Former Scientific American editor, writing in the magazine, suggests that science may find evidence for God using telescopes and other instruments

December 26, 2019 • 10:00 am

I was quite appalled to see this new op-ed in Scientific American in which former contributing editor Mark Alpert trots out all the Great Unknowns of Science to answer his title question with a big “NO!”. God is still viable!

Now the magazine does give a caveat at the end: “The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American”, but to me that doesn’t justify publication of what is essentially The Argument from Ignorance. A science magazine has no business engaging in theology—it might as well have titled the article “Can science rule out Wotan?” or “Can Science rule out Leprechauns?”. For the argument—that we don’t understand everything, ergo God remains a viable explanation—could hold not just for God, but for any postulate for which we don’t have evidence and, indeed, are unable to get decisive evidence. (Note at the end, though, that Alpert somehow thinks we can find evidence for god by using big telescopes. )

Increasingly, we see venues like Scientific American and National Geographic touting or coddling religion, and I’m not sure why. I don’t even have a theory that is mine.

Click on the screenshot to read (and weep).

First Alpert avers that he “has no religious agenda” and is neither a believer nor a “committed atheist”. But, as you’ll see, he has a definite weakness toward religion, especially since there is no empirical evidence (remember the magazine’s title) for a God, and yet his article tries to keep that idea viable.  In trying to do that, he produces a dog’s breakfast of muddled arguments.

Here, for example, he mixes up a number of questions, some scientific and some religious or philosophical:

For 10 years, I was an editor at Scientific American. During that time, we were diligent about exposing the falsehoods of “intelligent design” proponents who claimed to see God’s hand in the fashioning of complex biological structures such as the human eye and the bacterial flagellum. But in 2008 I left journalism to write fiction. I wrote novels about Albert Einstein and quantum theory and the mysteries of the cosmos. And ideas about God keep popping up in my books.

Should scientists even try to answer questions about the purpose of the universe? Most researchers assume that science and religion are completely separate fields—or, in the phrase coined by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, “nonoverlapping magisteria.” But as physicists investigate the most fundamental characteristics of nature, they’re tackling issues that have long been the province of philosophers and theologians: Is the universe infinite and eternal? Why does it seem to follow mathematical laws, and are those laws inevitable? And, perhaps most important, why does the universe exist? Why is there something instead of nothing?

I don’t really know any scientists, save religious ones, who try to tell us about “the purpose of the universe.” It’s like asking, “what is the purpose of a star, or a glacier?” We all know that science doesn’t answer questions like that, except in a metaphorical way (i.e., “What is the purpose of the heart?”)  And the questions Alpert broaches are a mixture of scientific ones (“Is the universe infinite and eternal?”) with theological ones (“Why does the universe exist?” could have both a theological and scientific answer), as well as ones that aren’t even scientifically sensible (“Why does [the universe] seem to follow mathematical laws?” is an observation that, if couched as a “why” question, begs for a theological answer).

Other questions, like “is the universe infinite?”, will and probably can answered, not by philosophers or theologians, but by scientists. The question, “are those laws inevitable?” at least has a possible scientific answer pending formulation of a new and comprehensive theory of physics.

Alpert then raises Aquinas’s “First Cause” (cosmological) argument, and doesn’t mention the many rebuttals, both scientific and philosophical, of that misguided argument for God.  Later in the piece he does note Victor Stenger’s observation that why the universe could have been eternal, or have gone through endless cycles, but Alpert doesn’t mention these caveats when discussing the Cosmological Argument. In fact, it’s risible to discuss Aquinas’s refuted arguments in the pages of Scientific American as even remotely credible arguments for God.

Alpert then goes on to suggest that Einstein himself sort-of-believed in a God, using the same wink-wink-nod-nod claims we often hear: because Einstein used the word “god”, and Einstein was smart, that constitutes some evidence for divinity:

Both Leibniz and Newton considered themselves natural philosophers, and they freely jumped back and forth between science and theology.

By the 20th century, most scientists no longer devised proofs of God’s existence, but the connection between physics and faith hadn’t been entirely severed. Einstein, who frequently spoke about religion, didn’t believe in a personal God who influences history or human behavior, but he wasn’t an atheist either. He preferred to call himself agnostic, although he sometimes leaned toward the pantheism of Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who proclaimed, in the 17th century, that God is identical with nature.

Likewise, Einstein compared the human race to a small child in a library full of books written in unfamiliar languages: “The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly.”

Einstein often invoked God when he talked about physics. In 1919, after British scientists confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity by detecting the bending of starlight around the sun, he was asked how he would’ve reacted if the researchers hadn’t found the supporting evidence. “Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord,” Einstein said. “The theory is correct.” His attitude was a strange mix of humility and arrogance. He was clearly awed by the laws of physics and grateful that they were mathematically decipherable. (“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” he said. “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”)

This is nothing other than a weaselly way of conflating Einstein’s wonder at the regularities of the Universe with conventional religious belief. I’ve now read enough Einstein to realize, as do most of his biographers, that he didn’t really believe in any kind of anthropomorphic God, and wasn’t even a deist—except in the nonreligious sense that he felt awe at the regularities and comprehensibility of the Universe. His use of the words “Lord” and “God” was simply a gratuitous metaphor. But what other purpose does Alpert have here than to somehow make the idea of God more credible because Einstein, a smart guy, used the word.

Finally, Alpert plays his hole card, which is, of course, the oddity of quantum mechanics. It is, he says, almost. . .  supernatural.

Although quantum theory is now the foundation of particle physics, many scientists still share Einstein’s discomfort with its implications. The theory has revealed aspects of nature that seem supernatural: the act of observing something can apparently alter its reality, and quantum entanglement can weave together distant pieces of spacetime. (Einstein derisively called it “spooky action at a distance.”) The laws of nature also put strict limits on what we can learn about the universe. We can’t peer inside black holes, for example, or view anything that lies beyond the distance that light has traveled since the start of the big bang.

And why, exactly, does this even seem supernatural. In his latest book, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime,  Carroll (who is an avowed atheist, though not a vociferous one), discusses how entanglement doesn’t really posit a supernatural-ish “observer effect”, for the observer is simply part of the physical wave function embracing an entire experiment.

Further, the fact that the laws of nature limit what we can know about the Universe (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” is a famous example), says nothing about the existence of a god.

Towards the end, I Alpert seems to realize that his argument for god is going nowhere, and so, in a move of desperation, he redefines “God” as “pure naturalism” or “the physical universe”. What is the sweating writer trying to say with this?:

Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume this hypothesis of Quantum Creation is correct. Suppose we do live in a universe that generated its own laws and called itself into being. Doesn’t that sound like Leibniz’s description of God (“a necessary being which has its reason for existence in itself”)? It’s also similar to Spinoza’s pantheism, his proposition that the universe as a whole is God. Instead of proving that God doesn’t exist, maybe science will broaden our definition of divinity.

But of course the universe could have existed, in one form or another, eternally, or there could be multiple universes that keep branching off, as Carroll suggests in his most recent book. But leaving that aside, Alpert knows perfectly well that a self-contained and purely naturalistic universe is not what most people think of as God. For if you define God as “all the laws of physics and their sequelae”, then anything, including a rock or a comet or a bird, could be taken as evidence for God.

There is in fact no point for “science to broaden our definition of divinity”—what he means is that science will replace our idea of divinity—unless Alpert somehow wants to fool believers into thinking that modern physics give us assurance that God existed. But redefining the idea of God in this way is a non-starter; as my dad used to say, “If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.” (Perhaps that’s not the wisest statement to mention these days, but it was from my dad, not me!) I see Alpert’s redefinition here, in view of what Americans really think about God, as mendacious, duplicitous, or even a way to convince himself that there might be a god.

At the very end, Alpert proposes that new scientific instruments will ultimately help us decide whether God exists, leading to “breakthroughs in theology”:

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To spur humanity’s search for meaning, we should prioritize the funding of advanced telescopes and other scientific instruments that can provide the needed data to researchers studying fundamental physics. And maybe this effort will lead to breakthroughs in theology as well. The pivotal role of observers in quantum theory is very curious. Is it possible that the human race has a cosmic purpose after all? Did the universe blossom into an untold number of realities, each containing billions of galaxies and vast oceans of emptiness between them, just to produce a few scattered communities of observers? Is the ultimate goal of the universe to observe its own splendor?

Perhaps. We’ll have to wait and see.

It would have helped here had Alpert told us what “breakthroughs in theology” are even potentially achievable by using new telescopes and instruments. Will we see the face of God with a sufficently power telescope? And what empirical findings would convince us that the universe has a cosmic purpose? Here Alpert is curiously silent, telling us nothing about how such observations could tell us what the “ultimate goal of the universe” is. That question doesn’t even have any meaning, any more than asking “what is the goal of a mountain?”

I can see his justification in an NSF Proposal for a new telescope: “In addition to the new empirical observations that could result from this funding, I should add that such a telescope could also enable humanity to find its meaning, perhaps leading to breakthroughs in theology.”

Here’s my short review of the piece, one that I’d put up on Amazon if it was in a book. And it apparently is, as the article says that “This essay was adapted from the introduction to Saint Joan of New York: A Novel about God and String Theory (Springer, 2019).”

In this mushy article, former Scientific American editor Mark Alpert asks the question “Can science rule out God?” His answer—”Hell, no!”—is a foregone conclusion given that a.) science can’t rule out anything with absolute certainty, particularly those entities for which we have no empirical evidence and b.) Alpert expands his definition god so widely—i.e., “god” could be a purely naturalistic universe—that his answer has to be “no”. What he doesn’t mention is that empirical observation, such as the presence of natural evils, and the inefficacy or prayer, have already ruled out certain ideas of God, for example an anthropomorphic God who answers entreaties and is omnibenevolent. Scientific American should be embarrassed at publishing such tripe. Let us hope that in the future they stick to science and refrain from theology.




h/t: Kingpin

96 thoughts on “Former Scientific American editor, writing in the magazine, suggests that science may find evidence for God using telescopes and other instruments

  1. Alpert: “Einstein … didn’t believe in a personal God … but he wasn’t an atheist either”.

    It’s likely that Einstein was indeed an atheist, but didn’t like to use the term because, as a famous Jew at a time when Jews were under dire threat in Europe, he didn’t want to turn Americans against Jews.

    Even the mild statements he did make provoked letters such as:

    “Deep regret that you … ridicule the concept of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement.”

    And: “You are among those adding fuel to the fire, and believe me Doctor Einstein, fuel is being added to the fire, and there is definitely a growing spirit of anti-Semitism in the United States.” And:

    “Professor Einstein, I believe that every Christian in America will answer you … you come along and with one statement from your blasphemous tongue do more to hurt the cause of your people … if you do not believe in the God of the people of this Nation go back where you came from.” (link giving cites.)

    1. I agree. I get royally p***ed off when Einstein’s figurative or metaphorical references to God are misused as some sort of ‘evidence’ that he believed in the meddling intrusive anthropomorphic Xtian ‘God’. Anybody who can’t see that Einstein was being facetious and ironic when he said “Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord; the theory is correct” is too thick to be allowed out without a minder.

      Einstein was emphatically not conventionally religious but he wasn’t a militant atheist, judging by the Wikipedia page. I’d say he certainly was an atheist but he would be extremely annoyed to see his views being used as ammunition in the debate, by either side.


  2. Accuse me of nit-picking if you want, but I believe that the question of whether the universe is finite is open.

    Now I’ll go back to reading the rest of the post.

      1. Good rebuttal. Alpert’s piece is such drek and you disposed of it well, but my favorite part is this quip: “…he produces a dog’s breakfast of muddled arguments.”

      2. In your Googling, did you notice that the evidence for “dark energy” has been called into question.

        It is proposed that the measurements of velocities of galaxies used as evidence of acceleration were not randomly distributed and did not allow for the Milky Way’s motion relative to the cosmic background radiation, biasing the data to show acceleration that may not exist.

        Kind of a big deal since “Nobel” prizes were given for the discovery of dark energy. We are a long, long way from understanding the universe.

        1. You :

          Kind of a big deal since “Nobel” prizes were given for the discovery of dark energy.

          The citation for the 2011 Nobel Physics prize was :

          “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”

          This Nobel prize was awarded for the observation of an increasing distance- recession velocity relationship (with distances calculated from the apparant luminosity of the supernovae, and the recession velocities being from straight spectroscopy). Many people (including probably Perlmutter, Riess and Schmitt) have said since that this observation can be explained by “dark energy” (of various properties, depending on who you ask), but the reason the Nobel was awarded was the observation, not the interpretation. Distinguishing observation from interpretation is a pretty fundamental part of sciences, particularly in those fields (including astronomy) which are not very amenable to experimental replication.
          Why the quotation marks around “Nobel” ? It was the guy’s name ; his will dictated the names and fields of study and conditions for the prizes. It’s as unambiguously the Nobel prize as … oh, the Templeton Prizes which were funded by John Templeton and award moolah for (whatever criteria he specified). I’ve never met anyone who confuses a “Templeton” prize with one, for example, church settlement design.

          1. I think this is hairsplitting.

            The Nobel prizes are for discoveries. The scientists must have discovered some thing. In this case, the quote provided above tells what that thing is : “… the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe …”. Why they included the “through observations” part, I don’t know, but observations are common – discovery is rare.

            Nobel prizes also are not of immutable significance – consider frontal lobotomies.

            1. I don’t think it is hairsplitting. An observation is a fact that will not change (unless someone has made a serious foul up in their instrumentation, which is why there are “methods” sections in papers) ; the interpretation (in this case, “dark energy” may well be wrong.
              I have to deal with this all the time at work. What we observe are ground up rocks in various stages of conversion to fubarite (*note), which require diligent recording. What we need to interpret is where we are in the expected sequence, how far we are to target, whether to steer up, down, left or right. They’re two very different things. The observations don’t change (well, if I do my job of training the night shift geologist properly), but as more information comes in (such as from elogging tools hundreds of feet back in the drill string, the interpretation can change.
              Your point about the variable significance of Nobels agrees. The surgical techniques of the frontal lobotomy remain valid, even if the reasons for doing it have largely evaporated. But … don’t techniques derived from the frontal lobotomy remain in use in management of severe epilepsy? Severing the right bits of connective neural tissue can prevent an epileptic convulsion from propagating form it’s source region to the other side of the brain. (I may have misunderstood the surgery – I drill holes in the ground, not in people’s skulls.)
              (*note Fubarite : a meta-rock : Fouled-Up Beyond All Recognition ; absent from most geological dictionaries but present in most collections)

              1. The point I am criticizing is the claim that the Nobel Prize is given for observation, not “interpretation”. I don’t think either claim is correct. Goran Hansson has emphasized that the prize is given for discovery. I think I understand that – discovery is the finding of new things. I liked my Sherlock Holmes style adage “observation is common – discovery is rare.”

                The point of mentioning the 1949 Prize in medicine for prefrontal leucotomy (meaning lobotomy), is to show that the Nobel Prize is not perfect. Not the best way to show it, but it is easy to remember this unsettling case.

              2. 1. Isn’t Fubarite a Highfalutin* way to say metamorphic?

                2. I assume you is diggin’ fer oil. Doesn’t that chaff a little? I hope there are other things interesting things geologists can do other than adding to the stockpile of fossil fuel.

                *note Highfalutin : Might be derived from “flute” played for royalty.

              3. That’s the thing about fubarite – it is really hard to work out what it is that the stuff was before [whatever] fubared it.
                Actually, I have pointed out to many a trainee that we’re actually looking at high strain rate cataclastic rocks and trying to deduce what the protolith was. The task was considerably simpler when we regularly used tricone bits (or even rare bicone and quadricone bits), but they’re pretty rare now – it’s PDC bits all the way, which work by shearing the rock at the cutting edge. The result is, all too often, something with the consistency of toothpaste. And we have to try to work out what the protolith was, to compare with records taken up to 80 years previously. (I did a well under Goodwood racecourse once which used descriptions from pre-WW1 surface samples 50 miles away to provide a prediction of what was expected downhole.)
                Drilling for oil doesn’t “chaff” for me. There has never been any secret about the consequences of burning the stuff – that’s a choice that society has made. But trying to find some other industry to put my skills to … no joy.
                Dad’s chemistry textbooks from the 1950s (several of them written pre-war, by Germans ; very politically incorrect in 1950s England!) complained that oil was far too good a feedstock for industry (plastics and various other chemicals) and that burning the stuff was a profound waste. But people did. Insanity, but what else would you expect from upright hairless apes?

              4. Interesting that bits would be so significant. Protolith? I imagine there’s a lot of satisfaction in the science of all that.

                “There has never been any secret about the consequences of burning the stuff”. I’m sure that’s true. Climbing atmospheric CO2 was noticed back in the 40s and ignored for the next 75 years – only now getting some attention. What can be done about these monkeys who seem bent on destruction?

              5. I think that’s a problem for the next generation of monkeys. I’ve contributed my bit to solving the problem.

              6. I did not mean to imply that you were not on the right side of the issue. P.S. Your contributions to this site are highly valued by me.

        2. Yeah, and that paper got a real basting. It was crap.

          “Two decades later, multiple independent measurements agree that dark energy comprises about 70% of the universe’s contents. It is so baked into our current understanding of the cosmos that it came as a surprise when a recent paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics questioned whether it’s there at all.

          The four authors, including the Oxford physicist Subir Sarkar, performed their own analysis of data from hundreds of supernovas — the stellar explosions that provided the first evidence for cosmic acceleration, a discovery that earned three astronomers the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. When Sarkar and his colleagues looked at supernovas, they didn’t see a universe that’s accelerating uniformly in all directions due to dark energy. Rather, they say supernovas look the way they do because our region of the cosmos is accelerating in a particular direction — roughly toward the constellation Centaurus in the southern sky.

          Abstractions​ navigates promising ideas in science and mathematics. Journey with us and join the conversation.
          See all Abstractions blog
          Outside experts almost immediately began picking the paper apart, finding apparent flaws in its methodology. Now, two cosmologists have formalized those arguments and others in a paper that was posted online on December 6 and submitted to The Astrophysical Journal. The authors, David Rubin and his student Jessica Heitlauf of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, detail four main problems with Sarkar and company’s data handling. “Is the expansion of the universe accelerating?” their paper title asks. “All signs still point to yes.”

          Outside researchers praised the thorough dissection. “The arguments by Rubin et al. are very convincing,” said Dragan Huterer, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan. “Some of them I was aware of upon looking at the original [Astronomy & Astrophysics paper], and others are new to me but make a lot of sense.”

          However, Sarkar and his co-authors — Jacques Colin and Roya Mohayaee of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics and Mohamed Rameez of the University of Copenhagen — don’t agree with the criticisms. Days after Rubin and Heitlauf’s paper appeared, they posted a rebuttal of the rebuttal.

          The cosmology community remains unmoved. Huterer said this latest response at times “misses the point” and attempts to debate statistical principles that are “not negotiable.” Dan Scolnic, a supernova cosmologist at Duke University, reaffirmed that “the evidence for dark energy from supernovas alone is significant and secure.””

          [ ]

          Look, these papers “upending this-and-that-in cosmology” are a dime a dozen.

          And specifically this has been Sarkar’s only hobby horse for two decades according to his publication record.

          Does it sound like Sarkar – or any of the other “upenders” – has a convincing hypothesis?

  3. While science can’t rule out God completely for the reasons you stated, it seems to me it has made the idea so unlikely as not to waste time on until someone comes up with some reasonable evidence, if they can.

    1. I disagree, I think we should spend a billion or two to send an expedition to the North Pole to find out if there really is a Santa and a gigantic toy factory there, and associated reindeers and elves.
      At present science leaves that question wide open.

  4. If the purpose of that article by Alpert was to inject some humility into the scientific enterprise, it was much better done in “The blind spot” by Adam Frank et al. in the Aeon article, without all this talk of God, I might add.

    As it is, he falls prey to the cultural provincialism of imagining all mystery outside of the current scientific scope as falling within this hidebound mould of the God concept, Aquinas being one of the worst culprits who assured its infection in the public discourse on these matters. It’s anondyne and uninteresting.

  5. Scientific American is owned by Holtzbrink, a giant publishing conglomerate which includes Nature, the notably profit-hungry Springer, and such once-independent English language publishers as Holt, Macmillan, St. Martins, Farrar, Freeman, and others. I was surprised by the extent to which publishing has been conglomeratized (a new verb we should all keep in mind) and the centrality of this
    single German firm. If it were ever to merge with Walt Disney and Amazon, it could declare that it was now God, thus producing the hoped-for breakthrough in theology.

    1. publishing has been conglomeratized (a new verb we should all keep in mind)

      “agglomerate” has been a verb and a noun in geology, at least, for a long time. It seems to fit well for this process. Specifically, it doesn’t have the implication of rounding the angular bits off the particles which is present in “conglomeratize”.

  6. A delightful critique as always – with perfectly placed honorary Mencken-ism.

    “The theory has revealed aspects of nature that seem supernatural”

    Such a cop-out. My reply would be “so what?” Furthermore, why is it only quantum mechanics that is ever referred to as “supernatural”? Never, for instance, genetics, mathematics, etc.,

    1. I too was thinking “where is the money”? A detection technique with a venerable and high success rate.

  7. If we can see god with a giant telescope, we can probably also kill him/her/it with a giant bazooka. Good riddance.

  8. If we can see god with a giant telescope, we can probably also kill him/her/it with a giant bazooka. Good riddance.

  9. ” But in 2008 I left journalism to write fiction… And ideas about God keep popping up in my books.”

    In my estimation, linking his fiction writing to his emerging consciousness of g-d, isn’t the best advertisement for the substance of his arguments (especially in Scientific American). Makes me wonder if he’s one of those folks who can’t tell fact from fiction.

    I’ve published fiction that incorporated religious material, orthodox and heterodox. but it never occurred to me to question my atheism because of it. It did, however, cause readers (the very kind that can’t tell fact from fiction)to accuse me of dissembling when, during book talks, I professed my atheism. These people were angry with me.

  10. Reminds me of a quote from the secular-humanist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:

    I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine.

    Which, in turn, reminds me of another quote which appears to have originated with the Frenchman Anselme Polycarpe Batbie, but which also seems to have been attributed (except with regard to “socialism”) to many others (including, as with all quotations of a beclouded source, to Winston Churchill):

    He who is not a républicain at twenty compels one to doubt the generosity of his heart; but he who, after thirty, persists, compels one to doubt the soundness of his mind.

    In any event, Mark Alpert, at 58, seems a bit long in the tooth for harboring illusions about, as it were, espying God through the business end of a telescope.

  11. It would be far more on point for Mr. Alpert to write an essay that asks why people keep wanting to believe in a god or in a ‘higher purpose’. What is it about our brain that causes some of us to keep circling back to such an imagining or yearning?

    1. Indeed – what’s so scary about being self-directed? And if you can’t judge for yourself what purposes are worth pursuing, how are you supposed to judge whom to trust to tell it to you?

      1. how are you supposed to judge whom to trust to tell it to you?

        The one that’s the loudest! Always trust the loudest people or gods.

      2. “…how are you supposed to judge whom to trust to tell it to you?”

        Understanding that much of competence (about big things, not craftsmanship) is based on pretense is the beginning of wisdom.

        “Positive, adj.: Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.” – Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

    2. It might be a combination of things like dreams, sense of awe at landscapes and starlings (general examples), intense pleasure (likewise the opposite of intense pain) love (this word should be abandoned until it’s well-defined) birth, death, (already noted above) what else (out of body experiences in there). When we come across things we don’t understand and there’s no explanation (even if there is a reasonable, sound one) we sometimes think it must be something we don’t understand. I was a hardcore skeptic and anti-religion long before I ever had an out of body thing. That was just a freak thing I didn’t need. Science can handle what you throw at it. Religion can’t. I got that bit of slight focus (not that it was so out of focus) from Jerry who said science and religion ask the same questions but use different methodologies. Excellent. Thank you for pointing this out, Mark. I have a bit more but have to review my notes and do some more reading. Scientific American should take the article down. What scares me is that this person was an editor.

  12. Scientific American has sunk mightily from the time it was so esteemed that it was the only American publication distributed in the Soviet Union.

    1. I stopped buying it (regularly) around a decade ago as not being worth the effort and cost of reading. Rarely, less than once a year, it has something worth thinking about on the cover. But that’s what libraries are good for.

  13. What continues to mystify me is the routine use of “God” as if the question is whether some version of the Christian-Jewish (and possibly Islamic) deity is the question. And as if those religions can agree on what this “God” is. Why isn’t the question from osculating scientists phrased in terms of supernatural entities? As soon as they say “God” or “Goddidit”, they have tipped their hand and there is litle point in wasting time on them, entertaining as it may be.

    1. What continues to mystify me is the routine use of “God” as if the question is whether some version of the Christian-Jewish (and possibly Islamic) deity is the question.

      I thought that the monotheistic religions – the ecumenical squads at least – had agreed that the three are just aspects of the one true god. Certainly, that’s the impression that the Roman Catholics have been shouting about for decades.

  14. There are no gods and the universe has no purpose, but can the universe still have a general direction? (A mindless direction, like liquid water going to the oceans) Doesn’t life get more diverse with time, and doesn’t that increase the probability of more intelligence, even god-like intelligence? I think those are valid questions without theological or teleological nonsense.

    1. When you start out with simple replicator molecules, there’s only one direction evolution can take — toward more complexity. But life on earth demonstrates that, once a certain level of complexity has been achieved, evolution can move in the opposite direction, too (see, e.g., cave fish that have lost their eyesight). It all depends on which adaptations are more efficient at getting organisms’ genes into the next generation.

      Intelligence (and consciousness) are evolutionary adaptations (or, as to the latter, perhaps a spandrel of the former), but I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about either.

      At least that’s my very amateur take on these things.

      1. I know that individual species don’t go in any direction at all, but life as a whole (all the species together) gets, generally speaking, more diverse with time, and that, I think, increases the probability of more and more intelligence. I don’t understand where I’m wrong.

              1. That was already true 10 billion years ago, but who cares? The universe still had a few surprises for us, it created life, and a bit later, consciousness. What is it gonna do next? Can it create even more unbelievable things? Maybe, nobody knows what a mindless universe can do.

              2. It comes down to “more diverse with time”, an assertion that works only if you limit the view to narrow windows within which it happens and ignore the times when it doesn’t.

        1. To me that seems about right. Intelligence of a rudimentary sort definitely has advantages, as it is a means of achieving what is called an economy of scale. That is, larger and more complex species can obtain resources that are not available to simpler and less complex species. Natural selection does not in itself drive towards complexity of any sort, but it does tend to select for lineages that can get new resources, and complexity and intelligence are sometimes the solution. Intelligence has evolved multiple times among the social mammals, so it does not seem unusual.

        2. That may be true. But given the problems of taphonomy and preservation, it is hard to take the palaeontological record without a correction for this.
          There is also the non-trivial problem that most of the biochemical variety of life resides, as it always has done, in the single-celled realm. Sure, eukaryotes have lots of body plans, including the metazoans. But most of the variation is still in the prokaryotes.

          1. Even if you solve all those problems you still wouldn’t know if life is going somewhere. Life on a single planet can disappear completely. Now, life in the universe, that’s a different thing. It’s all conjectures, but if this universe, that will continue to create new stars for 100 trillion years, created consciousness right off the bat, maybe life is more interesting than we think. 15 billion years is the first second of a two-hour marathon (if you take 100 trillion, which maybe be wrong).

  15. If this man requires comfort, he could have at least tried a cup of tea and a dunking type biscuit… playing peek a boo with a god is abit childish.
    It seems to me that science inadvertantly has ruled out god by degrees to the point of no return, reducing god to a nil hypothisis…. a fairytale that explains nothing.

  16. and doesn’t mention the many rebuttals, both scientific and philosophical, of that misguided argument for God.

    It makes things less complicated that way. All of that typing adds up to more words and there is only so much space on the internets.

  17. Surely if any scientific discipline can produce new evidence on the God question that science is Psychology.
    That’s a more reasonable claim than the God-seeking telescope focused on outer space.
    The philosopher Mainlander posited that there was a God but he died by suicide in the Big Bang, creating the Universe. (I’m not sure of the history of Big Bang theory but Mainlander may have been ahead of his time. Unfortunately he killed himself in 1876 when his book was first published and wasn’t around to take credit for the idea).

  18. I can’t understand why scientists and millions of others still believe that in addition to this natural universe, a supernatural realm exists. There is the truism, if something exists it can be measured. If phenomenon occurs, it is of the natural universe. If and when the supernatural occurs in the natural world, it is called a miracle. Believing in the supernatural is one thing, but believing that the supernatural can affect the natural world is the delusion. Cheers for the New Year. GROG

  19. Increasingly, we see venues like Scientific American and National Geographic touting or coddling religion, and I’m not sure why.

    Because science doesn’t entertain most people, but pandering to peoples beliefs and expectations does entertain? Plus good scientific writers are a rare (and therefore expensive) resource?

  20. And perhaps most important, why does the universe exist? Why is there something instead of nothing?

    I have to laugh at people who caution that science needs “humility” who then go on to ask a question like this. The question is only asked to indicate an answer that involves us. Our consciousness, our needs, our interests, our hopes, our lives, and our precious, precious selves. Me, me me — surely the sum total of everything wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for ME? Wouldn’t be around if not for US? Let’s let go of our pride and keep hinting that it’s at least possible.

    God’s only a stand in, a prop as it were. An impersonal, indifferent, mindless, directionless God isn’t going to differ from that sort of universe.

  21. The existence of the universe as evidence of a supernatural creator? As David Deutsch points out, bad explanations are highly variable, good ones aren’t.


    1. Yes, bad explanations can be generalized to provide an explanation for absolutely any claim (as well as its negation, of course, by a suitable variation).

  22. From a philosophical perspective, no, science can’t rule out the existence of god because the concept is an abstract that can neither be proved nor disproved. How sad that a once great publication feels it has to pander to the power of religion in the US. That says a lot, none of it good.

    1. I’m glad that science isn’t philosophy. Even Alpert recognized science has ruled out “gods” in nature, so he had to resort to theology.

  23. People have always liked to gather-in groups, celibate life and being alive, and be thankful for that. Thankful to what or who seems to be the question. To the jews of long ago, the answer was unknowable and indescribable. I would say they were correct.

    1. Cannot resist pointing to the typo, by saying: I’d have been loathe to celebrate being celibate, at any time when I still was, 1 or 2 centuries ago I think.

      I do agree with OG.

  24. “Scientific American should be embarrassed at publishing such tripe. Let us hope that in the future they stick to science and refrain from theology.”
    After quoting PCC, I now (sorrowfully) quote all of us readers, who say, in unison, “fat chance.”

  25. “Should scientists even try to answer questions about the purpose of the universe?”

    Whom does Alpert consider sufficiently worthy to hold forth on such matters – a former Scientific American editor? A theologian? A snake-handling preacher?

    ‘ . . . as my dad used to say, “If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.” ‘

    I think I see why we “Cry ‘Uncle!'” but not “Cry ‘Auntie!'” 😉

  26. So what if we/he finds evidence of God, are we to all start praying 5 times a day, stoning certain recalcitrant persons, throwing others off buildings, making women second class citizens?

    Will we follow the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, Norse Mythology, etc?

    More cow-towing to a religious sentiment that helps reinforce the maintenance of the nonsense we still have.

  27. Dear Professor Coyne,
    Your comments and critique on Scientific America’s latest lapse into metaphysics is well taken. I also salute you for your work in critiquing National Geographic and its love of religion. Both magazines are deviating from their original perspectives. I think I know the reason why. Both magazines are increasingly capitalistic friendly in their editorial outlook. I see capitalism as essentially irrational and thus is a natural helpmate to religion and its companion irrationality. Capitalism and religion go together. Cf. Max Weber. Science and rationality and socialism also go together.
    Thank you for your efforts to support rationality.

    1. I don’t know if it is simply a matter of trying to increase profits. My first suspicion is it’s more a matter of trying to decrease the loss in profitability. A magazine needs to make money to be sustained. Readership in magazines in general is declining, as there are many other internet based alternatives.

    1. I have thought that it is declining subscriptions that that drive editors to try new markets. Hence the trend toward vacuosness and therefore goddiness.
      So cancelling a subscription would only make it worse!

  28. I offer this, a portion of Robinson Jeffers poem “the Answer,” as it seems appropriate for both your meditations of the Antarctic, and your critique of Mark Alpert:

    To know this, and know that however ugly
    the parts appear
    the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
    Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from
    the earth and stars
    and his history… for contemplation or in
    Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity
    is wholeness,
    the greatest beauty is
    Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life
    and things, the divine beauty
    of the universe. Love that, not man
    Apart from that, or else you will share
    man’s pitiful confusions,
    or drown in despair when his days darken.
    Robinson Jeffers

  29. Such takes should be rejected outright, because they use a hypothesis that is obvious nonsense when compared to what they themselves argue later. On closer inspection the word “God” means two completely different things, which are switched around.

    The idea is established via the “revelations” and the religious traditions, and then taken to represent something entirely different that is supposed to explain deep question in physics and cosmology and so on. But this is cheating with the word “God“.

    God1, a character in a Bible, has specific properties and is knowable through revelations. If they fail, or are rejected, it‘s not a valid move to point at the night sky and waffle on about mysterious laws of nature. The God1 idea lives, and dies, with scripture.

    God2 is a proposed originator of the laws of nature or some similar idea. But this take is not supported at all. It’s a parasitic idea that leeches off God1. We have no reason whatsoever to suppose one cosmic mind, or twenty-three or a billion. We have nothing at all as to why the cosmic mind, or minds, or machine elves or cosmic elephant-broomstick-toast-creature has created it all. This is not polemical — under close inspection, people always think of properties inspired by God1, but that has no currency here (there are a few thousands of origin stories, perhaps millions of interpretations which can all inspire “metaphorically” God2 in the same way as a generic God1 idea could, and does).

    The only mystery is how this stuff gets published.

  30. When I first saw this SA headline, I immediately remembered a headline from the tabloid Weekly World News proclaiming “Heaven Found by Hubble Telescope!”

  31. “..Scientific American and National Geographic touting or coddling religion, and I’m not sure why.”

    One simple-minded “why” is that they are both USian science popularizing mags (given the US’s religious popularity peculiarities), and that both are profit oriented and ‘pics trump text’ dumbing-down oriented.

    What amazes me is why some really top level scientists such as Frank Wilczek even bother with Scientific American any more. But perhaps they hope the editors will smarten up and do so without losing their jobs because the owners aren’t getting rich enough fast enough. I seem to recall that Nat. Geo. is now owned by some undesirables?? Or is my memory getting derailed here?

    1. What amazes me is why some really top level scientists such as Frank Wilczek even bother with Scientific American any more.

      Is there a level of public outreach as part of professional academic’s contractual obligations? In the same way that the “publish or perish” criterion has lead to a fetishisation of “Impact Factor” for choosing which journals to submit one’s publications to?
      So, if you have to deliver a “quantum of outreach” (sorry for stealing a Fleming line), you can achieve that with one SA article of three pages of lightweight fluff, or three non-identical articles totalling twenty dense page for “ American Scientist“. At which point, the circulation figures become your metric for getting back to productive work.

      1. I’ve never heard of such a contractual obligation. Likely it might only be part of the obligations of a very big name taking on a famous named professorship. That stuff is several orders of magnitude above anything I ever did. In my brief contacts with people such as Michael Atiyah, it was not something we’d have talked about–only me trying to ‘pick their brain’ for the short time I got to ‘bend their ear’.

        Frank Wilczek ended up with a Nobel around 2000 for work he did at a very young age, in the early 1970s. I’ve never talked to him, though I know very well the science dean at MIT who ‘lured’ him away from IAS in Princeton. Wilczek is very famous for several things, especially his part in the Standard Model of Particles. I like the fact that he did undergraduate in Math, not Physics, and at UChicago, and around the time I had a temporary research position there very briefly, but no teaching, so certainly no contact.

        I’m sort of cheering for his wee “axion” particles (‘n’ not a typo for ‘m’—it is also the name of a detergent, where he cadged the name) to end up being dark matter. I should say his and Steven Weinberg’s independently, but his name they agreed to.

        I’m all for such high level people doing this kind of popular writing, but not necessarily for Scientific American, where their work might be surrounded by dregs.

        Wilczek’s recent book “A Beautiful Question” is a great favourite of mine. Top of p. 280, referring to Noether’s theorem he says “It is, I think, the single most profound result in all of physics.” Emmy Noether’s later great contributions to algebra are well known to all mathematicians. But many seem surprised when I tell them about the above; some seem not to even know she answered a question in physics, also at a very young age, a question asked by Einstein and Hilbert IIRC.

        Hilbert himself, in battling the old sexist anti-woman stuff, trying to get her appointed to a decent academic job in Gottingen, exclaimed “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.” But he failed.

        I better be merciful and shut up, overcoming the temptation to go on forever in many (but not multiple! 4 letters is better than 8, and more accurate here!) directions!

        1. “After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.”

          I wonder if he was remembering the old joke about a visiting don (I’ve heard it in both directions between Oxford and Cambridge) who joins his colleagues skinny-dipping in the Cam/ Isis. They are “surprised” by a party of ladies of the town and in finest Keystone Cops slapdash, everyone grabs towels and covers up their nether regions. Except the visiting don, who covers his face, later explaining “In this town I am recognised by my face, not …”
          Returning to the point, I see mentions often enough that academics have a variety of “public outreach” obligations, though it isn’t clear if they’re in personal contracts, departmental contracts (e.g. research grants) or what. One visible outcome of this, for example, is the increasing trend towards publishing under Open Access arrangements, so that the public who pay (indirectly, via taxation) for research can actually access it.
          Penetration is variable – I get a daily email from Arxiv listing OA papers published in variety of astronomical fields, but I have to jump through hoops of varying legality to get geological papers. (The GeoArxiv programme hasn’t got up to the point of sending daily submissions listings, yet.)

  32. The thought of finding G by using a telescope seems like great fodder for both Gary Larson and Pliny the in Between.

    BTW Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger are rare and legendary beers brewed in Northern California. It’s time for one called Pliny the in Between.

    1. The thought of finding G by using a telescope seems like great fodder for both Gary Larson and Pliny the in Between.

      I feel the need for an 89th constellation. “Sotana Nigra” – a big black hole (on the sky). Or, in British English translation from the Mexican/ Latin/ Canine, “the chocolate starfish”.

  33. It appears that Mr. Alpert suffers from the same parental brain blip that John C. Wathey talks about in his book “The Illusion of God’s Presence”

    Interview here (starts at 3:42)

  34. Is God still viable ?
    The Argument for thinking

    1 – God’s hand in the fashioning of complex biological structures
    such as the human eye and the bacterial flagellum.

    2 – God’s hand in the quantum theory

    3 – God’s hand in the mysteries of the cosmos.
    Is the universe infinite and eternal? . . . etc

    4 – Why does Nature follow mathematical laws,
    and are those laws inevitable?

    5 – Is God identical with nature ?

    6 – Is “God” a simply metaphor ?

    7 – Will science expand our definition of divinity ?
    1 – Is redefining the ideas of science and God so different that . . .
    “If my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.”
    / whyevolutionistrue , posted on December 26, 2019 /

    2 – ”We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws,
    but we understand the laws only dimly.”
    / Mark Alpert /

  35. Perhaps this question is simpler than it looks. in every monotheistic religion (and this seems to be a monotheistic claim) “God” has an adversary. And the adversary works here on Earth.
    So instead of looking for “God” deep in space with expensive technology, wouldn’t it be simpler and cheaper to verify the God hypothesis by looking closer to home for evidence of Our Lord and Master Satan?
    After all, the parsimonious version of the hypothesis is that they are one-and-the-same.

    1. More sigh, by the way:

      If an agnostic like Alpert is interested in theology, he could start to make the “nothing” argument convincing by defining that concept in a testable way. Do we need that anymore than we need a deist “god”?

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