Dogmatism around science – the “supernatural.”

Do scientists ever concern themselves over terms like ‘materialist,’ ‘natural,’ or ‘supernatural’? I don’t think so – at least those scientists working at the coal face. I have never heard any scientist posing the question – “is this phenomenon ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’?” before investigating something.

Yet today science is attacked by some people for limiting itself to only ‘natural’ phenomena. Intelligent design (ID) proponents (and they aren’t the only ones) rail against the ‘materialism’ of science. They demand that science should be changed to include ‘supernatural’ explanations.

These are attempts to introduce dogma into science.

Dogmatism within science

On the other hand some defenders of science fall into a trap set by these people when they talk about science being ‘limited’ to considering only ‘natural’ or ‘materialistic’ phenomena. Or when they claim the ‘rules’ of science prevent consideration of the ‘supernatural.’ This description also has the danger of introducing dogma into science.

The fact is that scientists investigate reality – not the ‘natural’ or ‘materialistic.’ And scientists don’t have a rule book defining what is, or isn’t, permissible to investigate.

A science which placed such limits on itself would become a dogma. After all, anything non-intuitive, outside common experience or conflicting with current knowledge could be defined as ‘supernatural’ and therefore excluded from scientific investigation.

Fortunately humanity has not restricted itself in this way. The lack of such restrictions has enabled acceptance of the non-intuitive Newtonian concepts of motion in the absence of force or action at a distance. Similarly we accept special and general relativity, and the non-determinism of quantum mechanics. Our acceptance is based on evidence – not any ‘natural’‘supernatural’ classification system.

Evidential testing of claims

At a more mundane level we are often confronted with weird and wonderful claims by manufacturers, advertisers and religions about the properties of their products or the underlying mechanisms of their advertised effectiveness. Sometimes these claims are freely presented as ‘supernatural.’ It’s a knee-jerk reaction to reject these claims out of hand on the basis of current knowledge which is always incomplete. The real test of such claims is objective scientific evaluation – based on evidence. Of course, this might be the last thing the pedlars of such stories desire, and there is always the problem of who finances such research. But it is dogmatic to make claims either way without proper evaluation.

The real test of any idea is not whether it is ‘supernatural’ or ‘natural’ – after all what criteria does one use to make such a classification? The test is how well it stands up to testing in practice. This requires proper formulation of hypotheses, collection of data and testing the hypotheses against experiential evidence.

Those who wish to introduce ‘supernatural’ explanations into science are not interested in improving science. Their desire is to win acceptance for ‘pet’ ideas for which there is no justification or which they are not prepared to submit to experiential verification. When they say ‘supernatural’ they mean ‘without supporting evidence.’ Ken Miller characterized these sorts of demands as wishing to create “an intellectual welfare for an idea that can’t make it on its own.”

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42 responses to “Dogmatism around science – the “supernatural.”

  1. The fact is that scientists investigate reality – not the ‘natural’ or ‘materialistic.’ And scientists don’t have a rule book defining what is, or isn’t, permissible to investigate.

    Didn’t we just have a conversation about this kind of philosophical use of the word reality???


  2. Scientists are just doing their job – they ask no philosophical questions. Once that starts (as happened with Stalin/Lysenko etc.) there seems to me to be an inevitable slide away from reality. I guess this is where rule books come from.


  3. Ken,
    (I mean this in a direct-yet-friendly way)
    What on earth is wrong with philosophers ‘doing their job’ thinking about the nature of reality (truth, beauty, meaning, purpose, etc.), AND scientists ‘doing their job’ investigating and explaining nature (testing, hypothesising, experimenting, calculating, discovering, etc.)???

    Could you be accused of intentionally swinging the penduluum to the other extreme as those that wish to see ‘supernatural’ or ‘theistic’ science???

    Words will always (ALWAYS) be misunderstood. That’s why we communicate with one another.


  4. Just had a thought that might be helpful Ken…

    You are fond of saying that scientists just ‘get on with their work of testing against reality’, etc.

    Is this misleading? I would say that they don’t need to (or do?) use the word ‘reality’ at all… Wouldn’t they refer to whatever things they work with? A physicist doesn’t say, ‘I experimented with reality today’, they say ‘we compared this or that particle behaviour under these conditions with this other particle…’ A neurologist doesn’t speak about ‘reality’, he speaks about brain cells, neural networks and the like. A cosmologist doesn’t need to consider the existence or not of a spiritual dimension to reality either – they just get on with their work observing stars, galaxies, etc.

    Scientists are not (and need not be) burdened with the philosophical question of whether or not ‘reality’ (that huge category-of-all-categories) includes nature or supernature, they (as you say) just get on with their work. But my point is that the work that they do has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not ‘reality’ includes super-nature, etc.


  5. True – one would not use the word ‘reality’ very often. And true – these days their work has nothing to do with a classification of reality into ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ – unless somebody starts imposing this with a rulebook or taking the AAAS definition of science literally!

    If we find something that appears to ‘transcend’ time/space/matter then, rather than backing off (as a rule book might suggest), we set about reviewing our understanding of time/space/matter.

    If that’s the other extreme of a ‘supernatural science’ or ‘theistic science’ that’s OK. It’s enabled humanity to achieve an extremely good understanding of reality.

    By the way – isn’t ‘supernatural’ or ‘theistic science’ and oxymoron? Surely they aren’t possible in practice?


  6. That’s kind of my point. We need to let science be science, rather than use it to dis-prove or prove this or that philosophical idea. Science, it seems, has been oft used recently to ‘prove a designer’, but it can also be used to ‘dis-prove a designer’. Both attempts reflect a mis-use of science. I hope we agree here.


  7. Certainly agree with this regarding the way it is currently done. These seem to just be cherry-picking and interpreting current scientific information to justify a preconceived belief. There seems to be a bit of an industry in this at moment (Craig being an example).

    However, what if some day we have data which suggest an ‘intelligent designer’ hypothesis which is scientific – that is, it provides ways of testing. Wouldn’t we then be in the position of using a scientific approach to test a rational hypothesis and maybe even developing an acceptable theory with wide explanatory power?

    For example, now that people are building genomes from scratch we may in the future need to determine if a particular species was ‘natural’ or ‘intelligently designed’ (man made). A reasonable test would be to look for ‘signatures in the DNA molecule. We know that Craig Venture’s company is incorporating such signatures and it seems reasonable that this will also be done by others in the future.

    Taking this a step further there could well be a reasonable hypothesis that life on this planet was ‘manufactured’ by an alien civilisation (The ID people claim that this could be their intelligent designer). Once we had enough data to develop a reasonable hypothesis we might then test it by looking for specific signatures – because it seems rational that such designers would ‘sign’ their works. Of course there would also be lots of other hypotheses and testing (e.g. evidence for alien visits, etc.) which may provide sufficient meat for a good theory.

    My point is that while at this stage it is not an honest use of science to make claims of proving a ‘designer’ or ‘god’ this may not always be the case. We might find credible evidence that our universe was ‘created’ by a super-intelligent species in another universe. If so, we might also have the technology and accumulated knowledge and experience to test such hypotheses.

    After all, 400 years ago it would have been dishonest to claim a proof of mysterious nuclear reactions or ‘dark matter’ by cherry picking and distorting the then current knowledge. But today it is genuine science.


  8. I’m honestly not trying to be cheeky here, but I could imagine an ID proponent being in strong agreement with your last comment… (shrugs shoulders)
    It sounds like you’re not far from saying we actually could discover a way to see if things had been created… though I suspect you’d not want to call that creator ‘super-natural’…
    I’m struggling to understand what you’re saying and what you’re not saying here… 🙂


  9. I don’t think there is anything wrong about the idea of ID (any more than any other idea). The problem is the refusal to present it as scientific hypotheses – and of course the whole political attack on honest science which the ID people engage in. So while the ID proponent may voice agreement with my acceptance of the validity of the idea – they would be strongly opposed to any suggestion of real testing

    This is not to say that such hypotheses are impossible. But even Francis Crick, who advocating something like this, never got to that stage. I think the scientific community is honest when it appeals to ID advocates to engage with science, present a credible scientific hypothesis, and accept scientific testing. It’s the carping attacks from the sideline which discredits ID the most.

    I personally don’t believe the ‘creator’, ‘designer’ ideas. But that is only a belief. I have been quite prepared in the past to abandon beliefs in the face of evidence and am sure I will again in the future (assuming I have a reasonable future).

    I would personally find scientific evidence for, and good testable scientific hypotheses about, a ‘creator designer’ exhilarating. I react in that way to any any new groundbreaking discovery.


  10. excellent comment, Ken.
    Honest, consistent and balanced.
    I too am very curious what this kind of ‘testing’ for a designer might look like or involve. What kind of ‘testable hypothesis’ could be put forward to ‘test’ something that would have happened eons ago?


  11. I have never felt the need to consider such a hypothesis. There have always been clearer, testable ones available.

    The testing would depend on the hypothesis but would relate to specific things – like how a chemical reaction occurs in a cell – or how the universe came into being. I am not aware that any cell biologist feels the need to propose a specific ‘designer’ hypothesis for the former. Of course hypotheses for the latter rely on getting more information (without this they just become ‘god of the gaps’ arguments) and that is why hypotheses concerning origins of the universe (t=0) (with or without a designer) just aren’t being formulated yet.

    I don’t see that time is a problem for testing. It may be a bit more difficult than laboratory experiments but nature effectively does experiments for us anyway. That is a hypothesis will produce predictions and we can look for indications that they did happen. We do this all the time in science. It seems we have some pretty reliable understanding of the evolution of the universe back to the first few minute or less anyway. The hurdle is not time but our lack of understanding of physics under the extreme condition of the early fractions of a second.


  12. …nature effectively does experiments for us anyway…

    interesting – I’ve noticed the etymological link between ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’ before, but yes, in a sense, our experience of nature is an on-going experiment, continually providing ‘evidence’ for and ‘indicating’ various things.
    One of the most basic things we apprehend from everyday ‘experience’ (which has never been negated in ‘experiments’ either) is that ‘out of nothing, nothing comes’ – which has led people across many places, cultures and times to the nearly universal idea of some kind of a (universal) creator.
    I think it’s at once the most sophisticated and the most primitive idea, which is (in a sense) ‘backed up’ by both everyday ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’.


  13. The idea ‘out of nothing, nothing comes’ is contradicted by well established ideas in modern particle physics (vacuum energy, Hawking radiation, etc.). (Or, at least, the resulting ‘nothing’ is a totality which contains something – positive and negative energy for instance). However, no physicist (that I am aware of) has seriously (in a scientific sense) proposed an hypothesis involving a universal creator as a cause of this.

    In other words these ideas of a creator don’t come from scientific investigation and are not required in scientific explanations. Personally I have had no evidence for such ideas in personal experience either (although others claim to). I am aware that some Philosophies propose the concept – but, as I have said before, many philosophies are divorced from reality and consequently can produce conclusion conflicting with scientific knowledge.

    I am aware some people use scientific knowledge to support (like a crutch) pre-conceived concepts of a creator (e.g Craig) but I have yet to see the concept (or theory) arising out of empirical evidence – and that is the correct way of doing science. That’s what would convince me.


  14. I don’t follow your citation that that dictum (out of nothing, nothing comes) is contradicted by modern particle physics. Can you show me how those ideas show that ‘nothing’ can and does produce ‘something’?

    This is key, because I still don’t see how the (common, sophisticated-yet-primitive and ubiquitous) philosophical idea of a creator is at any tension (let alone contradiction) with scientific knowledge whatsoever…


  15. An example is Hawking radiation from a black hole. The spontaneous formation of particle/antiparticle pairs, which is normally followed by their mutual destruction, can, at the edge of a black hole, lead to one of the pair being captured and the other released. Hence radiation from the hole and a process of “evaporation” of the black hole.

    Spontaneous formation of particle/antiparticle pairs, or vacuum energy, can be interpreted as ‘something coming out of nothing’. Alternatively one could say that in net terms (because particles are balanced by antiparticles) there is still nothing. The last interpretation is used by Peter Atkins when he says the formation of the universe is formation of nothing from nothing, because in net terms the positive and negative energies of the universe balance out. There is no net change. We can hypothesise that formation of the universe, like formation of particle pairs, was a spontaneous event requiring no “cause”. (In fact the concept of “cause” seems to be invalid as time did not precede the event – it originated with the event.) Many, if not most, event we observe are spontaneous in that sense.

    I don’t quite know what is meant by ‘tension’ but I guess it can be said that their is no tension of the ‘philosophical idea of a creator’ with scientific knowledge. Perhaps that is true of many ideas and certainly scientific practitioners are capable of holding the whole range of scientific ideas and still, in good conscious, get on with their work.

    But, of course, those ideas are preconceived – not derived from their observation and testing of reality which results in the scientific knowledge they collectively produce.

    But we can clearly see that some of the ‘common’ philosophical ideas of a creator do conflict with scientific knowledge because they include claims which have been clearly proved untrue. Young earth creationism, causes of tsunamis and hurricanes, etc.


  16. I still don’t follow your outline of ‘things’ coming from ‘nothing’. (I’m honestly trying! I’m not meaning to be antagonistic or waste your time.) 🙂

    A black hole is a ‘thing’ (a set of phenomena in time/space), so whatever particles/charges that result are not ‘coming from nothing’.

    Further, your understanding of Causality seems truncated. There are different kinds/levels of causality. Logically (and quite simply [no mental gymnastics required!]), causality leads to an original cause. By the way, what events are you talking about which are ‘spontaneous’? In what sense are you talking about spontaneity?


  17. Particles are not coming from the black hole but from nothing, vacuum at the edge of the hole. The spontaneous formation of particles (vacuum energy) produces a result where one particle is captured by the black hole and the other escapes – preventing their mutual destruction. The spontaneous production of particle/antiparticle pairs occurs in a vacuum all the time – no black hole is required. And it’s occurring everywhere, all the time.

    One can think about causality logically or philosophically but this is the problem. It relies on ‘common sense’ rather than evidence. If the evidence shows spontaneous production of particles that has to be faced up to. It’s no good denying it because we don’t see a cause.

    The fact is that much of the world does not operate according to ‘common sense’ or ‘logic.’

    Spontaneity also appears to occur everywhere at the atomic and subatomic level. Hence quantum indeterminacy and particle instability, radioactive decay, etc. We can’t deny these things just because they appear to have no cause from a logical/philosophical point of view. We have to accept the evidence.


  18. Thanks Ken,
    I’m anything but a scientist, and I’ve certainly not ever read any scientific journal articles (which I’m sure there are many) that describe either these vacuums at the edge of black holes or sub-atomic/quantum theory. But (without trying to limit science whatsoever) isn’t it safe to say that we probably don’t precisely know what exactly is happening at these telescopic (black holes) and microscopic (quantum particle instability) levels?

    And I still struggle to see that these particles are coming into existence from nothing. In both cases, for example, there is a lot of ‘energy’ around… Call me a skeptic (I’m trying to be an honest one!), but I remain to be convinced…

    I’m certainly not trying to ‘protect’ the notion of causality from any serious criticism. But the examples you raise happen to be in areas that we are (at least currently) somewhat limited by the strength of our telescopes/microscopes. I’d be interested to ask a quantum physicist or cosmologist if these kinds of phenomena should even begin to be used as some kind of evidence that things really do come into existence ‘all by themselves’…

    One thing that is present in both cases (in addition to the ‘energy’ I mentioned already) is environment. In black hole theory, the particles appear at precisely the right place at the edge of the black hole; and in quantum theory, they appear in the midst of all kinds of phenomena we hardly understand yet…

    I’m very open to what science will find in the future; it’s exciting stuff. But I still would say the pattern of nature is that ‘out of nothing, nothing comes’.

    I’m not trying to claim trump cards here or just re-state my position more strongly, I actually am interested in the details.


  19. Journal articles can be incomprehensible without a good mathematical background. But there are some good popular-level books around on current understanding of particle physics.

    True – we don’t know precisely what is happening – at any level! Science is never settled. That’s part of its power.

    Quantum indeterminacy does worry people – philosophically. Some feel that future theories (such as some string ‘theories’ ) will reveal a more deterministic world below the subatomic level we currently know. They feel this will reveal causes.

    However, the fact remains that current scientific theories in this area are very effective. Most of our current technology relies on these theories, despite the fact that they are counterintuitive.

    Behind this debate, though, are two approach. I think you give primacy to ideas – philosophical understanding. I am suggesting giving primacy to reality, and being guided by it, is more productive.

    Concepts of causality may seem intuitive and philosophically ‘correct’. But in practice they break down when observing the real world. Telescopes and microscopes (and possibly mathematics) have their limits – but they reveal far more about reality than does philosophy.

    After all, philosophers haven’t provided us with the understanding required to build our modern environment. Science, which always relies on reality for its authentication, has. Quantum indeterminacy may well violate philosophical principles of causality but we happily get on a plane powered by quantum mechanical science. Because we know it works!

    So, when it comes to question like the origin of the universe I think philosophy is no help. These are scientific questions. Imposing a philosophical preconceived idea like causality really doesn’t help – and in the end only supports dogma rather than understanding.


  20. Thanks Ken,
    I’m not sure a dichotomy between the ‘primacy’ of ideas v. ‘reality’ is what’s taking place here. [….and as an aside, I still think ‘reality’ should be used more selectively!]

    You’ve still not demonstrated how causality ‘breaks down when observing the “real” world’ (i.e. shown how quantum indeterminacy ‘violates’ causality). […and as another aside, I doubt that the mechanics/technology is dependent on such an apparent {or not} ‘violation’ of causality; my guess is that the technology probably works with or without such a violation. If I’m wrong here, please clarify?]

    And I must (surprise) disagree with your last paragraph. When it comes to the origin of the universe, you’ve almost have to use language that invokes the idea of causality. Indeed, if time itself began with the universe, how can science (the experiments of which are all performed within time) postulate any non-philosophical hypotheses about the ‘pre-time’ conditions/properties/realities/etc. (!?) which eventually gave rise (oops, ‘giving rise’ implies causality!) to the universe’s origin?

    Philosophy and science need not be enemies. Logic, reason, consistency, uniformity and order are (as you know) very much the friends of scientific experimental methodology.


  21. No, thank you Dale – I appreciate the chance for thinking about these issues.

    “Philosophy and science need not be enemies” – no, but they often are. I have just watched the Craig/Cook debate and realise that Craig argued philosophically/logically and ‘used’ science dishonestly. Consequently he ‘proved’ conclusions which the scientists doing this work just do not come to. I know his philosophy and logic were bad, but this is what happens when one wants to ‘prove’ a preconceived position – philosophy and logic don’t have the built-in check against reality to keep them honest.

    Having just gone through the worst thunder storm of my experience I can see how many people in the past (and many still today) came to a strong philosophical conclusion that it was the anger of the gods. How could you not. Aren’t we in the same boat (lacking the required knowledge and technology to investigate) today when we talk about the situation in the universe in those first few fractions of a second. Any philosophical hypothesis will only be an idea. I would rather wait for proper evidence,investigation and results.

    If science can’t answer that question now – surely no philosophy or religion can.

    I have argued before why ‘reality’ shouldn’t be used selectively – that leads to ‘natural’/’supernatural’ and claims which have not been derived form reality.

    Of course, technology works even though quantum mechanics is ‘weird’ and, in the end, whether things are really spontaneous (as they are currently understood) or there is an underlying determinacy (a question which we are inching towards answering). But my point is that science, these days, doesn’t start with the assumption of a cause – this would just have prevented so much of the magnificent progress (with resulting benefits to humanity) it has made.

    I’m not sure how you want me to demonstrate the ‘violation of causality’. There are so many examples. Why do we need a probability (wave) function to describe an electron? What causes a particular atom or particle to disintegrate at a specific point in time? Why should particles suddenly appear out of ‘nothing’ and then disappear again? These are all ‘weird’ from a common sense, logical and philosophical (most) point of view but they still happen.


  22. Indeed, I too enjoy thinking about this stuff,

    [aside: I’m not sure Craig used science ‘dishonestly’. What he was doing was making/drawing philosophical infrences {and logical ones} from current scientific understanding]

    [aside 2: your sentence about the use of the word ‘reality’ itself uses the word ‘reality’, which is unhelpful at best and circular at worst.]

    Re: origin of cosmos
    The relationship of (the idea of) Causality to (the question of) the origin of the universe is not limited to discussion of “the situation in the universe in those first few fractions of a second“.

    Causality is a relational idea; the relationship between (a) that which causes and (b) that which is caused. In this very important sense, causality is not limited to time. Indeed, this is helpful, because (as we’ve seen) if time itself ‘came into being’ with the cosmos, then it is a logical fallacy to even speak about what happened ‘before’, etc.

    And I do think that my point still stands: because science has never (and will never?) made a single observation, experiement or conclusion that was ‘objectively’ detatched from time itself, it should be obvious that science can offer no ‘objective’ conclusions (or even speculations?) about things such as the origin of time itself. The same could be said for science’s relationship to ‘space’. Science cannot comment as to ‘how big space is’ – who measured? how?
    (I sincerely hope you don’t take those statements as being in the least bit ‘anti-science’…)

    I say all this not to poke holes in science, but to affirm what you are calling the ‘common sense’ notion of a First Cause. Such an idea is basic, logical, both sophisticated and primitive, AND is not at all dissonant with current scientific knowledge (you could even say it is harmonious).

    Again, it is not ‘anti-science’ to note that scientific observation, experiment and conclusion (limited as it is by time) is not ever going to provide ‘evidence, investigation and results’ for the specific question regarding the universe’s origin. Logic points (even you agree?) to a cause (of whatever type). You may not like where the logic is pointing, but when it comes to ‘answers’ about the origin of time (not to mention space or matter), logic is all we’ve got.

    As for quantum mechanics, the ‘weird’ things we see don’t in any way negate or ‘violate’ the idea of causality. We just don’t appear to know what’s going on when it comes to the detail of sub-atomic theory. Fascinating stuff to observe and discover, no doubt, but unless we take the position that the universe is eternal (time-less), we necessarily invoke the idea of causality.


  23. Sorry for the longer post!…


  24. I should back away from the term ‘causality’ – recognising it has certain philosophical usage which may divert the discussion. I have no wish to get into an argument about philosophy – I’m concerned with understanding (or misunderstanding) reality where, I think, philosophy can sometimes be more of a hindrance than help, and this can occur when there are different understanding of terms. My concept of cause is probably very different to the abstract philosophical use.

    And this does get back to my comment on Craig using science dishonestly. He argued ‘philosophically’/’logically’, assuming ‘nothing can come from nothing’ that the big bang inevitably and logically leads to a creator – a cause. I am saying that today this assumption of ‘nothing leads to nothing’ and trying to find a cause in the common-sense way conflicts with our experience at the sub atomic level and quantum indeterminacy. Sure, that may just reflect our limitations in knowledge and current work may yet reveal underlying deterministic explanations, or may not. But we have learned enough to know that imposing such preconceptions prevents progress. At the moment we get along very well using phenomena which to the best of our knowledge are spontaneous, uncaused in the common sense understanding.

    It’s understandable that those with a preconceived belief of a creator will grasp as the big bang as supporting ‘evidence’ – and this is what Craig does. It’s simply a case of looking for evidence to support a belief (the debate approach encourages this of course and it’s easy for all of us to fall into that trap), rather than the scientific approach of deriving knowledge from the evidence.

    Its telling that the scientist who developed the big bang theory, Georges Lemaître, did not see this as proof, or logical evidence for a creator – despite also being a Catholic Priest. He, in fact, had to express his concern at the inappropriate use of his science to Pope Pius XII who tried to use it as scientific validation of Catholic beliefs.

    My feeling is that most scientists working in this area would also disagree with Craig’s conclusions – which sort of underscores my point that his conclusions were ‘philosophically’, not scientifically, derived.

    When a ‘philosophical’ argument comes to a different conclusion from that based on evidence and reason, on science, I think that honesty demands that we choose the science.


  25. Ken said, “…imposing such preconceptions prevents progress. At the moment we get along very well using phenomena which to the best of our knowledge are spontaneous, uncaused in the common sense understanding.

    Even if Craig is min-using (for example) Big-Bang science (which I don’t think he is), his (mis?)usage is a philosophical one, and does NOT ‘impose’ anything ‘on’ science. Science, indeed will get on with its observations, experiments, etc. Craig’s words won’t change what we observe in nature.

    And you’ve still not shown me how our current understanding (observations) of quantum particle behaviour negates causality. (and please do share your definition if you wish) It seems that quantum behaviour is cyclical (in and out, so to speak). How did that cycle get started? There’s also the presence of energy to consider as well (i.e. energy on which the in-out cycle may well ‘run on’…)


  26. Current QM understanding doesn’t violate cause and effect if you accept spontaneity as a cause. Then of course you accept spontaneity (and you should accept that and other possibilities) as a possible cause of the universe. Which makes Craig’s argument dishonest as he allows only his explanation to qualify as a cause.

    The best methodology we have to investigate and understand these phenomena do not lead to the conclusion that Craig drew. He is, as you say using scientific concepts of origins and ‘fine tuning’ to support his philosophical conclusions – but those conclusion are scientifically unwarranted. Science actually produces quite different conclusions.

    I would say that in general terms Craig’s conclsuions are also logically and philosophically (with a small p) unwarranted. That’s why I say they are dishonest.

    Craig’s word won’t indeed change nature or humanity’s observation of it. But for some people he offers a final explanation which negates any further need for investigation – a ‘god of the gaps’. For those individuals, at least, science stops – and Craig’s message is that this is the result of “Big Bang science.” Even though those who developed this theory and currently work with it disagree.

    I don’t get your point about ‘quantum behaviour’ being cyclical. My interpretation is that it is probabilistic (and this can be expressed as a so-called ‘wave function’ ), but there are other interpretations which can get pretty weird. Energy/matter/particles are the same thing. Current thinking seems to be reinforcing a view that space/time/matter are effectively the same thing. Just shows how counter-intuitive reality is – we can’t automatically impose our ‘common sense on’ it if we truly wish to understand it.


  27. I sense we could go on for ages with this one, Ken,

    You’d have to unpack what you’re talking about by ‘spontaneity’ for me to interact with that. I’m not at all clear what you mean. ‘Spontaneity’ would be a description of apparent behaviour, not the cause of that behaviour. Both the Big bang and QM behaviour might appear ‘spontaneous’ (i.e. out of nowhere), but that’s the whole point of our conversation. I’m trying to say (a) we don’t even remotely ‘know’ that they are spontaneous, and (b) drawing the inference that they are caused does not at all go against what we observe; in other words, these few observations of strange behaviour (which we don’t understand fully) don’t at all undo the concept of causality.

    My wording of ‘cyclical’ was simply (simplistically?) referring to the ‘in & out –> in & out –> in & out’ pattern that you seemed to be describing – it sounded like a ‘cycle’ to me (and ‘waves’ are cyclical, so that language doesn’t seem inappropriate?).

    Energy/matter/particles may well be the same thing; that’s one thing – but to say that space/time/matter are the same thing is quite another.

    You seem to be speaking with much philosophical certainty (i.e. Craig is dishonest, causality is outdated, etc.) out of much scientific uncertainty (QM indeterminacy, black hole phenomena, space/time/matter = same thing).


  28. Yes, energy/matter/space is ‘another thing’ – but it’s what I’m picking up from discussion around the Higg’s particle which may soon be found with the Large Hadron Collider. However, if it’s not found I don’t think it negates that concept – it seems to have wider evidential support.

    The philosophical certainty is not mine -it’s Craig’s, and was the whole point of entry into the discussion. Craig’s claim of scientific certainty (where there isn’t) and drawing conclusions which were (logically) unwarranted.

    Our scientific uncertainty arises from the fact that we don’t have the physics to understand the first few fractions of a second – but we can certainly speculate and come up with a range of models (many with mathematical backup). (There is now even talk that we may well be able to gain information from ‘times’ before the ‘big bang’.)

    Speculative ’causes’ include random quantum fluctuations (hence violating common sense ‘nothing from nothing’ concepts), ‘big crunches’ preceding ‘big bangs’ in an eternal universe, colliding branes, etc., etc. I don’t know of any scientific model (with mathematical backup) for an intelligent creator. While we of course, at this stage in our understanding, must include all possibilities (even those without a reasonable model) it is dishonest use of logic to claim because our local universe had a beginning (one model) it must have, inevitably, had an intelligent creator as a cause (one extremely speculative model accepted by very few cosmologists).

    It’s interesting that Craig (despite his demeaning attitude to science in some other arenas) has, in effect, agreed with Dawkins that the existence of an intelligent creator is a scientific question – in principle able to be investigated (and presumably decided) using scientific methodology. He does this, in common with many Christian apologists, by using scientific argument and theory – as he did in this debate. I am sure he, and other apologists, do so for purely opportunistic reasons because they feel the science supports, or can appear to support, their case.

    I think many (perhaps most) Christian theologians probably disagree with this approach – what are your thoughts on that?.

    However, it does offer the opportunity for debating the issue at the scientific level. I am tempted to do a post discussing the science of Craig’s claims in this debate.


  29. Thanks again, Ken,
    Let me be clear: I’m not saying ‘science proves a creator’. I don’t even think Craig is saying that.
    What I’m arguing is: causality is 1) a philosophical idea which appears to be ‘harmonious’ (meaning: not in opposition to/with) with current scientific understanding.

    I’m frankly not interested in defending William Lane Craig. It’s causality itself that seems quite easily defended to me.

    You point to a number of other models for the origin of the universe, most of which I’ve heard of. The ‘eternal universe’ theory seems odd to me. It is an assumption (and a large one) that the universe will reach a point where it will begin to ‘crunch’ back on itself, and a greater assumption that this has been happening for ‘eternity’ (whatever that would mean in that schema). Don’t get me wrong, they’re all very fascinating theories, but none of them are (or could be) anywhere near anything close to certainty. I know you’d say the same (only to infinite degree) about an intelligent creator… 🙂 …but I think your charge that it’s a “dishonest use of logic” is unwarranted.

    IF our universe began to exist which is widely accepted), then it is not at all illogical or silly or out-dated or superstitious to infer that there was some kind of a cause.

    And yes, I’m not sure that the approach of some apologists to ‘prove God’ with science is helpful at all. I don’t think science ‘proves’ or ‘disproves’ God.

    Speculative theories are what they are; I am not anti-science, so I’m not anti these theories being developed as far as they can. But really – the coherence or incoherence of these theories aren’t going to butress either theism (Craig, etc.) or atheism (Cooke, etc.).


  30. None of the ideas about origins or pre the ‘big bang’ are ‘anywhere anything close to certainty.’ There is, at this stage, no way they could be (or, more correctly, that we would know that they are).

    And I agree that ‘the coherence or incoherence of these theories aren’t going to buttress either theism …. or atheism’. That was my point about Craig’s opportunist use of science to ‘prove’ his god exists. That’s why I call it a ‘dishonest’ use of science – and it is an argument which very few scientists would go along with. (And then only as argument to justify heir religious beliefs).

    I also agree that science, today, neither proves or disproves god. To do that there would have to be a testable hypothesis and no one seems really interested in advancing one. (Craig’s philosophical/theological argument isn’t in this class).

    However, I can imagine that if this issue does become important in the future such an hypothesis may be forthcoming. To me, science is about understanding reality and if a god/designer/creator is part of reality then it is, at least potentially, a scientific question.


  31. Thanks Ken,
    We seem to be in full agreement that science neither dis-‘proves’ nor ‘proves’ God.

    It could be argued that Craig wasn’t trying to ‘use’ science to ‘prove’ God. I’ve not had the time (nor will I probably bother!) to watch the video of the debate, and I can’t remember his exact wording, though.

    Whatever he did or did not say, I do think there’s a difference between “using science to prove God” on one hand, and making a simple connection between philosophical arguments (i.e. causality) and widely accepted cosmology (i.e. Big Bang). Drawing a ‘connection’ (as one part of an argument) is not attempting to ‘use’ science to ‘prove’ God.

    In this vein, I’d assume that most cosmologists (unless they have an agenda against theistic arguments) would be happy with Craig’s inference, so long as he recognises that there are other theories than Big Bang. And for crying out loud, if Craig really does ‘use’ science wrongly that doesn’t necessarily make him ‘dishonest’ – it would just make him wrong about that particular use of science. 🙂

    Another point on Causality, re: QM, etc.
    Both QM indeterminacy and black-hole particles ‘appearing’ are space/time events. Meaning, in neither case do we see time itself or space itself coming into being. In both cases, ‘matter’ (at least appears) to come into (and out of [QM]) existence. Indeed, to use these examples as a challenge to causality, you need to convincingly demonstrate that time, space and matter are indeed the same thing. Demonstrating that will, I suspect, take one far afield from ‘science’ and well into philosophy.


  32. ‘Dishonest’ – aren’t we all dishonest in this way? Using scientific knowledge to support a preconceived belief rather than deriving that belief from the knowledge. Isn’t that just the nature of a debate situation? And aren’t we all guilty of cherry picking information, or interpreting information, to fit patterns in our head? This is just a human problem – but I think the scientific process helps us overcome this.

    I don’t for a minute believe that Craig would give up his theist beliefs if science showed that the universe was not created by an intelligent being, or that the apparent fine tuning of physical values was inevitable. He was in a debate and was using arguments to support, not derive, his preconceived belief. I suspect this is an inevitable position for apologetics.

    I think most cosmologists would be unhappy with Craig’s inference because he misrepresented current knowledge.

    There is a recent model indicating that quantum fluctuations can, with the right conditions, lead to inflation and the formation of a separate universe (with it’s own time/space). Baby universes may be produced in our universe and our universe may be the offspring of another one. I think the new aspect of the model is the mechanisms of formation – the concept of daughter universes has been around for a while.

    I disagree with you last comment. The concept of unifying space/time/matter is really coming out of particle physics. That’s where it will be (or has been?) demonstrated. Mind you, I think philosophy could have something to learn from the physics.


  33. Daughter universes… ‘baby’ universes within our universe… Interesting how flexible the term universe is, isn’t it? 🙂

    I’d be very interested to see how the idea of s/t/m being the same thing is ‘coming out of particle physics [particles being agreeably matter, but ‘not agreeably’ space or time]…

    Without seeing arguments for what you mean, this sounds like saying ‘the idea of cooking/rugby/algebra being the same thing is coming out of cooking class’… or ‘the idea of philosophy/science/religion being the same thing is coming from theology’ 😉


  34. The ‘arguments’ about space/time/matter are obviously mathematical – I certainly don’t have the background to present them. However, there are some attempts at popular description – which are still pretty mind-boggling to me. I think Brian Greene’s ‘Fabric of the Cosmos’ attempts a popular description.

    With the Large Hadron Collider coming on line this year there’s no doubt going to be a lot written about newly discovered or hypothesised particles/fields etc. and this area may be covered.

    It’s an exciting time for science! I haven’t heard, though, of any (pure) philosophers with planned time on the LHC. But I think modern philosophy will have to some how accommodate these new discoveries.

    Did you hear your mate Guy Consolmagno beinging interviewed on RNZ last night? This is the link: Vatican Observatory. It was interesting – he is certainly a good populariser oi science. In the interview he repeats Lemaître’s rejection of the big bang proving a god.


  35. Yeah, I’ve read about the LHC in National Geographic. Amazing stuff. (though I did have the passing thought: how much $$$ is being spent on all this and with poverty/slavery at possibly peak levels, does this approach [or reach?] being immoral? It’s idealistic, I know, but worth thinking about… but hey, that would be too philosophical, huh?)
    Again, don’t take that as being ‘anti-science’. I think there’s plenty of $$$ in the world to feed the hungry AND explore sub-atomic phenomena. Amen to doing both.

    You say “modern philosophy will have to some how accommodate these new discoveries.”

    But ‘these new discoveries’ will be out of space/time events – events in which we do not see time or space themselves come into existence. The questions and different ideas from both modern and ancient philosophy won’t be affected.


  36. p.s. I just listened to Consolmagno’s interview (good on RNZ for getting him!). Great stuff. A lot of fun to listen to.

    While I see the point about not ‘using’ the Big Bang to ‘prove’ (as is was put) the ‘moment of creation’, I appreciated Consolmagno’s way of talking about things ‘before’ the Big Bang – namely “we have no data”, and “there is no before” etc.


  37. “The questions and different ideas from both modern and ancient philosophy won’t be affected.”

    I disagree. While I think there are some sort of logical ‘truths’ or ‘concepts’ independent of our changing concepts of reality we can only truthfully use these by ‘deepening’ our understanding of them in light of new knowledge.

    This was brought home to me when I read (many years ago at the start of my career) Lenin’s ‘Materialism and Emperiocriticism’. The whole point of the book was to deepen the understanding of philosophical concepts like matter. He showed how those who argued that new discoveries were ‘proving’ that matter no longer existed or that philosophical materialism was ‘wrong’ were using an outmoded understanding. That the old mechanical concept of matter was not valid – it had to be deepened. With this deepening the the idealist arguments are seen to have no validity. (I imagine these arguments may also often arise in the other direction, as materialist objections to idealist philosophy).

    That analysis has always stuck with me and I can see that further ‘deepening’ of the matter concept has had to occur with the development of quantum mechanics. I think we are going to see another ‘deepening’ with current and new discoveries in particle physics.

    It’s easy to see this need for ‘deepening’ with conservation concepts (‘nothing from nothing’ ) and also cause and effect.

    Philosophy is often used in an ideological or political way and this is where outmoded understandings are so dangerous to science. I think this can also be one source of hostility from scientists who are confronted with what reality is telling them, on the one hand, and what philosophers tell them should be happening, on the other hand. Logically they should go with reality.


  38. I could have used a better word than ‘affected’; science and philosophy (I think) are linked/related, so naturally (the way I would say it) scientific developments are going to enhance, enrich, and yes ‘deepen’ the way various ancient and modern philosophical ideas are handled.

    But my point about the causality, the origin of the universe and ‘nothing from nothing’ still holds I think. We have “no data” (nor will we ever have such data) available to us by which we may ‘scientifically’ ask what caused time/space/matter themselves to come into existence. All of our observations/experiments (not to mention experience!) are time/space events.

    Another thought (or have I said it before?) about QM and black holes, etc…
    The appearance of spontaneously appearing particles in both examples (QM indeterminacy and the edge of black holes) are processes which would have a cause. Some prior event would have got these processes going. The formation of the black hole results in and gives rise to (or ’causes’) the process/phenomena at its edge; and the formation of the atom results in and enables (or ’causes’) the sub-atomic process of electrons flashing in-and-out of ‘existence’…

    Indeed, this is fascinating, counter-intuitive and just plain doesn’t ‘make sense’; yet it still appears (to me at least – until shown other wise) to take place within the framework of universal causality.


  39. dang winky smilies!!! …feel free to add a space before the relevant closing parentheses “)” in that comment! 🙂


  40. “We have “no data” (nor will we ever have such data) available to us”.

    I personally feel that is an unrealistic and dogmatic view – considering that we are setting about re-creating the conditions present in the universe 1/1000th of a nano-second after the big bang. Who knows what we will be looking at in the future – I just don’t like to place limits in this way – especially as any logical argument is inevitably abstract and needs to be re-interpreted with each new breakthrough.

    Within the limits of my ability to get my head around such matters I actually suspect we are making progress on these questions.

    However, if science can ‘never’ answer questions about causes of time/space/matter there is absolutely no reason to think that theology/philosophy or flower arranging could possibly provide the answer.


  41. “Who knows what we will be looking at in the future…”

    Well, if I was a betting man, my money would be on the prediction that in the ‘future’ we certainly won’t be (scientifically) ‘looking at’ anything objective of past-present-future (i.e. ‘time’) itself…

    That might be ‘dogmatic’, but, I suggest, is not being ‘unrealistic’. Within time (such as we are), we’re never going to ‘know’ what might be outside of time, or what caused time (or didn’t).

    And as for your last sentence, it could appear that you imagine that theological/philosophical (or botanical) answers are exactly the same kind of thing as scientific ‘answers’???



    PZ’s take on ‘supernatural’ & science:

    Stuart Buck persists in claiming that scientists have a bias against the supernatural, and that we dismiss it out of hand. This isn’t true; the problem is that supernatural explanations are poorly framed and typically unaddressable, so we tend to avoid them as unproductive. What one would actually find, if one took the trouble to discuss the ideas with a scientist, is that they are perfectly willing to consider peculiar possibilities if they are clearly stated.

    (Follow the link for the rest and the discussion.)


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