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?

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 "inconsistant 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.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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