Explanations: God vs. Nature

Earlier this year I participated in an Oxford workshop entitled Is God Explanatory? (Not really, as it turns out.) The videos for the conference are now available, including a couple by me:

(Traveling like crazy, as I’ve been doing this last year, doesn’t leave much time for real blogging, but at least there is an extensive video trail I can use for content.) Other speakers included Lara Buchak, William Stoeger, Joe Silk, and John Hawthorne. See the playlist for videos of the question-and-answer sessions, which were posted separately.

Those are formal talks with power point and the whole bit. But I also participated in dueling after-dinner talks at the conference banquet; that was fun, so I’ll post the video here. First we have Keith Ward, talking about God as Explanation, then me, talking about Nature as Explanation.

Note that I haven’t actually watched the video myself. And both speakers, if I recall correctly, had imbibed a glass of wine or two. So who knows what we actually said?

In cases like this, the chance that people will respond to the actual contents of the videos rather than just the titles is vanishingly small, but I remain defiantly optimistic in the face of overwhelming evidence.

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31 Responses to Explanations: God vs. Nature

  1. Ron Murphy says:

    Keith Ward… His intro into religion is misleading. There are many routes in, and one that many though not all theologians have taken is as a matter of explanation. It is odd then he explains his own route of empiricism, then idealism, then theism. God is his nomological explanation, though it may also be his axiological one too. He misleads by explaining the distinction only in terms of nominological being one of laws, as if some mathematical or process law (natural selection) is required. The nominological explanation he uses, God, just happens to be too complex (or vague) to define clearly. “You can’t quantify God’s attributes… apart from the most general thing, … good/bad” No? Not a crude and vague and variable binary law then? Not a binary attribute? The duplicitous religious thinking denies in one breath what it claims in the next, a common thread. Pilkinthorn is another abuser of reason of this kind.

    Axiological, “Why people do what they do…” Not for science? Isn’t that what psychology and neuroscience are trying to do? Perhaps the religious see little success in these sciences. We have to bear in mind here that this is the precursor to “can’t get ought from is” nonsense – the big morality slight of hand.

    The point here is that complex human relationships are just too difficult to derive simple rules from, and generally science is looking for simple rules. We want a simple Newtonian equation to explain the motion of colliding objects as point masses because it’s much harder to perform a more realistic analysis. Human psychology and neurosciene, for all their limitations, are attempting to give more precise explanations for parts of what makes us tick. They are to human behaviour what materials science might tell us about colliding metal balls. Detail that gives foundation to the simpler laws, and sometimes showing the flaws of the simpler laws. Religion is like the cold fusion of human affairs, the magic stuff, the something for nothing fantasy, overly simplistic notions slapped on top of observations of very complex systems, shured up by incredulity.

    Yes, we can’t do the complex science, so we do the ‘personal explanations’. This is natural human behaviour, evolved short hand explanations, guessing, second guessing, what is happening in the brains of others, or indeed ourselves. “We’re at a conference like this because … ” As usual, the convenient failure to think through the causal chain back to all the unconscious drives that bring a person to a particular point and time; a failure think about what caused the ‘purpose’ that he had for being there. “It brings in final causality..,” That’s very explicitly what human interaction does not bring in. That is a case of thinking “I’m prepared to think this through to what appear to be my purposes for doing this, but no further; so I declare my apparent purposes to be the ends in themselves, my final freely willed causes.”

    He’s stuck in the philosophical explanation of knowledge and its relation to consciousness. But if knowledge is nothing more than complex context, of dynamic patterns in brains, and consciousness is the subjective experience of such a brain looking in on its own processes, then consciousness is only an emergent model for those processes, as observed by those processes, the brain’s own model of its own self awareness. What would it feel like for a complex mass of matter to record patterns that relate to the world external to it, and then to make recursive patterns regarding its own pattern making? Would it feel like this? When a new brain is presented with entirely meaningless data that has some correspondence with the world external to it, and this process goes on relentlessly during the brain’s waking hours, when does that infant brain start to recognise common patterns, themes, contexts? When all the data pouring in starts to make a common sense about the world, is that what acquiring meaning consists of? Enough people reading this will have attended lectures that at first were devoid of all meaning; the lectures consisted of nothing but some remotely recognisable syntactic expressions containg barely understood words, that together meant nothing. Until, of course, with enough familiarity, enough filling in of the gaps, until enough pieces of the jigsaw puzzle revealed a picture, a context emerges, meaning emerges. And then we wonder what it was that we didn’t get, we can’t see why it wasn’t so obvious. Knowledge, meaning, they are nothing more than data in a relational, relative context. We have no other models of complexity that compare to the brain, so it’s difficult to analyse in this way. Yet, thanks to that antithesis of religion, evolution, we ironically take so much for granted in our use of the brain we feel we must invoke explanations for its operation from magic, gods.

    Moving on to his empiricism and idealism. I don’t think there’s an affinity between them but they do form a dichotomy – well almost. The real dichotomy is between empiricism and solipsism; it’s just that solipsism is the only logical outcome for all idealisms and Rationalisms ( i.e. Rationalism is that of pure reason). Once you go down the route of suspecting the material world you really can’t justify not taking the non-stop express to solipsism. There really is no justification for local stops at various theological or philosophical stations on the way. I cannot refute solipsism. Philosophically it is a possibility. But counter to that I cannot ignore the in-your-face persistence of the senses. Though Johnson’s “I refute it thus!” wasn’t an actual logical refutation, it would have been damed persuasive to him. As the need to eat drink and sleep is to any professed solipsist. The point here is that if your solipsism does not actually allow you to bend the material laws to your solipsist will, then how can you tell the difference between an actual material world and a solipsistically conjured one? If you can’t, then why not act as if the world is as material as it seems?

    The trouble with theists, idealists, solipsists, is they insist on proofs from materialists that theycannot provide for their own ideas. Whereas really the materialist perspective is an entirely contingent one; contingent on the apparent material world being as real as it seems. As it seems! It is the theist, idealis, solipsist, yhat is not only providing no proof, but not even having anything to offer that could show some distinction that would expose material reality as an illusion. Materialists are quite content with this contingency, as are good scientists. Scientific empiricist materialim is the only game in town that ever does anything. What ever came out of theism, idealism, solipsism? What good have they ever done? What value have they ever been? And before answering that last one it might be worth the Christian theist contemplating what answer might come from a Muslim, or a Scientologist, or any other cult.

    “Materialism is an extraordinary reductionist view… ” – Why extraordinary? It’s quiteca straight forward inference from observations from science, in that nothing but materialism is ever witnessed.

    “… experience … primordial in some important sense …” – How about the important sense in which human experience, sensory experience, is nothing more that interactions of the material, from the outside in to the inside, into the neurons, in every degree, with nothing non-material ever discovered (how would ee discover the non-material? ) We need his ‘more sophisticated’ explanation for the subsequent leaps from here, to primordial consciousness.

    “Could you extend this view of consciousness being the ultimate primordial reality?” – Did you notice the leap?

    “Consciousness is obviously what we are all aware of. There it is. As Augustine said about time…” – Who made Augustine the authority? When a philosophical position is offered as being obvious the proponent has already lost the debate: http://ronmurp.net/2011/09/06/stating-the-bleeding-obvious/.

    “You begin your knowledge from consciousness.” – All evolution denies this. Consciousness came late to the parade of life. Much life gets by without it.

    “Where does God come into it?” – Good question. Why even presuppose such an entity? All religion relies on making this one presupposition, that is never justified.

    Starts to get vague now, requiring his ‘sophisticated theology’ so I can only comment on what he gives here.

    “… consciousnesses communicate with other consciousnesses… ” – Whoa! Hold it right there. If your consciousness constructs the apparent material world, how can you be sure other minds are not yet further fictional constructs of your lonely solipsist consciousness, and that your god isn’t such a figment too? See? Once you set off on the path to idealism you have no reason for not ending up at solipsism!

    “Try and work that out. Most philosophers have…” – No they have not. That is precisely what such philosophers have failed to do.

    “.. not what explains the material world but what’s the material world in the first place?” – I don’t see any significant difference bteween these questions, except fo faut profundity when dressed in theistic language.

    “… there’s this split …” – Except the real options are materialism* or solipsism.

    “You make that decision, and that’s the way I’going to see it.” – Fair enough, as I said I can’t refute solipsism. But why bother with idealism, solipsism? What more can they offer?

    “We claim to experience mind, consciousness, value, supreme value, …, platonic beauty, truth, goodness. If you could contemplate that, experiencevthat, as a reality, … spirituality, … how you contemplate things in a way that’s going to make you more like the truth … that God represents. ”

    So, what it boils down to is Ward conjures up his own ideals, his own idealism (which should, if honest, be solipsism), as a figment of his imagination, an idealnto live up to.

    “It’s not that you start from … it’s a total misunderstanding…” – Seems to me the misunderstanding is his, in that he can’t see how he gets to God as nothing but a consequence of his wanting to explain. He merely avoids the common religious circularity of then making this consequential God explain what he has just been introduced as a consequence of. It is then, though, a bit of a coincidence that the God of Ward is so much like the God of those other believers that don’t believe in the figmental God he does.

    Does the universe look as if it is consistent with the ultimate truth and beauty? Is there some relation between the physical universe as an expression of that ultimate truth and beauty? It goes unanswered.

    “If there was an ultimate reason … imagine such a thing … what would it be like …” – This turns into waffle that tells us nothing about what he thinks.

    “What is the ultinate value for human life … what is worth committing…” – Need there be such? What is wrong with muddling through, trying to understand the universe without any expectation that we should have some purpose other than what we invent? And, of course, that’s all Ward’s God turns out to be, one of the very many fantasy purposes, no better than any other religion.

    “… even if it turns out not to be true … ”

    *I slip between epistemology and ontology at times.

  2. Ron Murphy says:

    Your short talk after Keith Ward … Good points on the abstract nature of religious belief. Now if those specific believers could convey that to all the Catholics and Muslims and others who take it all more than just a little bit literally, it would be a great help. And, if they could all stop using their sources of morality to dictate to the rest of us, as if we give such sources any credence whatsoever, then they could indulge in their abstractions to their hearts content. But I get the feeling the abstractionists are in a minority, and aren’t all as forgiving of atheists as the ones you mention.

  3. Paul Kramarchyk says:

    My 2¢ — Philosophers (and others who believe ‘words’ are a substitute for evidence) talk too long and say too little. Mr. Ward is no exception. Other than metaphor for the wonders of the universe, the idea of “god” is ludicrous. And every thinking person knows it. Few have the courage to admit it.

    I agree with Feynman: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

    Sean, you did good.

  4. Doug says:

    Wearing that shirt with that tie is disastrous.

  5. kashyap Vasavada says:

    Prof. Carroll:
    I am a retired physics prof. I have participated in fighting against creationism and intelligent design ideas in the local paper.I have very high respect for your physics research credentials. Also you are expert in explaining physics to laymen.In particular, I enjoyed reading your book “From eternity to here” although I already knew most of the physics. Your example of Miss Kitty is wonderful.
    Having said all this, I have to say that I absolutely and totally disagree with your views against religion!!! Both science and religion have limitations and are important for mankind. I wish physicists like you, Weinberg and Krauss would stop your tirades against religion. Many scientists would disagree with you and you are giving bad name to science which has been a wonderful thing for mankind. In spite of this, I plan to read your blogs for its physics content!

  6. Meh says:

    I could accept someone claiming that God has a place. For example, once we get beyond our understanding of physics, continuing to ask what made the edge of the universe, then what made the edge of the multiverse, etc. But I can’t accept that religion has a place. Religion is a horrible thing that is presently and has always hindered mankind.

  7. Orestes Ippeau says:

    Some provocative and strong comments, but Doug wins the thread (and it’s not close).

  8. Gizelle Janine says:

    Well: My thoughts on the god issue happens to be this: God is a good theory, and almost a nessasary one when thinking about how God fits into the science picture (See quantum mechanics). I think it was Steven Weinberg who said in Sean’s naturalism meeting that “God is about as real as Santa Claus or the tooth fairy…” And I couldn’t agree more with this statement. My explanation for agreeing: Locality. God is an idea because in science and in math and anything that is creative philosophy, the idea only fits to explain self and deep issues of soul, but with no proof except except ideas presented as facts. Not math or science even points to one answer when dealing with the structure of an equation, closest thing would be a summation, and a summation is just a collection of a bunch of values. So what’s that say about people’s idea on God?

    Because people talk about an idea like god, it makes the idea locally relevant to understanding science in regards to society. A lot of people believe in god, you know…

  9. Gizelle Janine says:

    In addition: What if there WAS a god, but he’s an Atheist only because not everyone believes in him? *rimshots*

  10. Lord says:

    Delightful. The only thing he didn’t touch on is the evolution of consciousness itself though that is inherent in his own development.

  11. Gizelle Janine says:

    Doug: Wearing that shirt with that tie means he knows nothing about how to wear patterns correctly, beyond being disgraceful, it’s tacky. 😀

  12. G P Burdell says:

    In your Oxford lecture, I was surprised you didn’t use two of my favorite arguments, one for and one against the existence of a god:
    Against: Infinite recursion — Existence requires purpose. Purpose requires a god/creator. So our God exists. But therefore, our God requires purpose, and therefore requires its own god/creator. Ad infinitum. I.e., the existence of a god explains nothing, because it does not explain anything about how that god came to be, or what gave it its purpose.

    For: Our universe is, at its most basic, illogical and inconsistent — that is, given our current understanding, the basic underlying physics of our universe turns out to be logically inconsistent and contradictory. The rules are not just arbitrary, but inconsistent. (Think QFT vs GR; QM requiring a non-observable infinite dimensioned phase space and linear time; 3+1 space-time being incompatible with various asymmetries of both time and space that we observe; dark energy and inflation coming and going; on and on.) No natural processes that we can conceive of, even with layer upon layer of symmetry breaking, could generate such a hugely inconsistent, illogical universe on the scales that we observe. Therefore, there must have been a creator to have generated such a f**d up universe as the one we inhabit. (Or maybe a committee of them.)

  13. Kyle M. Smith says:

    Being a coding lawyer, I come from a jurisprudence and computer science view — two institutions that have and will continue to impact society perhaps as much as science or religion.
    My discipline is nomological like science but the laws and rules within it are not created by nature but rather artifice. So, my discipline’s limits are human imagination, not the external world. This reflects the flexibility of religion but, unlike religion, my discipline is bound by logic and reason. In a sense, then, law and computer science are positioned between science and religion.
    From my position, Keith Ward’s and Sean Carroll’s arguments are not mutually exclusive but rather reflect the nature of epistemology. Their prima facie conflict is analogous to science’s wave-particle duality or religion’s use of sublime paradox.
    I agree with Keith that an initial deductive decision must be made. This is Hume’s problem with induction. Keith decides cognition is paramount over matter and he says science takes the opposite position. In other words, Keith is saying that an epistemological leap of faith is necessarily taken by both religion and science. I agree with him. However, where we might disagree is that though one might take a leap of faith in one direction in one instance does not exclude a leap of faith in the other direction in another instance.
    Science’s leap of faith creates a bottom-up understanding (from simplicity to complication) whereas religion’s leap of faith creates a top-down understanding (from creator to creations).
    Wherever possible, law and computer science choose the top-down approach. For instance, RDBMS and NoSQL databases rely on hierarchical structures. Recursive thinking is a dominate feature of C++ languages. It is only when top-down approaches are not possible do law and computer science resort to bottom-up approaches.
    The top-down approach is paramount to the bottom-up approach because our brains think in schemas, a top-down approach. As such, the top-down approach is excellent at making complicated concepts more quickly understandable to us. For instance, in law, it was a major innovation to think of an organization as a “person”, thus creating a corporation. Through this concept, our society greatly improved the systems used to govern a diverse group of people on the same venture; the legal community was suddenly able to apply a large body of law designed for individuals to an organization of individuals by using a creative and knowingly fictional top-down approach.
    Speaking of law, the Rule of Law’s supremacy is easily articulated and defended if we include a concept of God but not otherwise. However, this utility is the same as thinking of corporations as people. In other words, in this instance, whether God is a fiction or real does not affect the “shorthand” utility of God.

  14. Jamie says:

    So God is a metaphorical unification of a disparte list of personal desiderata… I can work with that… but, uh, how does that explain anything?

  15. Tom Shanks says:

    Keith Ward has a point! As scientists we are supposed to value experiment but we then are told that we can’t trust our most basic human experiences. So the person who goes to their front door, feels the sun on their face and says there therefore must be a god in the universe is told by the biologist that they have been programmed by evolution and they can’t trust that feeling! This is alienating, pernicious and ultimately anti-experimental! Especially since the biologist then can offer no explanation of why the universe has the possibility of these pleasant and ultimately religious feelings in the first place!

  16. N. says:

    My my.

    Well Keith talked for some 18min and… said nothing. Then Sean did his 12 and… said exactly tthe same.


  17. Mike D says:

    I just got through watching the “God is not a good theory” lecture.

    I was recently going back and forth on my own blog with several theists arguing for an Aristotlean “unmoved mover” role for God (in response to my mention of the Hawking/Hartle No Boundary proposal). It hadn’t occurred to me simply to point out that the conservation of energy refutes the necessity of such a being.

    The entirety of your talk reflected that way of thinking; you take big concepts, strip them down to their simplest terms and explain them without drowning in esoteric terminology. Since I don’t have formal training in *any* of those fields (philosophy, physics, theology, whatever), I attempt to do the same. You accomplished more in an hour than I’ve seen many others achieve through lengthy essays and debates. Well done.

  18. G P Burdell says:

    N.: What I interpreted Sean saying, in a very polite, collegial, drawn-out, academic way, was that Keith’s way of thinking — despite thousands of years of history — has almost nothing of value to show for itself and is at least 400 years out of date. And we should move on.

    Making some direct response like “That’s pure bullshit, given what we now know” would probably have made for a more lively video, especially after a few more glasses of wine, but would not have been in the spirit of that workshop.

  19. Gizelle Janine says:

    @Sean: the only thing better than seeing you with apparently 2 drinks in you is hearing you try to formulate a proper sentence and try tie it in to something that makes sense with, apparently, 2 drinks in you.

    Believe me, I noticed. Even if no one did… *starts laughing*

    BTW: Good job keeping your s**t together. 😀

  20. Gizelle Janine says:

    Sorry. Meant “try to tie…” Never get a edit. There is no God!

  21. Kyle M. Smith says:

    Re: Jamie’s comment “So God is a metaphorical unification of a disparte list of personal desiderata… I can work with that… but, uh, how does that explain anything?”
    Hi Jamie. If we are trying to figure out a unified understanding of God throughout society, your summary of what I wrote is pretty good. Though I would add in the least to it. However, my focus is not a universally accepted definition but rather specific pragmatic high-water mark instances of the concept of God.
    I suppose I am asking, what if God were dead? To me that means we think of God as an antiquated concept, a concept we are loathe to adopt even in fantasy. Are their any practical affects to society if that happened, say, overnight?
    The Rule of Law is an essential organ of our social fabric and it would suddenly lack an easily articulable justification. The Rule of Law is difficult to uphold as is and without a talking-point justification, it might severely erode.
    As I interpret him, Keith is going even farther than I am. He is saying that for him, God allows him to have deeper introspection. God is beneficial to his mental health. He does not really care if God is ultimately a fiction or not because, either way, he benefits by believing in God.
    I personally do not benefit from God the way Keith does. My metaphysical beliefs do not include God. However, I would not want to deny people the right to think in perspectives that give them happiness and, as such, I am glad Keith believes in God.
    I think it is also important to point out that whenever a person relies on an idea that requires a leap of faith, a hypothesis or a belief, logic requires that person to always take the idea with a grain of salt; all knowledge that relies on the truth of that idea should be thought of with humility because, if the idea proves false, the knowledge is unverifiable. I believe both science and religion take an initial leap of faith.

  22. Jack M says:

    “How be a good person” and “How to live a life that’s worthwhile” are questions that you say can be informed, at least in part, by “gleaning” from religious traditions. But religious traditions hold that “good” and “worth” are intrinsic rather than instrumental qualities. That’s certainly true of the Abrahamic traditions at any rate. That idea turns out to be a very serious misstep with all manner of ill consequences. It’s also endorses a grossly inaccurate view of human nature. I won’t go a’gleaning there, thank you.

  23. Doc C says:

    In a natural, purely materialist universe there is no value difference between the destruction of human lives and their enhancement. Either action simply creates a new state. How does one decide then between a personal value to destroy as many unlikable humans as possible and one that seeks to enhance as many human lives a possible? Whatever can answer that question best is the way forward. It seems to me that Sean and Keith agree on that. Both seem to also agree that values are purely personal, whatever “personal” means, and finding the way to nurture the best personal values is the goal. Keith makes a cogent argument that God can be a part of that search.

  24. Jack M says:


    You want to know “How does one decide then between a personal value to destroy as many unlikable humans as possible and one that seeks to enhance as many human lives a possible?”

    Here’s hoping you’re not on the fence on this one.

  25. Doc C says:

    Jack, No worries, not anywhere near it. Just pointing out that the latter side has no more claim to superiority than the former in a universe without an intrinsic value for the latter. We can claim that we create our own meaning, but so does everyone else, and if no meaning is superior, what decides the winner? Some say evolution, and that is what makes the latter a favored trait today, but evolution also doesn’t care if the tilt reverses. There is no appeal to anything other than culture, which of course, means surrender, which is exactly what religion involves.