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.