Tag: lawrence krauss

Must science be testable?

Source: Aeon.co

Author:Massimo Pigliucci

emphasis mine

The general theory of relativity is sound science; ‘theories’ of psychoanalysis, as well as Marxist accounts of the unfolding of historical events, are pseudoscience. This was the conclusion reached a number of decades ago by Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science. Popper was interested in what he called the ‘demarcation problem’, or how to make sense of the difference between science and non-science, and in particular science and pseudoscience. He thought long and hard about it and proposed a simple criterion: falsifiability. For a notion to be considered scientific it would have to be shown that, at the least in principle, it could be demonstrated to be false, if it were, in fact false.

Popper was impressed by Einstein’s theory because it had recently been spectacularly confirmed during the 1919 total eclipse of the Sun, so he proposed it as a paradigmatic example of good science. Here is how in Conjectures and Refutations (1963) he differentiated among Einstein on one side, and Freud, Adler and Marx on the other:

Einstein’s theory of gravitation clearly satisfied the criterion of falsifiability. Even if our measuring instruments at the time did not allow us to pronounce on the results of the tests with complete assurance, there was clearly a possibility of refuting the theory.

The Marxist theory of history, in spite of the serious efforts of some of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted [a] soothsaying practice. In some of its earlier formulations … their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation … They thus gave a ‘conventionalist twist’ to the theory; and by this stratagem they destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status.

The two psycho-analytic theories were in a different class. They were simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which could contradict them … I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable. But it does mean that those ‘clinical observations’ which analysts naively believe confirm their theory cannot do this any more than the daily confirmations which astrologers find in their practice.

As it turns out, Popper’s high regard for the crucial experiment of 1919 may have been a bit optimistic: when we look at the historical details we discover that the earlier formulation of Einstein’s theory actually contained a mathematical error that predicted twice as much bending of light by large gravitational masses like the Sun – the very thing that was tested during the eclipse. And if the theory had been tested in 1914 (as was originally planned), it would have been (apparently) falsified. Moreover, there were some significant errors in the 1919 observations, and one of the leading astronomers who conducted the test, Arthur Eddington, may actually have cherry picked his data to make them look like the cleanest possible confirmation of Einstein. Life, and science, are complicated.

This is all good and well, but why should something written near the beginning of last century by a philosopher – however prominent – be of interest today? Well, you might have heard of string theory. It’s something that the fundamental physics community has been playing around with for a few decades now, in their pursuit of what Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg grandly called ‘a theory of everything’. It isn’t really a theory of everything, and in fact, technically, string theory isn’t even a theory, not if by that name one means mature conceptual constructions, such as the theory of evolution, or that of continental drift. In fact, string theory is better described as a general framework – the most mathematically sophisticated one available at the moment – to resolve a fundamental problem in modern physics: general relativity and quantum mechanics are highly successful scientific theories, and yet, when they are applied to certain problems, like the physics of black holes, or that of the singularity that gave origin to the universe, they give us sharply contrasting predictions.

Physicists agree that this means that either theory, or both, are therefore wrong or incomplete. String theory is one attempt at reconciling the two by subsuming both into a broader theoretical framework. There is only one problem: while some in the fundamental physics community confidently argue that string theory is not only a very promising scientific theory, but pretty much ‘the only game in town,’ others scornfully respond that it isn’t even science, since it doesn’t make contact with the empirical evidence: vibrating superstrings, multiple, folded, dimensions of space-time and other features of the theory are impossible to test experimentally, and they are the mathematical equivalent of metaphysical speculation. And metaphysics isn’t a complimentary word in the lingo of scientists. Surprisingly, the ongoing, increasingly public and acerbic diatribe often centres on the ideas of one Karl Popper. What, exactly, is going on?

I had a front row seat at one round of such, shall we say, frank discussions last year, when I was invited to Munich to participate in a workshop on the status of fundamental physics, and particularly on what some refer to as ‘the string wars’. The organiser, Richard Dawid, of the University of Stockholm, is a philosopher of science with a strong background in theoretical physics. He is also a proponent of a highly speculative, if innovative, type of epistemology that supports the efforts of string theorists and aims at shielding them from the accusation of engaging in flights of mathematical fancy decoupled from any real science. My role there was to make sure that participants – an eclectic mix of scientists and philosophers, with a Nobel winner thrown in the mix – were clear on something I teach in my introductory course in philosophy of science: what exactly Popper said and why, since some of those physicists had hurled accusations at their critical colleagues, loudly advocating the ejection of the very idea of falsification from scientific practice.

In the months preceding the workshop, a number of high profile players in the field had been using all sorts of means – from manifesto-type articles in the prestigious Nature magazine to Twitter – to pursue a no-holds-barred public relations campaign to wrestle, or retain, control of the soul of contemporary fundamental physics. Let me give you a taste of the exchange, to set the mood: ‘The fear is that it would become difficult to separate such ‘science’ from New Age thinking, or science fiction,’ said George Ellis, chastising the pro-string party; to which Sabine Hossenfelder added: ‘Post-empirical science is an oxymoron.’ Peter Galison made crystal clear what the stakes are when he wrote: ‘This is a debate about the nature of physical knowledge.’ On the other side, however, cosmologist Sean Carroll tweeted:

My real problem with the falsifiability police is: we don’t get to demand ahead of time what kind of theory correctly describes the world,’ adding ‘[Falsifiability is] just a simple motto that non-philosophically-trained scientists have latched onto.’ Finally (but there is more, much more, out there), Leonard Susskind mockingly introduced the neologism ‘Popperazzi’ to label an extremely naive (in his view) way of thinking about how science works.

This surprisingly blunt – and very public – talk from prestigious academics is what happens when scientists help themselves to, or conversely categorically reject, philosophical notions that they plainly have not given sufficient thought to. In this case, it was Popper’s philosophy of science and its application to the demarcation problem. What makes this particularly ironic for someone like me, who started his academic career as a scientist (evolutionary biology) and eventually moved to philosophy after a constructive midlife crisis, is that a good number of scientists nowadays – and especially physicists – don’t seem to hold philosophy in particularly high regard. Just in the last few years Stephen Hawking has declared philosophy dead, Lawrence Krauss has quipped that philosophy reminds him of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym,’ and science popularisers Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have both wondered loudly why any young man would decide to ‘waste’ his time studying philosophy in college.

Loud debates on social media and in the popular science outlets define how much of the public perceives physics.

This is a rather novel, and by no means universal, attitude among physicists. Compare the above contemptuousness with what Einstein himself wrote to his friend Robert Thorton in 1944 on the same subject: ‘I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.’ By Einstein’s standard then, there are a lot of artisans but comparatively few seekers of truth among contemporary physicists!

To put things in perspective, of course, Einstein’s opinion of philosophy may not have been representative even then, and certainly modern string theorists are a small group within the physics community, and string theorists on Twitter are an ever smaller, possibly more voluble subset within that group. The philosophical noise they make is likely not representative of what physicists in general think and say, but it matters all the same precisely because they are so prominent; those loud debates on social media and in the popular science outlets define how much of the public perceives physics, and even how many physicists perceive the big issues of their field.

That said, the publicly visible portion of the physics community nowadays seems split between people who are openly dismissive of philosophy and those who think they got the pertinent philosophy right but their ideological opponents haven’t. At stake isn’t just the usually tiny academic pie, but public appreciation of and respect for both the humanities and the sciences, not to mention millions of dollars in research grants (for the physicists, not the philosophers). Time, therefore, to take a more serious look at the meaning of Popper’s philosophy and why it is still very much relevant to science, when properly understood.

As we have seen, Popper’s message is deceptively simple, and – when repackaged in a tweet – has in fact deceived many a smart commentator in underestimating the sophistication of the underlying philosophy. If one were to turn that philosophy into a bumper sticker slogan it would read something like: ‘If it ain’t falsifiable, it ain’t science, stop wasting your time and money.’

But good philosophy doesn’t lend itself to bumper sticker summaries, so one cannot stop there and pretend that there is nothing more to say. Popper himself changed his mind throughout his career about a number of issues related to falsification and demarcation, as any thoughtful thinker would do when exposed to criticisms and counterexamples from his colleagues. For instance, he initially rejected any role for verification in establishing scientific theories, thinking that it was far too easy to ‘verify’ a notion if one were actively looking for confirmatory evidence. Sure enough, modern psychologists have a name for this tendency, common to laypeople as well as scientists: confirmation bias.

Nonetheless, later on Popper conceded that verification – especially of very daring and novel predictions – is part of a sound scientific approach. After all, the reason Einstein became a scientific celebrity overnight after the 1919 total eclipse is precisely because astronomers had verified the predictions of his theory all over the planet and found them in satisfactory agreement with the empirical data. For Popper this did not mean that the theory of general relativity was ‘true,’ but only that it survived to fight another day. Indeed, nowadays we don’t think the theory is true, because of the above mentioned conflicts, in certain domains, with quantum mechanics. But it has withstood a very good number of high stakes challenges over the intervening century, and its most recent confirmation came just a few months ago, with the first detection of gravitational waves.

Scientific hypotheses need to be tested repeatedly and under a variety of conditions before we can be reasonably confident of the results.

Popper also changed his mind about the potential, at the least, for a viable Marxist theory of history (and about the status of the Darwinian theory of evolution, concerning which he was initially skeptical, thinking – erroneously – that the idea was based on a tautology). He conceded that even the best scientific theories are often somewhat shielded from falsification because of their connection to ancillary hypotheses and background assumptions. When one tests Einstein’s theory using telescopes and photographic plates directed at the Sun, one is really simultaneously putting to the test the focal theory, plus the theory of optics that goes into designing the telescopes, plus the assumptions behind the mathematical calculations needed to analyse the data, plus a lot of other things that scientists simply take for granted and assume to be true in the background, while their attention is trained on the main theory. But if something goes wrong and there is a mismatch between the theory of interest and the pertinent observations, this isn’t enough to immediately rule out the theory, since a failure in one of the ancillary assumptions might be to blame instead. That is why scientific hypotheses need to be tested repeatedly and under a variety of conditions before we can be reasonably confident of the results.

Popper’s initial work pretty much single-handedly put the demarcation problem on the map, prompting philosophers to work on the development of a philosophically sound account of both what science is and is not. That lasted until 1983, when Larry Laudan published a highly influential paper entitled ‘The demise of the demarcation problem,’ in which he argued that demarcation projects were actually a waste of time for philosophers, since – among other reasons – it is unlikely to the highest degree that anyone will ever be able to come up with small sets of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to define ‘science,’ ‘pseudoscience’ and the like. And without such sets, Laudan argued, the quest for any principled distinction between those activities is hopelessly Quixotic.

‘Necessary and jointly sufficient’ is logical-philosophical jargon, but it is important to see what Laudan meant. He thought that Popper and others had been trying to provide precise definitions of science and pseudoscience, similar to the definitions used in elementary geometry: a triangle, for instance, is whatever geometrical figure has the internal sum of its angles equal to 180 degrees. Having that property is both necessary (because without it the figure in question is not a triangle) and sufficient (because that’s all we need to know in order to confirm that we are, indeed, dealing with a triangle). Laudan argued – correctly – that no such solution is ever going to be found to the demarcation problem, simply because concepts like ‘science’ and ‘pseudoscience’ are complex, multidimensional, and inherently fuzzy, not admitting of sharp boundaries. In a sense, physicists complaining about ‘the Popperazzi’ are making the same charge as Laudan: Popper’s criterion of falsification appears to be far too blunt an instrument not only to discriminate between science and pseudoscience (which ought to be relatively easy), but a fortiori to separate sound from unsound science within an advanced field like theoretical physics.

Yet Popper wasn’t quite as naive as Laudan, Carroll, Susskind, and others make him out to be. Nor is the demarcation problem quite as hopeless as all that. Which is why a number of authors – including myself and my longtime collaborator, Maarten Boudry – have more recently maintained that Laudan was too quick to dismiss the demarcation problem, and that perhaps Twitter isn’t the best place for nuanced discussions in the philosophy of science.

The idea is that there are pathways forward in the study of demarcation that become available if one abandons the requirement for necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, which was never strictly enforced even by Popper. What, then, is the alternative? To treat science, pseudoscience, etc. as Wittgensteinian ‘family resemblance’ concepts instead. Ludwig Wittgenstein was another highly influential 20th century philosopher, who hailed, like Popper himself, from Vienna, though the two could not have been more different in terms of socio-economic background, temperament, and philosophical interests. (If you want to know just how different, check out the delightful Wittgenstein’s Poker (2001) by journalists David Edmonds and John Eidinow.)

Wittgenstein never wrote about philosophy of science, let alone fundamental physics (or even Marxist theories of history). But he was very much interested in language, its logic, and its uses. He pointed out that there are many concepts that we seem to be able to use effectively, and that yet are not amenable to the sort of clear definition that Laudan was looking for. His favorite example was the deceptively simple concept of ‘game.’ If you try to arrive at a definition of games of the kind that works for triangles, your effort will be endlessly frustrated (try it out, it makes for a nice parlour, ahem, game). Wittgenstein wrote: ‘How should we explain to someone what a game is? I imagine that we should describe games to him, and we might add: ‘This and similar things are called games.’ And do we know any more about it ourselves? Is it only other people whom we cannot tell exactly what a game is? […] But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn […] We can draw a boundary for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all!’

The point is that in a lot of cases we don’t discover pre-existing boundaries, as if games and scientific disciplines were Platonic ideal forms that existed in a timeless metaphysical dimension. We make up boundaries for specific purposes and then we test whether the boundaries are actually useful for whatever purposes we drew them. In the case of the distinction between science and pseudoscience, we think there are important differences, so we try to draw tentative borders in order to highlight them. Surely one would give up too much, as either a scientist or a philosopher, if one were to reject the strongly intuitive idea that there is something fundamentally different between, say, astrology and astronomy. The question is where, approximately, the difference lies?  But this is not ignorance. We do not know the boundaries because none have been drawn […] We can draw a boundary for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all!’

Rather than laying into each other in the crude terms, scientists should work together not just to forge a better science, but to counter true pseudoscience.

Similarly, many of the participants in the Munich workshop, and the ‘string wars’ more generally, did feel that there is an important distinction between fundamental physics as it is commonly conceived and what string theorists are proposing. Richard Dawid objects to the (admittedly easily derisible) term ‘post-empirical science,’ preferring instead ‘non-empirical theory assessment’, but whatever one calls it, he is aware that he and his fellow travellers are proposing a major departure from the way we have done science since the time of Galileo. True, the Italian physicist himself largely engaged in theoretical arguments and thought experiments (he likely never did drop balls from the leaning tower of Pisa), but his ideas were certainly falsifiable and have been, over and over, subjected to experimental tests (most spectacularly by David Scott on the Apollo 15 Moon landing).

The broader question then is: are we on the verge of developing a whole new science, or is this going to be regarded by future historians as a temporary stalling of scientific progress? Alternatively, is it possible that fundamental physics is reaching an end not because we’ve figured out everything we wanted to figure out, but because we have come to the limits of what our brains and technologies can possibly do? These are serious questions that ought to be of interest not just to scientists and philosophers, but to the public at large (the very same public that funds research in fundamental physics, among other things).

What is weird about the string wars and the concomitant use and misuse of philosophy of science is that both scientists and philosophers have bigger targets to jointly address for the sake of society, if only they could stop squabbling and focus on what their joint intellectual forces may accomplish. Rather than laying into each other in the crude terms sketched above, they should work together not just to forge a better science, but to counter true pseudoscience: homeopaths and psychics, just to mention a couple of obvious examples, keep making tons of money by fooling people, and damaging their physical and mental health. Those are worthy targets of critical analysis and discourse, and it is the moral responsibility of a public intellectual or academic – be they a scientist or a philosopher – to do their best to improve as much as possible the very same society that affords them the luxury of discussing esoteric points of epistemology or fundamental physics.


See: https://aeon.co/essays/the-string-theory-wars-show-us-how-science-needs-philosophy?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=eba5a1d6e4-Daily_Newsletter_10_August_20168_10_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-eba5a1d6e4-68915721

Lawrence Krauss: ‘All Scientists Should Be Atheists’

kraussscience1Source: Patheos

Author: Michael Stone

Emphasis Mine

“Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world.” – Lawrence Krauss.

In an essay for The New Yorker titled All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists Lawrence Krauss makes a powerful argument for science and against the urge to protect religious superstition from scrutiny.

The essay, published last September, begins with a discussion concerning conservative culture warrior Kim Davis using her Christian religious beliefs to deny wedding licenses to gays and lesbians in Kentucky. Commenting on the controversy, Krauss notes:

The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals.

Krauss dismisses the demand that many make for respecting religious superstitions by noting the obvious:

The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another.

Krauss is correct. What is a sacred commandment or belief for one is another’s moral abomination. One need only be reminded of the sexism and misogyny woven into the fabric of all three of the Abrahamic religions to understand why many would find the supposedly sacred to be morally repugnant. The refusal by Kim Davis to issue marriage licenses to gays and lesbians is another example, and there are of course many more.

Krauss goes on to move from a discussion of Davis to a discussion of science, opining:

In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise.

Krauss observes that science is inherently dangerous to religion because scientific understanding often draws people away from religion:

Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.

Yet the uncomfortable fact that science often has the effect of exposing religious superstitions as irrational and ultimately untenable beliefs about the world means that the culture of science often panders to the faithful by sugar coating the truth about the natural world:

Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with preexisting religious doctrines, or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine.

Krauss rejects the misleading fabrication that science and religious dogma are compatible, at one point declaring:

Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world.

In concluding, Krauss sees a direct link “between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life.” Arguing that honesty should take priority over religious dogma, Krauss says “we owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass” to those “that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered ‘sacred.’”

Bottom line: Krauss is right, all scientists, and all thinking people, should be atheists.

Lawrence Krauss is a physicist and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is also the author of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.


Why is religion privileged over philosophy?

Source: whyevolutionistrue

Emphasis Mine

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that, at least in the U.S. (and certainly in Canada), the government defers far more to religious beliefs than to philosophical ones. There are Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (but no philosophical ones); when there was a military draft you could get a conscientious objector exemption if you were religious, but not if your objections were philosophical or moral (I got exempted because chaplains testified that my objections to war were quasi-religious); and many states will exculpate you if you injure your children by refusing to get them medical care on religious grounds, but not if you do so on philosophical grounds.

Further, as the following figure from CNN shows, 48 of the 50 US states allow exemption from required school vaccination on religious grounds, but only 20 states on philosophical grounds alone:


Now I understand why the First Amendment guarantees people the right to practice their beliefs without interference, even if those beliefs, as in the case of Kim Davis, keep her from doing part of her job. But why religion and not philosophy?

After all, one can argue that philosophical beliefs have a stronger claim on legal recognition, or at least on public “respect,” than do religious beliefs.  First of all, most people get their religion via accidents of birth: if you’re born in Utah, you’re likely to be a Mormon, a Muslim if born in Saudi Arabia, and a Christian if born in Mississippi. That, of course, means those beliefs weren’t arrived at by reason but by cultural inheritance.

Further, in many cases, but of course not all, people usually arrive at philosophical positions through introspection, doubt, and questioning. That is, they pick a philosophy by considering alternatives. That is rarely the case for religion, as John Loftus emphasizes in his writings on the “outsider test for faith“. Secular systems of ethics, for example, are often accepted only after a long process of reason and introspection, as opposed to religious ethics, which are often taken on faith because they supposedly derive from God’s will or from scripture. (Of course whatever views you adopt in the end are all determined by your genes and environment, but what I’m arguing here is that there’s no reason to privilege religion over philosophy.)

Finally, philosophical views are often held just as tenaciously, and considered just as integral a part of a person’s “worldview”, as are religious beliefs. Think of pacifists and animal-rights activists.

It seems to me, then, that most government accommodations to religion could also be extended to philosophy.  Now I’m not saying that they should: whether Kim Davis opposed gay marriage because she was a Christian or because that violated some philosophical view (NOT LIKELY in any case), she should be forced to do her job. Likewise, all children should be vaccinated before attending public school, regardless of their philosophical or religious views. (Medical exemptions, as in the case of immunodeficiency, are of course fine.)

But there is one difference—something Lawrence Krauss touched on his his New Yorkerpiece.  I’d rather have those with philosophical views try to impose them on me through government than those with religious views. For, at least in principle, philosophy is open to rational debate, while religion, as Lawrence noted, is not.

Readers should weigh in below, as I really would like to know why religion is put on a pedestal in the U.S. while equally sincere philosophical views are not.



All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists

Source: New Yorker

Author:Lawrence M. Krauss

Emphasis Mine 

A a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma. When I do, I sometimes get accused in public of being a “militant atheist.” Even a surprising number of my colleagues politely ask if it wouldn’t be better to avoid alienating religious people. Shouldn’t we respect religious sensibilities, masking potential conflicts and building common ground with religious groups so as to create a better, more equitable world?

I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis, the country clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. (She was released earlier today.) Davis’s supporters, including the Kentucky senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul, are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. It is “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties,” Paul said, on CNN.

The Kim Davis story raises a basic question: To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it? It’s possible to take that question to an extreme that even Senator Paul might find absurd: imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.

In recent years, this territory has grown murkier. Under the banner of religious freedom, individuals, states, and even—in the case of Hobby Lobby—corporations have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds. (The laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.) The government has a compelling interest in insuring that all citizens are treated equally. But “religious freedom” advocates argue that religious ideals should be elevated above all others as a rationale for action. In a secular society, this is inappropriate.  

The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.

In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.

Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems. Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world. Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with preëxisting religious doctrines, or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine. It’s a strange inconsistency, since scientists often happily disagree with other kinds of beliefs. Astronomers have no problem ridiculing the claims of astrologists, even though a significant fraction of the public believes these claims. Doctors have no problem condemning the actions of anti-vaccine activists who endanger children. And yet, for reasons of decorum, many scientists worry that ridiculing certain religious claims alienates the public from science. When they do so, they are being condescending at best and hypocritical at worst.

This reticence can have significant consequences. Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away , even though it could help improve and save lives?   Ultimately, when we hesitate to openly question beliefs because we don’t want to risk offense, questioning itself becomes taboo. It is here that the imperative for scientists to speak out seems to me to be most urgent. As a result of speaking out on issues of science and religion, I have heard from many young people about the shame and ostracism they experience after merely questioning their family’s faith. Sometimes, they find themselves denied rights and privileges because their actions confront the faith of others. Scientists need to be prepared to demonstrate by example that questioning perceived truth, especially “sacred truth,” is an essential part of living in a free country.

I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.

If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist, then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.

See: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/all-scientists-should-be-militant-atheists?intcid=mod-latest

Lawrence Krauss Makes A Powerful Case Against Organized Religion


Author: Michael Stone

Emphasis Mine

In a brave and thoughtful soliloquy, Lawrence Krauss makes a powerful case against organized religion.

In a new video for Big Think titled Is Xenophobia Inherent in Organized Religion?, Krauss declares:

Religion is a negative force for humanity because … it implies things about the real world that are just not true.

While acknowledging that religious myths often bring comfort to some, Krauss observes that making decisions based on those myths often “lead to bad consequences.”

Krauss states:

[Religion] has provided opportunities for groups to sometimes do progressive things. But inevitably it’s based on myth and superstition, based on ideas created by Iron Age peasants who didn’t even know the Earth orbited the sun. And ultimately why we should view that as wisdom is beyond me.

Eschewing false moral equivalencies, Krauss takes a particularly brave stance on Islam by challenging the current misguided liberal orthodoxy which attempts to excuse or diminish the violence associated with Islam. Krauss opines:

Now in the current world, I think there’s no doubt that right now Islam is a source of more violence than a number of the other organized religions.

Krauss points out that taken literally the holy texts of the Christian and Jew are just as likely to lead to violence, before going on to make the provocative observation that the problem with Islam is one of timing:

Islam is 500 years younger than say Christianity. And 500 years ago Christianity was producing far more violence than Islam ever is today from the Crusades to the Inquisition.

Krauss goes on to observe “the fundamental difference” between followers of the Bible and followers of the Koran, stating:

highly religious people take the Bible allegorically… when it says you can stone your children if they disobey you, no one takes that seriously anymore. The difference is that many people take the Koran every word of the Koran as not only divine but literally. And therefore when it exhorts you to violence they take that literally. That’s not done any more in the older religions, in the Abrahamic religions. The Bible still says to do those awful things but people don’t take it seriously.

As the title indicates, the larger theme Krauss explicates is the “us vs. them” mentality that is inevitably associated with organized religion, a mentality which often triggers a dangerous form of xenophobia.

In concluding, Krauss offers a prescription for escaping the bigotry and xenophobia often associated with organized religion and its attending religious superstitions:

… what seems to me the thing that we have to overcome the most is people recognizing that you can be a good person by accepting reality for what it is and questioning everything including questioning the existence of God.

Bottom line: organized religion is a destructive and divisive force which implies things about the real world that are just not true. In addition, and perhaps more important: one can be good without God.

Lawrence Krauss is a Canadian-American theoretical physicist who is a professor of physics, and the author of several bestselling books, including The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing.



Lawrence Krauss: Teaching Children Creationism Is Child Abuse


Source: Patheos

Author:Michael Stone

Emphasis Mine

Taking a stand for kids, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss argues teaching children

is a form of child abuse.


Krauss, appearing on the “The Weekly,” an Australian satirical TV news show, stressed the importance of teaching children critical thinking skills.

After that, host Charlie Pickering brought up the fact that Krauss had previously stated that teaching children creationism is a form of child abuse. Krauss doubled down on his claim, noting:

But it’s true. I mean, there are different levels of child abuse. It’s like not allowing your children to have medicine, not allowing you children to be vaccinated, for example, is child abuse, because you are doing them harm.

Krauss went on:

In some sense, if you withhold information from your children because you would rather them not know what reality is really like, for fear that it is going to affect their beliefs, then you are doing them harm.

Krauss is correct. Preventing children from learning the truth about the world, like teaching children that creationism is an acceptable scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, is a mild form of child abuse.

Previously, in 2013, while appearing on The David Pakman Show, Krauss acknowledged that teaching creationism to children was not on the same level of abuse as sexual assault, but insisted it should still be considered abusive because it puts children at a disadvantage.

Krauss said:

If you’re introducing it (creationism or Intelligent Design) as reality, if you’re telling your kids the world is 6,000 years old, and they shouldn’t believe scientists because there is no way humans are related to other animals, and don’t believe any of that stuff you learned in school, or take you kids of out of school because they are learning something, then it is like the Taliban at some level, which is an extreme form of child abuse.

Earlier this year, Krauss, and another leading scientist, Richard Dawkins, advocated for the intellectual rights of children, arguing children should be allowed to develop as critical thinkers and be protected from religious indoctrination.

It seems clear to many rational people that forcing children to accept the religious superstitions of their parents can be a form of child abuse. And it follows that teaching children Biblical creationism as a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution is an example of such child abuse.

Yet if we are to accept this claim, what are the implications for social policy? Should the government step in and protect children from the religious superstitions of their parents?

Or should parents retain the right to force their religious beliefs upon their children, even when those beliefs are demonstrably harmful to the education of the child, as is the case with the teaching of creationism?

And what about religious schools, as well as homeschoolers, engaged in the explicit task of indoctrinating children?

How does society protect children from the damaging excesses of religion?

How does society defend a child’s right to a proper education, even if that education violates the sincerely held religious beliefs of their parents?

Lawrence Krauss is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who is a professor of physics and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is also the author of the bestselling book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.

-See : http://www.patheos.com/blogs/progressivesecularhumanist/2015/07/lawrence-krauss-teaching-children-creationism-is-child-abuse/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=progressivesecularhumanist_070315UTC010724_daily&utm_content=&spMailingID=49021464&spUserID=MTIxNzQwMzMwMDkyS0&spJobID=720353225&spReportId=NzIwMzUzMjI1S0#sthash.uAxQKf25.dpuf


Science, Religion, and Culture in light of Paris and Charlie Hebdo Read more at http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/Science-Religion-and-Culture-in-light-of-Paris-and-Charlie-Hebdo

Source: Smith and Franklin

Author: Lawrence Krauss

Emphasis Mine

I am terribly discouraged, not just by the senseless violence in Paris, but by the response worldwide to both the publication of content by Charlie Hebdo before the killings and by the mass protests throughout the Islamic world to the bittersweet cover published the week following that tragedy.

As a scientist who has spoken out and written about the incompatibility between the world’s major organized religions and the empirical evidence about the universe that science has provided over the past four centuries, I receive many emails from the faithful, from a variety of religious backgrounds. While fanatical fundamentalists have responses that are relatively similar, what is striking to me is the number of letters I get from well-meaning followers of Islam who somehow are convinced that the actual words of the Qur’an actually scientifically anticipated the description of the world that science has produced in the fifteen centuries or so since the book was written. This derives from the notion, which also has been conveyed to me by many, that the book is ‘perfect’, every word the direct speech of God, and therefore it not only could not have been written by an ordinary mortal, but it can also not be in error in any way.

Perhaps because the Judeo-Christian scriptures are so much older, there has been much more time for theologians in these sects to sensibly acknowledge the facts that the words contained therein must be interpreted as products of the humans who wrote them, and of the time in which they were written. While some zealots still maintain the ludicrous notion that the Earth is 6000 years old, this is not the official doctrine of the leaders of these religions. While they nevertheless maintain the sacred nature of the inspiration for the bible, very few assert the Bible itself is so sacred that it cannot even be discussed intelligently and skeptically by people who would like to better understand that document and their own place in the cosmos.

However, this does not seem to be the case in the Islamic world, and this is what makes the current dilemma so urgent, and what implies that Charlie Hebdo, and other publications that ridicule politicians, sex, and religion with equal force are so important.

Hate speech involves people, not ideas. No idea should be sacred in the modern world. Instead, in order for us to progress as a species, every claim, every idea should be subject to debate, intelligent discussion, and when necessary ridicule. Satire is perhaps one of the most important gifts we have to inspire us to re-examine our own lives and our own ideologies. If every other area of human endeavor is open to ridicule, then certainly so should religion. The notion that a cartoon, which presents an image of a historical figure, is so blasphemous to provoke violence is repugnant to anyone who believes that free and intelligent discourse is the basis of a civilized world.

This means that we need to encourage even ridicule of the sacred Qur’an in the public media. The more frequently and openly this appears, the less threatening it will seem, and the more acceptable it will be for believers to actually intellectually engage rather than emotionally and violently act.

The biggest threat to the peaceful and sustainable progress of human civilization in the 21st century, with challenges ranging from global climate change, to energy and water shortages, and the oppression of women throughout the world, is a refusal to accept the empirical evidence of reality as a basis for action. Those who feel they know the truth in advance, and therefore cannot even listen to alternative arguments, are not just part of the problem, they are the problem. 

This is the reason that religion is, in my opinion, on the whole a negative force in the world. In spite of the charity and empathy it may generate among many, because it asserts as true notions that clearly are incompatible with the evidence of reality, it inevitably engenders actions that are irrational. These range from the innocuous to the deadly.

Science has taught us to revel in the idea that we do not understand all there is to know, that cherished notions may in fact be wrong. It teaches us that claiming to know the answers to questions before they have even been asked or explored is folly.

Some have argued that because ridiculing sacred notions is offensive to believers, it is inappropriate for such ridicule to be carried out in the public sphere. However, we choose whether to be offended. An appropriate response is not to condemn the offender but rather to generate intelligent arguments that demonstrate they are wrong. If we shy away from such dialogue for fear of offense, we will never allow those who are offended the opportunity to examine and defend their beliefs. If we shy away from dialogue for fear of reprisal by those who would rather their children not learn about the world out of fear that knowledge will undermine their faith, we have given in to ignorance and repression. That should offend us all.

Long live Charlie Hebdo. Long live ridicule. Long live satire. Our culture and our world are the better for them.

The views expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Science, Religion, and Culture or its staff.

Read more at http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/Science-Religion-and-Culture-in-light-of-Paris-and-Charlie-Hebdo/9/14/75/html#6zWlP0zJjme3m7Sx.99

Read more at http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/Science-Religion-and-Culture-in-light-of-Paris-and-Charlie-Hebdo/9/14/75/html#6zWlP0zJjme3m7Sx.99

Read more at http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/Science-Religion-and-Culture-in-light-of-Paris-and-Charlie-Hebdo/9/14/75/html#6zWlP0zJjme3m7Sx.99

See: http://smithandfranklin.com/current-issues/Science-Religion-and-Culture-in-light-of-Paris-and-Charlie-Hebdo/9/14/75/html

Stephen Hawking’s work just might explain our place in the cosmos

Source: National Post

Author: Lawrence Krauss

Emphasis Mine

Black holes? Singularities? Unitarity? Some might wonder why the public should care about the esoteric, abstract work of Stephen Hawking. None of it will build a better toaster, after all. But Hawking’s work continues to drive physics at the very forefront — and ultimately may push us toward a theory that describes the very origin of our universe.

Hawking’s interest in black holes — which changed his life, and the future of physics — started in 1970, five years after he was diagnosed with ALS. He was collaborating with another noted mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, to show that the universe had to begin in an infinitely dense “singularity,” much like the final stages of black hole collapse.

Black holes are objects that are so dense that even light cannot escape them. Hawking’s work helped support the claim that only the mass, charge and spin of a black hole could be discerned from the outside, and that no other information about what previously had fallen inside it could ever be discerned.

However, when Hawking began to apply ideas from quantum mechanics to processes associated with black holes in 1974, he discovered something completely unexpected. Black holes can actually radiate particles. And that radiation causes the black hole to shrink, potentially to the point of disappearance.

“Hawking Radiation,” as it came to be known, was a stunning revelation in and of itself. But it also suggested something of larger consequence: If the black hole eventually radiated away all of its energy and disappeared in a final flash, it would violate one of the central tenets of quantum mechanics, that the information associated with material that had collapsed to form the black hole would disappear as well. This violates a principle at the heart of quantum mechanics, called “Unitarity.”

It is hard to overstate the impact of this realization. The effort to solve the “Black Hole Information Paradox” has helped drive much of the current thinking about fundamental physics — including the development of String Theory, an idea which attempted to unify Einstein’s General Relativity (which, prior to Hawking, was largely decoupled from the rest of physics) with Quantum Mechanics.

Attempting to reconcile Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity may suggest — as both Hawking and I agree — that all the space and time of our universe might have arisen from Nothing as a spontaneous quantum fluctuation, without the need for any supernatural shenanigans. This, in turn, could help us grapple with questions that have been around since the dawn of human perception: How did the Universe begin? How might it end? What is our place in the cosmos?

So, no improved toaster. But addressing these, and other fundamental questions about our existence — like art, music and literature — forms the very essence of what it means to be human. And Hawking’s intellectual bravery, his refusal to give up his quest for knowledge in the face of a debilitating illness, provides a remarkable tribute to the power of human will.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a Canadian theoretical physicist and cosmologist, is Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He is also the author of bestselling books including The Physics of Star Trek (with a foreword by Stephen Hawking) and A Universe from Nothing (with afterword by Richard Dawkins).


Theoretical Physicist Lawrence Krauss: ‘Religion Could Be Gone in a Generation’

Source: Raw Story, via AlterNet

Author: Eric W. Dolan

“People should not assume that religion will always be a part of human society just because it has existed for so long, according to theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. Religion could disappear in the span of a single generation.

“People say, ‘Well, religion has been around since the dawn of man. You’ll never change that.’ But I point out that…this issue of gay marriage, it is going to go away, because if you have a child, a 13-year-old, they can’t understand what the issue is. It’s gone. One generation is all it takes,” he said at an event called the Victorian Skeptics Cafe 2014.  Video of his comments was uploaded to YouTube by Adam Ford on Monday.

“So, I can tell you a generation ago people said there is no way people would allow gay marriage, and slavery — essentially — [gone in] a generation, we got rid of it,” Krauss continued. “Change is always one generation away… so if we can plant the seeds of doubt in our children, religion will go away in a generation, or at least largely go away. And that’s what I think we have an obligation to do.”

Krauss was addressing whether religion should be taught to children in school. Though, as an atheist, he opposes religious education, he said he does support teaching comparative religion classes instead of completely avoiding the topic.

“What we need to do is present comparative religion as a bunch of interesting historical anecdotes, and show the silly reasons why they did what they did,” he remarked.

He said educators should force children to confront their own misconceptions.

“But you don’t shy away from religion any more than you shy away from the claim that Earth is the center of the universe. We laugh at that now, and we get kids to realize why that might be wrong… and so we should take other falsifiable facts, which are at the center of our society, which is religious doctrine, and make just as much fun of that.”

Emphasis Mine

See: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/theoretical-physicist-lawrence-krauss-religion-could-be-gone-generation?akid=12445.123424.242v6D&rd=1&src=newsletter1026048&t=21

Godless America: The New Religious-less Reality

From:Huff Post

By: Staks Rosch

Religion is still very important to many Americans and it will be a very long time before we will live in a world without religion. It might not ever happen. However, we are getting much closer to that world, and before we know it, religious belief will occupy the same place as fortunetellers in our society. We are at the dawn of a new reality in America in which people are starting to be more interested in actual reality than they are in ancient superstitions.

According to a 2012 Gallup-International poll (PDF), the number of “convinced atheists” in the United States has risen from 1 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2012. I want to point out here that we are not talking about some vague group of “nones,” or even people who shy away from the “A” label. That 5 percent doesn’t count those who only identify as agnostic or secular. It doesn’t count those who only use the Humanist or rationalist labels, either. We aren’t even talking about people who are just a little bit atheist; we are talking about “convinced atheists.” That’s 5 percent of the American public.

Let’s put this in context with some religious group identities. Muslims make up just .6 percent of the population in America. Although you wouldn’t know that by watching Fox News or by listening to many religious fundamentalists who insist that Sharia Law is going to take over the country any day now.

While Jewish groups have a strong lobby in Washington, they only make up 1.7 percent of the population in the nation. That’s it! Plus, there are still a lot of Jews who are secular and “convinced atheists.” So that number is probably inflated.

There are more “convinced atheists” in America than all the Muslims and Jews combined and doubled. But that’s not all. Not by a long shot. Atheism is still considered a dirty word in much of this country. So there are a lot of people who lack a belief in gods but don’t call themselves atheists.

The media loves the fact that according to the new Gallup tracking poll, the so-called “nones” only grew .3 percent from the previous year. Religious leaders are thrilled that the rise of the “nones” is slowing down. But the media reported it wrong. The “nones” are still rising! Looking at the context of how the other religious identities have risen or fallen, it becomes clear that this is a win for atheism. Protestants actually shrunk by .6 percent. Catholics can’t brag either. They fell .2 percent. Jews and Muslims stayed the same at the previously mentioned 1.7 percent and .6 percent, respectively.

In fact, aside from the Mormons, no religious group increased their numbers in 2012. But the religiously unaffiliated did grow! The story shouldn’t have been that the rise of the “nones” was slowing down, but rather that the religiously unaffiliated is still the fastest growing religious identity. More people are leaving religion than joining religion. Even in the most Bible-minded cities in the country, 48 percent of people are “resistant” to the Bible.

The religiously unaffiliated or “nones” make up about 19 percent of the American population. That’s nearly one in five Americans. I know, not all those people are “convinced atheists,” but the Pew Research Centerdoes break down those numbers a little bit and most of the “nones” don’t believe in any deities. So yeah,they’re atheists. Thirty-six percent of the “nones” are flat-out convinced atheists and agnostics. Thirty-nine percent consider themselves secular or not religious. In other words, they don’t like to use the “A-labels” but they still don’t believe in any deities. Only 23 percent of the religiously unaffiliated “nones” consider themselves to be unattached believers. That means that 77 percent of the “nones” don’t believe in deities. That’s about 14 percent of the American people and 0 percent of Congress.

While religious lawmakers continue to waste tax-payer monepushing laws that affirm “In God We Trust” as our national motto, it is their religious-based laws which continue to attack the rights of women, gays people and racial minorities that are most problematic. Those things aren’t helping religions grow one bit. On the contrary, they are making it easier for me to make my case that basing our laws on the Bible is silly and dangerous. It is much better to base our laws on secular values like human compassion, fairness and reason.

Religious apologists like to talk about a clash of world-views but there is no clash. There are people who live in reality and people who believe ancient stories on bad evidence and faith. When it comes to understanding the world we actually live in, there is no better tool than science. Stephen Hawking put it best:

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

As information becomes more available to the general public via the Internet, religion can no longer hide. When religious leaders make claims, people can now turn to Google and research those claims. You won’t find a religious leader claiming that there are no contradictions in the Bible anymore because a quick Google search can expose that as nonsense. That old line claiming that something can’t come from nothing is easily refuted with a YouTube search on Lawrence Krauss.

Whether religious believers like it or not, we are at the dawn of a new godless age in America. Religious leaders know it and they are afraid. The greater community of reason is organizing and we are starting to demand equal treatment and representation. It won’t be long before we actually get it, either. Religious believers can deface our billboards, but they cannot prevent the inevitable reality that our message is getting out there. People are starting to think critically about the beliefs they have been indoctrinated to believe and they are leaving their religions behind.


Emphasis Mine

see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/staks-rosch/godless-america-the-new-r_b_2561272.html