Let the Universe Be the Universe

My article in the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, which asks “Does the Universe Need God?” (and answers “nope”), got a bit of play last week, thanks to an article by Natalie Wolchover that got picked up by Yahoo, MSNBC, HuffPo, and elsewhere. As a result, views that are pretty commonplace around here reached a somewhat different audience. I started getting more emails than usual, as well as a couple of phone calls, and some online responses. A representative sample:

  • “Sean Carroll, servant of Satan…”
  • “God has a way of bring His judgement to those who mock Him… John Lennon stated “Christianity will end, it will disappear.” Lennon was shot six times after saying that… Marilyn Monroe said to Billy Graham after Graham said the Spirit of God had sent him to preach to her: “I don’t need your Jesus”. A week later she was found dead in her apartment.”
  • “See you in hell.”
  • “Maybe GOD is just a DOG that you will meet when you are walking on the Beach trying to figure out how to get sand out of your butt crack.”

I admit that last one is a bit hard to interpret. The others I think are pretty straightforward.

A more temperate response came from theologian William Lane Craig (a fellow Blackwell Companion contributor) on his Reasonable Faith podcast. I mentioned Craig once before, and here we can see him in action. I’m not going to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of his comments, but I did want to highlight the two points I think are most central to what he’s saying.

One point he makes repeatedly — really the foundational idea from which everything else he has to say flows — is that a naturalist account of the form I advocate simply doesn’t explain why the universe exists at all, and that in my essay I don’t even try. Our old friend the Primordial Existential Question, or Why is there something rather than nothing?

I have to admit I’m a bit baffled here. I suppose it’s literally true that I don’t offer a reason why there is something rather than nothing, but it’s completely false that I ignore the question. There’s a whole section of my paper, entitled “Accounting for the world,” which addresses precisely this point. It’s over a thousand words long. I even mention Craig by name! And he seems not to have noticed that this section was there. (Among my minor sins, I’m happy to confess that I would always check first to see if my name would appear in someone else’s paper. Apparently not everyone works that way.) It would be okay — maybe even interesting — if he had disagreed with the argument and addressed it, but pretending that it’s not there is puzzling. (The podcast is advertised as “Part One,” so maybe this question will be addressed in Part Two, but I still wouldn’t understand the assertion in Part One that I ignored the question.)

The idea is simple, if we may boil it down to the essence: some things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.

The second major point Craig makes is a claim that I ignored something important: namely, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem. This is Craig’s favorite bit of cosmology, because it can be used to argue that the universe had a beginning (rather than stretching infinitely far backwards in time), and Craig is really devoted to the idea that the universe had a beginning. As a scientist, I’m not really devoted to any particular cosmological scenario at all, so in my paper I tried to speak fairly about both “beginning cosmologies” and “eternal cosmologies.” Craig quotes (misleadingly) a recent paper by Audrey Mithani and Alex Vilenkin, which concludes by saying “Did the universe have a beginning? At this point, it seems that the answer to this question is probably yes.” Mithani and Vilenkin are also scientists, and are correspondingly willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, “probably” yes. I personally think the answer is “probably no,” but none of us actually knows. The distinction is that the scientists are willing to admit that they don’t really know.

The theorems in question make a simple and interesting point. Start with a classical spacetime — “classical” in the sense that it is a definite four-dimensional Lorentzian manifold, not necessarily one that obeys Einstein’s equation of general relativity. (It’s like saying “start with a path of a particle, but not necessarily one that obeys Newton’s Laws.”) The theorem says that such a spacetime, if it has been expanding sufficiently fast forever, must have a singularity in the past. That’s a good thing to know, if you’re thinking about what kinds of spacetimes there are.

The reason I didn’t explicitly mention this technical result in my essay is that I don’t think it’s extremely relevant to the question. Like many technical results, its conclusions follow rigorously from the assumptions, but both the assumptions and the conclusions must be treated with care. It’s easy, for example, to find examples of eternally-existing cosmologies which simply don’t expand all the time. (We can argue about whether they are realistic models of the world, but that’s a long and inconclusive conversation.) The definition of “singularity in the past” is not really the same as “had a beginning” — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.) Most importantly, I don’t think that any result dealing with classical spacetimes can teach us anything definitive about the beginning of the universe. The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity. It’s extremely easy to imagine eternal cosmologies based on quantum mechanics that do not correspond to simple classical spacetimes throughout their history. It’s an interesting result to keep in mind, but nowhere near the end of our investigations into possible histories of the universe.

None of this matters to Craig. He knows what answer he wants to get — the universe had a beginning — and he’ll comb through the cosmology literature looking to cherry-pick quotes that bolster this conclusion. He doesn’t understand the literature at a technical level, which is why he’s always quoting (necessarily imprecise) popular books by Hawking and others, rather than the original papers. That’s fine; we can’t all be experts in everything. But when we’re not experts, it’s not intellectually honest to distort the words of experts to make them sound like they fit our pre-conceived narrative. That’s why engagement with people like Craig is fundamentally less interesting than engagement with open-minded people who are willing to take what the universe has to offer, rather than forcing it into their favorite boxes.

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156 Responses to Let the Universe Be the Universe

  1. Michael Ventura says:

    one of the best comments from the satan thread: ‘Quantum physics is quite close to explaining how the Eucharist works.’

  2. Stian says:

    Your last paragraph is absolutely spot-on. Craig is one of the most intellectually dishonest persons I’ve ever seen in debate – ever, anywhere. He acts and pretends to be ike an academic and intellectual, but he’s arrogant, pompous and degrading and lying.

    “But when we’re not experts, it’s not intellectually honest to distort the words of experts to make them sound like they fit our pre-conceived narrative. That’s why engagement with people like Craig is fundamentally less interesting than engagement with open-minded people who are willing to take what the universe has to offer, rather than forcing it into their favorite boxes.”

    Absolutely spot on.

    The sad thing is that this guy won’t stop either. He’ll continue spreading lies and contaminating people around him with dishonest misinformation and lies about the world and the universe. People like Craig make me lose faith in humanity.

  3. Zerub says:

    I think you got the wrong Hyperlink at – I mentioned Craig “once before”, and here we can see him in action”. 4th Para, I think.

  4. James Gallagher says:

    I don’t think the question about God is really possible to answer until we work out simpler stuff, like whether science explains free-will and consciousness.

    And it’s a bit dodgy to expect our current physics theories to describe the entire Universe and its origin, I mean we don’t even know if SUSY is correct, what dark matter is, why the Universe seems to have an accelerating expansion etc etc. We don’t even have any experimental confirmation that GR requires more than its linear approximation, we don’t know if gravity is just a statistical effect, we don’t know if time-travel is possible. We don’t know that inflation is right, we don’t know the origin of neutrino oscillations, we don’t know why we live in 3 large dimensions of space, we don’t know if the fine structure constant is constant, or whether the speed of light is constant, or whether there are only 3 particle generations, and if so why, we don’t know the reason for mixing matrices, or fractional charges of quarks but integer charge of hadrons. We don’t know if QM is truly probabilistic or deterministic, we don’t know lots of stuff really…

  5. Sean Carroll says:

    Zerub — thanks, fixed.

  6. Dave says:

    As both an ex-physicist (Ph.D. and postdoc from a top-shelf institution, now on Wall St.) and a religious individual, I *sort of* have to agree with Craig when he says you ignored the Why question. OK, you didn’t completely ignore it, but seemingly, you miss the point. When you say (apologies for the extensive snippet, but it’s key)…

    “Why are some people so convinced of the need for a meta-explanatory account, while others are perfectly happy without one? I would suggest that the impetus to provide such an account comes from our experiences within the world, while the suspicion that there is no need comes from treating the entire universe as something unique, something for which a different set of standards is appropriate.
    For example, we could imagine arguing that there is no puzzle associated with the value of the vacuum energy. It had to be some number, and we have (perhaps) measured what that value is, and there’s nothing more to be said.”

    …it is clear that you’re on a different page. It’s not a question of being “perfectly happy” with or without… none of us theists — who include, as you are well aware, several modern physics Nobelists, living and dead — is trying to picture the account (well, maybe some are); but rather, it’s the knowledge that it is simply unacceptable to maintain that some collection of material parameters always “just existed”. Talk about pulling a rabbit out of your… um, hat. To put it another way, we all seem to picture an ever-existent 3-space+time structure (ignoring other dimensions), for example. But why 3? Where did that come from? Why not -17,001,489.062 dimensions? Where did ANY of these material, mechanistic numbers — and not just numbers, but more importantly, *precepts* — come from? In taking them for granted, as you apparently do (“there’s nothing more to be said”), you *seem* to be incapable of “thinking outside the [physical] box” — sorry for the cliché, but metaphysics is more than just thinking about the unknowable. I know that of course you, of all people, *can* think outside the box, but you seem not to be applying it here. The “nothing more” that you dismiss is a huge, yawning, logical gulf. And the knowable order — the very existence of numbers — and appearance of *time* that has sprung from *wherever*, and the ostensibly non-mechanistic consciousness that has appeared subsequently, has convinced many of us — purely through a plausibility argument — that the Prime Mover of Aristotle’s universe is a transcendent intelligence… the Universal Mind that Dyson writes of. Well, now I have nothing more to say…

  7. Sean Carroll says:

    Dave– I think you are illustrating my point perfectly. For one thing, writing 1,000 words about a topic, even if you disagree with the words, cannot sensibly be described as completely ignoring it. More importantly, in those thousand words I made an argument. I explained that the notion of “explanation” or “reason” is context-dependent, and may or may not apply to things like the universe, and we should be open-minded. If you want to disagree, your task is to show why the argument is incorrect. Instead of doing that, you say “it is simply unacceptable.” That is not actually an argument.

  8. Doug says:

    ” And the knowable order — the very existence of numbers — and appearance of *time* that has sprung from *wherever*, and the ostensibly non-mechanistic consciousness that has appeared subsequently, has convinced many of us — purely through a plausibility argument — that the Prime Mover of Aristotle’s universe is a transcendent intelligence… the Universal Mind that Dyson writes of. ”

    Whoa, talk about pulling a rabbit out of your ass.

  9. Brett says:

    it’s people with logic vs. people without logic, and it’s such an old argument.

    To me, God is a blatant creation of the human mind in an attempt to feel comfortable denying the idea that our lives are pretty meaningless compared to the universe, or even our galaxy. I hate to discuss it anymore because you’re arguing with people who can’t accept what a majority of answers to questions about existence are; “we don’t know yet, but we’re trying to figure it out and we’re doing a pretty good job”. There are people intelligent and strong enough to handle the truth and there are those that must live a delusional life in the fetal position chanting “god exists, he’s watching over us, and nobody ever really *dies*”. Because that way, you never have to face life as it truly is. Though the truth may sound depressing, it’s actually pretty beautiful to be able to appreciate the short time you are given because you value things a great deal more. For those who would disagree; consider the dominant social structure of governments (and states in the USA) which still enforce the death penalty and the dominant religious beliefs, vs that of those which do not. Look at how much violence and hate religions across the world have produced throughout time and tell me that the people who believe in God don’t have some piece of their mind slightly out of whack.

  10. David Lau says:

    “Servant of satan”, as they commented on you. Sean, I find that amusing. Humans are their own evil and the origins of sin is the misuse of our intelligence. But with such sophisticated intelligence that we possess, we bound to get twisted in ways to dominate over others. Religion is created for comforting because of the fear of death, and now it has evolved and is all about control. Science has come a long way and yes, someday it will explain and come to a complete understanding of how the universe came about and there is absolutely no need for God and He does not have a place in this universe. The latest shows that 46% of Americans believe that we were created in the present forms less than 10000 years old, and some other creationists believe that the dinosaurs roamed alongside with Adam and Eve. I question about our country and society and how dangerous it can be . If we don’t educate our future generation of the importance of scientific methods and reasoning, and just believing that a creator does it all, then we have no chance to innovate in the future. Sean, I have always admired your knowledge in science and the way you express your vision in all of those blogging. Can’t wait to read your new book coming out in Nov.

  11. Mike says:

    Unfortunately Sean, so long as anything remains to be explained (and of course there will always be things that remain to be explained) there will be those who use the remaining lack of an explanation to justify all manner of myth — the Christian god, the Hindu gods, the Greek gods (there must be someone who still believes this), the Universal Mind, magic underwear, and it goes on and on ad nauseum. It’s part of the story of the at first slow, but now much more rapid, triumph of knowledge over superstition. Still, that triumph only occurs as a result of folks putting up the good fight — spreading the tools of science and reason. Keep it up.

  12. MKS says:

    Sean Carroll,

    what made you want to ‘enter into the American G_d debate?’ :3

  13. philh says:

    Craig has been saying for donkeys years that the big bang proves the universe had a beginning, Sean correct if Im wrong, but I don’t think anyone takes that seriously anymore. So Craig has to find a new beginning , and so hes picked the beginning of eternal inflation envisioned by BGV. But posing a different beginning other than the big bang brings with it a heavy burden and that is experimental evidence. how are we going to get any evidence of this other beginning? Craig will be happy to point out theres an experimental evidence for a multiverse if you were discussing the fine tuning argument but hell drop that criteria rather quickly if its the BGV theorem. Incidentally did you read this paper:http://arxiv.org/abs/1205.5550
    arguing that multiverse is static ? I note Guth was thanked for his role.

  14. John McKay says:

    Religion is inherently conservative. And what I mean by conservative is an approach to the world, not a political agenda. One of the core elements of conservatism is a belief that hierarchy is necessary. The universe cannot simply exist; it must exist because something made it exist and that something must have a purpose and, therefore, it must be directed by some form of intelligence. Ducks don’t migrate because of individual instinctive urges; they migrate because the duck at the front of the V ordered them to and shows them the way. Tornadoes and school shootings don’t just happen; they happen because God sends them to punish us for gay marriage or abortion or something else having to do with sex. You don’t say God is unnecessary for the universe to exist because you believe it; you say so because you are a bad person deliberately denying what you really know to be the truth. You are probably not even able to do that on your own; you say it because you are following a different hierarchy. One constructed either by Satan or by the wrong beach dog.

  15. Ian Liberman says:

    Sean, you are right about William and Dave. They are not using evidence to support their arguments or answering the arguments and they are actually using random statements of Physicists , who do not even support their position because they are taking the statements out of context. Vilenkin is the perfect example. After his announcement of the universe having a beginning , which he has been stating for years, Vilenkin went on to elucidate that this beginning would still be tied to scientific theories, related research that included his own concepts like quantum tunnelling rather quantum fluctuations. However, the tunnelling still comes from a vacuum of nothing , not God and Vilenkin has stated in interview on Closer to the Truth that he has no belief in a personal or deistic God because of the lack of empirical evidence. The comments that are microscopically being used out of context, are being manipulated to support the theists perspective but overall from a macroscopic view, within context, they actually totally discredit them.

  16. David Lau says:

    comment #14 is so out of touch that anyone here can ignore.

  17. Mitchell Porter says:

    If one is going to say that the universe has an anthropomorphic cause, then the simplest model is to postulate a being which by human standards is either indifferent or evil. Consider all the millions of years for which living feeling beings have been hunted down, torn apart and eaten alive by predators, in which they have experienced starvation, being burned alive in fires, or being buried alive in earthquakes. Indifference: the universe was created to be a vast mechanism, and these are the unimportant sufferings of a few spontaneously generated microbes crushed between the cogs. Evil: the universe was created in order to be a mechanism which crushes suffering sentient beings between its cogs; it’s a torture device.

    The fact that “religious discussion” doesn’t weigh up *those* possibilities and try to make sense of them, but confines itself to atheism versus friendly theism, or to one established religion versus another, says something about how little thought and how little courage is at work there. I was struck very much by a remark of Nietzsche somewhere, where he points out that the characteristics of the afterlife and the “other world” and religious metaphysics in general consist of an inversion of all those features of reality which might be found intolerable. Life here contains suffering and death? Then there it contains happiness and immortality. The world we know about is ruled by an evil or indifferent nature? Then there must be a good and caring God somewhere over that.

    If we are considering anthropomorphic hypotheses regarding the nature of a first cause, then Azathoth (the blindly productive idiot god of Lovecraft), Satan supreme (god as cosmic torturer), and an indifferent geometer-God, should all be standard hypotheses, and the love-God of Christianity as dubious wishful thinking.

  18. Marcus Chen says:

    The sample comments are just plain depressing. In the same vein as Gandhi’s famous quote, it strikes me as ironic how deeply un-Christian many people who profess themselves as Christians are.

    Should there, by some happenstance, actually be some sort of supreme being, one is inclined to wonder how they would explain themselves to Him?

  19. Ben says:

    As a physicist, I personally think it might be a bit arrogant to think that metaphysics, as a branch of philosophy, can genuinely be replaced by physics without due process…. Physicalism, in my everyday experience with colleagues, is often characterized by the quasi-absence of self-reflexion on the ontology of mathematical objects in general, which are the building blocks of our physical models. When it is not the case (which is rare), the only apparently self-consistent philosophical option for a physicalist is to be a mathematical empiricist who gives to electrons, quarks, Hilbert spaces where state vectors evolve, real numbers, natural numbers, etc., all a similar level of ontological existence, by the indispensability argument. In short, these things “exist” because they explain the functioning of the world, at least until a better physical model replaces the current one, where new entities might replace the current ones. That might look fine, but there is a real problem, and the problem is that I guess every physicalist knows deep inside that natural numbers and real numbers will actually never be replaced. So, the mathematical empiricist just plays on words but thinks precisely the same, deep inside, in his deepest intuitions, as a Platonist. Being a mathematical Platonist is perfectly fine, it is the most commonly adopted philosophy of mathematics among mathematicians themselves. But it involves admitting some form of transcendence in the form of this immaterial platonistic world of ideas. So the physicalists, who generally give the same intuitive meaning to numbers as Platonists, do play a kind of philosophical trick, known as mathematical empiricism, in order to think exactly the same as Platonists, but reject any form of transcendence by the use of that trick. They can then go on explaining how we, as physicists, now know for sure that quarks do exist, while saying at the same time that they actually do not “really” exist, but actually by current physical indispensability they do exist, and the same is valid for 1+1=2, which is currently true but not really, etc…. Let’s just say I dont buy it: if someone thinks physics is self-sufficent to explain everything we need to know in the world, he is then neccessarily a Platonist in disguise. And the dirty word “transcendence” (damn, hell, aaaargh, vade retro satanas! 😉 ) is then difficult to avoid. Just my two cents.

  20. Dennis J says:

    I wish I had the elegance and style of some of the above replies but I don’t. My beliefs in god are a matter of faith and not based on logic or even evidence. If some one were to tell me that there is no god I would reply that they could be right but I think otherwise, lets have a discussion about it. If some one were to tell me I am going to burn in hell because I don’t believe like they do I would tell them I would rather burn in hell than serve their vengeful hateful god in heaven. I mean no disrespect for any one but those that say they know the mind of god.

  21. Brian Too says:

    People talking right past each other. Let me relate a story, one which indicates why I think it will always be thus.

    I was just thumbing through the autobiography of Dolly Parton. It’s a decent read and Dolly has always struck me as a sensible person. In it I found a quote which I will paraphrase here:

    “I love nature. I think everyone who looks closely at nature knows there is a God.”

    And there you have it. People who believe in God feel there is a God. That’s it, God is a matter of faith. Every religion I know of addresses faith directly and indeed celebrates that. Faith is not reason. Therefore using the tools of reason to address faith is bound to fail.

    Some of the faithful, as Mr. Craig above, seem determined to make an argument of reason to, what? Support faith? Undermine reason, as represented by science? Something.

    I do not wish to attack the faithful. Indeed I generally do not wish to engage them on the matter, and this is the reason why.

  22. karaktur says:

    There is a lengthy debate between Craig and Christopher Hitchens on youtube. I thought Craig was a bit dishonest because he made about five points for Hitchens to argue against and from memory many if not most were “scientific” in that he drew upon recent cosmology. Hitchens, however, is not a scientist and pretty much ignored those points instead asked questions about why were we saved only 2000 years ago when humans are tens of thousands of years old. It’s better than watching TV.

  23. David Lau says:

    Science is man discovered while religion is pure man made. That summarizes it all. Religions have created more wars than anything in this world while the development of science continues to benefit mankind especially in the medical field. Prayers are served as a mean of comforting but precise cutting edge medical treatments serve as a cure to the diseases. Teaching evolution is real because of the substantial evidence we have gathered over the centuries while creationism is pure fantasy. Science continues to move forward while religion is a standstill and continues to wage wars. Scientists have the courage to admit what they don’t understand while religious groups claim they have all the answers in this world including the origin of the universe based on false hopes. The 911 incident, I call it as ” science flies you in an airplane while twisted religion flies you into the building”.

  24. Neil says:

    One says “See you in hell.” At least you will have some company.

  25. Clark Griswold says:

    Carroll’s remarks about Craig’s criticisms are a total dodge, hamhandedly performed. Suggest he try once more, perhaps with feeling if not actual engagement.