Something from Nothing and Ridiculous Guides

There is a good New York Times book review here of a book entitled “A Universe from Nothing.” Wow, who knew? Well, exactly, and the reviewer, David Albert (Ph.D., theoretical physics), does an excellent and quite humorous job pulling this book up short.

“And I guess it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.” –David Albert

Here also is another good book review—Philip Kitcher reviews “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Kitcher is much more sympathetic than Leon Wieseltier was in his review for The New Republic. Here is a portion of his review:

“I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.”

Kitcher is much more polite, but even he writes:

“Respect for science, and an enthusiasm for learning from it, are fully compatible with rejecting scientism.”

“It may be hyperbolic to declare that Shakespeare teaches us more about being human than all the natural scientists combined, but a real insight underlies the assertion. Similarly, the first sentence of Thomas Kuhn’s masterpiece, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (now half a century old), instantiates a more general piece of wisdom: History can change the images by which we are possessed.”

“Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction. To be sure, well-supported messages from the sciences are sometimes foolishly ignored — think of the warnings from climate scientists about our planet’s future. Yet scientism can easily prove counterproductive.”

That last sentence could easily be one of the biggest understatements I have ever read.

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10 Responses to Something from Nothing and Ridiculous Guides

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Note that Albert's quote, about the “important” stuff completely discards the explicit claims of religion as being beneath discussion, even contempt. It treats religion as a social con game, vying for power and taking the rubes for their money, faith, and allegiance. Is that the discussion you want to be having?

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  2. Darrell says:

    Are you serious? You mean to say out of that entire quote (and review) – this is what you were able to glean? I’m reminded of the complaint that Jesse Jackson made of his media coverage during the times he ran for President. He said, “If I were to walk on water, the next day the headlines would read: Jessie Jackson Can’t Swim!” You may have just proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we read and hear what we what to. First of all, he doesn’t comment on whether the criticisms he heard growing up were true or false. His point is a greater one. I guess you missed it. Putting that aside, this response is laughable—almost something that could be written into an episode of The Office. He is completely making fun of “pale, small, silly, and nerdy” responses to religion and your take away from it is that somehow he is being critical of religion. Wow. The discussion I want to have is the one he is clearly having and the one you missed.

    The only rubes having their money, faith, and allegiance taken are those populating the new-atheist fan clubs. There’s one born every minute.

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    It is indeed hard to be serious about this issue. Should it be a battle of wits? Should we leave our wits by the door? His critique on that front doesn't make any sense, as long as religionists insist on posting scientific models of reality.

    Now, I didn't address his substantive critique of Krauss because I don't know what to make of it. Prima facie, Krauss has substantially better credentials in physics, but I also can't really judge whether that makes that much difference here. Albert's point is that, even if Krauss is wholly correct, given quantum physics rules, where did those rules come from?

    That is perfectly fine, but it is laughable and absurd to think that this is the point where theologians come in and tell us how reality really works. They know less than nothing about the matter, unless you count making things up “something” … out of nothing, one might even say!

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  4. Darrell says:

    “His critique on that front doesn't make any sense, as long as religionists insist on posting scientific models of reality.”

    Well that is partly why his critique makes perfect sense in that even he probably realizes that the vast majority of Christians and theologians are not positing “scientific” models of reality.

    “That is perfectly fine, but it is laughable and absurd to think that this is the point where theologians come in and tell us how reality really works.”

    Again, who is coming in and saying how reality “really” works? We all agree it “works” along the lines of our best knowledge up to this point in the area of physics, geography, astronomy, and all the other hard sciences. So what? Once more, I give you the thousands of scientists/doctors/engineers who know exactly how reality “really” works and also know that such knowledge squares just fine with their Christianity.

    You are making the exact type of critique Albert was rightly ridiculing.

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    “Well that is partly why his critique makes perfect sense in that even he probably realizes that the vast majority of Christians and theologians are not positing “scientific” models of reality. “

    I think this is a real problem- your unwillingness to recognize your own claims. The claim that “god” “exists”, and that people were miraculously raised from the dead, that prayers are listened to by some being, that consciousness is non-physical, etc. There is no way to deny that these are scientific claims.

    Sure, they amount to pseudoscience, are without evidence, and don't rise to any level of scientific credibility. But their form and intent is to offer a model of how reality works, including the claim that the quantum mechanical laws were “authored” by the Christian god. Right?

    You are trying to have it both ways, both overawe the believers with the profundity and depth and “truth” of all these claims, while at the same time fobbing it all off into “super”-natural spheres conveniently out of empirical reach.

    Either that, or you would have to accept that the whole construct is psychological- that god is a father totem, and so on through all the symbolism, which, while “meaningful” and profound, is not, as it is claimed to be, “real”.

    What Albert has to say about all this is in essence to not be so rude as to call religionists on all this flim-flamming, but rather appreciate (or excoriate) their this-world behaviors while ignoring the foundation on which their whole edifice is based. He evades the major point in favor of a bit of political correctness, declining to call a major set of bizarre and either demolished or unverifiable scientific hypotheses … dumb.

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  6. Burk Braun says:

    .. and then he worries about the technicalities of Krauss's approach to quantum physics. It is absurdly incommensurate.

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  7. Darrell says:

    Absolutely we can deny that these are “scientific” claims if what you mean is empirical or in the sense of detecting God on radar, or seeing thoughts on x-rays, or events in history. In fact, there is no sense, really, that any of this is “scientific” which means, exactly, nothing. So what? That would hardly mean it wasn’t true. We’ve been through this. And Eric on his blog has also gone over this many times. What do you not understand? Name me one philosopher of religion, or theologian, or anyone of any respectability who has announced to the world that something like “God exists” was a scientific claim? Name one. Please. Right, you can’t—so who in the world are you arguing against? Phantoms it would appear.

    Ice is cold. A true statement. The Holocaust was evil. A true statement. What do you not get about the difference? Are you suggesting that people who make the second statement consider themselves to be making a “scientific” claim or have to don the scientist’s lab coat before anything they say could be considered true? Are you kidding? Is that what this is all about? A simple misunderstanding on your part—you just never understood what people were saying? And all the time you’ve spent arguing against straw-men and making category errors. Wow. Awkward. But, at least the problem is now solved for you. You can put your apologetic hat away finally and turn to hobbies, gardening or something. Good for you.

    Because to continue your same line would mean, “…to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”

    And then you would be one of those “guys.”

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  8. Burk Braun says:

    “Absolutely we can deny that these are “scientific” claims if what you mean is empirical or in the sense of detecting God on radar, or seeing thoughts on x-rays, or events in history. “

    I have two issues with this. First is that you via religion do indeed claim events in history to have occured contrary to accepted scientific understanding. Just because these events can not be verified at this later time doesn't mean they are not scientific claims. They are claims about what really happened- seas parting, dead rising, etc and so forth. They also function strongly (for some) as “evidence” for supernaturalism, since if someone performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc., then accepted scientific understandings are false. Thus they are scientific claims.

    Secondly, no one expects to find god in some radar. The issue is simply the claim that god is “real” and has performed actions impinging on the real world like answering prayers, authoring physical laws, ad infinitum. You are evading the issue of what a scientific claim is, which is a claim about how physical reality works, whether it can be proven at the current time or not.

    The nature of social and psychological “reality”, “truth” and the like are an entirely different issue, I think we agree.

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  9. Burk Braun says:

    For example, string theory is a scientific claim, whether it is empirically verifiable or not. Whether it makes good science in practice is a different issue. Unverifiable claims do not make good science practice, since the speculation remains untethered.

    All the work on string theory is thus straining to make a decent science out of it, either by coming up with testable physical consequences, or by making it so closely joined with current mathematical+physical theory that it is logically inescapable. But in any case, it is a scientific claim.

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  10. Burk Braun says:

    Lastly, your evasions are all the more brazen after we had spent years discussing evolution, which has/had specific theological scientific claims applied to it (or to its absence). Is all that now forgotten? What was god supposed to be doing there, anyhow?

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