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    Richard Feynman and the malaise of science envy

    What’s not to envy (I mean, besides the clothes and hair)? Feynman, a physicist who knows baloney when he sees it, chilling at a Caltech blackboard. Image courtesy of the American Institute of Physics

    Of late I have been engaged in a discussion with Tom and Todd about whether or not Intelligent Design (ID) is scientific. Todd and I say it is not; Tom says it is. Related to this, the question I would like to address is: Is my — admittedly cursory — definition of science as a “search for physical explanations for physical phenomena” acceptable? That is, by confining science to the physical, am I doing it injustice? Tom seems says yes to this question in the following statement:

    As scientists, we don’t blindly and obstinately hold to the less explanatory and more inconsistent theory for some philosophical reason, i.e., that only other physical phenomena can be responsible for the current state of physical phenomena. There is no a priori reason why that explanation has to itself be physical. It either could be, or it could not be. Thus, if there are supernatural “realities,” as I believe, then we cannot assume that they have no interaction with the physical.

    IMO there is a category mistake here. Under my definition of science, Tom slips from talking about science to talking about knowledge in general. Yes, it may be that there are nonphysical sources of physical phenomena, but to say that this is so in any case is not being scientific. It may well be that God reached in and assembled the first bacterial flagella, for example, but to say this is so is a philosophical or religious statement and not a scientific one. It is not testable, it is not falsifiable, it makes no predictions. These (to my mind) are hallmarks of scientific knowledge.

    Just because something is not scientific does not mean that it is untrue. It is simply to say that it can’t be shown — even in principle — to be untrue.

    This tendency to blur the line between the scientific and nonscientific comes from what I call science envy, and it not only afflicts ID supporters who so desire the scientific stamp of approval. It rears its head in many disciplines, from the so-called social sciences like anthropology and psychology all the way to the humanities. I think of the Jesus Seminar as a particularly obvious manifestation of science envy. Here we have people trying to isolate the historical Jesus, insisting on a kind of detachment and literalness that seems, perhaps to them, scientific. The sad result is that it drains the subject — here, Jesus — of its life and its lived expression. Science envy is a malaise.

    Words have meanings, and science is more than just being literal, or being objective, or using numbers, or being systematic. People — including even the good folks at NASA — often insist there is a thing called the scientific method, but such a thing does not exist. There are many scientific methods, each suited to a particular scientific field or subfield or nature of inquiry.

    Despite its complexity, however, science is a way of knowing and therefore is not every way of knowing. And the knowledge — whether or not it is true — that the bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex and therefore made directly by the divine hand, is not scientific. To call this knowledge scientific is to render the word science nearly, if not completely, meaningless.

    The late, great physicist Richard Feynman called this false kind of science, cargo cult science. This is one thing he had to say about it:

    There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

    In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

    Leaning over backwards, straining in utter honesty to show how your claim could be wrong, pushing one’s idea as far as it can go to find its weaknesses and speaking up about it, and making this not a kind of appendix to one’s work but a central part of it, drawing with absolute clarity the limits of knowledge: This is not all there is to science, but it is essentially scientific. And it is something I do not see in ID. Because how could you possibly show that the claim, God did this directly, is wrong? You can show that there are other possible mechanisms perhaps, but you can’t show absolutely — even in principle — that your claim is wrong.

    IMO, the reason this claim — God did this directly — is not scientific can be traced to the fact that it transcends the merely physical. Science is severely limited to the land of the physical, and if this is not apparent to someone, it may be the result of science envy.

    Your thoughts, Tom?

    Comment Pages

    There are 25 Comments to "Richard Feynman and the malaise of science envy"

    • Laura Penny says:

      Absolutely, the definition of a scientific theory is its ability to be tested, by some experiment, somewhere. Maybe you need to build CERN to do it, but it can be tested. It predicts the results of some new experiment. Many, many theories don’t fit this definition and that’s not to say they are perfectly good theories, but they are NOT scientific. What’s at the center of a black hole is a non-scientific question. How could you ever tell? You can’t, there’s no way to get information back from inside the event horizon. Yes, there are people who work with GR and attempt to find mathematical solutions to a rotating center, but even they know there are no tests. Its a mathematical exercise with intriguing solutions. And the statement that God or some higher being created life? How can this be tested? It can’t. What a scientist would tell you is that God doesn’t appear to be necessary to create the diversity of life that we see.

      Yes, this limits scientists. No scientist that I know (and I’ve lived my life surrounded by people of science) would dream to explain whether there is or is not a God. They have their beliefs, like everyone else, but they aren’t based on science. Maybe they’ve decided that there is no need for God as he is presented in the Bible and so He doesn’t exist. Or maybe, like me, they look at just how well this Universe runs with a small number of far reaching physical rules, and have decided that it would take quite the omniscient programmer to make such a place. But I can’t test it, I just have to decide to believe.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul and Laura, I appreciate what both of you are saying–that “science” is not so broad a thing as to mean, “all knowledge,” so it “by definition” excludes the “religious” way of “knowing” things. But, possibly “terminology aside,” I don’t think things are quite so simple.

      First, if science excludes any other explanation for “physical phenomena” than other physical phenomena, it may be giving us “false answers.” What if every effort to find an explanation of why the universe “is as it is” from a merely “physical” standpoint comes up with a dead end? What if what is being taught in “science” classes across the country (or perhaps most of the world), i.e., that the “Big Bang” is what caused all we see, is demonstrably false in that it violates laws of physics? Are we nonetheless going to keep teaching it because it is a “physical cause” explanation, even though it is not a “true” one? Or are we going to be more honest and say, “Well, we just can’t find any ‘scientific’ cause for how physical things now are, so we ‘throw up our arms,’ and if you can find some other explanation, you can go with that–but be sure you don’t call it science if it is not a physical cause.” If this is what is going to happen, then maybe I can agree with you that ID should not be taught as “science,” but only as “another way” of considering what may have happened. But we all know that is not what is going to happen. Big Bang will continue to be taught regardless because it is the “best thing going” from a “physical” standpoint–even though it is false (in my opinion, and as I have argued elsewhere on these blog pages). Much the same thing could be said about biological evolution.

      In a similar vein, you seem to say that when it comes to the “separate” “religious” front, then there can be no “science” taken into account to determine the validity of any such “religious” assertions. I have to very strenuously disagree with you on that point. Taking the Bible as the primary source for the Christian faith (which it is–I hardly see how anyone could argue otherwise), it “seems” to be recounting a very tangible, historical account, one that in fact can be “tested” by archeology and other ancient literature. Thus, I don’t believe in God and “religion” based solely on some “metaphysical” or “psychic experience” or “intuition”; I believe it to have “verifiable physical support.” It certainly may have MORE than that. There is a hymn that says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” Certainly I concur that is ONE very substantial source of my faith–but I would not be willing to trust in that alone if all the historical proof which relates to the biblical claims were proven to be absolutely false (as it is with Mormonism based on the Book of Mormon, for example). It is a “both and” situation, not “either or.”

      So, I maintain my stance that there is no complete or utter or ultimate “dichotomy” between “scientific” ways of knowing things (such as by hypothesis, experiment, falsification or verification, modification, etc.) and “religious” ways of knowing things (which include “verifiable” historical support; not merely some sort of “mysticism”). Whether you want to call the “explanation” for “how the universe (or biological life, or human beings) came to be as they are” “science” or not, I don’t think school children should be told there is “no possible other explanation” than evolution because that is the only “scientific” option on the table. What needs to be done, if ID can’t be taught in science classrooms as an “alternative explanation” (one which in fact COULD be falsified by contrary observations–utter chaos, for example–the mere fact that in actuality it CANNOT be so falsified because the evidence is actually supportive hardly disqualifies it; it rather SUPPORTS it as the BEST “explanation”), is to say, as I indicated before, “We throw up our hands on the scientific front–none of our proposed ‘merely physical’ explanations work–go find ‘the truth’ elsewhere as you may.”

      Tom Harkins


      • Paul Paul says:

        Tom, you write,

        “What if every effort to find an explanation of why the universe ‘is as it is’ from a merely ‘physical’ standpoint comes up with a dead end? What if what is being taught in ‘science’ classes across the country (or perhaps most of the world), i.e., that the ‘Big Bang’ is what caused all we see, is demonstrably false in that it violates laws of physics?”

        So far, these efforts for find physical explanations have not come up with a dead end; they have come up not only with CAT scans, useful electricity, really good can openers, etc., but with science as we know it. This can hardly be called a dead end by anyone.

        As for the big bang, its standard model violates no known laws of physics. It just doesn’t.

        As for the physical, historical support of the Bible, most of the evidence I have ever encountered — which is not too much, admittedly — is neutral at best. And I do not subscribe to any theory that depends on any kind of evidence being covered up (no pun intended) in some sort of anti-Bible conspiracy.

        Evolution is, in fact, the only real scientific model on the table. Whatever you may believe about origins, you’ll have to deal with some version of evolution.

        ID cannot be falsified even IN PRINCIPLE. That is the problem. I cannot imagine any scenario in which it could be possibly be proved false. I confess to not understanding your point about ID and “utter chaos.” Perhaps you could explain?


        P.S. Here’s a late addition: Tom writes, “[it seems that] there can be no ‘science’ taken into account to determine the validity of any such ‘religious’ assertions.” I don’t think I agree with this in principle, and if I said it I didn’t mean to. I do think that science can verify or falsify religious claims. I think that if, as scientists had assumed at the beginning of the 20th century, the universe had been found to be eternally old, that would cause some trouble with the idea of ex nihilo. But instead we have the big bang, which seems to be consistent with that doctrine.

        BTW, Tom, this is a good example of scientists being forced to admit a conclusion that they were deeply biased against. For most of the 20th century there were large groups of astronomers and physicists who fought to prove an infinitely old, infinitely large universe. The big bang seemed too arbitrary and I’m sure some resisted it for philosophical reasons. But over the decades, as more and more supporting evidence rolled in, most of these gave up the fight because that evidence was so compelling.

        Originally, “big bang” was a derogatory term coined by Fred Hoyle, an astronomer and perhaps the most well-known figure in the opposition movement.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I am not sure what you mean by the examples you give for why “physical explanations have not come up with a dead end.” You mention, for example, “really good can openers.” What does that have to do with the Big Bang theory of universe origins? That is what I referred to as a “dead end”–not science in general.

      As far as laws of physics violated by Big Bang, I have of course argued about this a couple of times before, and am not sure further repetition will be helpful. However, in summary, black hole theory says the greater the concentration of mass in a given spot, the greater will be the gravitational pull, so that the mass “collapses in on itself” and sucks in everything around it as well; even, according to the theory, light itself. Consequently, if the entire mass of the universe was ever in one “point,” it could not possibly have “expanded” under the law of gravity. Someone may argue that the Big Bang was a “special case”; however, that does not change the fact that this is contrary to the way gravitation ordinarily operates.

      Second, Big Bang violates Einstein’s theory of relativity in that (according to Dr. Gribbin) the universe initially expanded at millions of times the speed of light in the first 0.1 second of the universe’s “life.” Gribbin himself recognized that this “seems contrary” to the Einstein “speed limit,” but he passed this off by saying universal “expansion” is “different” from acceleration of mass at beyond the speed of light. Again, a “special case” is proposed; this does not change the fact that this is contrary to the way the laws of motion, per Einstein, ordinarily operate.

      Third, Big Bang violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics with respect to the “evolution” of stars, planets, and life forms (among other things). If the “original matter” which “spewed out” when Big Bang “exploded,” or began its “expansion,” was hydrogen atoms (actually a “complex” entity in itself) and “dust,” that would be at a “minimum” level of “organization” and “information” and “differentiation,” so that it would violate the law for this matter/energy to start becoming more and more aggregated and complex and increasingly “informational” as time went on. Perhaps this is yet another “special case”; however, this does not change the fact that this is contrary to the way the laws of thermodynamics ordinarily operate.

      In fact, it is quite interesting how “star formation” is alleged to have occurred under this “model.” If the hydrogen atoms and “dust” began moving out at such phenomenal speed, why would they “slow down” and “start clumping together” in the first place? Did the “laws” governing Big Bang “change” as time went on (assuming there were any). Or is this another “special case”?

      Next you dispute my point about any historical support for the Bible. However, there is plenty of it, though admittedly I am no scholar in this field. What you might note about the biblical accounts is that they are very particular about when and where various events occurred, almost to the point of “boredom” in reading about them sometimes. Thus, with respect to the birth of Jesus, for example, Luke writes that it occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. It has been authenticated that these persons were in fact in those positions at the approximate time attributed to Christ’s birth. Similarly, Matthew records that Jesus was born in the reign of one of the King Herods. This is also authenticated, including the fact that Herod was virtually paranoid about anyone taking the kingdom away from him, even to the point of killing two of his sons. And there are many other examples of such “historicity,” including the kings of Babylon and “the Medes and the Persians” when the tribe of Judah was taken into captivity, as another example.

      You also agree with me that “evolution is, in fact, the only real scientific model on the table.” This is precisely the point. If evolution can be “disproved,” in the manner such as what I have identified with respect to the Big Bang component of that theory, then “secular” science has shown itself to be “bankrupt” as a means of explaining “origins.” Therefore, either some other “theory” of origins must be substituted in its place (and there is none from a “secular” or “merely physical” standpoint), such as Intelligent Design, or else science teachers should honestly tell their students, “we just have no good explanation for origins from a scientific standpoint.” That would actually be a great idea, because virtually none of the real needs of scientific investigation from a “practical” standpoint actually depend on some “theory of origins” in the first place. It is basically irrelevant to theorize “how cells may have come to exist”–just study how they are constituted and how they operate, which is what we really need to know. We don’t have any actual “examples” of “evolutionary development,” as opposed to “theorizing backwards” using “models” and extremely limited “physical” evidence, which can be explained in other manners than the “dogma of the day.” (As an aside on this point, perhaps you have noted the current news accounts of the “tooth” that is requiring scientists to “rethink” the whole chronology and manner of “human” evolution. I also don’t know if you are aware of the fact that one of the “missing link” “discoveries of the past was admitted by its “discoverer,” on his death bed, to be a filed down pig’s tooth.) So, since evolution is the only thing on the table, and it has been found wanting, then, regardless of whether it should be called “science” or taught in “science” classrooms, the door is certainly open to children being notified that, even if necessary on a “religious” basis, the universe may have been created by “God,” a being of unsurpassable intelligence and power. This is no “cop-out,” but the only “reasonable” explanation, given the data and the shortcomings of the “alternative.”

      Finally, you say “ID cannot be falsified even IN PRINCIPLE,” and ask what I mean by suggesting it could be in the event of “utter chaos.” ID is the theory that there is “organization” and “complexity” in arrangement of the universe and its components, including most particularly human beings. It compares such “complexity” and “organization” to (a) the foremost “designer” that we have encountered in the “physical” realm, human beings, with (b) the effects which result from “random chance” experiments. Evolution is the theory that there was no “design” of any type in the formation and development of the universe and its components, but simply “unguided” operation of matter and energy by “chance.” Therefore, it is a meaningful comparison for theoretical purposes to make the comparison mentioned to “test” the theories of intelligent design and evolution against each other. If, in fact, when “random chance” experiments are conducted, they produce something on the order of the complex arrangements that we observe around us, then evolution could be “verified” to that degree. If conversely we find that they do not, then evolution is “falsified” to that extent. Likewise, if we compare “intelligent designing” against what we see in the universe, and find that this is comparable, then ID is “verified” to that extent. If, however, we in fact see in the universe the types of results that we observe when we do “random chance” experiments, then ID would be “falsified” to that extent. I think what you are arguing cannot be “falsified” under any circumstances is the existence of “God” as behind the universe however it may be constituted, whether chaotic or organized. That is true. However, that is not the question addressed by ID. ID is rather asking whether what we observe in the universe is closer to a model of “design” when we observe what “designers” do, or rather closer to a model of “random chance” when we see what “random chance” events do (such as, for one example, when a deck of cards is “thrown into the air,” and comes down totally “disorganized”). That is my explanation of my comment as to “utter chaos” as an “in principle” refutation of ID (though not of “God”).

      I think that answers all the questions you posed in your comment. I will be happy to try to answer any further ones you may have to the extent of my capacity and available time.

      Tom Harkins 12/29/2010


    • Todd says:


      I’m going to chime in on this at the risk of it seeming like people are ganging up on you. Just know that, although I do disagree with many of the statements you make, it is not my intent to attack you. But I would like to clarify a few things that I feel qualified to comment on.

      First, I think you have some significant misunderstandings about General Relativity and Big Bang Cosmology. I don’t say this to be demeaning. These are really complicated, highly mathematical subjects, and unless you have grappled with the technical details it is pretty easy to come away with misunderstandings. But your impression that the Big Bang violates laws of physics is, from the standpoint of a professional physicist who has studied the technical details, simply not correct. It is just not the case that gravitational forces would prevent the expansion of the universe. In general relativity there are no gravitational forces, rather, matter and energy cause the spacetime in their vicinity to become curved. If you try to figure out the structure of spacetime for the entire universe by making some reasonable assumptions (that it is homogeneous and isotropic, to use the technical terms) then you can use Einstein’s Field Equations to come up with several different solutions. One of them is static (neither expanding nor contracting), but this solution turns out to be unstable. This is one of the main reasons that theoretical cosmologists eventually accepted the expanding universe in spite of some significant reservations at the beginning. Anyway, one of the solutions is an expanding universe. So in contrast to your statement that gravity would prevent an expansion, the expansion of the universe can in fact be derived as a solution to our best theory of gravity (General Relativity).

      Likewise, there really IS a difference (in a technical/mathematical sense) between the motion of an object THROUGH space (which cannot exceed the speed of light) and the apparent motion caused by the expansion OF space (which can exceed the speed of light). This is not a violation of Special Relativity. Again, the expansion derives from General Relativity which incorporates, and is thus entirely consistent with, Special Relativity.

      In a similar way I think your comments about the second law of thermodynamics are a bit off the mark. This stems form the standard layman’s definition of entropy as being a measure of “disorder.” But that’s really not a very good definition. Again, we run into some technical details, but the entropy of the universe (as it is defined technically by physicists) does in fact increase as the universe expands, even though the entropy may locally decrease in certain small bits of the universe (as when, for example, planets and stars form from big clouds of gas and then cool as they radiate away energy). These local decreases in entropy are completely swamped by the much larger increases in entropy that take place in the rest of the universe.

      Again, I am not trying to be condescending, because I can see how you would reach your conclusions on the basis of a non-technical reading of these subjects. [Gribbin, for example, is great about making science exciting but less great about providing careful, technically-accurate, accounts at a level accessible to the non-expert. But the subjects he writes about are hard to get right without delving into the math, which would be inappropriate for what Gribbin is trying to do.] But as a professional physicist I do want to state clearly that the things you point out as major problems with Big Bang cosmology are not viewed that way at all by physicists. Big Bang cosmology is not a dead end. That’s not to say there aren’t some issues there. Nobody really understands why the expansion of the universe seems to be expanding. Nobody really understands what the universe would have been like at its earliest moments, because for that we need a quantum theory of gravity (which we don’t have yet). But these aren’t dead ends – they are problems to be resolved by further work. Yes, it would turn out that Big Bang cosmology is wrong in some substantial way. The remarkable thing about science is that as long as we maintain the intellectual honesty Paul (and Richard Feynman) describe above, then we can find out that our theories are wrong by working within the context of that very same theory and trying to resolve the various puzzles that arise.

      I would argue the same for “evolution.” [Side note: I’m always puzzled by arguments against “evolution” because it seems to me that evolution is simply a historical fact. In very old rocks we find traces of simple forms of life. In somewhat less old rocks we find traces of more complicated forms, etc. I think even ID supporters would agree that things evolve. At one time bacteria had no flagellae, now some have flagellae. There’s evolution for you. So I think what you are really arguing against is Darwinian natural selection as the EXPLANATION for evolution. But please let me know if I am wrong.] There are definitely some things that Darwinian natural selection cannot currently explain. This does not make Darwinism a dead end. It just means there is more work to be done. Perhaps in the process of doing that work we will find strong evidence to suggest that natural selection cannot be the correct explanation for the evolution of life on Earth. This is entirely possible, but as far as I know it hasn’t happened yet. (Admittedly I don’t have any real expertise in evolutionary biology, so I am much less qualified to deal with this issue than I am with the physics issues.)

      In contrast, I don’t see how one would disprove the design theory. You argue that if the universe consisted of utter chaos it would disprove design. I think there are a few problems with that argument. First, why couldn’t a designer choose to design a universe of utter chaos? You can only argue that this is impossible if you constrain the designer to operate according to certain principles or aesthetic criteria. In any case, what you or I might consider utter chaos might be viewed as some sort of deep order by the designer. As Paul has so eloquently pointed out, the whole basis of the ID approach lies in the assumption that certain features of nature are incomprehensible, and therefore must be designed. If that’s so, then how can we every judge that something is not designed? For example, I could point out that the blood vessels in the eye are in front of the retina and thus block light from reaching some of the rods and cones. This seems like a very inefficient design to me, and if my aesthetic sensibilities are used as a criterion it could be considered evidence against design. But I doubt and ID proponent would see it that way. I suspect that they would claim that the design was simply beyond human comprehension.

      This is what, to me, really makes ID unscientific. It posits that certain things are really beyond our comprehension. That is a fundamentally ascientirfic (if not antiscientific) attitude. It may be correct. In fact, I think it probably is correct. There is no doubt that many things are beyond our comprehension NOW, and I suspect there are aspects of reality that will always remain beyond our comprehension. But if this is true, then those aspects simply cannot be treated scientifically. Science is fundamentally about comprehending things.

      You say the supernatural should not be excluded, because the supernatural could exert some influence on the physical world and thus science would have to deal with it. I would ask two questions in response to this. First, if the supernatural can influence the physical, can the physical also influence the supernatural? If so, it seems to me that what you are calling supernatural is nothing more than aspects of the natural/physical world that we don’t currently understand. My second question is, are the supernatural influences on the physical world that you propose understandable? Do they follow some sort of rules that we could determine through careful observation or experimentation? Could we predict how the supernatural might influence the physical in certain future scenarios, and then test those predictions? Again, if we can then I’m not sure that term “supernatural” has any real significance. If we can’t do these things, then I would return to the claim that the supernatural lies outside of the realm of the scientific.


    • jackd says:

      [Paul graciously allowed me to fix an HTML problem in my first attempt to post this – Jack]

      Tom, you have a very nice and direct explanation from Todd as to where your understanding of the Big Bang has gone astray. Please read it carefully and ask questions if you don’t understand, but in the name of simple honesty, please do not repeat your assertions that our theories of the early universe somehow violate the laws of physics.

      Your ideas about evolution are just as mistaken. To use a specific example: “one of the “missing link” “discoveries of the past was admitted by its “discoverer,” on his death bed, to be a filed down pig’s tooth.” This sounds like a mixture of the Lady Hope confabulation (the death bed part), the Piltdown Man hoax (the filed-down bit), and the actual story of Nebraska Man (the pig’s tooth).

      Alert Readers will notice that I’ve linked repeatedly to the TalkOrigins archive. It is an excellent repository of standard anti-evolution arguments and their refutations. The archive, although strongly pro-science, includes copious links and references to both sides of any argument. Although there have been maintenance issues for a few years, many of the contributors can still be contacted directly.

      Todd, you’ve said, better than I could, many things I’ve been thinking as I read the post and comments. Thank you. One note – ID is not quite the same as the Argument from Design. Your example of the backward wiring of the vertebrate eye really goes to the latter, not the former.

      Arguing against Intelligent Design is often difficult because ID is not a theory. It’s a rhetorical strategy for smuggling God into science classrooms. It’s an attempt to claim that ignorance (“I don’t know how this could be”) is equivalent to knowledge (“therefore it must have been designed”). It has no constraints, no limits, no specifics. Every specific assertion to come out of the ID movement has been refuted – see Behe’s “irreducible complexity” and William Dembski’s attempts to relate ID to information theory. As Paul alludes above, ID tries to gain the credibility of science by aping its form, but has none of the substance.


    • jackd says:

      Paul, I’m not sure I agree with your characterization of the Jesus Seminar. Their method has some pretty obvious flaws (Paul Verhoeven is a member? Really?) but I don’t think science envy is the issue. There’s nothing wrongheaded, in my opinion, about using normal historical methods to try to grasp what was going on around Jerusalem in the early first century.

      But you’re probably more familiar with the issues of historical analysis of the New Testament than I am, so perhaps there’s something particular to the Seminar’s approach that bolsters your case.

      If I had to pick an example outside of creationism and ID to illustrate science envy, it would be the folks mounting expeditions to search for Noah’s Ark. The sincere ones seem to think that finding evidence of a big wooden boat up on Mt. Ararat would vindicate their belief in the literal historicity of Genesis, while never confronting the many inconsistencies and impossibilities in the text.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Jack.

        I can easily see how my comment about the Jesus Seminar has a kind of drive-by quality to it. That’s my mistake. As you suspect there is more behind it that I let on in the post.

        The thing is, I am skeptical of the whole historical-critical method when it comes to the humanities. The JS simply stands, for me, as an exemplar of that method. And the historical-critical method, applied to religious texts, is very much a product of the Enlightenment. The basic ideas seem to be that one can stand over and above a text and extract the literal nuggets, and that these literal nuggets constitute the important stuff.

        In the case of Jesus, I think it’s as important (if not more important) to know how Jesus has been understood throughout the centuries as it is to know what “really” happened. I have read a few books by some JS members and I find their views of Jesus to be largely consistent with the historical picture drawn by the Seminar itself — or is it the other way around?

        Coming from a scientific perspective, I find the assumptions and methodology of the JS to be terrible in quality. The error bars on the data are of the same magnitude or larger than the data itself, so to speak. No physical or biological scientist would accept the work of the JS. Therefore the results are, to me, fully unreliable.

        My experience as a theology grad student has been that all historical-critical work has this quality. My suspicion is that in some disciplines, like history, things are in general simpler. This is because most — but not all — history does not carry with it the intense emotional freight that is carried by the Bible and the person of Jesus. So not only is basic historical scholarship less likely to be wrong; it is also less likely to matter.


        • jackd says:

          Thanks for the clarification, Paul. I’m surprised that you are skeptical of the historical-critical method, but you probably have more exposure to it than I have and may well perceive excesses that I’ve not noticed. But I also think that trying to derive a more historically accurate picture from the texts has value independent of the human truths embodied in the stories. Not more important, just different.

          I’ve never actually read and Jesus Seminar material directly, just commentary on it. I have read a smidge of critical writing about the New Testament – primarily Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus Interrupted”, which I would bet you’re both familiar and not happy with – and the difference between, as you put it, the error bars and the data doesn’t bother me much. The source data is fragmentary and has contradictions. Even if you think Ehrman or another critic is arguing a marginal case, it’s still clear there are significant reasons to question the orthodox interpretation. (Wish I could give specifics, but it’s getting late and bed is calling.)


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Todd, don’t worry about “ganging up” on me! I’ve probably already done as well as I can do in pointing out why I consider Big Bang to be violative of laws of physics. I concede I am no “scientist,” in the strict sense that I don’t have a “degree” in that field, as I understand you to say that you have. Consequently, I have not “done the math.” However, I don’t really see where your response points out anything SPECIFIC. Just referencing “Field Equations” does not really answer why, for example, the universe could expand at several hundred million times the speed of light (as Gribbin states the matter) in the first 0.1 sec. of its existence. Although I recognize others have much more training in the laws of physics than I do, I don’t understand you to be disagreeing, for example, with the “law” that no matter can be accelerated at in excess of the speed of light “within” the universe under Special Relativity. You distinguish this “law,” however, by saying that this “distance moving” does not really count as far as application of that rule is concerned because expansion “OF” space is different from movement “THROUGH” space. I guess it is just my ignorance showing, but whether or not the movement is due to “expansion” or not, obviously if some star is “moving away” from me at a speed in excess of the speed of light, then it is “moving” at in excess of the speed of light. That seems pretty straightforward. What “force” is causing this “movement” at that rate? When does that “expansion ‘force'” subside to the point that I can really start applying the rules of Special Relativity? I am not sure I see how some “mathematical equations” really “answer” the question of what can cause mass to exceed the speed of light as that relates to matter “within” the universe moving “apart” from other matter in the universe at such a high “rate of speed” (whether this is due to “stretching,” or whatever it may be due to). SOMETHING has to be “causing” this phenomenal acceleration rate. What are the laws that govern that? Does General Relativity say anything about how “fast” the universe can expand? Does it say how “long” the universe can expand at such a speed, and does it give a “slow down” speed for various points in the “expansion”? Are there “mathematical formulas” which show all this? Can we “test” such hypotheses? How “big” is the universe now? Does General Relativity say how “big” it will ultimately become? Does your reference to “Field Equations” actually tell anybody anything SPECIFIC about what they see and why? To me, this appears to be just as much of an “appeal to the unknown” as what ID theorists are alleged to be engaging in.

      You say, “in general relativity, there are no gravitational forces.” I guess I am not following you here. Are you saying there are not ACTUALLY any gravitational forces? The mathematical formula for gravitational force is incorrect? It just doesn’t exist? That seems to be to be a pretty bold statement, and certain one different from how “real life” science approaches even mathematical and “predictive” statements about motion.

      Or, do you instead mean that gravitational force did not exist “in the beginning,” i.e., when Big Bang got “underway”? If so, when did gravitational force “kick in”? As to what matter did it “kick in,” and what matter does it control? Why did any of these things happen? Does General Relativity “map all this out” with “Field Equations”? Does the “law of gravity” control what happens in “black holes”? Or is that another area where “Field Equations” “supersede” the “naive” understanding of gravitational force on the part of “novices”?

      Briefly with respect to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, again I guess the matter must just be something “over my head.” Where does this “lost energy” which results from the universal “expansion” which “offsets” all the continuous “increasing complexity” go to? “These local decreases in entropy are completely swamped by the much larger increases in entropy that take place in the reset of the universe.” Where is that happening? Are we “observing” that? Do Field Equations once again step in to “fill the gap”? I thought the primary significance of the Second Law, the law of entropy, was that the universe approaches a “state of equilibrium,” or a cessation of “kinetic energy.” I admit being a layman on this point. It certainly seems “odd,” to say the least, that a universe which was in “equilibrium” in the sense of being nothing but hydrogen atoms and “dust” would “likely” (“predictably”) result in the highly complex arrangements of phenomenal “structure” and billions of “interdependent components” that we actually observe all throughout the visible universe, consistently with the Second Law, if it really started with “Big Bang.” Is there some “mysterious” Big Bang “force” which makes all this happen? How much “energy” was contained in the “point” which “expanded” into the presently visible universe? How much has it “lessened”? Is this “explanation” for the apparent discrepancy really “distinct” from invoking an “appeal to ignorance” which ID proponents are castigated for allegedly making?

      Finally as to “biological” evolution, in the first instance the “initiation” of life “seems” to be inconsistent with the law of no “spontaneous generation.” We of course never observe life to just “pop” into existence, under ANY circumstances. I guess I have not heard of the “experiments” where totally inanimate matter has been put in “natural settings” totally devoid of any other animate matter and life resulted. It seems we are dealing with a situation which does not involve observation, experiment, or any “predictable models.” We also of course have never “observed” any animate life forms “turn into” any other “kind” of life form. The vast collection of fossils discovered seems devoid of any “intermediate” forms of life. Of course, all that can be “explained.” But the problem is, once again, we seem to devolve into an appeal to, “Well, it must be that way, so we are comfortable with our present ignorance.” In other words, an appeal to the “unknown” is okay, so long as it is to a “physical” unknown. But there better not be any appeal to a SUPERnatural unknown, because, after all, we worship at the altar of the DOGMA that there simply is no supernatural.

      (I do note your question as to the “defining away” of “supernatural” if there can be any “interplay” between the “natural” and “supernatural.” Let me make it simple. By “supernatural,” I am talking about “spirit beings” who are not “constrained” by laws of nature either as to their existence, duration, capacities, or activities. So, my belief in “interaction” between the two “categories” of existence fails to lead me into any “confusion” about what I mean by either, or to doubt whether there can be any “difference” as a “definitional” matter. I doubt you can “define” certain realities “out of existence” in such a facile manner.”)

      Tom Harkins 01/03/2011


    • jackd says:

      Tom – rather than pursue a long discussion of cosmology and physics here, why not try starting with a cosmology FAQ and following the links from there?



    • Tom Harkins says:

      jackd, I am happy to look at any educational material as I have time, and thank you for the link. I was primarily responding to Todd’s comments with questions of my own as to the validity of his statements. As to which I might add that mathematical formulas do not “cause” anything to happen. Even if there was a “Big Bang,” the most that mathematics (General Relativity Field Equations) could do would be to “map” or “track” or “describe” what happened, not explain “why” it happened. There still must be some sort of “force” or a “trigger” which could affect such a “cosmic” combination of mass/energy to begin “stretching out” from “nothing” to begin with. It’s like a game of billiards. You can use mathematics to decribe how the billiard ball moves, but unless it gets hit by the cue, nothing is going to happen to be described. I am not even trying to “invoke God” here. Even if a universe could “pop” into being, nevertheless there must be a “force” of some sort generating or “energizing” this “expansion.” What is it? Obviously it is not gravity, for example. Can we “define” or describe this force itself and its characteristics or capacities (as with gravity), as opposed to simply “measuring” what “resulted” from its “action”? Is it a “perpetual” force which is still “active”? If not, did it “die” (unlike gravity)? Has it gotten “weaker” over time (unlike gravity)? Etc. What can we say about this “mysterious” force?

      Tom Harkins 01/03/2011


    • Todd says:


      You asked a lot of questions. That’s good! But it’s also a bit daunting. I’m sure I won’t be able to address all of them (that would take way more time than I can devote to this), and I would encourage you to look into General Relativity and Big Bang cosmology in more detail than I can hope to provide. Incidentally, you have mentioned John Gribbin several times. Which book(s) of his have you read? I might be able to recommend some other books to complement his.

      First, as to my background I have do in fact have a degree (PhD in physics – I used to work with Paul back in his professor days). I have taken a course in General Relativity at the graduate level. That doesn’t make me a real expert on this topic, and in any case you should not believe someone just because they have a degree in such and such. But I have had some exposure to mathematical treatments of General Relativity and Big Bang cosmology and thus I can attempt to address a few of your questions.

      In Special Relativity space and time get fused together into a combined spacetime. This spacetime has its own particular geometry. What this means is that there are specific rules for determining the distance (or more properly, the INTERVAL, since we are dealing with spacetime and not just space) between any two points (or more properly, EVENTS). It is essentially the geometric structure of spacetime that prevents objects from traveling faster than light (i.e. moving between two different points in space that are separated by a certain distance in less time than it would take light to move that distance). What happens is that the rule for calculating distances (intervals) ends up giving you imaginary results (in the sense of square root of negative one). It’s hard to make physical sense of this, and there are other reasons for thinking things ought not travel faster than light anyway.

      Newtonian gravitational theory (that two massive objects exert instantaneous forces on each other) is inconsistent with Special Relativity. Einstein developed General Relativity to handle gravity in a way that is consistent with the geometry of Special Relativity. In the process he completely got rid of Newtonian gravitational forces. Instead, the effects previously ascribed to gravitational forces occur because of the curvature of spacetime. The curvature of spacetime, in turn, is brought about because of the presence of matter or other forms of energy (possibly including weird things like dark energy, but let’s not go there yet). So the effects that you and I call gravity still happen, but in General Relativity their explanation is different.

      The mathematical relationship between the energy/matter and the curvature of spacetime is described by the Einstein Field Equations. The details of these equations are way beyond the scope of a comment on a blog, so I won’t even attempt it. You are correct to say that mathematical formulas don’t cause things to happen. They only describe how things (apparently) do happen. The simply do not answer the WHY question. But I would submit that the why question (or at least the deep version of it) lies outside of science. Even Newton, in presenting his theory of universal gravitation, was careful not to speculate (in print) about WHY massive bodies attract each other. It was enough that they do, and that they do so according to the equations he proposed. (Although in private Newton almost certainly believed that gravity was brought about by divine influence.) So I guess all I can say in defense of the Einstein Field Equations is that they do seem to work. If you’ve ever used GPS, you’ve used the fruits of the Field Equations, because GPS satellites rely on General Relativity for their precision positioning functions. Likewise, NASA missions (especially those that pass near the sun) need to account for the effects of General Relativity using the Field Equations. For day to day life, we can pretty much get by with Newton’s theory, but General Relativity gives the same predictions as Newton in those cases. So it’s win-win for GR. It’s a good theory, we have yet to find situations where it fails in the real world. That’s not to say that we never will, but we haven’t yet.

      Note that Special Relativity is just a special case of General Relativity in which there is no energy/matter (or at least a negligible amount) so that spacetime is not curved but “flat” (this term is a bit misleading since we usually think of 2D surfaces as being flat, but here the term is applied to a 4D spacetime – but it refers to a specific type of geometry that is analogous to a flat plane).

      That’s the best I can do for GR. Now the Big Bang. General Relativity is the most important tool of modern cosmology. Physical forces like electromagnetism and the nuclear forces tend to have negligible effects on really large scales, so the structure of the universe as a whole is all about gravity (which for a modern physicist means General Relativity). You make a bunch of simplifying assumptions (mainly that the universe is pretty much the same everywhere, on really big scales) and then try to solve the Field Equations using these assumptions. The expanding universe is one of the solutions. There are others, but they don’t fit with the observations. We see distant galaxies redshifted, which looks like they are moving away from us. We also see a cosmic microwave background radiation which is exactly what we expect if the universe was very dense and hot a long time (14 billion years) ago. All this, and sundry other things, points to the expanding universe as the solution to the Field Equations that is actually applicable to our universe.

      Again I would not that the expanding universe is a solution to the equations of General Relativity. It cannot contradict gravity or Special Relativity because General Relativity essentially has gravity and Special Relativity built in. Maybe the better way to say it is that GR supersedes our old notions about gravity and Special Relativity. In any case, the restriction to slower than light travel has to do with movements that take place from one point (event) of spacetime to another. The geometry of spacetime doesn’t let these motions occur at speeds faster than light. But it does not restrict apparent motions that take place because the spacetime itself is expanding. These really are two different things.

      Draw some dots on a balloon and then blow up the balloon. Do the dots move around on the surface of the balloon? Of course they don’t! They stay right in the spots where you drew them. And yet, the spots get farther apart from each other! Why? Not because they are moving apart (in the usual sense) but because the very surface of the balloon is expanding. Relativity only restricts motions along the surface of the balloon (in this analogy) to be no greater than light speed. It just doesn’t restrict the other kinds of “motions” (if you wish to call them that).

      I don’t think I can address your question about the Second Law because I’m not sure what you are asking about. I don’t think I said anything about “lost energy.” I did say stars radiate away energy – is that what you meant? I would think that is uncontroversial. After all, we get energy from the sun all the time. It got here because the sun radiated it away. Much of the sunlight we receive is scattered back out into space. This causes a tremendous increase in entropy, an increase that more than offsets the decrease in entropy we observe on earth when, for example, a seedling grows into a tree.

      Actually self-organization is seen in many different systems, including non-living systems. In these systems there is a decrease in entropy WITHIN the system. But these situations only occur (as far as we know) when the system interacts with something else, and that something else experiences a big increase in entropy. The combined entropy of the system and the something else still increases, as per the second law.

      My sense is that you may be unsatisfied with all of these answers. My impression is that what you are really after is a “final cause” (in the sense of Aristotle’s notion of causes). You want to know WHY, not just how. But science can’t give those answers. Natural selection does not explain WHY animals evolve in any deep sense – it just provides a mechanism that can lead to evolution. General Relativity doesn’t explain why there is gravity, it just tells us how gravity works. I don’t think science is incompatible with the desire to know why, and often it is motivated by that desire. But those why questions are not part of science itself. So I think it would be perfectly rational to accept Darwinian natural selection as the mechanism (the how) for evolution, but believe that there is a “guiding hand” or designer directing that mechanism. That second belief is not science, and should not be taught AS science. But I don’t think science provides the only reason for believing things (see Paul’s original post above).

      Finally, I’d like to go back to your statement about supernatural “spirit beings.” You say they are not constrained by the laws of nature. The problem is that neither you nor I really know what those laws are. We have modern scientific theories, which I believe are very good. But they are approximate and incomplete. We will surely discard some of them for more precise, more complete theories in the future. So how do we know if these spirit beings are constrained by laws we don’t yet know of? If a spirit being starts interacting with me, how do I know it is truly supernatural and not just some “natural” entity which I have never before encountered? Presumably the experience would be shocking, because it would (or at least could) be inconsistent with the laws of nature as I currently know them. But what justifies me to conclude that this experience was caused by something that is completely beyond nature, rather than concluding that it was a natural occurrence that involved laws of nature unknown to me? Or are we to assign a supernatural cause anytime we can’t explain why something happened? I’m not trying to dismiss the idea of the supernatural in an absolute sense, but it’s hard to see how it can be used within science in a useful way.

      Well, I’m exhausted now. I hope this was helpful to you (or to somebody). I think it is great that you are asking all of these questions. It is perfectly reasonable of you to want answers to those questions. I think there are physicists and biologists out there who can answer them (perhaps in a way that you will find satisfactory, perhaps not). I would just ask that you seek out those answers without assuming that your questions cannot be answered. I’m trying to do the same thing when it comes to Christianity.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Todd, thank you very much for the time and interest you showed in your lengthy response. I feel I have a somewhat firmer grasp on “General Relativity” than I did previously. As you noted would be likely, I am, indeed, still not persuaded that what you say as to General Relativity alleviates many of the difficulties I see with statements about Big Bang. For example, what do you think of Paul’s later blog dealing with assertions that the generation of an incalculable speed of expansion of “our” universe, apparently trillions of times the speed of light, in far less time than we could conceive of as a microsecond, means there are at least trillions, if not an infinite number, of “universes” which in some senses “parallel,” but cannot interact with, our own universe under a “multiverse” theory? Is that consistent with or predicted by any Field Equations that you ever heard of, at least up until the very moment of this new “theory”? Would Einstein “turn over in his grave” to see his theory distorted in such a bizarre and virtually incomprehensible fashion?

      I guess my primary point in that respect is, it seems like “scientific” theories of evolution, whether “stellar” or “biological,” change “from day to day” in recent times in such “dramatic” fashion that it seems that either (a) the prior theories, being espoused for decades, were woefully deficient if not utterly false, and/or (b) the new theories are virtual, for lack of a better term, “hallucinations,” or “utterly fanciful,” as being so far removed from “traditional” science, and perhaps even logical continuity. “Multiverse” might be something I would think Ray Bradbury (sp?) or Isaac Asimov could have come up with–not legitimate science. (On the biological level, I am told that recent examinations of a single tooth and how far down it was in the ground when it was discovered require a complete rewrite of human evolutionary theory.) “Multiverse” and the like (such as, on a lesser level, “string theory”) espouse a totally “miraculous” nature to the universe, but without even having the benefit of a “miracle worker.”

      Let me respond more directly to a couple of your points–and please, feel no obligation to give me such a lengthy reply as your previous (and well-reasoned and well-stated) one, given time constraints (which I have as well). First, I don’t think you have gotten around my objection as to Special Relativity’s speed of light constraint by the balloon illustration. (Coincidentally enough, I also used a balloon illustration in arguing against Gribbin’s claim (in his book GENESIS) that the universe expanded to a circumference of 4 light years in the first 0.1 second of the Big Bang (I guess that’s way out the window now anyway, apparently).) You say that the “dots” on the balloon are not “moving anywhere” when the balloon is being blown up. I say they are. They are moving just as far as the internal pressure from the “blowing” causes them to move. The fact that they may still be at the “same point” on the “fabric” hardly means they are not “moving,” or that they are not moving at a certain defined “speed.” (Indeed, both Gribbin and these new fellows believe there is some speed of “expansion” of SOMETHING (the components of the universe) in an exactly measurable way (based on Field Equations, I must presume).) More importantly, the objects “inside” this expanding universe are moving AWAY FROM other objects “inside” the universe at speeds millions, billions, trillions (or whatever) times the speed of light. (Presumably not all of the “objects” in the universe are “expanding away” from the “center(?)” coextensively with the “edge”; otherwise, how could anything “slow down” enough to start “coagulating” into stars?) The speed, vis-a-vis items moving “within” the universe, as it “expands,” relative to each other, is definitely astronomically (as an understatement) in excess of the speed of light.

      Or, as an alternative consideration, presumably the “initial motion” of “anything” (or, everything) was “prompted” or “initiated” or “undertaken” by or due to the Big Bang “expansion.” At what point, then, did the Special Relativity “rule” for speed “kick in,” and as to what particles, and why (scientifically speaking, not “theologically”; i.e., due to what natural laws)? What happened to this “expansion force”?

      Finally, as to the “dividing line” between supernatural and natural, I am not sure exactly what you would be “proving” if your assertion–that “just possibly” we could learn enough rules of “nature” to “explain” anything I am referring to as “supernatural” under these as- yet-not-even-dreamed-of new rules of nature–were correct. Supposing there are “rules” of God? Would that make him “less likely to exist”? Or would it, conversely, actually have the effect of making “God” part of “science” after all? Off the top of my head, I don’t think I have any real objection to God and the angels, etc., being “within nature”–so long as, by saying so, I am not denying their existence or characteristics. However, if one were to object that such existence and characteristics are simply incompatible with nature, then I must retain my position of their actual “supernatural” existence, and my observation that they do “interact” with the natural in certain respects.

      Tom Harkins 01/04/2011


    • […] week we wrote about science envy and its effect on the humanities and social sciences, but here we have science […]


    • Todd says:


      I’ve got some time now to try and address some of your questions. I’m sure I won’t get to all of them. I hope you’ll forgive me for that – it is not because I don’t consider all of them worthy of reply.

      I think one thing that is important to keep in mind when looking at science is that speculation is an important part of science. Different scientific theories should receive different levels of confidence. For example, quantum mechanics and General Relativity receive high confidence from physicists. There are some issues of interpretation and certain highly technical problems that need to be addressed within each of these theories, but they are VERY GOOD theories that have passed crucial observational/experimental tests over and over without any real failures as yet. Big Bang cosmology is more speculative than GR and QM, but it is still a very good theory that explains a host of observations and has had some crucial predictive successes (particularly the cosmic background radiation, abundances of light elements, and differences in quasar density with distance).

      Inflationary cosmology is more speculative. It was introduced by Alan Guth of MIT to solve a particular problem: the so-called flatness problem. Inflation does a good job of solving this problem, but it has some problems of its own and as far as I know it is not universally accepted by cosmologists (though I think it has widespread support).

      So here’s the deal. General Relativity has a tremendous record of success and we have every reason to be confident in it. Big Bang cosmology has also been successful, and it is one of the main options that follows if we accept General Relativity (and the other options do not fare nearly as well in light of the evidence we have). But there are some open questions relating to Big Bang cosmology. Inflation was an idea introduced to solve one of those problems. It works well in several ways, but has its own problems and is definitely more speculative than the Big Bang. The multiverse idea is even more speculative (very much more, in my opinion).

      The case for each theory gets weaker as you go down the line of “speculativeness” (I don’t think that’s a real word, but you know what I mean). GR is very strong. Even if GR is superseded by another theory one day, that theory will almost certainly incorporate GR in much the same way that GR incorporates Newtonian gravity (as a special, or limiting, case). Big Bang cosmology is also very strong, much stronger than any alternative we have. Inflation and the mulitverse are weaker, and correspondingly more likely to be discarded (but there are not as yet strong reasons to discard them, and there are strong reasons to keep Inflation, at least, for now).

      So every scientific theory has problems. More speculative theories have greater problems. But none of that means that scientists should discard these theories or embrace supernatural explanations. Often these problems can be resolved within the theory itself. If not, sometimes they are resolved by the introduction of a new (scientific) theory. Sometimes the problems just won’t go away no matter what we do – but we just keep trying to solve them, and come up with new ideas. Science doesn’t claim to have final answers for everything (at least, it shouldn’t). But it has really good answers for somethings and hopes to find equally good answers for other things. Most of the dramatic change you complain about involves the more speculative elements of science. General Relativity, on which Big Bang cosmology is based, has been around since 1915 in pretty much its current form. So in your lifetime and mine this theory hasn’t changed much (although the way we use it has changed – they didn’t have GPS back in 1915!).

      Now to the spots on the balloon. This is the thing my students have a hard time with too – it really is very tricky to think about that demonstration in the right way. The key is to recognize that we are claiming that the SURFACE of the balloon represents the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Therefore, there is no space outside of the balloon’s surface. Of course, the real balloon exists in a 3D space and as you blow it up it expands into a pre-existing region of space. But in our cosmological model the expanding universe isn’t expanding INTO anything. There is no pre-existing space for it to expand into. It is just expanding.

      In this sense, we can’t talk about those spots as moving. They maintain their location on the balloon’s surface and there isn’t anywhere else that they have moved from or move into. So, they are sitting still. Yes, they do get farther away from each other. But note that they ALL get farther away from ALL of the other spots. There is no center, no special spot that all the others are fleeing from. The real balloon has a center, but that center is not on the balloon’s surface. So in our model it would lie outside the universe – it’s not even clear what that could mean. The spots are not in motion, certainly not in the technical sense in which MOTION faster than light is prohibited by Special Relativity. That prohibition is there all along, but it has nothing to do with the increasing distances due to the expansion.

      I’ll let the supernatural/natural debate lie. I suspect where we really differ is on the existence of the effects you attribute to angels, etc. From your comments I infer that you have confidence that these effects (angelic messages, prophecy, miracles as in Joshua 10) are things that really happen. I am not at all convinced of this. In fact, in the specific case of Joshua 10 I find the whole thing pretty disturbing if I even try to take it seriously.


    • Andrew says:

      And keep in mind: Gravity is also “just a theory”.

      But I wouldn’t bet against it.



    • Tom Harkins says:

      Todd, probably we are getting to a point where we are mostly reiterating our prior positions and making little headway in persuading each other on any significant points. I would just note briefly that I still can’t go with your balloon illustration. I am not making an argument (at least, not for our purposes here), that, if Big Bang occurred, it expanded “into” the universe. I am talking about things moving around “inside” the universe, inside the “balloon.” It is obvious that there are multiple trillions to the trillions of powers of “things” moving around every which way “inside” the universe. By typing this, I am making some “movements” “within” the universe. Those are constrained by the speed of light. So will be the electronic current that “transfers” what I am typing to Paul’s blog. Stars are “moving around” in the universe, per their red and blue shifts, and they are moving around relative to other stars and relative to our planet (at least, as far as I am aware, they are). I think we are both agreed that as to all those motions, special relativity applies and it provides that no matter can be accelerated from one position to another “inside” the universe at in excess of the speed of light.

      Consequently, the questions become, as to these things “inside” the universe; well, first of all, given your universe expanding, did these things “drop out” of the “expanding universe” at some point to become things “within” the universe to which special relativity applies? If so, when and how and why? Are there any “laws” which govern such “dropping inside” type events? Any “time tables”? Also, what actually is it that is “expanding” in, or as part and parcel of, this universe (not into “outside” the universe, just the “constitution” of whatever it is that is “expanding”) that is moving at this incredible billions of times the speed of light (or whatever) at some “early moments” in time (even if mini-micro-seconds in duration)? Surely some “matter” is “moving along” as the universe “expands,” if nothing more than hydrogen atoms and dust. (Incidentally, if Big Bang was capable of producing “something” where nothing was before, why would it be “limited” in its initial “creative capacity” to hydrogen atoms? Isn’t it really the case that hydrogen atoms are “selected” for no other reason than that they are the “smallest” and “simplest” atoms? Actually, they are quite complex enough for it to be somewhat “startling” that “nothing” would “spit out” even hydrogen atoms. But, if it could do that magic, I see no reason why it could not have kicked out uranium.) I just don’t see any way around the “speed limit” being violated by “something” or another moving around when Big Bang “expands.”

      Finally, I note your bemusement as to Joshua 10. I think every skeptic has his favorite thing to point to when challenging the reality of biblical “miracles.” Another atheist (I don’t know, actually, whether you are an atheist, or more in Paul’s “category,” but this fellow was one “straight out”) thought Balaam’s donkey was the key to defeating any “realism” to biblical miracles. Of course, you could point to walking on water, or any number of other things. The ultimate key is this. Do you believe in an all-powerful God who could create anything and everything around us however he may have wanted to, with any rules he wanted to, and therefore easily with the power and capacity to override any such “rules” that he himself created, should he want to do so? I just don’t see the real problem with particular miracles if you ever accept that premise. That’s the key. Is there such a God, or not? If there is, scripture asks rhetorically, “Is there anything too hard for God?” Or, it states, “With God, all things are possible.” It is no more difficult for God to say, “Earth, stop spinning on your axis for awhile,” than to say, “Let there be an earth spinning on its axis” to start with. (Of course the “appearance” of that would be, expressed in poetic language, asking the sun and moon to “stand still.”)

      So, I guess our ultimate dispute, which apparently is unlikely to be resolved, is whether you believe in such a “God” or not. If you don’t, it is understandable that you would go with a Big Bang cosmology as the “explanation” for it all–what else would there be?

      (As far as Big Bang being necessary to explain GPS, I don’t quite get that. It may be that you need general relativity for that “operation,” if you do, but Big Bang seems quite a bit removed to me.)

      Tom Harkins 01/10/2011


    • Todd says:


      Yes, things move around in the Universe and these motions are subject to the restrictions imposed by Special Relativity. But the increase in distance between galaxies (as indicated by galactic redshifts) is NOT due to these galaxies moving around in the Universe (at least not in any model that accepts General Relativity). Nothing needs to “drop in” to the Universe and suddenly become subject to Special Relativity. The galaxies, hydrogen atoms, etc, are all there in the Universe and subject to Special Relativity right from the start. But the increase in distance as the universe expands (whether the rapid increase of Inflation, or the slower increase we think is going on right now) is simply not due to motion through space. It is due to the expansion of space. It is space itself which is expanding, and this causes objects to get farther apart from each other even IF they are not moving through space at all. They may BE moving through space (but not faster than light), but the point is that even if they are all sitting still (in the sense of motion through space) they will get farther apart from each other. This is just like the points on the balloon. The points don’t move from one patch of latex to another. They stay right there on the bit of latex where you drew them. But because the space they occupy (that latex surface of the balloon) expands, the points all get farther apart. Special Relativity doesn’t get turned off and on, objects don’t leave or drop into the universe. It’s just that what you are claiming violates Special Relativity is not, in fact, relevant to Special Relativity.

      Incidentally Big Bang cosmology does not assume that the matter/energy in the universe began in the form of hydrogen atoms. In the very early universe most energy was probably in the form of photons of light. Only later did the temperature of the universe drop until hydrogen atoms could form. You are absolutely correct that these atoms formed, rather than other atoms, because they are the smallest. They are the least massive and have the fewest constituent particles, and this makes them easier to form than larger atoms.

      As for my problem with Joshua 10, it is really just one example of many I have with various parts of the Bible. My problem is not so much the bit about the sun and moon standing still, even though we know their apparent motion is really caused by Earth’s rotation. I think even the strictest Biblical literalist would be willing to concede that the passage describes the apparent behavior, as seen by human observers on Earth. I’m fine with that. I do, however, have a problem with the miracle itself. I freely confess that I don’t accept a traditional Biblical understanding of what God is – so though not strictly an atheist I am not a Christian. But let’s accept God as you describe him. I have a problem with him halting the normal function of the Earth so that Joshua’s enemies can be killed more easily. Now, you can say that the ways of God are beyond my understanding, and there I would certainly agree with you. But if we are to accept the Biblical story, it tells us why this miracle occurred. I happened so that the enemies of the chosen people could be slain. I’m sorry, but that gives me the heebie-jeebies.

      Anyway, I am doing my best to look past these bits in the Bible that give me fits so that I can see the very significant amount of good that is there.

      GPS uses General Relativity. Big Bang cosmology is a solution to the equations of General Relativity, and as far as we know now it is the only solution that fits with our observations of the universe in which we live. GPS is NOT based on Big Bang cosmology in any direct way, and I’m sorry if what I wrote implied that.

      You are, of course, correct that our ultimate “dispute” (maybe “disagreement” would be better?) is unlikely to be resolved. That said, I hope we can learn from each other. You’ve definitely forced me to think carefully about quite a few things in order to respond to your questions. Thanks for that!


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    • don salmon says:

      It is not possible to define the word “physical” without reference to awareness. nagarjuna saw this almost 2000 years ago; it was clearly expressed in the Katha Upanishad nearly 3000 years ago, yet here we are, in the 21st century, along with Blakemore, Dawkins and the rest, making the same mistake.

      Not to worry – by 2050, when psi is accepted amongst the majority of scientists, this will all be different (wait a minute, if you exclude psychologist, and only include natural and life sciences, psi IS already accepted by a majority of scientists. So why are we still talking about physical closure and science? Please join the 21st century!


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