Lawrence Krauss Rebuts Eric Metaxas

You are all aware of the creationist op-ed column by Discovery Institute fellow traveler Eric Metaxas that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal, about which we wrote More Creationism in the Wall Street Journal. It’s been endlessly re-posted at other news sites, and it’s been the subject of adoring praise by a number of creationists.

Afterwards, we took a stab at criticizing that creationist nonsense — see The “Science” of Intelligent Design — but our effort is nothing compared to what we found today. It’s a splendid rebuttal of the Metaxas nonsense, and it appears in a publication as mainstream as the Wall Street Journal.

In the New Yorker magazine we read No, Astrobiology Has Not Made the Case for God, written by Lawrence M. Krauss, theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University. It’s excellent, and we urge you to read it all. The only thing we’ll do here is repeat a few of his most powerful rebuttals, which belong in everyone’s intellectual arsenal. Here we go, with bold font was added by us for emphasis:

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a piece with the surprising title “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” At least it was surprising to me, because I hadn’t heard the news.

That’s good! Then Krauss says:

[T]he article was a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to resurrect the notion of intelligent design, which gives religious arguments the veneer of science — this time in a cosmological context. Life exists only on Earth and has not been found elsewhere. Moreover, the conditions that caused life to appear here are miraculous. So doesn’t that mean we must have come from a miracle at the hand of God?

Yes, that’s the argument. It boils down to: Look, look! Ooooooooh, ooooooooh! Design, design! Let’s read on:

Let’s start with the first point raised in the Journal piece, which is that the more we have learned about our own evolutionary history on Earth, the more we appreciate the many different factors that may have been important in allowing that evolution. [Then a few of the Privileged Planet factors are listed.] By considering each of these many factors and imagining the probability of each separately, one can imagine that the combination is statistically very unlikely, or impossible.

Such a claim is fraught with statistical perils, however. The first is a familiar mistake of elaborating all the factors responsible for some specific event and calculating all the probabilities as if they were independent. In order for me to be writing this piece at this precise instant on this airplane, having done all the things I’ve done today, consider all the factors that had to be “just right”: [List of factors.] It would be easy for me to derive a set of probabilities that, when multiplied together, would produce a number so small that it would be statistically impossible for me to be here now writing.

This approach, of course, involves many fallacies. It is clear that many routes could have led to the same result. Similarly, when we consider the evolution of life on Earth, we have to ask what factors could have been different and still allowed for intelligent life. Consider a wild example, involving the asteroid that hit Earth sixty-five million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and a host of other species, and probably allowing an evolutionary niche for mammals to begin to flourish. This was a bad thing for life in general, but a good thing for us. Had that not happened, however, maybe giant intelligent reptiles would be arguing about the existence of God today.

Well done! He continues:

An even more severe problem in Metaxas’s argument is the assumption of randomness, namely that physical processes do not naturally drive a system toward a certain state. This is the most common error among those who argue that, given the complexity of life on Earth, evolution is as implausible as a tornado ravaging a junkyard and producing a 747. The latter event is, indeed, essentially statistically impossible. However, we now understand that the process of natural selection implies that evolution is anything but random. Is it a miracle that the planet produced animals as complex as, and yet as different from, humans, dolphins, and cicadas, each so well “designed” for its own habitat? No. Natural selection drives systems in a specific direction, and the remarkable diversity of species on Earth today, each evolved for evolutionary success in a different environment, is one result.

Also well done! Skipping a few paragraphs, Krauss then talks about “fine tuning of the constants of nature in order for us to exist”:

It is true that a small change in the strength of the four known forces (but nowhere near as small as Metaxas argues) would imply that stable protons and neutrons, the basis of atomic nuclei, might not exist. (The universe, however, would—a rather large error in the Metaxas piece.) This is old news and, while it’s an interesting fact, it certainly does not require a deity.

Once again, it likely confuses cause and effect. The constants of the universe indeed allow the existence of life as we know it. However, it is much more likely that life is tuned to the universe rather than the other way around. We survive on Earth in part because Earth’s gravity keeps us from floating off. But the strength of gravity selects a planet like Earth, among the variety of planets, to be habitable for life forms like us. Reversing the sense of cause and effect in this statement, as Metaxas does in cosmology, is like saying that it’s a miracle that everyone’s legs are exactly long enough to reach the ground.

There’s much more in the article, but we’ve excerpted enough. Now click over there and read it. It’s as good as it gets. No doubt, the Discoveroids will be posting something in response, in an effort to salvage the Metaxas column, because — as defective as it was — it’s essentially all they’ve got. That will be amusing.

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13 responses to “Lawrence Krauss Rebuts Eric Metaxas

  1. Yes, excellent.

    My favorite line that SC didn’t include is “arguing that God exists because many cosmic mysteries remain is intellectually lazy in the extreme.”

    He’s talking about you, Discovery Institute Fellows!

  2. You should note that The New Yorker is a decidedly liberal
    A few observations.
    One, if the fine-tuning argument depends on accepting the heliocentric Solar System and the evolutionary history of life on Earth then perhaps we should be celebrating those major victories.
    Krauss seems to accept that the production of a 747 from the storm in a junkyard is a statistical impossibility. Is that really true? Or is that a physical impossibility? Let us let the designoids get away with statements like that without a fight.
    And, finally, even if the entire argument for extremely small probability were correct, it does not establish any other particular alternative. Let us see the corresponding probability calculated. In the case of “Intelligent Design” or “Creation by God”, the situation is even worse, for there is not enough description to give a probability (or, anyway, a probability greater than zero).

  3. Nice article, Curmy. I am glad the first article was finally rebutted by an actual scientist.

  4. The whole ‘jet in the junk pile’ is a silly to stupid argument. Its entire argument rests on the meaning of IMPOSSIBLE. But as the argument is stated, it is IMPOSSIBLE because they never defined the junk pile!
    If the junk pile is nothing but bicycle parts there is no way that a 747 can be made, no matter how long the storm rages!!!!!

  5. @L.Long
    They’re trying to make the 747 manufacture an issue of probability and of design.
    But if the pile is bicycle parts, then intelligent design is not going to solve the problem.
    If it is a pile of 747 parts, it still takes more than intelligent design.
    After all, if the “intelligent designers” don’t want to make a 747, what does the probability have to do with it. If they don’t have the necessary construction tools, the probability isn’t going to make a 747.
    The analogy is just bringing up an irrelevant issue of probability.
    Anything but discussing evolution.

  6. The last paragraph of the essay by Lawrence Krauss says it perfectly: “In the meantime, both believers and non-believers are done a huge disservice when people promulgate biased and disingenuous claims that distort what current science implies and can imply about the universe. In a society in which the understanding of science is already marginal—and where, at the same time, the continued health of modern society as it meets the challenges of the twenty-first century depends, in some sense, on our ability to utilize our scientific knowledge, both to create new technologies and to help guide rational public policies—this is the last thing we need.”

    If only the politicians being swayed by the Discovery Institute to sponsor bills that would clear the way for the teaching of creationism would take heed.

    The disingenuousness of the DI is indeed the last thing we need.

  7. “…maybe giant intelligent reptiles would be arguing about the existence of God today.”

    And since they would believe that they had been created in His image, their god would look like T. Rex (perhaps).

  8. Charles Deetz ;)

    Good article and rebuttal. However the truth isn’t nearly as viral, as my comment is only number eight since Curmie posted this about eight hours ago. Meanwhile the Metaxas thread had over 150 comments when I last saw it. And Krauss fails to deliver any metaphor that easily goes viral, although I thought the one about the odds of ones legs being the right length was funny.

  9. See Wikiquote article “Xenocrates”

  10. The constants of the universe indeed allow the existence of life as we know it. However, it is much more likely that life is tuned to the universe rather than the other way around.

    Creationists make the (usually hidden) assumption that life is a required condition–that the universe exists so that life can exist, and in particular so that humanity can exist, and ooh, isn’t it a miracle that it does, given all these things that have to be just right, like Baby Bear’s bed and porridge, for it to exist.

    However, the universe could get along just fine without any life at all. And by all available evidence, the overwhelming majority of it does. But that doesn’t fit the creationists’ worldview, so it’s ignored. As for humanity, “made in God’s image,” either that limits God to little more than a resident of Mount Olympus or Asgard or it implies that any intelligent life anywhere must be human–and again, isn’t it a miracle that mankind exists. (To be fair, some evolutionists sound this way, too, marveling at all the things that had to go just right for humanity to exist, as though the planet or the universe cared whether we, some other intelligent creature or no intelligent life at all existed.)

  11. “Creationists make the (usually hidden) assumption that life is a required condition.”
    Not only creationists. No apologist can do without teleology – intelligent beings capable of worshipping god is the whole purpose of the process.

  12. @Charles Deetz 😉: Two possible reasons why there are more comments for the Metaxas article — 1) it’s been out longer, and 2) the WSJ‘s circulation is much greater than The New Yorker‘s.
    And I’ll bet the religious types do more social networking than the readers of The New Yorker.

  13. retiredsciguy speculates about” Two possible reasons why there are more comments for the Metaxas article”

    A lot of the comments we got seemed to be from supporters of Metaxas. I suspect that he was expecting a storm, so he had things already lined up with his followers. They were looking for blogs that criticized the column so they could leap in to defend their guru.