Edge 229 —November 28, 2007
(17,300 words)


NOVEMBER 28, 2007

Turkish prosecutor probes whether atheist book "The God Delusion" assaults values

ANKARA, Turkey: A prosecutor is investigating whether to prosecute the Turkish publisher of a best-selling book by atheist writer Richard Dawkins for inciting religious hatred, reports said Wednesday.

Publisher Erol Karaaslan said Wednesday he would be questioned by an Istanbul prosecutor as part of an official investigation into "The God Delusion" written by the British expert in evolutionary biology.

The investigation follows controversy about free speech in Turkey after Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk went on trial in 2005 over comments about historic abuses in Turkey.

Karaaslan could go on trial if the prosecutor concludes the book incites religious hatred and insults religious values, and faces up to one year in prison if found guilty, Milliyet newspaper reported.

The prosecutor started the inquiry into the book after one reader complained that passages in the book were an assault on "sacred values," Karaaslan said.

Karaaslan said he will be questioned Thursday and faces prosecution both as the book's publisher and translator. The book has sold some 6,000 copies in Turkey since it was published by his Kuzey publishing house in June. ...




A Debate Between Natalie Angier and David Sloan Wilson
Moderated By Thomas A. Bass

Paul Davies

Jerry Coyne, Nathan Myhrvold, Lawrence Krauss, Scott Atran, Sean Carroll,
Jeremy Bernstein, PZ Myers, Lee Smolin, John Horgan
on "Taking Science On Faith" By Pal Davies


Turkish prosecutor probes whether atheist book "The God Delusion" assaults values

Journal: The new intellectuals

Reading Room: Givers and Keepers

What Are You Optimistic About?

I see some fundamental contradiction here. Everybody criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But at least they're talking about how ludicrous some of these belief systems are. I know that David Sloan Wilson doesn't take issue with the way I've framed these questions, but to see religion as having a positive influence does not get at the fundamental question of what it means to have faith. What is so good about having faith when you don't have evidence? What is the real advantage to that? Why is this something that we want to encourage? Why not say, as I do with my daughter, "Let's see some proof." She asked her friend, who believes in Jesus, if she could wait up one night and see Him for herself, and it didn't happen. Why is that OK? Why is it OK for scientists to say that skepticism is the default position, except when it comes to mainstream religion?
— Natalie Angier

With apologies to Natalie, I think there's a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you're an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs. — David Sloan Wilson

A Debate Between Natalie Angier and David Sloan Wilson
Moderated By Thomas A. Bass

Natalie Angier

Thhomas A. Bass

David Sloan Wilson

[The following debate took place at the University at Albany, State University of New York, on April 12, 2007. The Event was sponsored by the Journalism Program and the New York State Writers Institute, with generous support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.]


NATALIE ANGIER is a Pulitzer prize winning science writer for The New York Times. Her most recent book is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

Natalie Angier's Edge Bio Page

DAVID SLOAN WILSON is distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. He also directs EvoS, a campus-wide program that relates evolution to all aspects of humanity in addition to the natural world. His most recent book is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

David Sloan Wilson's Edge Bio Page

THOMAS A. BASS, a writer, is Professor of English at the University at Albany. His most recent book is The Predictors.

Thomas A. Bass's Edge Bio Page

A Debate Between Natalie Angier and David Sloan Wilson

Natalie Angier
: I want to say first of all that I deeply admire David's work and that I probably shouldn't think of this as a debate. Let me begin by reading this interesting little excerpt I came across recently—I will tell you afterward who wrote it. 

In face of the onslaught of the fundamentalists, some scientists are content to repeat over and over that they believe in evolution but that there is no conflict between science and religion. They only obscure the real issue. This statement may be true, but it depends entirely upon the definition of religion. If religion means the emotions of sympathy, charity, and humanity—which to some extent are part of every human structure—then this statement is no doubt true. If it means that great seers and prophets of the world from the earliest times have, almost without exception, emphasized these emotions, then the statement is true. The scientists, who repeat that there is no conflict, evidently define religion in some such way. If religion means that the earth, and man, were created in six days, measured by the morning and evening; that the sun was made on the fourth day; that the first woman was made from Adam's rib; that the sun stood still for Joshua; that the earth was completely drowned out by a flood; that the arc saved two of every kind of organic life gathered from all over the globe to start a new world; that all present life comes from animals that were saved from the arc; that each species is the result of a separate creation; that the human race was doomed to eternal torture because Eve was tempted by the serpent and man was tempted by Eve; that two or three thousand years later man was offered a chance for redemption by believing in an immaculate conception and a physical resurrection; if all this is part of religion, and it must be believed if one is religious, then the chances are that there are no scientists who will say that religion and science are in harmony. Why should not these scientists, who say that science and religion do not conflict, define in plain terms what they mean by religion? The time is past due for the scientists to speak in no uncertain terms: the fundamentalist does not quibble or dodge; he is using every means in his power to place the Bible and his interpretation of religion in the field of learning. The battle has been fought many times in the history of the world. Once more the combat is upon us, it cannot be won by quibbling and dodging. Science must openly and fairly meet the issue. The question to be determined is whether learning should be hampered and measured by dogma and creeds.

I thought this was wonderful, and it was written in 1927 by Clarence Darrow. All of which is to say that these are still issues to deal with and that, quite frankly, I think science is not necessarily rising to that challenge. In an article I wrote for the American Scholar ["My God Problem and Theirs," 2004], I talked about this. Everywhere I went when I was reporting my last book [The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, 2007], scientists kept saying to me "Please try to tell people that evolution is real, that it happens, that it's a great thing that explains the structure of life."

But none of them ever addressed the other questions engendered by the fundamentalist revival. Nobody wants to tackle the statistics: 82% of Americans are convinced that heaven is real and 63% believe that they are going there; 51% believe in ghosts, but only 28% are swayed by the theory of evolution; 77% of Americans insist that Jesus was born to a virgin. … If evolution is real, can that be possible? From what we know of mammalian genetics, can that be possible? I guess we could think of ways it could happen. I mean, maybe she started fooling around with someone, but didn't have intercourse with them and some of the sperm got up into her vaginal tract, and she got pregnant. Yes, we could say that. Could she have done it by some act of spiritual parthenogenesis? The answer is no, but nobody says that. They tell me, talk about evolution, but all this other stuff we're not going to mention; we're going to put it aside and try to ignore it. And then what happens is that we have a lot of problems with lack of scientific understanding, with this constant battle over creationism being taught in the schools, with people not believing science, people thinking it's all just a matter of opinion.

I was very interested—and I also cover this in my article—in the different ways that scientists talk about certain things. They're willing to go on the attack when it comes to creationism or spoon-bending. But when it comes to the miracles of conventional religion … no … we don't touch that; we don't deal with it. And I'm considered rude and insulting, just willfully provocative to bring it up.

I went to the Cornell website and came up with this example of how two different questions were treated. On the "Ask an Astronomer" website, to the query, "do most astronomers believe in God based on the available evidence?" astronomer Dave Chernoff replied that, in his opinion, modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God. People who believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions. He cited the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent. The probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics raise the possibility of "God intervening every time a measurement occurs." He concluded that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of God and religious belief doesn't, and shouldn't, have anything to do with scientific reasoning.

Notice how much less kind was the response to a reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology: "No, astronomers do not believe in astrology," said Dave Chernoff. "It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary." He ended his dismissal with the assertion that in science "one does not need a reason not to believe in something. Skepticism is the default position and one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something's existence." In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them—poor gullible gits. But for the multitude to believe that, in one way or another, religious divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton …that's OK.

I see some fundamental contradiction here. Everybody criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But at least they're talking about how ludicrous some of these belief systems are. I know that David Sloan Wilson doesn't take issue with the way I've framed these questions, but to see religion as having a positive influence does not get at the fundamental question of what it means to have faith. What is so good about having faith when you don't have evidence? What is the real advantage to that? Why is this something that we want to encourage? Why not say, as I do with my daughter, "Let's see some proof." She asked her friend, who believes in Jesus, if she could wait up one night and see Him for herself, and it didn't happen. Why is that OK? Why is it OK for scientists to say that skepticism is the default position, except when it comes to mainstream religion?

David Sloan Wilson: I want to begin by clarifying my approach to religion. Since I'm a scientist, I have one goal and one goal only, which is to explain things as natural phenomena, and that includes religion. This is not a new enterprise. People have been interested in religious studies for a long time. You go back to folks like Durkheim, and whether they call themselves sociologists or psychologists or students of religious studies, they are attempting to explain religion as a natural phenomenon. The amount of scholarship on this is huge. One of my problems with Dan Dennett's book is that he acts as if this is a new thing. "Gosh, we should really be studying religion as a natural phenomenon." As if we haven't been already.

The question is whether evolutionary theory can succeed, where previous approaches have failed. Can evolutionary theory—which has unified the biological sciences—provide an explanation of religion which is more satisfying than previous explanations, including economic approaches and sociological approaches? I think the answer to that is, "Yes," because evolutionary theory can explain most aspects of our species, and this particular enterprise is very new.

For reasons that are complex, evolutionary theory has been confined to the biological sciences for most of the twentieth century. It's only been within the last ten or twenty years that this way of thinking, which is so powerful, has finally spread out and is being used to explain all human-related subjects. And how exciting is that! We really need to understand the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective, against the broader background of studying all things human from an evolutionary perspective. I think we're living in very exciting times, intellectually.

So what does evolution say about religion? It turns out that there is not one evolutionary theory of religion; there are at least six, and this shouldn't surprise us, because when evolutionists ask questions about any activity, they begin with a number of major hypotheses. They want to know, for example, is the activity adaptive? Is it something that evolved because it enhances survival or reproduction? Does it enhance group survival? Does it increase the fitness of individuals compared to other individuals within groups?

Other questions open up when we are discussing cultural evolution. Because culture hops from head to head, it has an intriguing resemblance to a disease organism. It is possible that culture can be parasitic. It can spread on its own terms, for its own good. It can be destructive to both individuals and groups, like the AIDS virus. Not everything that evolves is adaptive. There's lots of stuff out there that doesn't increase the survival or reproduction of anything. Steven J. Gould was famous for making this his great theme. It's possible that something can be a byproduct; it can be a spandrel. Religion might be good for nothing whatsoever, but it's connected to something else which does have a benefit. Or it might have been adaptive in the ancestral environment, in the Stone Age, but is no longer adaptive in the present; as is true with our eating habits, for example. Today, our eating habits are killing us, but they used to make great sense in an environment of food scarcity. So maybe religion is like obesity; it's bad for us today, like our eating habits. On the other hand, maybe religion is neutral. It's like all the genes out there that have no effect on fitness; they just drift into the population. This is why we have molecular "clocks." We can date things from this kind of genetic drift.

These are some of the vastly different conceptions of religion, and it makes a difference which one we accept. Not all of them are mutually exclusive, but a scientist—whether or not you call yourself an evolutionist—needs to determine which of these different hypotheses fits the data.

Let me focus on two. One is the parasite theory. If you read the books of Dennett and Dawkins, they present religion as a disease, which we would be better off if we could get rid of. That's why it's a delusion and why we want to "break the spell." When I read those books I feel as if I'm watching that old movie Reefer Madness. One whiff of "killer weed," and you're a goner. It infects your mind, and that's it. It's like the demons of old. We're possessed, and we need to exorcize these demons. I titled my review of Dennett's book "Scientific Exorcist."

What I claim, on the other hand, is that when you examine the evidence for religion—of which there is a great deal—you see that religious groups function more or less as organisms. Let me read a quote that piqued my interest in this subject. It was written, not in the 1920s, but in the 1650s, by a member of the Hutterite faith, who said:

True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal in gathering honey.

If you have any knowledge of religious belief, you know that religious believers are always comparing their communities to single organisms and beehives. Now, I'm a biologist. I study single organisms and beehives. What's interesting about evolutionary theory is that it provides an explanation for how single organisms evolve and how beehives evolve. Now it turn out that human evolution is a similar story. Human groups, including the small groups that formed during human evolution and the larger groups that formed from cultural evolution, are like bodies and beehives—they are that cooperative.

Against the background of intellectual thought over the last fifty years, this is a new concept, because we've been dominated intellectually by individualism. We've been trying to explain all aspects of human affairs as varieties of self interest. In 1970, Margaret Thatcher said in a speech, "There's no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families."

Now in a compelling and scientific way we can say, "No." We are a group organism, and much of what we do is orchestrated by culture—not by our genes, but by culture. If you're an evolutionist, you believe that most things evolve because of their effects on behavior. If we're going to think about human beliefs this way—the mind is an organ for producing beliefs—how should we evaluate these beliefs? Should we evaluate them in terms of their correspondence to reality? Or should we evaluate them in terms of what they cause people to do? I think that when you look at beliefs, not just religious beliefs, but non-religious beliefs, as well—there's something in my book I call "stealth-religions;" they don't invoke supernatural agents, but they're massive distortions of reality, nonetheless—and ask why these phenomena exist, the simple answer is that they motivate people to act together.

With apologies to Natalie, I think there's a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you're an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs. 

Thomas Bass: Natalie, to even up the score here, you have three minutes.

Natalie Angier: This reminds me of the White Queen who says, "I can believe six impossible things before breakfast." First of all, this is the kind of thinking that can be easily manipulated. Second, this seems to be the antithesis of what science is about. Believing in something that isn't true, because it motivates you to act, is not the kind of fundamental understanding that motivates science. If you believe you're going to be resurrected after you die, which I think is a fairy tale, this is ultimately a dissatisfying way to promote life, and I don't think that it's going to get us anywhere as a culture. I think it's a barrier that cultural evolution has to take us past. We need to move in the direction of accepting the universe as it truly is, rather than as we wish it to be.

Thomas Bass: Some definitions might help. What is science, what is religion, and why are they opposed to each other? 

David Sloan Wilson: Science is an effort to understand the world as it really is. That's the god of science, to understand "natural reality." Religion has many definitions, and they are all unsatisfying. It's not right to define religion in terms of belief in supernatural agents. Buddhism doesn't follow that, much less Confucianism. There's more to religion than that, or else there would be no difference between God and the Easter Bunny. Durkheim defines religion as a symbolic system that emphasizes the sacred and unites into a community, call it a church, all of its members. I think there's something about religion which is dedicated to helping communities function well, and that's not part of the definition of science, per se, although it might be a side effect of science.

Natalie Angier: I think that science is based on evidence and that religion is based on faith. That to me is the fundamental difference. When you have faith in something, it requires that you not ask for evidence. It is opposed to the scientific mindset. People assume that those who aren't religious don't have a rich inner life. This is a falsehood, but it explains why people say that they would rather vote for a child molester for president than an atheist. I think that art fulfills a lot of the functions that religion is supposed to . . . at least for me it does. I was just reading a poem by Elizabeth Bishop about death, and it made me cry. She wasn't asking me to take anything on faith. It was a wonderful experience. It pulled my mind and all my senses into it, but she wasn't asking me to believe something patently foolish. I don't think it's true that religions are not necessarily based on supernatural beliefs. That's what is being promoted nowadays. We're getting away from hazy, new-agey religions and back to the old-fashioned, orthodox, fundamentalist religions. These are the ones that are authoritarian. They say, "You will believe this." You have to show your fealty by saying you believe something that, as Mark Twain said, "you know ain't so." To me, this is what religion really is. There is also the desire for an afterlife, which is a strong pull for a lot of people who get involved in religion.

Thomas Bass: Harvard paleontologist Steven G. Gould called science and religion "two non-overlapping magisteria." In other words, science and religion are discrete realms of knowledge capable of co-existing. Is this possible, or are science and religion really opponents squared off against each other?

David Sloan Wilson: It's important to point out that two or three hundred years ago creationism was a perfectly good scientific hypothesis. It was what most people endorsed and were trying to work with. What happened was that it failed, again and again. Now, religious belief has been driven from the field of empirical inquiry. There's no subject anywhere which is being approached scientifically and empirically that tries to understand factual aspects of the world with religious belief playing a role. This is not because people have conspired against religion. It is simply because religion has failed as a way to explain the world. If you really take this seriously, and if you're intellectually honest with yourself, you have to wonder what's left over. This is why I'm an atheist, just as much as Natalie. But what's left over—which science doesn't give you by itself—is a value system, a set of guidelines for how to behave.

If you want to talk about separate magisteria, I say, "Fine." We all need value systems for how to behave. Science might inform that, but it doesn't constitute a value system by itself. Our value systems might be religious, they might be non-religious, but they're social constructions. This is what interests me—although it may be troubling to other people—what happens when science, having explained all aspects of the biological world, begins in the same way to explain all aspects of religion, its institutions and beliefs?

I have a research project right now on religious conceptions of the afterlife from a cultural evolutionary prospective. Natalie said that we like to believe in a pleasant afterlife to allay our fear of death. That's a long-standing hypothesis. It turns out that it fails miserably, as soon as you consult the evidence for it, because there are many religions that don't feature a pleasant afterlife. Do you know what one of them is? Judaism. I didn't know this until I started to learn about religion myself, but the afterlife figured much less in Judaism than in Christianity. When the Hebrew God spoke to his people, he was punishing them or rewarding them in this life. He scarcely had anything to say about what happens in the afterlife. Science does not by itself provide a value system. Nor do I believe that religion is a separate magisteria in the sense that there's a God out there who is not impinging on the natural world in some way that we can't measure.

Thomas Bass: Why did you start thinking and writing about science and religion, and what are the stakes for you in this debate?

Natalie Angier: The first time I wrote about this was after George Bush was elected [audience laughs]. The campaign leading up to his election was steeped in religiosity. You had people like Joe Lieberman saying that you can't take religion out of morality, and George Bush Sr. saying that atheists did not deserve to be citizens. I remember reporters hounding Howard Dean, demanding that he say he believed in the Resurrection and eternal life and that Jesus was God's son. Howard Dean, who's probably not religious at all, had to play the game.

I thought that this was really getting out of control. So I wrote my article, "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," where I talked about how hard it is to be an outed atheist. I got hundreds of letters in response, and almost all of them said the same thing:  "This will probably be the only positive letter that you get, but …." Everyone assumed I would get a lot of hate mail, but I had tapped into a kind of desire, maybe it's a desire for a community of our own. I felt that somebody had to say that not everybody was buying into this—whatever was going on, which had gotten so extreme.

I was raised in a very weird religious household. My father was … ugh. I had my own emotional history with religion, but that wasn't what made me become an atheist. I didn't see any reason not to be. I don't want to spend my life being a professional atheist. It seems like a very narrow, not very interesting position. But I feel that scientists have been really cowardly in some aspects of this.

I also wrote about Darrell Lambert. Some of you may remember his story. When he was promoted to Eagle Scout-dom he either had to say that he believed in God, or he would be kicked out of the Boy Scouts. He had already gone through a kind of conversion experience in his 9th grade biology class, when he decided that he was going to study evolution. He had gone to Bible classes his whole childhood, but, finally, he understood the world. He couldn't lie, and he wouldn't do what people were advising him to do, which was fake it and say "I believe." I thought this guy was a hero. I kept waiting for scientists to say "Yeh! This biology class really made a difference in his life." But nobody did. Darrell went on Connie Chung right after the Mafia family. People should have been rallying around him. Instead, it was sad to see what happened to him.

Scientists have been hounding me to talk about how evolution is real. Well, you guys have to stand up, too, and say that a lot of this stuff is just …. Let's be more sensible about the terms of our discussion. I'm not saying that you have to walk around insulting people, but lay out what we think is likely, what sort of probability you would expect for the Resurrection, virgin birth, and all of that. Don't just condemn spoon bending and telekinesis. Include all this other stuff that no one talks about. Why not put it together in one big basket and say, "Come on. Let's be reasonable people, and here's why we don't think this is so."

David Wilson: I agree with Natalie that in the modern world we need to have good facts interpreted by a good value system. We need a strong scientific culture that understands the world the way it is, and then we need to interpret these facts with good values. It's interesting to go back to the founding fathers of this country. What did they think about religion, and why was the separation of church and state so important? It was important because most of these guys were irreverent. They were nothing like the religious zealots of today. They thought that religions were good on an intermediate scale, in providing services for their own members, but religions were a problem when you thought about the larger social unit. That's why the separation of church and state was so important.

Yes, the world is full of intolerance, and atheists are despised in our culture, but when it comes to doing something about it, this is where it helps to think like an ecologist. An ecologist and evolutionist tries to explain human diversity in the same way that he explains biological diversity. What does that mean? In biological communities there are many species because there are many niches, and every niche calls for a different strategy for survival and reproduction. If you ask, what is the environment that favors the kind of society that we would like—a society grounded in good facts, informing a good value system—the only environment in which such a society can survive is a wealthy, stable environment. That's what you find in Europe. I won't talk about America for the moment. In Europe, you're born into a safe environment; you have lots of resources; you can pack your individuals with education; and you can expect to live until you're in your late seventies. You can figure stuff out. You can experiment. The consequences of failing aren't so bad. This is where liberalism thrives.

A lot of what you're talking about isn't religion versus non-religion. It's conservatism versus liberalism, just as there are liberal religions and conservative religions. I like to quote someone who converted from a conservative religion to a liberal religion. "I wanted a religion that asks questions rather than providing the answers." Many religions pose the kind of open-ended questions that get confused with non-religion or atheism. Now, where do conservatism and authoritarianism thrive? They thrive in dangerous, chaotic environments, where people don't have the resources to educate themselves. This is where you have a society in which people are told what to do. Other parts of the world, such as Europe, are becoming more secular, because the environment is favoring that. But the world as a whole is becoming more religious, more fundamentalist. Why is this? It's because it's becoming more dangerous and chaotic. Governments aren't providing the services that people need, and religions are. Again and again you hear about these so-called terrorist organizations providing services for their people. When I hear my respected colleagues, such as Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins, talk about religion, I think they are smart people doing something which is not so smart. They ask, "How can people believe such dumb stuff?" But they are not looking at the ecological bases for these beliefs. If you think of these systems as successful in some environments, but not others, then you can isolate the environmental factors. If you want liberalism to thrive, religious or non-religious, then provide the proper environment, and it will grow spontaneously.

Thomas Bass: We have a question from the audience.

Audience Member: You said you weren't going to refer to the United States just now. Can you put the United States back in your equation?

David Sloan Wilson: The United States is an anomaly for people who study religion because it's an affluent society, and yet, it's highly religious. The idea that it's a free religious economy doesn't work out very well, because if this were the case, then Australia and New Zealand should be like the United States, and they're not. Another possibility is that the income inequality and inequality in general are so great in the United States that we combine an affluent nation like Europe, with a third world nation. There are many people who are not getting the fundamental ingredients of life, financial, psychological, or sociological, and who then turn to religion.

Audience Member: I came here prepared to say "a plague on both your houses." The idea that you know what religion is and that science operates without it's own kind of faith is for the birds.

David Sloan Wilson: There's a lot about science that has the trappings of religion, but at the end of the day I want to disagree with you. I'm a veteran of the group selection wars.  There are a lot of heresies in science, a lot of stuff that's taboo. Science is often taught by rote, and one could use religious terminology to describe the process: heresy, taboo, priests. Dan Dennett makes this point himself. Much of what we know we take on faith. We take the theory of relativity on faith; we can't derive all the equations from scratch. But at the end of the day, no matter how complicated it is, and how filled with paradigms and incommensurability, there is something about the scientific method that makes our representation of the world converge on what's actually out there. This is a magnificent thing, and, unless it was the goal of science, it wouldn't happen. Individuals won't do it by themselves. The mind is full of all sorts of distortions. Unless you have a culture that says, "It's our goal to have beliefs that accurately represent reality, and then a procedure—a set of procedures—which converge to reach that goal," there is no way you will achieve scientific knowledge. 

Natalie Angier: I do think scientists try—not all of them, but the good ones—to be their own worst enemy. They try to disprove their own pet theories. This is what the controls are all about. You know that you do have a lot of pre-conceived notions, and you have to fight against them all the time. Really good scientists will do that. It's an ideal; obviously hard to reach. It's an enterprise that's being performed by people in all different cultures, all over the world, and they're sharing their results. This circle has been widening, so that scientists are working in all sorts of countries that we otherwise would have little contact with. These scientists are working together. There's something very powerful about this; it's really kind of amazing.

Audience Member: I'm teaching a course here at SUNY Albany on the ethnology of religion. I also have a Master's degree in religious studies from a Methodist seminary. I can see both scientific and theoretical approaches to religion. Part of the problem with this debate is the fact that there is no universally agreed upon set of terms for defining religion. Many societies don't even have a term for religion, because what we, from a scientific perspective, consider to be a religion is so embedded in their worldview and social behavior that it can't be separated from the rest of their culture. Evolutionary models for explaining the origins of religion have been around since the end of the 19th century, but many of these have been criticized for their ethnocentrism. Part of the problem with this whole "religion versus science" debate is that it seems to preclude other forms of religiosity that do not depend on empirical thought—such as Buddhism. I think there's a problem with Christi-centric and dogmatic views of religion. We're evolving toward this supreme form of rational thought, and Western rationalism determines what this highest form is. It's akin to scientists arguing that evolution is progressing toward what we have already attained. 

David Sloan Wilson: That was a nice comment. It reflects a lot of background and knowledge in anthropology. I think that salvaging an old idea that's been rejected is much more difficult than coming up with a new idea. I know this is true in biology, because I have spent quite a few years trying to salvage the concept of group selection, which was a heresy for much of the 20th century. The same is true for theories of religion in anthropology. Most enduring cultures are impressively organized to manage the affairs of their people. I think this can explain some of the things you're pointing out—the great diversity of religions, for example. This is exactly what you would expect from the postulates of evolutionary theory. There can be many different ways to organize groups of people, a huge diversity of ways. So we don't expect uniformity at that level. Without plunging into an academic discussion, I think that what's so exciting now is that we can revive some of these old ideas and return to a concept in which society means something.

Thomas Bass: I have a written question here in front of me. "Religions have highly developed systems for distinguishing believers from non-believers. In an age of fundamentalism and excess, such as our own, this leads to lots of people killing other people in the name of religion. Is this inevitable or avoidable?"

Natalie Angier: Is which part inevitable and unavoidable?

Thomas Bass: People killing each other in the name of religion—which we see a great deal of lately, don't we?

Natalie Angier: Yes, we do. I think it is not inevitable; it is avoidable. Do we have to get beyond religion to get to that point? Well, probably not. If what David is saying is true, that if we have stability, which tends, naturally, to give rise to a more secular perspective, then we have a chicken and egg question. How do you attain this stability if you still have religious fundamentalists? At which point in the system do you intervene? Economically? Do you do it through political will? How do we get to this great stabilizer that will prevent people from damaging society? I'm amazed at how many suicide bombers appear everyday. I thought there might be a limit. But persecution seems to be attracting more people. This is a scary development. Sam Harris talks about this, how terrifying it is to have super powerful weapons in the hands of people with ancient beliefs. How do we stabilize things? Does anybody know this? Can anybody in this audience tell me how?

[Audience laughs]

David Sloan Wilson: I can! One of the pleasures of studying a subject scientifically, including religion, is to find answers to these kinds of questions. I've studied a random sample of religions. I went to an encyclopedia of world religions, the sixteen-volume set compiled by Mircea Eliade, and I wrote a little computer program that picked volume numbers at random and page numbers at random within volumes. In this fashion I more or less grabbed a sample of religions, thirty-six religions, totally at random from this encyclopedia, without reference to any particular hypothesis. So I can answer the question, how many religions in this sample were spread by violent conquest? How many do you think?

Audience: All.

David Sloan Wilson: Really? It turns out that the minority were spread by violent conquest. Think of Mormonism. It didn't spread by violent conquest. Think of early Christianity.

Thomas Bass: Mormonism might be thought to have spread by violent conquest … if you were a Native American.

David Sloan Wilson: Yes, but every white person in America was displacing the Native Americans. You don't want to lay this at the doorstep of religion do you? Were Mormons different from anyone else? Do you think that the atheists among the pioneers weren't displacing Native Americans like everyone else?

Thomas Bass: Were there any atheists among the pioneers?

David Sloan Wilson: Yes, there were! A lot of the people who came over were businessmen …entrepreneurs. The religiosity within the pioneers was much less than we think. By no means were there only pious puritans who came over.

Thomas Bass: Do you remember Garrison Keeler's quip on this subject? He said America was settled by people who were looking for more religious repression than was available to them in Europe.

[Audience laughs]

David Sloan Wilson: Does religion exacerbate between-group conflict? Or, when you look closely at religious conflict, do you see sociopolitical conflict lying behind it? Religion might only be framing the debate. To pick suicide bombing as an example, this is a strategic move. There is good literature on how this tactic is employed by Marxist groups, such as the Tamil tigers, as well as by religious groups. So the idea that you get infected by this religious fervor which causes you to strap a bomb on yourself is not true.

Audience Member: I have a question for Natalie. In the beginning, you took scientists to task, saying that they should make a bigger deal out of all of the untruths in religion. Could you explain what you have in mind?  How can they do this in a way that won't exacerbate the "us versus them" phenomenon that draws the ranks of the religious even tighter and seems to be so counter-productive?

Natalie Angier: What is it exactly that's at stake? Is the scientific enterprise at stake? Is our future as scientific leaders in the world at stake? It might be. If we allow this kind of irrational thinking to spread into all areas of academic research, then the integrity of the scientific enterprise is going to be compromised, along with our economic future, which is built on it—and I believe this. We're concerned that a spreading irrationality is affecting scientific progress. Scientists are willing to speak out against part of it. They criticize people who do Ouija boards and horoscopes. They say, "That's ridiculous," but for some reason they think they shouldn't speak out against creation science and other religious beliefs that are even more commonly believed by Americans.

If this is the approach that scientists are going to take, then it seems to me that they're not going to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, which is to encourage people to think scientifically. The scientific way of thinking and of understanding the world has an economic, rational, and perhaps even a pacifying aspect to it. I recognize that scientists have done terrible things. We have the nuclear bomb because of Oppenheimer. Scientists are speaking out now and asking, "You guys in the media, why don't you help us here?" And I'm saying, "Well, you're asking us to help you in this one specific way, but we can't accomplish the job as long as you're ignoring other aspects of irrational and superstitious thinking." Superstition is not necessarily synonymous with religion, but it does seem that—in America at least—the two often go together. So when it comes to criticizing superstition, do we carve out an exception for religion? Is it bad to have creationism taught in school, or isn't it? Scientists seem to think it is. Is it bad that there are horoscopes in almost every newspaper in the United States, while at the same time they're closing down their science sections? I think these are decisions that we have to make as a society.

Audience Member: Has communication advanced past group selection?

David Sloan Wilson: Yes. I think the reason that social units became larger in Europe is because of the widespread print media …newspapers and so on. People were addressing common issues, and that's true even more so now. Communication can be a nervous system that creates larger groups, but it's important to say that that's not inevitable, by any means. There are all kinds of dystopic scenarios. Just because the scale of things has become larger does not mean that we're going to turn into a great big organism. It could go the other way. We could turn into a big group in which some elements take over, and we get permanent inequality. This is another reason why I think it's important to study religions respectfully. If we're going to understand how society might work at a large-scale, we damn-well better understand how it works at a small-scale. That's the only model we have. Then we can try to take some of those elements and scale them up. Our best models for large-scale cooperation are smaller-scale groups in which cooperation does exist.

Audience Member: I was wondering if either of you are familiar with the work of Desmond Morris, particularly The Naked Ape and his theory of why the concept of God evolved. Basically, when humans were hunter-gatherers there was one despotic alpha who kept everyone in order, and then, as we evolved to become cooperative hunters, we created the ultimate alpha—God—who keeps us all in line. We have evidence for this in the submissive gestures that most religious groups make to their God, kneeling and bowing their heads and so on.  

David Sloan Wilson: That's not quite right. Many of the high gods or moralizing gods didn't come into existence until later on, with larger-scale societies. Hunter-gatherer societies are very egalitarian. They don't need to have a high-god in the way that we envision it. But Morris did make one good point in his discussion of monotheistic religion. Why did monotheism come about? Its origins lie in cultural dislocation. Humans used to be born into a culture. You had no choice about joining another culture. In this world, there was no need to distinguish between religion and other aspects of society. It was all merged together, and you could have many different deities and spirits orchestrating various aspects of your life. Modern religions do things differently. They have to get people to join the religion, and the religion has to monitor its members. The group is larger. There are many more people, so the opportunities for policing, for people to survey each other, are more limited. At this point, the idea of a deity that's all-seeing comes into play.

Audience Member: Natalie Angier describes a slippery slope in many versions of religion toward authoritarianism. Yet, as I listen to David Sloan Wilson, he seems to be describing a happy version of ecology, in which religion does a lot of good in terms of spreading values and bringing good things to groups. I'd like to hear from both you—maybe just one more time—if, in your view, religion exacerbates conflicts between peoples or affirms values and community?

Natalie Angier: I think in this country it's tending toward exacerbating conflict. The problem is that it's no longer sufficient to be a vague believer in religion. You have to show evidence of belief. This is what I meant when I talked about religion veering toward authoritarian and extreme positions, and this is why I finally felt compelled to speak out. Public figures didn't used to have to declare their religious beliefs. Now, even Al Gore has to put himself on display. He gives this fantastic scientific presentation about understanding the world and understanding the atmosphere. He has this incredible ability to synthesis enormous amounts of information. But at the end of his talk he feels compelled to speak about the creator. He's making some kind of gesture so that he won't be attacked, at least from that direction.

Where is this coming from? Why is this happening in this country? We can't just leave it where I thought it was—evolving toward a place where you say, "OK, let's put religion aside." Kennedy, who was Catholic, wanted to do that. "I'm not going to be run by the Catholic Church while I'm in office," he said. "This is not part of the discussion." But all of a sudden you can't get away from it. This is not a healthy development for this society. Scientists are suffering. People are starting to see the United States as compromised by the rise of extreme religiosity. I believe that science in America has been an incredible enterprise, and I think scientists have to protect it, not just when they feel immediately threatened, but as a general thing. This is the direction we need the country to go in—the exploration and adventure that everybody can participate in, not just those who show their fealty to something. This is not a good thing going on here.

Of course, I think it's terrible what's going on in the Middle East. It's much more complicated than religion, and I understand that. Economic systems are a part of it, too. I don't want to sound like some kind of simplistic idiot just thinking you can blame it all on religion. Not at all. My point is that when scientists ask me to speak out against This and I say, "Well what about That?" It's someplace they don't want to go. And I say, "Don't you think that this outbreak of irrational thinking has a larger cause than just the creation scientists? They're not that powerful." There's some larger phenomenon that we need to address, and scientists are ducking it.

David Sloan Wilson: We want to end on a note of agreement. Much of what's going on here is a dismantling of the separation of church and state. Instead, we should be cultivating the attitude that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had, that it's perfectly acceptable to be an atheist, that an atheist could be elected to public office, and that all religious faiths should be open to criticism and public discourse. I haven't mentioned stealth religions yet, but they're all over the place. If you think of nationalism, if you think of free-market economics, these are stealth religions. The "invisible hand" of the markets is not invoking a supernatural agent, but it is pure fiction. If you really think everyone operating in their self interest is going to make large-scale society work well—this is funny. And yet people will defend this idea to the death. If you look at intellectual movements, academic movements, what the hell does it mean to be politically correct? What it means is that there's inadmissible stuff that you can't believe, and if you do, you're out of here. Many aspects of intellectual and academic culture are just as intolerant as any fundamentalist religious movements. I think what we need to talk about is the nature of belief of all kinds. All the things that we're talking about in respect to religion, we need to think about more broadly, in order to diagnose these problems that we both agree are problems.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

By Paul Davies

PAUL C. DAVIES is the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life."

Paul Davies's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Jerry Coyne, Nathan Myhrvold, Lawrence Krauss, Scott Atran, Sean Carroll, Jeremy Bernstein, PZ Myers, Lee Smolin, John Horgan


SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term "doubting Thomas" well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into "non-overlapping magisteria," as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as "given" — imprinted on the universe like a maker's mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You've got to believe that these laws won't fail, that we won't wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from "that's not a scientific question" to "nobody knows." The favorite reply is, "There is no reason they are what they are — they just are." The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God's-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this "multiverse," life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn't so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

[First published as an OpEd piece by The New York Times, November 24, 2007]

By Paul Davies

Jerry Coyne, Nathan Myhrvold, Lawrence Krauss, Scott Atran, Sean Carroll, Jeremy Bernstein, PZ Myers, Lee Smolin



With Paul Davies' article, the New York Times continues its tradition of soft-headed op-ed pieces that criticize science and, either implicitly or explicitly, bolster religion. I have just two comments:

1. Contrary to Davies' assertion, science is not based on "faith" that physical laws will apply forever, or in different places in the Universe. This is an observation—an observation that has not been contradicted by any other data. Davies is completely off base when claiming that "to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You've got to believe that these laws won't fail, that we won't wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour. " This is not a matter of faith. It's a matter of experience. In contrast, the tenets of religion are truly based on faith, since there is no empirical data to support them.

2. Davies claims that the "faith" of science is based on something outside the universe, like "an unexplained set of physical laws. " The lack of a current explanation for why the laws are as they are, however, does not make physics a faith. It only means that we don't have the answer. Indeed, Davies thinks we might be able to come up with an answer, one that does not involve supernatural intervention. So what, exactly, are scientists taking on faith here? What do we believe to be true without any evidence? I don't get it.


Paul Davies has done some interesting scientific work, and written some engaging popular books. However I think his NYT op ed is way off target. It is a brave attempt to carve out some intellectual respectability for religious beliefs.

Like many bad arguments, it is based on some kernels of truth, and that is worth examining. Small elements of faith do crop into science generally, and physics in particular.

A priori, there is no reason to believe that the universe has simple laws of physics. The entire endeavor of physics is based on the belief—Paul would say faith—that:

(a) The universe is governed by a set of laws. (b) We humans can figure them out.

On an individual basis, each physicist also has a third form of faith:

(c) That through my own hunches, guesses and hard work,  I can figure out some aspect of physical law.

Every discovery or invention is an unproven hunch or guess. You have to have faith in your own abilities, and your work, to move forward. But that is not capital "F" Faith of religion—it is the pragmatic working assumption that it is worth believing in yourself.  Frankly, proposition (c) is far more important to a working scientist than (a) or (b). Any rational scientist with a bounded ego has to conclude that he or she is likely to be weak link in the chain. There may be a physical law, but are you going to be the one to understand it? Or, to be more mundane, will your funding grant be approved so you can even ask?

I think Paul is correct when he says that physicists have faith that (a)—(c) are true. It didn't have to be this way. The great physicist and Nobel Prize winner Eugene Wigner wrote a brilliant essay on this many years ago entitled "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences".

So I will concede that every physicist has (implicitly at least) faith that these propositions hold, else why waste your time doing physics? However, Paul conveniently overlooks the fact that time and time again, both propositions have indeed proven to be true! Furthermore, they are put to the test repeatedly by a process in which they can fail. A working physicist assumes that (a) and (b) hold because there is a 500 year history of propositions and tests. The net result is what we know about physics, which describes the world very well indeed.

The entire methodology of physics is to repeatedly test those propositions—both in the general sense, and specifically in terms of many individual theories put forth by physicists.   If nobody could make sense of the laws of the universe, physicists would have given up. If mathematics had not proven to be an effective language for describing the world (in Wigner's sense) then people would have eventually lost faith and given up. As indeed they have given up on thousands of theories and hypotheses over the years which failed the acid test of experimental or observational verification.
To argue that physics is on the same level as religion is to ignore the fact that religious faith broadly does not admit that it could be wrong! Consequently, it performs no experiments or observations. Religion is a broad topic of course, and there are myriad disparate theologies and philosophies so it is impossible to generalize too much. However, I am not aware of any religion that repeatedly tests its propositions—either in terms of small details, or the broad foundations—with experiments and observations. Surely this is not the case with any Christian theology that I am aware of.

There is a small and instructive exception in the case of Catholic saints. Non-martyrs require  "proof" of one "miracle"  to reach beatification. A second miracle is required to move up from beatification to full canonization. I find it quite interesting that empirical observational evidence is part of a religious process. In principle at least, it is an evidence based system. Both beatifications and canonizations have been refused on this basis (at least outwardly).
Yet the role of observational evidence in this case  is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. The rules of evidence for miracles are essentially non-existent.  Non-miraculous explanations are not allowed to compete. The last thing that the church would allow would be a rigorous double-blind test of saintly efficacy. Once you started down that path, some doubting Thomas might ask about all of the other religious propositions. Why should any of religion be believed without proof?

The modern theological answer is that Faith—believing something with no good reason—is somehow essential as a bedrock formation of religion. It is a bold strategy to take this weakness and promote it as a strength. It is also a modern affectation—efficacy was the goal in most early religions. People prayed and sacrificed to their gods for all sort of very practical real world purposes because they thought it would work. Over time theologians have retreated from the practical to spiritual domains, staying one step ahead of the law, so to speak.

At this stage the faith required by a physicist is not whether propositions (a) and (b) are true, but rather will they remain to be true in the future. They are demonstrably true for every part of physical law that we have figured out to date. In this case, "figured out" means "the theory matches experiment or observation very well".

To be fair, the past successes do not mean that they continue in the future. Perhaps it is only the simple stuff (or to be more precise, the low energy limit or some such) where it seems like physical laws exist. Or perhaps they exist but we're too dumb to figure them out, or can't get enough funding for the experiments. John Horgan wrote a book called The End of Science a few years ago arguing that modern particle physics may be in this situation. I disagree with Horgan, but it certainly is possible. Indeed my disagreement is a statement of faith that by continuing to investigate we'll push forward.
Cosmology and fundamental particle physics are the branches of physics where these questions tend to be asked. It is pretty damn hard for a solid state physicist to get philosophical about what is happening inside a semiconductor—even though the same principles could crop up. Paul is a cosmologist, and so was I when I did physics. Cosmology asks questions like what is the fundamental nature of space and time? Where did the universe come from? These questions carry with them an unfortunate baggage that distract people with navel gazing and worrying about philosophical issues. Time and time again, even Cosmology has proven that the scientific method works—we know vastly more about the early Universe now than in the past. The baggage is annoying (and sometimes fun to speculate about) but ultimately science has triumphed.
Paul's overall approach is to try to get the camel's nose inside the tent by saying "science is not without faith". I say so what? It is ridiculous to the repeatedly tested faith of science represented by (a) through (c) at the same level of the blind faith as religion, which has yet to face even a single good experimental test. Instead it has a 2000 year history (in the case of Christianity) history of failing to predict experiments. Why does this even matter? Indeed that is my final rejoinder to Paul. Yes, there is a certain measured, bounded, and repeatedly tested faith in science. That stands in sharp contrast to the unbounded and untested faith in religion. The two are not the same—indeed the way each field treats that faith is the telling point.


Einstein once said that what most interested him about the Universe was whether God had any choice in its creation. He was, of course, not referring to a deity here, but rather asking the very important question: Can there only be one set of physical laws that allow for a consistent physical universe, or are there many possibilities?

This is precisely the question that Paul Davies suggests scientists do not generally ask, and moreover it demonstrates profound differences between the 'faith' of scientists, and religious faith. It is true that there is no purpose in carrying out scientific investigations if we are to believe that the laws of nature are capricious and can change from day to day in unpredictable ways. But this kind of faith is like having faith that because the sun rose at 6:57 this morning, it will rise at a predictably close time tomorrow. It is almost an insult to religious faith to suggest that this faith is on the same plane as faith in a divine presence who has endowed the universe with purpose and design, and in the case of most modern religions, is also vitally concerned with the day to day tragedies of humanity. It also misrepresents the scientific process.

The faith in something outside the universe, described by Davies as a common property of science and religion plays a central role in religion—God is the center of existence—whereas to the extent that scientists accept the existence of physical laws as being given, it is essentially peripheral to the everyday workings of science.

Moreover, the facts that (a) the scientific method continually refines and changes our understanding of physical law, whereas religious 'truths' have remained largely unchanged, and (b) scientists are now, as Davies mentions, trying to address questions of the origin of physical law, both suggest the comparison that Davies is trying to make between science and religious faith is strained at best.


The scientific revolution began in earnest when a Polish cleric, Nicolaus Copernicus, bucked his faith and theorized that the earth turned around the sun. The Church did not pay much mind as long as the theory remained in the realm of speculation. But when Italian philosopher Galileo Galilei empirically confirmed the theory with a telescope, the Church banned Copernicus's teachings as "false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture. " In 1633, Galileo himself was brought to trial by the Holy Inquisition and compelled to recant.

Given the supposed risk of society's moral degradation in the face of the free choice to make up one's own mind ("I think, therefore I am"), the Church violently insisted that ideological faith in absolute authority ("In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth") must always trump the more tentative teaching that goes with clear reasoning and experimental observation. When the Enlightenment unshackled scientific thinking from lingering religious control, religion opted for a separate realm where science would not operate. Science, for the sake of its peace and independence, generally accepted this division into separate "Magesteria. " In 1992 the Catholic Church cleared Galileo's name and in 2000 Pope Jean Paul II apologized to God (not to Galileo) for the trial.

Today, however, increasingly many on the science side argue that this separation was at best a temporary armistice to gather force without hindrance from religion, at worse an act of cowardice and partial capitulation. In any event, science should now invade the religious realm in order to conquer it and make people less superstitious, more knowledgeable, and happier. Davies agrees that the division of religion and science into separate Magesteria is wrong, not because science should be allowed to triumph but because scientists must squarely face the fear that their triumphalism will be undermined by the acknowledgment that they are as bound by faith as religious believers.

While it is true that many scientists are inductively-driven (rather than authority-driven) by faith in Nature's ultimate regularity, which the experimental mode of knowing tends to repeatedly confirm, others do not rely on such faith in the regularity of the universe to justify science. Immanuel Kant, for example, thought that science was the response to structures imposed on experience by human minds. We see of the world what the mind allows us to see, regardless of how the world really is. Science is successful as long as we can continue to navigate the world with the regularity our minds impose. He did not think we could, or need, to know anything about the ultimate character of reality to do good and effective science. For all Kant cared, the intrinsic organization of the world could be anarchic.

Paul Davies‚ argument that science is based on faith is not new. The chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi argued that scientific discovery is only possible because of a scientist's faith that an unknown discovery is possible. The scientist's willingness to commit significant resources and time to achieving a result that is unknown at the outset, and before the benefits of discovery are imagined, depends on the non-demonstrable belief that basic laws pattern the universe and that humans are freely and uniquely (at least on this planet) capable of noticing and investigating evidence of this patterning.

But scientific faith in universal law is not dogmatic. While a scientist must make presuppositions in order to get started, everything is revisable and discardable, even belief in the regular patterning of the universe. Einstein, like Newton before him, believed that the universe was structured with deterministic mathematical regularity; Bohr and most of Einstein's later colleagues did not. Einstein did not ignore Bohr, or want to try him or burn him at the stake, but continued to argue with him and to provisionally accept his findings, even as Einstein struggled on in the faith that there are all-encompassing laws that mathematically determine all events in the universe.

Physicist Murray Gell-Mann, like most modern physicists, believes Einstein was off track in his later life. But on the larger issue of whether or not the universe is built according to basic mathematical laws (plus a lot of accidents) the jury is still out. Perhaps, as Newton said and Gell-Mann also believes, "Nature is very consonant and conformable to herself. " The upshot of this for science is that it succeeds in getting closer and closer to Nature's underlying structure because, like the successive layers of an onion, each of Nature's layers that is mathematically peeled away by science closely conforms to the next underlying layer and mathematical theory. Evidence for this is the progressive elegance and simplification of mathematical theories and the simultaneous broadening and deepening of their empirical scope (e.g, Lorentz to Einstein, with Einstein arguing that he was driven to his theory of relativity by the lack of elegance in previous theories). The hypothesis is that with scientific discipline and mathematics, human minds are able to progressively capture Nature's onion-like structure because that structure, which includes the structure of the mind itself, is basically mathematically regular (with lots of accidents).

There is an evolutionary just-so story (perhaps true) that may help to make sense of this hypothesis. Humans are able to count because the world contains countable things (like stars, stones, and seasons) that can be put in successive correspondence with one another, and because the mind evolved to capture what the universe contains so that the organism that carried this representational tool (the mind) could survive and reproduce. The evolution of language—of discrete relationships between sounds and meanings that refer to things in the world—likely provided the infinite discreteness required for formulating any mathematical system. Since human minds can grasp indefinitely many mathematical systems, the difficulty is in figuring out precisely which mathematical structure adequately represents which aspect of Nature. Experiments and empirical intuition help to weed out and whittle down the candidate mathematics.

One empirical prediction for the plausibility of this hypothesis is that universal patterns of physical and biological regularity will have likely produced many other forms of intelligent life in the cosmos. All would presumably be "conformable with Nature" so that any mathematical description of physical phenomena used by an alien technological civilization on another planet would likely resemble what human beings come up with on Earth, however different the notation. The search for confirmation of this prediction would be guided by a faith that sores beyond religion, but not beyond reason.


Why do the laws of physics take the form they do?  It sounds like a reasonable question, if you don't think about it very hard. After all, we ask similar-sounding questions all the time. Why is the sky blue? Why won't my car start? Why won't Cindy answer my emails?

And these questions have sensible answers—the sky is blue because short wavelengths are Rayleigh-scattered by the atmosphere, your car won't start because the battery is dead, and Cindy won't answer your emails because she told you a dozen times already that it's over but you just won't listen. So, at first glance, it seems plausible that there could be a similar answer to the question of why the laws of physics take the form they do.

But there isn't. At least, there isn't any as far as we know, and there's certainly no reason why there must be. The more mundane "why" questions make sense because they refer to objects and processes that are embedded in larger systems of cause and effect. The atmosphere is made of atoms, light is made of photons, and they obey the rules of atomic physics. The battery of the car provides electricity, which the engine needs to start. You and Cindy relate to each other within a structure of social interactions. In every case, our questions are being asked in the context of an explanatory framework in which it's perfectly clear what form a sensible answer might take.

The universe (in the sense of "the entire natural world," not only the physical region observable to us) isn't like that. It's not embedded in a bigger structure; it's all there is. We are lulled into asking "why" questions about the universe by sloppily extending the way we think about local phenomena to the whole shebang. What kind of answers could we possibly be expecting?

I can think of a few possibilities. One is logical necessity: the laws of physics take the form they do because no other form is possible. But that can't be right; it's easy to think of other possible forms. The universe could be a gas of hard spheres interacting under the rules of Newtonian mechanics, or it could be a cellular automaton, or it could be a single point. Another possibility is external influence: the universe is not all there is, but instead is the product of some higher (supernatural?) power. That is a conceivable answer, but not a very good one, as there is neither evidence for such a power nor any need to invoke it.

The final possibility, which seems to be the right one, is:  that's just how things are. There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops. This is a simple hypothesis that fits all the data; until it stops being consistent with what we know about the universe, the burden of proof is on any alternative idea for why the laws take the form they do.

But there is a deep-seated human urge to think otherwise. We want to believe that the universe has a purpose, just as we want to believe that our next lottery ticket will hit. Ever since ancient philosophers contemplated the cosmos, humans have sought teleological explanations for the apparently random activities all around them. There is a strong temptation to approach the universe with a demand that it make sense of itself and of our lives, rather than simply accepting it for what it is.

Part of the job of being a good scientist is to overcome that temptation. "The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational" is a deeply anti-rational statement. The laws exist however they exist, and it's our job to figure that out, not to insist ahead of time that nature's innermost workings conform to our predilections, or provide us with succor in the face of an unfeeling cosmos.

Paul Davies argues that "the laws should have an explanation from within the universe," but admits that "the specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research." This is reminiscent of Wolfgang Pauli's postcard to George Gamow, featuring an empty rectangle: "This is to show I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing." The reason why it's hard to find an explanation for the laws of physics within the universe is that the concept makes no sense. If we were to understand the ultimate laws of nature, that particular ambitious intellectual project would be finished, and we could move on to other things. It might be amusing to contemplate how things would be different with another set of laws, but at the end of the day the laws are what they are.

Human beings have a natural tendency to look for meaning and purpose out there in the universe, but we shouldn't elevate that tendency to a cosmic principle. Meaning and purpose are created by us, not lurking somewhere within the ultimate architecture of reality. And that's okay. I'm happy to take the universe just as we find it; it's the only one we have.


Paul Davies's donnish question which he apparently tries out on the odd scientist —explain the laws of the universe—seems silly to me. Explain in terms of what?


I'm not sure why the New York Times saw fit to publish Paul Davies's curious op-ed, except that Davies does have a reputation as a popularizer of physics, and as something of an apologist for deism; they certainly couldn't have chosen to print it on its merits. His argument is the tired and familiar claim that science has to be taken on faith, so it's just like religion. I recall hearing variants on this back in the schoolyard, usually punctuated with "nyaa nyaas" and assertions about each others' mothers, and while we may not have said much about science, the principle was the same. Citing a false equivalency is a cheap argument, but not very credible.

Davies lost my respect for his thesis early on, from the first sentence actually, but I'll focus instead on this claim from his second paragraph:

All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.

Perhaps this is where not being a physicist has the virtue of a different perspective, because I can say without reservation that he's completely wrong—in a historical science like evolutionary biology, we have no problem when we encounter a phenomenon that isn't orderly or rational, and that has all the appearance of haphazard meaninglessness. We're accustomed to seeing simple chance as a strong thread running throughout biological history.

Pattern and order are important too, of course, but when looking at the appearance of some particular feature we have to be prepared for the possibility that it is not a consequence of some orderly progression—perhaps it just happened that way. I can't imagine that my physicist colleagues are any different, and that they would be horrified to discover that physical order was "rooted in reasonless absurdity". That would be interesting. If that is the way the universe is, that is what science will try to grapple with (admittedly, we might have serious difficulties grappling with total chaos, but no one claims that science can have answers for everything). That Davies seems to believe that order must rule everywhere and at every level is a stronger presupposition than is warranted by a scientific approach, and sounds remarkably theological…and I don't think Davies would object to the charge of theology, although he clearly thinks the only good science fits his theological model.

But then Davies does have this notion that that the concept of physical laws is derived from Christian doctrine—that science is rooted in attempts to define the actions of a supernatural lawgiver who imposes a kind of universal consistency on everything. As a historical argument, and as a psychological description of the way the minds of people like Newton worked, I can go along with that; but as an assumption that this expectation of a universal order must reflect a universal reality, I disagree. If the laws of physics were subtly different in Egypt than in Greece, we would have developed an empirical physics that took that into account; that certain laws are constant everywhere is just what is, as empirically determined by scientific observation. A geologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, and a historian will also be able to tell you that there are many things that are quite different between Egypt and Greece, and yet variation does not mean those sciences fail.

Alas, Davies also brings up the anthropic principle, that tiresome exercise in metaphysical masturbation that always flounders somewhere in the repellent ditch between narcissism and solipsism. When someone says that life would not exist if the laws of physics were just a little bit different, I have to wonder…how do they know? Just as there are many different combinations of amino acids that can make any particular enzyme, why can't there be many different combinations of physical laws that can yield life? Do the experiment of testing different universes, then come talk to me. Until then, claiming that the anthropic principle, an undefined mish-mash of untested assumptions, supports your personal interpretation of how the universe exists and came to be is a self-delusional error.

I'm also always a bit disappointed with the statements of anthropic principle proponents for another reason. If these are the best and only laws that can give rise to intelligent life in the universe, why do they do such a lousy job of it? Life is found in one thin and delicate film on one planet in this mostly empty region of space, and even if there are other fertile planets out there, they will be nearly impossibly distant, and life will be just as fragile and prone to extinction there as here. Even on this world, all of the available environments favor bacteria over scientists or theologians, and said scientists and theologians have existed for only about 0.00001% of the lifetime of this universe, and are prone to wink out of existence long before we can get rid of one of the zeroes in that number.

If I wanted to argue for a position on the basis of the anthropic principle, rather than trying to pretend that we live in a Goldilocks universe, we should be wondering how we ended up in such a hostile dump of a universe, one that favors endless expanses of frigid nothingness with scattered hydrogen molecules over one that has trillions of square light years of temperate lakefront property with good fishing, soft breezes, and free wireless networking.

Maybe Davies has faith in science, but I don't. I take it as it comes. I have expectations and hypotheses, but these are lesser presuppositions than what is implied by faith—and I'm also open to the possibility that any predictions I might make will fail. Perhaps if Davies weren't so obsessed with equating his religion with his science, he wouldn't be blind to the fact that most scientists don't see his god in the operation of the universe.


Davies' essay has engenders a confused response because it seems to be making two different arguments. In the first part he seems to be advocating equating science with religion. It is hard to know how else to read his assertion that "Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe…" Certainly one has to oppose this for all the reasons the other respondents have pointed out. 

What becomes clear only towards the end of his essay is that he is advocating a way for science to avoid the equation with religion. This is to give up the belief in eternal, immutable laws in favor of a notion that "the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency." This is opposed to the notion of eternal immutable laws that Davies notes has common roots and logic with the Christian view of God.

To understand the problems that Davies is addressing-and to understand why they do not concern most of science—one has to appreciate that the questions he is dealing with arise only when we attempt to ask scientific questions about the universe as a whole. Only then do we have to address two key questions: "Why these laws?" and "Why these initial conditions for the universe?" 

Davies point is that if we just accept the laws and initial conditions of the whole universe as just given, with no further explanation, then we are reducing science to faith in the unexplained. He is right about this, but he doesn't emphasize that these questions are avoided in most domains of science, where we study isolated systems in a larger universe. In these cases we can cleanly separate regularities into laws and initial conditions.This gives an operational meaning to the notion of fixed laws. It is only when we extend our reach to the universe as a whole, that the distinction between laws and initial conditions becomes problematic. For example, there are observations, such as wiggles in the CMB spectrum, that can be explained either by modifying laws or modifying initial conditions and, since there is only one instance of the universe, there is no way to determine which is correct. 

This suggests, however, the need for a better notion of law, applicable on a cosmological scale, not for a surrender to religion or metaphysics.

Indeed, there are reasons to worry that contemporary cosmological theory has wandered from the domain of science. Reliance on infinite and eternal ensembles of universes, and use of the anthropic principle, popular as they have been in the recent literature, have not led to a single falsifiable prediction. There is a real danger of unjustified belief in putative unified theories that cannot be experimentally tested. 

But these are not the only possible responses to the questions of "Why these laws?" and "Why these initial conditions?". They are only the result of approaches to them that fail to critically ask what notion of law is appropriate for doing science on a cosmological scale. In fact there are approaches to these questions that, if they succeed, will bring progress to science, in the conventional sense that it will lead to new predictions which are falsifiable or verifiable by doable experiments

There is a healthy skepticism about the role of philosophy in science, but when it comes to this issue of "Why these laws?" there is wisdom to be gained from studying philosophers who anticipated that science would reach the point of asking this question. Leibniz postulated two principles to address it, which are his "Principle of sufficient reason" the "Principle of the identify of the indiscernible." The first posits that we live in a universe in which every question of the form of "Why these laws?" or "Why these initial conditions?" has a rational answer. The second implies that there are no symmetries in the fundamental laws of nature. These principles are the underpinnings of the relational approach to space and time which culminated in general relativity.   

Indeed, before relativity there was believed to be a law of nature of the form, "The geometry of space is three dimensional Euclidean geometry." People, for example, Kant, try to explain, "Why this law?" But in fact there was a perfectly rational answer, on which much further progress has been based. In general relativity the geometry of space is not determined by a law, it is a contingent and changing fact. The geometry at present can be understood to be the result of lawful evolution from past conditions. This is an example of how a deeper law can be discovered which moves an apparently eternal law to the status of contingent and fully explainable.This shows that the idea of a universe determining its own properties by dynamical evolution is not senseless, as Carroll suggests. It has been fully realized in general relativity and could be so again. 

The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce addressed this issue when he wrote in 1893, "To suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended by the mind and yet having no reason for their special forms, but standing inexplicable and irrational, is hardly a justifiable position.  Uniformities are precisely the sort of facts that need to be accounted for. Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason."  He went on to assert that, the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature, and for uniformity in general, is to suppose them results of evolution."

Might this apply to contemporary physics and cosmology?  In 1992 I proposed a cosmological scenario based on natural selection that explained a great deal about "Why these laws" while leading to several falsifiable predictions for real astrophysical observations. It was based on the then novel idea of a landscape of theories whose parameters evolve by a mechanism formally similar to population biology. In the 15 years since, observations relevant for those predictions continue to be done and they continue to remain unfalsified.  Meanwhile since 2003 the study of the landscape has become a big fashion, but most choose to study it using a combination of timeless probability distributions and the anthropic principle. This, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, cannot lead to any falsifiable predictions and indeed, despite a literature of hundreds of papers, it has not. Pierce seems more and more to have been vindicated. 

I do not know if the particular cosmological scenario I proposed is correct, but since it is a real scientific theory, vulnerable to falsification, we will know sooner or later. What its existence does demonstrate is that there is no need for big pronouncements that equate  scientific methodology with religious faith. Science can proceed, even when faced with the questions of "Why these laws" and "Why these initial conditions". We just have to adopt a strategy that leads to predictions testable by real experiments. 

Biologists used to ask, "Why these species?" They found they could answer it if they gave up the idea that species are immutable and accepting the idea that species and their characteristics are contingent outcomes of the dynamical process of natural selection. In physics the evidence points to the same conclusion. This means that regularities we used to think of as immutable laws, have to be thought of as subject to processes of evolution. This makes better science because, like biology, it makes hypotheses as to the mechanism of evolution subject to testing by observations.  

There is, among theorists of cosmology and physics, some resistance to giving up the notion of immutable laws. This is irrational because the cost, as the last five years has made increasingly clear, is an embrace of strategies to rescue immutable laws such as the anthropic principle and eternal inflation, which do not lead to any falsifiable predictions. (Claims to the contrary can be easily shown to be fallacious.)  As Davies says, the idea of immutable eternal laws arose in Newton's time, when science and theology were much closer together. It does seem that getting rid of this idea is a necessary step for modern science to become fully free of the 17th Century theological climate in which it was born.

However it is an exaggeration to say that until this is done science's claims to be "free of faith are bogus." Most of science is healthy and most scientists rely on notions of laws that are restricted to certain domains where they are well tested. It is only in fundamental theoretical physics and cosmology that we face the challenge of inventing new kinds of laws and explanations that do not carry the baggage of the theological roots of physics.


Paul Davies is a nice guy and graceful writer, but this essay reads like a parody of The Mind of God and other writings in which he glimpses fuzzy convergences between science and religion. Davies has sold lots of books peddling this theme, and he has won the $1,000,000-plus Templeton Award, created by the financier John Templeton to help bridge the divide between science and religion. I mention the Templeton moola because, as I've said previously, I believe it is distorting all this science-religion "dialogue."

In his New York Times OpEd, Davies notes that 'both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence." While scientists have done a good job discovering basic laws of nature, they can't explain where the laws came from in the first place. They have tentative ideas—for example, involving other universes with vague connections to ours—but nothing supported by evidence, Davies says.

I've knocked multiverse theories too, and in fact I suspect we'll never know why our universe is the way it is. Many scientists, however, are optimistic that they will answer this question eventually. Noting that fact, Davies asserts that science and religion both "are founded on faith—namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too." Unless science can serve up a testable theory of where the universe and its laws came from, Davies concludes, science's "claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus."

Huh? Science works. Scientists have gleaned deep insights into nature through experiment, reason and hard work. These tangible, world-transforming achievements inspire scientists' optimism—or "faith," to use Davies's term—that they will go even further. Religion has not told us one demonstrably true thing about nature. Not one! Religion is nothing BUT faith.

The only thing that's bogus here is Davies's analogy between science and religion.

November 21, 2007

Journal: The new intellectuals
John Stoehr Arts Editor

I’m going to attempt another of those free-wheeling posts in which I try to make some connections among articles, ideas and writers I’ve been reading lately. What I hope to accomplish is the beginning of a proposal, a modest call for attention, to establish a new conversation about intellectuals, those who think and feel something is not right in world of art, literature and creativity.

A menu of possible assertions:
1. Intellectuals need to talk less with each other and more to everyone else
2. Scientists have taken the traditional place of the public intellectual
3. Intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth
4. As newspapers recede, and the traditional hubs of intellectual activity recede with them, a new grassroots movement of intellectuals is needed to take its place.

... In short, the scientists don’t need the intellectuals anymore.

They’re doing it themselves.

The Guardian article also notes that Ian McEwan is one of the few novelists to contribute to the Edge’s ongoing debates and that he suggests the project is not so far removed from the “old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other’s concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists.”

Why can’t literary and aesthetic intellectuals talk like this anymore?

Act 4: The new intellectuals

...Edge and the Edge Reality Club, a kind of scientist’s salon, is doing wonders for advancing the national conversation about science and scientific thinking. There are more magazines devoted science than ever more, more hunger for science and more books about science, even some that advance atheism.


December 2007



Angels! Kennedys! Kay Scarpetta! Steve Martin! Put these irresistible reads under a friend's tree, by your own bedside, or both. By Cathleen Medwick

JOHN BROCKMAN, that most philosophical of editors and founder of the science-oriented Edge Foundation (edge.org), asked some 150 serious thinkers what gave them reasons to smile. In his persuasively upbeat collection, What are You Optimistic About? (Harper Perennial), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins predicts a new scientific enlightenment, wiping out superstition; psychologist Steven Pinker sees a decline in violence worldwide; and physicist Frank Wilczek fully expects that the world will continue to surprise us in fascinating and fundamental ways." Ask a savvy question....

November-December 2007

What are You Optimistic About
Edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial)

With today's concerns over global warming, AIDS, and terrorism, the future can look pretty bleak. surprisingly, many of the worlds' top thinkers see a rosy horizon and in this collection of over 150 essays, compiled and edited by the always iconoclastic Brockman, we lean why. From finding the genes for mental illness, to s saving the Arctic, to ending poverty, our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead.


Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

November 5, 2007

Paperback — US
$14.95 400 pp
Harper Perennial
November 1, 2007

WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better With an Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett, Edited By John Brockman

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Edge Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit private operating foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

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Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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