sean carroll

The Uncertainty Blog gets its 15 minutes…

Well, this was cool. Sean was nice enough to link to my summary of his recent Intelligence Squared Debate. The shout out resulted in a 1,300% traffic increase on this site compared to last month – not bad for the most amateurish of amateur blogs. The most touching aspect of all this attention? I noticed a complete stranger use my (admittedly uncreative) nickname, Dr. Heaven, to refer to Eben Alexander while commenting on a blog post. Maybe it will catch on.

You can now find Sean’s thoughts on the debate here, and Steve Novella’s here.

Update: Since this post, some of the stuff at the Uncertainty Blog has been published over at Jerry Coyne’s website, Why Evolution is True. Those posts have generated and awful lot of traffic, but still nowhere near the amount my review of the Sean Carroll vs. WLC did. I started to wonder why, given that Sean and Jerry both have similar online presences. So I did some searching, and the answer made me smile. Someone a bit more popular happened to share the link, though I didn’t realize it until now (sorry if this fawning makes you cringe…I’ve always been a huge admirer of RD, primarily for his scientific work):



Death is not final? Sean Carroll vs. Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander)

Sean Carroll is quickly becoming my favorite living scientist and defender of rationalism. He just posted another stellar public debate performance in the Intelligence Squared US series, arguing – along with Yale neuroscientist Steven Novella – against the motion, “Death is not final”. You can catch the full video below.

I’m impressed by Intelligence Squared’s persistence in addressing deeply fractious issues like religion and politics. Sadly, not many mainstream outlets organize discussions on these issues, and I think they do a terrific job of having civil discussions on issues that are sometimes uncomfortable. The moderator, John Donvan, is pleasant, and the format is about as good as you can do for a formal debate (7 minute opening statements, questions from the moderator, questions from the audience, short closing statements). They also do a pre- and post-debate poll from the audience to determine the winner based on the percentage increase or decrease for or against the motion.


So, highlights?

Sean had near perfect answers in both his prepared and impromptu responses (including the memorable analogy of life being a process like fire and not a substance like air or water) . As one of the commenters on his blog, Preposterous Universe, said, Sean is basically batting a thousand when it comes to these things, and that’s not an easy feat, even when you have facts on your side. But after an impressive debut with Michael Shermer against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchison, and handily defeating everyone’s least favorite apologist William Lane Craig, and now this debate, Sean has cemented himself as one of the best public defenders of science and skepticism out there. He has a knack for being polite, funny, refreshingly clear and uncompromising, and non-threatening – all characteristics that open up people’s willingness to listen.

This was my first exposure to Steven Novella, and I think he did a good job, but isn’t as practiced a public speaker. He also sadly had to endure an illegitimate poning when Dr. Heaven (more on him in a minute) misquoted the late Carl Sagan. Steven corrected the misrepresentation, and Dr. Heaven doubled-down by quoting a page number from A Demon-Haunted World (essentially the skeptic’s Bible) to boost his credibility, and it got a large audience cheer. Of course the quote was completely misrepresented. Carl Sagan never came close to suggesting there was legitimate evidence for paranormal activity (he just said there were some claims worth investigating, which any open-minded scientist would say). Novella called Alexander out on this, but it wasn’t as forceful and didn’t play as well with the audience.

Now, onto Dr. Heaven (Eben Alexander). This guy burst onto the stage with a cover story in Newsweek maybe a year ago, where he claimed to have had an NDE that proved heaven was real. He then promptly wrote a book, Proof of Heaven, which has been on the best-seller list for quite some time, as one would expect. I suspected he was a charlatan immediately, and this debate more or less demonstrated that – he didn’t seem to understand modern neuroscience (a neurologist, after all, doesn’t necessarily have to) and just seemed to brush off Novella’s alternative explanations and refutations. He also suggested, at first a little sheepishly and then blatantly, that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both fundamentally related since they are confusing and that the latter led Einstein into mysticism (…no…). Most frustratingly, he made the brilliant argument (and I’m not oversimplifying here) that since we don’t perfectly understand consciousness, heaven exists. I was a little disappointed actually. I was hoping (as maybe we all do) that he might have more than personal conviction and bad reasoning skills, but that’s about all Dr. Alexander adds up to (and a little more initial credibility than your Uncle Bob because he was once a practicing neurosurgeon). For additional credibility he likes to tout that he used to be a materialist and skeptic, but I’m not at all convinced that he ever took those ideas seriously in the first place – his description of materialism reminded me eerily of those by religious apologists who you can tell don’t understand what they are talking about. If he had ever been a hardened skeptic, that part of his brain must not have turned back on after the coma, because this was 101 stuff.

Dr. Moody, while a seemingly pleasant man, didn’t help his side much. He pontificated a bit dreamily on Plato and Democritus and seemed at times to be arguing with himself on where he actually stood. He also offered hardly any evidence at all (and certainly none that was compelling) for his stance – and this from a man who is supposedly the world’s leading expert on NDE’s.

But I think Sean essentially won the debate by focusing on the following argument: if you believe in life after death, you are saying that established science is not just a little wrong, but very, very, very wrong, and that it has somehow escaped the notice of any experiment ever. The mind existing after the destruction of the brain is simply incompatible with what we know. He admitted that for him, it isn’t even an interesting question anymore because our understanding of physics (yes, including quantum mechanics, Eben) is quite straightforward and eliminates the possibility. He then closed eloquently and reminded everyone, as he’s done before, that life is not a dress rehearsal – it’s all we have, and that finite aspect is what  gives life its meaning.

Oh, and justly, Sean and Steven won the debate, improving the audience position against the motion by 15%, compared to only a 5% increase for the motion.



Play by Play: William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll

Last week I posted my initial thoughts after watching the Craig v. Carroll Greer-Heard Forum debate, and admitted that I wasn’t adequately summarizing my favorite part, Carroll’s closing remarks. You can skip to them by watching the video yourself, but interestingly, this poker forum (yes poker) has a really good play by play summary thanks to user Zumby – Carroll himself actually posted it via Twitter earlier today.

I’ve pasted Zumby’s description of Carroll’s closing below (emphasis is mine):

“Carroll’s Closing Remarks

Confesses a bit of frustration as Craig just recapped arguments Carroll believes he already dealt with so says he will take the opportunity to speak directly to the Christian audience.

But first he notes that Craig repeatedly claimed to be “astonished” by the claim that universes don’t need outside causes and quotes David Lewis that “I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare” and says that he gave an explanation of why this is the case. Carroll claims that “popping into existence” is not the right phrase to use when talking about the beginning of the universe. The right phrase is “There was a first moment in time”, which is a much less astonishing claim. The question is then “Are there models like this?”. Carroll always laughs away the claim about his diagram, asserting that Craig has not understood what the arrows are representing. On Boltzmann brains, Carroll reiterates that Boltzmann brains are a model-dependent problem, and in this model they are not a problem.

Addressing the audience, Carroll points out that very few people become theists because they think theism provides the best model of cosmology. There are better reasons to become a theist: community, sense of the transcendent, fellowship with fellow man etc. 500 years ago, Carroll would have been a theist. These days, there is not empirical support for theism. So what should a modern theist do in light of the finding of science? One thing would be to deny science, as the creationists do. A second way is to deny the implications of science and to say none of the finding of science has altered the fundamental view of reality put together 2000 years ago. Carroll see’s two problems with this approach. First, it’s wrong, as he has tried to show in this debate, but strategically it’s a bad move as it marginalises [sic] theists as a part of the wider intellectual community. This is an important time for discussing the future of our species, and clinging to outdated beliefs may isolate theists from being part of the discussions. But there is a third option. We admit we were wrong 2000 years ago. But, this person could reasonably say, religion is much more than just theism. There is a place for insight about the human condition, to feel camderadrie with your fellow man. Perhaps naturalism can learn from religion and the lives of the saints. Naturalism may have replaced theism, but has not replaced religion. The lives we lead now are not dress rehearsals. What matters is what we can do to make the world better. There are hard questions of meaning and morals. Naturalism has picked the low hanging fruit. We will get there faster if we all climb together.” – User Zumby on


Debate is up! William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll at New Orleans Greer-Heard Forum

Good folks, the much talked about debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll is now available for viewing on YouTube (embedded below). The proceedings from the second day, which you will recall included presentations and responses by two members from each side (Alex Rosenberg and Tim  Maudlin with Carroll and Robin Collins and James Sinclair with Craig) don’t seem to be available yet but should be shortly. After you watch, I recommend you check out the comment section of Sean Carroll’s post for some opinions on how he fared.

Enjoy (and post your thoughts below)!

The Main Event:

This is not a dress rehearsal: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig – Greer Heard Forum 2014

UPDATE: The debate is now available to watch here!

Well, the much anticipated debate between Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and theologian William Lane Craig happened this weekend in New Orleans and was – at least to me – as enjoyable as expected. The event was hosted by the Greer-Heard Forum and consisted of a formal debate between the headliners on Friday night and subsequent readings, discussions, and responses to papers by two members each from Team Naturalism (Tim Maudlin of NYU and Alex Rosenberg of Duke) and Team Theism (Robin Collins and James Sinclair). The entire ordeal was streamed live – yes I spent my Friday night and Saturday afternoon watching – and ended with a short panel discussion and Q&A.

All in all, it was an entertaining forum and I was very grateful the event was streamed. In case you weren’t one of the 10,000 people or so watching live and still want to see the proceedings, stay tuned as the videos should all be made available on YouTube in a couple of days (likely on the Tactical Faith page). I will make sure to update this post with the links as soon as they’re ready.

Now, why was I so excited about this debate you ask? Haven’t I grown tired of listening to William Lane Craig distort science in order to prop up his arguments for theism? Don’t I think these debates are really a waste of time and that no one actually leaves with their mind changed? Well, WLC is grating on the ears (and head….because of the induced face-palming), and I think I would have avoided this debate had his opponent been anyone other than Sean Carroll. You see, Sean has a few things that many naturalists (and he prefers that term to atheist as it’s more comprehensive of his worldview – and I think I agree) sadly don’t: not only does Sean have all the good arguments, he can communicate them well and is likable. That last quality seems a little shallow – yes ideas should stand on their merit not the personality of the one espousing them – but debates like this are part performance art, and it’s difficult to get people to consider your point of view if you come across as, well, unlikable. Finally, Sean is without a doubt an expert on cosmology, and could pretty easily (it was a little embarrassing actually) shut down WLC’s naive arguments hinged on misunderstandings of the literature. Finally – I said finally already so finally, finally – Sean is fairly well versed in philosophy and not as dismissive of the practice as some other cosmological experts that have debated WLC.

So who won? Well, WLC technically always loses on substance in these types of things, but does admittedly usually win on style and rhetoric. He’s an extremely practiced debater and I’ve heard tell that he even has a team of researchers who help him prepare. But in reflection – and I’m striving to be as unbiased as possible – I do think Sean Carroll came away on top. This was one of the few formal debates where I’ve seen WLC flustered and actually less organized and clear than his opponent (he’s been known to fall apart in informal discussions but hardly ever in the podium vs. podium battles). Sean repeatedly addressed specific points by WLC, clearly refuted them, and then moved on to offer his own structured arguments against theism. The most frustrating aspect was watching WLC simply ignore Sean’s corrections and refutations, and pretend as if his argument was just as good as before – thankfully Sean pointed this out and I think it was pretty clear to the audience as well.

My favorite part of the debate came during Sean’s closing remarks, when he purposely forwent the opportunity to continue refuting Craig’s ideas and instead spent time addressing the bigger questions of the naturalism vs. theism debate. Nobody becomes a believer because they think God provides the best explanation for our modern understanding of cosmology (that was, by the way, the topic of the forum) – they do so for other reasons, be they fellowship, community, a feeling of transcendence or hope, etc. So why naturalism seems far and away a more reasonable alternative to theism, particularly if you take the implications of modern science seriously, it still doesn’t help provide us with answers to those deep questions of meaning. Answering those deep questions, Sean says, is a challenge for all humanity, and to answer them we’ll need to in some sense start the conversation over. (I’m really not doing this section justice from memory so I’ll make sure to post the link when it’s ready).

In conclusion – Sean did a terrific job and I hope he continues engaging in these types of debates. You can see his own post-debate thoughts here. Also, you’ll notice I didn’t do a point-by-point review of the debate – the cosmological arguments were way too technical for me to make a competent attempt at something like that but you should have luck googling one.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Destructive Power of “Maybe Not”

I came across another interesting Sean Carroll video today (watch here) on the strengths and weaknesses of God as a theory (not a purely scientific theory either, but simply an “idea about the universe which may or may not be true”). Carroll briefly covers the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a deductive attempt to prove that some sort of prime-mover or first-cause was necessary to create the universe. I last saw this argument while attending a Reasonable Faith seminar in Dallas entitled “Does Science Bury God: A Refutation from Physics”. Here it is in full (there are various forms):

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Now, the first thing to note is that this argument is not a refutation from physics. That’s because it’s not physics – it’s metaphysics. The second odd thing is how often this argument is still used. It’s been so badly beaten by so many people that I’m a little confused  as to why it keeps getting offered (most notably and skillfully, or greasily, by William Lane Craig). You don’t have to be a professional philosopher to refute it, but Carroll offers you the easiest way:

Just look at the first premise and say, “maybe not.”

It certainly has not been proven that everything which begins to exist must have a cause. Lots of things do, but if experience has taught us anything it’s that our observations are limited and generalizing can get you in trouble, especially in areas you cannot conceivably test (such as the rather broad spectrum of “everything”). As soon as one premise fails to be completely established, the deduction fails and the argument is of little use. There are obvious additional flaws as well – namely that most theologians will exempt God from the first premise (saying something like, well, He didn’t begin to exist, He always existed, and therefore doesn’t need a cause) but that begs the question and assumes the conclusion the argument is setting out to prove.

Then of course there do seem to be examples in physics of things coming into existence without causes – see Victor Stenger. The verdict’s still out on the the universe having a beginning (that is, there are scientifically consistent models describing situations in which the universe does not have a beginning). And, just for kicks, even if we were to accept the premises as all true, it wouldn’t get us any particular God. You would still have all the work ahead of you to demonstrate the truth of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any tiny, single, pitiful attribute of any creator.

How would the Kalam Cosmological Argument look using the scientific ethos? Simple:

  • Everything which begins to exist might have a cause
  • The universe might have begun to exist
  • Therefore, the universe might have a cause

Well. Waters it down a bit, no?

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.