The Frontal Cortex

I’ve always wondered why evangelicals obsess over evolution and not quantum physics. If their intent is to undermine materialist science, the surreal conclusions of modern physicists – multiple universes, 11 stringy dimensions, the invisible weight of dark matter – strike me as far more vulnerable to religious interpretation than natural selection. After all, physicists cheerfully admit that their theories have a big gaping hole in the center.

Well, it seems that evangelicals have finally started to read Stephen Hawking:

“When you get to the subatomic level, everything we know about the basic makeup of the universe falls apart,” he [Pastor Rob Bell] told the audience. “They use phrases like ‘we don’t know.’ So high-end quantum physicists are starting to sound like ancient Jewish poets.”

Is it bad when ministers and reverends and rabbis engage with the genuine mysteries of science? Not at all. In fact, I think we need more sermons on Schroedinger’s Cat and the ineffability of qualia and fewer on natural selection, which isn’t mysterious at all. And while many on Scienceblogs may not like it, for the vast majority of people – most of whom practice their faith quitely and apolitcally – religion provides important insights into how to live with mystery. God, after all, is best defined as that which we might never know.

So is God just an index of our ignorance? Does he dwell in the gaps of our science? I think so, and I certainly wish more believers did too. My modest claim is that this sort of tenuous faith doesn’t undermine religion or imperil science. After all, one of the ironies of modern science is that some of its most profound discoveries – like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or the emergent nature of consciousness – are actually about the limits of science. As Vladimir Nabakov, the novelist and lepidopterist, once put it, “The greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” As long as genuine mysteries remain – and it’s hard to imagine mystery becoming obsolete anytime soon – faith will be an unfortunate necessity. As scientists and science writers, it’s important to celebrate what we don’t know (and might never know), for this allows the religious to focus their faith on genuine unknowables, and not pseudo-problems like prokaryotic flagella or non-existent gaps in the fossil record. Of course, fundamentalists will always remain, but I think both sides in our sad culture war can work harder to prevent fools like this from becoming best-sellers.

Comments

  1. #1 Karmen
    July 10, 2006

    You make some interesting points here, but for God’s sake, please warn us before posting a link like that. “Warning: hideous monster ahead! Avoid buying book!” or something, anything. *shudder*

  2. #2 Steve Esser
    July 10, 2006

    I’m not sure “faith” is a necessity, but you’re right that there is plenty of grist in these remaining mysteries for worldviews which extend beyond traditional materialism. The problem for fundamentalists is that there is nothing in these mysteries which would lend support to biblical inerrancy, eternal souls, ad hoc divine interventions, etc.

  3. #3 Tiax
    July 11, 2006

    “Is it bad when ministers and reverends and rabbis engage with the genuine mysteries of science?”

    It wouldn’t be a bad thing -if- they engaged them as actual mysteries. They don’t, though. It’s not a mystery for them, because they’ve always got a God-shaped solution. “What was it like during the first few tiny fractions of a second after the big bang?” “God was there. That’s when he created all the matter.” That’s not engaging a mystery. That’s making up an answer and pretending there’s no more mystery. The only reason we make actual progress is because some people don’t accept the made up answer, and treat it as a real mystery.

  4. #4 Melinda
    July 14, 2006

    “I’ve always wondered why evangelicals obsess over evolution and not quantum physics” — yep, and why, as Michael Kinsley asked, do they take issue with stem cells and not fertility clinics?

  5. #5 DavidD
    July 15, 2006

    “In fact, I think we need more sermons on Schroedinger’s Cat and the ineffability of qualia”

    Oh, please God, no! I got my undergraduate degree in physics in 1975. Since then I don’t think I’ve heard one layman talk about quantum physics in a way that suggests he or she knows the subject. It’s a tough subject even for the experts, as some of the quotes people bring up from Bohr, Heisenberg and Schroedinger prove. As good a physicist as Richard Feynman believed in parallel universes, yet it’s still the case that there is no data saying there are such things. Speculation by geniuses is still speculation.

    People who have mystical interpretations of quantum mechanics always have some agenda along with that, like anti-evolutionists who always err about thermodynamics. Why not see it as a scheme that makes excellent predications of the subatomic world, apparently because that’s how the subatomic world exists, as wave and particle simultaneously, a statistical existence instead of being as fixed as we perceive where we live, where the quantization of energy is way too small to appreciate in our lives?

    It is interesting that quantum mechanics was such a shock to physicists of the early 20th century. They said some strange things out of that shock. But it is not about unknowable mysteries, no matter how “spooky” Einstein called it. The entanglement that subatomic particles have does not apply to the entire universe unless someone is postulating some new spiritual version of physics that has no data at all for it. People lump everything weird under quantum physics as they have lumped everything in God – power, knowledge, love, goodness. It’s symbolism with words, not science or knowledge. Clergy will speak this way as it is. Please don’t encourage them.

    “God, after all, is best defined as that which we might never know.”

    Really? My favorite definition of God is that He is who answers when I pray, “God help me!” I’m suspicious of any defintions that are both less functional and assume God is something so grand and mysterious as to be unknowable. I know something. He says He’s God. I don’t argue with Him.

  6. #6 Nathan
    July 21, 2006

    95% of the worlds religious leaders know nothing of religion except their beliefs and the face value of the text in holy books.

    90% of the worlds scientists try to measure things that cannot be measured and say they don’t exist.

    5% of the worlds leading scientists and religious leaders incorporate both and never discard information from either as they will make sense when placed with those that don’t make sense later on.

    Only the 5% will get the answers that the world seeks after.

    Unless people start realizing this.

  7. #7 From so simple a beginning
    December 17, 2006

    Jonah Lehrer said

    “..its most profound discoveries – like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or the emergent nature of consciousness – are actually about the limits of science.”

    I am not qualified to comment on the “emergent nature of consciousness” but I think your statemnt about the uncertainty principle is misleading.

    Uncertainty principle is a statement about ontology or what can exist(of course, the standard qualifications for all ontological statements in science apply). Though its name might suggest otherwise, it is NOT a statement about epistemology or what we can know.

    The point is that if you assume the existence of states which violate Heisenberg principle, you will run in contradiction with what we observe and measure. There are many other related things in quantum mechanics that we still don’t understand(which may or may not imply epistemological constraints) but Heisenberg principle(to the extent I understand it) implies no such constraint.

    This comes back to what the previous commenter said

    Nathan : “90% of the worlds scientists try to measure things that cannot be measured and say they don’t exist.”

    At least in quantum mechanics, when physicists say a state with arbitrarily precise position and momentum doesn’t exist, they really mean it. It is a stronger statement than just the statement that we couldn’t find such a state.