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Jennifer Ouellette

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The Physics of the Buffyverse

with Jennifer Ouellette

Sunday, March 11th, 2pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

In the tradition of the bestselling The Physics of Star Trek, acclaimed science writer Jennifer Ouellette explains fundamental concepts in the physical sciences through examples culled from the hit TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. The weird and wonderful world of the Buffyverse — where the melding of magic and science is an everyday occurrence — provides a fantastical jumping-off point for looking at complex theories of biology, chemistry, and theoretical physics. From surreal vampires, demons, and interdimensional portals to energy conservation, black holes, and string theory, The Physics of the Buffyverse is serious science for the rest of us.

Jennifer Ouellette writes the column This Month in Physics History for APS News, the monthly publication of the American Physical Society. Her articles have appeared in publications from Discover to Salon.

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TIME magazine cover

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Gary J. Whittenberger’s skeptical analysis of the “spirited debate between atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins” which appeared in Time magazine on November 13, 2006.

Dr. Gary Whittenberger is a consulting and clinical psychologist living in Tallahassee, Florida. His undergraduate training was in psychology and philosophy at Purdue University, and his doctoral training was in clinical psychology at Florida State University. Subsequently, he worked for 23 years in prisons where he not only offered psychological services to inmates, but designed, managed, and evaluated programs for helping them overcome addictions. He belongs to several Freethinkers’ groups and is a life-long skeptic.


Dawkins v. Collins Debate

by Gary J. Whittenberger

“God Vs. Science” was the featured debate in the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine between well-known scientists Dr. Francis Collins, who is a Christian, and Dr. Richard Dawkins, who is an atheist. The article reported a lively exchange between these two scientific heavyweights who answered questions from a moderator about various controversies involving religion and science. Skeptics and believers alike should read the original article. However, this essay will summarize the important points of the Time article and offer skeptical commentary.

In the first exchange, Dawkins and Collins apparently agreed that the proposition “God exists” is either true or false. Dawkins indicated that science is appropriate to the task of answering the question, but Collins disagreed: “From my perspective, God cannot be completely contained within nature, and therefore God’s existence is outside of science’s ability to really weigh in.”

Collins started on the wrong foot by doing a little question begging; he assumed God’s existence from the outset without presenting any evidence for the inference. But he also left the backdoor open for science to weigh in on God’s existence. By saying that “God cannot be completely contained within nature,” he implied that God can be partly contained within nature, which makes God open to scientific analysis. On the other hand, Collins implied that God is partly contained outside nature. Since we are part of nature, how could we ever get outside of it to see that there is anything on the other side? It is common for religious apologists like Collins to talk about things “outside nature” or “the supernatural,” but they always seem to fall short in presenting any evidence that anything “supernatural” exists. By inventing a category called “supernatural” and relegating hypothetical things to it, they apparently hope to protect those things from the requirement of evidence.

Dawkins indicated that before the theory of evolution it was thought that the idea of God was required to explain the complexity, purpose, beauty, and elegance of living things. But the theory of evolution showed that the God hypothesis was unnecessary for the explanation. Collins responded by saying that a God, being “outside of nature” and therefore “outside of space and time,” could have designed and activated evolution itself at the moment of his creation of the universe. Collins fails to consider all the consequences of inventing a realm or a being “outside of nature.” One important feature of nature is its orderliness. If God were “outside of nature,” wouldn’t he be “outside of orderliness”? If so, then this would preclude him from having all the wonderful behavioral tendencies, such as perfect goodness, which are often ascribed to him. Collins is fond of saying that God is “outside of space and time.” What does this mean? Does it make any sense to say that something exists outside space and time? When we apply the word “exists” to something, don’t we mean that we can observe it or its effects in space and time? Have we ever observed anything outside space and time? Collins seems to be caught in the quicksand of contradiction. Even if one entertains for a moment the odd notion that God could exist “outside time,” this seems to lead to a conclusion that he couldn’t do anything, including the particularly spectacular act attributed to him, i.e. creating the universe.

Time is the measure of change. If there is no time, there is no change. If there is no change, there is no action. If there is no action, there is no creation. If God were to exist outside of time, he would be impotent to do anything at all! By insisting that God exists “outside of nature,” Collins nearly makes his supernatural compartment so small that there isn’t enough room for God.

In response, Dawkins indicated that it would be odd if God chose to create humans through a 14-billion-year process of evolution. Collins responded by saying that this roundabout way of producing humans would not be an odd course of action for a God not having the purpose of making “his intention absolutely obvious to us.” Collins postulates a sort of subtle God who doesn’t want to give us too much information about his existence. Responding further to Dawkins, Collins said “If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?” What would be so wrong with God’s “posting obvious road signs”? Collins implies the answer, i.e. by doing so, God would simply be forcing us to believe in him!

Collins seems to endorse the dubious notion that giving clear unambiguous information to people would be forcing them to take a certain course of action. If we were to emulate the God whom Collins envisions, we would dispense with any “obvious road signs” and would withhold clear information from adolescents about the connection between smoking cigarettes and getting lung cancer so that they wouldn’t be forced to forgo smoking. Rather than addressing the subtle God that Collins imagines, Dawkins challenges the traditional God. He is certainly correct that the inefficiency of evolution, not to mention its “errors of design,” is inconsistent with the traditional idea of God as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being. This traditional kind of God would be more likely to operate through Creationism, but this hypothesized mode of operation is not supported by the evidence of biology, genetics, geology, and cosmology.

Collins and Dawkins then offered their differing views on the “fine-tuning” of our universe. According to this idea, if any of a half dozen of the “physical constants” of our universe had been just slightly different in value from what it actually is, then life as we know it, including human life, would not exist. The terminology gets a little confusing here. How can something that is a constant be different from what it is? When physicists and cosmologists talk about a “physical constant,” they mean a physical factor which has a certain value (represented by a particular number) which is constant throughout all times and places in our universe but which might possibly vary across different universes, if there were other universes. A physical constant would have the same value throughout any given universe, but might vary from one universe to another.

Dawkins proposed two possible explanations for the values of the physical constants we find in our universe. One is that these constants couldn’t be any different from what they are; they simply are what they are. The other is that our universe is just one of a very large population of universes. Within this great mulitverse environment, there are bound to be some universes that have the physical constants at just the right values to support the development of life, and we find ourselves in one of them. Collins dealt with the improbability of the physical constants, life, and human life by suggesting that a super-being selected the physical constants to be what they are. God “tuned” the universe to make life possible. In supporting his own explanation, Collins ignored the first hypothesis mentioned by Dawkins and attempted to dismiss the second. He said that the application of Occam’s razor leads him to favor the God-as-tuner hypothesis. Dawkins responded by saying that the God hypothesis, although not impossible, is actually more improbable than the universe which it is designed to explain. Nevertheless, he advocated keeping an open mind when he said “It’s an honest scientific quest to discover where this apparent improbability comes from.”

Although Dawkins seems to present the two best currently available alternatives to Collins’ God hypothesis to explain the life-enabling values of the physical constants of our universe, he and Collins both seem to accept without any skepticism the proposition that our universe is improbable. But how can they just assume this? In my opinion, they do this through a misapplication of probability theory. In the debate they used the “gravitational constant” as an example. They correctly noted that if the gravitational constant (G) were different by one part in a hundred million million, then life, as we know it, would not be possible in our universe. One can imagine a range of values from X to Y, within which G is included (X≤G≤Y) and within which life is possible in our universe. Conversely, one can imagine a set of values outside the range of X to Y (i.e. <X and >Y) for which life is not possible in our universe. Dawkins and Collins jump to the conclusion that, since the former range of values is so small compared to the latter set of values, our universe must be really rare or improbable.

Not only do they ignore the idea that some other kind of life (“life as we do not know it”) might be possible outside the X to Y range and the idea that there is an infinite number of values between X and Y for which life might be possible in our universe, more importantly, they also assume that they know something very important about a population of universes. In order to conclude that a particular item with some feature is improbable, one must know at least two facts about the population from which the item is drawn as a sample. One must know how many items with the feature are in the population and how many items without the feature are in that same population (or alternatively, how many items altogether are in the population). One can then draw valid inferences about the probabilities of different samples. The problem is that neither Dawkins nor Collins nor anyone else knows these facts about any possible population of universes from which our particular one might have been drawn as a sample.

In fact, we do not know that any other universes exist at all! Without knowledge of other universes, Dawkins and Collins misuse probability theory to conclude that our universe is rare. Because they start with an unwarranted assumption, their further speculations along these lines can’t go very far. Even if we knew that a universe supportive of life was improbable, which we don’t know, purposeful selection among possible universes (the God hypothesis) is a worse explanation of our particular universe than is random selection.

More must be said about Collins’ contention that the application of Occam’s razor supports the God hypothesis over the multiverse hypothesis. It doesn’t. The God hypothesis is less parsimonious than the multiverse hypothesis for two reasons:

  1. it invents a totally new type of entity, a supernatural being “outside time and space,” which is not necessary with the latter hypothesis, and
  2. it leads to the classic problem of infinite regress. If there must be something outside our universe, i.e. God, to explain the existence of our universe, then there must be something outside of God, i.e. “Z,” to explain God. Then something is needed to explain “Z,” ad infinitum.

At one point in the debate Collins said that those who interpret Genesis in a literal way reach conclusions at odds with the findings of science, especially on the age of the Earth and the way in which species are related. Alluding to St. Augustine and commenting on the book of Genesis, Collins said “It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God.” It is just as likely or more likely that the writer of Genesis intended his narrative to be an accurate account of what happened during creation than that he intended his narrative to be metaphorical, figurative, or allegorical. Collins is able to avoid the conclusion that the Bible is very likely not the “word of God” by adopting a nonliteral interpretation. Dawkins suggested that in defending evolution from his fundamentalist colleagues Collins was simply having an in-house quarrel, something he should just avoid.

The debate then turned to a discussion of miracles. The Time moderator asked: “Dr. Collins, the Resurrection is an essential argument of Christian faith, but doesn’t it, along with the virgin birth and lesser miracles, fatally undermine the scientific method?” It would have been better had he phrased his questions the other way around and asked if the scientific method undermines or throws off the claims of the Resurrection, the virgin birth, and other miracles. Nevertheless, Collins responded that if one accepts God’s existence, then it is not unreasonable to expect that God might occasionally intervene in the world in a miraculous way, and that if one accepts that Jesus was divine then the Resurrection is “not a great logical leap.” But these are big “ifs,” and although Collins tries to show that they are plausible, he offers no good evidence to show that they are probable.

The debaters expressed different views on the origin of altruistic feelings and behavior. Collins said that there is a good explanation for some altruism; it either involves helping family members who share our DNA or it involves helping others whom we expect to help us later in return. But he said that there is not a good naturalistic explanation for altruism of the type exhibited by people such as Oskar Schindler who provided safety to Jews during the reign of the Nazis. It appears that people sometimes risk their lives and in the process also their genes in order to help strangers from whom they have no expectations of help in return. Collins implied that this altruism is a sign of God’s existence and a gift from him. Dawkins asserted that altruism in these cases is a kind of carry-over from ancient times when altruism had survival value for people living in small clans. Going beyond altruism, Collins then pointed to the existence of “moral law” or the “absolutes … of good and evil” within the human species as evidence for the existence of God. This morality among humans is supposed to show that beyond just being a creator of the universe, God cares about us. Dawkins responded that good and evil don’t exist as independent entities but that good and bad things simply happen to people.

Collins’ “moral law” argument is another variation on the “God of the Gaps” theme. If science doesn’t yet have a complete description of a phenomenon, then there must be a super-being behind the scenes who is responsible for whatever is in the gaps. A big problem with this approach is that it tends to put a damper on further investigation. Besides that, Collins has an obligation to present a positive case for God’s existence and not just rely on the current apparent weaknesses of rival hypotheses. Collins’ idea of a “moral law” is premature and far too rigid when one considers the variability in moral rules across different geographic areas, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. There are moral principles because humans are constantly deciding on how they should behave, especially towards each other, and there are some commonalities in these moral principles, but there is hardly a “moral law.” In fact, the absence of a “moral law,” a universally agreed upon set of moral rules, is more compatible with God’s nonexistence than with his existence. Wouldn’t an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God have revealed a universal moral code to all peoples from the very beginning of our species and reinforced it with booster training sessions each generation?

When he tried to explain why he supports the opening of new stem cell lines, in contrast to a great many other religious people, Collins presented a confusing, almost incoherent discussion of the relationship of faith and reason: “Faith is not the opposite of reason. Faith rests squarely upon reason, but with the added component of revelation.” Part of the difficulty here is that “faith” has several different meanings and unfortunately Collins isn’t clear about which meaning he intends. “Faith” may refer to a religion or worldview, as in “My faith is Islam.” It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in “I have faith in my physician.” Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence. It is this latter meaning that goes against Collins’ platitude that “Faith is not the opposite of reason.” Reason involves believing propositions on the basis of evidence or in proportion to the available evidence. Thus, if not strictly the opposite of one another, faith and reason are certainly incompatible. And how does adding revelation to the mix help at all? Revelation is not a separate way of knowing immune from the light of reason. One must still look at the evidence to evaluate a claim that a “holy book” contains “revelations” from a supreme being.

In his concluding remarks Collins indicated that he is interested in many “why” questions for which he believes answers may not come from science but from the “spiritual realm.” In his concluding remarks Dawkins indicated his doubt that the future discoveries of science would support any of the beliefs of the traditional religions, beliefs that he regards as parochial, but nevertheless worthy of some respect. And on that conciliatory note, the debate was concluded.

Who won the debate? From the perspective of style or mode of expression, perhaps Collins won. At times, Dawkins seemed to come across as a bit testy and abrasive. He not only referred to fundamentalists as “clowns,” but several times he accused Collins of presenting “cop outs.” Collins, on the other hand, seemed more self-assured and gentlemanly in his interpersonal style. From the perspective of content or validity of argument, Dawkins won the debate hands-down. He made many points that Collins seemed helpless to rebut. Collins failed to show that he has found a satisfactory conciliation between religion and science, between faith and reason, or even that such a project is possible. Overall, the debate provided useful insights into the currently hot, but perennial issue of science versus religion.

Also of interest…

The Selfish Gene
(Dawkins’ paperback book)

Climbing Mount Improbable
(Dawkins’ paperback book)

The Root of All Evil
(Dawkins’ 2-part controversial documentary)

The God Delusion
(Dawkins’ hardcover book)

The God Delusion
(Dawkins’ lecture at Caltech)

The Ancestor’s Tale
(Dawkins’ hardcover book)

The Ancestor’s Tale
(Dawkins’ lecture at Caltech)

Skeptic Vol. 3 No. 4 Cosmology & God
(includes an interview with Dawkins)

Skeptic Vol. 10 No. 3 Evolution, Intelligent Design
(features Dawkins’ article, “A Devil’s Chaplain”)

2 Comments »

2 Comments

  1. Jonn Mero says:

    Very lucid article, but ‘mode of expression’ [i](From the perspective of style or mode of expression, perhaps Collins won)[/i] hardly validates an argument.
    Dawkin’s being ‘testy’ would not unlikely be the result of Collins’s failing acceptance of plain logic in trying to validate an unsustainable argument, to contain the concept of god or God within the explicable.
    Something that is outside our reality, although possible as a figment of our imagination, will always be something of no natural significance.

  2. naga says:

    “Something that is outside our reality, although possible as a figment of our imagination, will always be something of no natural significance.” This can refer only to ‘apparent’ reality since Reality is all inclusive that supports appearances. Once conceded we can reconcile Collins’ and Dawkin’s. Apparent reality, testable and justifiable is what science is all about and the absolute Reality is God-stuff that is invariant (having no attributes in space & time) – i.e. beyond space and time. Creation is in space & time and therefore only apparent or a projection. Still, God needs be explained, since Reality cannot be objectified. In other words, ‘God’ refers to the adjunct that creates or projects, but has to be even it be the ‘whole’, well within it. Since he stands for the ‘whole’, all the necessary information, laws or formulas are ‘fait accompli’. Now, evolution can only be a natural corollary that augments the info-base ‘ad infinitum’.

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