George Ellis on physics and free will


George Ellis

Over at Scientific American, there’s an excellent interview with physicist-mathematician-cosmologist George Ellis.

Ellis is a world-renowned authority on cosmology, particularly the large-scale structure of the universe and the Big Bang. The interview deals particularly with some recent over-reaching claims by physicists such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, but also touches on the philosophy, free will, and the nature of scientific inquiry. The interview is conducted by John Horgan.

A few highlights:

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Hypothetically speaking

It’s a common atheist article of faith  – at least amongst members of the more vocal denominations – that science is the only reliable path to knowledge. There are a few problems with this belief, mostly to do with the fundamental limitations of the framework in which scientific inquiry operates, which usually leads to flawed claims about what science can demonstrate.

The problem becomes even bigger when we move away from the proper domain of science but still try and sound all “sciencey” – generally to try and give a weak argument a veneer of authority. Thus we see such unfortunate mixed metaphors as “mind virus”, “meme” and “cultural evolution”, all of which take concepts from their proper scientific domain of biology and arbitrarily apply them to psychology and sociology, in which fields they are hopelessly inappropriate.

What exactly is the memetic equivalent for DNA? Has it been identified?

How exactly is a “mind virus” distinct from “a popular idea that I personally don’t like”?


“Memes” and other non-scientific ravings

This unfortunate tendency is displayed by professional scientists as well as dilettantes. Let’s look, for example, at an early instance of Richard Dawkins stepping off the edge of the scientific map but clinging desperately to the jargon. The passage below is from The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins first introduced his odious “meme”:

The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe.  Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? … I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet… Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

…And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

…Consider the idea of God.  We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.  Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation’.

Here’s the recipe that Dawkins seems to be following to create his theory:

1. Take a tiny pinch of physics.

2. Misappropriate a dab of biology.

3. Mix in a whole lot of crazy guesswork and random analogies.

4. Top it off with a broad covering of atheism.

Let me unpack that in a bit more detail:

His opening statement about physics is misleading. He refers to the universal applicability of the laws of physics, but this is in itself an assumption. The laws of physics that we know about operate only within limits: we hope that there are even more fundamental (as yet unknown) laws that are universal, but it’s still a work in progress. The Dark Matter questions illustrate these problems.

From a wobbly starting assumption about physics, Dawkins leaps straight to a wholly unfounded assumption about biology – that it must operate the same way that physics (maybe) operates. From there he moves confidently to claiming to have identified a universal principle of biology (the existence of mutating replicators), and identifying (how, exactly?) a new example of the type (memes).

Then he dives headfirst into the jargon soup: meme-pools, memetic propogation, etc, freely borrowing from biological terminology with no explanation of how such analogues are justifiable.

This would be misleading enough if he were merely employing a bad metaphor, but he freely claims that “this isn’t just a way of talking” – his meme is an identifiable feature of the universe!

Wow, those are some big claims.

What’s his evidence for memes, by the way? Oh, that’s right: there isn’t any.

Well, as Dawkins famously said:

“…next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.”

How, in all this, is his use of “meme” more useful to the conversation than just saying “idea”? What it his justification for the new term?

Simple: it sounds more sciencey.


“God hypothesis” is not a scientific term

There is another misleading expression much beloved of Dawkins and his ilk, and that is “the God hypothesis”. Like “meme”, this terminology is pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as rationality.

The word “hypothesis” has a specific meaning in science: it’s a tentative explanation for something which can be further tested. But the expression “God hypothesis” is ridiculous, particularly when the discussion concerns Christianity (in which context it is most often employed). God supercedes the natural world, and is impervious to experimentation.

More importantly, the impression conveyed by the phrase “God hypothesis” is that “well, we don’t know how this thing works, so let’s invoke some supernatural creator of the universe and claim that he did it”. But this is also ridiculous and misleading.

Let’s take the origin of the universe as an example, since that’s where the phrase is most often used.

Scientific consensus is that time and space were created about 15 billion years ago, and also that observation is impossible of events “before” t=0. Thus scientific consensus also declares that scientific inquiry is limited to the period after the Big Bang, and cannot investigate a causal agent.

So the short version is, science can’t help us with the question of whether God created the universe.

At this point, big and fancy words like “parsimony” tend to get thrown into the conversation. The argument is that “God” is a complex idea, and introducing “God” just to explain the Big Bang is philosophical overkill. (Philosophical, note, not scientific – remember that we are off the scientific map).

However, the Christian view does not suggest God as an arbitrary causal agent: knowledge of God exists independently of Origin questions, and views of God creating everything (including time) from outside of creation predate the Big Bang model by nearly three millenia. Augustine, writing 1500 years before the genesis of the Big Bang theory, described God outside of Time and God as a Prime Cause – this in an age when an eternal universe was the norm for non-Christian thought. Similarly, when Thomas Aquinas developed his argument of a “necessary God”  in Summa Theologica, this line of reasoning was independent of the Prime Cause issue.

The point is, God already exists in the Christian worldview. We already have knowledge of God from personal and historical revelation, from rational inquiry into the Universe, and so on. If anything, it actually simplifies the picture for God to also be the prime cause – He is not invoked to fill a gap, He is already in the worldview.



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Faith: reflecting on evidence


This post has been edited and expanded. The full version can be found here.


There seems to be a great deal of confusion among non-Christians about the meaning of the word “faith” in a Christian context. The prominent atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins writes that: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principle vice of any religion.” And further: “[whereas] scientific belief is based upon publicly checkable evidence, religious faith not only lacks evidence; its independence from evidence is its joy, shouted from the rooftops”. And thus we see that for Dawkins (and many atheists), religious faith is blind faith.

But such a view is totally at odds with the view of faith presented in the Bible and maintained throughout mainstream Christianity. The biblical narrative is full of references to faith based overwhelmingly on evidence. This was the whole reason that the apostle John wrote his gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, NIV). Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, says that Dawkins’ definition of faith “certainly does not describe the faith of most serious believers in history, nor most of those in my personal acquaintance.” Throughout the Bible we see this theme: you have been given evidence, so believe.

On the topic of evidence, we often see the charge that “Faith is opposed to science”. As both a scientist and a Christian, I find that to be patently false. Firstly, we must understand the rightful position of science on the topic. The great evolutionary proponent T. H. Huxley coined the word agnostic to describe not only his own personal philosophy, but also the necessary stance of science. He wrote,

“Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology.”

This is not to say that science can never contribute to faith. Among the central issues of the Christian credo are belief in the historical truth of certain events. I believe that Jesus was a real person, that he lived around 2000 years ago, that he was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate, then the Roman Procurator of Judea. I believe that God raised him from the dead, and that he appeared physically to hundreds of people after his resurrection. There are many other things that I believe about Jesus, but I offer these as a starting point, not only because they are all verifiable by historical and archaeological evidence, but because all my other beliefs about Jesus hinge on his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, preaching to the gentiles in Athens, explains that the resurrection of Jesus was “proof to all” of God’s plans. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is even more explicit: “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.” (1 Cor. 15:14, NLT). But the scientific contributions to the question of the death and resurrection of Jesus, principally through archaeology and textual criticism of the historical records, overwhelmingly endorse the beliefs I have stated above. There is evidence, so I believe.

On broader issues, such as the existence of a God who created the universe, science is in a far more difficult position. I have already discussed in a previous post how Stephen Jay Gould articulated so clearly that:

“Science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

The tools of science are unequipped to deal with the supernatural and the unobservable. Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate in Medicine, noted that:

“The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions … such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’”

Furthermore, for any postulated experiment to determine God’s existence, we have what I would term the isolation problem. That is to say, scientific experiments rely on experimental controls: if we wanted to determine the existence or lack of existence of God in an experiment, we would need another experiment in which God didn’t exist, to which we could compare our results. But God is present in the entirety of existence. He is not just the Creator but the Sustainer of the universe. Imagine a creature which lived its whole life under water and could not exist without water, attempting to eliminate “wetness” from an experiment.


Acceptance of evidence: the real issue

In fact, the perceived lack of “evidence” for the Christian faith generally arises from an a priori decision that any evidence pointing towards the truth of Christianity must automatically be rejected. When the “Big Bang” theory was first proposed, it was met with staunch opposition from atheists on principle, rather than on scientific grounds, because it would lend support to the idea that the universe had a specific beginning, and thus force the issue of God’s creation into the picture. An endless universe could ignore the need to explain its beginning, but a universe with a definite and identifiable starting point could no longer bypass this issue. When the cosmic microwave background was discovered, the validity Big Bang theory was accepted as being conclusively demonstrated, but the same objectionists simply moved on to other semantic arguments and ignored the theological implications.

Jesus himself referred to this phenomenon: in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel, he tells the story of a man who has died and is suffering in hell, and he begs that someone rise from the dead to go and warn his brothers of the truth. He is told that the prophets and the scriptures already give all the information his brothers need. But, he says, if someone from the dead goes to them, then they will believe. To which the reply comes:

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NIV)

For those less insistent on keeping our eyes closed, every facet of the universe is a glorious testament to God’s creation. Even T. H. Huxley acknowledged that:

… true Agnosticism will not forget that existence, motion, and law-abiding operation in nature are more stupendous miracles than any recounted by the mythologies, and that there may be things, not only in the heavens and earth, but beyond the intelligible universe, which ‘are not dreamt of in our philosophy’.”

Or, as the psalmist phrased it:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1, NIV)

Is that a statement of science? No. But so much of what makes life glorious is inaccessible to science, and it really would be a shame to just ignore it all.

As for me, I do not take a blind leap of faith. The path ahead is thoroughly illuminated by historical evidence, scientific insight and personal experience, and I see clearly where I am choosing to walk.



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