Chatting Theology with Robert Novak

Robert Novak, conservative pundit/journalist and TV personality, is retiring after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Novak and I probably don’t agree on many things, and he isn’t called “The Prince of Darkness” for nothing (nor does he seem to especially mind). But brain tumors shouldn’t happen to anyone, so perhaps this is the place to share my Novak story.

Last September I gave a talk at a somewhat unusual venue: a conference at the University of Illinois on “Plato’s Timaeus Today.” Most of the speakers and attendees, as you might expect, were philosophers or classicists interested in this particular Platonic dialogue — which, apparently, used to be one of his most popular back in the Middle Ages, although it’s fallen a bit out of favor since then. But one of the central purposes of the Timaeus (full text here) was to explain Plato’s theory of the origin of the universe. (Briefly: the demiurge did it, not from scratch, but by imposing order on chaos.) (Also! This dialogue is the origin of the myth of Atlantis. It was not, as far as anyone can tell, a pre-existing story; Plato just made it up.) So the organizers thought it would be fun to invite a physicist or two, to talk about how we think about the universe these days. Sir Tony Leggett gave a keynote address, and I gave a talk during the regular sessions.

The point of my talk was: Plato was wrong. In particular, you don’t need an external agent to create the universe, nor to impose order on the chaos. These days we are reaching toward an understanding of the entire history of the universe in which there is nothing other than the laws of physics working themselves out — a self-contained, complete, purely materialist conception of the cosmos. Not to say that we have such a theory in its full glory, obviously, but we see no obstacles and are making interesting progress. See here and here for more physics background.

And there, during my talk, sitting in the audience, was none other than Robert Novak. This was a slight surprise, although not completely so; Novak was a UIUC alumnus, and was listed as a donor to the conference. But he hadn’t attended most of the other talks, as far as I could tell. In any event, he sat there quietly in his orange and navy blue rep tie, and I gave my talk. Which people seemed to like, although by dint of unfortunate scheduling it was at the very end of the conference and I had a plane to catch so had to run away.

And there, as I was waiting at the gate in the tiny local airport, up walks Robert Novak. He introduced himself, and mentioned that he had heard my talk, and had a question that he was reluctant to ask during the conference — he didn’t want to be a disruption among the assembled academics who were trying to have a scholarly conversation. And I think he meant that sincerely, for which I give him a lot of credit. And I give him even more credit for taking time on a weekend to zip down to Urbana (from Chicago, I presume) to listen to some talks on Plato. Overall, the world would be a better place if more people went to philosophy talks in their spare time.

Novak’s question was this: had I discussed the ideas I had talked about in my presentation with any Catholic theologians? The simple answer was “not very much”; I have talked to various theologians, many of them Catholic, about all sorts of things, but not usually specifically about the possibility of an eternally-existing law-abiding materialist universe. The connection is clear, of course; one traditional role of religion has been to help explain where the world came from, and one traditional justification for the necessity of God has been the need for a Creator. (Not the only one, in either case.) So if science can handle that task all by itself, it certainly has implications for a certain strand of natural theology.

Understanding that it was not an idle question (and that Novak is a Catholic), I added my standard admonition when asked about the theological implications of cosmology by people who don’t really want to be subjected to a full-blown argument for atheism: whether you want to believe in God or not, it’s a bad idea to base your belief in God on an urge to explain features of the natural world, including its creation and existence. Because eventually, science will get there and take care of that stuff, and then where are you?

And, once again to his credit, Novak seemed to appreciate my point, whether or not he actually agreed. He nodded in comprehension, thanked me again for the talk, and settled down to wait for his flight.

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92 Responses to Chatting Theology with Robert Novak

  1. piscator says:

    > Plato was wrong. In particular, you don

  2. Hotdog Operator says:

    Oh piscator… you can’t see the forest for the trees, can you?

    Thanks for the story, Sean.

  3. Instead of a demiurge, blind luck plunked us down where we are in the multiverse? Is that your theory? It’s not clear to me that one theory has more explanatory power than the other.

  4. Jason Dick says:

    Just to expand a bit on Hotdog Operator’s comment, this really is a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Science works. The simple facts that science works, that we keep discovering new things, and that there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight to our discoveries, mean that it would indeed be foolish to believe in a god because god “explains” our universe or something in particular about it.


    Oh, blind luck has infinitely more explanatory power. Every random process, after all, behaves via some probability distribution. So if a random process is a cause for our existence, then the signatures of that random process will be written into our universe. Now, it is the case that the general statement, “by accident,” has no explanatory power. But Sean’s not talking about this: he’s talking about discovering very specific models for precisely how this random process operates. And when you have a specific model, you can make specific predictions, based upon the probability distribution of the random process proposed.

  5. Rebel Dreams says:

    A point about “blind luck”…

    Roll a die; you roll a six. You have a one-in-six chance of getting that number (obviously), the same chance as rolling a 1, 2, 3 etc…

    Now have someone put a gun to your head and tell you “roll a three”. If you don’t roll a three, you’ll die. You roll the die and lo and behold, a three! you live.

    After this terrible ordeal, you live a long happy life (haunted by nightmares and unable to play boardgames), get married, have kids and generally do all the things that constitute a “normal existence”. But it was ALL predicated upon rolling a three, a one-in-six happenstance. But without that blind chance, you would not have done all that. Your children would not be able to envision a world where you rolled a four, for example, because they would not be there if you had.

    In other words, simply because blind luck played a fundamental role in your existence (or theirs) does not mean that it was NOT blind luck. If the result had been anything else, you would not be here.

    Yes, it’s a weakly anthropic argument, but still utterly valid. To my mind, anyway… 🙂

  6. Rebel Dreams says:


    >>I do not think because you see part of Plato

  7. Rebel Dreams says:

    >>Could be wrnog tohough.. I often am

    …and, apparently, unable to type.

  8. ree ree says:

    You can’t get a universe from nothing. So if there’s only one universe (namely, this one), and if it had a beginning, it doesn’t have the reason for its existence contained within it. Therefore, to avoid a “God did it” argument, you need to posit the existence of an eternal multiverse, from which our universe was born.

    Thus, belief in God as the creator is being replaced by a belief in the multiverse. If we can show that a multiverse is a mathematical consequence of a proven fundamental theory, a theory capable of providing a mechanism for giving birth to new universes, then we are done and no belief is necessary. If the fundamental theory has a unique solution with our universe as the solution, then I have no idea how such a theory could possibly explain the origin of our universe.

  9. Garth A. Barber says:


    Oh, blind luck has infinitely more explanatory power.

    But it requires an equal amount of faith.

    To explain the anthropic propitious nature of our universe by ‘blind luck’ requires an ensemble of non-propitious members of the multiverse, none of which can be observed except this one.

    The ensemble exists in our minds only after an act of faith.

    I agree with piscator, science has its limitations and to be good science it needs to recognize its own boundaries.


    Plato was wrong. In particular, you don

  10. lemuel pitkin says:

    This seems like a good opportunity for a question that’s been bugging me.

    One of your central interests is obviously the arrow of time, and in particular how it can arise given that the laws of physics are time-symmetric. In particular, you seem committed to the idea that the appearance of the universe beginning in a state of minimum entropy and evolving toward a state of maximum entropy must be wrong — that if we could see the full picture there would just be fluctuations with no privileged low-entropy “beginning.”

    My question is: why? How do we know that the arrow of time is just a local phenomenon, and the universe does not, in fact, have a distinct beginning?

    Especially given the Bozeman’s Brain type arguments that the probability of random fluctuations producing a big bang, as you describe in your SciAm article, is infinitesimal compared with the probaility of producing our solar system directly. Right?

    (By the way this question has zero theological implications — I’m an atheist too.)

  11. Mike says:

    Not that I believe in a personal god, but there is something “godlike” in the rules of mathematics — there is a sense in which they seem to be eternal, they seem to exist independent our material world, they seem to have power over everything (nothing can violate them), and they seem to be inevitable. I guess this isn’t apropos to the present discussion, but the thought occurred to me this morning.

  12. Rebel Dreams says:


    >>You can

  13. Rebel Dreams says:

    >>…if there

  14. Sean says:

    lemuel — that’s a perfectly good question, and I’m always careful to stress that we don’t actually “know.” It’s absolutely possible that the universe simply had a beginning with a low entropy, and that’s a brute fact that has no further explanation. But it would seem more simple and compact if there were some dynamical explanation for this feature of the local universe, rather than just positiing it as a new law of nature. (Similarly for the cosmological constant: we could just take it as a number and move on, but it might very well be a clue to some underlying dynamics, which is a possibility well worth pursuing.)

    The Boltzmann’s Brain argument is very specific. *If* you have a theory in which fluctuations in entropy occur randomly and with an exponential distribution, *then* we are overwhelmingly likely to be in a smaller fluctuation (a single galaxy, or a single brain). But we’re not, and therefore a theory like that is wrong. So either we are not a fluctuation of any sort, or the numbers have to work out differently. Many of us are pursuing the latter option, but we’ll have to see.

  15. TimG says:

    You can

  16. lemuel pitkin says:


    Thanks for the reply.

    A couple follow-ups. First, what’s the basis for simple and compact — both why the dynamicly-arising big bang is more so, and why that’s the standard to begin with? To me, the statement, “the universe beings in a state of minimum entropy and evolves toward a state of maximum entropy” doesn’t seem obviously less simple than the statement “fluctuations can produce low-entropy states, which then evolve toward higher entropy.” How do you know you’re not smuggling an aesthetic preference into your science?

    Second, is there any kind of evidence or argument foreseeable that would resolve the question? Would you ever conclude that there was no fluctuations-type account of the big bang and that the universe simply began with a low-entory state?

    (Indicentally, part of my interest here is I studied economics at the graduate level for a while, and it seems to me that the bias toward talking about universal laws rather than historical narratives is really destructive for mainstream economics. Of course, what’s a problem in economics might be perfectly appropriate in physics.)

  17. ree ree says:

    Rebel Dreams,

    “Since we don

  18. ree ree says:

    Rebel Dreams,

    “>>…if there

  19. Jason Dick says:

    ree ree,

    Here’s the simple truth of the matter:
    The universe may have had a beginning. It may not have. We don’t yet know. But not knowing in no way, shape, or form indicates that theists are right when they claim that god did it. That would be the intellectual equivalent of claiming that because we don’t yet know whether quantum loop gravity or string theory (or both, or neither) are correct, quantum loop gravity must be correct. It’s nonsense.

    Garth A. Barber,

    But it requires an equal amount of faith.

    To explain the anthropic propitious nature of our universe by

  20. Reginald Selkirk says:


  21. ree ree says:



  22. Sean says:

    lemuel– the preference for simple and compact is just a recognition that seeking such a thing has historically been very successful. In science, we try to explain the most with the least, as far as we can. Positing a low-entropy boundary condition is not really very simple or compact: it’s a separate law of nature, you have to specify exactly which kind of “low entropy” state you mean (there are a huge number of possibilities), and you have to posit that the ordinary laws of quantum mechanics, which do not include a boundary in time, somehow fail in this case.

    Reginald– there was not much indication. I think he was just curious about what the response of a theologian would have been.

  23. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Why is there something instead of nothing? To sum up an answer to that it appears that nothingness is just unstable. To the extent we can talk about a “nothingness” it appears to be some sort of instanton (tunnelling state) for the universe which exists on a false vacuum. The ball on the Mexican hat peak will under the smallest perturbation or fluctuation begin to fall off the peak, roll into the trough and the universe tunnels out of the vacuum or nothing to become a “something.”

    The upshot here is that a real question about the origin of something probably can be answered scientifically. At least so far there is a very good track record for this. We don’t as yet understand completely how the universe quantum tunnelled out of the vacuum (nothing or void), but that we are able to at least discuss this and work with putative models does illustrate that an anwer is certainly possible. Much the same holds for the pre-biotic origin of life. Possible organic and geological chemical models can be debated and proposed. Which does again suggest that an answer to life’s origin is possible. I would say that given sufficient time in the future answers to these questions are not just possible but highly probable.

    Clearly the theological type might ask where this false vacuum comes from, but that is in a way a timeless aspect of reality. Also we might not get it perfectly figured out, but we can do a damned good job anyways. To hang a God on what is not understood is a way of closing minds off to asking questions or using imagination.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  24. Rebel Dreams says:

    ree ree:

    The problem with the terminology you use is that it relates to “laws” that only pertain to this universe; from the perspective of this Universe there was, indeed, “nothing” as you use the term before it, but that does not preclude that the universe arose *from* nothing, just nothing that relates to *this* universe. That is one idea that is currently being investigated.

    Secondly; I still stand by my point about the “zero sum equation”; if the zero-sum game is shown to be true (and nothing has so far ruled it out, then the universe not only *could* come from nothing, but indeed it *had* to. Basic quantum physics says that if anything is thermodynamically possible, then it must happen (Feinman’s “Sum over histories” approach uses this as its basic tenet) and so if the Universe truly is zero-sum, then physics essentially demands that a universe will occur.

    Of course, this says nothing of the *mechanics* of how this universe arose, but it removes the need for an ontological “first-cause” in general. The mechanics of how it occurred can be investigaed without needing a “prime mover”, because, the argument goes, a zero-sum universe is bound to happen eventually.

    As for Kant, his basic argument revolved around the idea that “existence” is a property of a thing. That the universe exists may or may not be undeniable, but it is not a property of it. Therefore any claims regarding its existence that relate to some other property (i.e. in this case that the “reason” for its existence cannot be contained within it”) are meaningless, because it presupposes that existence is a property conferred upon the object in question.

    This does not say that the Universe does or does NOT contain the reason for its existence within it, merely that the fact that the unverse exists cannot demand a priori that the cause (if any) for its existence cannot be held within it. The statement that the Unverse does not contain its cause within itself cannot be proven, and is therefore an invalid supposition.