Tag Archives: Lawrence Krauss

Should all scientists really be militant atheists?

As my title implies this post discusses the New Yorker article by Lawrence Krauss – All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists. I basically agree with his analysis but feel he has left himself open to an unwarranted criticism often made of the scientific approach.

The headline is very provocative – and was clearly meant to be. The term “militant atheist” is just silly. But it did smoke out the expected criticism from the faithful (for example Should Scientists Be Atheists? More Nonsense From Lawrence Krauss by Kelly James Clark from the Brooks College and Kaufman Interfaith Institute). These critics attempt to avoid Krauss’s central complaint about the unwarranted privilege religion gets in our society (to the extent that when a law-breaker like Kim Davis is punished there are loud complaints of Christians being persecuted or Christian beliefs being made illegal). And they also attempt to denigrate his point that the scientific process should not be perverted in its exploration of the evidence and application of reason by demands of unjustified respect for belief or faith when it conflicts with evidence.

The people who wish to protect this religious privilege – even in scientific investigation – are the ones who describe any criticism of their stance as “militant.”

Rejecting the “sacred” justification

Krauss dismissed the demand for respect with:

“The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

Applying this to the scientific process he wrote:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Unfortunately his use of Haldane’s quote – together with his provocative title “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheistsconveyed the impression that scientists should approach their investigation with a bias that already rejects some possible outcomes.

No relationship between science and religion

However, that was not Krauss’s claim. He used the term “atheist” in its negative sense (not theist) – not implying an imposition of any preconceived beliefs or ideas.

His real point was expressed in his point that basically there is no relationship between science and religion:

“In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Clark, more or less agrees with Krauss’s central claim  when he retaliated with:

“Scientists can be religious, liberal, communist, or even gay. But when they’re doing science, those beliefs are irrelevant and should not affect the practice of science. So be it. Scientists are under no obligation to affirm the opposite of any of those beliefs; and they needn’t deny them–but they should not bring those beliefs into their scientific practices.”

And in effect, he also agrees with Haldane – when we take into account the flippant words Haldane used. Of course scientists “assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere” with their experimental investigations. In the same way they assume that goblins, fairies, and all sorts of mythical creatures will not interfere.

Mind you, I really wonder at his assertion that a scientist need not deny her beliefs when the evidence shows them wrong. Surely that is unhealthy?

Scientists must be completely open to all and every outcome of their investigation – and perhaps they should even be “militant” about this rejection of blinkers. It is one thing to start with a strong, empirically supported, acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics – but quite another to be restricted by a strong belief in a myth without any evidential support.


The “god idea” is just such a myth. It is never expressed even as a concrete hypothesis (which implies testability) let alone a rational theory with an evidential base.

Unfortunately, for much of history humanity’s attempts to investigate and understand the world have been hampered by an a priori insistence that investigation be based on such myths. Modern science has broken away from such bonds – and that is why it is so overwhelmingly successful.

Yet, there are people who work hard to reapply those bonds. Who wish to introduce  a”theistically-correct” approach to science which denies the need for evidence and (what amounts to the same thing) insists that “supernatural explanation’ are accepted.

People like Krauss are standing up to this pressure – and good on them. We need people who are prepared to be “militant” in this way.

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‘The Unbelievers’ and science

The World Premiere of  the film “The Unbelievers” took place on Monday in Toronto.

The YouTube site for the film’s trailer describes it this way:

‘The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues. The film includes interviews with celebrities and other influential people who support the work of these controversial speakers,trailer of the film”

The premiere, and the three later screenings were sold out. I posted the trailer for the film at The “dynamic duo” of science? Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss spoke at the Premiere. But they were also interviewed by Global’s The Morning Show, on Monday morning.

It’s an excellent interview – they were not heckled in the way many US interviewers do. And they managed to calmly present their story about science, and describe their attitude to religion.

Only 12 minutes long its worth  watching. Click on the image below to go to the Global New’s Video.


Credit: Dawkins, Krauss have faith in ‘The Unbelievers’ | Globalnews.ca.

The “dynamic duo” of science?

Well, that’s how someone described them.

But I have generally found the discussions between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins stimulating. I first commented on these almost 5 years ago (see Lawrence Krauss – Richard Dawkins discussion).

They have had a number of discussions recently, in a range of countries. Someone has now put these together in a single movie. Here’s the movie trailer. Looks interesting

THE UNBELIEVERS (2013) – Official Movie Trailer

Thanks to: Dawkins & Krauss making kick-ass new atheism doc

By the way, the movie includes discussions with others too. here’s a description from the YouTube site:

‘The Unbelievers’ follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.

The film includes interviews with celebrities and other influential people who support the work of these controversial speakers, including:

Ricky Gervais
Woody Allen
Cameron Diaz
Stephen Hawking
Sarah Silverman
Bill Pullman
Werner Herzog
Tim Minchin
Eddie Izzard
Ian McEwan
Adam Savage
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
Penn Jillette
Sam Harris
Dan Dennett
James Randi
Cormac McCarthy
Paul Provenza
James Morrison
Michael Shermer
David Silverman
…and more.

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Education should never validate ignorance

Quite a concise and clear argument from Lawrence Krauss on the silly idea of giving equal time to creationism in a science classes (a big problem in his country – the USA). As he points out – the role of education is to overcome ignorance – not confirm it.

Teaching kids that the earth is 6000 years old, just because (in the USA) half the population believes it, is only validating ignorance. The fact is that half of the US population does not think the earth orbits the sun – they are clearly wrong but should that widespread belief mean that kids must be taught that mistake in their science classes?

Of course not.

That would be validating ignorance and is a form of child abuse.

Lawrence Krauss: Teaching Creationism is Child Abuse

Problems with philosophers and theologians

This looks like an interesting book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. He delivered this year’s Science and Democracy Lecture at Havard University’s School of Design (see Learning to love the irrational mind | Harvard Gazette).

The other day, in , I referred to a problem some philosophers have with understanding human morality. So these quotes from the report of the lecture appealed to me:

“In a wide-ranging talk, Brooks laid out the conclusions he found while searching for an explanation for “this amputation of human nature” in politics and everyday life. What he found, he said, is that scientists who study the mind, rather than theologians or philosophers, are yielding the most interesting answers to questions of what constitutes character, ethics, and virtue.”

And, according to Brooks:

“If we base policy on a shallow view of human nature … we will design policies that are not fit for actual human beings,” he said. “We will have child-rearing techniques which continue to underemphasize the most important things in life. And we will have moral discussions that will remain vague and inarticulate.”

Definitely another book I will have to read.

Circular theological arguments

Local Christian apologists have tried to outdo each other with their partisan reviews of the recent debates between their hero, WL Craig, and Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. Interesting that they feel the need to debate scientists to justify their god beliefs.

However, Matt Flannagan, from the blog MandM, provided a nice little example of the sort of circular arguments theologians get into in their attempts to offer a divine foundation for human morality. He wrote:

“Goodness is best understood in terms of an exemplar, that good is identified with the perfect paradigm of a good person and that the goodness of everything else is measured by its resemblance to this paradigm. An analogy to this idea is the official “metre stick” that exists in France today. The metre stick is exactly one metre long, and the length in metres of every other length is determined by comparison with it. In the same way, God is both perfectly good and is the standard of goodness for everything else. . . . To claim God is good is to claim that he is truthful, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful and just, and that he is opposed to certain actions such as murder, rape, torturing people for fun and so on.”

So humans have designated a standard metre. At one period this was defined by the distance between two lines on the International Prototype Metre kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris, France. In 1960  the metre was redefined in terms of the wavelength of light emitted by the krypton-86 isotope. And then in 1983 in terms of the speed of light. (I wonder if theologians have bothered updating their god as the standard of goodness over the years?)

Just as the International Prototype Metre was defined as the standard for a useful measurement unit by humans  our theologian has defined his god as a standard defined by humans for useful human moral values. This theologian has, along with most people, concluded that honesty, benevolence, mercy and opposition to murder, rape and torture are good human values. So he has invented an artificial “person”, an “International Prototype Good Person,”  to enable calibration!

But notice – this theologian knew these human values were good well before he constructed his prototype. The same  the rest of us know these values are good – because they are based on  human nature. As I said in Foundations of human morality humans are effectively wired for The Golden Rule.

For the life of me, though, I can’t see why this theologian needs to define an “International Prototype Good Person.” Values are qualitative, not quantitative. It’s not as if we have to transfer a measurement from one person to another. Morals are not like height or girth.

If we already know what is good, and use that knowledge to define a fictional good person, so that we can then use that fictional character to find out what is good aren’t we needlessly creating a middle man? And don’t all middlemen exploit the rest of us by clipping tickets, taking a percentage or a tithe?

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Limits of logic

I have commented before on the limitations of deductive logic – see “Other ways of knowing” – some sense at last). And how easily people manipulate logic by faulty reasoning and by assuming shonky premises. Very tempting for someone with a predetermined conclusion they wish to “prove.”

This brings to mind William Lane Craig who relies on such manipulation of logic for his debating prowess. This became an issue in his recent debate with Lawrence Krauss on evidence for existence of gods. Krauss describes how Craig  “systematically distorted” facts in his “continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.” (see Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig @ Pharyngula).

It is this distortion of logic which really puts me off any debate in which Craig participates. And I don’t think debates are useful anyway as a way of conveying information anyway. So I am not tempted to waste time viewing the video.

However, I did find the comments made after the debate by Krauss, and by Craig and one of his avid supporters, interesting.

Typically Craig provides a self-congratulatory analysis after each of his debates, declaring how clever he is and how silly was his opponent. In this case (see  A brief post-mortem) Craig claimed Krauss’s understanding of cosmology was “superficial” and declared himself “frankly flabbergasted by Krauss’s opening salvo attacking logic and the probability calculus.”

One of Craig’s avid supporters attributed to Krauss the claims that “logic doesn’t work,” “2+2=5, and we don’t know anything.” This Fan’s conclusion: “Rather than acknowledge the existence of God, to which logic and sound reasoning continue to lead us, atheists reject logic and sound reasoning. Krauss, to his credit, did manage to demonstrate this with profound success: atheism is irrational!”

I have often noted that religious apologists have a problem with honesty!

However, to get back to the issue of logic and its limitations. Here is how Lawrence Krauss puts it in his comments on the debate:

“Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.”

Krauss the author

Krauss is a great populariser of science and has written a number of popular science books. His latest one, out last month, is Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science . I am looking forward to reading this – especially after Chris Mooney‘s recent interview of Krauss on a Point of Inquiry podcast (see Lawrence Krauss – Quantum Man Mar 28, 2011). The author’s enthusiasm for his subject is obvious.

And talking of books – this last comment from Lawrence Krauss in his report on the debate looks interesting:

“I have taken great effort to describe our actual understanding of the Universe and its implications for understanding how it might be possible for something to come from nothing, i.e. non-existence, in my new book, which will come out in January of 2012.”

Looking forward to that book.

See also: This video of a talk by Krauss is relevant:

‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009.

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Science and morality – a panel discussion

This is the panel discussion at the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).

The panel includes Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Roger Bingham. They respond to questions from the audience (and the size of the audience for such a subject is heartening).

Their interaction is useful as it helps to overcome any misunderstanding any participant may have had about others points of view. Its a useful supplement to the individual presentation I have posted during this week (see Telling right from wrong – unreligiously, A philosopher comments on science and morality and A physicist comments on science and morality).

This video is 42 min long.

TSN: The Great Debate Panel, posted with vodpod

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A physicist comments on science and morality

Another video from the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right
from Wrong?”
(See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this
debate and workshop).

This time a physicist, Lawrence Krauss. He is always a stimulating speaker.

He starts by claiming that it is impossible to tell right from wrong without science. And then goes on to explain. I find myself agreeing with a lot he says.

Listen for his explanation for the intriguing slogan on his T-shirt.

Again, only 14 min long.

TSN: Lawrence Krauss, posted with vodpod

Lawrence Krauss is a Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Department of Physics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He also is director of the ASU Origins Project. He is the only physicist to have received the highest awards from all three major U.S. professional physics societies. His popular publications include The Physics of Star Trek,” “Quintessence,” “Atom : An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth…and Beyond,” “Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, from Plato to String Theory (by way of Alice in Wonderland, Einstein, and The Twilight Zone),” and due out in 2011,Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (Great Discoveries) and “A Universe from Nothing.”

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Clear science communication

Book review: Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public by Cornelia Dean

Price US$13.57
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (October 30, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674036352
ISBN-13: 978-0674036352

I bet you can name some good science communicators. People like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Carolyn Porco, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krauss among others

They stand out, don’t they? Probably because the rest of us are bad science communicators. We picture scientists as ponderous, given to continual qualification, lovers of jargon, bad speakers (as well as bad dressers) and not interested in communicating with the non-expert anyway. We don’t even want to communicate effectively with fellow scientists for a different speciality or research area.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. There are many scientists, particularly younger ones, who recognise science communication is important. Some of these probably consciously try to pick up relevant communication skills, and/or practise these in internet and other public settings.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many scientists who recognise science communication is important.

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A Universe From Nothing

The origin of the universe is one of the biggest questions there is. Some people resort to easy answers – which don’t answer anything. But its good to know that others do take the question seriously and actively research it.

Here is a great lecture from Lawrence Krauss – “A Universe from Nothing”.

He is always an informative and entertaining lecturer. He injects quite a bit of humour into this talk he gave at the Athiest Alliance International Convention held in California earlier this month.

‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009.


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