Leonard Mlodinow and the Rise of Scientific Atheism

Leonard Mlodinow and the Rise of Scientific Atheism

Dr. Craig interacts with the views of the physicist and co-author with Stephen Hawking on God, science, the Bible, and his agnosticism


Transcript Leonard Mlodinow: The Rise of Scientific Atheism

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, we want to look at some videos that are popular on YouTube. Our listeners have sent us these and asked you to comment on them. Our friend Robert Kuhn – you’ve been on his program Closer to Truth – has interviewed some philosophers, cosmologists, and he interviews Leonard Mlodinow in this particular video.[1] It is a short segment here. We will get you to comment on it as we go. This is The Rise of Scientific Atheism. You’ve quoted Mlodinow and referenced him as well in your works.

DR. CRAIG: He co-authored the most recent book with Stephen Hawking called The Grand Design. It was puzzling to me to know how much of that book really represented Hawking and how much really represented Mlodinow because Hawking is so debilitated with Lou Gehrig’s Disease it is hard to believe that he could have played much of an active role in the book. So it makes one wonder whether the book is not more of a reflection of Mlodinow’s own views, but I don’t know the answer to that question.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let’s begin then with this interview. We will pause as we go.

ROBERT KUHN: The age-old question of whether God exists or not, in recent times the hard use of science, particularly in cosmology and physics (your fields), have been used to show that at the very least God is not necessary. How do you look upon the use of physics and cosmology to argue against the existence of God?

DR. MLODINOW: I think that the history of science shows that God is not necessary to explain the universe. I don’t think that, for instance, we now know that evolution can create us, we know how the universe got to be here through the theories of cosmology. We haven’t ever come into an area where we’ve said, “Then a miracle must have happened.” In fact, we never see miracles in the lab.

DR. CRAIG: I think there that is an overconfidence that requires some sort of argument. My understanding of the contemporary theory of biological evolution is that it is grossly incomplete and the whole origin of life scenarios have all broken down. There is no good understanding, for example, of the origin of life. Moreover there really isn’t any good understanding of the explanatory mechanisms for the rise of biological complexity. The neo-Darwinian theory based on random mutations and natural selection proposes explanatory mechanisms for this, but they’ve never been shown to be adequate to account for the amount of biological complexity that we observe today. What he is saying represents a great confidence in the explanatory success of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, but I would like to see some justification offered for that. Similarly, when he says that cosmology has managed to explain where the universe came from, well, again, that is not really accurate unless you mean that our present universe came from earlier states of the universe from a primordial Big Bang event. But it doesn’t answer the ultimate question of where did the universe come from, period. Why does the universe exist instead of just nothing? Once again, there is an overconfidence that is being expressed here that needs some argument.

KEVIN HARRIS: I hear that a lot, and I’m sure you have, too, about where you insert a miracle in your equations. There is a famous cartoon – it shows two scientists working all these equations and then in parentheses “then a miracle occurs” and then the equations continue.

DR. CRAIG: That would be a good description of origin of life research today. I want to make it clear that we are not advocating that approach to science. We are not talking about God of the gaps reasoning where you are inserting a miracle in the gap.[2] We are simply saying that Mlodinow’s assertions that science has managed to explain the evolution of biological complexity and where the universe came from are exaggerations. It represents an overconfidence that isn’t borne out by the facts.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. Let’s continue with this interview.

DR. MLODINOW: We see everything following the laws that we discover or we create new laws. I am a big believer in the idea that God is not necessary for the universe. Everything that happens follows the laws of nature. I’ve never seen any evidence that that is not true.

DR. CRAIG: OK, now there is expresses his belief in the causal closed-ness of nature but he doesn’t give any evidence for it. He is making an assertion that miracles never happen – that nature is causally closed and that God is not necessary. But he has not given any argument for that. On the contrary, one could present arguments and evidence for miracles – not only historically but in the world today. Now, I am not advocating that. Again, we are not going to get into God of the gaps reasoning. We are asking whether he has succeeded in establishing his position, or is he simply expressing the faith of a naturalist in the causal closed-ness of the cosmos? It seems to me that is what we are hearing – just the faith of a naturalist.

DR. MLODINOW: However, let me go from science to a more mathematical-philosophical statement which is that we haven’t proved – science does not and can not prove – that there is no God. I don’t understand people who seem to believe that. Just because we are showing that we can have mathematical laws that describe nature doesn’t mean that we are proving that God is not there. Maybe God created the laws. Maybe God was necessary to come up with the quantum principle.

DR. CRAIG: Now this represents a commendable modesty. What he is saying here is that even if the universe is causally closed and completely describable by mathematical and physical laws, that isn’t itself an argument to say that God doesn’t exist and that God didn’t bring into existence the entire theater of natural causes operating according to deterministic laws. So that is commendable that he recognizes that.

DR. MLODINOW: I find it very hard to see how people could believe in the Bible, but I, on the other hand, am somewhat religious. I go to synagogue sometimes. I am more of what you would call an agnostic. But I see science as being separate and religious beliefs as being separate. One doesn’t prove the other.

DR. CRAIG: He is evidently Jewish from what he says about going to synagogue. I would wonder what he thinks of the New Testament. When he says, I don’t believe the Bible, that is painting in very broad strokes. Certainly there are things in the Bible that are hard to believe. But I wonder what he would think about the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, and the history of his life and his teachings. Who does he think that Jesus of Nazareth was? I think there the historical credibility of the Gospels is very high and that it is much easier to believe in the narratives of the Gospels than certain other parts of the Bible.

KEVIN HARRIS: That would be a better starting point then? Jesus of Nazareth.

DR. CRAIG: Right. Don’t start with Noah and the Ark, or the Tower of Babel. Start with Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospels.

KEVIN HARRIS: When you are saying they are harder to believe, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen. It just means that (especially from a naturalistic framework) they may be very difficult for a person to overcome their naturalism or natural skepticism to believe in this intervention of these miraculous things.

DR. CRAIG: Sure, and some parts of the Bible are more historically established than other parts. I would say with regard to the New Testament this is part of the Bible that has very high historical credibility.

KEVIN HARRIS: Continuing.

DR. MLODINOW: Maybe I will say one other thing. One thing I do have trouble with are people on the other side – there are scientific atheists and there are radical theists who don’t want evolution to be taught or don’t believe in the Big Bang. I get very puzzled by that. When I was in the synagogue and I was looking at the Torah – the Bible – and I was reading about a couple things that I wonder how these people deal with that. Where the Bible says kill homosexuals. Maybe they believe that homosexuality is wrong.

DR. CRAIG: Here I think he is misrepresenting the situation seriously.[3] What the Old Testament law held was that someone engaged in homosexual behavior is committing a capital crime. The Mosaic law was a theocracy where God is the head of state. So this represented a rule that isn’t necessarily to be applied to states that are not theocracies where God is the head of state. It is not true that you just go out and kill homosexuals. The Bible doesn’t condemn a person for having a homosexual orientation. What it proscribes is sexual activity of an adulterous nature or including homosexual nature. The fact that this is found to be morally acceptable to us today, I think, is just a reflection of our cultural relativity. In God’s eyes these were serious sins that were punishable by death. It had a very different value system than we have today. It held that someone engaged in this sort of activity has committed a capital crime and therefore should be killed.

DR. MLODINOW: It also says things like if your child is disrespectful kill them.

DR. CRAIG: Again, I think this needs to be parsed out. He doesn’t give us the reference. We need to look at that more closely. I think in many cases what you have in these Old Testament laws are idealizations, but they may have never in fact been enforced. I don’t know of any place in the Old Testament where it suggests that someone was executed for this sort of crime. I think that these laws were probably idealized sorts of laws saying Obey your parents. Be respectful to your parents. But I don’t know of any case where these sorts of idealizations were enforced to say that people should actually be executed because of this.

DR. MLODINOW: That was the punishment for disrespect of the child to the father. I told my daughter, Olivia, this, by the way, and she says that’s OK because it doesn’t say anything about girls. Somehow people who believe in the Bible find a way to dismiss those things, and yet they have trouble dismissing that the Earth was created in seven days and that people were put on the Earth and evolution isn’t true. I think that if you are going to believe in the Bible today there is a lot of stuff you have to dismiss or explain away or whatever in the realm of moral issues, and that you should also use those same techniques to explain away the wrong physical picture that the Bible gives of how we and the world got here.

DR. CRAIG: I agree that the creation account in Genesis shouldn’t be taken literally to be a six consecutive 24-hour day account of creation. But you don’t use the same hermeneutical techniques in interpreting the Genesis story of creation that you use in interpreting these moral commands. I would see these moral commands as being a provisional and temporary setup for the people of Israel in a theocracy that expressed sort of idealizations in many cases of God’s disapprobation of, for example, disobedience to parents or homosexual activity. But that doesn’t mean that these are meant to be laws that would be transcultural and binding in all societies.

KEVIN HARRIS: To say that we find ways to get around something or explain it away, does that mean you can’t do good exegesis?

DR. CRAIG: Right. I think that is pejorative. That is loaded language. I don’t think it is a matter of trying to get around it. Indeed, with what I said about homosexual behavior being a capital crime in ancient Israel – that is simply true. That just reflects a different value system than some people have today. Our culture has become very permissive in the area of sexual ethics so we find it unconscionable that God might disapprove of homosexual activity. But if the Bible is true, he does, and regards this as a serious gross sin. The fact that it was regarded as a capital crime in ancient Israel is a measure of how much God detests this sin. It is abominable to him. That is evidenced in the severe legal penalties that were attached to this kind of activity in ancient Israel.[4]

ROBERT KUHN: As a scientist, and as a physicist, and knowing everything, how do you approach the concept of the possibility of some spiritual or some additional factor? You are saying it is not necessary. You don’t need it. But it could possibly be?

DR. MLODINOW: It is not necessary. I can’t disprove it. For me, as a scientist and not just as a scientist by training or profession but in my heart as a scientist, I tend not to believe things that there is no evidence for. But it is not always true. I do believe, for instance, in aliens. I believe that there is life on other planets, and I think there is no evidence for that. We don’t understand the origin of life on Earth well enough to say how probable it is that on another star life would form. But in my heart for some reason I find myself believing that. But that is rare for me. I usually believe things based on evidence, and I’ve never seen evidence in my life for God. In fact, I’ve seen evidence against God in some ways because my parents went through the Holocaust. Their families were all slaughtered. It is hard to see how God could make that decision.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, that is how the interview segment ends.

DR. CRAIG: That is really bizarre, isn’t it? That he believes in aliens even though he says he has no evidence for it but he just finds he believes in his heart that extraterrestrial life exists. But he doesn’t apparently find it in his heart to think that God exists the way many people do. If he thinks he is rational in believing in aliens, why isn’t it rational to believe in God? Obviously, you know from my work that I think there is good evidence for God that he hasn’t considered. I’ve responded to the book The Grand Design where they try to explain away some of that evidence unsuccessfully I think. You can look at our popular articles online to see my response to the book by Hawking and Mlodinow on The Grand Design.[5] Of course, we’ve talked extensively about the problem of evil and suffering and that God would not permit something like the Holocaust to happen without morally sufficient reasons for doing so. What Dr. Mlodinow would need to show is that it is either impossible or improbable that God had morally sufficient reasons for allowing the Holocaust to happen. I don’t know how he could ever hope to prove such a thing.

KEVIN HARRIS: As we wrap up this podcast today, it seems that the biggest positive in this – would you agree? – that he says that really the existence of God is not in the realm of science as most people think. He does allow for the fact that God could exist, but that if you are asking him to prove it scientifically he couldn’t do that.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, I suppose he deserves faint praise for that. That is so basic. I think it is rather that those who somehow think that because the universe is causally closed that that is a disproof of God are incompetent thinkers and bad philosophers. What Mlodinow has merely done is shown that he is not a bad philosopher by acknowledging that the causal closed-ness of the universe is not an argument against the existence of God. So I would give him faint praise for that, but I think much of what he says about the ability of science to explain everything in the natural world is grossly over-exaggerated and the fact that he sees no evidence for the existence of God suggests that he hasn’t grappled seriously with the arguments of natural theology.[6]



[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKfrD1nC1xo (accessed April 29, 2016).

[2] 5:00

[3] 10:03

[4] 15:00

[5] See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-grand-design-truth-or-fiction (accessed April 29, 2016).

[6] Total Running Time: 20:00 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)