Readers of this blog know that I am not fond of Krista Tippett, the fuzzy thinking host of National Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith” (it really ruins my early Sunday mornings). She and New York Times’ columnist Stanley Fish make for entertaining targets when I feel like venting at irrationality disguised as profundity. And now Tippett has done it again.

On her show she promoted her new book, Einstein’s God, and if the show is any indication, this new enterprise promises to be a fun fest for people inclined toward pseudo-metaphysics. I will give just a few examples of what I mean, taken both from Tippett’s own comments and from those of two of her guests, noted physicists (and Templeton prize winners) Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson. (Incidentally, why is it that so many physicists think they are qualified to talk about metaphysics? I mean, I don’t see a lot of metaphysicians sputtering nonsense about general relativity and the like.)

Here is a typical quote from Dyson: “Science is full of mysteries. Every time we discover something, we find two more questions to ask, and so that there's no end of mysteries in science. That's what it's all about. And the same's true of religion.” Really? The same is true of religion? And when, exactly, was the last time religion answered any question at all?

Again, Dyson: “These equations [general relativity’s] are quite miraculous in a certain way. I mean, the fact that nature talks mathematics, I find it miraculous. I mean, I spent my early days calculating very, very precisely how electrons ought to behave. Well, then somebody went into the laboratory and the electron knew the answer. The electron somehow knew it had to resonate at that frequency which I calculated.” Ok, first of all, nature doesn’t talk anything, mathematical or not. Mathematics is just a language we use to represent to ourselves certain facts about nature. Second, in what sense is mathematics “miraculous”? Is it the result of an intelligent designer who flouts the laws of nature? Because that’s the definition of miracle, you know. Lastly, the bit about electrons that ought to behave in a certain way, and knew how to behave is nonsense on stilts. Yes, of course Dyson is (presumably) talking metaphorically here. But that’s the point: why use these tendentious and absolutely unenlightening metaphors, especially within the context of a radio show called “Speaking of Faith”? Does it not occur to these people that they will be reinforcing fuzzy notions about science supporting the existence of god and similar nonsense?

Now, here is Tippett herself: “If Albert Einstein can be said to have had a spiritual side, this expressed itself in part in his love of music. He played the violin from a young age and was a passionate concertgoer. He attended the stunning debut in 1929 of the 13-year-old Yehudi Menuhin with the Berlin Philharmonic. Menuhin played as soloist in a daunting program of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms concertos. Einstein was so moved that, as one story goes, he rushed into the boy's room after the performance, he took him in his arms and exclaimed, ‘Now I know that there is a God in heaven!’” Oh for crying out loud! First of all, this isn’t even a first-person account by Einstein, it’s a “as one story goes” kind of thing. Second, even if it did happen that way, the man was probably just expressing his deep appreciation of a particular rendition of some of his favorite pieces of music. I guess we’ll all have to watch out every time we say “Oh God!” in response to something, or we may find ourselves on YouTube with a subtext of endorsing religious beliefs.

More fluff from Tippett: “From a religious perspective, there's something intriguing, though, in how these ideas of physics might seem to echo spiritual notions that you can find in Eastern and Western religious thought.” This is an argument that goes back to the (in)famous Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. There seems to be a persistent wish to validate mystical or ancient thinking by way of modern science — which I suppose is a backhanded compliment to science itself. Another example is the idea that somehow the ancient Greeks “anticipated” atomic theory. No, they didn’t. They had the intuition that the world is, at bottom, made of one type of stuff. Whether that intuition is correct or not is still open to discussion, but in no way does it represents a “theory” or anything like what modern physics has put forth through a lot of sophisticated math and beautifully carried out experiments.

A similar problem underlies this bizarre statement by Paul Davies: “We know this [the Big Bang] is now 13.7 billion years ago. Einstein's theory of relativity says this was the origin of time. I mean, there's no time before it. And Augustine was onto this already in the fifth century because he was addressing the question that all small children like to ask, which is, ‘What was God doing before he created the universe?’” Are you serious? So Augustine gets credit for the theory of relativity because he asked the rather obvious (and totally unconnected to relativity) question of how god was spending his non-time there before time was created? (Wait, does that question even make sense?) As I said before, why do these people think they can get away with this sort of pop metaphysics just because they sport a PhD in physics?

And of course no fluffy discussion about the ultimate origins of the universe could possibly be complete without a mention of the anthropic principle. Here is Davies again: “For me the crucial thing is that the universe is not only beautiful and harmonious and ingeniously put together, it is also fit for life.” Ingeniously put together? By whom? And by what criterion of “ingenuity?” The universe seems more like an empty mess to me, with a lot (and I really mean a lot!) of stuff going on that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the supposed pinnacle of creation, us. I find the anthropic principle not only philosophically untenable and scientifically silly, but an egregious example of the tendency of human beings to vastly overestimate their place in the cosmos.

One final gem from Davies, in direct response to a question by Tippett: “There are interstices having to do with quantum certainty into which, if you want, you could insert the hand of God. So, for example, if we think of a typical quantum process as being like the roll of a die — you know, ‘God does not play dice,’ Einstein said — well, it seems that, you know, God does play dice. Then the question is, you know, if God could load the quantum dice, this is one way of influencing what happens in the world, working through these quantum uncertainties.” First of all notice the totally vacuous and non committal “if you want to insert the hand of God.” Davies is saying nothing of substance, again. And, once more, we’ve got bad metaphysics emerging straight out of his fluff: so if god works through quantum mechanics, do we have Pseudo-Random Design of the universe? If he needs to tweak the laws of physics (which, presumably, he put in place to begin with), does that mean that he is not after all omnipotent? Or is he trying to hide from a super-god who doesn’t want him to mess around with creation? What, exactly, is Davies saying here?

More generally, what is this type of talk contributing to social, scientific, or philosophical discourse? My guess is: nothing at all.