Your Thanksgiving viewing

November 28, 2013 • 10:32 am

Instead of watching a postprandial football game in which behemoths injure each other, how about working your neurons a bit and watching this  53-minute talk by physicist Sean Carroll, delivered in Oxford last January? It’s a superb presentation.

The title is “God is not a good theory.” I like that—and the talk—because it presumes that the notion of God really is a theory (in the sense of “an idea about what’s true in the universe”), and not some ineffable idea that can’t be approached via reason and science.

It will give you a lot of good ammunition to respond to those theists who use cosmology or physics as evidence for god. I call that endeavor “The New Natural Theology,” since it’s replaced old creationist claims as the most common “sophisticated” argument for god from observations of nature.

h/t: John Loftus (read his piece at the link)

32 thoughts on “Your Thanksgiving viewing

  1. Thanks for the link Jerry. I hope people click on my name, where I respond to Vincent Torley’s response to Dr. Carroll. I claim he is clearly and obviously delusional, no ifs ands or buts about it. In fact, it’s crystal clear that even Torley should recognize in what he says, if he’s rational at all about his faith.

      1. So, I just finished watching Sean and reading your response to Dr. Torley.

        And you and Sean are, of course, spot on about everything.

        However…you both missed what, to me, is the second-worst part of the god hypothesis. (The worst, of course, is that it’s nothing more than an outgrowth of a particularly pernicious ancient faery tale.)

        The truly fundamental problem with the god hypothesis is that it doesn’t actually explain anything. By that, I mean that it purports to be an explanation for why there’s something rather than nothing (ignoring the incoherence of such questions for the moment), but it still doesn’t explain why there should be a god in the first place. Instead, we are supposed to be meekly satisfied with the explanation of “goddidit,” and humbly thankful to Jesus for permitting our existence in the first place.

        But we still don’t know: where did Jesus come from?

        Either Jesus needs no ultimate explanation, in which case neither does anything else truly need an ultimate explanation; or we’re now stuck needing to determine Jesus’s ultimate explanation.

        The typical Christian response is, of course, some form of special pleading…but that demands the question: if you’re going to resort to special pleading regardless, why bother with the obfuscation of the extra layer of Jesus in there?

        Ultimately, the confusion comes down to the fact that meaning, in the sense of “Why?” questions, can itself only make sense within the context of a thinking being. We ourselves invent our own meanings; the rest of existence not only doesn’t care what meanings we ascribe to it, it’s incapable of caring or even of knowing that we do so. It simply is, indifferent to our thoughts and feelings on the subject. Insisting that there must be Ultimate Meaning is nothing more than an act of Ultimate Hubris in the form of projecting our own inner thoughts onto the rest of the Cosmos. If it pleases you to do so, great, knock yourself out — but you’re only fooling yourself, and you’re ultimately not doing yourself any favors if what you really want is to build your own reliable map of reality.



        1. Exactly Ben. This has always been the failure of the supernatural anything as an “explanation.”

          It never actually tells you “how” anything is actually achieved. The history of supernatural explanations is pretty much the history of having an observation and then making up an entity as an explanation, with the “explanation” amounting to “I attribute to this entity the power to produce the thing observed.” And, really, that’s it.

          Look at the marvelous forms of life we find on earth. How were they produced? A God did it. How did God do it? Dunno. It’s supernatural, non-material, beyond our comprehension. We simply conceive of a God and attribute to God “the power to do the thing that needs explaining” and…viola…we have our “explanation.”

          But of course if you allow for that low a bar for an “explanation” then the alternative explanations of a similar sort never cease.

          How did the universe arise?

          I assert a small, purple, cardboard box is responsible for causing the universe to exist.

          If I’m asked “What? HOW would a small purple cardboard box have created the universe?” I simply reply “It’s a supernatural box, thus this is not a simple-minded, mechanistic theory you seem to be looking for. This box has the power to create Universes like ours and did so, hence the box acts as an explanation for the universe.”

          If the theist protests, I’ll simply remind him: As soon as you give me your explanation of how God’s power works, I’ll give you mine on how the purple box’s magic works.

          Even the most “sophisticated” theists seem to completely forget the reasons behind the desire for testable hypotheses: Anyone can dream up whatever explanation he wants for a phenomenon, we can have countless, competing and contradictory stories how X happened, so we need a way of selecting from all these possibilities; hence testing etc.

          So long as the theist drops the epistemological bar so low as to allow
          what amounts to “mysterious magic” as an explanation, he has no explanatory power, and no recourse in rejecting all manner of similarly lazy explanations for the same phenomenon.


          1. I think there was a time when the god hypothesis helped. Certainly if someone has no idea of science they would feel helpless when dealing with natural phenomenon. Why is there an earthquake? Why did a storm happen? How can I protect myself?

            But we are social beings. As soon as the answer is “God did it”, now I have some tools. Humans know about social interactions. Now to stop the drought, I just have to convince God to make it rain. I can do that by worshipping him, or asking a favor, or making a sacrifice. I have tools for interacting with “someone”.

            But now we know better. Sadly, we should have outgrown this at least a thousand years ago.

          2. This is also why appeals to dualism, etc. don’t work with the free will “problem”, the problem over the origin of consciousness, etc.

            It has occurred to me over the past few years that the impact of one of the great discoveries of recent human history has not been explored in quite the right way. That’s the discovery of the very small and the discrete. Prior to that, “magic” seemed more plausible, because there was no known structure to account for anything. A piece of skin *looks* the same through and through, etc but is clearly not once we have microscopy and so on. Aristotle, for example, is not much of a magical thinker, but there’s room for the “immaterial” soul of the Christians and others in the view (at least somewhat) because of this unawareness of the tiny. We know better now.

            In a way this is a specific version of the problem with the “god of the gaps” arguments.

        2. Agreed.

          I do not get gods. I think I can relate to superheroes or demigods, but god concepts are unarguable, inert…vestigial at best.

  2. I was a bit disappointed in his illustrations of possible universes as proofs that godless universes are inconceivable. I think a believer would argue that these possible universes still needed a mind or creator or first cause to set them up, and his examples don’t address that issue.

  3. I don’t think “God did it” is a theory at all because God can be used to explain ANY outcome – it can’t be falsified. Some outcomes could conceivably falsify evolution, but the ID or traditional creationist would just say “it’s that way because God/Designer wanted it that way”. And, sadly, many people are satisfied with that.

  4. I’m Canadian so we had our turkey day last month. My dad once told his American friend that today was Benedict Arnold Day in Canada because he is a hero here. It took him a minute before he realized it was a joke.

    Sadly I’m at work about to deliver training. I will endeavour to watch later though.

  5. Ten Things I Am Thankful for This Thanksgiving Day

    I am thankful that after experiencing eight of the most miserable years since the dark days of Tricky-Dicky, we have managed to elect (and re-elect) a person with a brain.

    I am thankful that after a very long period of injustice, bigotry and intolerance, everyone will finally have the chance to marry the one they love.

    I am thankful that despite the incredible brutality heaped against it, the Earth is still able to sustain intelligent life.

    I am thankful that all of my compatriots will finally have access to sane and affordable healthcare.

    I am thankful that the ACLU, the FFRF and Americans United are still forcefully defending our Constitutionally-given freedoms and basic human rights.

    I am thankful that Planned Parenthood and NARAL, after having feces hurled at them for many years, are still working very hard to defend our right to own our own bodies.

    I am thankful that many more people in our country are finally beginning to shed their supernatural delusions.

    I am thankful that the international corporations have not yet made slaves of everyone.

    I am thankful that after the longest war in our country’s history our commander-in-chief is seriously trying to bring our brothers and sisters in combat home.

    I am thankful that after nearly seven decades of repeatedly experiencing stunning examples of stupidity and willful ignorance I have been able to forego dismembering anyone.

    I am very thankful.

  6. I like that—and the talk—because it presumes that the notion of God really is a theory (in the sense of “an idea about what’s true in the universe”), and not some ineffable idea that can’t be approached via reason and science.

    When people who believe in God hotly protest that no no, the existence of God is NOT a theory or hypothesis, it’s fun to ask them what it is. This is where even the sophisticated start to get very, very strained.

    The two most common sorts of responses both try to eliminate God as a conclusion, since failing to do so entails that the concluder might be wrong. The first tactic is along the lines of “God isn’t a hypothesis — He’s my Best Friend!” Act as if the skeptic is trying to make you doubt an actual person. Either both of you already know that God exists and the atheist is being mean, or the believer is so, so close to God that it’s not even conceivable to think of Him as any less real than someone standing right next to you — or in your own head.

    The second tactic is to try to place “God exists” into the same moral category as something like “it is better to be kind than cruel.” Fuzz it up and begin to wonder aloud how one could ever PROVE the value of love over hate – as if this was the sort of “hypothesis” we’re talking about.

    Best of course is to use BOTH tactics, switching back and forth so swiftly that you confuse yourself.

  7. Having watched the video, IMHO, Prof. Carroll took about an hour to say what Laplace said in a sentence. “I have no need of that hypothesis”.

    1. …except Laplace never bothered to elaborate why he thought as he did (not to mention his understanding would’ve probably been much less nuanced in a purely classical construct). Keeping all those kinds of considerations to yourself does make for a much shorter presentation.

      1. As best we know, Napoleon didn’t ask him why he had no need of that hypothesis. However, I think it is clear that he had concluded that his calculations provided a complete explanation for the stability of the solar system and they hence intervention by some outside entity was unnecessary. That’s what I read into his statement anyway. This is in contrast to Newton who hypothesized that the intervention of an outside entity was required every so often to keep the planets in their orbits. I assume that Laplace was aware of Newton’s argument and, perhaps, was making a subtle dig at his predecessor.

        1. Yep. That’s the way it looks to me, too. It is amazing what a hundred years (roughly, the gap between Newton’s and Laplace’s early years), and a trip across the English channel will do to one’s outlook. Also interesting to note that Laplace had originally been groomed by his father for a life in the priesthood.
          It would’ve been so interesting to see what influenced Laplace’s thinking throughout his life, plus what scientific ideas he had that were drawn from other sources – from his point of view. Unfortunately, writing down attributions to other contemporaries was not in vogue at the time, so we are left with a lot of historical guesswork.

          1. Also interesting to note that Laplace had originally been groomed by his father for a life in the priesthood.

            Charles Darwin’s father Robert also encouraged him to become an Anglican priest.

    2. Carroll said more than just that the God hypothesis is unnecessary. He said that even in its own terms it’s a failed hypothesis because it makes predictions (such as the number of galaxies or the entropy of the early universe) that are falsified by observation. That’s a much stronger argument than Laplace made.

  8. While the overall point is of course true – God’s not a good theory – the philosophical arguments seem shoddy at best, such as the argument from entropy. Having gone on to watch his lecture about interpretations of quantum mechanic, I remain very unconvinced.

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