On EconTalk today, Russ Roberts interviewed Jessica Riskin, author of The Restless Clock. They touched on the split between science and religion and it reminded me of a story a friend told me about taking his orals for a PhD in Electrical Engineering.

He was ushered into a classroom filled with professors. One professor asked him a question, “Why is the sky blue?” My friend filled a chalkboard with equations. When he finished, another professor asked, “Why?”

He filled another chalkboard with equations. Again, he was asked, “Why?” Again, he filled a chalkboard. When he was asked “why” a third time, he threw up his hands and replied, “God exists.”

The professors thanked him and asked him to leave the room. Three hours later, they filed out. My friend grabbed his advisor’s arm and asked, “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“What do you mean, ‘Well, what?’ Did I pass?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

“What do you mean, ‘Of course,’ you were in there for three hours!”

“Oh, that. You brought up an interesting point and we were discussing it. We’d all agreed you had your PhD after five minutes. Why were you worried?”

“I couldn’t answer that last question.”

“Listen, some people can fill one chalkboard, some five. But we all reach that point where the only answer is, ‘God exists.’”

1. Contributor

Yeah, you got me. I don’t think I could even fill one blackboard on that particular question. The second and third ones would be easier, but you have to get there first.

As an aside, this is easily the third time I’ve heard of profound and somewhat embarrassing truths about a discipline revealed during a Ph.D. oral.

On thermodynamics: “What is temperature?” “It’s the integrating factor for entropy.” … skip a couple more answers I don’t remember and you have a professor shaking the candidate, screaming “Temperature is nothing more than sensation!”

On physical chemistry: “Do you know what all physical chemistry boils down to? Drawing graphs and seeing which scale gives you a straight line.”

I suspect that most of these things are a great deal more hogwash than we’d like to think, and once the student has mastered the handshake to get into the inner circle they’re comfortable admitting to that.

• #1
• February 11, 2019, at 7:27 PM PDT
• 4 likes
2. Thatcher

Richard Fulmer: ‘God exists.’

. . . and he made the blue wavelengths in our sunlight refract more efficiently.

God created the universe, which also means he created the mechanisms by which it operates.

Put another way, God created the things we investigate and call “science”.

• #2
• February 12, 2019, at 5:28 AM PDT
• 4 likes
3. Member

The question of “Why” takes far less time, and chalk for the philosopher. The reply; “Why not” allows more time spent at the semester ending kegger.

The question of; “Is there a true God” becomes a bit more difficult for the dyslexic philosopher who might spend hours affirming the existence of a “true dog”.

• #3
• February 12, 2019, at 7:03 AM PDT
• 2 likes
4. Contributor

The most important question then becomes: “Which God?”

• #4
• February 12, 2019, at 7:31 AM PDT
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5. Member

The most important question then becomes: “Which God?”

This misses the question of whether there is a need for a why?

• #5
• February 12, 2019, at 8:33 AM PDT
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6. Member

As an aside, this is easily the third time I’ve heard of profound and somewhat embarrassing truths about a discipline revealed during a Ph.D. oral.

It was in another of Russ Roberts’ Econtalk podcasts that one of his guests described a simple-yet-difficult question lobbed at him during his oral defense. Naturally his response was to write equations on the board, solving for whatever variables were blah blah blah, … when the questioning professor explained “the answer I was looking for was ‘transaction costs.’ The answer is always transaction costs.”

Keep that in your hip pocket.

• #6
• February 12, 2019, at 8:57 AM PDT
• 2 likes
7. Contributor

The most important question then becomes: “Which God?”

This misses the question of whether there is a need for a why?

It seems that “why?” is a question best left to philosophers. Sadly, the edifice of Philosophy has been wrestling with that question for a couple thousand years and made little definitive progress at answering it. At least, the answers on offer seem divergent or contradictory.

Given that we we approach the question with a brain whose evolution seems to have been best suited to figuring out how to survive on the African Savannah and not to answering such epistemological inquiries, it’s equally unsurprising that we haven’t solved the question, I suppose. Just as eating soup with a hammer is poorly thought out, so too it may be that our comprehension of the universe’s “whys”? is limited by the tool we have to apprehend it.

• #7
• February 12, 2019, at 9:26 AM PDT
• 1 like
8. Member
Richard Fulmer Post author

Shawn Buell (Majestyk) (View Comment):
it may be that our comprehension of the universe’s “whys”? is limited by the tool we have to apprehend it.

Capital “T” truths seem beyond our grasp. Every time, for example, we think we’ve found the “fundamental particle,” someone finds another. Some, frustrated with our inability to nail down “Truth” have rejected the idea of truth altogether and have concluded that there are no truths – which, if true, would, itself, be a Capital “T” truth.

Maybe someday we’ll find “Truth,” but, in the meantime, we may have to settle for small “t” truths. And that’s not so bad. Small “t” truths have enabled us to do some amazing things.

• #8
• February 12, 2019, at 9:44 AM PDT
• 2 likes
9. Member

On physical chemistry: “Do you know what all physical chemistry boils down to? Drawing graphs and seeing which scale gives you a straight line.”

In my undergraduate EE course in control theory, any time that an issue of controlling a non-linear system always resulted in the Professor saying : “We will cover that in the advanced courses”

I wound up getting a Masters degree with a focus on Control Theory. In those courses, if a non-linear system came up, the answer was : “Assume the response is linear in this region and solve it as a linear control problem”

• #9
• February 12, 2019, at 11:20 AM PDT
• 4 likes
10. Member

My father – who had a PhD in Physics – would often play the “Why?” game when I thought I understood something. He could always stump me. As an Engineer, I think the proper answer at some point is that it solves the requirement and we have other problems to solve.

I took most of my Engineering classes at night and worked full time. One advantage is that many of the part-time professors had “real” daytime jobs. They were the best to have. One said: “In school, you learn how to optimize something. In real life, we “satisfize” and move on” Words to live by.

• #10
• February 12, 2019, at 11:26 AM PDT
• 3 likes
11. Inactive

This is a classic “God of the gaps” fallacy.

• #11
• February 12, 2019, at 1:16 PM PDT
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12. Contributor

This is a classic “God of the gaps” fallacy.

A sort of modification of Zeno’s Paradox that YEC types like to employ, yes?

• #12
• February 12, 2019, at 1:30 PM PDT
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13. Member

Shawn Buell (Majestyk) (View Comment):
it may be that our comprehension of the universe’s “whys”? is limited by the tool we have to apprehend it.

Capital “T” truths seem beyond our grasp. Every time, for example, we think we’ve found the “fundamental particle,” someone finds another. Some, frustrated with our inability to nail down “Truth” have rejected the idea of truth altogether and have concluded that there are no truths – which, if true, would, itself, be a Capital “T” truth.

Maybe someday we’ll find “Truth,” but, in the meantime, we may have to settle for small “t” truths. And that’s not so bad. Small “t” truths have enabled us to do some amazing things.

For example, capitalism basically works and central planning leads to either Obamacare or Venezuala. What kind of capitalism is best is something we can’t understand. But as long as we are somewhere in the vicinity of capitalism we can do OK.

• #13
• February 12, 2019, at 10:21 PM PDT
• 1 like