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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

Watch or listen here or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

EPISODE # 185

Stephen Meyer on the Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (and why Shermer remains skeptical)

The Gone Fishin Portfolio (book cover)

Beginning in the late 19th century, many intellectuals began to insist that scientific knowledge conflicts with traditional theistic belief — that science and belief in God are “at war.” Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer challenges this view by examining three scientific discoveries with decidedly theistic implications. Building on the case for the intelligent design of life that he developed in Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer claims that discoveries in cosmology and physics coupled with those in biology help to establish the identity of the designing intelligence behind life and the universe.

Meyer argues that theism — with its affirmation of a transcendent, intelligent and active creator — best explains the evidence we have concerning biological and cosmological origins. Previously Meyer refrained from attempting to answer questions about “who” might have designed life. Now he provides an evidence-based answer to perhaps the ultimate mystery of the universe. Shermer responds to each claim and a stimulating and enlightening conversation ensues.

Note: It is Dr. Shermer’s intention in his podcast to periodically talk to people with whom skeptics and scientists may disagree. In some episodes Dr. Shermer tries to “steel man” a position held by someone with differing views — that is, he says in his own words what he thinks the other person is arguing — but in this case the other person is in the conversation and can represent his own position clearly, which is what happens. As well, such conversations enable principles of skepticism to be employed in ways constructive to those who hold views not necessarily embraced by skeptics and scientists. Such principles should be embraced by all seekers of truth, and that is why we want to talk to people with whom we may disagree.

Stephen Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science after working as an oil industry geophysicist. He now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. He authored Signature in the Cell, a (London) Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year.

Shermer and Meyer discuss:

  • Meyer’s background and how he came to his conclusions about theism,
  • sociology of science, consensus science, and why ID is not accepted by most scientists,
  • the origins of morality,
  • irreducible complexity and information theory,
  • what Stephen Hawking really thought about God,
  • worldview differences: materialism vs. what? immaterialism/spiritualism?
  • methodological naturalism (as opposed to what? methodological supernaturalism?)
  • How does the ID mind interact with the physical universe?
  • “Where” is God/ID if “outside” spacetime, and how does he reach in to stir the particles? And when? Cambrian Explosion? Eukaryote cells? DNA? Embryological development? The fall of every sparrow?
  • Who designed the designer?
  • The meaning of Richard Dawkins famous quote: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
From Shermer’s book Giving the Devil His Due

Alvy’s Error: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human time scale of days, weeks, months, and years — our four-score ± 10 lifespan—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters. One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with the Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced: “On a naturalistic worldview everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat-death of the universe. As the universe expands it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light, only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.”

Kagan properly nailed Craig, referencing the latter’s example of godless Nazi torturers: “This strikes me as an outrageous thing to suggest. It doesn’t really matter? Surely it matters to the torture victims whether they’re being tortured. It doesn’t require that this make some cosmic difference to the eternal significance of the universe for it to matter whether a human being is tortured. It matters to them, it matters to their family, and it matters to us.”

Craig committed a related mistake when he argued that, “Without God there are no objective moral values, moral duties, or moral accountability.” And: “If life ends at the grave then ultimately it makes no difference whether you live as a Stalin or a Mother Teresa.” Call this Craig’s Categorical Error: assessing the value of something by the wrong category of criteria. In my 2018 book Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, I debunk this common belief that without God and the promise of an afterlife, this life has no morality or meaning. We live in the hear-and-now, not the hearafter, so our actions must be judged according to the criteria of this category, whether or not the category of a God-granted hereafter exists. Whether you behave like a Russian dictator who murdered tens of millions of people, or a Roman Catholic missionary who tended to the poor, matters very much to the victims of totalitarianism and poverty.

Why does it matter? Because we are sentient beings designed by evolution to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) is the First Law of Life. If you do nothing, entropy will take its course and you will move toward a higher state of disorder that ends in death. So our most basic purpose in life is to combat entropy by doing something extropic—expending energy to survive and flourish. Being kind and helping others was one successful strategy, and punishing Paleolithic Stalins was another, and from this we evolved morality. In this sense, evolution bestowed upon us a moral and purpose-driven life by dint of the laws of nature. We do not need any source higher than that to find meaning or morality.

From Shermer’s Scientific American column:

If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe, or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to the Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, in his intensely insightful book The Big Picture (Dutton, 2016), “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.” Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, such as the thermodynamic arrow of time and the Core Theory of particles and forces, you can scale up to planets and people, and even assess the likelihood that God, the soul, the afterlife, and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.

Take the Core Theory of particles and forces, which Carroll says is “indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Ha-ha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism’.” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate, or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”

What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and her laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?

Intelligent Design Theory = God of the Gaps
  1. X looks designed
  2. I can’t think of how X was designed naturally
  3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally

Remember Leslie Orgel’s Rule: “Evolution is cleaver than you are.” That is, “trial and error” strategies are better than centralized intelligent planning, especially if you have 3.5 billions years.

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