Marcelo Gleiser: Worthy scientist, or scientific dupe?
For those unaware, Marcelo Gleiser is a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College. He's also a prolific science popularizer who has won this year’s Templeton Prize. Valued at just under $1.5 million, the award from the John Templeton Foundation annually recognizes an individual “who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
But is that a scientific achievement, or a pseudo-scientific one? Say like being awarded astrology's top prize for casting the most accurate horoscopes in a given year. One also has to express some dismay at the spectacle of all that money being awarded for a spurious prize, i.e. for "affirming a dimension" whose existence remains unproven. To provide some perspective we can turn to physicist Jerry Coyne in his book, 'Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science And Religion Are Incompatible', p. 18:
"The Templeton Foundation distributes $70 million yearly in grants and fellowships. To put that in perspective, that's five times the amount dispensed annually by the U.S. National Science Foundation for evolutionary biology, one of Templeton's areas of focus. Given Templeton's deep pockets and not overly stringent criteria for dispensing money, it's the wonder that - in a time of reduced financial support - scientists line up for Templeton grants."
Well, perhaps it's because they're that desperate for grant money - from any source- to support even marginal research, and thereby gain more name recognition. Noteworthy also is Prof. Coyne's observation (ibid.) that " this support flows from a constant stream of conferences, books, papers and magazine articles, many arguing for the harmony between faith and science ." A trope I've already skewered in a letter appearing in Physics Today, i.e.
What about Gleiser himself? In a recent interview he knocked atheism, as one might expect from a Templeton prize recipient. He said in response to one question:
"I consider myself an agnostic.I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.” Period. It’s a declaration. But in science we don’t really do declarations."
But the basis of the Atheist-Materialist worldview is not denial ('I don't believe even if there's no evidence for or against') but rather the essential redundancy of invoking supernatural artifacts and constructs. This is important to grasp if one is going to debate or discuss Atheism in any kind of intelligent context. In other words, the acceptance or belief in such artifacts does not help me make scientific predictions, say the occurrence of the next auroral substorm or coronal mass ejection, so they end up being superfluous to the scientific process, not part of it. But again we must not be surprised that Gleiser here parrots the twaddle of so many other supernatural apologists, i.e.
This bunkum was published in the January, 2018 letters section of PT, and thankfully, Jerry Coyne again delivered a timely response (as I had), e.g.
Fortunately, most hard science practitioners are like Coyne and me, and have no use for this nonsense. See e.g. cosmologist Sean Carroll's take here:
But another beef I have with Gleiser is his adoption of the generic "agnostic" brand as if that confers on him some rational, objective, superior position. In fact it doesn't. The reason is that the basis for agnosticism is epistemological - to do with knowledge- not belief or lack thereof.
To fix ideas here, agnosticism is not a third alternative to theism and atheism because it is concerned with a different aspect of mental affect. Theism and atheism refer to the presence or absence (withholding) of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being. Since the agnostic posits an impossibility of knowledge he then justifies his recusing himself from any belief based on it.
Further, the term 'agnostic' does not, in itself, indicate whether or not one believes in a god. Agnosticism predicated on the "impossibility of knowledge" can be either theistic or atheistic in manifestation. The agnostic theist believes in the existence of a god but maintains the nature of god is unknowable. The agnostic atheist maintains any supernatural realm is inherently unknowable by the human mind. And further - not only is the nature of any supernatural realm, (e.g. "Hell") unknowable, but the existence of any supernatural being is unknowable as well.
So, we have these initial distinctions:
1) The pure agnostic disdains any belief in a deity based on an absolute impossiblity of knowledge.
2) The agnostic theist BELIEVES in the existence of God, but argues it's useless to attempt to elaborate any divine nature (e.g. all-powerful, all loving, all knowing etc.) because the knowledge basis isn't there to permit such assumptions.
3) The agnostic atheist asserts all transcendents are unknowable and hence their existence is as well, so belief is impossible since it requires a leap of faith not warranted by reason alone.
So one may conclude that Gleiser is likely of agnostic category (2), an agnostic theist - but not a pure agnostic. One of the other most telling parts of his interview is when he stated:
"I think obviously the Templeton Foundation likes all of this, because this is part of an emerging conversation. It’s not just me; it’s also my colleague the astrophysicist Adam Frank, and a bunch of others, talking more and more about the relation between science and spirituality."
Yes, so he's gratified there are these continuing "emerging conversations" which, of course, fuel more and more yen to spread the science and spirituality cum supernatural mythology and grafting for the Templeton Foundation grants and prize. But my take, and Coyne's as well as Carroll's, is that such claptrap fuels the diversion of ever more money to codswallop and pseudo-science. If astronomers, for example, could net just one half of what Templeton gives away in a year to peddlers of nonsense, it could support the word of dozens of tenure track researchers. In other words, monetary prizes such as awarded to Gleiser, including the whole framework for giving them, is funneling support from truly worthy research in genuine science. I do agree with Gleiser when he avers:
"Right now what we know is that we have this world, and we are these amazing molecular machines capable of self-awareness, and all that makes us very special indeed. And we know for a fact that there will be no other humans in the universe; there may be some humanoids somewhere out there, but we are unique products of our single, small planet’s long history.
So we have the moral duty to preserve this planet and its life with everything that we’ve got, because we understand how rare this whole game is and that for all practical purposes we are alone. For now, anyways."
A sentiment with which any Atheist-Materialist would certainly concur!