Are we really post-modern after all? Actually isn’t the West incurably modernist? Isn’t post-modernism just ultra-modernism anyway? And who gives a flying rip? All these thoughts jostled for prominence as I read the first five pages of the Times this afternoon. I’ll let you guess which thought won.
Here’s what brought on this A-level philosophizing. On page 2 the Editor comments on the pundit-confounding fall in oil prices. He writes:
Wayward forecasts have been part of the human condition since at least the Oracle at Delphi. People hunger for insight into the future; numerous methods of forecasting, from the statistical to the mystical, aim to satisfy that need. The painful truth is that the only non-trivial predictions that can be made confidently lie in the natural sciences. In human society, there is no equivalent to Newton’s laws of motion and gravity.
Now I stopped doing science when my physics teacher said there were exceptions to laws he’d just spent two years beating into us. I was outraged that, having concocted and then memorized my ridiculous mnemonics, they proved to be more like helpful suggestions than laws. So I don’t know much – but something in my brain was registering puzzlement as I read this afternoon.
First, are Newton’s laws really such a bedrock of absolute certainty? Second, what does it say about a person when they opine ‘Life’s full of uncertainty, but one thing we know: F=ma’? It certainly is painful but is it really true that ‘the only non-trivial predictions that can be made confidently lie in the natural sciences’?? You can see why all those modernism / post-modernism questions were getting raised.
Well two pages after Newton was set forth as the only Rock on whom we can depend, Oxford Physics Professor, Frank Close said this:
At the beginning of the 20th century, science could explain almost all physical phenomena then known. Isaac Newton’s laws of mechanics described the heavens; the Industrial Revolution both inspired and was driven by thermodynamics; and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic waves explained light. The atomic nucleus, relativity and quantum mechanics were not yet in the lexicon, but soon would change everything.
As the 21st century begins, a similar story might be told – of far-reaching theories with tantalising implications, and of ambitious experiments with the potential for discoveries beyond our present imaginings.
So apparently everything has changed since Newton. Our Rock has gone. But don’t worry, this is a new century and this time we’ll definitely get it right. How? Well now we have the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which begins smashing particles next week. Frost’s article on the LHC was entitled: Journey back to the beginning of time is nearly complete
The article is full of this strange mixture of confident assertions and admitted bewilderment. See, for instance this:
Why are there three spatial dimensions; could there be more? If dimensions beyond our ken are revealed at the LHC this would be one of the greatest cultural shocks of all. Our theories work if everything is massless and flits around at the speed of light, yet if it were so we could not be here. How did mass emerge; what indeed is it?
We know how the seeds of normal matter emerged in the relatively cool afterglow of creation. However, it appears that “normal” matter is but 1 per cent of the whole; we are but flotsam on a sea of “dark matter”, whose existence has been inferred from theoretical cosmology but remains undetected. What that dark sea consists of, how it was formed, why there is any matter at all rather than a hellish ferment of radiation, are unknown.
Now as I said, I’m no scientist but is science really fit to answer the “why three dimensions?” question? What kind of scientific answer would it be that didn’t instantly beg more? In the first paragraph we are told that the scientists’ theories ‘work’ upon assumptions that should have rendered life impossible. In the second paragraph we are told that their theories lead us to posit a hundred times as much matter as scientists actually detect.
Well alright then! Now I can understand why such hype over LHC. This thing had better produce the goods!
I am cheered though by the optimism of those involved. The article finishes on this confident note:
“What actually took place in that long-ago dawn, only nature knows. Soon humans will too.”
I mean Close had just told us that finding the origin of the universe (time zero) was like finding ‘the end of the rainbow’ but still, you’ve got to admire the passion for scientific endeavour.
The other article on page four was just as confident. It was entitled:
It said things like:
“The mountains of data produced [by LHC] will shed light on some of the toughest questions in physics. The origin of mass, the workings of gravity, the existence of extra dimensions and the nature of the 95 per cent of the Universe that cannot be seen will all be examined. [ed: Apparently the Times Science Editor has closed the dark matter gap by another 4%. Someone should tell the professor!] Perhaps the biggest prize of all is the “God particle” – the Higgs boson. This was first proposed in 1964 by Peter Higgs, of Edinburgh University, as an explanation for why matter has mass, and can thus coalesce to form stars, planets and people. Previous atom-smashers, however, have failed to find it, but because the LHC is so much more powerful, scientists are confident that it will succeed.
I do genuinely love the enthusiasm. What a quest! Here are people convinced that they will find this dark matter (and maybe they will!), convinced they will find the ‘God particle’ (and maybe they will!). But their investment in the existence of such entities is explicitly that their world-views just don’t work without such unproved phenomena! They need these unobserved and often unobservable things to be true or else their theories fall apart.
Don’t let anyone tell you that science deals in hard fact while religion deals in blind faith. We are all in the business of ‘faith seeking understanding.’ This is how Anselm described theology in the 12th century. But I hope we can see it’s also how science works. We believe and we move forwards on the basis of those beliefs. We find confirmation as we go. But as we set out we don’t have in our grasp that which faith seeks. Instead our intial faith is grounded in the internal cogency of its object. For the scientist this object is the self-authenticating explanatory power and even elegance of the existing theoretical paradigm. For the Christian it is the self-authenticating Word of God.
None of this is to posit some false antithesis between science and religion – the very opposite. The theologian can and should do science and the scientist is already doing a kind of theology (just with a different logos - a different object of faith).
But here’s the point – both the scientist and the theologian begin from the foundation of faith. From there the faithful follower explores and articulates that faith and tests it against its object. So it is with theology, so it is with science. The proper method for both is the same.
So much so that as I read the scientific optimism for LHC I couldn’t help but think of that biblical verse:
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)
What differs is not the method. What differs is the object of faith. To put it all too simplisitically (but I think with some explanatory power!): the majority of the scientific establishment trusts in the logic of humanity. The theologian trusts in the Logos of God.
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