Scientists as philosophers

Jonathan Morgan

SpaceThe end of summer is rapidly approaching, which means I’ve been catching up on my Internet movie watching (a luxury that classes and lab work don’t afford!). The last piece I watched was the most recent Issac Asimov Memorial debate. Asimov is best known for his science fiction novels- remember I, Robot, the 2004 Will Smith movie? That film was based on an Asimov story. But he was also an incredible scientist and thinker. A true polymath, Asimov wrote on everything from astronomy to Shakespeare, from chemistry to the Bible. If that wasn’t cool enough, he even has an asteroid named after him. Okay, that ends my Asimov shout-out.

The Memorial debate is hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in honor of Asimov.* The purpose is to debate pressing questions at the scientific frontier. This year the debate was about the concept of nothing. Neil deGrasse Tyson** lead a panel of physicists, philosophers, and other thinkers in a discussion about the beginnings of the universe and how to think about nothing.

While the topic is fascinating, I’m writing about it because of what happened during the debate: it took the conversation 2 minutes and 16 seconds to turn theological. From that point on, arguments about god and religion ran a consistent thread throughout the debate. Maybe that’s not surprising to you, because it’s so common. But this was the first time I stopped to ask, Why? Didn’t they have enough purely scientific material to discuss? Why should ideas about the divine immediately enter a supposedly scientific debate?

The most obvious answer is that the physicist Lawrence Krauss has become an increasingly vocal, and vehement, opponent of religion. So he’s likely to bring his straw-man religion to any public platform he has. But even if Krauss weren’t around, I’d bet the conversation would still turn to questions of God pretty quickly.

Someone who believes in God might argue that this is because you can’t talk about the origin of the universe without talking about God. There are shallow versions of this argument and deeper ones.

The shallow versions describe the divine as God-of-the-gaps: picture God stuffed like mortar into the places science can’t explain. You may have seen a similar version of this argument in discussions about evolution- something beyond nature must have created the eye, or wing, because they’re so complex that science can’t explain them. I call this shallow because it isn’t foresighted enough to see that science keeps filling in the gaps, and because it creates an image of the divine who is like an old man constantly tinkering on his car. A divine wing-maker isn’t exactly awe-inspiring.

The deeper versions of this argument look more like Aquinas’, (ahem, Aristotle’s) prime mover or Augustine’s creatio ex nihilo.  In the middle ages, Aquinas picked up Aristotle’s argument that there must be some primary, initial, cause to the endless chain of cause and effect we see around us.  Augustine, went a more poetic route and argued for a creation out of the void.  I’ve dramatically simplified their arguments, but the point is they all lead to an idea of God which transcends the tinkering God-of-the-gaps and Krauss’ straw man.

And you don’t have to reach that far back to find some profound explanations for a robust idea of God that could be relevant to this debate. For the last five decades, the contemporary philosopher and theologian Robert Neville has been developing a philosophically deep theory about how something emerges from nothing. The theory involves phrases like “indeterminacy” and “context of mutual relevance,” so don’t worry- I won’t force it onto you here. But if you choose to wade into those waters, be assured that the effort is well rewarded.

My point in bringing up the theory is that it can subsume both sides of the argument that consumed the Asimov debate. And Neville isn’t the only thinker that can do so.

I’ve been exploring the different ideas of God that people bring up during these debates, but I’ve been avoiding the main question- Why do ideas of God come up at all during a scientific debate?

Those ideas came up during this debate because Krauss was speaking as a metaphysician, not a scientist.  Krauss isn’t the only one doing this- Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and others have all begun using their scientific platforms to preach metaphysics.  I’m all for interdisciplinary work, but this is a problem because they aren’t bringing the same rigor and method of critique that they use as scientists to bear on their philosophy.  The result is a shallow critique that ignores substantial theories, like Neville’s, and alienates the religiously inclined.

At the frontiers of scientific inquiry we enter into places of mystery where the mind can wander and imagine all sorts of things.  These are the questions of creation, the nature of the mind, the emergence of life.  I’m not saying science won’t be able to explain these things, but for now it can’t.  Excuse me for breaking my promise, but it’s at these points that we bump up against indeterminacy. It may sound redundant, but at the limits of our knowledge we encounter that which we can’t explain. These are the precisely the areas where we need trained philosophers.  We need them to guide our exploration of these border regions with both humility and rigor.

The mention of God in these debates can be a last-ditch effort to insert the supernatural into an increasingly natural world.  When that happens we get a petty squabble between overly confident scientists and equally smug believers. I’m tired of seeing these fights. What I long to see are experts willing to admit their brilliance and their ignorance and then explore the edge of what they know together. I think such a conversation would truly honor Isaac Asimov, and I think something profound would probably emerge.


*Did I mention how cool Asimov was? He even has a crater on Mars named after him!

**Also awesome.



1 thought on “Scientists as philosophers

  1. Michael

    “The mention of God in these debates can be a last-ditch effort to insert the supernatural into an increasingly natural world. ”
    Things strikes me as completely odd. The Big Bang, which was fought against and even named as a joke, and even had intentional fudging by Einstein to avoid a beginning was at direct odds with what atheists claimed.

    Then Darwins blob cell was discovered to contain blueprints-code-information, and far from a blob of goo.

    And all along Fine Tuning that even the most hardened athesits, many who have jumped ship along with DNA’s discoverer, were not only stuck in the first stage of grief–denial–, agree design or the comic book multiverse is at play here….
    The question of God in relation to these 3 findings is never going away. They must bring it up or they are dishonest.
    We have findings that no one throughtout all of history has even factored into their belief that God is the best explanation of the world we see and experience. These are independent. When they say the world only “appears” designed and many enter these specific scientific fields to prove it and instead find the Math itself looks designed.-how can you Not address it?
    So again, I think there is some kind of bias or simply a lack of gauging the climate here.


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