Science as Religion

I was criticized a week or so ago for never posting anything. In response is this rambling collection of thoughts based on a topic that’s come up between me and the criticizer a number of times.

I consider myself a “practical atheist”. The Oxford American Dictionary that comes with Mac OS X defines “practical” as “of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas” (among other definitions). This is what I mean by “practical atheist” — I’ll admit that (a) God may exist, but that for real life, my life, this is pretty much irrelevant. (This is a little awkward since some of my friends are very Christian, and I pretty much stated one of the main *theist problems with the world. (That star is a wildcard, BTW.)) I already live my life in what I consider to be a moral way (another great problem), and many of the non-moral rules of religion (and even a few of the rules classified as “moral”) seem arbitrary to me.

“OK,” says my friend, “but you believe in Science.”

Not just science, but Science. And he’s right, in a way. The book Flatterland has a great quote, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be online, but it’s something like this…

“…They have a very fundamentalist attitude (they use that word a lot, ‘fundamental’) about the whole thing. In fact, the Planiturthian search for the One Final Theory is a lot like the search for the One True God, though they wouldn’t like that comparison at all

Haha. Physicists (and others) have been looking for a Theory of Everything for…well, quite a while now, and it feels like we’re getting closer. Or maybe not. But there are ideas going into it, and we’re actually seeing potential uses that once would have seemed totally ridiculous. OK, some of them still seem totally ridiculous, except they could work. (Sorry…computing is the most plausible/useful ongoing invention these days. Relativity hasn’t done much for us lately.)

In order to accept what’s going on here, you have to believe, however, that until a system is “observed”, it’s in multiple states at once. As in, a single photon fired from an emitter doesn’t just go through one slit in the famous double-slit experiment. It goes through both slits. And it does so in waves, sort of. (The original double-slit experiment, the one performed even in Physics H. at CHS, shows that light is behaves like a wave and is still pretty darn cool.)

You have to believe that the universe is expanding (or that the speed of light is decreasing, which would give almost the same properties really), and that this does not mean that we are moving farther from the center any more than we are moving closer to the edge. The usual analogy is that galaxies are drawn on the surface of a balloon, which is the universe. The balloon is inflated, expanding space and placing the galaxies farther apart. Of course, as my friend was quick to point out, that would expand the matter in the galaxies as well…the atoms in our bodies spreading farther apart. To which I had no answer. (Perhaps the expansion only occurs in areas without influence of the nuclear forces, i.e. little or no atoms?)

You have to believe in the elementary particles, of which there are several. (I personally had my info wrong/outdated on this…I need another nice quantum physics book to catch up.) These make up all matter and include a few massless particles and a few theoretical particles, like the infamous graviton (the particle that carries the force of gravity, like a photon (not an electron!) carries electromagnetism). Obviously these things are very hard to detect.

And therein lies the crux of the matter. We can’t directly observe any of this. In addition, it’s separated from me by several media: the articles I read, which draw (hopefully) from the scientists in the field, who are interpreting their (or worse, someone else’s) results as best they think they can. And not always as rigorously as it should be. It’s almost (but not quite) as bad as fad dieting: “What? That theory doesn’t hold up under the extreme conditions this other theory says would have happened in the birth of a star? Throw it out!” And consistency really is important; it’s sort of the whole purpose of science.

Another common claim is that Gell-Mann did not actually believe that quarks were real physical entities. “That is baloney,” he says. “I have explained so many times that I believed from the beginning that quarks were confined inside objects like neutrons and protons, and in my early papers on quarks I described how they could be confined either by an infinite mass and infinite binding energy, or by a potential rising to infinity, which is what we believe today to be correct. Unfortunately, I referred to confined quarks as ‘fictitious’, meaning that they could not emerge to be utilized for applications such as catalysing nuclear fusion.” Gell-Mann says that he “did not want to get into debates with philosophers over whether particles that cannot emerge singly can be regarded as real”.

The many worlds of Murray Gell-Mann -…again via Wikipedia

So we can’t see a single quark, not really. But we can’t really see a lot of things. Our eyes can’t even see a picture flashing on a screen for only a 60th of a second. Does that mean the picture doesn’t exist? Does that mean quarks do exist? Remember, even the atom (a + tom, indivisible) was once thought to be an “elementary particle”.

OK, time for something conclusive. The answer is, sure, maybe quarks don’t exist the way we’re describing them. The catch is, so what? Scientists have been willing to throw away the pointlike nature of “the” elementary particles for quite a while now in their theory of everything anyway. If a theory describes how the universe works, it’s good.

A scientific theory, simply put, is a model that describes the behavior of the universe (multiverse?). A good model is able to make predictions that then hold up in nature.

A better model makes more detailed predictions, or ones that more closely match nature.

That’s why science changes so much, and why ten or twenty years ago a quark was a point but now it’s very likely a one-dimensional “string” (probably looks more like a loop, since it has no “ends”) that we view as a particle, based on its vibration. But there are several other theories out there as well.

Why do I put my faith in Science-as-religion? Because it makes predictions about the world, ones that are theoretically testable and ones that hopefully have implications for the real world. (Dmitri Mendeleev, a name you may remember from Chem, used his model of element periodicity to predict the existance of an element he called “ekasilicon”. Years later the element (germanium) was in fact confirmed to exist. Good theory.) Because it’s peer reviewed, hopefully. Because I know, really, that when I say this model is true, I really mean that it is the closest mirror of nature we have. I forget this sometimes, but it’s true.

And yes, a statement like “God causes lightning” does describe nature, and could even be said to be making predictions (displeasing God results in thunderstorms). That could have been a valid theory at one time now, but the one we have more closely mirrors real life. (Although I don’t know by how much. Meteorology is still an awfully imprecise branch of science.)

A statement like “OK, God created the elementary particles and the interactions between them,” however…

That’s fine. It’s not testable, it’s not provable, and it doesn’t really have implications for the real world. But it’s certainly possible. It just…doesn’t really have a bearing on the real world. “So what?”

Especially because if we ever find a situation where the answer really is “God did it”, science has failed. Physics, at least, is a study of causality, which unfortunately means that an explanation that the universe began from something sent back in time is more “plausible” than a spontaneous creation theory. The Big Bang is safe for the moment because we have no way to examine it besides the microwave “picture” and the evidence of expansion, but yes, that’s just a theory too, almost a sketch, because although it’s a lot more specific than most creation stories, it still doesn’t go all the way back. (Personally I would guess the universe will crunch in on itself and repeat…it’s tidy that way. Finite time.)

My faith is in science because even though I accept arbitrary things, the “scientific community” as a whole doesn’t, unless they’re something arbitrary observed in nature. (It would take an awful lot to convince someone that because we don’t see a reason for the mass of a proton, it could just as well have been something else. Sort of an anthropic principle problem.) In the end it may be no better than a religion in terms of mentality. But it describes the real world. With reproducible results. And that makes it more true than religion to me.

I’m going to close with one last quote, a comment on a Slashdot article.

Personally, I would find it much less insulting as a deity if people realized I was an absolutely incredible systems programmer able to start a ball rolling with some precursor components and have all of earths current life unfold from them as planned. It would kind of belittle the effort to say He just snapped his fingers. Adambomb

Build the universe on a few rules and maybe a few elementary particles. A project that needs a lot of intervention is…well, maybe not a failure, but certainly could be better. “Oh no, a special case!”

As a reward for finishing the long rambling post (or just scrolling to the bottom), download yourself a copy of John Conway’s Game of Life.