Atheism is inconsistent with science, says Dartmouth physicist Marcelo Gleiser

Is it saying too much to say something doesn't exist when you have no evidence either way?

Atheism is inconsistent with science, says Dartmouth physicist Marcelo Gleiser
Eli Burakian / Dartmouth College
  • Dr. Marcelo Gleiser has become the first Latin American to win the Templeton Prize.
  • The prize is given out for "contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension."
  • In an interview about the prize, he argued that atheism is "inconsistent with the scientific method."

Dartmouth College physics professor Marcelo Gleiser has become the first Latin American to win the Templeton Prize in recognition of his "exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works."

Prior to winning the 2019 award on March 19, Dr. Gleiser had exhibited his spiritual side to the press, even arguing why he believes atheism is unscientific.

Why saying “God doesn’t exist” is saying too much

In an interview that will shock many atheists, Dr. Gleiser told Scientific American why he finds atheism to be a bridge too far for a scientific mind:

"I 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. We say, 'Okay, you can have a hypothesis, you have to have some evidence against or for that.' And so an agnostic would say, look, I have no evidence for God or any kind of god (What god, first of all? The Maori gods, or the Jewish or Christian or Muslim God? Which god is that?) But on the other hand, an agnostic would acknowledge no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn't know about."

He further explains his stance on not trying to claim that we know everything in a well-reasoned defense of humility in science:

"I believe we should take a much humbler approach to knowledge, in the sense that if you look carefully at the way science works, you'll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don't know."

Is this line of thinking scientifically useful?

In some ways, it is.

Dr. Gleiser reminds us that we are on an "island of knowledge" in the middle of an "ocean of the unknown." As knowledge advances, we become more aware of what we don't know. As he puts it:

The paradox of knowledge is that as it expands and the boundary between the known and the unknown changes, you inevitably start to ask questions that you couldn't even ask before.

His notion that we should not be too proud of what we know and open to the idea that we might discover something tomorrow that changes everything isn't without precedent. Lord Kelvin, a brilliant British scientist of the 19th century, claimed that flight was impossible and that X-rays were a hoax. Albert Abraham Michelson, an American physicist also working just before the relativistic and quantum revolutions in physics, suggested that the laws of physics had all been worked out and that the only task left was to improve accuracy in measurement.

If we listened to these two who thought we'd already figured everything out, we'd be stuck in the 1890s. It may well turn out that the claim "there is no God" could end up being similar to saying, "No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful" in 1902. Similarly, skepticism of the claim "X doesn't exist" is also important in science since "X" might show up someday.

Russell and Sagan on why he can chill out

While it remains true that humility can be a good thing, that we don't know what we don't know, and that it is impossible to prove the negative statement that "God doesn't exist" Bertrand Russell reminds us that we can still be rational while saying we don't believe in something we cannot disprove the existence of.

Famous for his well-reasoned atheism, Russell acknowledged that he was technically an agnostic and declaring there to be no God was a step too far. However, he pointed out why that step shouldn't bother anybody:

"I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely."

That quote refers to his famous teapot analogy, excerpted below:

"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense."

What Russell is saying is that just because a point that is asserted without evidence cannot be disproved doesn't mean it is unreasonable to think it isn't true. Furthermore, Russell places the burden of proof on the person making the positive claim — God/the teapot exists — and not on the person questioning that claim.

Astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan made a similar point about the dragon in his garage:

"Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

'Show me,' you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle--but no dragon.

'Where's the dragon?' you ask.

'Oh, she's right here,' I reply, waving vaguely. 'I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon.'

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

'Good idea,' I say, 'but this dragon floats in the air.'

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

'Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.'

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

'Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick.'

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so."

Sagan, like Russell, is arguing that the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Since there is no evidence of the dragon, it is hardly anti-scientific to say you don't believe the dragon is there.

Is it going too far to claim that God doesn't exist? That depends on where you want to place the burden of proof and how much evidence (or the lack thereof) is needed to make a claim. In any case, Dr. Gleiser makes a good point about not claiming to know more than you do and the need for a bit of humility.

I for one still won't believe you if you tell me you're off for a cup of tea on Mars with the dragon that lives in your garage.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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