Rapped on the Head by Creationists

I think this is a new category for my CV — “articles subjected to close reading by creationists.” (That, and pioneering the concept of the least bloggable unit.) Here is the first entry: my humble little essay for Nature entitled “Is Our Universe Natural?” has been lovingly dissected at “Creation-Evolution Headlines.” In which they claim that my paper “arms the intelligent design movement in the current fight over the definition of science.” Okay, now those are fighting words.

The page is part of a larger site called Creation Safaris. I would tell you more about the site if only their web pages weren’t so confusing that I can’t follow what’s going on. It seems to be one of those places that takes you on a rafting trip to better enjoy God’s creation; blurbs for the trips include stuff like this:

ABOUT YOUR GUIDE: Tom Vail is a veteran rafting guide with 24 years experience. In recent years he has led the big trips for ICR and Answers in Genesis. Formerly an evolutionist, he used to tell his rafting parties the usual millions-of-years stories about the canyon, but when he became a Christian, he began to look at the world differently: this led to the publication last year of his book Grand Canyon: A Different View that caused a firestorm among evolutionists when the National Park Service began selling it in its bookstores; fortunately, visitors to the park are voting for it with their dollars!

Hey look, they’re the ones saying that becoming a Christian persuaded poor Tom to give up on rational scientific thought, not me. I’m not sure what belief system is responsible for the run-on sentences.

The most impressive thing about the site is that they have the massive cojones necessary to favorably invoke Carl Sagan, of all people. In particular, Sagan’s notion of a baloney detector, which apparently is just a “good grasp of logical reasoning and investigative procedure.” Which they use, ahem, to counter the illogical rhetorical sneakiness of the pro-evolution crowd. Jiminy crickets.

Anyway. Somehow they found my Nature article, which was about how physicists are taking advantage of seemingly-unnatural features of our universe in their efforts to develop a deeper understanding how how nature works. The title, “Is Our Universe Natural?”, is of course a joke, which folks of a certain cast of mind apparently don’t get. Of course our universe is natural, more or less by definition. The point is that it doesn’t always look natural from the perspective of our current state of understanding. That’s no surprise, because our current understanding is necessarily incomplete. In fact, it’s good news for scientists when they can point to something that doesn’t seem “natural” about the universe; although it’s not as useful as a direct experimental result that can’t be explained by current theories, it can still provide some useful guidance while we develop better theories. Trying to understand the rarity of certain particle-physics decays inspired people to invent the concept of “strangeness,” and ultimately the Eight-Fold Way and the quark model. Trying to understand the flatness and smoothness of our universe on large scales inspired Alan Guth to invent inflation, which provided a dynamical mechanism to generate density perturbations purely as a bonus.

Right now, trying to understand hierarchies in particle physics and the arrow of time has led people to seriously contemplate a vast multiverse beyond what we can see, perhaps populated by regions occupying different phases in the string theory landscape. Wildly speculative, of course, but that’s to be expected of, you know, speculations. Ideas are always speculative when they are new and untested; either they will ultimately be tested one way or another, or they’ll fade into obscurity, as I made perfectly clear.

The ultimate goal is undoubtedly ambitious: to construct a theory that has definite consequences for the structure of the multiverse, such that this structure provides an explanation for how the observed features of our local domain can arise naturally, and that the same theory makes predictions that can be directly tested through laboratory experiments and astrophysical observations. To claim success in this programme, we will need to extend our theoretical understanding of cosmology and quantum gravity considerably, both to make testable predictions and to verify that some sort of multiverse picture really is a necessary consequence of these ideas. Only further investigation will allow us to tell whether such a programme represents laudable aspiration or misguided hubris.

(Did you know that Nature has an editorial policy forbidding the use of the words “scenario” and “paradigm”? Neither did I, but it’s true. “Paradigm” I can see, but banning “scenario” seems unnecessarily stuffy to me.) (Also, it’s a British publication, thus the spelling of “programme.” There is no “me” in “program”!)

It’s not hard to guess what a creationist would make of this: scientists are stuck, don’t understand what’s going on, grasping at straws, refusing to admit that God did it, blah blah blah. And that’s more or less what we get:

For the most part, Carroll wrote thoughtfully and perceptively, except for one thing: he totally ignored theism as an option. He is like Robert Jastrow’s mountain climber, scrambling over the last highest peak, only to find a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. Yet he doesn’t even bother to say Howdy. Instead, he walks over to them and tries to describe them with equations, and puzzles about how they emerged by a natural process. As he does this, one of the theologians taps on his head and says, “Hello? Anybody home?” yet Carroll continues, now trying to naturalize the pain he feels in his skull.

Gee, I wonder why anyone would waste their time trying to explain the universe in natural terms? Maybe because it’s been a fantastically successful strategy for the last five hundred years? Somewhat more successful, one might suggest, than anything “creation science” has managed to come up with.

Sorry, got a little sarcastic there. Don’t mean to offend anyone, even while they are tapping on my empty skull. What we have here is a textbook case of the God of the gaps argument, notwithstanding the thorough squelching that David Hume gave the idea many years ago. It’s really kind of sad. All they can do is point to something that scientists don’t yet understand and say “Aha! You’ll never understand that! Only God will provide the answer!” And when the scientists finally do understand it and move on to some other puzzle, they’ll say “Okay, this one you’ll really never understand! You need God, admit it!”

Think about it for a second — a century ago concepts like “the state of the universe one second after the Big Bang” or “the ratio of the vacuum energy to the Planck scale” hadn’t even been invented yet. Today, not only have they been invented, but they’ve been measured, and we’ve moved on to trying to understand them in terms of deeper principles. I’d say it’s a bit to early to declare defeat in our attempts to fit these ideas into a naturalistic framework.

Creationists don’t understand how science works. But more amusingly, they also don’t understand the definition of the word “faith”! The Creation-Safaris article pulls out the hoary old chestnut that science requires just as much faith as religion does.

The introduction also hints that the naturalistic approach is built on faith. Scientists believe that even in the most puzzling phenomena there exist underlying physical or natural principles accessible to the human mind. … It takes faith, however, to believe this approach can be extrapolated without bounds.

Let’s look up the dictionary definition of faith:

  1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
  2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

The thing is, scientists don’t have “faith” that the universe can be explained in naturalistic terms; they make that hypothesis, and then they test it. And it works, over and over again — it becomes a belief that very much does “rest on logical proof or material evidence.” In my Nature article I said “Needless to say, proposals of this type are extremely speculative, and may well be completely wrong,” which is seized upon as an admission of weakness. That couldn’t be further from the truth; it’s just standard operating procedure for scientists to admit that their theories may well be wrong before they’ve been tested against data. The provisional nature of scientific theorizing, admitting ignorance where appropriate, is the strength of the scientific method.

Nor is it true that I “totally ignored theism as an option.” I didn’t discuss it in this particular paper, of course, just as I didn’t discuss the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Elsewhere I have argued in detail why theism is simply not a very good option, in the specific case of trying to understand the apparent fine-tunings we see in nature. (And don’t tell me that no serious theologian tries to use fine-tunings to argue in favor of God these days, because they do.) But I will explain it once again! Because, despite the absence of God in my cold materialist heart, I am nevertheless a very generous person.

When scientists compare hypotheses that purport to explain the same set of data, they tend to prefer the model that explains the most with the least; that is, the one that can account for the widest variety of phenomena with the smallest amount of input. In this case, the phenomena to be explained include certain large-scale features of the universe (the existence of many galaxies, the arrow of time) as well as the values of various constants of nature that seem to be crucial to the existence of chemistry (and therefore life) as we know it. The claim of modern-day natural theology is that the God hypothesis provides a simple and elegant explanation of features of the universe that would otherwise seem disconnected and unnatural — it’s much easier to say “God exists,” and from that derive the conditions necessary for the existence of life, than to separately posit each of those conditions.

Except that (1) the God hypothesis is anything but simple, and (2) you don’t derive very much from it at all. It’s not simple because nobody will tell you much about this God character. What is its origin, how does it behave, what laws does it obey? Of course some people think they know the answers, but those people don’t generally agree with each other. Rather than offering a simple and well-defined hypothesis, we’ve been forced to invent an entirely new metaphysical category and an ill-defined set of rules for it to follow.

And you don’t go from “God exists” directly to a prediction for the vacuum energy or the charge of the electron. You go (in the most generous of readings) from “God exists” to “conditions in the universe must allow for the existence of life” to the values of various constants. But that first step buys you precisely nothing. The only thing that the God hypothesis even purports to explain is why the universe allows for intelligent life. But the statement “the universe allows for intelligent life” contains just as much predictive power, with much less metaphysical baggage, than the God idea. So, strictly from the perspective of scientific theory-choice, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained (and much to be lost in terms of specificity and simplicity) by giving the credit to God.

As I like to emphasize, the God hypothesis could in principle count as a scientifically promising explanation, if only it could actually explain something new, something beyond our mere existence. For example, it’s unclear why there are three generations of fermions in the Standard Model; can God perhaps account for that? Even better, make a testable prediction. Does God favor low-energy supersymmetry? What is God’s stance on proton decay, and baryognesis? If you are claiming to explain some features of known particle physics or cosmology by appeal to God (and maybe you aren’t claiming that, but some people are), you should be able to carry the program forward and make predictions about unknown particle physics. Otherwise you are just telling a story about stuff we already know, without explaining anything, and that’s not science.

The true tragedy of “creation science” is that it is an invitation to stop thinking. Instead of taking puzzling aspects of Nature as clues to something deeper, and mulling over the possible lessons we can learn from them in our quest to undertand the universe better and better, the creationist attitude just wants to say “God did it!” and declare victory. It’s a form of giving-up that could have been invoked thousands of times in the history of science, but thankfully was not. Instead, stubborn naturalistic investigators took seriously the clues they had, and used them to gradually uncover marvelous new features of the real world. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.

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63 Responses to Rapped on the Head by Creationists

  1. Your comments about Gods influence on natural events, reminded me of a story I read recently.

    A fire starts in the engine-room of a naval vessel being sold to a Muslim nation. The American crew sees the Muslim crew running from the fire. After the Americans put out the fire, they ask the Muslims why they ran. The answer: “The fire was Gods will.” Inshah Allah.

    This is not a put-down to Islam, just an example of how misguided one can be when depending on God to explain/control events.

    My favorite saying: “God gave you a brain. Use it!” After all, God created the laws of probability too.

  2. Bruce says:

    Recently, a very high IQ colleagues repeated to me that “chestnut” that science is just as much about faith as religion. Luckily, I had a response I read in comments somewhere, either here or on another blog:

    Science is based on trust; religion is based on faith. The difference between trust and faith is that trust is earned; faith is taken on, well, faith.

  3. Quasar9 says:

    Hi Sean great read
    Science and Nature and Theology and Maths.

    Could you go back to yesterday for me and measure the length of my baguette.
    Come on Sean, can’t take yoy that long if you can go all the way back thousands or even millions or is it billions of years in an instant inside your head.

    Ok, so that one (the baguette) to difficult for you
    How about going back and measuring how tall you were when you were born, ok that one is easy check the hospital records, and how tall was Einstein when he was born – did you say??? say say

    Only messing – love ya really. After all what would life be without a Universe to debate over, over coffee. lol!

  4. Allyson says:

    This kerfuffle brings to mind the old argument from the Angel writers’ room: “Who would win in a fight: Astronauts or Cavemen?”

    Score so far:

    Sean: 2
    Cavemen: 1

    As expected, the Cavemen knock on Sean’s noggin with heavy clubs. Thankfully, Sean has access to lasers and the ability to make fire.

    This round goes to Sean, but I strongly suggest he take cover once they figure out that they have opposable thumbs and start throwing rocks at the moon.

  5. Quasar9 says:

    Allyson

    Are you saying the craters on the moon were created by cavemen who figured out that with opposable thumbs they could throw rocks at the moon – and how many millions of years ago did you say this happened.

    Well we’ve certainly evolved, have we not we can just about launch a rocket to the moon loaded with lasers. Oh and did you say the first Astronaut was a monkey, funny how most people can’t remember his name. lol!

    but then again this generation has so little regard orrespect for their ancestors and each other, that one could seriously be excused for thinkingthey were descended from apes

  6. ed hessler says:

    Bruce’s comment reminds me of Martin Minsky’s observation on a difference between science and religion (which I hope I don’t butcher too badly). “In religion, sin is not believing strongly enough; in science, sin is believing too strongly.”

    My scoreboard reads Sean 2; creationists nil.

    I love the idea of the LBU. I probably should apply its kin here, i.e., something along the lines of an LVC, least valuable comment and pay attention to what it means.

    Thanks again for another thoughtful post.

  7. Wolverine says:

    Thanks for the marvelous article, Sean. It more than made up for the brain-rotting few minutes I spent perusing the Creation Safaris page.

  8. Jim Harrison says:

    By the way, if the values of physical constants are a function of God’s will, shouldn’t we be able to use dimensional analysis to define the nature of the deity?

  9. Quasar9 says:

    Hi ed hessler,
    thanks for your nil point, but I hadn’t quite realised this was the eurovision song contest.

    Now in terms of value, or the measure of one’s understanding, how did you say you measured a million years, sorry 13.7 billion light years

    You do realise that a light year has nothing to do with a calendar year or the solar year, ie: the 365.35 revolutions of earth in its annual orbit around the Sun. This is the measure of time we use today, how far back did you say earth started orbitting around the Sun, and how long was a (solar) year before there was a Sun.

    Oh! and speed of light is a measure of distance over time, so which measure of time did you use fot the speed of light before there was a Solar year or a day of 24 hours, 60 minutes 60 seconds 100ths of a second …

    And finally being a Creationist is not a contradiction of Nature or Physics or the physical world – although perhaps LQG and ST can appear to contradict each other. I have no problem with Creationism, though only you know what you understand me (I) to mean by that, just like only Smolin understands what he means by parallel universes thru blackholes or only Susskind understands what he means by a membrane or landscape of pocket Universes in his Megaverse. And yes I fo look forward to EuroTunnel trips to these pocket universes if and when you can create maglev trains that can take us there. But that is because I like totravel, and why do I like to go places, well quite simply ed, because they are there

    So you been judge at any bikini contests lately?

  10. NL says:

    And a cry went up from the people: LORD, the land is beset by a distinct sinkhole in the level of discourse, WOE be unto us, canst thou not MODERATE? Let thy people SUFFER no more. Amen.

  11. island says:

    And finally being a Creationist is not a contradiction of Nature or Physics or the physical world

    Yes it is.

    Can somebody show me some evidence that “theism” exists except in some fools head in order for it to even be a valid consideration?

    Welcome to my world, Sean, but it goes both ways, to be sure.

  12. Pete says:

    I still can’t believe that the notion of evolution is under attack by the ID creationists; can’t they at least attack the various postulated mechanisms of evolution, rather then the word itself, which simply means ‘change over time’?

    After trying for a long time to understand the ID philosophy, I’ve come up with a possible solution: a theological perspective that the ID crowd can accept. I’m sure this isn’t original but here goes. The “Intelligent Designer’ had actually designed many universes before he-she-it did this one. However, the ID, being omniscient, always grew incredibly bored with those universes, since all future events were known to the ID. Therefore, after much Deep Thought, the ID came up with a brilliant solution – a universe that was intrinsically unpredictable and that would always deliver interesting surprises. Key ingredients in this new universe would be sensitive dependence on initial conditions, the quantum uncertaintly principle, and so on. A degree of nuclear stability was also included so that complex forms could arise.

    The origin of this idea is in a quote regarding Einstein re. the dice quote. I forget the author, but it is “If God played dice… he’d win!” – but wouldn’t that get boring? Somehow, I think Douglas Adams came up with this first.

  13. Blake Stacey says:

    A quick question about the “three generations” bit:

    I recall reading that measuring the decay rate of the Z boson restricts the number of generations which can exist (the more particles available, the more ways the Z can decay and so the shorter it lives). While I suppose the Z decay rate affects the strength of the weak nuclear force, this still seems like an esoteric quantity, and one which could be “corrected” by tweaking coupling constants and boson masses to adjust for a different generation count.

    Off the top of my ignorant head, it seems like a more parsimonious Creator could have managed with fewer particle generations, or alternatively, that we could have been blessed with a multitude of them: “I the LORD thy God am a loving God, creating quarks and leptons unto the fourth generation and beyond”, etc. How stands the (cough) Anthropic Principle in handling discrete choices like this?

    (Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Muggle-Theory Landscape, cellular automata living on a D2-brane they know as “Flatland” are asking the same question.)

  14. Blake Stacey says:

    Oh, and just so I can be helpful too, the idea of God creating what Pete calls “a universe that was intrinsically unpredictable and that would always deliver interesting surprises” appears in an Isaac Asimov story entitled “The Last Answer”, first published in 1980. It is not nearly as well known or as highly regarded as his earlier story “The Last Question”, but at least now you have your precedent!

    Of course, I’d love to hear about earlier uses of the concept; this is just the one which sprung to my mind.

  15. JoAnne says:

    Blake Stacey,

    We have produced roughly 17 million Z bosons in electron-positron collider experiments at CERN and SLAC and the properties of the Z are very, very accurately measured. The mass of the Z boson, in fact, is the single most precisely measured quantity in the Standard Model. It is measured to 0.002%. The mass of the W boson is measured directly at LEP2 and the Tevatron to a precision of 0.036%. The weak coupling constant (most precise measurement was done here at SLAC!) is measured to 0.5%. These quantities are determined so precisely that there is simply no wiggle room in what you are proposing!

    The number of generations is determined by the invisible decay rate of the Z. The Z decays into particles which we can see in the detector and those we can’t. Neutrinos are examples of particles which interact so weakly that they fly through the detector undetected. We have observed that the only particles we can see from Z decay are the 3 generations of charged leptons (e mu, tau) and the 3 generations of quarks, minus the top which is heavier than the Z (leaving up, down, strange, charm, and bottom). We can measure the total decay rate (by varying the beam energy ever so slightly near the Z mass) – it is determined to 0.09% – and we measure the decay rates into the particles we see. The difference is the invisible decay rate. One can calculate the number of neutrinos which can contribute to this invisible decay rate. The only variables in the calculation are the number of neutrinos, the Z mass, and the weak coupling constant. The result is 2.984 generations of neutrinos with an error of 0.008. So we know that there are only 3 generations of light neutrinos which couple to the Z.

    This is a great demonstration of Sean’s point – through precision scientific measurements we know there are only 3 generations of light neutrinos in the universe.

  16. island says:

    Oh good grief, the mistake of IDists that Non-Creationists buy into is that they assume that the appearance in nature of human-like intent can possibly be different from any other form of expressed bias in nature, so they get away with projecting that human-like intent exists behind an unknown natural bias, rather than the other way round.

    They get away with it, because they immediately and automatically knee-jerk react to deny the appearance of “design”.

    Like when Lenny QUALIFIED his statement in the least scientific manner possible:
    ‘The “appearance” of design is undeniable…’

    Without an infinite number of potential universes, Lenny is an idist, by rights, (since he doesn’t seem to know about scientific concepts like Einstein’s idea of purpose in nature)

    …BUT he was also careful to point out that “scientists won’t see it that way” if the “landscape” idea and the multiverse, fails.

    His was a conditionally qualified statement of pre-existing intent to deny the implication of evidence if I’ve ever seen one.

    And I won’t even get into Lawrence Krauss’ expressed intent to deny observational evidence that supports anthropic specialness… but that doesn’t mean that he was any further from willful denial than Lenny was.

    Of course, none of what I say will ever strike a logical nerve on either side, so I’m just wasting my fingers.

  17. Blake Stacey says:

    Many thanks to JoAnne for giving specific techniques and numbers. That’s the kind of information I love to get! (A string-theorist friend of mine quoted that “2.984 pm 0.008 generations” result in conversation a couple weeks back, so the figures do sound familiar, even though I can’t keep all the details in my head at once.) That people are able to measure things so well is absolutely awesome! However, I have to say that I feel you provided a very good answer to the wrong question. Being my normal inarticulate self, I probably wasn’t able to get across the point which really interests me:

    Could complex matter, heavy elements, life and all that exist with a different number of generations, with other parameters adjusted if necessary? I know we can tell what is with supreme accuracy, but how much can we rule out about what might be? Particulary if what might be differs from what is by a big step, a discrete alteration instead of an ε-sized perturbation of some continuous variable.

    This is where I should wave my hands and mumble something about “widely separated local maxima in the fitness landscape. . . .”

  18. Cynthia says:

    As long as the Grand Canyon belongs to the state, selling Vail’s book on creationism within the confines of the Grand Canyon appears to blatantly violate separation of church and state.

    Nonetheless, it seems that these “dissectors” at “Creation-Evolution Headlines” are in dire need of an MRI scan to determine if they have any viable tissue remaining inside their skulls.;)

  19. Aaron says:

    What is G-d’s stance on proton decay?

    As far as we know, He seems to be against it. 😉

  20. Haelfix says:

    I simply don’t agree. Not even a little bit.

    Ive been a life long atheist, and still am. However the anthropic argument is just as bad as the god hypothesis if not considerably worse.

    At least with a creator present, it makes the hopelessly bizarre naturallness somewhat palatable (eg god made a bizarre and unlikely universe). Especially when you are talking about picking on the order of 10^500 different boxes or vacua (keeping in mind that if you are wrong at some scale, eg there is some sort of hidden quantum correction inherent even by a little bit you likely end up with something completely different than what you predict and observe you live in).

    Worse, nowhere else in physics does finetuning occur of that magnitude. Indeed several places things conspire to output parameters that are adjusted by factors of 1-100 at most. Consider for instance the appearance of the W and Z boson, which occurs right where it should before Fermi theory starts getting really ugly.

    All this to say, both arguments are anti scientific and tautologous

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  22. Creationists made a colossal strategic error attacking natural selection. I must give them credit for shifting their focus — cosmology is a much more vulnerable target. The universe is so damned peculiar that it seems almost reasonable that it’s buried in the reject pile of a perverse and possibly malign designer. (From what we can see of the handiwork, the designer might not be something to meet in a dark alley.)

    In a similar vein, I was a bit bemused when I realized that one of the solutions to the Fermi Paradox was simply that the “universe” was “designed” so that we had the galaxy to ourselves. Not my favorite solution, but it is in theory subject to disproof (ie. SETI comes up with something).

    Cosmology and physics are the logical next targets for the Creationists. I wish all strength to physicists and warm congratulations to biologists …

  23. JoAnne says:

    Blake,

    Simple answer is no. We’ve just measured things too well at the energy/distance scales you are describing.

  24. Mark says:

    I think the answer to Blake’s question is that nobody knows. If you are asking whether there exists a self-consistent physical theory, with very different parameters, but for which life, complex elements, etc. are still possible (perhaps, for example, in another local minimum of the landscape), then we just don’t know. (I think JoAnne thought he was asking could such things be true in our part of the universe/multiverse, should that terminology make sense, to which, as she explained, the answer is no)

  25. Eugene says:

    Seems like if someone forgot to close an italics tag, the names of the following posters become italicized too.