Monday, May 10, 2010

Mythology and religion

New Scientist: The imperfect universe: Goodbye, theory of everything

But are we really getting any closer? Do we dare ask whether the search is fundamentally misguided? Could belief in a physical theory that unifies the secrets of the material world - a "hidden code" of nature - be the scientific equivalent of the religious belief in oneness held by the billions who go to churches, mosques and synagogues every day?

Even before what we now call physics existed, ancient Greek philosophers pondered whether the diversity of nature could radiate from a single source, a primal substance. Thales, regarded by Aristotle as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, proposed that everything was made of water, a substance he believed represented nature's dynamic essence. Later, Pythagoras and his followers believed that nature was a mathematical puzzle, constructed through ratios and patterns that combine integers, and that geometry was the key to deciphering it.

The idea of mathematics as a fundamental gateway to nature's secrets re-emerged during the late Renaissance. Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton made it clear that the mathematical description of nature succeeds only through the painstaking application of the scientific method, where hypotheses are tested by experiments and observations and then accepted or rejected. Physics became the science of the "how", leaving the "why" for philosophy and religion. When Newton was asked why matter attracts matter with a strength that weakens with the square of the distance, he answered that he "feigned no hypotheses"; it was enough to provide a quantitative description of the phenomenon.

That, however, is only half the story. To Newton, God was the supreme mathematician and the mathematical laws of nature were Creation's blueprint. As science advanced, the notion that god interfered explicitly with natural phenomena faded away, but not the idea that nature's hidden code lay in an all-encompassing mathematical theory. Einstein's "God" was far removed from Newton's, as he famously said: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists." His search for a unified field theory was very much a search for the essence of this natural god.

I agree that many of the assumptions made by physics and other sciences are hangovers from religious discourse. For example, the idea that the universe has laws seems to be a hangover from the idea of a Lawgiver (i.e. God).

But the passage quoted above runs together some very different theological concepts. The "oneness" allegedly espoused by "the billions who go to churches, mosques and synagogues" is very different depending on which of those billions you ask. Many members of the Abrahamic traditions believe that God is the ground of all being and not literally a person.  Christians are usually Trinitarians (that's a very different idea of "oneness", and interpretations of the Trinity vary wildly, even among people who are supposed to subscribe to the same doctrine on it). And neither Muslims nor Jews nor Unitarians believe in the Trinity. 

The idea of the single source of all existence is a neoPlatonic concept, again very different from Abrahamic ideas of God, both then and now. And Spinoza was a pantheist (though the article does point out that his idea of God was different from that of Newton).

The tweet alerting readers to the posting of the article said:

The quest for a "theory of everything" is driven by the same urges as religion - so we should stop

... implying that if religion does it, it must be wrong for scientists to do it (or am I being paranoid?)

My response was:

please don't lump all religion together - not all practitioners of religion believe literally in their mythology

followed by this:

do you have any scientific evidence for the urges that drive what you refer to as "religion"? #SoBoredOfLiteralMindedPeople

Anyway, the article is really interesting, and the author seems to know a bit more about theology than the sort of people who usually write these things; and I appreciate that it's difficult to be subtle in a tweet. But I'm fed up with the way some scientific commentators persist in lumping all practitioners of religion in one box, marked IRRATIONAL, DO NOT OPEN.

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