Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bucking the Established Paradigm

In his book Pragmatism, William James recounts a discussion he and his friends had concerning a squirrel on the trunk of a tree: Suppose it were to move from the north face counter-clockwise to the west, then the south, then the east, and then back to the north.  The question they debated (half-fun and in full earnest, I gather): Does the squirrel go around the tree or the tree go around the squirrel?

James answered:  Both answers are correct; it just depends on what you consider the fixed point to be … an answer of which I’m sure Albert Einstein would have approved.

This story popped into my mind when I received an e-mail from Stacy Trasancos concerning the Galileo Was Wrong conference.  As an honest-to-goodness, Ph.D.-and-all scientist who has actually worked in the field, Stacy is more qualified to evaluate the group’s claims than is a guy who’s still trying to pay off the BA in sociology he didn’t get.  (Story for another time.)  Granting that her doctorate is in chemistry, she’s still better prepped than I am: physics isn’t irrelevant to chemistry, after all.

So I gotta give Stacy props for at least considering the GWW’s claims in public.  She’s already demonstrated her courage under threat of physical violence; now she has the courage to risk being marginalized as a tin-foil-hat-wearing loon.  I say this not in detraction but in admiration; there are many scientists alive who will unthinkingly risk their lives for the sake of their children by assaulting a predator, but who won’t risk their reputation for the sake of the truth by bucking the Established Paradigm.

In a way, this is of a piece with the Established Paradigm’s “Galileo myth”, in which the poster boy for priestly obscurantism knuckles under to ecclesial knuckle-draggers, having barely the stones to mutter under his breath, “E pur si muove” (And yet it moves), as he signs the instrument of his craven surrender.  Hardly the picture of rebellious intellectual defiance!  And superhero Einstein himself scathingly remarked that the universities — so devoted to the cause of truth — remained silent in the face of Nazi tyranny (though not in the exact words attributed to him).[*]

But my object here isn’t to tar scientists with the charge of intellectual cowardice.  Rather, in discussing the matter with Stacy, it finally dawned on me how much the consensus meta-narrative of Science — its mythos, to use a technically precise term — subtly influences the interpretation of data.

Key to understanding this point is to realize that facts don’t “speak for themselves”.  Rather, they must be fit into an explanatory model or schematic before they become useful, before they can shed light on why grass is green or why pigs don’t have wings or why people suffer from hunger and malnutrition when we produce far more food than is necessary for everyone to eat three full meals a day.  Those explanatory models, in turn, are driven by larger theories which themselves are subject to particular theories of the universe that aren’t empirically derived but rather precede empirical investigation.

Some people consider Science to be agnostic, in the sense that it neither posits a God nor demands His absence — Science, in essence, exists to explain How It All Works and not Why It All Exists.  And, indeed, if we look at the history of the philosophy of science aright, we know that St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics were the first to argue that searching this knowledge out was a proper use of human reason because the facts of the universe could not fundamentally contradict God’s revelation.  (Whether it has contradicted God’s revelation has been debated ad nauseam.)

However, beginning with Baruch Spinoza and David Hume, scientists and philosophers began to see Science’s charter as not just explaining the mechanics of God’s creation but explaining them in such a way that God as Necessary Being was no longer needed, a fundamental irrelevancy that could be excised from the picture via the Law of Parsimony (Occam’s Razor).  Not only was God to be pushed off the cosmological stage as an Actor, He was no longer even to be given credit as Author of the play.

Religious people, even clerics, have made and continue to make important contributions to the development of science, from Nicholas Copernicus to Fr. Georges Lemaitre.  However, more and more the disciplines have come to be dominated by the Established Paradigm:  no God, no material level to the universe, no miracles, the Earth and all on it exists by chance.  Faith is irrational; science and religion are at war with one another; science can’t be pursued in the presence of priests; Christians can’t be trusted to “do” objective science.

However, as atheist physicist Leonard Krauss explains in “The Energy of Empty Space that Isn’t Zero”, recent experiments are completing and verifying current working models but no longer pointing to further answers.  “It’s been very frustrating for particle physicists, and some people might say it’s led to sensory deprivation, which has resulted in hallucination otherwise known as string theory.”  Moreover, by the terms of conventional theoretical physics, empty space should not have energy … and yet it does.  Even more strangely,

... [When] you look at [the cosmic microwave background] map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun.  Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us?  That’s crazy. We’re looking out at the whole universe. There’s no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun — the plane of the earth around the sun — the ecliptic. That would say we are truly the center of the universe.

Krauss is dismissive of string theory because it’s incapable of making predictions that can be falsified; to his view, it bookends intelligent design.  And this is what gives us the key to understanding what string theory really is.

In Harper Magazine’sThe accidental universe: Science’s crisis of faith,” physicist/novelist Alan Lightman quotes Steven Weinberg as saying, “The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion.”  But if, as both Lightman and Krauss contend, string theory can’t yield falsifiable predictions, and to make it work physicists must believe in things they  won’t be able to prove empirically for some time, then it’s precisely what intelligent design purports to be — a meta-narrative (albeit one created with mathematical symbols).

Or, to put it in precise, technical terms, a creation myth.  To take the implication of falsehood off of it, you can call it an “interpretive framework”.  Nevertheless, it remains a story about our universe that proposes an answer to Why It All Exists, which is precisely what a religious mythos does.

Back to Einstein, who wrote in his obituary for Ernst Mach:

Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as “necessities of thought,” “a priori givens,” etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors. Therefore it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analyzing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend, and how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience. Thus their excessive authority will be broken. (Source: Wikiquote)

It’s not part of my argument to say the Galileo Was Wrong crowd is right.  Christianity — Catholicism in particular — doesn’t depend on Earth being the center of the universe (whether flat or round), or the direct creation of Homo sapiens after six twenty-four-hour days, or Earth being the only planet bearing a creature capable of reason.  At any time, experiments could suddenly reveal something that turns the physics world upside-down … or they could just continue to add to the current models without striking any new fact.

However, as I argued on my very first post, the atheist meta-narrative inherently “closes off avenues of investigation merely because those avenues might lead towards an unwanted answer.”  Even if the geocentric universe isn’t the answer needed to shake up the physics world and produce testable predictions, it may very well be that the physical sciences have reached an impasse precisely because of various scientists’ determination to exclude an intelligent Designer.  The Established Paradigm has been given excessive authority.

So the question is: Are physicists willing to question all their assumptions in order to solve the current riddles?  Or is it more important to be an atheist than to be a scientist?

[*] Einstein, a deist and devoté of Baruch Spinoza, was critical of all religious clergy, and later disavowed the statement for its excessive praise of the Catholic Church.