The Sciences

Rapped on the Head by Creationists

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollAug 8, 2006 7:04 PM


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I think this is a new category for my CV -- "articles subjected to close reading by creationists." (That, and pioneering the concept of the least bloggable unit.) Here is the first entry: my humble little essay for Nature entitled "Is Our Universe Natural?" has been lovingly dissected at "Creation-Evolution Headlines." In which they claim that my paper "arms the intelligent design movement in the current fight over the definition of science." Okay, now those are fighting words. The page is part of a larger site called Creation Safaris. I would tell you more about the site if only their web pages weren't so confusing that I can't follow what's going on. It seems to be one of those places that takes you on a rafting trip to better enjoy God's creation; blurbs for the trips include stuff like this:

ABOUT YOUR GUIDE: Tom Vail is a veteran rafting guide with 24 years experience. In recent years he has led the big trips for ICR and Answers in Genesis. Formerly an evolutionist, he used to tell his rafting parties the usual millions-of-years stories about the canyon, but when he became a Christian, he began to look at the world differently: this led to the publication last year of his book Grand Canyon: A Different View that caused a firestorm among evolutionists when the National Park Service began selling it in its bookstores; fortunately, visitors to the park are voting for it with their dollars!

Hey look, they're the ones saying that becoming a Christian persuaded poor Tom to give up on rational scientific thought, not me. I'm not sure what belief system is responsible for the run-on sentences. The most impressive thing about the site is that they have the massive cojones necessary to favorably invoke Carl Sagan, of all people. In particular, Sagan's notion of a baloney detector, which apparently is just a "good grasp of logical reasoning and investigative procedure." Which they use, ahem, to counter the illogical rhetorical sneakiness of the pro-evolution crowd. Jiminy crickets. Anyway. Somehow they found my Nature article, which was about how physicists are taking advantage of seemingly-unnatural features of our universe in their efforts to develop a deeper understanding how how nature works. The title, "Is Our Universe Natural?", is of course a joke, which folks of a certain cast of mind apparently don't get. Of course our universe is natural, more or less by definition. The point is that it doesn't always look natural from the perspective of our current state of understanding. That's no surprise, because our current understanding is necessarily incomplete. In fact, it's good news for scientists when they can point to something that doesn't seem "natural" about the universe; although it's not as useful as a direct experimental result that can't be explained by current theories, it can still provide some useful guidance while we develop better theories. Trying to understand the rarity of certain particle-physics decays inspired people to invent the concept of "strangeness," and ultimately the Eight-Fold Way and the quark model. Trying to understand the flatness and smoothness of our universe on large scales inspired Alan Guth to invent inflation, which provided a dynamical mechanism to generate density perturbations purely as a bonus. Right now, trying to understand hierarchies in particle physics and the arrow of time has led people to seriously contemplate a vast multiverse beyond what we can see, perhaps populated by regions occupying different phases in the string theory landscape. Wildly speculative, of course, but that's to be expected of, you know, speculations. Ideas are always speculative when they are new and untested; either they will ultimately be tested one way or another, or they'll fade into obscurity, as I made perfectly clear.

The ultimate goal is undoubtedly ambitious: to construct a theory that has definite consequences for the structure of the multiverse, such that this structure provides an explanation for how the observed features of our local domain can arise naturally, and that the same theory makes predictions that can be directly tested through laboratory experiments and astrophysical observations. To claim success in this programme, we will need to extend our theoretical understanding of cosmology and quantum gravity considerably, both to make testable predictions and to verify that some sort of multiverse picture really is a necessary consequence of these ideas. Only further investigation will allow us to tell whether such a programme represents laudable aspiration or misguided hubris.

(Did you know that Nature has an editorial policy forbidding the use of the words "scenario" and "paradigm"? Neither did I, but it's true. "Paradigm" I can see, but banning "scenario" seems unnecessarily stuffy to me.) (Also, it's a British publication, thus the spelling of "programme." There is no "me" in "program"!) It's not hard to guess what a creationist would make of this: scientists are stuck, don't understand what's going on, grasping at straws, refusing to admit that God did it, blah blah blah. And that's more or less what we get:

For the most part, Carroll wrote thoughtfully and perceptively, except for one thing: he totally ignored theism as an option. He is like Robert Jastrow's mountain climber, scrambling over the last highest peak, only to find a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. Yet he doesn't even bother to say Howdy. Instead, he walks over to them and tries to describe them with equations, and puzzles about how they emerged by a natural process. As he does this, one of the theologians taps on his head and says, "Hello? Anybody home?" yet Carroll continues, now trying to naturalize the pain he feels in his skull.

Gee, I wonder why anyone would waste their time trying to explain the universe in natural terms? Maybe because it's been a fantastically successful strategy for the last five hundred years? Somewhat more successful, one might suggest, than anything "creation science" has managed to come up with. Sorry, got a little sarcastic there. Don't mean to offend anyone, even while they are tapping on my empty skull. What we have here is a textbook case of the God of the gaps argument, notwithstanding the thorough squelching that David Hume gave the idea many years ago. It's really kind of sad. All they can do is point to something that scientists don't yet understand and say "Aha! You'll never understand that! Only God will provide the answer!" And when the scientists finally do understand it and move on to some other puzzle, they'll say "Okay, this one you'll really never understand! You need God, admit it!" Think about it for a second -- a century ago concepts like "the state of the universe one second after the Big Bang" or "the ratio of the vacuum energy to the Planck scale" hadn't even been invented yet. Today, not only have they been invented, but they've been measured, and we've moved on to trying to understand them in terms of deeper principles. I'd say it's a bit to early to declare defeat in our attempts to fit these ideas into a naturalistic framework. Creationists don't understand how science works. But more amusingly, they also don't understand the definition of the word "faith"! The Creation-Safaris article pulls out the hoary old chestnut that science requires just as much faith as religion does.

The introduction also hints that the naturalistic approach is built on faith. Scientists believe that even in the most puzzling phenomena there exist underlying physical or natural principles accessible to the human mind. ... It takes faith, however, to believe this approach can be extrapolated without bounds.

Let's look up the dictionary definition of faith:

  1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.

  2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.

The thing is, scientists don't have "faith" that the universe can be explained in naturalistic terms; they make that hypothesis, and then they test it. And it works, over and over again -- it becomes a belief that very much does "rest on logical proof or material evidence." In my Nature article I said "Needless to say, proposals of this type are extremely speculative, and may well be completely wrong," which is seized upon as an admission of weakness. That couldn't be further from the truth; it's just standard operating procedure for scientists to admit that their theories may well be wrong before they've been tested against data. The provisional nature of scientific theorizing, admitting ignorance where appropriate, is the strength of the scientific method. Nor is it true that I "totally ignored theism as an option." I didn't discuss it in this particular paper, of course, just as I didn't discuss the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Elsewhere I have argued in detail why theism is simply not a very good option, in the specific case of trying to understand the apparent fine-tunings we see in nature. (And don't tell me that no serious theologian tries to use fine-tunings to argue in favor of God these days, because they do.) But I will explain it once again! Because, despite the absence of God in my cold materialist heart, I am nevertheless a very generous person. When scientists compare hypotheses that purport to explain the same set of data, they tend to prefer the model that explains the most with the least; that is, the one that can account for the widest variety of phenomena with the smallest amount of input. In this case, the phenomena to be explained include certain large-scale features of the universe (the existence of many galaxies, the arrow of time) as well as the values of various constants of nature that seem to be crucial to the existence of chemistry (and therefore life) as we know it. The claim of modern-day natural theology is that the God hypothesis provides a simple and elegant explanation of features of the universe that would otherwise seem disconnected and unnatural -- it's much easier to say "God exists," and from that derive the conditions necessary for the existence of life, than to separately posit each of those conditions. Except that (1) the God hypothesis is anything but simple, and (2) you don't derive very much from it at all. It's not simple because nobody will tell you much about this God character. What is its origin, how does it behave, what laws does it obey? Of course some people think they know the answers, but those people don't generally agree with each other. Rather than offering a simple and well-defined hypothesis, we've been forced to invent an entirely new metaphysical category and an ill-defined set of rules for it to follow. And you don't go from "God exists" directly to a prediction for the vacuum energy or the charge of the electron. You go (in the most generous of readings) from "God exists" to "conditions in the universe must allow for the existence of life" to the values of various constants. But that first step buys you precisely nothing. The only thing that the God hypothesis even purports to explain is why the universe allows for intelligent life. But the statement "the universe allows for intelligent life" contains just as much predictive power, with much less metaphysical baggage, than the God idea. So, strictly from the perspective of scientific theory-choice, there's absolutely nothing to be gained (and much to be lost in terms of specificity and simplicity) by giving the credit to God. As I like to emphasize, the God hypothesis could in principle count as a scientifically promising explanation, if only it could actually explain something new, something beyond our mere existence. For example, it's unclear why there are three generations of fermions in the Standard Model; can God perhaps account for that? Even better, make a testable prediction. Does God favor low-energy supersymmetry? What is God's stance on proton decay, and baryognesis? If you are claiming to explain some features of known particle physics or cosmology by appeal to God (and maybe you aren't claiming that, but some people are), you should be able to carry the program forward and make predictions about unknown particle physics. Otherwise you are just telling a story about stuff we already know, without explaining anything, and that's not science. The true tragedy of "creation science" is that it is an invitation to stop thinking. Instead of taking puzzling aspects of Nature as clues to something deeper, and mulling over the possible lessons we can learn from them in our quest to undertand the universe better and better, the creationist attitude just wants to say "God did it!" and declare victory. It's a form of giving-up that could have been invoked thousands of times in the history of science, but thankfully was not. Instead, stubborn naturalistic investigators took seriously the clues they had, and used them to gradually uncover marvelous new features of the real world. And that's what we'll continue to do.

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