Clay Farris Naff Responds…Sort Of

Well, now I understand why Clay Farris Naff assumed Dawkins was “infuriated” by disagreement. It appears to be sheer projection.

Friday, my response to Naff’s attempt to hypothesize a secular explanation for our universe that still encompassed intentional creation was posted at the Scientific American guest blog. Shortly thereafter, I started to get mentions on Twitter from Naff. Well, the first one I didn’t get because he had my Twitter handle wrong.

I received a few more tweets from Naff Friday.

Being at my grandfather’s funeral, I didn’t respond. So yesterday morning, Naff brought the argument to my teaser post here. Well, it was more of a lack of an argument:

You are, of course, entitled to take your best shots at what I wrote, but if those are indeed your best shots, well, let’s say I won’t be printing a retraction anytime soon.

And to my SciAm guest post:

I find it fascinating and rather sad that those who step in to defend the “New Atheists” against my critique cannot seem to help invoking religion. Stephanie Zvan does it in the very first line of her rebuttal, and then as if to make clear that this wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish brings God back into the argument after quoting my atheist credentials. Torbjörn Larsson accuses me of introducing a “religious strawman” into the argument and thereafter refers indirectly to me as a “faithist.” Yet another critic thinks I’m self-contradictory because I disavow belief in theistic creation and yet end up *hypothesizing* creation via technology.

If nothing else, I hope my essay gives fellow atheists a moment of pause and reflection. Not about whether my scenario is right or wrong, but about whether some have become so deeply invested in their fight against religion as to become ideologically blinkered and subject to groupthink.

How else to explain this insistence on labeling and dismissing an essay so clearly and explicitly nontheistic as “religious”?

And took a potshot in the comments on his piece:

Ms. Zvan’s ideologically motivated mockery notwithstanding, this is an evolutionarily sound conjecture. As such I would think it would attract interest from those who have a science-based worldview. It’s a pity that many cannot get past their fight with religion to give it honest consideration.

Whee! I’m a dishonest ideologue engaging in groupthink whose criticisms can be ignored (at length) because he wasn’t talking about religion.

Let’s start with that point about religion. I would hope that Naff understands that the point being made in a God of the Gaps discussion is that there is no actual god there. (I’m not confident about him on this point, but oh, well.) What does exist in those gaps is exactly what Naff wrote about: a hopeful projection of those ideas that have failed in testing everywhere but those gaps.

The God of the Gaps is not a religious argument. It is a denialist argument, used by the religious among others. It’s used here to defend intentional creation–we’ve ruled it out in a lot of places but not over…here.

Similarly, it’s easy to say that one’s argument is not supernatural. However, in order for an argument to be non-supernatural, it has to be, well, natural. A science fictionish story is not natural unless it takes into account the realities revealed to us by science. Not being very interesting is not enough to make it true.

I made a number of critiques of the science in Naff’s story. His responses are weak where they exist at all. His story relied on evolution creating a compulsion in a species to make life continue. When I pointed out that evolution doesn’t do that, his response was simply to restate that his premise was “evolutionarily sound.” Given that I ran my post past an evolutionary biologist before it was published, I’m waiting for Naff’s explanation for how that compulsion is created by evolution.

His other response was to my statement, “Similar hand-waving is required to move from the need for a new universe to the possibility of creating one.” It was a mention of this article by Michio Kaku, which is remarkably like the story that Naff presented in his post for not having been cited in his post. It even has the same weaknesses of eliding the hard parts of the tale–surviving long enough to achieve interstellar travel, finding the resources to maintain us in those travels, and, oh, solving the problem of creating another universe. It is still hand-waving, something for which Kaku has previously been criticized, and it may now be out-of-date hand-waving as well.

So, despite all his comments here and there and his mistaken impression that my mockery of his story was ideologically motivated (or is liking to see things done well an ideology?), he doesn’t really have much to say about the substance of my criticism. We can make up all the stories we like about how our universe came to be. We still require those stories to be grounded in observations about our universe in order to take them, or their authors, seriously.

Clay Farris Naff Responds…Sort Of

9 thoughts on “Clay Farris Naff Responds…Sort Of

  1. 1


    We haven’t met, and for all I know we might like each other if we do, but in any event, let me make one thing clear: I have no personal animus against you. My argument is with your argument, and I am not out to characterize you in anyway beyond that. Let me also add my sympathy for your loss of your grandfather. I mean that.

    In heading this post “Clay Farris Naff Responds … Sort Of” you could not be more correct. I have refrained from a full-on response to your rebuttal to give others a chance to have their say. Of course, I Tweeted with intention of sparking interest in the debate – a debate that I believe is worth having, even if you don’t. My greatest regret in all this is that you chose to rebut my column with an airy condescension rather than a serious attempt to come to grips with it. Indeed, you apparently sped through your task with such celerity and inattention to detail that at one point you refer to me as “Nash.”

    I will respond in full, and I hope you’ll take the opportunity to seriously consider my arguments and respond in kind.



  2. 2

    I don’t know about “evolution creating a compulsion in a species to make life continue” but having at one time been a young male hominid I’m pretty clear on having a “compulsion” to have sex with females of my species, which I assume had its origins in my evolutionary history.

    In the language of evolution isn’t that the same thing?

  3. 3

    My take on Naff’s article was that it was science fiction bordering on science, much like SETI is. Naff says he would be satisfied with the SETI “pigeonhole”.

    It’s weird that the first words of Zvan’s article were “The God of the Gaps”. Naff took too much time — to the extent of being tedious — to distance himself from religion. But it seems not enough for Zvan.

    Zvan’s point seems to be that we should be “reining in our imagination”. She’s wrong. Science — and particularly Physics — needs more imagination. Entertaining far-fetched theories is what physicists do. Actually what Naff describes is not particularly new — it’s similar in nature to Asimov’s “The Last Question”.

    Is Zvan a scientist? It doesn’t seem like she understands science very well. Looking at the short bio above, it would appear that she is not.

  4. 4

    “God of the gaps” is doesn’t only apply to literal religious gods, Aaron, it describes a type of argument: one in which gaps in our current understanding are filled in with “… and then a miracle occurs”. Stephanie points out multiple points in Naff’s non-argument where miracles are supposed to occur, and the real biggy is “attempting to create a baby universe capable of supporting life like ours.”

    There is no reason to take intentional creation seriously as a possible explanation for the existence of the universe unless there is some evidence that (i) it’s even possible to create universes, (ii) universes are the sort of thing that need to be created, (iii) there is some way of obtaining evidence, by examining the universe, of whether it was intentionally created or not. Absent these: it’s just fairy stories.

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    Aaron @3: Stephanie suggested that “science fiction” must be far closer to science than that, to qualify. Just by postulating a wholly unfalsifiable hypothesis with an unnecessarily multiplied entity (e.g. an entire other universe where our universe is an offshoot, intentionally created), Naff creates a creation myth exactly on par with the religious ones.

    Why is his “evolutionarily sound” where “Goddidit” is not? All you’d have to do is suggest that God needed to create a universe full of sinners and praisers to automatically recharge his praise batteries, which need to be charged or else God would die. See? Perfectly evolutionarily sound by Naff’s standards, God did it to save himself!

  6. 6

    Aaron –

    There is a difference between being creative and letting that creativity, rather than evidence, speak to what you know to be true. Reigning in your imagination doesn’t necessarily mean restricting it. I have to tell my eldest and even on occasion my youngest to reign in their imaginations – though I use more age appropriate language to do so. I have also made it clear to them that I don’t want them to stop using it – or even to stop going on such wild flights of fancy. What, I explain, they need to do is to check it when it isn’t appropriate to talk about it.

    I am working towards becoming a research scientist and have garnered a lot of support from very clever people, largely due to my creativity. And creativity is the bulk of what I have to bring to the table. But that creativity won’t allow me to make commonsensical assertions and pretend they are “the truth.” Ie. I am very imaginative when it comes to coming up with ideas, but understand that I then need to see those ideas tested robustly, before making “truth” based assertions about them. And given the nature of understanding human behavior (I’m studying neuropsych and linguistics), those “truth” based assertions will always come with a caveat.

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    First: @Aaron, #3, Naff isn’t a scientist, either. So I’m not sure what your point is.

    Second: Ignoring how and why the following came to be written at all, suffice it to say that I discovered too late that one has to register to comment on SciAm, but I don’t register for sites I don’t habitually visit. So pretend that it was posted as a comment to Naff’s original. Or ignore it. Either way.

    As far as I can tell, the substance of Naff’s post is, “It might in the future be possible for us to create a universe, therefore atheists are wrong to reject the possibility that ours has been created.” Which (1) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and (2) what sense I can make seems kind of pointless anyway. In the end, it’s not so much a “Secular Case for Intentional Creation” as “A Scenario for Intentional Secular Creation”.

    In any case, the expansion of the argument is a logical mess. To wit:

    “People have been arguing / we can argue about the fundamental nature of existence…”
    “…science forces us to conclude that life is…”

    These aren’t the same. So either the topic was too broad for a commentary to treat usefully, or there’s some strategic redefining the topic.

    “…science forces us to conclude that life is accidental, purposeless, and doomed.”

    Of course it depends upon what is meant by life: as found materially in this universe; or as some sort of universal driving principle. The subsequent argument switches between them. That makes for a poor argument.

    Accidental? Just like everything else. So what? Suppose simple material life be inevitable: Earth’s could still be accidental. Or eukaryotes, or vertebrates, or mammals, or primates, or humans, or specific individuals. So if the problem is with life-by-accident (and life-without-purpose, but even more so), I don’t see how one can avoid the notion of a creator constantly messing about with the operation of the universe. But that is dismissed: “…we’ve no need for a Creator to explain how the world works.”

    Doomed? If life in this universe isn’t doomed, then there’s some sort of metaphysical exceptionalism at work, which isn’t terribly scientific.

    “But we might in searching for our ultimate origins.”

    Another redefinition of the topic.

    “…reasonable doubt…”

    Science is not a court of law. Arbiter of scientific knowledge is data, not opinion.

    “…pursuit of truth through science obliges us to entertain multiple hypotheses.”

    Only if and when necessary to explain data. Scientific explanations have so far worked without needing to resort to a creator. Thus, parsimony allows us to dispense, legitimately, with a creator.

    Also, possibility ≠ probability. As statistically unlikely as existence sans creation has been argued to be, the same methods have shown that existence avec creation is vastly more statistically unlikely.

    “Life Is Good
    “…Assume, for argument’s sake, that humanity will navigate the rapids of history through which we are passing and establish a peaceful, sustainable global civilization.
    “Assuming that civilization persists, it is reasonable to infer that life will be even better in the future, and that our descendants will want to keep it going.”

    Begs the question, introduces another definition for life to conflate with the earlier one, and ignores historical inconveniences such as the Dark Ages following the Roman Empire, the French Revolution claiming precepts similar to American independence, two World Wars and the Holocaust following the Industrial Revolution….

    “…the Darwinian imperative: Keep life alive! They will attempt to create a Baby Universe capable of giving rise to life like us.”

    Biological and cosmological evolution employ the same word but have different meanings (sort of like how cancer is not one disease). Conflation: the argument is fallacious, as are its dependencies. Likewise, weaselly use of term life.

    Also, attempt ≠ succeed; but argument is predicated upon success.

    “The extravagance and imperfections of the Universe are just what you might expect of imperfect creators doing the best they can with the materials on hand. SETI’s failure to date suggests they were none too extravagant!”

    How involved is our procreator in the operation of the universe? Because unless I misunderstand the argument here, the implication is that evolutionary stupidities, like obligate bipedalism and the extinction of trilobites, are consequences of starting with only quarks or leptons or whatever: i.e., that the universe is deterministic. Which it is not. And, not being so, to attribute the stupidities on imperfect creators would have to mean that they’re constantly tinkering with creation. Which would be subject to scientific detection. Which hasn’t happened.

    Also, SETI ≠ SEUC (Search for an Extra-Universal Creator).

    “…the maximal reproduction rates of fundamentalists in an era of contraception may mean that by the end of the century they will swamp all others.”

    This is either trite or ignorant of the differences between cultural and biological transmission. In either case it’s irrelevant.

    “It may also be that new knowledge in physics will conclusively demonstrate that it is simply impossible to create a baby Universe. That day has not yet arrived.”

    This is either trite or ignorant of the differences between possibility and probability, and between theory and practice. In either case it’s irrelevant.

    The last sentence suggests a need for absolute certainty that tends to have more to do with belief than with knowledge, and is curiously at odds with the earlier statement that “To the extent we can be certain about anything, we can rest assured that all supernatural claims are false.” Not sure why absolute certainty is unnecessary in the one case but necessary in the other.

    And it isn’t appropriate anyway. Lots of things may happen, but unless we have evidence of their happening in the past, there’s no reason to consider them as possibilities.

    If nothing else, science is subject to practical resource limitations that behoove us not to pursue crackpot ideas when current ones work just fine. Anyway, science works, and has worked, just fine without resort to a creator (as acknowledged by the statement that “…laws of nature that exclude whole classes of claims”). The notion is simply unnecessary. And, given our success in understanding things without invoking a creator, it’s not at all clear that accommodating one would simplify our knowledge.

    At such time as evidence appears that can be usefully explained by creation, creation will attract serious attention. But there is no such evidence; there’s only analogy and metaphor and vague terms with changing meanings and imaginings of the future: in other words, rhetoric. The reason for discrediting rather than refuting is that there’s nothing to refute. I’m sure my quotations can be clarified in such a way as to dismiss my objections. Then we will have a piecemeal restatement, that we cannot easily read as a whole, of an argument that was a logical mess to begin with. I’ll be charitable and blame it on the limitations of the medium. But, to my mind, “argument presented half-assedly because of space limitations” means “not worth writing, let alone reading.” (Not to mention responding to. Oh, wait….)

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    Brian, if Naff was attempting to argue that human sex drives would lead to the creation of a new universe in which humans would quite likely never come to exist, he’s got a whole other set of problems.

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    I don’t know about “evolution creating a compulsion in a species to make life continue” but having at one time been a young male hominid I’m pretty clear on having a “compulsion” to have sex with females of my species, which I assume had its origins in my evolutionary history.

    In the language of evolution isn’t that the same thing?

    Not really. You had a drive to propagate your genetics (not even to propagate your species), not to make life that wasn’t like you continue in some unreachable and unknowable other place. If humans had a drive to make life in general continue, we’d probably be best to start killing ourselves off in large numbers and breeding cockroaches.

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