Dumb Things Scientists Say

Don’t get me wrong.  Getting a PhD in the physical sciences is a significant achievement.  It requires both significant native intelligence as well as a serious work ethic.  I admire anyone who has accomplished this feat.  I have even more admiration for those who follow up by making a serious contribution to advancing knowledge in their field of expertise. They deserve our respect, regardless of whatever religious views they may or may not hold.

However, when scientists of obvious talent and achievement imagine that they are thus qualified to pontificate on areas outside their specific domain, then the red flags go up.  My BS detector goes on yellow alert, waiting for what comes next.  Why?  Because when an accomplished scientist wanders into the fields of philosophy and theology, in which he or she has no formal training, then the result is frequently a disaster.  At times it is downright comical, except that it is also just too sad.

Richard Dawkins is perhaps the best contemporary example of how thoroughly incompetent a respected scientist can be when addressing questions of philosophy of religion. Indeed, The God Delusion is a compendium of how to poorly present arguments that are already incredibly bad in the first place.  You would think that his friends would learn from this example and stick to writing about something that is within their areas of competency.  That is too much to hope for, however. They keep at it.

Dawkins’s friend, Lawrence Krauss has decided to join the fray with his ill advised attempt to prove that there really is a free lunch in the universe after all.  He thinks he can show that it is possible to get something from nothing, and he has devoted an entire book to the subject.  Being a mere theologian, I am in no position to critique or evaluate his discussion of recent developments in physics and cosmology.  Indeed, I find what he has to say fascinating.  But I can comment on his treatment of metaphysical issues. And it is these that go to the heart of his thesis.

Krauss makes some significant philosophical claims at the outset of his work.  In the process he manages to say some things that are not only fallacious, they are downright dumb.  These are statements that a good philosophy professor would not let his undergrad students get away with.  Since his entire case rests on these building blocks, it ultimately comes crashing down. That his discussion of physics might be otherwise brilliant is, hence, of little import.

Here is an example that summarizes the presuppositions underlying Krauss’s book.

When it comes to understanding how our universe evolves, religion and theology have been at best irrelevant. They often muddy the waters, for example, by focusing on questions of nothingness without providing any definition of the term based on empirical evidence. While we do not yet fully understand the origin of our universe, there is no reason to expect things to change in this regard. Moreover, I expect that ultimately the same will be true for our understanding of areas that religion now considers its own territory, such as human morality.

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beauty or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models.
Krauss, Lawrence (2012-01-10). A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (Kindle Locations 266-272). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

Without going into a detailed critique and refutation at this time, I will point out the more obvious fallacies stated here.

1. He assumes the outdated and oft refuted epistemology of Logical Positivism as his starting point.  Theology, religion, and by implication philosophy are useless and irrelevant because they think there is such a thing as non-empirical knowledge.  They do not base their definitions on empirical evidence.  So Krauss is a pure empiricist. No doubt he never read Gordon Clark’s treatment of empiricism in his little book, Three Types of Religious Philosophy. That would disabuse him of this notion in short order.

2. Science, by which he means empiricism, can explain everything, even morality.  Here he commits the ubiquitous atheistic fallacy of thinking that by explaining how something might have developed he has answered the question as to its truth.  This is repeated so often in banal village atheist internet rants that it has become quite boring.

No one disputes that people and societies have strong notions of morality.  In this sense, of course, an atheist can say that morality exists.  We can agree that reconstructing how such moral sensibility may have developed and evolved is an interesting and important question.  However, it is a simple category mistake, unworthy of a college freshman, to imagine that this somehow answers the question as to what is the actual nature of ultimate good and evil.  Knowing how someone came to believe that firebombing an orphanage is wrong is not at all the same thing as being able to prove that it actually is wrong.  Explaining the origins of morality in terms of Darwinism doesn’t even begin to address the question of whether or not there are actually universal moral goods and why this might be the case.

3.  He clearly has already assumed that nature is all there is, before he ever starts his inquiry.  This makes his entire discussion a massive exercise in the logical fallacy of begging the question.  Again, this is an elementary mistake that I would not let pass in the work of any undergraduate.  He affirms the success of science in understanding nature in the context of proposing to address ultimate questions.  This clearly presupposes that all ultimate questions must have their reference point within the confines of nature itself.  There is nothing that transcends nature.  How does he know this?  By fiat, apparently.  He just assumes it to be so. This assumption throws a significant bias into his next claim.

4.  Science and scientists like himself, follow the evidence wherever it leads.  Unless, of course, it were to point to the necessity of a personal, intelligent, all-powerful mind from outside of nature who designed and created nature itself.  In that case, you just redefine the terms, so that the evidence points back to itself.  After all, if nature is all there is, then there can’t very well be anything outside of it, can there? Then there is the nasty little detail that he provides no empirical evidence that could possibly justify his own metaphysical assumptions in this regard.

5.  Strictly speaking, no theory of science can ever be proven absolutely to be correct.  Only one counter example is enough to destroy any theory, though it normally takes many such examples to pry a cherished notion from the hands of scientists.  They tend to be as stubborn as the rest of us.  This is the great fallacy behind the modern myth that sexual orientation is an unchangeable, immutable trait, impervious to therapeutic efforts to modify it.

Krauss does, at least, have the right idea that integrity in science means attempting to falsify one’s own theories.  This is somewhat difficult to do, however, if you keep arbitrarily changing the definitions of the key terms in the argument.  This is exactly what he does in his ill-fated attempt at getting a free lunch out of philosophical naturalism. He does this simply by refusing to engage the arguments that philosophers and theologians have been raising for thousands of years. He won’t argue the case that he wants to defend.  He simply will not accept the definition of nothing that both common sense and philosophical precision demands.  He just states that the notion of utter non-being is little more than a semantic trick, accuses theologians of bad faith, and insists on defining “nothing” as actually “something”, though this “something” shifts whenever it is convenient.  When theologians attempt to get him to seriously engage, he bolts.  Each time the layers of being are pulled back to reveal the abyss of non-being underneath, he finds a new something to label as “nothing”.  For Krauss, its “turtles all the way down”.

This scenario reminds me very much of some of the childhood arguments between the boys in my old neighborhood back on Neely’s Bend Road in Tennessee.  Whoever has the ball has the power.  Krauss is the petulant kid who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t like the rules of the game. “If you don’t play by my rules, then I’m gonna take my ball and go home!”, he cries, and walks away to sulk alone in his house.  The rest of us just shrug and continue to play together.  There are plenty of interesting games that do not require a ball.  His argument is neither that interesting or significant that we theologians spend much time fretting about it.

5.  I think the dumbest thing Krauss says is the third principle that he articulates above.  All truth is ultimately confirmed or denied by means of empirical experiments.  One immediately wonders what scientific experiment anyone has ever performed to affirm this particular proclamation of universal and absolute truth.  By what process, and in which laboratory, was this knowledge verified?  It is amazing that this self-contradictory, irrational relic of a discredited early 20th century philosophy is still affirmed by anyone with an advanced education.  He seems to miss the obvious fact that everybody holds to apriori beliefs, many or most of which could never even be tested by empirical, experimental methods, much less proven that way.  His third proposition is, itself, one such belief.

My suspicion is that his unwillingness to allow his theory to be challenged in the only way possible, by rigorous philosophical analysis, demonstrates just how strongly he derives comfort from it.  This belief seems to be an important part of his self-perceived intellectual superiority to those who are taken in and fooled by religion.  That must be comforting indeed. He appears to see a certain beauty and elegance to his own theories about ultimate reality.  Theological explanations are treated as an ugly intrusion into this conception.  Could it be that this prejudice blinds him to considering the possibility that there might actually be a serious intellectual argument here that needs to be dealt with?

Whatever the case, Krauss avoids discussing the issue that is at stake here.  In this sense, the book is a disappointment.  One comes looking for something of substance to engage and finds instead that the entire project is based on a series of mistakes that are not worthy of the average undergraduate.  I’m not referring to the philosophy major either.  It isn’t worthy of the poor freshman who finds himself in a philosophy course only because it is required to fulfill his school’s distribution requirements.  Nevertheless, the book has some interesting physics, so it is worth reading.  Just don’t expect an answer to the question that is raised in the book’s title.