Sean Carroll on Science and Religion

Sean Carroll on Science and Religion

Atheist physicist Sean Carroll expresses his convictions about Science and Religion.


Transcript Sean Carroll on Science and Religion

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, this is a very bold article from Sean Carroll about the fundamental nature of reality, and what I mean by that is he makes some very bold claims. He writes, “Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation.”[1] Tell us a little bit about that in a nutshell– the Templeton Foundation.

Dr. Craig: Well, we’ve probably all seen commercials on television for the Templeton family of mutual funds. Sir John Templeton was a great financier and founded this Templeton financial group that invests money in order for folks to have retirement income and so forth. And he also was very interested in the reconciliation of science and theology. And so Sir John Templeton poured millions of dollars into offering awards for conferences, for articles on science and theology, for book projects. They have been just everywhere putting money into the dialogue between science and theology over the last forty or fifty years, I would say. And one of the things they offer is the Templeton Prize for progress in science and religion, which has been awarded to people like Paul Davies and I believe John Polkinghorne, but they also offer research grants as well. I know a number of folks who are recipients of Templeton research grants for work in either science and theology directly or in issues that would have relevance to science and theology. And so this is the ongoing work; Sir John is now deceased but his son carries on the work, and they continue to foster this very fruitful dialogue between science and theology in our day.

Kevin Harris: Well, you would think, then, that Sean Carroll would be paying them a compliment but he writes something quite negative on them – Sean Carroll from Cal Tech, he’s a physicist there – he says, science and religion can’t be reconciled and for this reason he won’t take any money from the Templeton Foundation. He says,

They like to fund lots of things I find interesting—cosmology, physics, philosophy—but unfortunately they also like to promote the idea that science and religion are gradually reconciling. (As well as some projects that just seem silly.) They also have a huge amount of money, and they readily give it away.

I don’t think that science and religion are reconciling or can be reconciled in any meaningful sense, and I believe that it does a great disservice to the world to suggest otherwise.

. . .

In brief: I don’t take money directly from the Templeton Foundation. You will never see me thanking them for support in the acknowledgments of one of my papers.

So Professor Carroll is, well, he seems to be sticking to his convictions here, and that is: he doesn’t think they can be reconciled, and so he’s not going to take their money.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and for that reason I admire him. I find his writing is always provocative, it’s to be taken seriously, and I have a certain sympathy with his reason for not taking money from the Templeton Foundation; namely, he thinks that they are involved in a project which he regards as fundamentally misguided and even impossible, and that to take money from them would help to promote this project by lending your own personal credibility to their work. He says in the article:

Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability—even if only implicitly—to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do.

So his complaint about the Templeton Foundation is not that it’s unethical, not that it tries to influence the research of those who receive its grants, nothing of that sort. His fundamental conviction is an ethical one; he thinks it would be wrong for him to lend his name and support to this misguided notion that science and religion are reconcilable.

Now, as I say, I have a good deal of sympathy with that conviction; as you say, he’s sticking to his guns.[2] I remember back in the 1980s when I was teaching full time at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon was offering huge grants to Christian scholars to come and do research on various projects and attend conferences in attractive venues in the Far East. Many scholars were taking these grants and participating in these conferences. I remember at the time I came to a decision very similar to Carroll’s; I did not want to do anything that would lend my name and academic credibility to a cult movement like the Unification Church and to someone like Sun Myung Moon. So I decided at the time that as much as I would love to travel to these destinations or be part of these conferences and have a free ride, I wouldn’t do it. And so I want to applaud Carroll, I think, for his convictions, for sticking to his convictions, and I think more people who are of his same persuasion ought to do the same thing. They ought to refuse to take Templeton money out of the conviction that they are naturalists and atheists and don’t think that science and religion are reconcilable.

By the way, I’m going to be debating Sean Carroll at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary next February at their Greer-Heard forum. He and I will be participating in a debate together and then there will be commentators, two picked by him and two picked by me. He has chosen Tim Maudlin and Alex Rosenberg for his team. I’ve chosen Jim Sinclair and Robin Collins to be on my side. So this ought to be a very interesting exchange.

Kevin Harris: Bill, whenever a foundation offers grants and conferences and things like this, is it sometimes just a big PR thing for that organization? I mean, not always, sometimes . . .

Dr. Craig: Well, I can’t speak for others, but that’s certainly not the case for the Templeton Foundation. They have a very deep conviction that the sort of opposition between science and religion that is perpetuated in popular culture by people like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss and this new film The Unbelievers is fundamentally misguided and wrong-headed. And so the Templeton Foundation, as Carroll says, is quite committed to the project of fostering a meaningful dialogue between science and theology. They believe that each side has something to learn from the other, and that in conversation with one another we’re more likely to get at the truth of the real nature of reality. And Carroll will have none of this. He says at the end of his article: “If anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize” – that’s this thing comparable to the Nobel Prize, like a million bucks or so – he says, “I will totally accept it and use the funds to loudly evangelize for naturalism and atheism.” So there he makes clear his perspective – he’s a naturalist and an atheist, and therefore believes that science and religion are fundamentally irreconcilable.

Now the question, then, that this presents to us, Kevin, I think is this: why think that science and religion are irreconcilable? Why think that Carroll is right? I have accepted Templeton money. I’ve received Templeton awards for some of my published work. I think they are doing a fine service. Why do I think Carroll is wrong in thinking that science and theology are ultimately irreconcilable? Well, in three previous podcasts you may remember we interacted at length with Carroll’s arguments in the recent volume, The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, where we saw Carroll’s, I think, fundamentally misguided arguments to show that the universe is self-contained, and that science itself can explain why there is something rather than nothing. It seemed to me that he was quite incapable of giving a strong defense of metaphysical naturalism or atheism, and he doesn’t even attempt to do so in this article, but if listeners are interested I would encourage them to listen to those other podcasts in response to Sean Carroll and to judge for themselves whether Carroll has given us good reason to think that naturalism and atheism are true.[3]

Now there’s another way, however, in which I might imagine that he could think science and religion are irreconcilable without proving naturalism or atheism to be true, and that would be if you were to adopt some kind of epistemological naturalism; that is to say, if you were to think that science and science alone is the source of truth, and that there are no sources of knowledge outside of science.[4] Then you might be led to think that science is irreconcilable with religious belief because religious belief postulates additional sources of knowledge than the physical sciences. And so for that reason one might think science and religion are irreconcilable, but then he would be taxed with the very heavy burden of showing that epistemological naturalism is true. And as I explained in my debate with Alex Rosenberg last February[5], I think epistemological naturalism is both overly restrictive as a theory of knowledge, and it’s ultimately self-refuting because you cannot justify scientifically the claim that only science is a source of knowledge and truth – that’s a philosophical claim that you will not find in any scientific theory. And so if you follow strictly epistemological naturalism or scientism you would reject epistemological naturalism – it’s self-refuting.

So it seems to me that, while I can admire Carroll’s strength of convictions, that those convictions are based upon an ultimately arbitrary assumption that science and religion are irreconcilable, which he simply hasn’t proven.

Kevin Harris: He says,

I will try to explain to them why it’s important. Think of it this way. The kinds of questions I think about—origin of the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing—for the most part have no direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives. No jet packs are forthcoming, as the saying goes. But there is one exception to this, so obvious that it goes unnoticed: belief in God. Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last 500 years. And it matters to people … a lot.

Dr. Craig: Yes, this paragraph in this editorial was the one that caused me the most thought and reflection because I think at a certain level Carroll is right, that ever since the Enlightenment broke in Europe in the 1600s it is true that secularism has come to be dominant in the Western world and particularly at the Western university. It is true that atheism has become the dominate worldview among the intelligentsia of Western culture today. So over the last five hundred years there has been a stunning change in fundamental ontology – from the theistic worldview that dominated in the Middle Ages to the kind of secular worldview that dominates today that is the result of the Enlightenment.

However, where I would protest is that I think Carroll has a very naïve view of the sources of modern secularism. I think that when he says they are due to the efforts of scholars who are expert in the fundamental nature of reality, he’s probably thinking of scientists, but I would say that scientists are not experts in the fundamental nature of reality – they do physical science. Those who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality would be philosophers, metaphysicians; that is what metaphysics studies: fundamental reality, ultimate reality. However, his point could be taken as well among philosophers – the wide majority of contemporary philosophers have come to be atheistic or agnostic. Now, is that because they are so smart that they have shown that theism is philosophically or scientifically untenable? Well, again, I think that is sociologically very naïve, Kevin. The sources of modern secularism have deep roots in the Enlightenment in which the old order – in French: the Ancien Régime – the old regime, the old order of monarchy and state church was thrown off in the name of democracy and freedom of thought.[6] The Christian faith or Christian religion was associated with the monarchy and the established state church of the old order, and people were sick of the wars of religion that devastated Europe and bled it white of treasure and its young. And the roots of the Enlightenment are to be found in the sickness and the satiety of people with the wars of religion, the intolerance of religion and the state church, and the abuses perpetrated in its name. In the modern world, the age of modernity since the Enlightenment, secularism is augmented by the Industrial Revolution, consumerism, materialism, modern entertainment – Hollywood and the entertainment industry – and then this culture becomes a kind of self-perpetuating subculture within the university environment.

So I think Carroll is extremely naïve in thinking that modern secularism and atheism represents the kind of growing up of Western culture and sloughing off this intellectually irresponsible and deficient belief. And the proof of the pudding of this, Kevin, is not just in showing the sociological roots of modern secularism, but it is in looking at the arguments that these people give in favor of their worldview. I have debated the best secular philosophers and scientists and atheists on the scene today, and I have found over and over again that the reasons that they give for their secular worldview are deficient and untenable. They have neither good arguments for atheism and naturalism, nor do they have good critiques of a theistic worldview. And I think Carroll, himself, exemplifies those weaknesses as we tried to show in those previous three podcasts that we did on his article in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. So while he is correct in saying that over the last five hundred years there has been this tremendous shift from the Middle Ages to modernity and to a dominantly secular view among Western intelligentsia, I think he’s very naïve in thinking that this has somehow shown the irreconcilability of science and religion or the untenability of a theistic worldview.

Kevin Harris: Bill, there’s something else in this paragraph that got my attention. I wonder if you see the same thing as far as him saying that things that he’s interested in – like the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing – for the most part doesn't have any direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives; no jet-packs are forthcoming.

Dr. Craig: I think what he’s saying here is that theoretical physics is very far removed from the way the common man lives his life. Now, it’s only indirectly removed; he himself knows that it is precisely because of these theories that many of the modern inventions of modernity that we use and live our lives with are the result of these high level theories. So at one level, yes, they seem far removed, but they have practical implications for technology that impact our daily lives. But I think what he’s saying is this: that the god of the gaps has been squeezed out by the advances of modern science. We have better explanations for how things work than by saying, “God did it.” But as we’ve talked about before the belief in the existence of God is not belief in a god of the gaps, and so we’re not advocating a sort of god of the gaps theology where God is appealed to to plug the ignorance in science. I think that as Christians – and this is of course the conviction of the Templeton Foundation – we should be enthusiastic promoters of science and learn all we can from science about the physical world in which we live. But what we recognize is that although science gives us an enormous amount of truth about the physical world in which we live, that does not exhaust what is real. There is reality that goes beyond what physics can disclose to us, and this would include not only spiritual realities, but also ethical and aesthetic, mathematical truths, that are not accessible to the scientific method.[7]

Kevin Harris: Bill, as we wrap up today, we’ll look at one of the main parts of Carroll’s article here. He says one of the reasons he wants to really evangelize for naturalism, for atheism, for the fact that science and religion are not compatible, is because this has life-changing aspects to it that people really need to know. He says,

And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring, or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run—not just through extremists, but through the well-meaning liberal believers who very naturally think of religion as a source of wisdom and moral guidance, and who define the middle ground for sociopolitical discourse in our society. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature—something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom—we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible. And collaborating with organizations like Templeton inevitably dilutes that message.

Dr. Craig: Yes, here again we have this phrase, “the fundamental nature of reality.” He thinks that he has an insight into the fundamental nature of reality that is a very different understanding than what the religious understanding is of the fundamental nature of reality. And I suspect that what he’s talking about here is naturalism, Kevin. He says this understanding of the fundamental nature of reality is profoundly at odds with the conventional wisdom, and that we need it as a starting point for conversations about morality, justice and meaning. What’s he talking about there? Well, Carroll has confessed to being a naturalist, and he has recently participated in a conference of naturalists that included in it people like Daniel Dennett and Alex Rosenberg, whom I debated at Perdue earlier in the year. And at this conference, Kevin, a debate arose among the participants as to whether or not they should make public what the real implications of naturalism are, or whether they should conceal these implications from the public because they would be so unpalatable that they wouldn’t be accepted. And some of the people at the conference, like Daniel Dennett, said we shouldn’t make these implications known – they’re too radical. Others, like Rosenberg, think that we should. And I suspect what we’re seeing here is a reflection of Rosenberg’s attitude that if naturalism is true – as you’ll discover if you listen to me debate with him – if naturalism is true, Rosenberg thinks that there are no selves, that we literally do not exist, that there are no intentional states (that is to say, we never think about anything), and therefore there is no meaning. One of the areas that Carroll here identifies as being one of the areas that must be talked about from the perspective of this fundamental understanding of reality, he says there are no objective moral values. Morality is an illusion– another one of the elements identified by Carroll as having serious implications from your understanding of the fundamental nature of reality.

So I think that what Carroll is intimating here is that when you adopt a naturalistic view of the fundamental nature of reality; namely, reality is just material stuff in motion, then you are going to be led to deny, plausibly, meaning, value, purpose, intentionality, even selfhood; it has radical, radical implications for how we live. Now, perhaps he disagrees with Rosenberg on some of those issues, but if he does I think at least he quite rightly discerns the radical implications of what your understanding of the fundamental nature of reality is, and therefore he wants to shun religion because it gives us the wrong understanding of the fundamental nature of reality as rooted in God, and he wants to root it, I think, in physics.

Kevin Harris: This reminds me of something you’ve written about in the past – the “Noble Lie.”[8] When Dr. Rue said that people really cannot handle the implications of a naturalistic universe, we must – what? – present this Noble Lie to keep people from being in despair.[9]

Dr. Craig: Yes, to deceive them into living . . .

Kevin Harris: That we, the brave ones . . .

Dr. Craig: The intelligentsia . . .

Kevin Harris: Yeah, we need to face the reality that we are dust and soon to be gone, but people can’t handle it. Is that what the Noble Lie is all about?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that’s right. The intelligentsia, these elite scholars that he’s talking about here, they will perpetuate a Noble Lie to deceive the masses so as to achieve social coherence in society without state imposition. You get people to do it voluntarily by deceiving them into following a Noble Lie that even though naturalism is true nevertheless our lives still have meaning, value, and purpose. Now somebody like Rosenberg rejects the Noble Lie; he says, no, people can face the truth. If they have difficulty do you know what Rosenberg suggests?

Kevin Harris: No.

Dr. Craig: There’s always Prozac. This is what he says; take drugs. It will boost the serotonin, you won’t feel so bad if you do that. And as a naturalist who thinks you’re no different than your brain, why not take drugs to elevate your brain states? So that’s Rosenberg’s solution to despair – not the Noble Lie – drugs.

Kevin Harris: . . . or Jack Daniels.

Dr. Craig: So I think you can see, Kevin – and I hope our listeners appreciate – that this article by Carroll is about so much more than his simply not taking funding from the Templeton Foundation. This has very deep implications about what reality is like and how we come to know it.[10]



[1] Sean Carroll, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation,” Slate.com, May 9, 2013. See http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/i_won_t_take_money_from_templeton_science_and_religion_can_t_be_reconciled.html (accessed December 27, 2013).

[2] 4:56

[3] These podcasts can be found at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/sean-carroll-on-science-and-god (accessed December 27, 2013).

[4] 10:19

[5] To view this debate, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-rosenberg-purdue-university (accessed December 27, 2013).

[6] 15:07

[7] 20:14

[8] For example, see William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life Without God,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-absurdity-of-life-without-god (accessed December 27, 2013).

[9] 25:14

[10] Total Running Time: 26:52 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)