A conversation with Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss.
7pm | Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012 | ASU Gammage Auditorium
[I have striven to be completely accurate in the following transcription. I take full responsibility for any typos or misrepresenting punctuation or grammar.]
Krauss: [Introductory remarks]
Krauss: Now, the title for this evening is “Something From Nothing” which sounds quite self-indulgent since it’s also the sub-title of my new book, but it’s not completely for that reason. In fact, “Something From Nothing” goes, I think, and we think, beyond that. I wanted to start by asking, in the context of evolution, what “Something From Nothing” (SFN) means to you.
Dawkins: Charles Darwin solved one of the greatest riddles that the human mind has ever solved, which is how you get SFN in the sense of how you get the immense complexity and diversity and beauty and elegance of life and perhaps above all how you get the powerful illusion of design that life shows starting, not quite from nothing, but starting from extreme simplicity. So, before Darwin came along, it would have been extremely hard to believe that you could possibly explain how you get a human brain, a human eye, a horse’s leg, a swift’s wing; how you could get such beautiful and apparently elegantly designed things by purely the laws of physics acting out over a very long time from very simple beginnings. So, getting SFN; Charles Darwin gives us all confidence, Charles Darwin showed that what must have seemed the most difficult problem of getting SFN, was solvable. He solved it and his successors have simply been fleshing out his explanation ever since. But after Darwin, it’s no longer possible for anybody, any reasonable person to say, “Oh I simply can’t believe you could get something so complicated as that…”
K: So, by “reasonable person” you’re not talking about the Republican candidates, I guess… okay. We’ll try to offend as many people as we can tonight. But I think you’re not being fair to Darwin. I think in a sense, it’s SFN, I mean, completely nothing. Take humans. We weren’t around, perhaps more than maybe 5-10 million years ago, and so, in a sense, every time a new species is created it’s SFN.
D: Well, it’s not from nothing, because it’s from an antecedent species, and even the evolutionary process, the process that Darwin discovered doesn’t start from nothing. It had to start from, well, a reasonably complicated chemical beginning which was the first self-replicating molecule. Natural Selection can’t get going until you have genetics and so you’ve got to have genetics, and that’s not a trivial problem, and it’s a problem that actually hasn’t yet been solved.
K: Well, actually, that’s interesting. It’s true that many people think that evolution has to do with the origin of life, but it’s really the origin of the diversity of life.
K: In fact, the famous final paragraph of his book is, basically, tries to state that.
D: Yes. No, you have to start from genetics, and that’s one of our big gaps in our knowledge at the moment. No one knows how that started. The laws of chemistry somehow had to give rise to a self-replicating molecule. Once you’ve got that — at least a sufficiently accurately self-replicating molecule — then, evolution takes off, and then, the whole of the panoply of life, the whole diversity of life, and figures like you and me eventually come into existence. But you have got to start with genetics. And that pushes into the domain of chemistry, and then before that we push back into the domain of physics where you guys take over.
K: But, let’s keep pushing on that point. At some point, I thought of this in the context of the universe and we may talk about it in a while, but, there was no life on earth when it was created, and there was no life for potentially, for maybe, well, a few hundred million years. But then there was life. And so, there’s the moment when you go from chemistry to biology. It seems to me, at some point, that that, for many people — in fact when they talk about SFN again, especially those who feel that the “something” requires a creator — that, the origin of life itself is the creation of SFN.
D: Yeah. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old. We don’t know when life began, but probably after about a half-a-billion years. Probably around about 4 billion years. For the next couple of billion years, there were nothing but bacteria. So life that you couldn’t see without a microscope. Life started getting, sort of, big and interesting, really only about a half-a-billion years ago, about the time of the Cambrian Explosion. So, as I said, biology hands over to chemistry, as we push back, rather about 4 billion years…
K: It’s clear we don’t yet understand how that transition occurs. But it seems to me, that if you wanted to think that, that moment is a perfect example of how the laws of nature can create SFN, namely, life from non-life which is a dramatic change.
D: Yes. It was a dramatic change, and it was the creation of genetics. That was the key point. The creation by the laws of chemistry of the first gene. And it probably wasn’t DNA, by the way. It would have been something simpler than DNA. DNA has been called a “high-tech” replicator, a high-tech genetic molecule. So, probably DNA had a fore-runner. A sort of “John the Baptist” molecule.
K: Well, we’ll get there. So, people could rightfully say… How would you respond to people saying, “Look, we don’t understand the origin of life on earth, and therefore, God must have done it.”
D: Even theologians don’t buy that, I mean, sophisticated theologians. It’s what they call a “god of the gaps” argument. It’s pushing god into the few remaining gaps in our understanding. Before Darwin came along, the whole of life was one big gap, one gigantic gap. And now, we’re pushed back to the origin of life, this chemical event, and that is a gap which will be filled. Even if it isn’t filled, it would be bad logic, bad science, bad philosophy to say, “Oh, I don’t understand it, therefore God did it.” And that’s a pathetically bad piece of arguing.
K: It’s a lazy argument.
D: It’s a lazy argument. It doesn’t even explain anything, of course, because it leaves open explaining where god came from. And so… The beauty of what Darwin did is to show how you can get ‘god-like’ things, I mean, complicated things like human brains, how you could get ‘god-like things,’ starting from almost nothing. So to suddenly re-import a god-like thing at the beginning of the process is just a cowardly evasion of scientific responsibility.
K: Okay, now let’s see. Last time you were here, it was for one of our workshops on the Origins of Life, where we began to talk about the chemistry that might be responsible, not for producing DNA, but RNA which is thought to be the precursor, and we’re getting very close. Do you think that in your lifetime we’ll [understand]/ get the transition from organic chemistry to biology?
D: I do think so, however, I would make, what I think is quite an interesting point (I’ve made it before). It is possible that this event we’re talking about, this chemical event, was an exceedingly improbable event. It’s possible that since we think that there are 1022 — you tell me — stars in the universe, some very, very high number…
K: About that.
D: And many of them probably have planets. If you want to believe (as some people do) that life on this planet is unique, if you want to believe that we’re alone in the universe, then what many people don’t realize, if they believe that, is that automatically commits you to the view, that the origin of life was a quite staggeringly improbable event. That has to be true, because the number of opportunities around the universe for life to have originated is so large. And what that would mean, is that chemists who are trying to solve the riddle of the origin of life on this planet are totally and utterly wasting their time. Because we don’t want a plausible theory. What we’re looking for is an implausible theory if you want to believe that life originated only once. Well, I don’t believe that, I don’t believe that we’re looking for an implausible theory, and that is tantamount to saying that I believe the universe is crawling with life. On the other hand, because that argument depends upon the sheer number of available planets, crawling with life could still mean there could be a billion independent origins of life, a billion islands of life out there and yet they could be still be incredibly rare, because a billion is a tiny number compared to 1022.
K: Yeah, that’s the one of the things that, of course, where cosmology comes in. But it relates to evolution too, because the thing that makes evolution so difficult for many people to appreciate, from my experience, and I’m sure from yours, is that life has been around for a long time, and a human time-scale is very short, and it’s very difficult to imagine such a long time scale, so even if rare events happen in the evolution of life, with 4.5 billion years, there’s lots of time for many rare events to happen. Similarly in the universe, the thing that people don’t realize is that rare events happen all the time because the universe is big and old. And the example I’ve used before, to me, is an amazing example of that, is the reason we’re here before life, the fact that, as I’ve often written, we’re all stardust, that every atom in our body came from an exploding star, and the atoms in your left hand may have come from a different start in your right, because during the big bang, the only elements that were made during the first moments of the big bang were hydrogen, helium, and a little bit of lithium (and lithium may be important to some people in this audience). But the really, really important stuff, the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen stuff is made in stars, and the only way to get in your body is if the stars are kind enough to die so you would be born. But stars die only about once per hundred years per galaxy. And so it seems like, how could that happen. But, nevertheless in the age of our galaxy, 200 million stars have exploded, and if you look with a telescope, get a very powerful telescope, go out to a dark spot outside Phoenix, look at a dime-sized hole in the sky with the most powerful telescopes we have today, you can see 100,000 galaxies in that little dark region of the sky. So, rare events are happening all the time, and the same is true in a biological context. And I think it’s the fact that we live a brief 100 years or so that makes evolution so difficult for people to comprehend.
D: Our brains were sculpted by Natural Selection on the African plains. To only perceive time-scales of a very short order — a few years, a few decades — then, you say a star explodes once every hundred years or so in our galaxy; the number of centuries that our galaxy has been around is a very large number of centuries, and we have a number of centuries available for evolution to have taken place is extremely large, is exactly as you say. One of the main reasons people don’t understand evolution is that they cannot grasp the immensity of time that’s been available. Idiotic statements like, “Well, I’ll believe evolution when I see a monkey give birth to a human.” I mean… I’ve seriously heard people say that.
K: So have I. I was going to ask exactly that. What do you say to people? … I was testifying in Texas to try and keep evolution in the schools there, and a woman got up and said, “My grandfather wasn’t a monkey.” I said to her, “Well, in your case, it’s not so clear.” I think that’s probably one of the biggest misunderstandings about what evolution is. It’s probably worth explicitly pointing out the fallacy of that. So, why don’t you…
D: Well, I suppose it’s mostly the sheer length of time that there’s been around. People, many of them think that evolution is talking about monkeys giving birth to humans. They don’t realize that it’s 25 million years ago that we had a monkey for an ancestor…
K: We had a common ancestor to monkeys. And then people say, why are there monkeys today if evolution happened.
D: Yeah, and that displays a kind of arrogance that assumes that all that monkeys ever want to do is turn into humans.
K: Some of them go the other direction too, by the way.
D: The point is, evolution is a constantly branching diverging process. 25 million years ago our ancestors might have looked like monkeys. They would have been a common ancestor of modern monkeys and modern humans and modern apes. We are, of course, apes. That would have been the common ancestor. If you had been handed it, you probably would have called it a monkey. It would have been monkey-like and you would have called it a monkey. So, I suppose the main thing to get across to the idiotic woman that you described is that we are descended from common ancestors, and that monkeys are doing very nicely as they are, as monkey. They’ve gone on, branching, and branching, and branching, living in trees, doing all sorts of different things, eating fruits, eating insects, eating leaves, doing monkey-like things extremely successfully. We are actually apes, so we’re not monkeys, we’re apes because we’re tailless, and the apes we are cousins of are doing much less well, unfortunately than the monkeys are. The apes that we’re closest cousins of, are chimpanzees and bonobos, equally close by the way to chimpanzees and bonobos because they have a more recent common ancestor with each other than they have with us, however, chimpanzees would regard us as closer cousins to themselves than they would regard gorillas. So, chimpanzees and humans are closer cousins of each other than chimpanzees are to gorillas. Which surprises some people. We are actually very close cousins of chimpanzees.
K: Something just came up in my mind that I wasn’t going to talk about, but maybe it’s worth it. When you talk about the fact that the great apes are doing poorly, and in fact, due to humans, are probably one of the greatest periods of extinction of life on the planet; more species are probably going extinct now at a faster rate than, other than perhaps when there were global catastrophes like a meteor hitting the earth and killing the dinosaurs, perhaps, or something like that. But one of the things that may be worth stressing, especially when we talk about Intelligent Design which we won’t talk about much.
D: I’m all for Intelligent Design. I’d like to see more intelligent design.
K: Exactly. In nature, one of the arguments that’s worth pointing out when people argue that we’re designed, and the whole earth was created so that we would be here (and we’ll get to that in a moment), is the fact to realize that probably 99.999% of all species that have ever existed are extinct. Which doesn’t suggest a design.
D: Well, nothing suggests a design. Well, no, that’s not quite true. Superficially, things look designed until you look closely at them. And then you see all the bad designs and features, what an engineer would see as design faults, the really crazy things that any decent engineer would send back to the shop for doing any things like the recurrent laryngeal nerve that goes down into the chest and then back up again rather than going by its most direct route to its end organ. The kind of thing you would expect if we were historical accidents than if we were designed.
K: Now, the other argument I often get when talking to people, is if evolution really happened, why isn’t it happening now?
D: It is. It’s happening all the time, but once again on a time scale that is mostly too slow for us to see. We are condemned to live only for a few decades and that’s too slow, too small a time scale to see evolution going on. And [this sort of interesting] animals that we would like to see. We can see it in bacteria, only to vividly because, of course, that’s why antibiotic resistance is such an immensely important medical problem. If doctors at the time of the invention of penicillin had had their Darwinian wits about them, they would have been able to predict that resistance to antibiotics would have evolved very fast which indeed, and by the way, I hope there are some doctors here. It is very, very important for doctors to understand Darwinism and I recommend Nesse and Williams’ book on Darwinian medicine. It’s got the ridiculous title Why We Get Sick. Why would any doctor buy a book entitled “Why We Get Sick?” But the real title of that book is The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, and I wrote a blurb for it which said, “Buy two copies, and give one to your doctor.” So, if there are any doctors here, please read that book. It’s very important.
K: It is interesting. I don’t know if you’ve had this happen, but I’ve had this happen to me. I’ve had people write me and say, I’m a medical doctor, and I don’t believe in evolution.
D: That’s a disgrace. I’m not allowed to say that, because, especially in this country one’s private beliefs are suppose to be irrelevant, but I would walk out of a doctor’s office and not consult him anymore if I heard that he said that. Because what that doctor is saying is that he is a scientific ignoramus and a fool. And you don’t want a doctor who’s a fool.
K: Or a politician as we’ll get to in a bit. But in fact in that regard, it’s interesting to me how people can hold beliefs which are incompatible with other beliefs they have. And in some sense, everyone is a scientist, they just don’t realize they are. And yet, when it’s a time a crisis,… The example I give is when George Bush was president, he said Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution so kids will know what the debate is all about. And it wasn’t a stupid statement a priori, it was ignorant, because it was just, …just didn’t realize there is no debate. And that’s fine. I don’t mean ignorant in a pejorative sense…
D: No, ignorance is no crime. You just don’t want to consult a doctor who is ignorant.
K: But what amazed me, in the same administration, when the Avian flu, of course was going to be a problem and mutating to humans, President Bush said we’ve got to find out how long it takes for the Avian flu to mutate to humans, and what amazed me is no one in his administration, not a single person said, “It’s been designed to kill. Let’s forget about it.”
D: It’s a very good point. This kind of split-brain business, which you’ve just been referring to, the most glaring example I know is actually more in your field than mine. I was told by the professor of astronomy at Oxford of a colleague of his who is an astronomer, an astrophysicist, who writes learned papers, mathematical papers, published in astronomical journals, mathematical papers, assuming that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but he privately believes the universe is only 6,000 years old. Now, how can a man like that hold down a job in a university as an astrophysicist? And yet we are told, well, it’s his private beliefs. You must not interfere with this man’s private beliefs. As long as he writes competent papers in astronomical journals, that’s fine.
K: Well, the key thing is, does he teach his private beliefs?
D: Okay, let’s hypothetically suppose that he teaches absolutely correctly, that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. How could you want to take a class from a man who teaches one thing, and believes something so many orders of magnitude different?
K: You’re right. I mean, from my point of view…it would be an interesting question from a university tenure point of view. Because it demonstrates, clearly, intellectual deficiency, and in fact, a scholarly deficiency, because if you can’t tell there’s an inconsistency… You can go on YouTube and see one of our state senators talk about the fact that when radioactive waste disposal, and you have to keep it for a long time ’cause the earth is 6,000 years old. And when people say that to me, I not only get offended, I call them hypocrites, because in fact they are. If they drive a car, if they use a toaster, if they take drugs, if they do anything that is modern society, the chemistry, the biology, the physics that makes those things possible is completely inconsistent with a 6,000 year old earth. So you cannot believe that and use a car or get in an airplane without calling yourself a hypocrite. And in fact this person clearly, in my mind, you’re absolutely right, is not competent to teach in a university.
K: We’ll talk about astronomy in a bit. But before we get to the…we’ve talked talked about the obvious problems people have with evolution and some of the misconceptions… But let’s jump ahead and talk about some forefront science, so we can do that this evening. What do you think is the most exciting sort of set of developments that are taking place in evolutionary biology? We heard some of them at the meeting that we had that you and I were at. And I know what excited me, but I wanted to see what…
D: Yeah, at that meeting, which we had here, we were talking about the origin of life, and, the questions like, how much of what we know about life on this planet had to be true, because there is only one way for life to be, and how much of it just happens to be true, and therefore by implication, if you discover life elsewhere in the universe it will be different. So for example, I would put my shirt on saying there has to be a genetics of some sort. I’d put my shirt on the genetics having to be extremely hi-fi, high fidelity which DNA is. But I wouldn’t put my shirt on it being DNA. It’s got to be something that’s just as good as DNA. I think I might put my shirt on protein being the actual executive part of the equation. And, I think I would put my shirt on protein not being the genetic molecule itself. Protein is very ill-suited to being a coding molecule to transmitting information. So the separation between a genetic molecule and an executive molecule is probably something that all life has to have. And probably, it’s got to be protein. Protein has this remarkable property of coiling up into an exact three-dimensional shape determined by its one-dimensional sequence of building blocks, of amino acids. But still, these are questions biologists need to talk about. Could you imagine an alternative biochemistry, which is different from ours?
K: There were some at our meeting trying to build genetic sequences with six set of base pairs instead of four.
D: That’s right. You could certainly imagine a different kind of genetic code. Before the genetic code was established as a triplet code, no less than the great Francis Krick played around with alternative genetic codes, and indeed he found one that looked much more intelligently designed than the one we actually have. But maybe it doesn’t have to be a triplet code. Maybe you could have more than four bases, (four letters of the alphabet). And these are all interesting questions which at the moment aren’t solved.
K: One of the things that hit me, and I’ll go out on a limb, although, not that much of a limb perhaps, during our meeting, as you pointed out biology comes from chemistry. And we were discussing process that are getting closer and closer to the origin of life. We had a geologist here at ASU talking about some remarkable fact that in extreme environments, as could have existed in the early earth… Right now it takes energy to build up complex bio-molecules, and so it seems, how could you imagine building up RNA or its precursor. But in fact, under extreme conditions you can show that reactions go the other way, that in fact it’s endothermically favorable for large molecules to be built up. But when I started to see what people [who] were trying to develop alternative sequences were doing, it seemed to me more and more, I would be very surprised, personally, if in fact, life could be any different than it is. You can imagine difference, but as you point out, life is historical. It had to come from chemistry, therefore it had to come from energetics and entropy, and it was driven in a certain direction. And at this meeting, listening to the chemists, I began to think that maybe the possibilities are restricted, and in fact the reason life has the form it has is that if you designed it, you could create anything. If you allow it to happen naturally by chemical processes it will always be driven in the same direction. It will always be driven to the same four base pairs, and so it would be interesting to me, but I bet if we discover life elsewhere it’s going to have exactly the same properties.
D: Huh. I wouldn’t bet on that. I would bet that it’s going to have genetics, the genetics will be digital… I don’t know whether it has to be one-dimensional like DNA and RNA are. I could imagine a two-dimensional matrix as being a de-codable information store. I don’t think it could be three-dimensional, because you can’t read out from a three-dimensional object so easily.
K: But we’re doing that in physics. But eventually you could.
D: Eventually you could, maybe. I don’t know whether it will be multicelluar. One of the remarkable things about life as we know it is that we are made of trillions of cells and everyone of them has a complete set of all the genes in it. That’s not obvious to me that life’s got to have that. When you get to larger properties like eyes and ears and wings and things, that would depend on the physical conditions, but…
K: It will be interesting to see if we discover life elsewhere exactly that case. And I would be surprised if we didn’t find life elsewhere in the solar system, but the problem is it’s probably our cousins because we’ve learned…
D: You think it’s contaminated?
K: We’ve contaminated… The planets have contaminated each other.
D: By meteorites. ‘Cause we know there have been meteorites from Mars landing here.
K: And we know that life can exist in extreme environments now, and certain survive the six-month trip, at least microbes could embedded in rocks. The big surprise — as a friend of mine at Harvard who studies these things and is involved in Mars missions looking for life — the biggest surprise would not be to find life on Mars, or extant life on Mars, but rather to find out that it wasn’t our cousins. So it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard.
D: Well, Paul Davies, of course, would like to find a completely alien form of life right here.
K: Yeah, ’cause if we could find two genesis, geneses, then it would indicate that life is not so rare.
D: That would be just wonderful. It’s sort of the principle of looking for your keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is rather than…
K: Well, exactly. This leads to a question which may allow us to segue to another area. We’ll find out, I hope, whether life is unique… Einstein asked a question in the case of physics — which I suppose you could ask in the case of biology — he phrased it poorly…
D: Did god have a choice?
K: Yeah, he said did god have a choice in the creation of the universe? And by that, he didn’t mean “God.” He meant, is there just one set of laws of physics, and if you twittle one knob, will the whole thing fall apart? I think it’s an interesting question in the case of biology, and we’ll find out, Did god have a choice in the creation of life, in that sense? Is there one…?
D: Well, we’ve talked about that, and you’ve come down heavily on one extreme which is that there is no choice, and I came down on a slightly less extreme. But going to the physics question, and the idea that the physical constants, whatever it is — half-a-dozen or so numbers which physicists can’t explain at the moment but simply accept as physical constants — if you twittle those knobs, would you get a different kind of universe? Would you get no universe at all? Is there only one way for a universe to be? I mean, what’s your view?
K: Well, that is, in fact, I think, the central question in physics, the thing that drives me, and I suspect many of my colleagues who do particle physics or cosmology, […] I became a scientist because I wanted to understand why the universe is the way it is, not why it should often be different. And therefore, the suspicion, and the way science has worked for four hundred years is that since Newton at least, and Galileo probably and before that, is that in fact, in order to understand what we see, there are unique sets of physical laws, and we would hope that we might ultimately understand the set of physical laws that explained everything, and that there would be a theory of everything. That was a hope. And it is still a hope in some sense. But in fact, it is looking more and more, to many people, to many physicists, that that hope may be misplaced, that in fact the laws of physics may be an environmental accident, and physics would become, god-forbid, an environmental science. And the reason is this one discovery, which is really the reason I wrote the new book in some sense, the most inexplicable discovery in the last century, the fact that empty space has energy, that if you take a region of space, get rid of all the particles, and all the radiation, everything, that space weighs something. There’s nothing there, but it has energy, and it’s changed everything about the future of the universe, and the present, and maybe we’ll talk about it. But it is something that is so inexplicable that physicists have latched on a possible solution which is very unpalatable to many of us, but may be true. Why does empty space have the energy it does? We don’t have any idea, in fact, it flies in the face of all fundamental calculations we can perform. If we perform fundamental calculations, we predict a number that’s 120 orders of magnitude wrong. It’s the worst prediction in all of physics, so we never use to talk about it. But in fact, there may be another explanation. And that is, if the energy of empty space were much bigger, you see, if you put energy in empty space its gravitational repulsive. It blows, it doesn’t suck. And that means that it’s causing the current expansion of the universe to speed up, which is unprecedented, is almost unbelievable, but that means if the energy were much greater, then the universe would have started speeding up much earlier, and in fact it would have started speeding up before galaxies formed, and that gravitational repulsion would have caused matter to move apart before it could have collapsed into galaxies, and that means there would be no galaxies, but if there are no galaxies, there would be no stars, if there are no stars, there would be no planets, if there are no planets would be no astronomers, and so the universe is the way it is because astronomers are here to measure it, is the argument. And it sounds funny, but it’s actually maybe true. It’s something called the anthropic principle. But if it’s true, it means this fundamental constant in nature is an accident, and there may be many universes in which that number is different. But in those universes there aren’t people around, or beings around, perhaps, to ask the question. One of the fundamental aspects of the question why is there something rather than nothing is, if there were nothing, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.
D: I’ve always been very attracted by the anthropic principle. I think it’s elegant and neat. I know physicists hate it. But I think you probably, in order to give it explanatory power, you do need to postulate lots of universes, don’t you.
K: You need to postulate [multiple] universes, but you need to postulate more than just that. First of all, the anthropic principle … It’s often been proposed in physics, always when there’s something inexplicable, and historically at least throughout the last century there have been a number of times in the evolution of stars, it looked like the parameters of physics had to be fine-tuned so you could make carbon and get beyond helium, and it looked like, well, that has to be fine-tuned, and maybe its anthropic. Maybe it’s just a number that, if it were any different, we wouldn’t be here. But every time that’s happened, we’ve actually come up with a fundamental theory that explained it. Now that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this time, but the anthropic principle, in order to be predicted… you have to assume many universes, but you have to assume that you know the probability distribution for the parameters, otherwise you don’t know, you can’t predict the likelihood that we’ll be here. And you have to know which parameters are fixed by fundamental laws and which ones can vary, and we don’t know that. And the other thing that it really assumes which is really not at all clear—and it comes back to biology—is that we are typical. Because if we’re not typical…we don’t know the varieties of life that exist, and it could be that the laws of nature were very different, you wouldn’t form stars, you wouldn’t form planets, but we don’t know that you wouldn’t form life. So you have to assume, for the anthropic principle to be operational, that we are typical of life forms in the universe, and that is an incredible assumption that I think is not at this point warranted. So that’s my big problem with the anthropic principle is that we don’t know in any sense that we are typical. In fact, I’ve argued to some of my colleagues that if you used that typicality argument we would be having this discussion under water, because most of the earth is covered in water. And if you ask, where should intelligent life naturally rise, it should be in water, because that’s more probable. And so, the kind of life that can carry on this conversation doesn’t exist in water—whether there is intelligence in dolphins or others is something to be discovered—and so there are a lot of hidden assumptions, and the problem is, it’s hard to test them unless you have many different examples of life, or in some cases, unless you have many universes. And when it comes to cosmology…well with biology we’re suffering from the fact that we only know of life on earth and therefore we make lots of speculations about the kind of life that might exist. In physics, in cosmology, we have a much bigger problem. We live in one universe, (well, most of us do…again, except for the Republican candidates), and that means we may forever have limits on our knowledge, and one of the things that I try to talk about in my book, and one of the things that fascinates me is we have made such progress that we may be pushing up against those limits right now. There may be fundamental scientific questions that we [not only will not know] [?] the answers to that we never can get an empirical answer to, because we’re stuck, either living 13.7 billion years after the big bang and maybe if we lived earlier or later we would have access to information we don’t have, because we could talk about the fact that in the future there would be much less information, or the fact that we just live in one universe and we can’t access the locus of all possible universes.
D: One of the things that fascinated me about your book is this idea that we live as you put it, in a very propitious time, because if we lived a trillion years later, the universe would have deleted all traces of its origins, of its progenitors, that we can detect because we happen to be living at this time when light can still reach us from other galaxies, whereas if we lived in a trillion years time, the galaxies would have receded beyond the horizon beyond where we could detect them, and we would have absolutely no evidence of any kind that there was more than one galaxy for example.
K: I find it very poetic, in fact, what you find in a trillion years in the future is that we go back to the picture we had merely a hundred years ago. And that’s one of the other reasons to write a book like this at this time is that, it is amazing—we’re like the early mapmakers—it is amazing in a single human lifetime how much things have changed. It’s hard to appreciate it. Eighty-five years ago, a single human lifetime easily, we knew of one galaxy in the universe. That was it. The conventional scientific wisdom was that our Milky Way was the entire universe. We now know there are 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Eighty-five years ago the universe was static and eternal as far as scientists were concerned. So, their picture of the universe was that we lived in a single galaxy surrounded by an eternity of empty space that had always been that way and always would be that way. And everything changed. Of course, we discovered that the universe had a beginning, which had profound significance for science and for theology as we may talk about. And if you go in the far future, what is kind of remarkable for me, is that beings who live on what will be the Milky Way galaxy, (because we’re going to collide with our neighbors, and we’ll form some big, not a nice spiral galaxy but probably something called the elliptical galaxy), but there will be stars around in 2 trillion years, stars like our sun that therefore have solar power and there will be organic molecules, and there will be planets around them, and therefore you can imagine life forming around those stars, but astronomers who will discover the laws of physics, they’ll discover relativity, they’ll discover electromagnetism, they’ll discover quantum mechanics, and they’ll do the best experiments they can do. They’ll build telescopes, and they’ll come up with a picture which is completely wrong. They’ll come up with a picture which is identical to the picture we had…
D: Just one galaxy, and that’s it…
K: And so we are lucky. And in fact, I like to say we are fortunate to live in a very special time, the only time when we can know we’re living in a very special time. But by that I mean, I’m facetious, because you know, we have this picture which is weird. But it may not be complete. It could be that those beings living a hundred billion or trillion years from now will have access to observational information of some sort that we don’t have today.
D: We don’t know about.
K: And so we should have some cosmic humility which is very difficult for cosmologists.
D: Let me come on to the…I want to ask you about the very title of your book, the idea of SFN. You are telling us that matter arose spontaneously out of nothing, which I find an immensely exciting idea, but many people will find it mind-boggling.
K: Mind-boggling and offensive. I think maybe not as offensive…
D: To hell with offensive, but mind-boggling.
K: Well, you’re not offended by…check my email. It amazes me, because the purpose of the book, to some extent is to say something remarkable. And, you were kind enough in the afterword to point out the analogy to Darwin, and I was pretentious to make it perhaps, but the physicist Steven Weinberg said, “Science doesn’t make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to not believe in God.” Because until you have science, everything is a miracle. And, what Darwin showed as you said at the beginning of our discussion, is this miracle is actually plausible for basic principles of physics, chemistry, and biology, that you can produce us without a Creator, without an intelligence. And what we’ve learned is remarkably this question, which is in this sense of cosmology, in my mind the last bastion those people that feel there must be a Creator, is the fact that it is plausible, based on everything we now know that a universe could come from nothing. Now that doesn’t mean it did that it did come from nothing, any more than Darwin’s argument implied that life absolutely originated by chemistry; we don’t know that yet. Similarly we can’t prove that the universe arose from nothing, but the discoveries in physics and cosmology have led us to realize that it is increasingly plausible. And I find that remarkable and worth celebrating. And one of the examples of that—and there is a number, but maybe some of them are too much for us to talk about tonight—is this remarkable fact that nothing is unstable. That empty space is unstable. The laws of quantum mechanics, combined with gravity will tell you that if you have empty space there, and you wait long enough, particles will be created and if you wait long enough, empty space will always produce a universe full of matter. And it’s not a scam, there’s no violation of energy conservation. It’s from the fact that gravity can have negative energy as well as positive energy. So, nothing is unstable. And in fact, that’s the first answer to why there is something rather than nothing is that nothing is unstable. The big surprise would be if there were nothing. Not that there is something. Now the problem, of course, of saying that is people say, “That’s not nothing.” And it’s an interesting problem because when I’ve discussed this with theologians and philosophers, some of them, and you ask, “What’s nothing?” And my argument is that these are scientific questions, not philosophical or theological ones. And I think the “nothing” that Aristotle would have had or St. Thomas Aquinas or any of the people who first asked, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that nothing would have been an eternal empty void, namely, empty space. But once I argue that empty space can create something, then immediately I’m told, “That’s not nothing.” And then I show that space itself can be created from nothing, and then I’m told that’s not nothing, …‘cause there’s still the laws of physics. And then I’ve argued that in fact the laws of physics, for the reasons we’ve discussed – the anthropic principle, there may be many universes – and it’s quite likely that even the laws of physics themselves arose by accident when the universe was created, so even the [laws aren’t there], and then I’m told, that’s not nothing. And the definition of theologians, I think, for nothing, is that from which only God can create something, and I find that a sort of content free. Although, I think I say in the book that maybe I’m not fit to talk about nothing, because theologians and philosophers are experts in nothing.
D: I’ve been accustomed to the idea that pushing back from biology into physics, you get back to a zone where we don’t understand, and you get back to a zone where there’s not nothing, but sort of a primeval simplicity. What I learned from your book, which I find stunningly exciting, is that it is literally nothing. I mean, that’s what really… And as you say even the laws of physics you can explain.
K: And space, … you can create a universe where there is no space before.
D: Yeah. So, I do find that it’s sort of mind-numbing in a way, because it’s pushing the Darwinian dream to an extreme, which biologists couldn’t have dreamed of.
K: I think in a sense it is. And it’s fascinating to me that we’re beginning to get there, and I think that’s worth sharing. We don’t have the conclusions, and we don’t have the dogmatic conclusions, and we’ll get back to the fact… it amazes me, and I think you’ll find the same thing ‘cause I know what I’ve read about you, by people who disagree with you, is if you say this is possible, then you’re suddenly told that you’re shrill, and dogmatic, and it’s … But before we do, one of the things we’ve just talked about is how amazing the universe really is. And I want to turn back to you. We talked about my book, but you just wrote a book called the Magic of Reality, which is ostensibly suppose to be for children. I’m wondering if you could talk about why you wrote it and why you think it’s important.
D: Well, any scientific book that’s important is worth writing for children, because they’re the future, and as is often said, the sort of natural born scientists in any case. So I’d always wanted to write a children’s book. But actually I’d like to think that it’s readable, it’s understandable by adults as well.
K: I often say that if the children understand, there’s a possibility the adults will understand it. In fact I wrote a blurb for the back of the book, and I really think actually that while it is in principle called a children’s book, it[’s] actually addresses the very questions that not just children, but adults ask. Maybe you could…
D: Well, I haven’t attempted to answer these very profound questions that we’ve been talking about which belong in the field of modern physics, 20th, 21st century physics. I haven’t tackled that at all. The physics that’s in The Magic of Reality is 19th century physics.
K: But most people don’t know 19th century physics.
D: That’s right.
K: I don’t want to do a disservice to people because you can get along in life apparently without knowing it, but to be able to deal with those basic concepts without being patronizing, and I think the book isn’t patronizing, it makes it accessible and of interest to adults as well.
D: It’s questions like, “Why do we have winter and summer, Why do we have night and day,” I mean, easy questions like “Why do we have winter and summer”; It’s amazing how many people think the reason we have winter is that’s when the earth is furthest away from the sun.
K: I was going to ask the question…
D: Okay, you were, well, go ahead.
K: No, it’s okay, we’ve already given it up, but I…
D: I mean I haven’t…It’s just if there were any Australians present they would…
K: They would know the difference.
K: In fact, studies have been shown that if you ask that question, the majority of people will say in summer the earth is closer to the sun than the winter.
D: Whereas an Australian would say, “Northern Hemisphere chauvinism.”
K: Yeah, exactly. It’s the tilt of the earth, and it’s described there. But when you were writing with kids in mind, did it change the way you wrote compared to when you were writing…
D: I think just a bit of restriction of vocabulary. I like to, when writing for adults, use the full vocabulary at my disposal, and I think it’s fun to…we have a beautiful instrument in the English language and I think we should use it to the full. But when writing for children, I would tend to avoid using words that …too many words would need to be looked up in a dictionary. I mean, there’s no harm in looking words up in a dictionary, and we should all do it from time to time, but you don’t [want to] look up too many. So, that’s really the only restriction.
K: That was the only restriction. But other wise you didn’t find that your writing style had to change at all.
D: Yes. I don’t think so, no, yeah, no.
K: Yeah, I didn’t notice it when I read the book, and was wondering if there was any conscious thought in your mind. Now, this allows us to segue to something that we would be remiss if we did not discuss, which is religion, and science and religion in some sense. I would suggest that one of the reasons that it’s really important to teach kids about science is that they’re often, that they’re brainwashed from a young age with other ideas. You want to talk about that a little bit? Maybe the fact that…
D: Yes, I mean, I think that is absolutely true. And when we talked about this astronomer who thinks the world is 6,000 years old and one knows of many other people who think that, that is so ludicrous, that’s got to be due to childhood indoctrination. There’s no other, I think, reasonable explanation. And I think it is a tragic abuse of childhood, (I won’t say abuse of children, because that has other connotations,) but abuse of childhood, to fill a child’s mind with what are now known to be falsehoods just because they have some kind of historic origin.
K: Before we get to that, and I want to touch on whether science is incompatible with religion, your view, and why, and I’ll talk about my opinion in that regard too, but one of the things that…you’ve set out…well, we both enjoy teaching science, and my goals and your goals is to help people understand science, but I think it’s fair to say that one of your purposes in doing that is to destroy religion, is it not?
D: Well, I love truth, I love scientific truth, and in my own field of biology, ever since Darwin we’ve got a very very long way toward understanding it, and I’m now learning that in your field, we’re coming stunningly close to understanding everything. And that is such a beautiful idea, such a wonderful, exciting, exhilarating idea, that it is…I would go as far as to say an obscenity to fill a child’s mind with a parochial, small-minded, petty, medieval alternative which has no, nothing going for it whatever.
K: Sounds like we’re preaching to the converted, but I bet in the question period we’ll find we’re not.
D: What was that quote from Steven Weinberg that you…
K: Science doesn’t make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible to not believe.
D: Yeah, I think that’s too weak. In the following sense that it doesn’t just make God redundant, it doesn’t just give God nothing to do, which it certainly does. Biology ever since Darwin has left God nothing to do, and now science, physics is doing the same thing. But a God who has nothing to do is still a complex, improbable, entity of exactly the kind that we spent our lives explaining, so the whole Darwinian enterprise, and the whole enterprise that you’re engaged in, in physics, is to explain how we can get to things like “gods” and explain them, and so if you suddenly, then, import a God at the beginning of the universe, that’s a betrayal of the entire scientific enterprise. It’s not just that God is not necessary. God is an excrescence, a carbuncle on the face of science.
K: Actually we were talking earlier, I think it’s even stronger than that in some sense. In order for God to do everything God is purported to do, God has to be much more complex than we are. In fact, you’re imagining a being of incredible complexity, of, in fact, in religion, of unfathomable complexity, and you’re just positing it by fiat. But you’re saying that the regular complexity that you and I can’t be made by natural processes, and you’re postulating the pre-existence of something that’s far more complex than we are.
D: Precisely. That’s exactly right. And not only does God have to be a master physicist, he’s got to be in telepathic communication with everybody praying to him, he’s got to know all our sins, he’s got to forgive us if he feels like it, he’s got to kill people of cancer if he’s asked to, I mean, all those sorts of things which are simply adding to the problem, so I think the Weinberg quote that you gave is just too weak. I think we can say positively…
K: Well, I think… at the same time, and I think one has to be careful, but even here, and I should say our views have come together a lot more, if you had listened to us five years ago, we were more divergent, I think, and I like to think I’ve convinced you, but no. It’s worked both ways, I can definitely attest. But one could say, I think it’s important to say that we cannot, and I try to say in the book, I can’t say, I can’t prove that there’s no intelligence governing in the universe, at some vague level, in a deistic level, or even a theistic level where you say, well, maybe there is some intelligence that caused it all to happen. I can’t prove it. What I can say is there is absolutely no evidence of that. That I can say as a scientist. But I can’t really say that I can prove therefore by lack of evidence, you can’t prove it in the negative. But nevertheless, that’s not the same as saying; people say, well therefore God can’t disprove the existence of God, but that kind of god has nothing to do with the god of Judaism or Christianity or Islam. It’s a personal God has nothing to do with that. It’s a giant leap of illogic to go from that kind of God to a God that cares about us, and so I’m always amazed that people, even in the case of cosmology saying well there’s room for God at the beginning of the universe, somehow say that that must mean that
D/K: Jesus [Christ] died for our sins…
K: I mean there’s no logical connection between those two.
D: No. I mean, I’d been caught up with this before. I’ve said something similar to what you’ve said, and I’ve said, “Well of course, maybe there could be a deistic God,” but that’s very different from the God of the Christians or of the Jews. And I’ve been bounced upon later, “Dawkins believes in a deistic god,” and that’s really happened to me. And so, I want to reiterate what I said about the Weinberg quote. Not only,…You cannot of course disprove a deistic god any more than you can disprove leprechauns and hobgoblins and things, but you can say something much stronger than that which is that even a deistic god would still have to be exactly the kind of thing that we spent our lives explaining and have gone a long way towards succeeding. Intelligence, whether it’s god-like or anything else, intelligence comes late in the universe. Intelligence comes at the end of a long process of evolution.
K: Unless we’re the end.
D: I didn’t mean the end. Intelligence comes after a long period of development, of evolution, starting from literally nothing, as we’ve now learned, and then chemistry takes over, biology takes over, and so there may be in the universe god-like beings, there may be, there probably are life-forms which are so much more advanced than us that if we were to meet them, we would fall to our knees and worship them, but they would still be the product of a process explicable process of evolutionary development. They would not be “gods” in the sense of having created the laws of physics, or created the universe, or created life, or something of that sort.
K: Okay. I think that’s true, and there’s another stronger thing I think one could say. When people ask me if I’m an atheist, as a scientist you’re not certain of anything. There are things that are probable, and things that are improbable, and what you can do is that you can say, I can say, looking at the universe, that I can’t say that there’s no God, but I can say that the universe looks just like a universe that would be created without one. And moreover, that just like I can’t say, using Bertrand Russell’s famous analogy of a china teapot, I can’t prove that there’s no teapot orbiting Jupiter, but what I can say is it is extremely improbable. And so what I can say about the universe, I can’t say that there isn’t a God, but I can say that everything we know makes it, for me, as a scientist, extremely improbable. And so, that doesn’t make an atheist. In fact, I would argue that I’m not. Our dear friend, our late friend, Christopher Hitchens, who was a friend of both of ours, and a wonderful man, I would call myself what he said, I’m an anti-theist. Namely, I can’t prove that there’s no God, I just wouldn’t want to live in a universe with one. I mean, I’m upfront about that bias, I wouldn’t want to live with Saddam Hussein in the sky.
D: I mean, that’s right. Christoher Hitchens’ reason for that was sort of a political one that living in a universe with a God would be like living with a divine Kim-Il Sung
K: Exactly. It doesn’t put you in jail for a year, but for eternity, for doing the silliest things.
D: So, his was a moral reason, which I respect. But mine would be a scientific reason. I wouldn’t wish to…I mean, if there were a God which undermined the whole scientific enterprise, then science would be pointless. There would be no point doing science, if there is sort of magician deciding what’s going to happen and changing the laws of physics at will or inventing them in the first place. And so, that’s a different reason for not wanting to live in a universe…, and I’m glad to say that there’s no evidence.
K: Okay, I want to get near the end here, and we started late, and we’re going to go for about 4 or 5 more minutes, and then we’re going to take a break for about 20. I don’t think we offended enough people. So, let’s go a little further, ‘cause I know we’ve had this discussion, and let’s talk about religion and politics, ‘cause in this… because you said something to me which I think is going to shock a lot of people here, and I think it’s worth discussing. We both agreed that the astronomer shouldn’t be teaching astronomy when they have personal beliefs which are idiotic. And a doctor shouldn’t be a doctor when they have personal beliefs that are idiotic. Basically, you have argued to me, and I think we should have that discussion, about whether that applies to politicians and particularly some of the politicians that are running for President now.
D: Well, I find myself in a difficult position because I’m kind of aware in America, and I’m not American as you can tell, that the separation of church and state is deeply ingrained in the American politic, and rightly so, and John Kennedy, when challenged on his Catholicism rightly said, this is a separate matter, and as long as I don’t bring my Catholicism into policy, you’ve nothing to complain about. And this is very laudable. But going back to the doctor, the hypothetical doctor, and the astronomer, if you knew that one of the candidates that you’re contemplating voting for believed that in the 19th century a man called Joseph Smith dug up some golden tablets…which he translated and then conveniently lost, and translated moreover although; a 19th century man translated them into 17th century English, and lots and lots of other…
K: And more importantly, …I mean we also agree that the Biblical stories are equally ridiculous, but the difference is, we don’t know they were written by known con men, but in fact, he was a known felon.
D: Yes. That is true. And so, if the person you’re contemplating voting for believes all that, believes that the garden of Eden was in Missouri, believes that Native Americans are the lost ten tribes of Israel, believes that Jesus visited North America, I mean, these beliefs are barking mad. They contradict everything that is known historically, archaeologically, they contradict science, they contradict history. Now, is it a fair defense for such a candidate to say, “Don’t worry, I won’t let my beliefs interfere with my policies.” Well, maybe he won’t but do you want to vote for somebody who is capable of holding in his head such unrealistic nonsense? Do you want a President who believes palpably foolish things even if he promises he won’t actually let them … it’s back to the problem of the doctor and the astronomer again.
K: So, in case we’re not being clear enough, is religion fair game when journalist question the President?
D: Okay, that’s the point. My view, and it’s not a popular view in America, my view is that a candidate’s religious beliefs are fair game for journalists to ask questions, and for debaters for, when candidates are having a debate, it seems to me absolutely reasonable to say to a candidate, “Do you believe so and so.” I would be prepared to say to a Catholic such as John Kennedy, “Do you actually believe that the bread actually turns into the body of Christ?”
K: I was on a stage once with several members of the Vatican, and I asked if they believed the virgin birth, and I couldn’t get an answer from them, which amazed me. I mean, in fact, we’re both agreed that most people who, what people want to do, is they want to believe, to take a line from the X-files, they want to believe in believing. And so, most people of faith, I think, in our society, naturally pick and choose from the doctrine those things they find absolutely ridiculous and throw out.
K: And the question is…and the Pope would say, “That’s not palatable.” And I would tend to agree with the Pope. I think if you can’t believe some of the stuff, and you need to throw it out, just forget the whole thing.
D: Yeah, that would be my view, and I suspect that, well, there are, what, 535 members of the US Congress, and one has said that he doesn’t believe in a supreme being. That’s statistically not possible. I mean, a fair number of those members of Congress, presumably, have had some sort of education.
K: It’s not obvious.
D: Not all, but a good number. There have got to be a very substantial number of atheistic members of the United States Congress, probably more than a couple of hundred would be my guess, and yet they cannot admit it, so in order to get elected, you have got to lie about your beliefs.
K: And I think that’s right. I think it’s good to call them on it. In one sense I disagree with you slightly—maybe because I spend a lot more time in this country—; another friend of mine, Noam Chomsky, who I asked about this said, “You know, I don’t care what people believe. It’s what they do that’s important.” To some extent I agree, but my point is if people don’t hold their religion on their sleeve, so, like Lincoln say, that it’s not relevant to them, then it’s not in the public domain, and journalists need not ask questions about it. But if they do hold their religion on their sleeve, then it becomes in the public domain, and it becomes appropriate for journalists to bring it up, because then it’s an action. They’re saying, “Elect me because I’m a person of faith, not because I believe we need to improve the economy…” or this or that. So it becomes an action in the process of an election, and then it becomes a legitimate target, in my opinion, for journalists, and they shouldn’t show mercy.
D: I think that’s almost obvious, but I’m really going back to the nub of the question, which is even if they don’t take any action based upon it, I mean, would you, going back to the doctor, an extreme example which I actually published on a blog somewhere, was a hypothetical doctor who doesn’t believe in the sex-theory of reproduction, believes in the stork theory of reproduction, I thought I was pushing to the limit, I assume that everyone would agree with me, at least here, that you would not want to consult such a doctor. Not a bit of it. I was kicked around the room on this American blog. The doctor’s private beliefs are his private beliefs, they’re no business of yours, so long as he can take your appendix out, whatever he has to do, then it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t believe in sex, he believes in the stork theory. That’s where we’re disagreeing because…
K: But the stork theory is relevant to his career as a doctor,…
D: Make him an eye doctor then.
K: I’d have to say for a politician, I think there are rights to privacy. I think if someone believes that it’s okay for them to have sex with animals, I shouldn’t ask that question, as long as they don’t make it a campaign platform. And so, I happen to think that there is some right to privacy in a sense that if you don’t wear it on your sleeve, and these candidates do wear it on their sleeve—including by the way, Obama, who was just talking about poverty because of Jesus, the other day—and I think once you bring that up, then it becomes fair game. Now, let’s end with…because you pointed out that there’s one member of Congress, and I didn’t know there were that many, who argues that he doesn’t believe in a Supreme Being. I just wrote an article about a study that’s been done by a group of psychologists in Canada and in the United States that’s just been published, that says, that asks for what groups people distrust, and it turns out the group that is distrusted the most are atheists. Well, they’re not quite the most, they’re on par with rapists, and I wonder if you could comment.
D: Well, that seems to me to be an adequate explanation for why so many members of the United States Congress are lying about their private beliefs. I mean, if you’re on a par with rapists, then… I suspect that we’ve already had it in this country quite a number of atheist Presidents.
K: I suspect…Thomas Jefferson probably was, in a way.
D: Yes, well, in the 18th century, that was before Darwin it was a little bit harder, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Kennedy was an atheist, it wouldn’t surprise me if Clinton was an atheist, it wouldn’t surprise me if Obama is an atheist. But you cannot admit it or you simply don’t get elected. I would like to start a campaign for, what are they called, lame-duck Presidents and Senators and people to say, “I’m not standing for election anymore. I’m an atheist. I’ve been an atheist all along.”
K: Well, that probably is a good place to get close to stopping. I will say that one of the things that impacted upon me the most in our discussions, in listening to you, is the notion that we need [to] consciousness raised so at least the question, just questioning the existence of a deity doesn’t become akin in our society to being evil, to being someone you don’t trust. That just questioning, which is really the basis of science, which is at the basis of progress, should be something we revere, rather revile. And so, I applaud the efforts that you have made to raise people’s consciousness, including my own, and I’ll give the final example, one that I think I heard on this stage the first time when you talked here, is a wonderful example that is worth repeating which is a picture at Christmas time of three children, and three little kids, and they’re all playing together, and one…
D: The three wise-men in the passion, in the nativity play.
K: And it says, this one is a Muslim child, and this one is a Christian child, and I don’t know if one of them is a Jewish child, and then you pointed out, how dare we say a Muslim child. Why not say…
D: Four years old!
K: Yeah, or a Libertarian child, or a Neo-Conservative child.
D: Postmodernist child.
K: So, I think we need to …and one of the ways to do that is to have frank discussions about issues that we’re often afraid to discuss in public, and I’m happy we were able to do it here. So thank you very much.
My name is Dr. Ron Woodworth. My main argument or critique, I don’t think that it’s necessary to join together scientific inquiry regardless of how speculative or dramatic it may be with an atheistic proposition. I’m not a scientist—I know several scientist, I’ve interviewed them from here and elsewhere as you have—and here’s my observation. As long as scientific inquiry is possible, which would be as long as matter exists, there can never be ultimate proof of God’s non-existence. And I think Dr. Lawrence, you were making that observation a little bit more. I just want to end it with this little statement, and this is Hebrews 11:2 believe it or not…
K: And I think you’ve made your point. I’ll respond to this one, and you can take a crack at it. I agree, as I said before that personally, obviously, we can’t, there are limits to our knowledge, and by knowledge I mean empirical knowledge, because for me that’s the only kind of knowledge. There’s a famous biologist whose name I can’t remember, and you might remember, who said, when I go into the laboratory, I behave as if I’m an atheist. I don’t think there’s someone twiddling the dials or determining the results of my experience… So all my physical effects come from physical causes, and so actually, the key thing about science and God is that God is irrelevant to science, I think that’s what people said…
Well, maybe to you but not to every scientist.
K: The good thing is that I’m up here so I get to talk. What Weinberg said which is really important is that…and now my mind just went, because you brought it up and I had to be rude to you. That, we can…ah forget it…
D: Well, the fact is we discussed exactly this question, so there’s nothing more to be said. We both said what we had to say at some length during our discussion.
K: Yeah. Probably. Okay. I’ll remember what I was going to say, and I’ll come back and answer someone’s question with the answer to that one probably. But okay.
I teach public school. 8th grade. Why does the educated in this country tend to go toward Universities, and then we have this, sort of glut of people who are doing something great, like, physics, or biology, and not so many people who can get the good word out there, and you have people know about science, so what can we do to address that problem?
K: Which problem?
All of them.
K: One way we could address the problems, and I think we’re both interested in this, and I will say the “Origins Project” is particularly interested in this, is part of the problem of science education is the fact that the people who are teaching science aren’t comfortable with science. In this country, over 80% of middle school science teachers don’t have science backgrounds. That means they’re not comfortable. I’ve seen this happen when my own daughter was in school, her teachers aren’t comfortable talking about basic properties of nature, and that lack of comfort goes across to the students. So we have to do a better job training teachers and also encouraging people who have science backgrounds to go into teaching. And that may mean, in my opinion, doing some things that are not particular popular, like maybe paying science teachers more.
D: Paying them more, and respecting them. A teacher is a very honorable profession. And so, qualified scientists who’ve done a university degree, done a Ph.D. in science should consider teaching as one of the best things they could possibly do with their science degree.
K: Absolutely, and as long as we’re here we’re going to do what we can. And there’s a big program here at ASU—to put an advertisement—to try and in fact prove that teaching of training of science teachers, and to encourage kids to go into science teaching, and it’s of vital importance.
When you were talking about the possibility of life that is not on this plant, what do you think about the possibilities of life that is either not carbon-based, or not in sacks of water, you know, that is, at a chemical level, very, very different from terrestrial life.
D: I didn’t hear it. I’m sorry.
K: What about the possibility of life that basically is not chemical; chemistry.
Not necessarily not chemical, but not sharing any elements of biochemistry with the life we’re familiar with, either not based in carbon, or not floating around in water.
D: I’m fascinated by the possibility—and we were discussing this—the possibility that a form of life might exist which is entirely different. Whenever I meet chemists, I try to persuade them to speculate about possible alternative biochemistries. Could you even imagine a non-carbon based life form for example? And you think about what’s special about carbon, it’s capacity to form long chains, loops, I think there’s one other element that has that…
D: Silicon has that property. Could you imagine a silicon-based life? Well, I certainly can imagine a silicon-based life, but that would be via the medium of our carbon-based life and I could imagine some distant future in which a hall like this might be full of silicon life forms who look back and speculate about some far distant dawn-age in the distant past when there was some sort of squishy carbon-based life-form which gave rise to us. And the problem of the origin of life might be solved when they realize that life hadn’t always been silicon based.
K: It’s true, in fact, that may be the next phase of evolution. Certainly, I’ve said it, and I believe it, that machine based intelligence will not only happen, but once it does it will easily be able to out-beat biology, and biology will have to accommodate it if it wants to survive in one way or another. But let me also say, it’s the example of what, I think…you can imagine lots of possibilities, but Richard put it about finding the lost keys under the lamppost, there are lots of possibilities, but since we don’t know if any life can exist out there, the simplest thing is we know certain kinds of life do exist—we’re an example—and so we search for that elsewhere. But there are people, and Paul Davies one of my colleagues here is actually trying to think of ways to look for, for example, could there be other life forms on earth that we would have missed because all of our assays would be for carbon based life? And it’s hard to think of possibilities, but people are at least thinking about them. It’s a long-shot, it’s a lot easier to look for what you know exists than what might, but it certainly… The key point is if we don’t find life of the type we know, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And another example, Chris McKay, who is also affiliated with us, and was on a stage with you and I recently, an astrobiologist, has pointed out that a number of the early experiments performed on the first mission to Mars to look for life, in fact, we now understand, could have killed a variety of kinds of life before it did. And so the new experiments are being redefined so the lack of evidence for life on Mars that was found on those first missions could simply be that they didn’t understand life well enough and they actually killed the life they were looking for.
You mentioned the fact that you might be preaching to the choir or the converted in your discussion earlier regarding, you know, several of the ideas. Do you find often that you are preaching to the choir or the converted, or do you think this setting is appropriate for disseminating these ideas further down into society, or are we just, stagnating with being discussed among the intelligencia, or is there a more appropriate way to disseminate this information further?
K: Well, first I would say, I know very few places… I’m always proud that we can get 3,000 people from Phoenix to come to these things. But I will say, it requires going to lots of different places, and it requires people… we have a bigger soap box than some, but, you know, a lot of people say, “What can I do?” And I say that each one of us who is interested in science education and reason has a forum. You go into your kids’ schools or into your churches, or wherever and talk about what’s sensible, and we all have to be evangelists for science, because God-knows, forgive the expression, there are lots of people everyday arguing against science around the country, and it requires the work of everyone, not just us.
D: I do think that scientists have a responsibility which not all of them bother with, to talk widely and to stand up and be counted on some of these controversial issues, and so when people say that Lawrence and I and some of our colleagues are strident and shrill, it’s because many of our colleagues just get on with their work and don’t bother to stand up and say what they think, and I would appeal to scientists, well, I’d almost say, join us on the barricades, ‘cause we’re feeling lonely.
K: Let me add to that. It is terrifying—this is a friendly audience it seems—to go into an environment, if you’re an academic in particular, you’re use to audiences that are quite sympathetic, and it is very difficult to go the first time you do it, but in fact, I think it’s all, give you an example. I was on Fox News a few years ago—well, news, I don’t like to use that word when I [Fox]—but I was on Hannity & Colmes, and I was debating one of the heads of the Southern Baptist coalition, and I felt, I couldn’t get a word in edge wise, clearly I got yelled down, but I did make a single statement which was said without interruption, happily. And, it was that you don’t have to be an atheist to accept evolution. And I got more mail from people who accuse me of being humble, which is the first time I’d gotten that, but people who have been told every week in church and everywhere else that science is akin to atheism, and I think the point we’ve made is that atheism is irrelevant, God is irrelevant to science. Evolution happened regardless of what you believe. So, I think that single statement, even though I felt intellectually raped after that program, was worth going on the program and saying, ‘cause I think that’s the kind of thing we need to counter, those lies about science.
D: I quite like, to just sort of disagree with Lawrence for the first time this evening…
K: Oh good.
D: I quite like the idea that people are being taught in their churches that evolution is incompatible with God, because we absolutely can demonstration that evolution is a fact.
K: Good point. I’ll take that one. That’s good.
Personally, I just want say if as many people watch the Superbowl watch this, we’d have a better society, so…
K: And if they paid as much for our commercials and it would be a much better…
You’re right. My name is Ben Fama Jr., and I’m a student documentary filmmaker. I’m making a film called “A Virus Called Fear.” Briefly, I was wondering if you could give any some input on how we went from having rational fear to not get eaten by tigers and bears, and how we’ve come to irrational fears like politics and religion.
K: Did you hear that?
D: I didn’t hear. The problem is the loudspeakers are facing the audience.
Should I speak a little louder.
D: No, not louder, slower.
I was wondering if briefly you could talk about fear and how it was a biological safety net for us to not get eaten by tigers and how you feel that it evolved to irrational fears like politics and religion.
D: Okay. That’s a very interesting thought. Certainly fear would a very valuable biological mechanism, because our ancestors would have lived perilous lives, they would have been frightened of predators, lions, sabertooths—no probably not sabertooths—and leopards, they would have had disease would have swooped without warning without explanation, so they would naturally have tried to think of ways to avoid these terrible dangers. In the case of disease, which before modern science was completely unpredictable, unknowable, one would naturally fall into superstitious habits. I scratched my left ear and something terrible happened, so maybe I should make sure I don’t scratch my left ear again. These are superstitious responses and when you’re living in a world of ignorance, then if you’re governed by fear, you could very well make up superstitions. Pigeons do it in Skinner boxes. Skinner himself did a very interesting experiment in which he put pigeons—you know a Skinner box is a cage in which if the pigeon does something like peck a key, it gets a reward and pigeons readily learn to do that—Skinner put his pigeons in Skinner boxes where absolutely nothing that the pigeon did had any effect whatever, but nevertheless, at random rewards were delivered. Okay. Which is sort of like our ancestor’s world. And then, if he came back after a few hours and saw half a dozen pigeons under this regime, one pigeon would be preening under its left wing, another would be turning around in circles, another would be scratching the ground, another would be wiping its head on the ground, another would be facing into the bottom left-hand corner; each pigeon had superstitiously done something, accidentally been rewarded because that’s when the mechanism produced the food, and carried on doing it. And so each pigeon became a kind of maniac for doing a particular ritual which is exactly like one tribe sacrifices a goat in order to make the rains come, another tribe gets down on its knees and faces Mecca and prays five times a day, whatever it is. Each tribe develops its own superstition in order to get rewarded, and of course in order to avoid being punished, in order to avoid the fearful consequences of random events, which they had no control over. Nowadays, increasingly, we understand where danger comes from, we know where disease comes from, we don’t know exactly, but approximately. We know how to control our world to an increasing extent, so we can afford to throw away those superstitions. Unfortunately, enormous numbers of us, the great majority of people on this planet have failed to wean themselves of these primitive superstitious.
K: Let me just add one thing. Well, I’m happy to applaud that, in fact. I remember from an earlier discussion, we disagreed a little bit about this, but, because Richard lives in Oxford, and I have to remind him that people are irrational as well as rational, that I think irrationality is a central part of being human. We need it. Each of us, everyday has to believe ten impossible things before breakfast before you get up. You have to believe you love your wife, or you like your job, or whatever it is, and you’re lying to yourself half the time, and, but we need it to get through life. I do think there is probably an evolutionary basis for that, at some level, to face a universe that doesn’t care about your existence, you often have to invent realities just to motivate yourself to go on living.
D: Robert Trivers the distinguished evolutionary biologist just produced a book on self-deception and the evolutionary benefits of self-deception. I can’t remember the title, because it’s one of those many books where the title is different in Britain than in America, which is a scandal, by the way, that should never be allowed. I have actually, on occasion bought the same book twice, and even worse than that, you know how Amazon puts up, if you like this, you’ll probably like this one!
K: But if you’re an author that’s a very good thing.
D: Well okay, it’s a good thing. Anyway, Robert Trivers wrote this book on self-deception where he makes the point that actually it is an evolutionary advantage to be optimistic and to believe that you’re more intelligent than you really are, better looking than you really are, etc. So there is real merit in what you’ve said.
K: Let’s move on.
This is a follow-up to the earlier point. It’s really where I left off with the God Delusion, and you talked about the origins of religion and how we have amazing creativity and we’re able to imagine things that are logically possible but not proven, and the point that people do need to believe things that they don’t’ have direct evidence for, and …basically,
K: Okay, so what’s the question?
My question is this. It’s a biological question and it’s a practical question. If 90% of the people on the planet are turning to religion to get through their lives, how do we, because for me it was easy, once I watched an episode of Cosmos or read a few lines of Mr. Dawkins’ book it was obvious. I didn’t have any more questions, but I have a lot of time to spend on this, I’m relatively wealthy compared to most people on the planet. How do we practically get people whose lives are miserable, who are struggling to survive, and who are clinging to life so perilously, to be able to come to a level where they have an understanding, at least basic understanding of the world we do live in, such that they can make their own decision and don’t have to be victims of religion and just slaves to easy reality, easy story.
D: Well, thank you very much. By the way, that was absolutely crystal clear, so I don’t know whether the engineers have tweaked something and got that right, but I could hear every word of that. Funny you should mention 90%. It’s approximately true that in this country, the United States, 90% of the population does believe in God. If you look, however, at the members of the National Academy of Sciences, who are the elite scientists, or indeed if you look at the equivalent in Britain, at the Britain Commonwealth, Britain, Australian, New Zealand, Canada, about 90% of the members of the Royal Society are atheist. So, it’s an exact mirror image of the population at large. Now, your question is, How do we take people who are unfortunate, who are poor, who are suffering, who don’t have the advantages that some of us have, how do you wean people of the crutch of religion? Note that it’s completely illogical to say that because something is comforting and reassuring and consoling that makes it true. It’s an astonishing fact that people will, many, many people will say, I believe so-and-so because it would be intolerable if it were not so. I believe so-and-so, I believe in God, because I couldn’t bear, rather like you said about wanting to live in the universe that has a God in it.
K: But if he showed up, I’d believe in him.
D: Yeah, sure. People will say, Well, I tried Christianity; that didn’t seem quite right to me. I didn’t feel right with Christianity, so I tried Buddhism, and I tried Hinduism… Who cares what you feel like?! Who cares what feels good?! Who cares what makes you feel comforted? Who cares what helps you sleep at night?! What matters is what’s true!
K: Let me… Let me try to suggest a kindler, gentler response to that in some sense. Although I think it’s really important and should have been said at one point tonight, and you said it, but I want to reiterate it. The lesson of science is that the universe doesn’t care what you like, and it doesn’t care what you want, it is the way it is, and if we could just convince people of that, that would be profound. But I think that you’ve hit it, obviously a major problem. I think there are two practical potential approaches. One is, you’ve just been in India, and I’ve lectured in India, for example; I’ve seen these kids, I’ve never felt more like I was going to be crushed by kids interested in learning because they realize that if they become scientists or engineers it’s their ticket out of poverty, it’s their ticket to improve the quality of life in their country, and so if we can educate people to learn to the point that science can provide a way out of poverty, then I think in the long run we’re going to head in the direction away from superstition. The other thing, and I once wrote a piece in Scientific American called “Educate Women, Save the World,” and I really mean that. If we look at probably the major way to improve society, it’s looking at those societies where women are subjugated, and it’s usually because of religion. And if we can educate women, you’ll find first of all the birth rate will go down, and secondly that they’ll do a much better job of ensuring that their children are educated and improve their quality of life, so one of the areas that… We don’t have much time, I appreciate the applause. But we’ve talked about this. One of the areas that I actually think atheists, quote unquote, and we’re talking about ways of doing this right now, could make an effort, is to work against the subjugation of women which is largely due to religion.
D: That is so important!
So, I hate to return the conversation to science education again, but I feel, like Jefferson, Democracy demands informed citizenship, and I’m concerned about the science teachers that you said don’t know science. I’m worried that our university model is not one that rewards professors that are communicators. Can you address that? And shouldn’t the incentives for people who are knowledgeable on science, and engineering, and mathematics who can also communicate, shouldn’t those incentives be huge, and why aren’t they?
K: Yeah, I’ll start. Well, I mean… Since I like to communicate, I think those incentives should be gigantic. But, I think, look, universities and research universities are for two things, and they’re for the creation of knowledge and the dissemination of knowledge, and both of those things have to be rewarded. And that means dissemination of knowledge in a wide variety of ways, not just communicating, but also going and creating companies to produce technologies that improve society. And you’ll see a lot of professors who have been in the past been penalized who have in fact taking their ideas and commercializing them. I think we need to, science and education work best when we reward those people who are talented at whatever they can do. And young people come up to me and say, Look, I want to do what you’re doing, in terms of communication, How can I do it? And I generally tell them, frankly, that if they’re scientists, and these are young scientists, that the best thing that they can do if they’re talented at science, is do science. And look for every opportunity to communicate, but the better they are at their science, the more opportunities will arise for them to reach a broader audience. So, I think you’re absolutely right. We have to, as Richard said, we have to recognize, appreciate, and provide appropriate pay for teachers; it’s essential. But not everyone, I’ve often say this, it’s important to me that not every scientists goes out and talks to the public. There are a lot of my colleagues that I want to keep away from the public. And so I think you have to balance it. I think you have to reward both.
D: I think it’s also true that until fairly recently scientists who are good at communicating were not well rewarded. I mean the notorious case of Carl Sagan who was obviously a superb communicator, and a great scientist as well as it happened, but he was denied fellowship of the National Academy of Sciences, almost certainly because of jealousy, actually. I mean, because he was popular, because he had a huge following on television and for his books. This actually counted against his election to the National Academy, and I think that’s changed. I don’t think that would happen anymore.
K: I mean it still happens of course. Jealousy is jealousy. But you’re right. I think it’s changed, and I think it’s changed probably because partly because scientists have recognized, and I know in this country for example, the death of, when the [super conducting] [?] super collider was killed, my community of scientists realized is, well, it was our fault. We hadn’t communicated why people should be willing to spend money on such esoteric, seemingly esoteric questions. And what scientists are realizing more and more, and it’s a self-interest, but that’s fine, that the health of science, requires, and it should require, us to explain to the public why we’re doing what we’re doing, because the public is funding us. So I think there’s more appreciate because of that.
I would just like to tie back to this gentleman’s question back here. And it’s something I’ve been wondering for a long time. A lot of people have been asserting that we are heading away from Darwinism. We are de-evolving. Those people that you see around you are educated, those who have degrees in Bachelor’s, Master’s, above, are having one to three children so we educate children, we bring their birthrate down, how and what implications is this going to have on our society as those who are more educated and who are expanding their horizons are having less and less children and having less and less effect on those who are having more children. I just had an argument with somebody who told me the world is 6,000 years old and science is a conspiracy theory. I had nothing.
K: Okay. Do you want to take it?
D: I didn’t really hear much of it.
K: I think the point as I understood was that it is if we dissuade people from having children, then the people who do have children are going to take over the world, and I think in fact that’s been the policy of a number of religions; Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Muslims on the whole, the point is to take over the world by breeding. And I think the answer is that, my own sense is that, first of all when people tell me, you know, I’m educated, and therefore I’m wealthy, and therefore I should have more children because I can do it, it just seems to me to be an incredibly effete attitude, that they have a right and somehow they can give a greater gift to the future by having children than anyone else. The wonderful thing about genetics as far as I can see, is that from a slum in India you can get one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, and so I just take that argument that the people who know something should have more kids is just ludicrous.
Dr. Krauss, I think your book is speaking to ultimately the answer to my question, but I’m going to ask my question anyway. So we know the universe was created from the big bang. My question is, What created the big bang? Where did the stuff that created the big bang come from?
K: Well, I would say read my book, but more importantly, buy my book. In any case, let me just give a one-minute answer. What is remarkable is that stuff, to create stuff, it sounds like you need stuff. Conservation of energy, you would think, means you can’t start with nothing and have a universe with something. But what is amazing, is when you add gravity into the mix, a miracle occurs, but a natural miracle. That gravity allows negative energy as well as positive energy configurations, and you can create, for example, two particles out of nothing. Now they have energy because of the [rest mass] [?]. But if the gravitational field they’re in is strong enough, the gravitational potential energy attracting them together is so strong and negative that the sum total of those two bits of energy can be precisely zero and you can create those particles with impunity. And in fact, that happens, we think near black holes, and in fact it will happen in empty space. And so in fact, to create stuff, you don’t need stuff. You just need nothing. And in this case, quantum mechanics. That’s the short version. But the long and much clearer version is in the book.
Thank you so much for both of you for coming. I have a question for Professor Dawkins about the role of the humanities in human affairs. You’ve spoken with great eloquence and persuasiveness about the value of science and with equal eloquence and persuasiveness about the lack of value of religion. Where do you see the humanities?
D: By humanities, you would mean…
Literature, history, …
D: The study of history, literature, languages, arts, …immensely valuable, some of the crowning achievements of the human species lie in the humanities. I see no problem with that at all. I’m proud to be a member of the same species as Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Michelangelo. So, I have no quarrel with anybody who wants to make a career out of the humanities, and wants to study them, a professor of history, a professor of literature, these seem to me to be the right sort of things to be going on in a university and in a culture. I would except, E-X-C-E-P-T, theology from that, because theology it seems to me, unlike those other humanities that you mentioned, is not a subject at all.
K: It’s an embarrassment, I agree.
D: As Jefferson said, a professor of divinity has no place in our university.
K: And he created a university, exactly. And I agree with you 100%. I put out a challenge, and maybe some people here can match it, I’ve challenged theologians to give me a single example of a contribution to human knowledge that theology has provided in the last 500 years, and when I talk to major theologians, and I do, believe it or not, the answer I always get is, What do you mean by knowledge? And I point out, as I talk to biologists, or a historian, or a psychologist, I get concrete answers, they give me this epistemological…anyway.
D: But I do think we need to add to that, that professors of theology often do extremely worthwhile things, Biblical history, literature, literary criticism, archaeology of Palestine, these are all thoroughly reputable and good things. When I said theology is not a subject at all, I meant things like the theology of the transubstantiation, or the trinity, etc. That’s not a subject at all. But of course, many people who are professors of theology don’t do that sort of nonsense. They do proper academic studies of biblical history and literature and so on.
K: And one last thing. I think the thing that’s really important to point out is that there isn’t a dichotomy between science and the humanities. They all do the same thing. They all give us a different perspective of our place in the cosmos. A good play does, a good piece of music, and so does science, and so they are all different parts of the same thing in my opinion.
Thank you very much for being here and for taking my question. I was wondering about politics and religion. In a country where we have separation of church and state, why do we think it’s okay to allow the policy makers and the politicians to use religious reasoning to guide legislation? So, in something like stem cells or gay marriage where the opponents of it will give a religious reason against it, doesn’t that fly in the face of separation of church and state.
D: Of course it does.
K: Absolutely, and I think if we have a society…the sad thing that Richard has pointed out is we have a society where we tolerate that. It seems acceptable. And people who bring up the problem are viewed as being strident or shrill. An example, which, I’ve created a few years ago a group called “Science Debate 2008” and now it’s “Science Debate 2012”, we’re trying to create a debate among the Presidential candidates among science and technology which are actually relevant to the governance, but when we tried, in fact we came very close in 2008, but the candidates decided instead to have a debate on faith, which of course is completely irrelevant to anything that is going to matter, because they’re all people of faith. We need journalists to have the courage to point that out and we need the journalists to be able to do that and still have papers that sell copies, and that’s the hard part, I think. Maybe, I guess we’re going to ask one more question. The last question.
I’m the lucky one. Thank you. I suppose, Dr. Dawkins, I would ask this to you. Is there a scientific basis for the concept of free will in human beings and if not, is there a biological evolutionary reason why all of us believe we have free will?
D: The late Christopher Hitchens, when asked does he believe in free will replied, “I have no choice.” It’s a question that I dread, actually, because I don’t have a very well though out view about it. I think that, I mean I have a materialist view of the world. I think that things are determined in a rational way by antecedent events, and so that commits me to the view that, when I think I have free will, when I think that I’m exercising free choice, I’m deluding myself, that my brain states are determined by physical events, and yet that seems to contradict, to go against the very powerful subjective impression that we all have that we do have free will. I think all I can do is recommend the works of my colleague, Daniel Dennett on the subject which are fascinating.
K: And there’s a new book by another one of our colleagues, Sam Harris, on free will that’s coming out. But I also have to agree, that I think, everything I know about the world tells me there’s no such thing as free will. I just think, that we act,…but the world behaves as if there is free will, and so it doesn’t make much difference. Just like the particles in the room, we can discuss them statistically and they behave as if they can do things that they’re not being forced to do, which is statistics, and we behave as if we have free will, because we live in a very complex world, where there’s so many factors influencing any of our decisions that you can’t trace that free will down to its source, and so, the difference between the world where we act as if we have free will or looks like we have free will and we really do in my mind is so minimal is that it’s a question for philosophers to worry about. But not me. And maybe, with that, we’ll thank you very much.
The quest for knowledge and understanding, and the competition of memes and ideas in our public conscience is beautifully platformed in this discussion. I concur with the one audience member who mentioned that society would be better if we took time to attend to discussion as these as much as to the Superbowl. As Dawkins apparently directed, the absence of a moderator is a welcome format, and it will be exciting to see where Krauss’ “Origins” project goes next.
There will always be a sense in which the “already convinced” on any side of an issue will only have their biases re-buttressed from discussions like this, however, I was quite pleasantly thankful to hear a more subtle tone of humility and transparent uncertainty when it came to various issues like the origins of life from chemistry to biology, the complicated question on free will, and the question of “proof” when it came to the question of God. People of faith will no doubt leap on this as “evidence” of the mysteries of this universe that point to a deity, and materialists will no doubt deride that approach and philosophy as inadequate, positing their own form of explanatory reasoning instead. In other words, discussions like this may have the potential of bringing the collective ideologies of humanity together, however, unfortunately, often times it widens and strengthens the segregation.
But, if there is enough of “our species” (to use Dawkins’ term) who will embrace humilitas as the ethic for the pursuit of knowledge, then events, conversations, and videos like these ought to be more warmly welcomed, and they will expand further, exponentially, even beyond their own stated goals and objectives. As Krauss mentioned, in one generation (85 years or so), our understanding of the universe has exceeded — to draw an analogy from technology — Moore’s Law, and in fact, has perhaps been a Moore’s Law of Moore’s Law. As Krauss mentioned, it truly is a “special time.”
There are several contentions I would like to offer as my contribution and exhortation to both sides of the discussion.
CHEAP GRATUITOUS JABS. Krauss’ introduction includes a statement, “…but I’m absolutely certain that Richard Dawkins exists” which incites applause from the audience. Throughout the evening, additional comments were made that deride and mock religion. While I am sympathetic, and in many ways understanding of where this chauvinism comes from, this is not becoming of a responsible conversation. First, the dispassionate attitude does not help convince people of the pursuit of truth (as they alluded to in their discussion; cf. Flock of Dodos). Second, (and I’ll expand on this later), this attitude and approach, in many ways, undercuts the whole discussion as being somewhat hypocritical in discussing this beautiful universe, and yet be so disdaining to ideas, thoughts, beliefs, etc., that have themselves been created under this universe’s development. Krauss is more forgiving in this sense, but it seems to me that if one is to be a materialist, one ought to be consistent in seeing even religious ideas under the same categories and to treat it as such. Dawkins’ emotional vitriol is inconsistent with his worldview, and may even provide evidence to a “not-just-a-material” universe; that something else is going on as well.
IGNORANCE IS NO CRIME. There is inconsistency in their ideas regarding ignorance, as well, I believe. First, like Krauss and Dawkins would want to have a doctor who is well versed on all the best scientific knowledge and understanding, so also would you not want people to be well versed on philosophy and theology for a discussion on the divine and supernatural, or even Biblical history? Yet, because their approach is materialistic, they dismiss the divine or supernatural a priori, and they do so with what appears to be a very limited understanding. An example of this is found in Dawkins’ discussion on Mormon history and teachings. True, there is no historical, archaeological, paleographic, or ethnographic evidence for any of Joseph Smith’s or Mormon claims. Fact. However, Krauss states that they believe the Biblical stories (assuming referring to the 66 books of the Christian canon) are equally silly. However, for the Bible, there is overwhelming historical, archaeological, paleographic, and ethnographic evidence. Yet, they seem to be ignorant of that data (or aware of it and simply dismiss it). Fine. But there ought to be a consistent concessionary attitude, e.g., “I haven’t studied it enough to state, however, from what I know…” And, “Perhaps…” Or better yet, at least an acknowledgement of the evidence that is extant. Second, a doctor who holds contradictory beliefs is, in their minds of concern. I concur. This illuminates (and here I will go a bit further than Dawkins or Krauss) that the person has some sort of mental incapacity to reckon with themselves. Fascinatingly, Krauss mentioned the utilitarian benefit of this reality, and there’s probably a lot of good evolutionary psychology that can be helpful in explaining this. But this phenomena is not just true for a doctor, physician, and politician, but also for a scientist, physicist, or materialist as well. In other words, a scientist could also hold contradictory reasoning in their minds as well regarding a materialist view of the world (which I suggest is true of Jerry Coyne as I watched his debate with John Haught. Part 2. Coyne posits this same phenomena, yet, doesn’t see that he himself holds contradictory ideas in his mind as well.) As trite as it sounds, scientists are humans first, scientists second, with the same propensities and inclinations that they observe in other humans.
CONVERGENCE? Krauss mentions that it quite very well could be that the chemical processes are being driven in the same direction, which may lead to an “inevitability” of life just like what we see it. The allusions to the Anthropic Principle were also platformed, and I appreciated the willingness to have that discussion. I’ll mention this later as well, but it is these and many other ideas that make me wonder (with frustration) why so many people of faith / believers fight so rigorously against the research, science, and advancements of knowledge that are coming forth due to people like Dawkins and Krauss. There is absolutely nothing here that indicates God’s non-existence, (as was alluded to in the discussion), and God’s “irrelevance” to the universe is exactly the point and framing that should be understood in the entire discussion. [Perhaps was is being threatened, is people’s held beliefs about God, which ought to evolve over time] This sounds similar to Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris, and every step along the way of discovery ought to be welcomed by both scientists and philosophers/theologians. As scientists embrace a more sophisticated aesthetic (as Dawkins finds the anthropic principle “elegant and neat,” and actually would like to find more “intelligence” in the universe) theologians and philosophers ought to embrace the advancement of our materialistic understandings.
THEOLOGIANS AND PHILOSOPHERS ARE EXPERTS IN NOTHING. This jab by Krauss is another example of the non-helpful comments that provoke the contentious argumentation, and widen the gap between science and faith, and makes bridge building even harder by those of us who see the value in all human enterprises. One audience questioner asked about how to speak to the rest of the world to help them understand better the value of science. This is not it. It is this comment (along with others) that brought to mind why I think scientists are arguing with theologians and philosophers with such adverse attitudes. First, it is fundamentally because both sides argue each other’s sides with such misrepresentation and short-sightedness (and often petty and juvenile name-calling) that neither are truly listening carefully to what is actually being said on their own terms. There is too much of a “breech of discipline” (as I have discussed elsewhere), in which Krauss and Dawkins (materialists) misrepresent theology, philosophy, Biblical history, etc., and believers and people of faith completely misrepresent and misunderstand what evolution and physics is really all about. Both sides are guilty of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and dismissing each other a priori. Second, there is a chauvinistic imposition that is made by people of both sides, that because I’m an expert (or educated) at “X,” therefore that means your “Y” understanding is invalid, insipid, or ludicrous. “Because evolution is true, there is no God.” “Because there is a God, evolution is false.” Why can’t evolution be true because that’s where the science points, and it makes no claim or statement about God’s existence? And why can’t God exist because of God’s philosophical or metaphysical necessity, and all the evidence in the universe for how it works and how it has come into being is more insight into the character and nature of God, rather than a contradiction? Perhaps its because of the conflation of the disciplines, which goes back to what I said before, that theologians and philosophers are arguing in fields and disciplines in which they have no business arguing, and vice versa. I propose that the conflation of these is misguided and damaging, and ought to be appalling to both scientists and theologians. Oh, and more so, that they should stop.
IS YOUR PURPOSE TO DESTROY RELIGION? This very candid question by Krauss was awesome. Dawkins’ response was first, “I love truth.” To which he followed with, “scientific.” To which, I would say, “Amen.” The one thing that is common to all humans on the journey of discovery is the idea of “truth,” which obviously brings up whole other host of questions and inquiries from a scientific and philosophic point of view, but regardless, “the pursuit of truth” is perhaps the commonest language of all in this discussion. Krauss mentioned that we’re all born scientists. I would agree. We would all, therefore, be also born theologians. Thus, if something is true, then why not accept it because it’s true? And, why is there not more humility by materialists for the supernatural, and the supernaturalists for the empiricism of the natural?
GOD AS SADDAM HUSSEIN. Hitchens’ invocation into this discussion is a welcome one, and necessary, as was mentioned, because his arguments were more moralistic and philosophical, which is an important counterbalance to the purely materialistic tone of having solely Dawkins and Krauss discuss. With that said, this is an important illustration of how Dawkins and Krauss hold inconsistent views in their minds. They can fully accept that they would not want to live in a universe with Saddam Hussein as God — a statement against a tyrannical deity in the sky — and they use that in many ways as an argument against God’s existence. Whereas just moments before, they dismissed God because of his unfathomable complexity and overwhelming incomprehensible benevolence. Neither one of these seems to be an actual argument based on materialistic means, or good scientific inquiry, but yet, they can still hold this reasoning together with their other arguments. A more consistent view would be to first dismiss the discussion as completely irrelevant since they hold that God does not exist (being atheist and anti-theist), and simply state that this character evaluation discussion is itself ludicrous, a chastisement they give so readily to others. Second, they should recognize the limits of materialism, have an attitude of humility towards the moralistic realities, and then become more educated on the philosophical arguments and discussions before speaking with such certitude. Lastly, I would suggest that most astute theologians completely dismiss the characterizations of “God” that they are discussing in the first place thus making this point even more absurd.
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING. It is here that I find the most profound harmony. I am honestly perplexed why Krauss is having difficulty with theologians who purport, “Well, that’s not nothing.” Part of the inherited 4th century theological philosophy is creatio ex nihilo. Why then, are they arguing!? This seems to me completely illogical. Krauss’ (and physicsist’s) discoveries do absolutely nothing to the arguments for or against God. In fact, if one was an accommodationist, which many are leaning towards, this actually bolsters the argument (note: from their perspective. I am not suggesting that the argument is bolstered de facto, but rather in accordance with their worldview or philosophy). If the universe truly came into being from nothing, no laws of physics, no material, or solely by the mysterious movements of quantum mechanics, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL, THEOLOGICALLY!? Maybe I should have stated this earlier, but it seems as if much of the contentious theological conversations and arguments are quite reductionistic when it comes to the discussion of God. Conflating it with science is the ultimate expression of that reduction. But the very idea or essence of “God” from a theological perspective is incomprehensibility and ineffability. In other words, theologians and philosophers ought to welcome Krauss’/physicist’s work in our world.
TEACHING IS A VERY HONORABLE PROFESSION. I don’t think this can be said loudly or clearly or repetitively enough. I fully concur with Dawkins in this statement, and believe more people should get on board with the true education of our children.
BEING AN ATHEIST IS NOT AKIN TO BEING EVIL. This demonization is a serious downside to the argument. I would agree that it is mainly from the religious that I hear most frequently the conflation of evil and atheism (which itself stems from the very nature and ideology of religious belief), however, I would like to ask additional questions. If this world is purely materialistic, how does a wholistically evolutionary philosophy explain that “meme” and is there a “should” or “ought” to its (evil) existence in the world, especially if there is no “free will.” Is this, then, not just another example of evolutionary processes taking hold in the conscious of our species? To the religious, it seems quite clear, that evil and good exists. The problem is, of course, labeling good and evil to a particular idea or philosophy. That’s a misappropriation of labels, and seems easily explainable by humans propensity to attribute a metaphysical reality to a physical being. Religion also does “course correction” naturally as it evolves over time. In addition, Kierkegaard, himself a philosopher, helps us course correct that propensity by suggesting that the line that divides good and evil is a line that runs down the middle of each and every one of us. According to a materialist perspective, however, how is it explained?
QUESTIONING SHOULD BE REVERED RATHER THAN REVILED. This statement, like the teacher statement, cannot be said loudly or clearly or repetitively enough. This is the essence of the pursuit of truth and the acquisition of knowledge. My only contention is that both sides, while they value this for their already held convictions and worldviews dismiss this value when it comes to opposing perspectives. Krauss and Dawkins would do well to implement this value in the world of theology and philosophy rather than simply dismissing these ventures as invaluable, and then making statements of certitude upon them.
GOD IS IRRELEVANT TO SCIENCE. To this, I would agree. This is reductionistic, and should be embraced by both theologians/philosophers and scientists. My question, again is, if this statement is true, why so much discussion and statements of affirmation on God’s existence, character, etc. by materialists? This is, again, inconsistent.
SUBJUGATION OF WOMEN IS LARGELY DUE… Krauss said, “to religion.” There are three problems with Krauss’ statement. First, this is again, a somewhat inconsistent statement in the context of this conversation as a whole. If you hold to a materialistic perspective that God does not exist, then the “religion” to which you anchor your argument is ultimately an “evolutionary psychological” entity. Your scapegoat must be claimed by both religion and evolution. Thus, the subjugation of women is largely due to evolutionary forces, of which, religion may be an outward expression. Second, if the entirety of human history has largely been “religious,” meaning, believing in superstitions, the supernatural, etc., then it makes sense that this misogyny would coincide with the existence of religion. But it does not, therefore, mean that it is directly causal. Third, based on the previous second point, religion itself has “evolved” in its idea of gender which can be found with Jesus, Paul, Buddhism, etc. Tomes have been written on how religious ideas have actually brought liberation and societal equity to the genders through religious ideas and advancements. I am not suggesting that women have not been subjugated by religion. I’m simply purporting that solely blaming religion is misleading and inaccurate. Again, if you want to speak authoritatively on the subject despise ignorance. And it seems here that Krauss is ignorant of the subject. With that said, I fully support the idea that if you educate women, you save the world. Half the Sky, the Girl Effect, etc. shows this to be true, and here, Krauss ought to be applauded for his work.
THE DEMAND FOR EXPLANATION IS A DOUBLE-STANDARD. Throughout the discussion of God’s existence, often times the idea of infinite regress is invoked, which simply states, that if God exists as the first cause, that still doesn’t solve the problem of where God came from. This “demand for explanation” by atheists is a double-standard in that science does not have explanations for a whole host of items. Yet, we accept the premise of their reasoning to conclusive points as has been clearly demonstrated to be true. We do not dismiss certain premises simply because of gaps of knowledge or further unknowns in the equation. The same should be true for God’s existence. Why this is consistently used is baffling to me and I have yet to hear anyone raise this in objection to infinite regress.
KRAUSS’ CHALLENGE TO THEOLOGIANS. Krauss’ challenge stated earlier is as follows:
I put out a challenge, and maybe some people here can match it, I’ve challenged theologians to give me a single example of a contribution to human knowledge that theology has provided in the last 500 years, and when I talk to major theologians, and I do, believe it or not, the answer I always get is, What do you mean by knowledge?
I would like to offer my own measly attempt. Answer: Science & Knowledge. I believe it will soon come to light through works like Harrison and Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind, and others, that it was ultimately a theological worldview, that the universe is ordered and has purpose and direction, and can be understood and known that gave rise to modern science and the pursuit of knowledge. It may turn out to become a venture in “biting the hand that feeds you,” however, it seems reasonable that the vast journey of the supernatural and superstitious world, a world in which we would all agree has been the history of our existence, has itself grown up and given rise to the very ideas, concepts, perspectives, and pursuits that have led to the empiricism we now take for granted. It was religious fervor and theological insight that set the foundations for the development of our modern and postmodern scientific inquiry. This is not to say that religion has been all pro-science, for we know that to not be true. Religion also suffers from amnesia, perhaps a bit more quickly than is reasonable. I’m saddened to hear of Krauss’ report that all he gets is “What is knowledge?” That illustrates the point. But that reality cannot deny the other reality, that religion has been the foundation of science all along.
This has been one of the most exciting and invigorating reviews I’ve done. If you read through its entirety, I’m humbled and amazed, but hope that it enlivened your experience with the discussion. I ultimately hope this contributes to the solidarity of our human existence, as we seek to discover in what, or who’s image we all are truly created in.
And that the pursuit of science can remedy much of the maladies human experience. In either venture, that is ultimately the goal. It is here, perhaps, that the fight becomes most visceral, the combatant force against human suffering. And instead of pointing at each other, science and faith, dare I suggest, need each other to accomplish this task and should aim their artillery in the same direction.