Will Physicists Find God?

WARNING: Sensationalism ahead! Are you kidding me, Newsweek? They really titled their article Will Physicists Find God? Presumably, the title is named because physicists are searching for the Higgs Particle, and the title is taken after Leon Lederman’s (mediocre, IMO) book, The God Particle. Leon’s a pretty humorous guy, and was told by his Editor (according to him, anyway) that he couldn’t name his book, “The Goddamned Particle,” which is what he called the Higgs, so he shortened it.

For better or worse, the article is an interview with Steven Weinberg, one of the most illustrous living physicists. Steven is a Nobel Laureate and a huge figure in both the communities of theoretical particle physics and theoretical cosmology, having made tremendous contributions and written very important books and textbooks on both topics. (His book The First Three Minutes is still one of the best popular science books I’ve ever read.) He also went to the same High School as I did, albeit 46 years earlier.

The interview, however, is more annoying than anything else. Why? Because Steven Weinberg is very prominent, philosophically, as an Atheist. And like many scientists who are atheists (and I find this unfortunate), he has copious amounts of vitriol for religion in general. And the interviewer lures him into talking about that from the get-go. And he bites. Here’s an excerpt:

After this experiment, will we have a final theory of how the universe was created?

It is possible that this experiment will give theoretical physicists a brilliant new idea that will explain all the particles and all the forces that we know and bring everything together in a beautiful mathematically consistent theory. But it is very unlikely that a final theory will come just from this experiment. If had to bet, I would bet it won’t be that easy.

As we come closer to developing an ultimate theory of the universe, how will this impact religion?

As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn’t contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

This is reasonable so far, but she really goes after his religious positions, asking the following questions at various points:

  • What about possible contributions toward finding a final theory? Would that upset religious believers?
  • But won’t some people expect to find the presence of a grand designer in that final theory?
  • Are they also going to be disappointed about our position in nature, our purpose?
  • Do you think most people have that kind of courage?
  • At some point will it be possible to find proof that God or the Ultimate Designer does not exist?
  • Would it be accurate to say that you are an atheist?
  • Could something found in the Large Hadron Collider or in future experiments make you change your mind?

The problem I have with this type of interviewing is that it really assumes the following tension: you can have science, or you can have faith, but if you accept what the natural world is telling us about itself, you have to reject everything about the divine world. Now Weinberg doesn’t make this statement (but there are plenty of science bloggers out there who do, and I find them way out of line), but that’s really what this article is about. It started with Galileo, it continued (and still continues) with Darwin, and seems to have gotten worse.

As a cosmologist, I have no qualms stating that the laws of science do an excellent job of explaining how life as we know it on Earth evolved to be the way it is, beginning with the Big Bang and following the (sometimes simple, sometimes not) laws of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. But does that mean that there are some things, in principle, that are unknowable about the Universe? What if I told you that there are some questions science can’t answer, because, for instance, there isn’t enough energy in the Universe to figure them out? I don’t have the answer as to where the Universe came from, where the laws of nature that govern it came from, and I don’t know that science could ever provide those answers. But we answer what we can, and if we’re responsible scientists, we don’t draw conclusions about the things we have insufficient information about. I wish that were easier for people to understand.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard Collins
    March 27, 2008

    You write:
    “There are some questions science can’t answer …
    ____________

    I have a theory I want to try out on you. Suppose one day way, way back in history a couple of proto-theologian guys (it seems it is always guys, answer me that) got together over coffee and started asking transcendental questions. Why are we here? Where are we going? What’s it all about? You know, those kinds of questions. Then they discovered that once the questions got into the wild, people naturally wanted answers. The most logical source of answers must be those eggheads that thought up the questions. Let’s go pay them to find out. Violá, lifetime employment creating circular arguments to the questions they posed in the first place. Should we not be at least a little suspicious? As an atheist I accept this theory. For some reason, a mind steeped in religious dogma simply must assuage the anxiety caused by not having an answer. At least an answer that goes deeper than, God did it. So theologians twist themselves in knots trying to come up with answers. I am not a philosopher. I know just enough to be dangerous, but should we back up and establish first whether the questions we pose are even worth spending time on before we start searching for answers? I believe Stephen Wineburg has arrived at this conclusion. We are programmed to be problem solvers by evolution. But so far evolution has not equipped us to know which problems are worthy of devoting time and energy to.

  2. #2 ethan
    March 27, 2008

    I don’t know if that’s fair. How do you have an objective metric for worthwhile? Is the big bang theory worthwhile? What about asking what came before the big bang? If the answer is inflation, is it worth asking what happened prior to inflation? I can go on like this, but basically it comes down to this: what are you curious about? If your answer is tennis and mine is the birth of the Universe, who’s to say that your study of tennis is any more or less valuable (much less valid) than my study of the birth of the Universe?

    Your theory is interesting but more of an untestable hypothesis than a theory. And that seems to be your major issue with theology — the untestability of it. Is that a fair assessment?

  3. #3 Dan
    March 27, 2008

    I like the article, something to wrap ones mind around and digest. I stumbled onto your site a few moths ago and enjoy reading it very much. I have always been interested in space and science since childhood, and things have happened in my life recently that have started me to think about the big picture, which brought me back to my interest about what may be out there in this universe. Now I was raised catholic(never practiced) and I do appreciate religion, but the universe seems to be the constant. Science to me seems based on fact, or what you can prove thru math and the laws of physics. And as the technology advances, we are discovering more and more about this vast space all around us which I think is really exciting. As humans I think we want to believe someone is watching over us and has a design for our lives, but as we search for truths and facts out among the stars, that is what seems to make a believer out of me. But that could only explain this universe which we exist in, not how it ever came to be, or got here, which leads us right back to the “G” word. I do enjoy all the drama! Hopefully the day will come when I can understand it all, maybe it’s just the onset of my impending mid-life crisis which makes my mind race and I have these crazy thoughts. Either way, I’m glad I am on this planet living this life I have been blessed with, and always try to keep an open mind. Explore your universe!!!

  4. #4 Richard Collins
    March 28, 2008

    I guess I focus on this part of what Stephen said:

    As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn’t contradict religion, but it does takes away one of the original motivations for religion.

    Anyone reasonably alert who has paid attention to history will not offer serious arguments about this assertion. I don’t say cosmologists are all out chasing their tails, far from it.

    I am only saying that people who search for answers to transendental questions probably came by the these questions from one religion or another and religions sell themselves as agents that can answer the questions. Meanwhile, from time to time the clerics get taken with unsavory ideas and a bit drunk with power. They then align with political power and we have the intractable problems of today.

    Embracing secular government and Humanism is our only way out of the box. Its working in Europe. Why cannot Amercians see this?

  5. #5 ethan
    March 28, 2008

    If you’re saying that the questions about transcendental things, such as the origin of the Universe, the origin of gravity, or the origin of life, will either be explicable through scientific inquiry or else unanswerable at all (with any certainty, at least), then I tend to agree with you. I don’t think that religions are agents to answer those questions, but my personal experiences with religions are that they don’t claim to be. (Mostly.) The ones I’ve had the most experience with encourage you to think about those questions, and thinking about abstract concepts like that has never seemed to be a bad thing to me.

    Fighting those who get drunk with power and unsavory ideas is always important, irrespective of whether religion is involved or not. Stalin was no less evil for his separation from religion. I’ve been trying to keep my political opinions scare on this site, as I’ve tried to devote it to science and cosmology exclusively, but I suppose it’s all a part of the human experience, living in this Universe and trying to make sense of it. Let’s see where it takes us!

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