Listing entries tagged with physics

Religion and Science -- 7

posted on 11.22.2006 at 9:42 AM

A few things are extraordinary about the New York Times report, by George Johnson, on a conference on science and religion in California.

1. The general anti-religious tone of the conference. Some quotes:

"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief....Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." -- physicist Steven Weinberg
"Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- and even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." -- Carolyn Porco, a space scientist (whose ideas have been discussed here before)

Indeed, anthropologist Melvin J. Konner said at one point about the conference:

"With a few notable exceptions, the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

Since public debate on such matters has been stuck so long at Y and Z, this may have been useful.

2. It is also significant that the ever-cautious New York Times felt comfortable printing an article that is so critical of religion -- an article that ends with this exchange between Weinberg and Richard Dawkins:

Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she's getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she's gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn't buying it. "I won't miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."

3. And the debate on how scientists should respond to religion (discussed here often) is also of interest. Here's a dissenting (maybe L or M) voice:

"Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it." -- Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist

Dawkins' hard-line response to this sort of statement is here.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:42 AM | Comments (1)

Odds on Existence of God

posted on 11.17.2006 at 10:23 AM

Every once in a while, it's useful to check up on the theists' logic. Here is Mahlon Marr (writing, alas, under the name Thomas Paine), responding, he thinks, to Richard Dawkins:

Let's meet him halfway and assume for the sake of argument that there have been no supernatural events since the creation - the Big Bang in technical terms. Either the universe was created by a super-powerful being, or it came into existence spontaneously. There is no scientific theory or evidence available that can even begin to account for either possibility.
So, scientifically, philosophically and reasonably speaking, the odds for the existence of God are an undeniable 50-50. Throw in some slight scientific evidence from the argument for intelligent design...and make it a 50.1 to 49.9 advantage for God.

This calculation is, shall we say, somewhat flawed.

First, we should note that believers have been looking for some dark, as-yet-unexplained corner of the universe in which to secrete God for many centuries now. It was once the creation of life for which there was "no scientific theory or evidence available," but then Darwin shed some light on that "mystery." Now they (and agnostics also) have fastened upon the initial moment of the Big Bang. (To be sure, this is a rather important subject, but so was the creation of life.) Light -- scientific light -- will eventually be shed here, too. As Dawkins writes: "Physicists and cosmologists are hard at work on the problem." He mentions a couple of possible answers -- "a random quantum fluctuation or a Hawking/Penrose singularity" -- and then adds a prudent "or whatever." But even after such an answer arrives, there will undoubtedly remain new puzzles for scientists to work on -- leaving new dark corners into which indefatigable theists can try to stuff a God.

Second, given the track record of science in explaining the workings of the universe versus that of religion, it seems rather odd to assume that a supernatural explanation for the Big Bang is just as likely as a natural one.

Third, suggesting that God launched the Big Bang just raises the larger question of what or who launched god. So, instead of answering the question, by placing an Omnipotent Big Daddy there at the beginning of space-time you have simply raised a more difficult question

Dawkins would add a fourth response: that the universe tends to move from the simple to the more complex and therefore would not move from God, who seems astoundingly complex, to the germ of the Big Bang. We have debated this point below.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:23 AM | Comments (12)

The Aesthetics of Science

posted on 10.15.2006 at 11:49 PM

Physicists, writes K.C. Cole in the Los Angeles Times, rely on "beauty" to judge their theories:

In physics, truth and beauty often walk hand in hand. Physicists describe theories as "ugly" or "beautiful," talk about ideas that "smell" or "feel" right. Often, aesthetic judgments lead to discoveries: as in Einstein's theory of gravity and Paul A.M. Dirac's discovery of antimatter. Aesthetics, French physicist Henri Poincaré said, is a "delicate sieve" that sorts the true from the misleading. Or as Dirac famously put it: "It is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiments."

Is this just a shorthand -- a way of getting to the heart of things more quickly? Or is it a sign of the extent to which metaphysical notions -- wishes, prejudices, mysticism -- have infiltrated even science? Is there an "ugly" physics out there just waiting for some aesthetically uninclined scientist to discover?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:49 PM | Comments (7)