Friday, March 31, 2006

Sagan's Sophomoric Scientism

A while back, an anonymous poster contributed a quotation from Walker Percy that is excellent enough to bear repeating:

This chapter, as well as other parts of the book, owes a good deal to Carl Sagan's splendid picture book, Cosmos. I hope he will not take offense at some fanciful extrapolations therefrom. Sagan's book gave me much pleasure, a pleasure which was not diminished by Sagan's unmalicious, even innocent, scientism, the likes of which I have not encountered since the standard bull sessions of high school and college—up to but not past the sophomore year. The argument could be resumed with Sagan, I suppose, but the issue would be as inconclusive as it was between sophomores. For me it was more diverting than otherwise to see someone sketch the history of Western scientific thought and leave out Judaism and Christianity. Everything is downhill after the Ionians and until the rise of modern science. There is a huge gap between the destruction of the library at Alexandria and the appearance of Copernicus and Galileo. So much for six thousand years of Judaism and fifteen hundred years of Christianity. So much for the likes of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Grosseteste. So much for the science historian A.C. Crombie, who wrote: "The natural philosophers of Latin Christendom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created the experimental science characteristic of modern times."

So much, indeed, for the relationship between Christianity and science and the fact that, as Whitehead pointed out, it is no coincidence that science sprang, not from Ionian metaphysics, not from the Brahmin-Buddhist-Taoist East, not from he Egyptian-Mayan astrological South, but from the heart of the Christian West, that although Galileo fell out with the Church, he would hardly have taken so much trouble studying Jupiter and dropping objects from towers if the reality and value and order of things had not first been conferred by belief in the Incarnation.

Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring nebula.

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan's side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is—a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth—and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFOs, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever—more perhaps than either science or Christianity.

What is to be deplored is not Sagan's sophomoric scientism—which I think I like better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter—no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by these particular disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six thousand years ago. It's enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.

Really, it is a case of an ancient and still honorable argument going to pot. Even arguments in a college dormitory are, or were, conducted at a higher level.

It is for this very reason that we can enjoy Cosmos so much, for the frivolity of Sagan's vulgar scientism and for the reason that science is, as Sagan says, self-correcting. One wonders, in fact, whether Sagan himself has not been corrected, e.g., by Hubble's discovery of the red shift and the present growing consensus of the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Cosmos, which surely comes closer than Sagan would like to the Genesis account of creatio ex nihilo.

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: the Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), 201-202.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Upcoming Talk

I'll be giving a talk at this summer's Two Tasks Conference in Alexandria, Virginia during the morning session of the Physical Sciences Track on Friday, June 23. I won't divulge the title of my talk, but to any regular reader the contents should be recognizable from the recurring themes of this forum.

The conference as a whole promises to be a great gathering. Aside from the obvious good taste the organizers have displayed in allowing me to speak (ha ha!), they have invited a wonderful array of speakers, including Peter Kreeft and John Haldane.

The name of the conference comes from the thought of Charles Malik:

If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world....Responsible Christians face two tasks—that of saving the soul and that of saving the mind.

My sincere hope is that this realization takes hold in the mainstream of American Christianity. For too long some Christians have allowed themselves to be shoved into the intellectual ghetto: indeed they have insisted that living in the ghetto was an identifying characteristic of authentic Christian belief!

Even a distant look at history shows this credo's falsehood: whence did the power of Western Civilization—a realistic faith in human reason—come if not from Christian Europe?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Personal Note

Second bout of midterms is arriving, so posts will be sparse for the next couple weeks.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Thoughtful Leads from George Ellis

Ran across an interesting lead in a (response) letter by George Ellis in Physics Today:

[The original letter writer] says that no experimental evidence has established a boundary beyond which reductionism fails. Yes, there is evidence for such a boundary: As pointed out by Jean-Marie Lehn,[1] it is the level of supramolecular chemistry. At and above that level, history and context become as important as physics; a reductionist account cannot, for example, predict the sequence of bases in the DNA of wheat, or what gene will be read next in a cell in a bee as it dances to convey information.

The footnote references J.-M. Lehn, Supramolecular Chemistry: Concepts and Perspectives, VCH Verlag, New York (1995). (The second part of Ellis's response is less than inspiring: it seems to rationalize free will with quantum indeterminacy—an error I will explore here soon, I hope.)

While rooting around the web, I ran across another interesting piece by Ellis in Nature. A jewel of a paragraph:

A simple statement of fact: there is no physics theory that explains the nature of, or even the existence of, football matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft. The human mind is physically based, but there is no hope whatever of predicting the behaviour it controls from the underlying physical laws. Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics 'theory of everything', this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the outcomes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us.

He traces the putative line of cosmic causality back to flutuations of the cosmic background radiation, whose placement is supposed to be precisely that required to bring about all the human achievements of our civilization. "Those fluctuations are supposed to have been random, which by definition means without purpose or meaning.... However, such meaning did indeed come into being."

Most notably, the advocacy of determinism is intended by its adherents to be meaningful (intended), but it couldn't be meaningful if it were completely determined by the physical laws of the universe. (Ellis's letter: "if free will does not exist in a meaningful sense, the process of scientific investigation cannot take place; scientific procedure assumes we are able to make conscious choices about what is a sound theory and what is not." No physical law can explain the existence of physical theories.)

Ellis goes on to say that physical laws are necessary for the context for intelligent human activities to occur, but aren't sufficient to explain them: "It is possible that what actually happened was the contextual emergence of complexity: the existence of human beings and their creations was not uniquely implied by the initial data in the early Universe; rather the underlying physics together with that initial data created a context that made the existence of human beings possible."

Moles are blind but have their acute sense of smell enables them to discover many amazing things we humans are oblivious to. It is no surprise that they cannot see. But no reasonable person would use their blindness as evidence against the existence of light.1

Modern science excludes finality (a.k.a, intentionality, purpose) by assumption; it is no surprise that the natural laws it discovers omit finality. It is a wonder that supposedly rational people interpret this blindness as indicative of reality.

I was much more critical of Ellis here:
The ME Project's Contained Kenosis


1. Yes, thank you: moles aren't actually blind. "Proverbial moles," if you will.

George Ellis, (letter) "Physics, Reductionism, and the Real World," Physics Today (March 2006), 12.

George F. R. Ellis, "Physics, complexity and causality," Nature 435, 743 (9 June 2005).

Monday, March 06, 2006

Inflationary Difficulties

"Cosmic Inflation" is the theory that the early universe expanded in size exponentially. To my mind the theory is suspicious because it is used to justify the idea of a continuous creation of "pocket universes," as Alan Guth, the theory's originator calls them—as if the universe were as casual an occurrence as clearing one's throat. I'm not a theorist, so I'm not qualified to discuss the mathematical merits of the relevant theories, but I do think Inflation's philosophical consequences signal the need for scrutiny of its philosophical assumptions.

Inflation finds its justification in three "problems" of cosmology: the Monopole Problem, the Flatness Problem, and the Horizon Problem. I will review each of these in turn, but will only treat the last at any length.

The Monopole Problem is simply that no one has ever found any magnetic monopoles ("lack of any observed topological defects" is how Wikipedia puts it). To most of the world this doesn't seem like much of a problem, but since many grand unified theories (GUTs) require the existence of monopoles, the universe of our experience doesn't suit the theories' creators. (I presume that monopoles still plague the latest batch of GUTs, but perhaps it is only my ignorance that prevents me from seeing why monopoles need otherwise inhabit every generation of such theories forever.)

The Flatness Problem is the inexplicably Euclidean (or flat) geometry of the universe. That is to say, that the angles of cosmic-sized triangles sum neither to more than 180 degrees as they do on the surface of a globe, nor to less than 180 as they do on the surface of a saddle, but to exactly 180 degrees as on a flat piece of paper. As Goldilocks would say, "Just right."

The Horizon Problem is the large-scale homogeneity of the universe: that the universe at a particular period of its expansion was too large for influences propagating no faster than the cosmic speed limit (the speed of light) to smooth its mass and temperature inhomogeneities, in other words, that parts of the universe would lie outside the "horizon" of physically accessible points from each other.

This "problem" has never been adequately explained to me and always nagged me as the flimsy. If, I thought, the universe started as a singularity (essentially a geometric point) as the Big Bang theory tells us, why would the horizon problem be an obstacle? For that matter, why would a limit on any influence be an obstacle?

The issue finally bubbled up to top of my priorities, so I looked it up in Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe. Here's what he had to say,

The horizon problem is not a failure of the standard big bang theory in the strict sense, since it is neither an internal contradiction nor an inconsistency between observation and theory. The uniformity of the observed universe is built into the theory by postulating that the universe began in a state of uniformity. As long as the uniformity is present from the start, the evolution of the universe will preserve it. The problem, instead, is one of predictive power. One of the most salient features of the observed universe—its large scale uniformity—cannot be explained by the standard big bang theory; instead it must be assumed as an initial condition.

The reasoning may not be apparent to you, but at this point in my intellectual development, I found it quite indicative of the modern scientific mindset—so indicative in fact, that I might not be able to unpack all it communicates in this one post.

On reading this paragraph, these questions rushed to mind: Where would inhomogeneities originate? Wouldn't they require explanation?

But that is not how the modern scientific mind works. The whole push is to show how the current state of affairs and no other is possible. Applied to the horizon problem, this means that no matter how the universe began, whether homogeneous, or completely inhomogeneous, it would coverge to homogeneity of itself.

On one hand, it is difficult to argue against this motivation. Science seeks naturalistic causes, that is, causes lying solely within the realm of the created world.

But on the other hand, eventually science must fall silent. The beginning of the universe seems an appropriate point. Science has to admit its limitations and simply accept the reality of the world as given. That is what it means for experiment to be the touchstone, after all.

To a certain extent, inflation theory and all physical theories do this: the theorists merely fold up more of the world into their theories, but they never explain where the theories come from. Of course, the claim is that someday String Theory or its successor will produce a self-explaning mathematical theory of everything.1 What that means is not very clear. No one can point to an example of a self-explaning mathematical theory for anything, or even explain how it would explain itself. But it's clear it can't mean the theory is obvious, because then we would have discovered it long ago. Perhaps they mean the theory is obvious in retrospect, as in "I should have known." Still it takes human minds to create theories, and it's hard to see how the theory could also create the human mind without indulging in circular reasoning. And as Stephen Hawking in the one lightning bolt of philosophical lucidity in his A Short History of the Universe asks, "What is it that breathes fire into the equations?":

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire in the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Ot does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe?2

Also of interest:

  • Nothing Comes from Nothing
  • Can You Bind the Chains of the Pleiades?


    1. As always "The check is in the mail," arriving perhaps about the same time that Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat brings us to utopia and surrenders power.

    2. Hawking's philosophical muse clearly abandoned him for the last line of the paragraph: "And who created him?". I have left it off for brevity sake but will take it up in a future post.

    Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1997), 184.

    Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time : The Updated and Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition (Bantam, 1998), p. 190.