God and Cosmology Conversation

Here is the video of the panel discussion from Discovery Channel’s Curiosity Conversation last Sunday. Not sure how official it is, so it might not last. Jerry Coyne was motivated to dig them up, since he doesn’t have cable TV. I’m putting the panel first — this is all about me, baby — and the Hawking program under the fold.

The participants were me, David Gregory, Paul Davies, and John Haught. But there were also short video interventions from Jennifer Wiseman, William Stoeger, and Michio Kaku. Actually seeing the program made me even more frustrated about the lack of time and inability to discuss any issue in depth. Also, while the makeup of the original panel seemed fair (committed atheist, wishy-washy physicist, Catholic theologian), the pre-recorded videos all took the line that science shouldn’t be talking about God. That gave the final program more of a “gang up on the atheist” feel than I would have really liked. I don’t think the videos added much, other than to eat into our valuable time. An hour-long program would have been better, and it probably would have been a much sharper conversation if there had just been two panelists rather than three. But again, credit to Discovery for having the event at all.

Specific thoughts on the participants:

  • David Gregory: I thought he did fine. Not sure why some people were complaining about the questions; his job was just to get the conversation going and keep it moving, which he did with admirable professionalism.
  • John Haught: He actually had a very difficult job, since his take on the nature of God isn’t easy to boil down to a sound bite. Still, I personally don’t think there’s any there, there. If you can’t imagine a universe in which God doesn’t exist, you need to work on your imaginative skills.
  • Paul Davies: A very clear speaker and strong communicator, but again not a sound-bite kind of guy. He did win the Templeton prize, but isn’t very explicitly religious. (At least, not that one can discern, which is part of the problem.) But he does strongly believe that it’s not okay to simply say “the universe is like that” — he thinks there is necessarily a deeper explanation for the laws of physics.
  • Jennifer Wiseman and William Stoeger: Neither really even tried to argue in favor of God’s existence. They just took the angle that religion talks about value while science talks about facts. I think it’s important to get the facts right before you start talking about values, and said as much, but we didn’t have time to dig into that issue.
  • Michio Kaku: I tease Michio. The guy is a brilliant science communicator, but I don’t think he added anything of value here.
  • Me: This isn’t an easy format, and I would probably grade myself a generous B. I don’t feel like taking back anything I said, but I definitely could have been more forceful about it. Still looking to improve at things like this — any suggestions?

Okay here are the videos, judge for yourselves. First the panel, in two parts:

Here’s the episode of Curiosity, hosted by Hawking, in four parts.

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58 Responses to God and Cosmology Conversation

  1. Erik says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for posting these! =) I meant to show this to my family last night and completely forgot (we *never* watch TV). I was more upset about missing the after-show panel than I was about missing the show, though – and the, um, torrent sites don’t have it available for download. =P

  2. Garrett says:

    Sean, I thought you did a good job. And I’ve always liked the argument that a god that affects the physical world is within the realm of science, and is simply a bad physical model, and that if a god does not have any physical effects, why should we care about it? But this panel discussion was a little painful to watch because you were… so alone. Next time you’re on a panel about the existence of god, I’d like to see that panel include Lawrence Krauss, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Cristina Rad, and one horrified theologian.

    As a side note, Paul Davies kept pushing his vision of a god that made the laws. But the laws of the universe are mathematical, in the same way that a circle is mathematical, and can exist as mathematics without needing a creator.

  3. Eli Bressert says:

    In regards to your question about the show and the participants. Your points were valid and your questions were well placed. It was good not to appear dogmatic about the topic either. The only part I’m worried about is that your points may have been a bit to subtle. In the case of informal logic it was great, but some viewers could have missed the reasoning behind them. In summary, you were there debating a controversial topic and pulled it off well :). Thanks for sharing the youtube links for the show.

  4. Phil says:


    I’m curious to know what you think about the question, “Why these laws, constants, etc., and not some others?”

    I gather you disapprove of string theory, which postulates many possible laws unified within the framework of string theory and that, maybe, each set of laws can govern a different universe which may exist separate from ours. Do you dislike the concept of a multiverse? If so, how do you answer the above question? But then you have to ask, “Why this framework (i.e., string theory or M-theory, or whatever) and not another framework?”

    The same question cannot be asked for a circle, for example. A circle is, by definition, the set of points equidistant from a given point. You can’t ask “Why this definition and not another definition?” All you need is a continuous 2 dimensional space and circles can exist.

    But why these sets of laws and not another set of laws?

  5. Paul says:

    I am not sure why you feel that it was a pick on the Atheist feel. As a Christian I felt that the show had a definite anti God slant, though I do believe it to have been very civil and polite. I appreciated that. You are right that there was not enough time dig deep into the discussion and I plan on using the videos as a springboard for further discussion. I also thought it was a good balance to Hawking’s presuppositional bias. I thought the science very interesting but Hawking’s conclusions are still open for conversation.

  6. Neal says:

    Disappointing that they portrayed the Big Bang as an explosion from a point.

  7. Phil h says:

    Sean, I think you did a great job. How you come across in these scenarios is almost as important as what you say. You came across very well in my opinion. Im curious how does Kaku get on every bloody science show? He implies that string theory leads to a bubble universes. But I believe he means eternal inflation ? Whilst the landscape of string theory may give rise to the diversity of features in the multiverse, eternal inflation doe not require string theory for its formulation. Do you agree?

  8. sjn says:

    Garrett: I think it’s perhaps unfair to say that Paul Davies was pushing a vision that a god made the laws of physics. He merely noted that the laws of physics remain unexplained and not that a god provides an explanation for those laws. I think that Davies would probably agree that replacing one mystery with another explains nothing and merely adds complexity.

  9. victor R says:

    The theologian needs to take some classes on analytic philosophy and formal logic. If he accepts the fact that the universe created itself(emerged), then the existence of god and the universe are independent. Thus, the universe exists even if god did not exist. If this inference is not valid, in what non-classical logic are the statements ‘the universe created itself’ and ‘the universe was created by god’ both true? Now, if god is the answer to the question why there is something(meaning laws of physics,space-time and math) rather than nothing–he said that god brought non-being into being–, then why there is god rather than no god? Because god is something.

    In addition, Science is not equipped to answer questions of value and meaning but are theologians, using ambiguous terms product of cultural evolution and ancient texts, heavy equipped to answer then?

    Thanks Sean for the videos and your blog. Next time, being a little more aggressive ,i think, would give more credentials to your position.

  10. KWK says:


    Incredibly well done. I’d give you higher than a B, for sure–but I’d also give the other panelists at least a B as well, so take my (grade-inflated) notions for what they’re worth. Though we disagree on the conclusions we draw from the data of our experiences and observations, I think you did a fantastic job of laying out what the relevant issues are for how theology and science can and should interact (despite being obviously edited in the videos, such that some significant substance must have been left on the cutting-room floor). In particular, the idea that Reality impacts value questions–without necessarily being the sole factor in such questions–is often missed by the more, shall we say, wishy-washy amongst (in particular) religious believers. And the question of how (one’s conception of) God interacts with empirically-verifiable data truly is the most relevant question one could ask on the matter.

    At the same time, I do think there is a subtle epistemological issue that was left unaddressed: there seem to me to be several different categories of Reality-based questions, depending on the manner in which empirical data impinges upon them. “Is there evidence for the creation of Earth in 4004BC?” is pretty much solely a scientific question, the answer to which, alas, has still not been universally accepted. The tricky part is that the correct answer in other cases it is not so obvious. For example, the question, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” is likewise answerable by means of scientific exploration (at least in principle), though a definitive answer is much less tractable than for the previous question. One can fulminate about “extraordinary claims”, of course, if one wishes to dismiss such notions out of hand, but to me the data are exactly of the sort one might expect to find if such a claim were true, despite what amount to (in my opinion) rather naive expectations to the contrary. But the further fact that so many individuals’ and communities’ values are inextricably linked to the answer to such questions means that the Fact/Value dichotomy is not always that straightforward to disentangle.

    In that regard, one statement in particular that you made during the show about having an “open mind and an open heart” really struck me. Such an approach is fiendishly difficult for people, given that we are Bayesian creatures, nearly always operating as if our (value-laden) assumptions were correct, regardless of how much (or how little) they are actually supported by separate validation from relevant data. And it is that very assuming that makes conversation between two incommensurate sets of priors very hard to negotiate. That you think you “scored points” on Haught by getting him to “admit” that he can’t imagine a world without God (at least, that’s my impression of your reaction to him), is a good example of this. If God is the ground of all being, as Haught assumes, then it is obvious that nothing would exist without God–not even the equations governing probabilistic fluctuations in a vacuum. Thus, imagining something without God is truly nonsensical, given such a framework. In similar fashion, you have in past blog posts said that you could imagine there being some sort a god, but not one (for example) who cares about what people do in their bedrooms. In both cases, it seems to me that it is nothing more than one’s unstated priors that lead ineluctably to such a “lack of imagination”.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, if you (or any of your often significantly less irenic commenters) have never encountered a theologian with any “there” there, is it simply a “lack of imagination” on the part of one (or both) parties that is getting in the way? And might such interactions ever actually warrant a re-evaluation of one’s priors? After all, one can be just as circumspect, or just as dogmatic, about one’s theism as one’s atheism…

  11. JimV says:


    I can imagine there being a god and there not being one, and not makes more sense to me. The theologian who can’t imagine there not being a god – well, I guess that’s why they aren’t scientists. Any scientist who forms a hypothesis has to consider the null version of that hypothesis, and be prepared to go to great lengths not to fool himself. Haught’s reply “It wouldn’t exist,” to the insightful question, “How would the universe be different if God did not exist?” revealed the utter paucity of theology: the ultimate non-testable assertion!

  12. T. says:

    Very convincing Sean – how you could actually manage to stay calm and talk sense despite statements like those of the theologian’s …”I’m trying to save science here”, and Kaku’s overblown ego is . . . very impressive. So thanks for showing atheism on its good face.

    (Also, when will this childish crush and all the sensation about Stephen Hawking stop..I mean this is not our best scientist -anymore, if he ever was- and his reason not to believe in god forbids any prior event to the bigbang, so maybe it isn’t that smart..and why does Hawking get the credit of expanding scientific thinking to notions like morality and god, whereas obviously people like Dawkins and Harris should be much more rightfully credited for that..ah well)

  13. Phil says:

    So, did the narrator make the argument that the universe came into being from nothing? Or was the point that one cannot talk about a cause because time itself came into being with the Big Bang, so there was no “before” in which a cause occurred?

    Unfortunately, the show didn’t make it clear that we really know nothing about the laws of physics at that tiny scale (quantum gravity). Hence, the statement that the universe could have come into being without violating any of the KNOWN laws of physics is incorrect since we don’t know what those laws are at that tiny scale.

    Sure, one can say that the total energy of the universe is 0, so a universe can pop into existence without needing any energy or violating energy conservation. But if the universe, for example, came from “nothing”, then why did the universe come into being at all? The total energy of “nothing” is 0 as well. Thus, why isn’t there still nothing? And one cannot make the argument that the universe could have popped into existence from nothing as a result of quantum mechanics, because there IS no quantum mechanics if there is nothing. And even if, somehow, the universe could have come into being from nothing, why THESE laws and constants, and not others?

    So I’m surprised that, to my knowledge, the show didn’t mention the multiverse idea which could resolve these questions by saying there may exist a “universe-generating” mechanism that can make a universe from a pre-existing universe. If a multiverse had always existed “for all eternity”, that could completely do away with the need for a “first cause”. One could just say that the multiverse had always existed with the set of laws that it does, laws which also include some sort of universe-generating mechanism. But that still doesn’t address the question, “Why those laws and not others?” Unfortunately, our knowledge of the laws of physics is still incomplete, so we cannot say for sure whether such a mechanism exists, nor whether other universes exist.

    All they referred to was the notion of virtual particles randomly coming into existence from the vacuum of space-time, but this is just an analogy. The vacuum of space-time is not nothing. It is part of the universe.

    So concluding that these ideas render a creator unnecessary is, in my opinion, misleading and incorrect.

  14. Dan says:

    From my pov the only difference between your stance and that of Paul Davies is that he left open the possibility for a creator, albeit a non-intrusive one, where you did not. I agree that this fascinating program should have been at least an hour long, perhaps even ninety minutes. I also believe that the panel could have benefited from an agnostic philosopher, one well versed on the rational arguments for and against a creator.
    As for a non-intrusive creator, science can always suggest that there is absolutely no evidence. However, if the future is undetermined, in a quantum uncertain universe, containing complex, chaotic, and emergent phenomena, and considering our substantial lack of understanding of the conscious mind, how can divine intervention, ever be ruled out? One man’s coincidence is another man’s correspondence. After all the mathematics is done, science still requires interpretation. Is interpretation ever truly objective? Wouldn’t that be a contradiction of terms?
    God cannot be proven *not* to exist, since logically, we can never prove a negative. Isn’t it possible that the requirements under the scientific method are so stringent as to omit possible subtle correlations, especially if they are not subject to the controls of an experimenter? BTW, what scientific experiments have been done by which you base your conclusions? If they are not based on empirical evidence, are they not based upon your own beliefs and a paradigm that has no tolerance for God’s existence and therefore aren’t they basically unscientific?
    The illogical behavior and reasoning from zealous followers of myth and superstition are not valid arguments against God’s existence, but unfortunately, imho, they have fueled a substantial backlash against a rational belief in God.
    There is, however, a reason for the saying: “there are no atheists in foxholes”, since it is easy to be dispassionate when your life and the lives of your friends and family are comfortable. What do you tell your loved ones when they are on their deathbed? What do we tell our sons and daughters, who face possible death everyday while fighting terrorism? What do you tell the man on the street, who can see no reason to continue his miserable existence? Perhaps there are rational reasons to believe in God, spirituality, and existence of the soul that transcend our current science and perhaps even the scientific method in general. As much as we think we know, can we ever know everything? On matters of our mortal existence, if not scientifically, at least philosophically, shouldn’t we, at the very least, keep an open mind?

  15. Esmail says:

    Thanks for posting the vids Sean. I think at the present time discussions like this althought illuminating for a small margin of the public remains regrettably only an amusement for most people just as a source to get their “debate-vein” pumping ferociously specially for a topic as sensitive as this. The rift between science and the public perception of it and what they know about it has grown so large in the past centuary that with the current flow there’s no way that somebody with no trarining in math and science can catch up to knowledge achieved by his fellow men and therefore never knows how and why scientists are led to tackle questions like what Hawking is asking.
    I find all the “theologians” arguments stagnated and lame. There’s no sane scientist wasting his time disproving “God”, the goal of scicene is to look at the world with a set of unbiased eyes; I think Science and the scientific methodology has been shaped as a decree of some sort in eyes of the public, if there’s ever a more concise and fruitful way devised to investigate a natural phenomena the sceintific method will adopt it. Lack of knowledge in the present world has given most people false groundings in defending their beliefs.
    I don’t see any clear line between scicene and the values or “hope”.To me hope is only the large amount of possiblities that exist at each moment of time with their probablility of being beneficial and practical.
    At the current rate of progress in science and the tendency of ppl going for what comforts them I don’t see a future for a real discussions about topics like this.
    This sounded like a rant from a mad man but I’ll have you know that I was having beer while watching the videos. Beacuse a “theoligian” in panel with two physicist only struck me as an entertainment.
    Sean and Paul Davis are the men but a real conversation about these topics takes an enlightenment ver 2.00.

  16. Phil says:

    If the universe came from nothing, then on what grounds can we say that the universe arose from a random quantum fluctuation? If there’s nothing, literally nothing, then the idea “quantum fluctuation” makes no sense — it doesn’t even exist, it’s not possible. If you have nothing, you stay with nothing.

  17. Russell says:

    Before tackling the idea of does God exist, it seems we should ask the question of how do we know anything at all exists? I’m not talking about cogito ergo sum, but I’m asking about the existence of other things. It seems to me, that you know things exist because they can affect the Universe in some way, albeit the effect may be very, very small or inconsequential. This is different than the tree falling in the woods question, since it’s still possible (in principle) to measure the falling of the tree — even if someone didn’t hear it. So is the opposite true? Can something exist and have no effect (or measurability) whatsoever on the Universe?

  18. Mike says:

    People should really try to analyze their thought processes to get a deeper understanding of what is going on here. Most people find the warm coziness of blind faith more palatable than the cold reasoning of objective logic. It is also easier to accept blind faith rather than trying to figure out the answers to difficult questions.

    The fact is that this “GOD” idea is a concept created in the minds of men. How this “GOD” concept plays out depended a lot on the individual’s own imagination, what was ingrained in the individuals subconscious as a child and what region of the planet did the individual grow up.

    What you’re doing when you think of GOD as a creator is projecting, in an egotistical way your own self. GOD was created in the minds of men and in the image of men, because creation is a man made concept.

    Only man “creates” things. You can humble yourself by getting some clay and “create” a coffee cup. But when you create this “super creator” that can form universes and solar systems. You have become nothing more than a bird on a wire fluffing up your feathers to seem bigger than you really are.

  19. Phil says:

    Anything that exists IN the universe influences other things nearby (everything that exists in the universe has a gravitational influence) and can, in principle, have effects which are measurable by us. It’s just a question of whether the influence has had enough time to reach us and whether or not we have the technology to detect the influence.

  20. KWK says:

    @Mike (#18), you may or may not be intending to paint all religious believers with such a broad brush, but if you are, then your comment contrasting “blind faith” with challenging oneself by “trying to figure out the answers to difficult questions” mostly just shows you don’t get out very often. I can assure you there are plenty of theists who regularly challenge their fondly-held beliefs by applying reasoning and objective logic to their analysis of evidence for (or against) theism, and there are plenty of knee-jerk atheists who have “blind faith” despite any evidence they may encounter. In my experience such positive or negative psychological traits are not generally very strongly correlated exclusively with one or the other belief system.

    The argument that man has created God in his own image has a long and distinguished pedigree, of course, but keep in mind that man has also conceived of things like electrons, which few who know about them bother to doubt nowadays.

  21. Owlmirror says:

    That you think you “scored points” on Haught by getting him to “admit” that he can’t imagine a world without God (at least, that’s my impression of your reaction to him), is a good example of this. If God is the ground of all being, as Haught assumes, then it is obvious that nothing would exist without God-not even the equations governing probabilistic fluctuations in a vacuum. Thus, imagining something without God is truly nonsensical, given such a framework.

    This is something that atheists have to watch out for — the New Idolatry. Of course, it isn’t really “New”, any more than New Atheism is “New”. But it’s something theololgians really like to do, nowadays.

    In the past, idolatry was straightforward. Some religious group would point at some thing — the sun, or the earth, or grain, and say “That’s the God we worship.” And someone questioning that belief would not be able to communicate with them by phrasing the question as “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God existing?”, because it would be ludicrous in that context — if there were no sun, everything would be cold and dark and dead; if there were no earth, there would be nothing to stand on; if there were no grain, there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone, and they would all starve.

    So the question would have to be phrased as “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God being a person; without it having any awareness or capability of awareness or consciousness?”

    The New Idolaters basically do the same thing as the old idolaters, but instead of pointing at some physical thing, and saying “That’s the God we worship,” they slyly move away from any particular thing and into the lofty intellectual heights of the metaphysically abstract. They smugly declare that existingness is God. Oooooh. Sooooo sophistimacated.

    Now, any sane person would be sorely tempted to smack them in the face with a halibut and tell them to stop being such a silly cack-headed chundering sophist. But I understand that that’s frowned upon in modern academic discourse.

    So instead, when discussing the matter with them, and they say they cannot imagine God not existing (because existingness itself is God, and nothing can exist without existingness, ha ha, what an absurd and logically contradictory idea!), atheists need to pause and say “Ah. Hold up a moment. Are you one of those silly cack-headed chundering sophists who say that existingness is God?”

    And (assuming they don’t start fum-faffing about how insulted they are, blah-blah-blah) when they respond in the positive, rephrase the question as above: “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God being a person or anything like a person; without it having any awareness or the capability of awareness or consciousness?”

    How would the New Idolaters respond to that? Well, if they can indeed imagine existingness as not having awareness or being a person, then they’ve responded to the original question in its actual intent. If they can’t, then you can indeed accuse them of having a ludicrous failure of imagination, and of being someone who believes in absurdities to boot.

  22. David Santo Pietro says:

    Intellectually, Paul Davies was the star (sorry Sean). I am not sure why you call him wishy washy. He was the only person to address the question that was being begged, that is “Where did the laws of physics come from?”

    Once you have quantum field theory, or string theory or whatever, you can have a universe pop into existence from “nothing”. But you can imagine a universe with different laws, no laws, or just no universe and laws whatsoever. So it is hard to claim, as Hawking flirts with and uses in his argument, that we fully understand where the universe came from.

  23. HB says:

    A quick comments about the videos – part 4.

    At about 8:00 Hawking says “The clock would actually stop.” And we see a stopping clock.

    In reality, if you were inside the clock you would not see it stopping, because it would not stop. It would stop only for the outside observers who are very very far away from the black hole.

    Then he says ‘Inside the black hole itself time does not exist.” That is a wrong statement.

  24. Jim Harrison says:

    Since the laws of physics are simply descriptions of how things behave, they are coeval with the universe. Unless you revert to the ancient notion that natural laws are like human laws, i.e. the dictates of a legislator, it doesn’t seem necessary to have a separate explanation for ’em.

    By the way, when people marvel at the supposed beauty and simplicity of physical laws, I find myself wondering just how simple laws have to be to count as simple since most of us find the ones in quantum field theory textbooks sufficiently complicated. At a minimum, aren’t we entitled to an example of what would count as ugly and kludgy physical laws. Anyhow, one hears that it is surprising that the universe is explicable at all, and yet it is far from obvious that it is maximally explicable. In a rational world, for example, wouldn’t there be an even number of days in a solar year? Wouldn’t astrology be valid since it would certainly be a more rational world if there were a simple relationship between the position of the planets and one’s character and destiny.

  25. Avattoir says:

    I think it would have been difficult for Prof Carroll to have been more aggressive without channeling Feynman and trashing the entire exercise; he did a great job of getting in his points while respecting the tone of the set-up conversation; after all, the producers could have gone another direction, such as bringing in say Pastor Rick Warren, or the cartoonish Hagee.

    As it was, to me the conversation was more satisfying than the production involving Prof Hawking, which just had me thinking about all the alternative theories to his own of how natural forces can produce a universe. I mean, the one articulated in the show didn’t even fit all that comfortably within his own book on the subject with Leonard Mlodinow.