AS242: Einstein, Godel, and God

Time for a change of pace! This episode I speak to a listener who doesn’t want to call himself an atheist. We debate about that, and we also discuss Einstein and Godel’s religious views. If those men were so brilliant and yet had some amount of belief in god, who are we to disagree?
Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem

46 thoughts on “AS242: Einstein, Godel, and God”

  1. Gödel’s theorem is about formal systems, not about the physical reality or even about the limit of our understanding.

    And while it was a major surprise to mathematicians when it was published, it turns out that its impact on mathematics is limited, and non-existent on other disciplines (except maybe computer science).

    1. Thanks, I definitely agree with the first part. I hope I said as much to Kurt. I didn’t know its impact was limited though. I thought it was pretty significant? I’ll have to look into that. Thanks.

  2. Faithful atheists are the ones to whom it is very, very important that there is no god. They bring God to life by shooting god-shaped holes in everything they encounter. Like a gingerbread-man-shaped hole in a sheet of dough; it’s obvious that the gingerbread man is not there, but it is equally obvious that he was there and exactly what he looked like.

    The practical, or as we say in the biz, “true” atheist is a person who doesn’t care whether there’s a god or not, but thinks that there is not.

  3. Great interview Thomas. A little frustrating at times though because you didn’t always share the same definition of certain words. eg. deist, atheist, truth, reality

    1. I’ve always said that if you’re going debate the existence of god, the very first thing you need to do is define “god,” but nobody wants to do that. I suspect it’s because if you tightly define what you’re debating the existence of, it might be possible conclude that that particular thing does or does not exist or that it is impossible to say whether or not it exists, at which point the discussion is over. If the subject of discussion is ill defined, it is possible to argue ad infinitum about that subject.

      When I was a kid, I once played a game of Monopoly for twenty-four hours. My friend and I had to keep rewriting the rules and loaning each other money to keep the game from ending. The salient point is that I don’t remember who won or if anyone won, just that we played for twenty-four hours. That became the whole point. And I think that continual debate becomes and remains the point of most theist/atheist debate. All of the points that can be made have been made; it’s all Kabuki from here on, but, hey, you can sell tickets to well done Kabuki.

  4. Great episode, interesting discussion on theories of god. I feel like there were similarities in both of your stances. Thomas took more of the approach of “We can’t know that we won’t know of one day” whereas Kurt was more-so saying “There are things that we will just never know”.

      1. Yeah, I had to laugh when Kurt basically said quantum mechanics was settled. Less than a week later, this turns up:

        Basically positing that the current theory, the Copenhagen interpretation, may not be right. And that the pilot-wave theory may be more accurate.

        I agree with Thomas, I think it’s foolish to think that anything is 100% settled. I mean, I’m not even sure I exist, but I think I exist…

        1. I may be wrong here, but I thought Quantum physics and Relativity are two of the big ideas in physics, both repeatedly tested and both having past every time. But there is something about them that in our current understanding, they can’t both be right. They are both excellent models that work for all our purposes, but neither are “settled” in the sense that we know they can’t be replaced by an improved model that explains things at both the very small and very large scales.

          1. Quantum mechanics (QM) is so far over my head I need a telescope to even see it. That said, my comment was only intended to highlight the fact that (I believe Thomas alluded to during the discussion) science continues to evolve. What if a study confirming one interpretation of QM over another was flawed. I’ve read that confirmation studies are not done enough – in part because who wants to be second – there’s no recognition. I mean, name the person that confirmed the helix structure of DNA, or the expansion of the universe. Heck, most people can’t even name the second person in space, or even the second American in space.

            What if something comes along in another 300 years that does to QM what Relativity did to Newton? I’m not saying it’s probable, but Kurt seemed closed to the possibility.

          2. Greg Shelley wrote:

            But there is something about them that in our current understanding, they can’t both be right.

            But they can both be wrong. (Despite how they are more accurate than our abilities to test.)

  5. I feel like a quantum argument from ignorance is still an argument from ignorance. Way to stay have patience.

  6. Great episode. Forget his name, but I couldn’t help thinking the guy had not learned very much about philosophy to dismiss it so easily and without a satisfactory justification.

    Quite funny because he was swimming in philosophy while simultaneously claiming water isn’t important. Throw that guy a flotation device.

  7. Kurt was smart and it was an interesting conversation. But he pointed out at one point that philosophy isn’t required to determine god and that science is better because ………

    Science can determine objective truth of reality.

    Please watch this video as I feel it demonstrates the importance of philosophy on even a phrase like

    objective truth of reality.

    Thomas it would be awesome to here you and this youtube anticitizenx have a philosophy conversation.

  8. Kurt: know there’s a God, I don’t know what it is, what how it works, or anything about it’s nature or it’s qualities but I know where it exists though I I have no way to prove it but your just as faithful as me for not believing it.
    Thomas: These are not the droids were looking for.

    1. I feel like he specifically made the point that he can’t really know if there is a god or not, that he identified as being agnostic. I don’t recall him making the point that he knows there’s a God.

      It’s not a terrible argument to say that it takes a large amount of faith to definitively believe that God does not exist just as it takes a large amount of faith to believe a God exists definitively.

      I think he had good arguments for agnosticism, it’s not an easy subject to discuss because there are so many unknowns. But it takes a lot of conviction and faith to believe or not believe.

      1. I’m probably going to look like a total asshole for this, but I’m just trying illustrate a point.

        I feel like he specifically made the point that he can’t really know if there is a unicorn currently making sweet love to an Ewok on a transport between the third and fourth largest spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy or not, that he identified as being agnostic. I don’t recall him making the point that he knows there’s a unicorn currently making sweet love to an Ewok on a transport between the third and fourth largest spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy.

        It’s not a terrible argument to say that it takes a large amount of faith to definitively believe that unicorn currently making sweet love to an Ewok on a transport between the third and fourth largest spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy just as it takes a large amount of faith to believe that definitively a unicorn isn’t currently making sweet love to an Ewok on a transport between the third and fourth largest spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy.

        In the end, it’s an argument from ignorance he’s using to try and make a case that theism and atheism share the same burden of proof. But you can insert any unfalsifiable variable, wherever God is, and there’s no way of knowing one way or another. Which is all agnosticism is: a case that one cannot know if a god does or doesn’t exist. It’s not mutually exclusive from a whether or not one believes or disbelieves. Because any honest person is agnostic (minus “prophets” and/or/including the delusional), but that still doesn’t answer whether or not one believes(as opposed to knows) that a god or gods exist or don’t exist. Even if they have no way of definitively knowing.

    2. Smith’s (Kirk, not Thomas) Deistic Uncertainty Theorem states that the more you say about a deity, the less likely that deity is to exist, and conversely, the less you say about a deity, the more likely that deity is to exist. The best thing you can do to promote your particular god is to shut up about him (or her). That’s important because you can’t unsay stuff. To make the god of the Judeo-Christian Old Testament exist, hundreds of millions of people would have to shut up about Him for eons.

      Kurt’s undefinable god verges on plausibility. Shhhhh . . .

        1. Yeah, I too was disappointed to see that Google turned up nothing on Smith’s Deistic Uncertainty Theorem, though it is a bit of a badge of honor these days for Google to draw a complete blank on your subject—it so seldom does. No, in fact, Kirk Smith is just me; that’s my real name. I go by St. Ralph because I live on San Rafael Ave. When I was working, I had some positions and some government clearances that would have made it awkward for me to have any opinion about anything, so I left my opinions in trust with St. Ralph and a handful of other web personae who could probably all be consigned to the dustbin of history now that I’ve been retired a couple of years and no one any longer cares what I think.

          The Deistic Uncertainty Theorem was concocted while I was getting a computer science degree at a Catholic Lasallian liberal arts college. I posited that until we know with certainty where the Universe came from, we can call whatever created it, allows it or is it, God. Even if it really is just random chance, that’s God because that’s what makes or allows us to exist—and we DO exist, one way or another, like it or not. Answers like “God created the Universe” or “it was a product of the Big Bang” don’t count until we can say with certainty where God came from or how the Big Bang happened. So the “god” that the Universe is or is the result of exists with certainty because . . . here we are. But we cannot say anything about this “god” or ascribe any attributes to it because we know nothing about it. On the other hand, people, over the millennia, have ascribed attributes without number to gods without number. Folks like the Mormons are particularly good at describing and defining “Heavenly Father” and being able to tell you what He’s thinking and feeling at any given moment. The actions, effects and responses of these human-defined gods are, so far, indistinguishable from random chance. If the influence of this god is the same if it exists or does not, it’s cleaner and simpler to say it does not. So I proposed a spectrum across which the likelihood of a deity existing was inversely proportional to the detail with which it had been or could be defined (a corollary of which is that is possible to define a god right out of existence). The professor, a devout Catholic didn’t like it (and neither did I, really), but I passed the class and got on to more interesting stuff.

          So that’s what there is to it.

          1. To St Ralph

            The word God has baggage though. That’s what language is, using symbols like the letters G.O.D to represent all the baggage. Otherwise you are just redefining or changing the symbols we use to express what we mean when we use certain letters in order like G, O and D

          2. First of all, I’m not seriously arguing for Smith’s Deistic Uncertainty Theorem. It’s something that occurred to me the night before a paper was due in a class I had to take. I’m not even claiming originality; it just made me chuckle when I thought of it.

            You are absolutely right about the word “God;” it has more baggage than Hillary Clinton and can mean damn near anything, given the context. I might be simply calling G.O.D. by another name, but what is G.O.D. for the sake of discussion? That’s what I meant in another comment when I said that you need to define God before you can debate its existence. I’m sure I’ve missed something, having come late to the theist/atheist debate movie, but whenever I mention this, it draws a resounding silence—no comment. I never know if the unspoken comment is, “Yeah, well, duh, dumbass, God was defined prior to the Hindenburg/Töttenhörkur debates of 1904, everybody knows that!” Or if it’s just something we don’t talk about in professional theist/atheist debate circles—one of those “see-through” elephants we’re so fond of.

            I jokingly likened theist/atheist debate to Kabuki theater, but it’s really not as different as maybe it ought to be. There are rigors and protocols and the rules of formal debate and of classical logic and a long history of who’s trounced whom—the trounced often failing to perceive their entrouncement. I watched and listened to a lot of it when I first started paying attention to the interwebs, but I came to the conclusion that it was over and had been for some time. The whole exercise is a barking dog at the end of it’s chain. Theist/atheist debates these days are primarily reenactments, like a Kabuki drama or a four hundred year-old Shakespeare play. Everyone knows how it will turn out, but there’s an art to the performance of it and the “professionals” are revered for their mastery of that art, witness Thomas’s fanboy reaction to Sean Carroll’s appearance in the following episode . . .

            But I digress and run of at the mouth and repeat myself and . . .

          3. Did you watch the Sean Carroll/William Lane Craig debate? A central point of it was that “God” is ill-defined and doesn’t get us anywhere.

            The tactic of many apologists is the claim not to be supporting any specific God, but (as Craig does especially) to try to prove a being with a long list of attributes that their favored God should have, then prove that Jesus was real and did miracles. It’s always obvious which God the theist is actually arguing for, even if they say they’re not, and of course we know which God the audience came to see proven. The atheist side of the debate is reacting to that. That’s how God gets away with being undefined; these aren’t dry academic debates about what could be true, they’re attempts by theists to prove that their specific God is real and we should worship it, and it’s obvious what properties they imply by saying “god,” while the atheist side tries to point out the errors in thinking they’ve employed to reach their conclusion.

            A lot of those debates just follow old talking points, because they aren’t staged for the internet, but for the live audience who mostly haven’t gotten into the subject. They’re reruns. The Sean Carroll debate didn’t, though, which is why it was so great. He actually pointed out that “God” is a vague concept that makes no predictions, that the fact anyone can say anything about it is actually the reason we need to refine or abandon it, then rebutted Craig’s regurgitated talking points with some new arguments, throwing him off his script.

          4. Thanks for the tip. I’ll look that one up and watch it. I haven’t seen any for a couple of years or more, actually. When Hitch died the entertainment value plummeted, and I exist to be entertained, so I just kind of wandered off. I’ll check it out.

          5. “””That’s what I meant in another comment when I said that you need to define God before you can debate its existence. I’m sure I’ve missed something, having come late to the theist/atheist debate movie, but whenever I mention this, it draws a resounding silence—no comment”””

            I completely agree. Any god debate should theoretically be stopped at the very first utterance of I believe in god.

            Ok, what is a god, what are it’s attributes, what process did you use to determine the god and attributes and is that a reliable process to determine facts about reality?

            Oh no my method, (because an old book says so, or I simply have faith) is not a reliable method to determine facts.

            Ok, I no longer wish to discuss this, come back when you have a reliable process to determine the facts you espouse.

          6. I watched the Carroll/Craig debate suggested by Nathan, above. It was interesting because the subject had been boiled down to “did the universe have a beginning or is it eternal [it has always existed]?” Craig was positing that it had a beginning and therefore there had to have been a cause for that beginning and that cause could have been God. Carroll was arguing that the universe didn’t necessarily have to have a beginning. He wasn’t even saying for sure that it didn’t, just that it might not have.

            This is way watered down from the debate prevalent when I used to follow these things. It’s a long way from “God might have started the universe” to the sociopathic spanking god of the Old Testament created the universe and is still in charge.

            Carroll mentioned more than once that theism is too ill defined to debate much more than that. It’s just as I thought: if you say much more about God than that he might have started the universe, you’ll be shot down almost immediately.

  9. What I don’t get is his statement that you can’t compare God, and Unicorns. I think he’s implying that God is a more reasonable belief than unicorns. As an atheist for 40+ years I find God claims no less ridiculous than unicorn claims. The only reason God claims are considered more reasonable is because billions of people believe them. If that weren’t the case I don’t think he would argue it requires faith to not believe.

    1. I agree. When debating with someone else you have to take in to account that socially the atheist perspective is the incredible claim. But from the perspective of knowing things to be true, it’s actually the God claim that’s incredible.

      This means we have more of a burden in a conversation with a theist even though we don’t logically have the burden of proof. It’s because people aren’t logical. It’s actually illogical to expect people to immediately respond to logic.

    2. Thanks for doing this episode. Gave me a lot to think about, and the comments are great. Unfortunately everyone seems to agree that Kurt’s argument wasn’t great, but I want to share my thoughts anyway.

      Thank you, Thomas, for mentioning the smuggling in of God concepts. Even just saying “God might exist” is smuggling in the assumption that you’re talking about a being, and that it’s a single being, let alone the unending baggage that the capital-G term “God” brings with it. (I despise when people say “well, whatever made the universe happen, let’s just call that ‘God,’ even if it’s just the multiverse or whatever.” How about no. You know very well that’s not what anyone means by “God.”)

      We’re not talking about a being called “God.” “god” is a class of things that includes thousands of historical examples, plus any other claim you want, everything from bearded sky men to universe-creating pixies. The god in question gets less likely with each attribute you add. Even the vaguest god concepts often assume things like…
      • All-knowingness
      • Any kind of mind to be able to “know” anything in the first place
      • Intention
      • Ability to create a universe
      • Ability to alter things in that universe
      • Desire to do so
      • Love for us
      • An afterlife prepared for us
      • Creation of concurrent “physical” and “spiritual” realms for no other reason than so humans can like stuff and keep living after their body dies
      • God is a being and not a property, law, state of matter, medium, etc
      • God is a single being
      • God is male (???)

      They’ll say when questioned that they can’t verify any of those attributes. So you’ve figured out that no one can prove the non-existence of something without even a single defined property? That’s…not anything. No one was talking about that.

      But when you move on, those assumptions always start popping up again. No one is really talking about a label with no properties. This is why I can identify as a strong atheist. Even the humblest conception of a god is no more likely than Russell’s teapot. It would be pretty astounding if any sort of god happened to exist and correspond to the conceptions of gods we invented out of nothing at all. (Still technically possible though.)

      Also, re:uncertainty. There is no room for God in quantum uncertainty. Quantum laws are deterministic. If you build a million identical rooms full of radioactive waste, you don’t know which particle will fly away when or where it will go, but they’ll all fade into statistical conformity at a macro level. All one million rooms will progress identically.

      Even if God were monkeying with photons and such, we’d never know. We care about the Newtonian level, and those physics ARE deterministic, because the quantum world at that level is deterministic. God would have to violate Newtonian determinacy to do anything other than what the natural world would have done on its own.

  10. This was a nice change of pace. I found the point about quantum uncertainty as a possible place of influence by “god” to be a red herring. If it is truly non-deterministic then what is the pint of acting via that mechanism if you want to produce an outcome. So if god does act at the quantum level to effect a change in the universe wouldn’t that make it deterministic?
    The issue is that the other claims is that god created all the physical laws or created the initial conditions which resulted in the current conditions.
    The nebulous definition of god used here was untestable thus unscientific. Also natural philosophy (science) was to address the issue of pure philosophy which was mainly speculation and didn’t test the assumptions.
    Also I am an agnostic atheist

  11. Kurt uses the original definition of agnostic: that we cannot know if deities exist or not. But, this is a knowledge claim. He is claiming to know that we will not be able to prove or disprove the existence of any and all types of gods. This is an unsupported assertion.

    Kurt ended with the thought of being humble. To my mind being humble means understanding the limits of what you know. But he rejected this! Thomas brought up that science should only hold it’s conclusions tentatively. Instead, Kurt clings to the science of today like it’s a solved problem.

    Recently atheists have discussed why engineers keep defending God or intelligent design. There is a different mindset between science research (and philosophy) and applied science.

    Engineers are smart people. They have been trained in physics and chemistry. But it’s usually from an applied approach. It seems that what they do is look at established references to determine how to apply the science. In most cases, their job is a solved problem. It takes a lot of intelligence and problem solving. But it’s based on solved techniques.

    You can hear this when he says it doesn’t matter if the science or theory changes because this is what we know today. This is the applied science mindset at work. “Just give me the charts and diagrams that work and I will help build your skyscraper.” The finer points of leading edge physics don’t matter to an engineer’s job. The philosophy of science doesn’t matter.

    This is not a humble approach to take. He is treating the question of God like building a building. He acts as though we know everything we need to know to make the decision. Thomas had the most humble approach of pointing out that we don’t know the things Kurt asserts.

    Hence Kurt’s dogmatic, faith stances:

    ■ That we don’t need to consider if science is wrong.

    ■ That we will never be able to prove the existence of deities one way or the other.

    ■ That the gaps in our knowledge are sufficient reason to believe in an unsupported idea.

    As Matt Dillahunty often repeats, the time to believe in an assertion is when there is evidence for it.

    1. Funny bonus content:

      A joke: What’s the difference between a mechanical engineer and a civil engineer? A mechanical engineer builds weapons. A civil engineer builds targets. (Eg., buildings and bridges.)

      An engineer is an expert. But experts are just as vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect as anyone else. At least, in areas outside of their expertise. If any of us are not trained in something we tend to overestimate how knowledgeable we are in it. There is that other joke about expert:

      “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”
      ― Nicholas Murray Butler

      And, finally:

      “Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so.”
      ― Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love

      1. Another I always liked was:

        When you receive your bachelor’s degree, you think you know everything.

        When you receive your masters, you realize you don’t know anything at all.

        When you receive your PhD, you realize neither does anybody else.

  12. I thought Tomas was hindered by a lack of knowledge on the subject, so he couldn’t properly challenge Kurt.
    The idea that we can demonstrate there are some things we can’t know is mathematically sound – to the best of my knowledge, this has been proven. If we are then going to put anything in this category, we need to justify this. Kurt didn’t do this, and I didn’t get any sense of why he felt that we could know that some specific examples of a god didn’t exist, but we couldn’t know the same about a generic one.
    His objection to comparisons to bigfoot/unicorns et was also unfounded. He might think the Christian god is clearly ridiculous, so it is fair to compare that one to unicorns, but that a non corporeal mind that has the ability to create universes is not, but again, I heard nothing from him to justify this distinction.

  13. This debate was primarily about semantics and letting people have their feelings–as if that had bearing on reality. I wish I could run this podcast through a Matt Dillahunty filter (no offense to the host) becasue all through this podcast I was channeling Matt.

    I kept hearing Matt say, in my head, SO WHAT!!!! particularily when the guest mentioned how other people feel about their beliefs.

    The guest seemed to want a lay his head on the soft pillow of agnosticism while sleeping on the atheist bed of nails.

  14. I’m a couple of years away from finishing a Physics PHD. Nearly everything your guest believes about QM and Gödel is wrong. The biggest thing is that QM is, in a very important sense, deterministic. I don’t even know where to start–it could be a long essay.

    1. If you have the time, that essay would be greatly appreciated by me at least, and probably many others. Quantum woo-woo is sickeningly pervasive and anything that could improve my understanding would help tremendously.

  15. Just listening to the episode and I have a tertiary point I wanted to make; the listener you are debating is, I think, an excellent example of the problems with the increasing emphasis on technical abilities over the humanities in colleges over the last 50 years. I am by no means trying to insult him, but his reasoning on this topic is borderline infantile; he largely seems to think his appeal to ignorance is compelling and when he trotted out ‘it takes faith to not believe in god’ I mainly tried to focus on your tactics rather than anything more he had to say. He does remind me of many engineers I’ve worked with; excellent in their respective fields but crippled in their ability to reason as a general tool outside of that field they have confined it to.

  16. Oh my. If there is one thing a skeptic should never, ever, ever do is to say with certainty that ANYTHING will or will not happen. When Kurt was saying that he was absolutely certain about position and location of an electron are unknowable, I wanted to scream!!

    Okay… we have absolutely no idea what dark matter and dark energy are. We know they are there, but that’s about it.

    Who is to say that in a decade or so, we’ll learn exactly what these are and it will give us incredible insights into what Kurt kept saying is a certainty about physics and how we’re using the light as the base tool itself. How do we know that dark matter and dark energy aren’t a lower level base tool and that by understanding these, we’ll open up an entirely new world of physics??

  17. QM is not “random”. There is nothing random about probabilities. The problem is his basic misunderstanding science.

    Hiding god in the bullshit weeds doesn’t make it more probable.

    Enjoyed the podcast. When I hear people use quantum mechanics its like nails on a chalkboard. Lol

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