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November 9, 2017 | 16 Comments

Math: Old, New, and Equalitarian — A Review

I have a new paper out in Academic Questions, a review, “Math: Old, New, and Equalitarian.”

Springer is charging a mere pittance for viewing it. Only $39.95. But I think you can get a PDF from this link, through something Springer is called “SharedIt“. I’m not at all clear what it means, and I have no interest in discovering. As long as you can read the article, I’ll be happy.

Here’s the start…

There are three ways to teach math to the young. The old way forced rote memorization of basics and then, for most, stopped the lessons, continuing them only for those who had the inclination or ability to advance. The “new” way was to “expose” every student from the beginning, no matter their age or inexperience, to the highest, most difficult mathematical concepts, so that all might know how wondrous and astonishing math is.

The modern way, which may soon be upon us, is to let students define what math is to them or their culture, to let them discuss their feelings about what math means, and to work toward the goal of equality, that happy state when all are satisfied with their level of (self-defined) mathematical understanding. Two new books—The New Math: A Political History, by Christopher J.Phillips, and Critical Math ematicsEducation: Theory, Praxis, and Reality, edited by Paul Ernest, Bharath Sriraman, and Nuala Ernest—bring these distinctions to the fore.

People were long happy with the old way and for the happiest of reasons. It worked. Nearly every child eligible to attend school could be made to learn, or at least to memorize, that 8 x 7 = 56 and that triangles encompassed half as many degrees as circles and what simple consequences flowed from these facts. Not every child could advance beyond these basics, but few thought that all should.

That attitude began to change mid-twentieth century, a time in which greater proportions of children were enrolling in all levels of schooling.Because of the Cold War and the impression that America was falling behind, the concern was that kids weren’t learning enough and that they needed to be better thinkers. “New Math” was the result.

In The New Math: A Political History, Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor of history Christopher J. Phillips tells of its rise and fall, centering the tale on the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), an entity created in earnest by government money during the Sputnik era: “Although originally funded to work on textbooks for the ‘college capable’ students in secondary schools, SMSG gradually expanded its operation, producing textbooks for every grade and type of student, including material for elementary schools, ‘culturally disadvantaged’ children,” etc. The ascension of New Math was thus partly due to routine mission creep found in well-funded bureaucracies.

At its onset, parents were more or less happy with the status quo. But education theorists and others were not. Students taught in the old way could cipher to the rule of three, but they didn’t know the why behind the how: “[O]ne generally accepted axiom was that math textbooks’ and teachers’ traditional reliance on memorization and regurgitation gave students a misleading sense of what mathematicians do and what mathematics was about.”

Yet is it really of interest what professional mathematicians do? Filling out grant requests, for instance? At any rate, what mathematics is about is something argued over by mathematicians themselves. This was true during the time of New Math…

Click the above link to get the PDF and read the rest (I think).

October 16, 2017 | 15 Comments

Despite What You Heard, The Death Penalty Is Legitimate. Feser and Bessette’s “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”

The Beast

This post ran in full on One Peter Five on 7 July this year, and on this site in abbreviated form, but because there is a suspicion some did not read the entire thing (a terrible suspicion), and due to the importance of the topic given the Pope’s recent comments, I thought it well to re-run here in its entirety. See also Feser’s latest very strong comments on the subject.

Sometime in the mid-1990s in Colombia, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos lured a 6-year-old boy into an isolated spot and sodomized and murdered him. There were bite marks and other evidence of “prolonged torture” found on the boy’s body. The boy’s head was discovered some distance from his torso; the boy’s penis was severed and stuffed into the corpse’s mouth. This act might have occurred while the boy still lived.

Cubillos, unaffectionately known as La Bestia (The Beast), confessed to the crime.

He also confessed to a second crime where he sodomized and tortured a young boy to death. And then a third. And a fourth. And fifth, sixth, seventh, …

Altogether, La Bestia admitted to sodomizing, maiming, torturing, and murdering 147 boys, but he admitted his memory was hazy, and some say the real total approaches 300.

Cubillos was arrested, tried, and found guilty of murdering (only) 138. Colombia’s constitution says “The right to life is inviolable. There will be no death penalty.” That same merciful attitude is responsible for the country forbidding lifetime imprisonments, too.

In 2006, the Superior Court of Bogotá reduced Cubillos’s sentence from 30 years to 22 because of a technicality. He is due to be released in 2021, though, if I understand correctly, with good behavior he can be out by 2018. La Bestia will be 61 in 2018.

Many Catholics would say that the mercy shown to Cubillos represents a true “pro-life” position, and that those who say Cubillo should be executed say so only because they themselves are “eager to kill” and are “bent on maximizing killing no matter what”.

The official stance of the Catholic Church, however, as reinforced by some 2,000 years of teaching, is that the death penalty can be, has been, and continues to be, a just punishment. In the case of Cubillos, it is surely his due. Scheduling his execution, offering him the sacraments, and then speedily carrying out the sentence is the best chance La Bestia has to save his soul. As it now appears (though only God knows), Cubillos is on a blood-greased slide to Hell.

I do not want to make light of this, but it is better than a good bet that unless Cubillos after his release is restrained by illness or circumstance or he is not killed or otherwise incapacitated by vigilantes, La Bestia will kill again. That blood, if God forbid it should flow, will be on the heads of those authorities who refused their Christian duty.

Why Capital Punishment?

Enter By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, a book so thorough and so relentless that it is difficult to imagine anybody reading it and coming away unconvinced by the lawfulness and usefulness of capital punishment.

Whether to hang any man is in each case a matter of prudential judgement, because the circumstances surrounding any crime always varies. Two Catholics can disagree whether Cubillos should be executed, but that execution might be a just punishment is a question long settled. Which makes you wonder why some, including members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), say things like “human life is sacred…[which] compels us as Catholics to oppose…the use of the death penalty.”

Capital punishment is a theorem of the natural law, a philosophy which the Church “strongly affirms” (and which is well examined in the book). “Moreover, since it arises from a natural inclination, the tendency to punish is a virtue, so long as it is motivated by justice, say, rather than hatred,” a position held by inter alia St Thomas Aquinas, who (as quoted by Feser and Bessette) says, “Vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful”.

Punishment should fit the crime—the legal phrase is lex talionis—which flows from the principle of proportionality.

The restoration of what Aquinas calls “the equality of justice” by inflicting on the offender a harm proportionate to his offense is known as retribution, and it one of the three traditional purposes of punishment, the others being correction or rehabilitation of the offender and the deterrence of those tempted to commit the same crimes the offender has. Other purposes are incapacitation…and restitution.

To “deny proportionality is implicitly to deny desert, and thus implicitly to deny the legitimacy of punishment.” Cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood (Jer 40:10).

Aquinas says “the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprive of the power to sin no more.”

Steven Goldberg makes the latter point in his When Wish Replaces Thought and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences, pointing out the non-negligible frequency of murderers (including of guards) that take place in prison, and of those committed by criminals released who otherwise might have been executed. This argument is usually ignored by those who offer lifetime imprisonment as an alternative for executions.

Feser and Bessette acknowledge this argument. In one harrowing section, they list the gruesome crimes committed by the forty-three murderers executed in 2012 in the USA. Many are recidivists.

Take Robert Brian Waterhouse. In 1980, he beat a woman severely with a “hard instrument”, raped her, “assaulted her rectum with a large object, and stuffed her bloody tampon down her throat” and then drowned her. This was after he was released from prison for the murder of a seventy-seven-year-old woman; he served only eight years before being paroled. While in prison for the “twenty-one years and tens months” awaiting his execution, he “committed sexual battery on a cellmate”.

Or how about William Gerald Mitchell? He was “on parole…for the stabbing murder of a woman” when he brutally raped and murdered another woman, by “[running] over his victim several times with his car”. You could go on and on. Our authors do.

And this brings up a pretty point. We have all heard the media report upcoming executions, giving full voice to anti-death-penalty activists who usually attend these events. These reports go something like this (my summary, but the quotes are genuine):

Critics of the death penalty gathered outside State Prison to protest the upcoming execution of Luis Cubillos. Longtime prof-life advocate Father Mercyme, a priest in the Catholic Church, pleaded with the governor that the death penalty is “a violation of the sanctity of human life”, and that the state “is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life”. Cubillos was accused of a 1995 murder.

The media never gives the details of the crimes committed, because this, they rightly suspect, would lead listeners to conclude the criminal is getting what he deserved. (This is the same argument against showing the results of abortion victims.) Righteous anger is fled from, and effeminacy embraced. John Crysostom: “He who is not angry, where he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.”

Common pro and con arguments

The death penalty is racist and discriminatory. It is. Whites are disproportionately executed over blacks (this knowledge may cause some to support capital punishment). (Blacks commit violent crimes at rates about eight times higher than whites.) But, I hasten to add, those on death row earned their punishment.

The death penalty does not deter. Please, no statistical arguments. I have yet to see any statistical evidence, for or against, that was not wrong-headed. Of course the death penalty deters. Everybody knows increasing the severity of a punishment leads to greater abatement of a crime. Why would not moving to the ultimate penalty prove the strongest deterrence (Goldberg makes the same argument)? Our authors supply anecdotes—which are perfectly acceptable evidence—of men who would have killed except that they were worried about getting the chair. Even just one instance of this is sufficient empirical proof of deterrence; fancy models are not needed. The penalty would do a greater job of deterrence were it not common knowledge that even for the worst crimes, the legal systems lets men stretch their day of judgment out for decades or forever (as it were).

Why not life imprisonment? For one, if “mercy” demands the cessation of executions, why does not mercy also demand, as in Colombia, the cessation of life imprisonment, or the cessation of any punishment at all? For another, violent (even demonic) men in prison who would otherwise be executed commit crimes. And see the next point about rehabilitation. The subject of how often the innocent are wrongly executed is a tangle, made so on purpose by those who want to exaggerate this rate. The authors delve into this thicket and clarity does emerge.

What we do not know is whether any innocent person was executed during this period. From 1977 through 2014, thirty-four American states executed 1,386 convicted murderers and the federal government another 3. Were any o these 1,389 actually innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death? Although there is no way to know this with certainty, it seems likely that at most 1 or 2 innocent persons—and very possibly none at all—have been executed since the Furman decision of 1972…

In Wish Goldberg (p. 29) says “even the opponent of the death penalty who emphasizes wrongful executions is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives each year for the social advantages of motor vehicles.” And he reminds us that if the death penalty deters it saves lives.

The death penalty does not rehabilitate. Does it not? As everybody quotes, a hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind. In a wonderful section, the authors tell the story of repentance of several of the murderers on death row. Repentance, I say, the most important thing in any man’s life. All of us stand in need of it (at times), but those guilty of the worst crimes stand in greatest need. Concentration of the mind encourages salvation.

The death penalty encourages vengeance. Does all punishment encourage vengeance? If not, why not? The authors give a nice history and derivation of vengeance, incidentally, contrasting its old and new uses, and its distinction between retribution. In another terrific section, the authors write of the family members of victims, of their satisfaction of the punishment of the criminals, and of their forgiveness, too. The feeling that a debt has been paid, not only by the family members, but of the criminals and members of society, is great. When that feeling is missing, there is often despair. And vigilantism. When people lose hope of the government doing its job, they often take vengeance into their own hands.

The Church

There is no decent argument that the Church does not authorize use of the death penalty. It is true authorities lately have emphasized “mercy”, but mercy does not obviate capital punishment. And don’t forget “forgiveness and mercy presuppose that the offender really does deserve the punishment we refrain from inflicting.” What follows here is only the barest, briefest sketch of the vast wealth of material in the book. Experts on this subject may be assured that Feser and Bessette have covered every facet with the same assiduity of a lawyer preparing a Supreme Court brief.

First is scripture. God, you will remember, has warned that the potential punishments awaiting unrepentant sinners is far worse than the early shuffling off of this mortal coil. The threat of punishment (as we saw above) deters. And God said, “He who kills a man shall be put to death…” (Deut 19:11). And far from repudiating this law, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets…I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). “Then there is Romans 13:1–4, traditionally understood as a straightforward affirmation on the right of the state to execute criminals”.

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church supported the death penalty. Among the others, “Saint Jerome…says that ‘to punish murderers, the sacrilegious, and poisoners is not the shedding of blood, but the duty of the laws.'” The First Vatican Council decreed that “it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture…against the unanimous consent of the fathers.” And

…even those among the Fathers who were largely or wholly opposed in practice to capital punishment—and who thus had every incentive to try to find in Scripture or Tradition a warrant for an absolute condemnation of the practice—affirmed that capital punishment in principle morally legitimate…It is inconceivable that they could have been mistaken about this matter of moral principle, given the authority of the Church has always attributed to them…

The Catechism agrees on the licit nature of capital punishment, “not only in order to ‘protect the innocent’ but also to ‘punish the guilty’ and ‘avenge…crime'” (ellipsis original). And so do the popes agree—including even Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis. Yes, even Pope Francis, about whom our duo says, “Given the obscurity and lack of precision in some of Pope Francis’ remarks…” which is all the quotation I believe this audience requires, except to add that Francis’s words are “plausibly read as having rhetorical rather than doctrinal import.” Whether plausible or not, that’s the way they have to be read to keep his thoughts in line with the constant teaching of the Church.

Now it’s true that the USCCB has waded into the debate implying that the “‘values of the Gospel’ are contrary to the use of the death penalty” (where have we heard that language before?), but these good men forgot to mention the possibility of Hell. Feser and Bessette show that “every element of the bishop’s case against the death penalty fails, including their scriptural interpretations, their moral and philosophical arguments, and their understanding of the practical effects of capital punishment.”

The End

The authors are correct when they say “we now find ourselves in the rather odd situation in which the majority of churchmen appear to be against the death penalty but Catholic teaching is not. This is a recipe for massive confusion among the faithful.” Worse, if we do not execute our worst criminals,

Society will lose sight, first of the idea of proportionality, then of the idea of desert, and finally of the idea of punishment itself. And when the idea of punishment goes, the very idea of justice will go with it, replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered than as morally responsible persons. Nothing less is at stake in the death-penalty debate.

And so let us remind ourselves, as do the authors in their last word, of Genesis 9:16, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

August 26, 2017 | 94 Comments

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski

A modified version of this article ran 14 April 2008.

There are a recent number of books seeking to either demonstrate, scientifically, that God does not exist, or to show that the love of religion is the root of all evil. Some familiar names: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, and even John Allen Paulos. All proclaim that the weight of scientific evidence is either completely or heavily on the side of the non existence of God.

The question is, of course: Has the authority of eminent scientists enabled them to prove their case? Berlinski says, “Not even close.” Not only have they not come close, Berlinski goes further and shows how easily they are persuaded by weak or demonstrably false arguments, and the extraordinary lengths that some scientists will go, in the sense of believing bizarre theories, to avoid ceding any ground to the “religionists.” Their distaste of religion has also lead them to say some rather stupid things. For example, Berlinski quotes the eminent biologist Emile Zuckerkandl as saying that if God exists, He would represent “something like a pathology of the state of being.” An enjoyable, sputtering rant by that author published in the peer-reviewed journal Gene is summarized later in the book.

It is worth mentioning that like most books in this genre, Berlinski does not attempt a definition of who or what God is—and neither do those on the other side. This is curious, because as St Anselm would say, the proof of God is in His definition. Even if that is not so, understanding what God is goes a great way to understanding why God is.

A non-Enlightened disease

Berlinski puts the claim that religion is bad for you in perspective. Some anti-religion authors won’t settle for anything less than damning religion in all its stripes, disallowing, even, the crumb of comfort given to people when their loved ones die. Even Carl Sagan, in his Demon-Haunted World conceded this form of solace, but without recognizing that since everybody dies, this is an enormous amount of comfort to go around that would be denied mankind if religion were absent. But you never hear of enemies of religion breaking open Mill to assist in calculating the utility of comforts versus torments of religion.

Many scientists think that religion, while still a cancerous growth, is benign and only mostly harmful, and not always deadly. Sort of like smoking, which the more Enlightened among us would like to ban. Presumably, those who would prohibit smoking are same people who would support legalizing assisted suicide. Which happened in Holland in 1984 (and where a partial smoking ban does exist). Since then, about three percent of all deaths in that country are assisted [this is the 2008 figure], of which the government admits that about one-fourth are “involuntary.” We call that involuntary method of exiting “murder” here in the States, but Europeans are often considered more Enlightened, so they might be one step ahead of us in legal definitions.

Arguments for assisted suicide are usually intentionally religion-free. Thus, the point of the Holland example, of course, is that the world would not necessarily become a more moral, or safer place, if religion were to disappear. More proof is given by Berlinski in the form of a table, ordered by number of “excess”, or untimely, twentieth-century deaths due to non- or even anti-religious behavior. Leading the pack are of course the two World Wars, but not far behind in the body count are mankind’s experiments with various communist utopias. Since one of the top arguments used by those who would wish to bar religion is that the religious can be cruel and have killed, the evidence that the non-religious can be cruel and have killed in equal or larger number only proves that there will always be a class of people who adore pain, misery, and bloodshed, irrespective of creed.

The disease religion is also seen as congenital, in the sense that people have religion on the brain, literally. Somehow, we are assured, the brain has genetically encoded religion into itself, and that if we’d just grow up and recognize this, we would become Enlightened (or brightened, these days). This is one of the sillier arguments put forth by scientists. If religion is genetically encoded, then it cannot be overcome, unless some of us, the superior ones naturally, have somehow managed to escape expressing those particular genes that activate, say, the praying response. Look for one of those fMRI studies that “proves” this, soon.

Berlinski shows that because some scientists cannot countenance religious arguments of any kind, they refuse to accept any evidence that is any way tainted by religion. This leads to the fallacy that one should not listen to arguments against, say, stem cell research or abortion because they are religious. You will surely certainly recognize this ploy when you meet it.

Scientific ontology

Everybody already knows that physics, and its offshoots, has done brilliantly at explaining more and more of the universe. But it cannot keep doing so forever. At some point, meta-physics must enter into the discussion. This is because, no matter what physical laws we have identified, we will never have explained through observation why these particular laws and not some other are in force, nor can we answer what the laws mean. It is obvious that it is here that God can slip in and offer the needed explanations. Some scientists are therefore anxious to fill in these gap with…something, anything but God. Or, if that cannot be accomplished, then to prove that God does not exist.

Dawkins, in his The God Delusion offers a particularly weak argument. His first premise is that the universe is improbable. And we can stop right there, because that is a nonsensical statement, so his argument fails. Any thing or statement cannot be improbable. A thing can only be improbable with respect to something else. Further, a thing can be improbable with respect to one set of evidence and entirely probable with respect to other evidence. So, in Dawkin’s case, the universe is improbable with respect to what?

Weak Anthropic evidence is sometimes offered, in the guise of certain physical constants having particular values, in the sense that if these constants did not have these values, then human life would be impossible (which is not the same as saying the universe is impossible, but let that pass). Now the burden is on those who tout this evidence to show that this is the best evidence with which to measure the improbability of the universe. And there are many hints that it is not the best evidence. It is, after all, by its very name, suspiciously self indulgent and human centered evidence. Why would the universe care if humans, or other sentient beings, evolved enough to notice that they might not have evolved had the universe been arranged differently anyway? Besides, to say that things might have been different and humans might not have evolved is just a tautology, and therefore of no interest.

Still, accept it if you like, so that we can move to Dawkins’s second premise, which is that God Himself is improbable. Again, the statement is nonsensical: improbable with respect to what? Dawkins suggests that God must be more improbable than the universe, which again makes no sense. Anyway, improbable is not impossible, as Dawkins often argues with respect to evolution by natural selection, arguments he has apparently forgotten. Still, Dawkins moves to his conclusion that God is so improbable that He doesn’t exist, and advises people to accept some recent conjectures in cosmology that seem to do away with the need to explain why the universe, or universes, are the way they are.

These are the Landscape and multiverse hypotheses, put forward by various authors to help them cope with the insolubilities of quantum mechanics and cosmology. These are attempts to shift the questions of “Why?” one step back. That they do not answer them, I would have thought clear. Even pushing the grand questions a little deeper down is enough to please some people. Berlinski, a mathematical physicist, covers these speculations well, without any math, and gives pointers to books where we might learn more. See especially his very clever “Catechism of Quantum Cosmology.” Briefly, however, the solutions offered posit an uncountable number of alternate universes that are coming into and out of creation always. There are no mechanisms to observe these other universes directly or indirectly. Even if we could, these theories might answer some questions of quantum mechanics and gravity, but they never answer why it is infinities of universes instead of just one. The theories are also mind-boggling complex, and by no means are they consistent with one another. Nobody even knows what the full scope of these ideas are.

Berlinski quotes Dawkins, who is nevertheless satisfied, as saying, “The key difference between the radically extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis, is one of statistical improbability.” Presumably, he means that God is more improbable. He never says how much more. Infinities, of universes or anything else, are a dangerous thing. More foolishness has been generated by jumping to infinity than by any other reason (see chapter 15 of Jaynes’s remarkable Probability Theory for appropriate words of admonition).

Argument from design

It has long been convincing to many that the wonderful biological complexity that is everywhere in evidence must have had a designer. How else, Darwin himself wondered, can one explain the human eye? This argument is less convincing than it once was, because of the success of modern biology and genetics, and the seeming success of evolution by natural selection.

Wait a minute. Did he just say seeming success? He did. Which brings us back to Dawkins, the best-known anti-religion author. Was there ever a man who published so much nonsense that was taken so seriously by the scientific community? Nobody else even comes close. Just mentioning the word memes proves my point. Is not believing in God a meme? Berlinski doesn’t discuss memes, but does offer some well known criticisms of “selfish” genes—incidentally, the best are due to the philosopher’s Mary Midgley (Evolution as a Religion) and David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales; if you haven’t read either of these books, please do so, especially Stove’s, before you comment).

Not all biologists are satisfied with present-day theory. Berlinski writes

[Darwinian] theory is what is always was: It is unpersuasive. Among evolutionary biologists, these matters are well known. In the privacy of the Susan B. Anthony faculty lounge, they often tell one another with relief that it is a very good thing the public has no idea what the research literature really suggest.

“Darwin?” a Nobel laureate in biology once remarked to me over his bifocals. “That’s just the party line.”

There are still gaps in the evolutionary record. Nobody knows how life original arose, and nobody knows how species originate. Some fill these gaps with God. Scientists argue that the gaps will be filled in eventually. Berlinski says that this assumption is “both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent—primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience” because filling gaps “has created [new] gaps all over again.”

The answer

The best summation on the side of (non-apoplectic) scientists is probably from Richard Feynman, who said, “Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation [which describes the time evolution of physical systems] contains frogs, musical composers, or morality. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way.”

To say whether or not God exists is not always the easiest question; yet everybody seems delighted to meet an argument, however weak, that agrees with their desires. This leads very smart people to say exceptionally stupid things. [This was the case with me, before I returned fully to the Church.]

August 22, 2017 | 17 Comments

Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” Reviewed: Why “Poetic Naturalism” is an Oxymoron — Guest Post by Bob Kurland

Another version of this article first appeared at Kurland’s site.

Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such. When I call it a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say is not faith, but rationality, but which is in fact a faith that denies rational objections to scientism.

There are many scientists who write books justifying their faith that science gives the only answer to the question, “how should we live?” Whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just to make money is a question I can’t answer.

Some—I’m thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular—are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion. Others—I’m thinking of Sean Carroll—take a more balanced view, conceding there may be legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren’t for them. Carroll’s new book, The Big Picture, gives his account of a materialistic ethos that doesn’t need God.

I believe there are serious flaws in Carroll’s arguments used to justify his non-belief, particularly in the two foundation stones for his thesis:

  • “Poetic Naturalism” is a philosophy that will enable one to lead a moral, satisfying life, one that doesn’t need God;
  • Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning demonstrate that it is very unlikely that God exists.

I will also argue against Carroll’s views on the Anthropic Coincidences, Mind and Free Will, and Morality.

Poetic Naturalism

Carroll defines “Poetic Naturalism” as follows (pp 3-4):

Naturalism claims that there is just one world, the natural world…’Poetic’ reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world. We find it natural to use a vocabulary of ’causes’ and ‘reasons why’ things happen, but these ideas aren’t part of how nature works at its deepest levels.

Carroll goes on to say that phenomena that I put outside the purview of science—for example, love, morality, beauty—are “emergent”. Let me explain this more fully: often in science when descriptions at a molecular or atomic level become very complicated and collective phenomena are involved, it is easier to describe things in a semi-empirical way. Thus, for viscous flow hydrodynamic equations are set up; or to analyze ferromagnetism a collective description, an Ising model, is used.

For example, when we say “water is wet”, we could (in principle) give a reductionist picture and explain what’s happening in terms of the surface tension of water, and at a deeper level, by an analysis of intermolecular attractive forces. In short, we very often use a different language to explain or describe what could ultimately be explained by fundamental laws of physics (down to the level of subatomic particles and field theory).

I call that view—that it’s only a matter of what descriptive language is used—a cop out, a “scientism of the gaps”. This position is not one that can be easily defended. Indeed, poetry itself, the joint appeal to our sensibilities of Shakespeare, Shelley and Bob Dylan, is not to be parsed by science.
So, as my subtitle suggests: the term “poetic naturalism” is an oxymoron. It does not really explain, it just evades fundamental questions.

Abductive reasoning and Bayes

Carroll uses a combination of abductive reasoning, “Inference to the Best Explanation” (IBE), and Bayesian probability analysis to argue that it is very unlikely that God exists. Here’s one such argument (p 134):

We have two competing propositions: one is that God exists, and that transcendental experiences represent…moments when we are close to divinity; the other is naturalism, which would explain such experiences the same way it would explain dreams or hallucinations…To decide between them, we need to see which one coheres better with other things we believe about the world.

Clearly Carroll believes the second explanation is the best, i.e. naturalism. Others (myself among them) would believe that transcendental experiences cohere better with the existence of God, as does everything else we believe about the world.

Before discussing how Carroll applies Bayesian probability analysis to support naturalism, I’d like to emphasize some general points (taken from Briggs’s post and book). First, all probability is conditional, depends on evidence; such evidence may be facts, or it may be beliefs, beliefs founded on facts or knowledge, or—dare I say it—on Revelation. It’s just a way of working backwards from evidence to infer a probability. Second, probability is quantitative. You assign numerical values to probability based on the evidence; otherwise, there’s no way to judge between probabilities based on different evidence.

One well-known example of Bayesian analysis is the Monte Hall three-door problem. I want to emphasize that Bayesian analysis requires quantification (even if it’s just a best guess), and a definition of an appropriate population (or prior probability) to conform with updated information and evidence. This isn’t what Carroll does.

Carroll argues that if God existed, he would create a world that provided overwhelmingly conclusive evidence for his existence (pp. 147-148, emphasis mine):

Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all. Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently came up with the same doctrines and stories about God…Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information…Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living. Imagine a world that was free of random suffering…In any of these worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as evidence for God’s existence. It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism.

This view is simplistic in the extreme. It does not follow “as the night, the day”, that the absence of these features is conclusive evidence for atheism. Consider just the statement that Scriptures should contain “specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information”. The Bible is certainly not a science text. It’s about how and why we should live. Would a shepherd on the Judean Hills have made any sense out of Maxwell’s equations, or even Newton’s law of gravitational attraction? Carroll’s argument here simply begs the question, assumes the answer he wishes us to believe.

To say that “God should make it easy to believe” is to support a proposition that ignores theology and philosophy. Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed,” John 20:29 (KJV).

That quote says it all. I’ve argued there are excellent reasons why God does not make it easy to believe. And there have been hosts of books on the problem of evil, theodicy, that show it is not truly evidence against the existence of God.

Anthropic coincidences

The Anthropic Coincidences are a set of restrictions on physical laws, constants, and geo-astronomical features, fine-tuned, so to speak, to enable the development of carbon-based life. As explained in the post linked above, a probability cannot be assigned to this “fine-tuning”, but it does strongly suggest that some sort of designing intelligence set up a universe in which humans could exist. To quote Fred Hoyle (“The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 20:16, 1982):

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.

Carroll acknowledges the force of this argument (p 303), “…fine-tuning is probably the most respectable argument for theism.”

Nevertheless, he says fine-tuning is not sufficient evidence for the existence of a designing intelligence. He argues that the universe is what it is, we wouldn’t be here to speculate about the fine-tuning if the universe wasn’t there. He also proposes that “eternal inflation” creates an infinity of universes, a “multiverse”, so that amongst this multitude of universes one or more will be fine-tuned as ours is. Yet belief in a multiverse is as much an article of faith as belief in God. Many eminent physicists (including Roger Penrose and Paul Steinhardt) consider that inflation is not a proven physical theory.

Following David Hume (his favorite philosopher?), Carroll says that talk about causation is empty and fallacious; we can only describe and give correlations, not give causes for the way things are. Consequently we can’t say that the universe was purposely designed for anything. There was no cause for the universe and its fine-tuning doesn’t need an explanation. Thomas Nagel has a fine response to this sort of argument (from Mind and Cosmos):

One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren’t, I’d be dead.

It’s worth pointing out that Nagel is an atheist, not a theist, but believes that the universe is indeed purpose-driven.

Mind, Soul & Free Will

Books could be (and have been) written about the problem of mind and soul. Rather than giving a full discussion and rebuttal of Carroll’s views on these issues, I’m going to cite some quotes and then, very briefly, argue against them.

Under naturalism, there isn’t that much difference between a human being and a robot. We are all just complicated collections of matter moving as patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics…Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that develop naturally along the way. [p 295]

If the world is purely physical, then what we mean by ‘understanding’ is a way of talking about a particular kind of correlation between information located in one system and conditions in the external world. [p 348]

Consciousness isn’t an illusion, but it doesn’t point to any departure from the laws of physics as we currently understand them. [p 351]

One popular definition of free will is ‘the ability to have acted differently’. In a world governed by impersonal laws, one can argue that there is no such ability. [pp 380-381]

I’ll not respond specifically to any one of these, but will only say that were I to believe them, I could see no reason for living. I’ll add that there are philosophers and scientists who disagree strongly with each of these assertions.


Given that Carroll doesn’t believe in Free Will (or to put it more specifically, says that it’s only a way of talking about how we conduct our affairs), what does he say about morality? How can there be ethical standards or moral values if we are not free to make decisions about our conduct, if they are predetermined by physical laws?

Let’s see what Carroll says about this; first, he acknowledges that without God there is no absolute moral standard (p 495, emphasis mine):

As Abraham learned, having an absolute moral standard such as God can be extraordinarily challenging. But without God, there is no such standard and that is challenging in its own way…Nature alone is no help. as we can’t extract ought from is; the universe doesn’t pass moral judgments.

Then, according to Carroll, morality must be a personal construction (p 412) “We have no objective guidance on how to distinguish right from wrong: not from God, not from nature, not from the pure force of reason itself…Morality exists only insofar as we make it so, and other people might not pass judgments in the same way we do” and “Poetic Naturalism refuses to offer us the consolation of moral certainty…How you should act depends on who you are.”

So, that’s the problem, and I don’t believe Carroll offers a solution, other than that of the doctor in Camus’s The Plague:

‘What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?’

‘I don’t know. My…my code of morals, perhaps.’

‘Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?’



There it is. Poetic naturalism offers no support for a moral standard, and indeed, for any value system. There is no reason we should take a system based (presumably) on Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning to understand the world, other than that of the doctor in The Plague—it’s comprehensible.

And here I think is where Carroll falls in to the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else. There is not a logical reason to follow this; in fact, at the very beginning of The Big Picture Carroll emphasizes that science has nothing to say about the supernatural.

I say Carroll’s The Big Picture” is not that big. It leaves out much of what is important and real for many of us. But even so, reading his book, one gets the impression that Carroll is a thoughtful, learned, humane person. I wish him well and hope he finds a belief system other than Poetic Naturalism.