Monday, February 02, 2009

St. Paul On Scientism

From the Epistle to the Galatians:
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

It was the summer before my senior year in high school that I first read Carl Sagan's collection of essays, Broca's Brain: Reflections On The Romance of Science. It was there I first encountered the notion that contemporary science has the possibility of increasing the awe one feels as one contemplates the diversity of the universe. Imagine a mathematics where 2+2 does not equal 4!

Since then, we have been inundated with the idea that the wonders of this world are enough to bring about all sorts of ruminations and spiritual thoughts. Black holes that can take one to other universes. Bell's Theorem, in which all possible universes exist in neighboring quantum state universes. Even the sublime idea that natural selection could very well not have led to human beings, thus increasing one's appreciation for the fragility of human existence.

All these things are indeed wonders. Yet, what have they to do with us, really? One certainly gets a sense from sitting and thinking these things through that they must mean something. Yet, as scientific facts, they are nothing more than bare facts, without "meaning" in the sense of having ethical or moral substance. One can certainly impute such to pretty much any set of facts, yet scientific facts are nothing more or less than bare reports of phenomena.

2006 presented us with two works purporting to "prove" that "religion" was nonsense. One, by British geneticist Richard Dawkins, was so profoundly badly reasoned, that even other scientists were reluctant to do much more than say the effort to show religion to be bunk, and to rid the world of it, was akin to living in a fairy tale. The other, by a graduate student in neurology, Sam Harris, was an exercise in immorality so profound I still wonder how anyone took him seriously. Yet, both based their arguments, in part, on the superiority of science. Superior in what way? Why, the same answer small-minded folk have been saying for half a millennia - it's better because it talks about how neat the world really is! Except, of course, that's what science is supposed to do; it describes the world and how cool it is. Which has always left me wondering - so what?

St. Paul describes those who worship idols as worshipers of "weak and worthless elementary principles of the world". What a nice retort. With the exception of gravity, which people still don't really understand, the other elemental forces - the EM force, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force - really are quite weak and worthless. Those contemporary pagans who insist we need look no further than the sub-atomic particle or the nearest event-horizon for wonder and meaning are really no different from those who abased themselves before the anthropomorphized elementary powers of the ancients. Whether one calls them "quantum states" or "Zeus", my won reaction to either one is - big deal. This isn't what I consider "religious" anyway, which is kind of Paul's point here.

Indeed, Paul brings out a point that is important, a difference between the God who whom Jesus called "Father" and all those statues that used to sit in temples and now sit in museums - this God knows our names and calls us by name. Those who see something of more than passing interest in General Relativity are missing the point in a couple ways. First, while it is certainly revolutionary and important, it has little to do with how we human beings should live our lives, or organize our societies. There is nothing of "love" in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The spin of an elementary particle does not call us by name.

Now, one can say, "All this nonsense about being called, prove it." First of all, it isn't something one proves the same way one proves, say, that gravity decreases in a ration the inverse square of the distance between two particles. It is, rather, something one discovers for oneself over time, in faith.

It is a category mistake to consider the "starry heavens above", to quote Immanuel Kant, and think there is anything "more" about them than they are big, hot balls of gas. One can certainly consider the relative unimportance of humanity in the face of all the wonders of the Universe, but even a Psalmist did this same thing, in Psalm 8, and reminded hearers that even with all the wonders of creation, we are still a little less than the angels.

The crucial difference between a Christian and someone who thinks there is something sublime and profound in the contemplation of elementary eigen-states is that the latter does not know us or call us by name. The former is the author of the latter and, yet, does indeed call us by name.

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