In which I have to defend Morgan Freeman

People were apparently rather peeved about Morgan Freeman’s appearance on the Daily Show on Wednesday night (that link is to the whole episode; Freeman appears at about 15 minutes in). He’s narrating a new science show that, in the clip shown, seems to be mainly about physics and cosmology. After talking a bit about the show, they get down to the problematic bit: Stewart asks if scientists know what happened at the beginning of the universe, and Freeman basically says they don’t; that there are different scientists with different ideas, some contentiousness, and some outright ignorance about the details.

This is not offensive. That’s the truth. I hope no one was bothered by that.

I get the sense that what did bother people, though, was that Stewart pressed a bit and asked Freeman what scientists tell him when faced with stuff they don’t know, and here’s how Freeman replied:

Whatever scientists don’t know becomes the god factor.

Again, Freeman is right! This is what happens so often: there are many things we don’t understand, and some people, even some distinguished scientists, are prone to look at the gaps in our knowledge and announce that that is where god lurks. It’s the standard ‘god of the gaps’ logic, and it’s bogus, but it really does happen and there are a lot of scientists who indulge in it. Look at Einstein, who was constantly flinging out god references for all the mysteries of the universe, despite the fact that he was an unbeliever himself.

Now it’s a short clip, a seven minute interview, and of course they don’t get into meanings and implications at all, so Freeman’s interpretation is completely ambiguous. If he’s trying to say our ignorance is evidence for a god, then he’s full of it and we can point and laugh at the movie star floundering out of his depth…but he didn’t say that at all. In the context, I took it as more of an admission that there is still a lot of god of the gaps thinking even in the scientific community, and that’s entirely true.

So don’t get mad at Morgan Freeman just yet. Roll your eyes at the scientists who bleat out “God!” every time they’re baffled by something, instead. Save your scorn for the nonsense of people like Tipler and Davies and even Kaku. They’re the ones feeding mystical fluff into our perception of reality.