Monday, November 26, 2012

But Newton did it...

Reconciling inconsistencies in life, yours or someone else's, is strictly impossible. The  language of logic which our capacious yet limited brains have conceived and refined over thousands of years, namely mathematics, itself grew aware of this limitation in 1931, in the form of Kurt Godel's historic incompleteness theorems. The basic premise of his thesis is the impossibility of postulating a theorem and using its conclusions to prove its axioms.(A less laborious proof of this seemingly innocuous idea can be found in Turing's alternate approach: "The Halting Problem"). It is impossible to be complete and consistent simultaneously; a fantastically sobering thought! So one is assured to be greeted by the pungent breath of futility upon dismantling people's principles into their irreducible constituent pieces, for what hope is there if we cannot explain the fundamental nature of something as simple as the natural numbers?

This in no way is a permit for unbridled stupidity. Any thinking person always seeks consistency to some degree in the various vocations. A historian would be left scratching his head if there were circulating reports of Japanese aid to British soldiers during World War II, contrary to the documented and demonstrated role of the Axis powers. A physicist's annoyance at discovering that Neptune has a triangular orbit while every other planet traces an ellipse is justified, after having understood the inverse square nature of the gravitational force. Likewise, a chemist's bewilderment at water and carbon dioxide spontaneously recombining to form methane and oxygen,  an affront to the second law of thermodynamics, surely evokes atleast a sliver of sympathy from the educated. Why, even the religious, as irrational as they prefer to be, frequently resort to consistency arguments by citing the bible, for example, when confronted with the possibility of legalizing gay marriage. The distinctly human predicament of making sense of our surroundings is anesthetized by its (ill-)perceived consistency.

Having said all this, let me yank you by your collar before we soak ourselves in the rather turbid waters of epistemology. By mentioning Godel, I only wish to acknowledge the perimeter of the battlefield. The irritant in question is that of the cliched standoff between religion and science. What I find extremely easy to tackle is their much saluted compatibility: none exists. Religion stands on the elephantine feet of blind faith, thrives on the arrhythmic heartbeat of dogma, relies on the asthmatic respiration of deceit and does not quite seem to have the anatomical equivalent to the brain. These malignancies are by definition foreign to science. Anyone arguing otherwise has much work ahead of them and I would personally nudge them in the direction of the adeistic(sic) inducing precision of experiments validating the axioms of quantum mechanics.(A reading/viewing of Feynman's lecture "The character of physical law" reveals to layman and professional alike the humble principles of symmetry that science so successfully confides in. Also, his indispensable essay "Cargo Cult Science" should leave readers with a sense of the demanding standards of intellectual honesty required in science, something flagrantly trifled with in organized religion.)

The slightly less impersonal question (that can leave people rudely storming out of your house mid-discussion, as a dear friend did last night) is about the religious scientist. The eruptive sentiment goes something like "I go to church AND do science. Thus I am religious AND scientific." I've scarcely heard someone described as scientific, let alone self-described. Their thinking could be scientific. Their work could be scientific. But a person being scientific? What does that mean? You apply logic and rationality to every one of your actions outside church? Even if that were believable (as far as Godel permits), I would never use the word "scientific" to describe a person, simply because of the pricelessness it lends to the word "method".

If science upholds the sanctity of inquiry against all forms of prejudice to reveal the truth, how someone selectively exercises this reasoning based on his/her proximity to a church tickles me. And aren't people obliged to distinction just as their properties are, as David Hume would have probably demanded? If science cannot look religion in the eye, can a scientist a priest? Yes and no. Yes as a person, no as a practitioner. Let me assure you that the torrent of ad hominems that follow are less troubling than the itchy brand-tag on the elastic lining of one's underwear. Just because Newton et al dabbled in religion, doesn't in the slightest imply that their contributions to science are any less valuable. Anyone making that argument is exhibiting a grave impairment in their understanding of the scientific method: it does not share your bias for or against Newton's beliefs, only the truth. Experimentally verified, peer scrutinized truth. By calling Newton scientific, you implicitly relegate the process of science to everything he did. This needn't hold at all, as one quickly realizes from the flexibility in delegating such arbiters.

Surely, the question on how much religion had influenced the thinking of Newton, Faraday and Darwin is academic. One would do well to note the distinction between a theistic belief and a deistic one, the latter of which is prominent among most scientists guilty of making this a harder battle for atheists to win.(Faraday's reasoning for the relationship between electricity and magnetism purportedly stems from deistic notions of symmetry, the kind of thinking that more famously troubled Einstein in his later years. An especially delicious sampling of the fine-tuning argument is Fred Hoyle's unprecedented use of the anthropic principle to arrive at the prediction of an excited state of the carbon nucleus). Nevertheless, I remain skeptical about those who proudly announce that they are people of faith. It doesn't impress me. It does the opposite. And if this person pursues science as a career, it appears to me that they are convicting themselves of imposture. Now, their work will speak for itself, as it should, which is why it is possible to have religious and intelligent people, a fact that escapes some of my fellow atheists (They would have to rely on their intelligence to avoid conflict between career and any religious inclination). But all this is peripheral to science whose core does not contain any speculations of this kind.

Besides the four horsemen: Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (all of whom have gold standard arguments against any notion of reconciliation and whose writings are recommended reading for the few asking themselves this question seriously), there is the equally strident but almost forgotten Peter Atkins. Those of you who are aware of the recent victories of particle physics can feel free to juxtapose them (Lawrence Krauss' elegant summary: "A Universe from nothing") with this quote by him in an interview in 1985:

I think there are two sorts of religious "scientist". One is the creationist - someone who believes that everything was created and what we're seeing is just what the creator left around. And I regard that simply as intellectual excrement of the first order and we don't need to worry about it any further.

The second sort, the one that we do have to take seriously, are the believing scientists. The people who are really making an intellectual effort to coordinate their system of beliefs with the tide of scientific discoveries which are slowly pushing them further and further back into metaphor.

I think the acid test of the battle that is going on between science and religion would be science's ability to show that the entire world could tumble out of nothing. It's already got back to within a photon's throw of the origin of the universe as we've gone back into the big bang, and almost to the point of talking about what happened before the big bang. And I see no reason why we should not be able to go beyond the big bang and talk about its inception - how the universe emerged from absolutely nothing. Not just empty space, but from nothing. And how it did so, without intervention. Now, if science can do that, then I think that the religious must concede defeat.

1 comment:

Nikhil Rajagopalan said...

Newton was a powerhouse of a scientist. I remember reading a book printed by Scholastic Publications ("Dead Famous", if I'm not mistaken) on Newton. As I recall, he unweaved the rainbow, disproved the presence of universal ether, came up with calculus (Leibniz also came up with the proof in parallel?), escaped the Black Plague, developed the laws of gravity and did a whole lot of non-physics related stuff like working for the Mint and locking up counterfeiters!
Then I recollect that he became quite barmy and started obsessing with alchemy, apocalyptic astrology and the color maroon.