I Ponder the Mystery of Physics… And Physicists


As a species, physicists baffle me. To my meager understanding, Physics - the study of matter, energy and the relationship between them - is the most fundamental of the natural sciences. Physics elucidates the properties of matter at level of the most basic structural units, and therefore, must necessarily underlie our understanding of the other branches of the natural sciences, namely, chemistry and biology. Therefore, I have always assumed - perhaps naïvely - the physicists' understanding of the natural world is firmly rooted in empiricism, in critical analysis of observed data - in other words, in the conscientious application of the Scientific Method.

And there are ample examples of brilliant physicists who embody that notion - who look at the universe and perceive the beauty therein, from the smallest of particles to the largest of planetary bodies, from intra-particular energy transfer to grand cosmological phenomena - all following certain rules, the various Laws of Physics, which are mathematically deductible and empirically verifiable: Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and amongst the still-living, Michio Kaku, Lawrence Krauss, Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Athene Donald, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Sean Carroll - just to randomly name a few (in no particular order). Following is a video of a relatively recent speech by Sean Carroll, in which he took the audience through an amazing journey - explaining the status of our current understanding of the universe.

And then I come across this: a Guardian essay by Jeff Forshaw, a particle physicist at the University of Manchester, titled Science and religion are united in a shared sense of wonder. And I thought, "Um... No."

Professor Forshaw wrote:

As a scientist, I like to feel as if I am exploring a cosmic mystery of the greatest significance. I am awestruck by the beauty that saturates the laws of physics and suppose that what I am doing is rather more than merely helping to solve an elaborate crossword puzzle.

Science, in its main iterations, is undoubtedly beautiful, and Physics is no exception. Physics underlies harmony, symmetry, color, music, élan vital; almost any aspect of the physical universe that creates any emotional response depends on Physics. I, therefore, found it difficult to comprehend why Professor Forshaw would reduce his work (which is undoubtedly impressive, even to my modest understanding) and its importance to 'solving a crossword puzzle' at all? Why even this odd comparison?

The event drew together particle physicists, cosmologists, theologians and philosophers in the name of dialogue and mutual understanding.

I really hope he realizes in his mind that two of these are absolutely not like the other two. It is somewhat like gathering together oncologists, geneticists, homeopaths and chiropractors for a discussion on oncogenes and tumorigenesis.

A major reason for the popularity of fundamental physics is that it is seen to tackle some pretty "deep" questions – the kinds of questions that really "mean" something – and the quest for meaning is not something best left to scientists.

I have a major problem with this statement. Let me put in a parallel statement: A major reason for the popularity of fundamental physics homeopathy is that it is seen to tackle some pretty "deep" questions kinds of diseases – the kinds of questions diseases that really "mean" something requires treatment – and the quest for meaning treatment is not something best left to scientists. Do I have to make more clear the problem of approaching this issue from the 'popularity' angle? I hope not!

Fundamental Physics isn't about tackling 'deep questions'; rather, it provides information about matter and energy and interactions thereof, and because branches of Physics describing such interactions at the smallest (level of fundamental particles) and largest (level of planetary bodies) levels are both beyond the understanding (or even imagination) of the uninitiated common man, terminology from fundamental Physics has been co-opted by purveyors of pseudoscientific nonsense to pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible. Nothing conveys a sense of authority more than some science-y sounding words. I am sure Professor Forshaw must be aware of how 'Quantum Mechanics' or 'Quantum Physics' has become a buzzword amongst all manners of quacks and charlatans.

And why exactly should the 'quest for meaning' (whatever that means) not be left to the scientists? This is a patent insult to all scientists, including himself. A scientist seeks 'meaning' (or, the Truth™) by approaching and learning about various phenomena through the application of a rigorous set of rules designed to make the understanding as accurate as possible. Why would that be any less 'deep' or less relevant than any ill-conceived, illogical, evidence-challenged - and often self-contradictory - mumbo-jumbo mouthed by some theologian or philosopher engaged in profound omphaloskepsis?

I think it makes sense to ensure that the theologians are up to speed with the science, but I also think that scientists benefit from contemplating the wider implications of their discoveries.

If a theologian is up to speed with science, more power to them. I don't think it is possible, at least not without suffering a massive cognitive dissonance. At worst, we get a hodgepodge bastardization of science, a kind of science-y term infused religion, a.k.a. intelligent design. A theologian, in every thought, must of necessity look for a supernatural agency, a pattern of thought which is fundamentally incompatible with the methodological naturalism of science. The comparison which Professor Forshaw seems to make using the sentence structure 'but... also...' is a strawman. Of course the scientists contemplate the wider implications of their discoveries; it is often essential to consider the bigger picture in the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, this consideration is what informs the rationality and ethics of science.

By overstating science's power and not acknowledging its limitations, we risk fostering the growth of a religion-substitute, with the scientists as high priests. Such hubris not only irritates people, but more significantly it risks promoting the misconception that science deals with certainty – and that is the very antithesis of good science.

This is a non-argument of the strawman-type drawn straight from the playbooks of the science-averse, or downright anti-science, religious fundamentalists. Show me a working scientist, true to his/her profession, who is not aware of the limitations of science. Show me a good scientist who considers that science deals with 'certainty'. Professor Forshaw knows, as well as I do, that the application of the Scientific Method demands that a generated hypothesis be falsifiable, in order to be valid, demonstrating the inherent uncertainty in science. And that is how Science progresses.

Now contrast that with religion. Who claims with absolute certainty that the way the universe was formed is described in the creation myths of Scriptures? Who claims that Scriptures hold the absolute truth being the literal words of a Creator, because the Scriptures say so? Who claims supernatural agency - when it's convenient - behind every observable phenomenon with absolute certainty without a shred of evidence? Let me give you a hint: It's not science or scientists who do that.

For most people, the deep questions of science do not shape their lives.

You know what, Professor Forshaw? Plenty of questions of science have shaped people's lives, and science continues to touch those lives every single day in innumerable ways. Even without being dragged into esoteric 'questions' that are beyond the realm of science, because they deal with intangibles - often non-existent, nebulous, inchoate. Are you sure that these intangibles are what troubles the minds of 'most people' in the world? Not poverty, not economy, not livelihood, not health-care, not religion-inspired violence, not scandal-ridden religious institutions, not opulent and immoral religious leaders?

...science does not touch on whether the universe has any point to it and it cannot even hope to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing... Awestruck as I am by the laws of physics, no amount of wishful thinking can allow me to make the mistake of supposing that a law by itself can ever create anything. In addition to being unable to conjure up material existence, the laws of physics cannot create meaning either.

You put too much stock in meaning, Professor Forshaw. What exactly is 'meaning'? You may claim to find meaning in religion, that is your prerogative. As a scientist, I find meaning in evidence, in the kind of ethical honesty that science provides, in knowledge gained painstakingly through scientific research, and in the confidence that claims in science are always critically evaluated and driven by evidence. And law 'by itself' not creating anything? Boy, that has got to be embarrassing for a top-notch physicist! It's not the job of a physical law to 'create' anything. Wait... Who are you, and what have you done with Professor Jeff Forshaw?

...scientists do often act with what seems to me to be something like faith: a faith in scientific truths perhaps or in the humbling significance of nature's beauty. Perhaps "faith" is too strong – enthusiastic optimism might be better. Whatever the case, the importance of science lies not only in fighting ignorance and the building of better theories – it is important too because of the way it inspires glory and wonder. In that regard, at least, science and religion are united.

Will you make up your mind, please? Is science faith or is it not? I submit, not faith. Unlike faith/religion, science doesn't claim to have all the answers, but it is a process towards discovery. It doesn't employ vacuous, meaningless platitudes or assertions; science embraces intellectual rigor and integrity, asking hard and difficult questions, and providing evidence and reason to bolster its assumptions. Science welcomes challenges - unlike religion - for it is through the resolution of those challenges that knowledge advances. In addition, biology, the science of life and living processes, has to contend with ethical and social concerns, which it attempts to deal with - as befits a scientific discipline - with the support of empirical evidence and reason. It isn't a wonder that - as you acknowledge - science inspires glory and wonder.

Now consider the contrast. Glory and wonder in Religion? Exactly 'as prescribed' and not a drop more. With its strict adherence to faith and emphasis on blind, unquestioning belief, religion is an intellectual morass. In the major monotheistic religions of the world, the Scriptures - considered divine inscriptions by the devout - cannot resolve their own internal contradictions and inconsistencies; how on earth does religion claim to provide answers to humanity's moral and intellectual quandaries?


Postscripts:

  • While looking up sources for this essay, I came across the names of several women physicists, whom I had never heard of, with seminal contributions to Physics. I wanted to record those names for the sake of posterity - perhaps also to make a post on women physicists in future. Find the list of 86 such amazing women at the "Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics" (CWP) Project of the UCLA. Most of these women have corresponding entries in Wikipedia with more information (just a word, Wikipedia is amazing!).
  • Another list of eight amazing scientists from an old post by FreeThought-Blogger Greta Christina.

5 Responses to “I Ponder the Mystery of Physics… And Physicists”

  1. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    Thank you, Ophelia. I had a "D'oh!" moment. A possible Templeton connection should have occurred to me, but it didn't - and I didn't look for it. Thanks also for the link to Prof. Coyne's post.
    EDIT: to correct embarrassing typo.

  2. Lee Turnpenny Reply | Permalink

    Forshaw is buddy and collaborator to Brian Cox (though I'm not implying that Cox endorses this line).
    I too read the article, and rolled my eyes, wondering at the pointlessness of it; confused as to whether he advocates the separation of 'ways of knowing', or takes the apologetic line of embracing scientific knowledge as evidence for religious beliefs/opinions (when it can fit). But you're right: this sort of stuff is manna to proponents of quackery.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      I know, Lee, about the partnership between Forshaw and Brian Cox. And just to be clear, I don't begrudge Forshaw his opinions - such as they are; he is entitled to them. I guess I am just surprised (although I probably shouldn't be, after all these years) that a physicist of his stature is engaging in such embarrassing faff.

Leave a Reply


three × 1 =