Should Scientific Progress Affect Religious Beliefs?

Sure it should. Here’s a new video from Closer to Truth, in which I’m chatting briefly with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about the question. “New” in the sense that it was just put on YouTube, although we taped it back in 2011. (Now my formulations would be considerably more sophisticated, given the wisdom that comes with age).

It’s interesting that the “religious beliefs are completely independent of evidence and empirical investigation” meme has enjoyed such success in certain quarters that people express surprise to learn of the existence of theologians and believers who still think we can find evidence for the existence of God in our experience of the world. In reality, there are committed believers (“sophisticated” and otherwise) who feel strongly that we have evidence for God in the same sense that we have evidence for gluons or dark matter — because it’s the best way to make sense of the data — just as there are others who think that our knowledge of God is of a completely different kind, and therefore escapes scientific critique. It’s part of the problem that theism is not well defined.

One can go further than I did in the brief clip above, to argue that any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all. If God exists but has no effect on the world whatsoever — the actual world we experience could be precisely the same even without God — then there is no reason to believe in it, and indeed one can draw no conclusions whatsoever (about right and wrong, the meaning of life, etc.) from positing it. Many people recognize this, and fall back on the idea that God is in some sense necessary; there is no possible world in which he doesn’t exist. To which the answer is: “No he’s not.” Defenses of God’s status as necessary ultimately come down to some other assertion of a purportedly-inviolable metaphysical principle, which can always simply be denied. (The theist could win such an argument by demonstrating that the naturalist’s beliefs are incoherent in the absence of such principles, but that never actually happens.)

I have more sympathy for theists who do try to ground their belief in evidence, rather than those who insist that evidence is irrelevant. At least they are playing the game in the right way, even if I disagree with their conclusions. Despite what Robert suggests in the clip above, the existence of disagreement among smart people does not imply that there is not a uniquely right answer!

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65 Responses to Should Scientific Progress Affect Religious Beliefs?

  1. Peter says:

    Sean, you argue, that naturalism has to be preferred over theism, because theism is not well defined. I agree, theism does not predict specific observables of our universe. But I don’t see how naturalism is superior to theism in this respect. I’ve never seen a physical prediction derived from the mere naturalistic claim, that the world can sufficiently be explained without any reference to God. Naturalistic or theistic models make specific predictions, naturalism and theism don’t.

  2. Peter says:

    If you’ve read articles of V. Stenger on the subject of fine-tuning, it will be interesting to read too.

  3. JimV says:

    Re: Kalam @ September 1, 2014 at 9:50 pm

    Thanks for the page numbers – which don’t exactly contradict my thesis, but state that there are some scientists (not in the consensus, as I see it) who believe in super-determinism of quantum events. Personally, the concept that (tiny) events and particles could come into existence randomly (in pairs such that their net energy is zero, e.g., 0 = +1 + (-1)) seems so plausible to me that I completely accept it as a possible assumption – which may or may not be true in our universe – and therefore there is no way I can accept without physical proof (which may not be possible) the counter-assumption which your argument asks me to accept, that nothing can begin to exist or happen without a cause.

    In passing, my understanding of Dr. Carroll’s position is that the evolution of the universe’s wave function is deterministic, but which branch of the Many Worlds we happen to find ourselves in at the moment is random (see for example his recent “Sleeping Beauty” post), and in some of those branches virtual particles do or do not begin to exist at an event horizon at a particular instant.

    As a secondary problem, current physics also allows the possibility that the Big Bang which began our observed universe was just one of many such ongoing events in a multiverse which could conceptually be eternal – at least as conceptually possible as an eternal universe-creator.

    So for me, science has ruled out the “first cause” argument which I think can be traced back to Aristotle, just as it has ruled out his belief that a mass in motion tends to come to rest unless continuously acted on by an external force (not that I would have done better, or as well, in his place) – and for the same reason: empirical observations which have broadened our understanding of how strange and complex the universe is.

  4. Kalam says:

    Dear JimV,
    The page numbers (and the arguments in the sources cited) in the paper I cited in my earlier post indicate that it is simply untrue that science has proven that something can begin to exist uncaused. On the other hand, there is a good metaphysical argument (in reply to Carroll’s remarks about metaphysics) presented in the paper which prove that something cannot begin to exist uncaused. Your demand for physical proof and apparent refusal to accept metaphysical argument assumes a narrow view of scientism which is simply false; see this peer reviewed paper:

    You jump from science ‘allowing the possibility of eternal multiverse’ to ‘ruling out the “first cause” argument’. ‘Allowing the possibility’ is different from proving the actuality. Science has not proven that there is indeed an eternal multiverse. On the other hand, there is a good metaphysical argument (in reply to Carroll’s remarks about metaphysics) presented in this peer-reviewed paper published by Cambridge University Press which proves that the universe (or multiverse) must ultimately have a beginning; Carroll and yourself seem unaware of the conceptual problem of postulating an eternal multiverse which is discussed in this paper:

  5. JimV says:


    Your argument seems to rest on some notion of mathematical proof, which is not how science works. I agree science has not “proved” that quantum events occur randomly rather than having deterministic causes, but it has opened our minds to the realization that this interpretation is possible and in fact likely because it is the simplest explanation of experimental facts. This alone however is sufficient to remove the status of the first cause argument from any claim to mathematical proof, because it shows us that there was an unexamined alternative to the basic assumption of that argument.

    For the same reason, your metaphysical proofs seem to be circular arguments: if one is a super-determinist who assumes that quantum events are somehow deterministically caused instead of random, then such events have causes. There is no “proof” or even any experimental evidence for this assumption currently.

    As for an eternal multiverse, my position is that any argument which claims to prove this is impossible should also rule out the existence of an eternal universe-creator. I don’t know if there is a multiverse or whether it is eternal but it seems a simpler explanation to me than that of theism (or deism). As between scientism (physical evidence) or philosophism (metaphysical proofs) I choose scientism.

  6. Ray says:


    Are you Andrew Loke? If so, your arguments are bad and you should feel bad. (Sorry to be rude, but I rather dislike shameless self-promotion in semi-anonymous blog comments.) If you are not Andrew Loke, I recommend becoming a fan of a more competent thinker.

    In any event. The argument in the first paper (which claims to demonstrate that things cannot begin to exist without a cause) fails to demonstrate the first premise of the Kalam argument for a very simple reason. “X begins to exist at time t” is trivially both a necessary and sufficient condition for X to begin to exist at time t. If your definition of causal sufficiency and necessity fails to exclude this trivial case, then your conclusion cannot be used to demonstrate the existence of anything the naturalist hasn’t already granted. (Since all you would be demonstrating with your talk of causally sufficient and necessary conditions is that if X begins to exist at time t, then X begins to exist at time t — well, duh.) If on the other hand, you mean to exclude the trivial case, then the force of the argument, such as it is, collapses.

    The second linked paper (the benefits of studying philosophy) is an opinion piece. Since it contains no actual argument I will ignore it.

    Finally, the paper which purports to demonstrate that an eternal universe is impossible also fails. I think both premises are false, but I’ll focus on the first, because I find it especially amusing. This first premise equates the metaphysical possibility of an eternal universe with the possibility of an eternal person. It seems manifestly obvious to me that one can consistently assert the former while denying the latter. The irony though, is that if your argument demonstrates anything (I don’t think it does) it demonstrates the impossibility of an eternal person — but the whole point of your argument is to demonstrate the existence of God, who is supposed to be an eternal person (or three of them if you’re a Christian of the right sort.)

  7. Excellent video. Thanks. And it echoes, I think, one a great lesson that needs repeating:

    “Always train your doubt most strongly on those ideas that you really want to be true.”

  8. DanielS says:

    Religion is a part, and perhaps the beginning of a much broader categories, namely spirituality. And science is also part of spirituality. We talk sometimes about scientific spirit and many people understand the concept.

    So if religion and science are part of a larger category, where is God? For me God is at the top of the list, when I think of spirituality. It helps me remember the hierarchy. Am I wrong? Who cares? If there is a God or almost-God, then it seems like I have structured good enough the branches of the concept called spirituality. I really can’t find any controversy in an approximation of a generous concept. There is place and time to add, cut, copy-paste, etc. anything I like. Science is still science and the rest of spirituality enriches the owner.

  9. William says:

    Spirit of science is a different use of the term spirit than that which spirituality grows from. A group’s spirit is about shared enthusiasm, spirituality is about a shared conclusion or assumption about how people fit into the world. So one could have spirit for spirituality, but having spirit doesn’t mean one is spiritual. Sadly our language is rife with these opportunities to conflate terms.

  10. John Barrett says:

    If the only thing people do is sitting around feeling sorry for others basing their religious beliefs on evidence, then no amount of evidence to the contrary will ever sway anyone the other way. If any amount of evidence would be automatically discredited, then it would seem reasonable to feel sorry for them. That is the flaw of the reasoning. You assume that no such evidence could never exist, because you believe that God does not exist.

    The evidence is all around you. It is not in the birds or the flowers or from a bright sunshiny day. The book of Job tells us that God gave Satan free reign over the world. Often times, things can go wrong consistently against all odds over and over again. There is an evil genius running the universe, or everything couldn’t always go so perfectly wrong. Then there is a Satan, so then there has to be a God.

    Then it really comes as no surprise that I find myself here posting in a blog of someone that adamantly tries to discredit religion and the existence of God.

  11. Swami says:

    Entropy guides our fate and every animal has a degree of consciousness until biological termination. But the laws of physics state that information is never lost so the past is always preserved in some form even if we can’t perceive it. Since there is no universal moral justice, it must be assumed that this includes the good, the bad and the ugly. But for those seeking some kind of immortality, well there it is.

  12. Robin Herbert says:

    Like most people you completely misunderstand why “necessary” is in the definition of God and it has nothing to do with avoiding having to provide evidence.

    It is OK to be an atheist and not know these things – you don’t need to be an expert in theology to reject the concept. But I do wish people who do not want to inform themselves about these matters would stop acting as though they understood them.

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  14. Torbjörn Larsson says:

    @Robin Herbert: Of course you don’t need to be an expert in theology to discuss nature and whether or not magic (religious or not) is part of it.

    Moreover, your claim is erroneous. There are atheist experts in theology. And if we instead discuss how informed people is about religion, you should know that statistics tells us atheist are _more informed_ than most religious. (With the exception of Mormons and religious Jews; Pew survey on US available on the web.]

    Your bait-and-switch between “expert theologian” and “informed” is a No True Scotsman claim, which also fails on that many or most atheists once were theists.

  15. Steven Starkweather says:

    The dangers and excesses of an unlimited enthusiasm for god is well understood by all who have read history. However, the dangers and excesses of an unlimited, highly-funded support for science, especially in an unholy alliance with hyper-capitalism is less well understood. In fact, those who claim to support rational thought seem to me most often unable to admit their personal interest in maintaing that science has “won” or is superior to feeling.

    There is no rational way to validate unfettered discovery or knowledge on the current level in the face of the apparent fact that continuing to do so will result in the destruction of our way of life, our planet, or humanity itself. We have become comfortable with dithering over the time-table, rather than its likelihood.

    Doesn’t this aspect of rationality and scientific “progress” promote a more dangerous societal problem than god ever did? The concept of progress requires, implicitly, a destination. What happens when we arrive, seems pretty clear. The question becomes, why are we in such a hurry to complete the journey?

    Scientists should acknowledge that their cosmological perspectives are also cosmological wishes.