Chat With Hans Halvorson

Here’s the video for the dialogue I mentioned earlier, a discussion with Princeton philosopher Hans Halvorson on physics, philosophy, and religion.

It was a friendly and substantive chat, moderated by Katie Galloway of the Veritas Forum. Most of the scientists and philosophers who work in fields close to mind are either agnostics or committed atheists; Hans is one of the exceptions. (Even closer to my own research area, Don Page is well known as an evangelical Christian.) Our ontologies are quite different, but many of our conclusions about the everyday macroscopic world are quite compatible.

  1. 2¢ — Lost patience. I could not get through Mr. Halvorson’s opening statement. In my view an appeal to authority (i.e., first century dogma) is not a valid basis for understanding the universe. Or anything else for that matter.

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  2. I thought you guys should have debated the heart of the issues in a more rigorous fashion. It seemed as if both the Bible and the Standard Model were off limits, i.e. there was no discussion of the old testament and SM versions of creation, or the new testament’s gospels including the uncertainties about who Jesus was and what he actually said, or the uncertainties surrounding dark matter and dark energy. I suppose a “chat” is more friendly than a debate, but it could be the warm up session to a real debate on the issues where *two teams* debate each other. The legitimate claim to winning the blue ribbon would go to the team with better argument. That would be something to see.

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  3. I enjoyed your debate with Hans Halvorson very much. You said God is not that great because God did not use the scriptures to reveal how physics works.

    Scriptures are written throughout the ages via constantly improving human understanding. This includes the records of new discoveries in the understanding of modern physics. So human imagination is indeed now revealing and writing about true laws of physics through contemporary minds and tongues, and whether you agree with it or not, you are part of that revelation.

    It is not necessary for you to believe you live by grace of God to be empowered to reveal the truth of mechanics, just as a hydro-electric turbine does not have to believe in gravity to be powered by it to produce electricity.

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  4. I for one value and appreciate these types of talks much more than heated debates trying to prove one way or the other what is true. Discussions are far more useful than debates becuase it is easier to glean useful information from them. For example, Naturalists will at some point need to come up with a system of morality and, whether they like it or not, they will almost certaintly have to turn to religion/philosophy to find, if not a foundation for, at least inspiration for their system. And having discussions like this provides the interchange of ideas that stimulates growth of ideas and concepts. Whereas a debate often succeeds in nothing more than entrenching each side more deeply in there own personal views, and closing the door on new ideas and enlightenment. So watching learned acedemics go at it with everything they have may be fun to watch, I would much rather listen to a discussion where it is shown how much in common the two views may have. That way I can have more to incorporate into my own ponderings.

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  5. I thought this was more of a chat than a debate. Mr. Halverson’s arguments were mostly halfhearted and aimed more at avoiding or sidestepping the question than actually defending his point, and the structure of the debate didn’t really allow either side to actually attack, for lack of a better word, the other’s point of view. Instead, both sides stated what they thought, and moved on without much discussion.

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  6. Sean: This was interesting debate. But rather than debating again and again with Christian scholars, why not debate with someone familiar with eastern religions? Christian religious doctrines (according to some, not all) have so many conflicts with science, such as age of universe, evolution etc. Eastern religions do not have any direct conflict with science. Of course they have disagreements when scientists make unwarranted claims. A possible person could be Deepak Chopra who is in LA (not that I agree with everything he says!) . But there could be others also.

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  8. John Call — There is nothing hard or even interesting about morality. Enlightened self-interest answers your question. If your culture burns witches, sacrifices virgins, or sells slaves you will believe it’s not merely okay to do these things. More, you will believe it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO. Morality is cultural. The universe has no morals. Science and evolutionary theory says there are behaviors that are more effective in perpetuating the species and behaviors that are less effective in perpetuating the species. Go along to get along works most of the time.

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  10. Sean,

    Excellent talk — you always do a better job of defending the scientific/naturalistic worldview than most of the other scientists I see attempt to discuss these issues, your moderate exposure to theology and philosophy really seems to have paid off.

    I wonder about your comment about Sam Harris’s attempts to provide an objective/scientific basis for moral absolutes — specifically your claim that you can’t imagine any experiment to adjudicate between different moral claims. I wonder whether you’ve had the opportunity to read his book? Whether he has succeeded in establishing a scientific basis I think continues to (unavoidably) be a philosophic question, because he has axiomatically grounded his morality in the claim that morality is all about the happiness of conscious creatures. People’s opinions about his overall argument seem to start and end at this claim, but to me, of all the places to ground morality, the happiness of conscious creates is a better place than any of the other claims on offer (especially religious ones). Given this axiom — can’t you imagine a sociological/neurological experiment to determine whether the moral claims the Taliban makes about the right way to treat women is better or worse (in terms of the happiness of conscious creatures, both the women and the men) than the aggregate perspective of western nations? It seems to me that to whatever extent we have the ability to give scientific measurements to happiness (and will in the future), it would be trivial to demonstrate empirically that the Talibanic position decreases the aggregate/average happiness of all parties involved. There’s still a difficult philosophic problem (which someone can argue whether Harris has addressed properly) about what “measure” to apply to the various happiness values (MAX, MODE, AVERAGE, etc) — and whether the potential decrease in happiness of a misogynistic sadist negates the increase in happiness of all other parties involved, but specifically for your objection about morality being untestable in a scientific sense I don’t think that claim is valid if you’re willing to take on the axiomatic/definitional assumptions Harris makes in terms of morality.

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  11. I didn’t listen to the whole thing, but where Hans’s theology seems very different from the one I had when I was a theist is in his claim that God is not bound by any kind of rules. I would have taken issue with that, particularly where laws of morality are concerned. No, God could not have created a world where good is evil and evil good. Am I misinterpreting Hans in thinking he says otherwise?

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  12. Excellent talk, that makes me slightly sad in one respect. I see in Halvorson an intelligent man who is struggling in a major way to reconcile something that has deep emotional resonance for him with what he actually knows about the world. Then again, I am biased. Perhaps a Christian would think the same of the atheist professor. However, I did not witness in the video anything from Sean like Halvorson dodging the question of demon possession, a belief attributable to Jesus from what are allegedly his own words.

    I thought the rebuttal of fine tuning arguments was particularly clear (from both men) and useful.

    I am really looking forward to Carroll v WLC. I think WLC is already onto a loser with the title, since everything must be viewed through the lens of cosmology. No matter how much he and his team prepare, Sean is going to be on comfortable ground when it comes to facts.

    I wonder if Craig is going to persist with the Kalaam Cosmological Argument.

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  14. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

    On one hand I greatly enjoyed watching the debate, on the other it left me profoundly dissatisfied. I fully agree with Sean’s positions and I know that Hans’ knowledge of quantum mechanics is of the highest caliber. In fact I can state that although I do consider myself an expert in quantum mechanics, Halvorston’s knowledge of quantum mechanics surpasses mine (but I am catching up). So it is a great mystery for me (and the discussion did not clarify this-hence the worst of times) why anyone with such an impressive knowledge of physics adopts a theistic paradigm.

    One possible explanation is that the burden of proof required by a theist is put on the non-theist to show that God does not exist. But still, the lack of understanding of why a theist paradigm is sensible to a scientist is extremely vexing and frustrating for me.

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  15. @Florin Moldoveanu:
    BTW quite a few prominent scientists are theists. Just to mention two: (1) Nobel Lauretae physicist William Phillips (2) current director of NIH and previous head of the govt. Genome project, Francis Collins.

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  16. @Kashyap Vasavada

    The theism paradigm acceptance or rejection is a profoundly personal decision and I don’t know the circumstances of the scientists you mentioned. But I do know the very high technical level of expertise of Halvorston and for example I am learning new things by reading his papers. Since I am basing my personal position in large part on quantum mechanics knowledge, for me this debate was of particular importance because I wanted to understand how he arrived at his position. Talking about theism is typically a taboo subject (the old adage: don’t talk about politics, religion, or money) and I saw this debate as a great missed opportunity.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of people championing the case of theism out there and most of them can be very easily dismissed as illogical. However all the high profile scientists adopting this position deserves to be heard.

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  18. @Florin Moldoveanu :
    Yes. High profile theistic scientists should be heard. Unfortunately, these theistic scientists are not very vocal about their beliefs, except that Collins has written at least one book “language of God” about his views. Honestly my research credentials are very little. However, as a (retired) physics professor, I have absolutely no problem in going to temple. Although in my case, it did help that Hinduism had never ever any direct conflict with science.

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  19. To paul kramarchyk: I agree with what you said (February 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm). If God created anything, then maybe It created the universe, or at least evolution, and not just humans. Morality of rhesus macaques sexual behavior is very different from that of humans, although they are related species.

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  20. To The definition of infinity is YOUR definition, it is not an absolute definition. The multiverse could function as your infinity. The multiverse (infinity) was infinite before the Big Bang; the multiverse (infinity) is the time/space in which the present cosmos hangs and moves, and the multiverse (infinity) will be forever. The multiverse (Infinity) is timeless. It has neither “future” nor “past”.
    All we can do is embrace science to discover infinity, god, the multiverse or whatever definition you want. Only science can make testable predictions (definitions).

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  21. I disagree with Sean’s accommodationist view that Christianity can be compatible with the universe (mostly).
    I don’t think that it takes any more than a rudimentary logic to discredit a Christian worldview with that of the current universe. Simply by utilizing the most fundamental claim of any view of extant Christianity, i.e., that Christ fatalistically ‘sacrificed’ himself to allow man into the presence of God, that there is by THEIR claim, no sacrifice.
    If Christ was God, there could be no death of Christ at all. PERIOD. That is, at no point in any version of their universe, could God ‘die’. Even for a little bit. Nor could any part of him die or come ‘back to life’. At the very most, their claim could be that the actual sacrifice that God made was assuming a form (human) that allowed for interaction with man, and all the attendant unpleasantries, like defecation and pain – however, even that sacrifice becomes meaningless as God – even as a man – has a complete knowledge and experience of everything. That is, God cannot learn or experience anything new. EVER. God cannot die as a man, because God could never be an actual man.
    If God did somehow create a mini-me version of himself, call it Jesus, and reduced Jesus to only those attributes that Homo Sapiens possess, except for the absolute self-awareness that he was a version of God, there is still no death. As a metaphysical theological fact of Christianity, Jesus – even as a man – has an absolute certainty that he cannot ultimately be separated from God in any way, even by death, as Jesus cannot be separated from his true nature, i.e. he’s God, even in death. As death would have to mean non-existence in order to be separated from his true nature, the resurrection would then become an act of ex nihilo CREATION, not re-creation or re-animation, of something (God) that cannot be destroyed.
    If Jesus was just a really good dude who the actual God really liked a lot, but he loved the rest of us enough to put this great guy through agonizing pain, death and re-animation before he can get to Heaven so that the rest of us can get to Heaven by the virtue of being bathed in his blood…
    OK…Maybe this could be consistent within its own framework. But, this God would be a REALLY twisted, sick and vicious bastard. Not someone that an emotionally healthy person should choose to worship. So, if this is Hans’ version of Christianity, then Hans needs some serious counseling. And it needs to be pointed out that this Jesus was still certain (even if delusionally) that he was going to Heaven, so a bit of limited pain and death would be an asymptotically near zero sacrifice when compared to an infinity of bliss.
    The point is, we didn’t write the book or make the preposterous claims. I think that there is nothing wrong with stating that the only version of Christianity that can be consistent within its own worldview and this universe, is grossly cruel and unworthy of any form of exalted status, and
    any other view of Christianity is preposterous.

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  22. Jesus did not come to reveal the underpinnings of the universe, that’s for man to research and struggle to know, He came to reveal the path to eternal Life, that is, to Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the revealed Truth of the New. The Bible was never ever supposed to be a science book of how God created the world, but was how, in the imagination of mankind, how it came to be. Yet it does reveal that God was the power behind it, how He did it, I have no idea, nor does anyone else, maybe it’s for us to find out.

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  26. @Eugen Nedelcu. You could be correct. Multiples of universes could exist in infinity and prior to the big bang just as seamlessly as can the universe that we observe, but it is the same infinity no matter which way you look at it.

    When you looked at an egg yesterday you were then in a multi-verse that is not the same as the multi-verse you are in when you look at a chick today, but both fructify out of the same unchanging infinity. And the same would apply if you were observing another universe that might have existed before the big bang; that too would have had to egress from infinity and launch itself into its evolutionary entropic path.

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  27. Help: I ask (anyone?) in a straightforward way and in complete sincerity if there is such a thing as inexpensive/freeware vocal pattern recognition software which could automatically edit out for me the typically rather unhelpful, predictable, and (I’m sorry) tedious commentaries by the likes of Dr. Halvorson; and especially, that of other opposition debaters of a less thoughtful and considerate nature? I’m always interested in Sean’s efficiently presented and nuanced insights… but wish I didn’t have to waste so much of my seventh-decade time getting to them.

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  28. Maybe… folks… let’s not pile on the unfavorably-rated “Tony” above too hard. Personally, I find the Bible-is-NOT-a-book-of-science argument he offers with little equivocation a refreshing relief from much of what folks defending scientific rationalism and critical thinking usually have to put up with.

    And some people can’t even loosen up a little when it comes to Tony’s the-universe (all 46 billion light years this way, and all 46 billion light years that way!) -was-made-for-us assertion?! Gee… tough crowd.

    I’d should also note that I’ve employed, myself (in favoring a debate ‘em on their own terms tactic), this argument with one or two persistently annoying proselytizers in public places not a church: That any-such-creator-as-might-exist surely has had his/its best revelation in nature in terms of descriptions fashioned by those best QUALIFIED to tell of natures workings (including human nature) in the most thoroughly consistent and rigorous manner — the scientists, of course (and a certain few scientifically-qualified philosophers)! Which logically leads to the likes of Ken Ham, Duane Gish, Philip Johnson,, being, in effect, blasphemers (!), hostile to g-oh-d’s own revelations.

    Apart from not believing the “Creation” nor its true expositors to be, by any evidence, divinely inspired… I think that otherwise, Tony and I would not necessarily be in severe disagreement on the HYPOTHETICAL point that a creator would wish to have the fairest and most reasonable kind of testiment to his/its creation put forth and believed — in preference to belief in empirically falsified dogma. Surely we are not being deceived intentionally… by you know who!

    “The Lord is subtle, but he is not malicious.” — Albert Einstein. I’m pretty much with Big Al on this one — god of Spinoza, or whatever — so maybe… let’s be a little charitable to Tony, at least on his points having some merit, taken in themselves.

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  29. …And as for the similarly low rated “Roman M.”… Well, we have an entirely different kettle of fish there. I’d simply like to point out — fruitlessly, perhaps — to him (with his sarcastic seig heiling) and to any of a similar opinion regarding the naturalist’s inherent immorality who may be trolling about… that it wasn’t three million atheists (or naturalists!) who marched into Poland and Soviet Russia… It was, by and large, three million or so Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and such… and do ask about Popes Pius XI (early on and during) and XII when it comes to the matter of Fascist sympathies and God’s authorities on earth.

    Now, straw men having been put aside, back to scientific naturalism…

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