Interview with Lawrence Krauss

This is the transcript of an interview conducted by ISCAST Executive Director Chris Mulherin with Lawrence Krauss. Professor Krauss is a leading “New Atheist” and was in Melbourne on August 16, 2013 for his third Australian ‘conversation’ with William Lane Craig.

The audio of the interview can be found here.

CM: What do you think is at stake in these public debates between faith and atheism?

LK: It’s faith and reason, it’s not atheism. What’s at stake is reason and sound and sensible public policy. The willingness to abandon myth and superstition in favour of the universe as it really is. I don’t think… The question is, why do them? There’s not a lot of give and take. In a situation like this there are people who come here to hear what they want to hear and they will hear what they want to hear. So what you are trying to do is to reach those people who have really never thought of the issue that deeply and encourage them to think for themselves and to be skeptical.

In addition I think it is important to call out distortion. I mean, there are various people who have platforms and Dr Craig has a ministry and in that ministry there are often things written in podcasts and other things that are in my opinion misinformation, distortion. And I think it’s important to call that out and question that kind of credibility so that people will later on read sceptically or listen to things sceptically. Same with me: they should read everyone sceptically. But I think for me the main reason I do it is to encourage people to use reason and empirical evidence to guide their own actions and to encourage them to guide the actions of their public servants, their politicians. So what’s at stake to me is a healthy democracy.

So these culture wars, if I can call them that…

LK: yes, you keep calling them that…

…are serving a purpose?

LK: Well I don’t know if they are serving a purpose. Religion is dying on its own, so I think that that’s going to, in the first world… whether this accelerates it or not I’m not sure but I think what it will do is encourage people to think about how to appropriately replace the kind of things they get from religion with things that are related to the real world and not myths and fairy tales.

What do you think influences public opinion most? Is it the arguments or the rhetoric or are people simply being confirmed in their own prejudices?

LK: Well, I mean rhetoric is very effective, that’s why I refuse to have a debate which is the normal format that Dr Craig likes to do and I’ve done with him before. Because those are not information sessions, they are rhetoric; that’s why I insist on having some kind of discussion. Because even then while the information flow may be limited, it’s not as limited as a debate.

But I think that what the problem is that people get religion thrust down their throats when they are children, before they can think about it. And it’s very very difficult to break out of that, so we’ve got to try and think of ways to encourage people‑that involves seducing or provoking‑ and I think it’s possible to do that. And also demonstrating…my main goal is to demonstrate that the universe we live in is so remarkable and amazing that you don’t even need to invent the myths and fairy tales. So I want to encourage people to be so amazed by the universe that they feel that comfort in realising how vast it is and not minding their own insignificance, in fact finding at some level that also comforting. So I think that once one dispenses with the need to be the centre of the universe one can open one’s mind to the remarkable things that we’ve learned in the last few hundred years, and those everyone should share.

What about the tension between serious argument versus the sound bite that seems so crucial to a Facebooked, Twitterised world?

LK: That’s the problem in all cases; it’s a general problem. One goes to events like this in principle because they are long enough that maybe there are some serious arguments. I’m not sure I’ve heard them yet, in the two events we’ve had. But the hope is that… what I really think you do is you… at events like this and in writing you don’t educate people a lot, what you do is you motivate them to think and read. Even in a 15 minute discussion of a general issue you can’t do that justice and so even in a form like this you can’t get people to learn; what you can do is motivate them to read and think. So that’s what I really want to do, is to motivate them to question; to go out and to be skeptical and to read and then if something interests them to go and read more about it. The only place you’re really going to get the serious arguments is if they spend the time sitting, reading and thinking and that doesn’t happen in a form like this and that doesn’t happen on TV or on radio.

But a form like this could provoke people…

LK: Yes, as you can do on TV and radio. And as I do in a class room. I don’t think most of the learning is done in a class room; most of the learning is done outside of a class room.

What do you make of those scientists who are serious scientists but also serious believers of one sort or another?

LK: Well I have a lot of friends who are that way and I think the point is that people can believe diametrically opposed things at the same time. We’re hard wired to be able to do it, we all do that, as I like to say we all believe 10 impossible things before breakfast in order to be able to get up in the morning, and I could list them, but I mean just to get through the day… So I think that what happens is… Belief is ingrained and often, unfortunately in my opinion when you are a child—I think it’s child abuse—but it’s very hard to overcome and I think that what happens is that scientists who have a strong belief just put it aside when they are a scientist, when they are doing their science.

As a very famous biologist once said, when he goes in the laboratory he’s an atheist because he doesn’t think anyone’s twisting the dials and rigging the experiments. And then as he put it, therefore he might as well be one outside the laboratory. But I think the serious scientists say I’m going to be guided by what the science tells me about the natural world but I won’t let it infringe on this belief I have about an imaginary guy in the sky and it’s just a characteristic of humans that we can all do that.

So there is a fundamental conflict between faith and science? How would you describe that relationship?

LK: Between not faith, between organised religion and science. I mean science is not incompatible with the idea that there is some vague purpose to the universe although there is no evidence of it. What science is incompatible with is all the world’s major religions, the scriptures of which disagree manifestly with the results of science.

So Judaism, Christianity, Islam, all of those are from a scientific perspective, nonsense. So there’s no fundamental contradiction to the idea that there may be purpose, there’s just no evidence of it. But what is disingenuous is to argue that somehow science is consistent with the organised religions and those people who subscribe to those organised religions manage someway to balance their beliefs, usually by picking and choosing from the scriptures what they like and throwing out what they don’t like.

So you could conceivably be a scientist and a deist of some sort but in a vague sort of way?

LK: Yes, you could be a scientist and a Christian, but to do that you have to suspend your disbelief or in fact suspend the disagreement or throw out those… or be a Christian in name only in the sense of saying ‘I believe. I’m a Christian but I don’t believe this and this, don’t believe in the virgin birth, don’t believe in that and this.’

So that’s possible too but I think it’s certainly possible to be a scientist and a vague deist but it doesn’t matter. I mean the main point is that God is irrelevant. People seem to think it’s an important question. It’s not an important question to scientists. It never comes up in science meetings, never, not once. Because God isn’t necessary to discuss the universe and so the issue never comes up and as my friend Stephen Weinberg, who was an atheist and Nobel prize winning physicist, has said that most scientists don’t think enough about God to even know if they are atheists.

So what is the role, if any, of Christianity, of faiths in an increasingly secularised world?

LK: Well it gets in the way. I think the role is to slow… the role right now is to argue… the positive role is to claim to argue that charity, good will etc etc… but I think ultimately… well the other role is to provide some sense of community and support for people. There’s no doubt that organised religion does that for people so it would be disingenuous or it would just be wrong to argue that it doesn’t do that. The point is, do you need religion to do that? and I think the answer is no. But right now I think the best role that Christianity can play is to support systems and things that try to bring people together and then get out of the way.

So, going on from there… the obvious question is, what resources does atheist naturalism bring in terms of offering ultimate meanings, moral guidelines?

LK: Again you’ve sugar coated the phrase or you’ve weighted it when you called it atheist naturalism. If you mean scientific empiricism, rational thought combined with empirical enquiry which is the way we learn about the world, what that does is bring much more meaning and spiritual wonder than religion ever does because the awe and the actual things we’ve discovered about the universe, the awe and wonder of the real universe is spiritual in my mind, every bit as spiritual, in fact more spiritual than the bland and boring and wrong stories in the Bible. But it has the great benefit of also being true. So I think science can enhance your appreciation of your place in the cosmos by your awe and wonder and of course provide a much sounder moral framework, a framework for determining what’s right and wrong than religion.

How does it do that?

LK: Religion has usurped, has taken… claims that religion is the source of morality… well if it is it’s an awful source of morality because the morality Bible’s miserable and if you look… I mean religious morality has traditionally been wrong and what science does is based on determining what’s right and wrong by reason and I claim that almost everyone in the audience, regardless of their religious persuasion really determines what’s right and wrong, not because of the ten commandments or because of the thought that they might go to hell, but because of a reason and if they stopped believing in God they wouldn’t kill their neighbours the next day.

Can you tease that out more? How does science provide those moral foundations?

LK: Well first of all you can’t make a decision about what to do unless you know the implications of your actions. Science tells you that. Science tells you what the implications of your actions are. So that’s the sort of thing. Then you also use empirical evidence and rationality to say, to try and assess the consequences. And also what past actions have done and try and determine reasonably how a group of people who are thrust in a society can live in a  way with maximum harmony where each person can have their optimal expression and reach the best they can be as an adult.

There’s no doubt if you look at morality in the modern world it’s based on science it’s not based on religion. Getting away from slavery, women as chattels, all the rest, and hatred of gays, all of that’s going away because science is telling us, you know what, you can’t base your morality on some claimed 2000 year old book where they didn’t even know the earth orbited the sun, where they say gays are evil when in fact all mammals have homosexual fractions in them and there’s nothing unnatural about it. Once you understand the biology then you learn that that stuff is nonsense and allows you to make a more informed ethical or if you wish, moral, decision.

Does anything unsettle your atheist convictions?

LK: What do you mean atheist convictions? My convictions are if there is empirical evidence for something then I’m willing to accept that fact and I guide my actions based on reason and empirical evidence. Nothing is going to unsettle that because that works. I’m not going to walk out the 10th floor window of my hotel because I want to get to the ground quicker and expect I’m going to survive. I’m not going to let a ball go or let a ball go and pray for it to fall up instead of down; that’s just nonsense. It’s like going out in the rain and saying I don’t need an umbrella, I can just will myself to stay dry. So when you talk about atheist convictions, if you’re talking about convictions that physical effects have physical causes; I can make predictions, I can test them. The ones that don’t work are wrong. The one’s that do work have some possibility of being right.

I guess I’m talking about your conviction that there is no God.

LK: Who said that? Did I ever say that in this interview?

No you didn’t.

LK: What I said is that it’s clear that a belief in the God of the world’s great religions is not reasonable. And that conviction is just based on evidence and reason and … I’ve been asked at one of the events what would change my mind. If I looked up tonight, if the sky is clear and the stars rearrange themselves to say in Aramaic or Hebrew or English (as I said in, I think Brisbane, because some Americans say God speaks English), if I look up and I saw the stars rearrange themselves and say  ‘I am here’ then it would be worth thinking about. But as there has been no single shred of empirical evidence for any deity or any divine intervention in the history of the universe, as long as that’s the case there’s no reason to worry about it.

What advice would you give to young people these days who find themselves wrestling with questions of meaning, questions of science, questions of faith in a culture that offers them a lot of different answers?

LK: To be skeptical, to ask questions, to try and support the evidence that supports their convictions but also be willing to challenge it, to be willing to change your mind and to force their beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality because ultimately that will produce rational actions and a better future for them and for all the people around them.

WLC said almost the same thing.

LK: Well good I’m glad he’s listening to me.

Of the people from the opposite camp, if I can put it that way, on the world stage in these debates, who do you respect the most?

LK: I don’t label people. I don’t label myself as an atheist. I mean some people I label you know as Craig labels himself. I have good friends who I have great respect for as individuals and scientists who are religious if you wish. Francis Collins who is heading the National Institutes of Health is a religious guy, I think his religious views are nutty but as an individual I enjoy him and as a scientist I certainly respect him. I take everyone as an individual so I try not to put people in camps. And in that sense I’ve learned from my old friend Christopher Hitchens who was the most tolerant person I’ve ever known in terms of enjoying discussions with people who I could probably not stand to be in the same room with. So, tolerance.

Is there a danger for a physicist wading into the depths of philosophy and theology?

LK: No because there are no depths of philosophy and theology. They are very shallow. I don’t wade into philosophy and theology, I don’t need to. That’s the whole point. You don’t need to know anything about philosophy or theology to do physics. Or to understand the universe. So there’s this claim, ‘you’re philosophically naïve’ and it’s just ridiculous because once you disagree with the fundamental premise you don’t have to worry about [inaudible: ‘anything else’?] I don’t wade into the alien abduction literature either because I don’t need to.

Don’t you enjoy the X-Files?

LK: Of course I do, I enjoy the X-Files and I quote from them but I don’t need to wade into the history and all the details of the 1947 abduction of this person or that person because you know from a fundamental perspective… as I often like to say, my mantra is from an old publisher of the NYT, I like to keep an open mind but not so open that my brains fall out.

Philosophy is on one level, theology hasn’t provided any knowledge to the human species in at least the last 500 years so it can be completely discounted. Philosophy, the critical thinking associated with philosophy is useful but you don’t need it, you don’t need to read philosophy. No scientists read philosophers. Essentially. You certainly don’t have to know anything that’s going on in philosophy to understand the universe, the physical universe. Like any reading you may learn things and reflect upon yourself and that’s true for literature and anything else but I don’t have to read Moby Dick to understand the universe. I may get more insight into myself and like all good literature… but science does that too. So philosophy like any intellectual enquiry has that inherent potential utility but as a generator of knowledge it doesn’t. You reflect on the knowledge generated… Science generates knowledge and philosophy critically reflects on it and often illuminates the issues, that’s all.

Last questionwhat do you make of Jesus?

LK: I suspect… I’m willing to accept that he existed. I like the idea that certainly he was… he led a group that was pretty revolutionary at the time and no doubt deified him after the fact. The interesting question to me is whether he believed he was God or not. And if he did as I often say, we have places for people like that nowadays. He would have met a much better end now than then. He would have been able to tell people he was God in a nice safe room in a hospital.

I see him as obviously as an important historical figure in the same sense that Muhammad was and in the same sense… but there were other historical figures that were historically important like Adolf Hitler but you know they had an impact on the human race. I don’t view him… any more profoundly than anyone else, in fact I despise the notion that if you don’t believe in him you go to hell. Anyone who says that is not worth listening to.