovo una soluzione al dilemma. La cerco, ma non la trovo.

  25. – These are Big Questions for small minds: purpose, existence (“something”), souls, et cetera.

    Nothing on today’s large questions like cognition, abiogenesis, inflation, time’s arrow, et cetera.

    – How is the sample obtained? 8 out of 12 answers are positive. Certainly not a representative sample of “leading scientists and scholars”.

    – Wiesel is a survivor.

    Whatever his mental trick was for doing that, he will never, ever let go. He shouldn’t be asked about anything dependent on, but irrelevant to, his personal catastrophe.

    This is a generally right-wing organization that supports and tries to justify free-market capitalism

    Here is a list of problems when questioning the integrity of the Templeton Foundation from Sunny Bains in Evolutionary Psychology [www.epjournal.net – 2011. 9(1): 92-115].

    The funding of anti-science organizations figures prominently. Especially against climate science where among other donations John Templeton junior personally has funded the scandalous Hearthland Institute.

    And this sample figures too, among the collections of responders that Templeton is populating with its own board members:

    “Again, eight were written by people who were in the Templeton Foundation stable, and six of these are or were on the Foundation Board of Advisors.” [p 111]

    Suppose, however, that there are myriad universes, each with different properties. In that case we would naturally be found in the universe that, like the little bear’s porridge, is just right. Those other barren universes, many with no stars or planets, would exist in their own forever unobservable space. Somehow this is an unpersuasive counter-argument. Even one congenial universe out of many would be miracle enough.

    I call this the Get-Off-My-Lawn-!-Said-The-Old-Codger argument.

    That is one of the more unlikely mechanisms of anthropic theory though. The one that is most likely and indeed has passed most tests is the statistical one, where parameters are found in the most likely range constrained by having observers.

    For example the cosmological constant, the first successful test of anthropic theory, is within the 3 orders of magnitude that was predicted. And quite close to the peak of that distribution, IIRC.

    The throw-a-dice mechanism is of course valid as well, but as we have a continuous parameter space (or at least effectively so, in string theory) it is less supported by the underlying physics.

    So Gingerich raises more or less a strawman. If your own theory has any value whatsoever, you should tackle the strongest competitor. Not the weakest. In effect Gingerich is ceeding to physics.

    “The fact that we can ask such a question at all suggests an affirmative answer.”

    Is John Haught’s momma so fat she can’t fit in a church? “The fact that we can ask such a question at all suggests an affirmative answer.”

  26. would you also take money to answer that question if it was asked by the white-supremacist Council of Concerned Citizens?)

    I think that consistency is over-rated. When we make a judgement to do something there is always an element of error involved in it, even if we can’t see where we’ve gone wrong and we believe we have made the right decision. Inconsistency exists because we have to make our decisions without knowing all the relevant factors pertinent to it, and without even realising that we don’t know. I once saw an employee of an organic sandwich shop on her break standing outside smoking a cigarette!

  27. That Atkins quote is just fantastic.

    This is what I wish I could expect in all scientists: a mind that cuts through nonsense like a hot knife through butter.

  28. The argument, common among apologists and sophisticated theologians, that man’s ability to “do science” is somehow proof of God’s existence strikes me as incoherent. If the ability to evaluate evidence and think critically is God’s gift to His most-favored creation, why would He then deny them the ability to employ these gifts for His greater glory and understanding – to use those abilities, for example, to determine the circumstances under which intercessory prayer will be granted, or (for crying-out-loud) to use them to distinguish between true and false religious claims?

    And why in the world would an all-loving, omni-benevolent God – or, hell, a God with even the slightest inclination toward egalitarianism – bestow this great gift so disproportionately upon those with IQs several standard deviation units above the mean who had been fortuitously born into a culture and personal circumstances affording them the means and opportunity to study and contemplate the great scientific questions (why, that is, would He bestow His preeminent gift, ironically, on the segment of the population that turns out to be the least likely to believe He even exists)?

  29. Paul Davies: “Doing science means figuring out what is going on in the world—what the universe is “up to”, what it is “about”. If it isn’t “about” anything, there would be no good reason to embark on the scientific quest in the first place, because we would have no justification for believing that we would thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about the world. “

    Davies is doing a deepity, a subtle equivocation between different meanings of the same term in order to slide from a reasonable statement to an extraordinary one.

    “When we do science, we find out what the universe is about.” And what is meant by the term “about?” Does it mean what happens, what’s true, what’s going on? Or does it mean purpose, reason for being, goal?

    It’s the first one! It’s the second one! It’s one, then the other! It’s both! And at the same time! Or not!

    I find this tactic tiresome. Predictable. And they always seem to come out with it as if it’s profound. A deepity.

    As for fine-tuning, I want to know who or what created the laws-of-universes instrument, the one that requires a purposive-agent to swoop in and fine-tune it without making any mistakes. Or was it just there?

    1. This was my reaction as well. Davies’ entire argument comes down to a bad pun on the word “about”.

        1. I predicted back in the late 80’s that Davies would take orders and make a run for Archbishop of Canterbury.

          There’s still time.

    2. Sastra:

      As for fine-tuning, I want to know who or what created the laws-of-universes instrument, the one that requires a purposive-agent to swoop in and fine-tune it without making any mistakes.”

      I think Sony made it. And Sony, of course, just “is”.

      In my opinion, even the phrase “Fine-Tuning” is unnecessarily anthropomorphic, and gives a free-ride to Creationists. By this argument, banana slugs were fine-tuned to live in the Santa Cruz redwood forests, instead of being naturally selected.

    3. I think this is more the misguided notion that, because there is no a priori reason for science to work, then the finding it does work must mean something special. It doesn’t.

      The “first science” did not presume that something would work or that there was something to be found at all. It was just pot luck, and after that, ‘evolution’ and ‘natural selection’ of scientific ideas have taken over.

      To me it’s like mankind waking up as a protagonist in an Edgar Allen Poe story (it might actually be ‘The Pit’ but I’ve forgotten its details), in pitch black, with nothing to hear, see or feel except the ground below them. There is no a priori reason to presume anything – but there is also no reason to presume you can’t find out anything about your surroundings, so you would have to stay in place. By carefully feeling then moving around, making noises, tapping, you can get a decent idea of what the surroundings are.

      This is how science works too.

  30. I kinda assume it’s implicit in being something that your purpose it to be that thing.

    Does the Universe have a purpose? Yes! To be a Universe. I mean it would be silly for it’s purpose to be a sausage or to bird watch or something.

  31. Too bad none of them give attention to polytheism, which fits the FACTS much better than monotheism! Each of the multiple divinities has his/her own little realm, and they sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete. Eg. the god of mosquitoes & other pests fights with the gods of pesticides, the god of love wars with the god of hate, et al. That’s the way ancient pagans saw things, and they didn’t have all the intellectual conundrums that plague monotheists!!!

      1. I guess with polytheism you can have intellectually and morally consistent gods. With christianity, you have god murdering the whole of humanity except for one family and then telling them “love your enemies”.

        It doesn’t explain more, but it isn’t as self-contradictory.

  32. A “Yes” answer to the purpose question that is built on the “fine tuning argument” translates to “Universe has a purpose: It was made for me and has been waiting for my arrival evern since!”
    It is yet another trip to “universe revolves around us” mentality and we should grow out of it.

    1. being smart is actually helpful in compartmentalizing disparate ideas.

      like Ken Miller, one can maintain fanciful BS in one section of the mind, and yet still have another, isolated, section giving you perfectly reasonable responses based on evidence and rationality.

      so long as we don’t mistake compartmentalization for compatibility, or maintaining a compartment of nonsense with absolute intelligence, we can successfully address the arguments in isolation from one another.

      Miller’s ideas on how “god works through quantum fields” is bad, it has nothing to do with his ideas on cellular biology.

      likewise, Goodall’s religious ideas are easily shown to be nonsense, but that doesn’t mean she can’t do good science on primates.

      two entirely different issues.

      so, no, she isn’t stupid, just… handicapped by dissonance.

      1. If you read “In the Shadow of Man” and consider the character of David Greybeard portrayed there, it’s not hard to see the author as attracted to a non-literal (and therefore resilient) Christianity.

        It’s possible to achieve important scientific and ethical results without being a really scientific thinker. Nobody’s perfect.

  33. Question is, suppose they’d asked jac and he had accepted, would the result still have been 2/3 of prominent scholars agree at least on the possibility that the universe has a purpose? Or restated, were the respondents chosen to give the imprimatur of impartiality to a survey that comes out in favor of the proposition?

    1. I think this is exactly why Jerry would refuse to participate. Tyson and the other nay-sayers are not being paid for the content of their answers; they’re being paid for the right to use their names and opinions to give the illusion of a spurious “balance”.

      1. Sure he’s on to something. The Templeton people solicited these opinions knowing from the outset what the responses would be. The details of the responses were not important to them, it was the final tally they were after.

  34. I’m with Peter Atkins. The question is invented and ultimately meaningless. The answer tells will reflect the respondent’s viewpoint. It’s essentially the same as asking “Does God exist?” Theists will always give some form of “yes” answer. They have to, it’s defined in their beliefs. Atheists will give some form of “no” or “highly unlikely” if they’re sticking to the tentative nature of scientific knowledge)

      1. Redundancy can be a good thing. Often, a restatement uses better phrasing.

        Freewheeling….that’s what’s going on here..

    1. And yet positing god doesn’t get you any further at all. It’s almost worse than the First Cause rubbish.

      We need God because there must be a first cause. OK then: what caused God. It isn’t an explanation.

      We need God because there must be a purpose to the Universe. OK then: what is the purpose of god? If he is purposeless, you have got precisely nowhere and are agreeing with us.

      If god has a purpose, who bestowed that on him? Doesn’t the very essence of the word demand that god itself must have been designed? And if so, with due acknowledgement to Douglas Adams and the apocryphal lady, either

      “That about wraps it up for god”


      “It’s turtles all the way down.”

      Even If there were merit in invoking a prime mover, you just can’t get away with that for purpose. It fails on the starting blocks.

  35. …he usual apologetics, with a “Fermat’s-last-theorem” approach to her evidence and a misguided critique of science (my emphases)…

    Please do not insult Fermat, Prof Coyne. It is very likely that Fermat actually thought he had a “proof”: indeed a wrong “proof”, based on the assumption that certain algebraic analogues of integers also share the well known unique factorization property of the integers, was discovered in the mid 1800s by Lamé. It is certainly likely that Fermat had found a similar “proof” based on some wrong assumption: he wasn’t trying the “small margin” to intentionally mislead.

  36. ” … that supports and tries to justify free-market capitalism … “

    While I certainly disapprove of Templeton and its right-wing ties, let’s not treat “free-market capitalism” itself as a dirty word. It’s as American as baseball and mom’s apple pie. And, though it requires constant vigilance and a certain level of vigorous regulation to ensure that markets are in fact free and fair, it is the economic system that affords us the benefits of living in a wealthy, first-world society where we can carry on this conversation. Or maybe it’s put best by paraphrasing Churchill on democracy: No one pretends that free-market capitalism is perfect or all-wise. It is the worst form of economic system – except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    1. It was the Economist magazine itself that noted the irony of the computer age: when computers finally reached a stage where a planned economy might work, socialism (Communism) had self-destructed (early 1990s).

      “Free markets” in earlier times always had a base-level of understanding that was available to all, typically experienced by all (hunger, food, and eating being, perhaps, a natural example). However, the explosion of information and rules, with increasing complexity, have changed Free Market economics. Millions of dollars can be made in a year using slight fractions of billions of dollars. This is beyond the natural reasoning and experience of 99% of the world’s population. It cannot end well.

      “Estimated number of billionaires worldwide: 1,226.”

      “Years it would take the average American household to spend a billion dollars: 20,786”
      (Harper’s Index)

      1. The problem with a centrally planned economy has never been a mere lack of computational power. It is that markets work best when functioning in a bottom-up, rather than top-down fashion, by responding, in Adam Smith’s memorable metaphor, to the “invisible hand” of demand in the market place.

        In this respect, free-markets have strong parallels to Darwinian evolution, as is plain from Darwin’s own writings (he often spoke of nature in economic terms and cited Smith in Descent of Man) and has been made even more explicit by others since, including Michael Shermer.

        Both free markets and evolution by natural selection are bottom-up, non-teleological systems; neither has need of a “designer.” Both involve chance and functionality; each depends upon mutation and adaptation. Smith’s petite bourgeoisie – his butcher, brewer, and baker – correspond to Dawkins’s “self genes”: In pursuing their own, individual survival, they contribute to the overall adaptability of the system in which they participate (the economy, in the case of the former; a species, via an individual living organism, as to the latter). But neither depends upon the “survival of the fittest,” merely the survival of the “fit enough” – an organism sufficiently fit to survive to procreate, as to evolution by natural selection; a business fit enough to turn a profit that permits it to continue competing in the market place, as to the economy.

        1. And to continue the parallel, free markets are rife with predation, parasitism, unequal access to resources, and needless suffering. If we take these characteristics of evolution as evidence against the existence of a benevolent God, then we should also count them against the alleged optimality of free markets as a means of maximizing human well-being.

          1. You’ll get no argument from me; free-market systems are prone to pernicious abuse, the more laissez-faire, the more pernicious and the less fair. But the Churchill paraphrase holds: the free-market system is the worst — except for all the others. Those who would abandon it are like the evolution-deniers; they never propose a viable alternative.

            Anyone who claims strict central planning is the answer never had the misfortune of trying to start a coughing, wheezing, belching Lada or Volga on a cold Soviet morning (or of coughing and wheezing themselves from smoking those twisted-crap Belomorkanal cigarettes — that is, if they weren’t leeward of Chernobyl and still have enough lung left to do any serious coughing).

            Anyone who contends otherwise should repeat after me: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Then they can wipe the jelly off their mug and get back in the bread and meat lines, which should be winding themselves down just about now, some 20 years or so after the Eastern Block collapse.

    2. No one pretends that free-market capitalism is perfect or all-wise.

      I think the GOP presidential and vice-presidential candidates, the talking-heads at FOX, and a goodly number of people bankrolling them do indeed pretend it is perfect and all-wise. In fact, I think many of them actually believe it (when they’re not hypocritically profiting by taking government money).

      Mostly, I think this “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” way of disposing of the question is pretty much a commission of the fallacy of the excluded middle; there are better systems, the world has had and does have better systems, the choices to do end with Ayn Rand and the Soviet Union.

      1. I think the is-ought fallacy is also in play. Some people seem stuck on the idea that because untrammeled capitalism is what happens by default when there’s nobody in charge, therefore it must be better than the alternatives.

      2. The “no one pretends that free-market capitalism is perfect or all-wise” is a direct paraphrase of Churchill’s quote about democracy.

        I’m in no way a free-market fundamentalist. I tried to make plain that I think markets must be regulated to ensure they function fairly. And I think government has a vigorous role to play, including providing an appropriate safety net. I’m also open hybrid systems, such as the Social Democracies of some European nations. But those systems are also based on free markets, and depend upon them for wealth generation.

        The point I wished to make is that, in whatever form they take, markets function efficiently when they operate essentially bottom-up, not top-down. If anyone knows of a strict centrally planned economy that has ever produced anything but abject misery for those at the bottom, please feel free to enlighten me.

  37. well, I’ll say this: Wheather God exists or not. He or she or them or it,certainly gets a lot of attention for a person no one has ever seen.His alleged presents, or is it his non presents,makes him the universal invisible entrepreneur of all tome. Now I know why the word itiology was created. Lee Martin

  38. If the choice is gods or universes, we must always go for universes. Because we already know that at least one universe exists. But we do not have even a skerrick of evidence of any god existing.

  39. Would I take Templeton’s money? Yes. Would I take CCC’s money? Yes (aside: is the similarity to the other notorious abbreviation KKK a coincidence?).

    I would make sure I gave the answer most inconvenient to them and take the money. At least when they have to hand it to me, it prevents them giving it to somebody who does real harm. And I can donate it to a charity of my choosing, so it does something good instead.

    As to Jane Goodall, although I don’t know much about her or her work I somehow had the intuition that she was out with the fairies, maybe incorrectly based on the cuddly chimp hugging, unfair as that may be.

  40. Against the fine-tuning argument, as well as the multiverse hpothesis, I would also retort about all the manifold non-fine-tuning in the world, which is responsible for death and dstruction, disease, accident and the physical imperfections and infirmities of human anatomy and physiology; backacke, myopia and prostatism, for a start.

  41. “We should not regard as great the questions that have been invented solely for the sake of eliciting puzzlement.

    The last sentence is wonderful.”

    Yes, mathematical paradoxes – who needs ’em?

  42. Two things keep bugging me about the fine tuning nonsense.

    First, there is no probability after the event has already been observed. It’s like somebody winning the lottery and saying that those numbers coming up couldn’t have been due to chance because they were so unlikely to come up. Of course, in the lottery some numbers will come up, and people might object that there didn’t have to be any universe with life-supporting constants in the first place. But that would be to assume that which one wants to prove.

    Second, it seems that the observation that a deviation in some constants by a fraction of a percent would make life impossible is a completely irrelevant way of looking at things. That argument would have to assume that said constant could in principle vary by a much larger relative factor—but that is something nobody knows. It might just as well be that it can only vary within a fraction of a percent of its current absolute value, but that there are an infinite number of significant different values that it could still take within that interval—i.e., fineness depends not on the relative width of the interval but on the granularity of possible values within that interval. Looking at the interval in terms relative to its absolute value is meaningless unless you again make unwarranted assumptions.

  43. `I’m not sure’ or `Unlikely’ is an answer that is not any different from ‘Yes’ in this context. If you’re a natural scientist, as opposed to a politically astute blowhard, there is nothing to equivocate about. You can say all the weaselly words about Bayesian priors and so on, but part of the tenets of Bayesian reasoning is that you have to include all available information. The inconsistency of all definitions of god means that there is no support for the Bayesian prior at the god hypothesis. Tyson and Krauss are probably worried about some funding drying up. People who worry about fine-tuning of physical constants don’t understand how little is known about the interface between cosmology and quantum mechanics.

    1. Yes, if it could be used to attempt to link the group to UNCF or if (as is the case with Templeton) the group’s financial contributions were extensive enough that their loss would affect UNCF’s operation and therefore make UNCF more likely to make choices that were more in line with the group’s ideology in an attempt to maintain continued contributions.

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