Friday, September 23, 2011

Science Fictions

Here is something I wish I had said.

“Science Fictions” first appeared in the September/October 2009issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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Marilyn Prever on a Random Quantum Fluctuation
Most people really want to know where we came from. We have evidence. We no longer have to rely on stories we were told when we were young.—Alan H. Guth, Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics, MIT
Many modern physicists claim that things—perhaps even the entire universe—can indeed arise from nothing via natural processes.—Mark Vuletic, National Center for Science Education
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.—H. L. Mencken
So call me a fundamentalist. In my opinion, “a random quantum fluctuation” is not an adequate substitute for God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Not even if it’s followed by the mother of all explosions. I feel that it’s time somebody put a stop to this nonsense, but I don’t quite know what to do about it. The old radio comedy team Bob & Ray used to interrupt their program with bulletins from the Office of Fluctuation Control. That’s the kind of thing we need—someone with real authority, to get things under control.

If you think I’m just being silly, you’re not up on the latest speculations of astrophysics . . . or rather, of astrophysicists (keep that distinction in mind, please). One of the most popular candidates for a “natural process” that may account for “the entire universe” is a random quantum fluctuation, which has the advantage of being virtually nothing at all, and acting upon a new kind of nothingness, a vacuum that somehow has a structure. The idea is that nobody has to pipe up and ask, “But Professor, where did the quantum fluctuation come from?”

You don’t have to account for it, this nothing that can turn into a universe; it’s just there, like the cosmic ocean, or Yggdrasil the World Ash Tree, or whatever is already just there in those charming Babylonian-type creation myths—and very much unlike the unique simplicity of Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.”

These same cosmologists have by the almighty power of their cleverness called into being, ad hoc and ex nihilo,an infinite (or at least respectably large) number of parallel universes whose sole purpose is to assure us earthlings that the heavens and the earth and all the host thereof were not “very good” but just fair to middlin’—a mediocre, unexceptional universe, given enough throws of the dice. How convenient: Presto chango, out the window go the Anthropic Principle and Fred Hoyle’s tornado-in-a-junkyard-producing-a-Boeing-707 challenge. What a relief! And you thought real science had to be falsifiable.

The Right Authorities
But who am I to make fun of scientists? What do I know? Am I an astrophysicist? Am I a mathematician? Shouldn’t we laymen practice some humility, and trust the experts who understand these things? Am I so ungrateful as not to appreciate what modern science has wrought, from medical advances to computers to the space program? You know how it is: You question a scientific theory and right away someone says, “Would you like to live in the Middle Ages? With no antibiotics? No anesthetics?” Q.E.D.

am grateful, not only for the antibiotics but for pure science, too—the sheer beauty of it, the truth for truth’s sake, or for the glory of God if you like. Only let the cobbler stick to his last. If a mathematician explains calculus to me, I will listen with respect and humility, but if he wants to repair my refrigerator, I will not hire him no matter how good a mathematician he is. And neither will I allow him to be my authority on the origin of Everything, or to explain why I should or should not get up in the morning, given a world where everyone eventually dies and rots.

For answers to these questions I consult different authorities, beginning with philosophers and theologians and going on to saints and mystics, poets and musicians—and not excluding “stories we were told when we were young.” There is knowledge and there is knowledge, and then there is wisdom, and not all of it leaves traces in cloud chambers.

When a scientist sneaks into somebody else’s area of expertise and pretends his findings have some special authority just because he’s a scientist, that’s not science but scientism. Scientism is bogus science; it’s somebody’s philosophical opinions masquerading as empirically proven facts.

Pure-Hearted & Humble
Einstein was a great theoretical physicist and mathematician, but he wasn’t much of a theologian, and he didn’t pretend to be, beyond his endearing habit of calling God “the Old One” and his conviction that God “doesn’t play dice” with creation. I recently heard a story about him; I can’t vouch for its authenticity but it sounds like him. A Jesuit priest found himself in the neighborhood where Dr. Einstein was working, and, with a “What can I lose?” attitude, he went in and asked the secretary if he could see the great scientist. He was persistent and she finally called upstairs to tell Einstein he had a visitor. “Who is it?” he asked. “A Catholic priest!” she said.

To everyone’s surprise, he said, “Send him up.” It turned out he had always been intellectually intrigued by the Catholic idea of transubstantiation, and he asked the priest whether he knew of a book he could read about it. The priest gave him a title and Einstein said he would get a copy and read it.

I don’t know if anything ever came of it, or even if it really happened, but I like the story because it illustrates something I very much hope is true: that the greatest scientists are not the kind of narrow-minded, self-important debunkers who spend more time in front of the camera than in their laboratories. The same childlike, self-forgetful quality that makes true scientists so curious about how the world works may overflow into wider realms. They’re teachable—which is another word for humble.

Science can be a pathway to God, if pursued with a pure heart and not out of lust for the Nobel Prize. Pierre and Marie Curie are a prime example of science practiced as a vocation. Devout Catholics, they refused to patent any of their discoveries because they wanted them used freely for the benefit of mankind. The widowed Marie struggled to provide for her children and at one point couldn’t afford the radium she needed for further research.

The Lowest Level
I admit I have no idea what a quantum fluctuation actually is, even after reading dozens of books and articles attempting to explain modern physics to non-scientists—but I do know reductionism when I see it. Reductionism is “nothing-but-ism,” as when you say love is nothing but lust, thought is nothing but electro-chemical brain reactions (except, of course, the reductionist’s own thoughts, which are magically exempt), a human being is nothing but an animal, and the paragraph I’m writing is nothing but a pattern of ink marks on paper. (Sorry to disillusion you if you had a romantic notion that it contained some dreamy metaphysical substance called “meaning.” You must be one of those religious fanatics.) In short, it’s taking a many-leveled reality and reducing it to the lowest level.

Reductionism is a common form of scientism: It’s a dogma disguised as science. Dogma is a fine thing in its proper place, which is revealed religion. Once you accept a statement as a revealed dogma, you don’t question it; you build on it. If you stop believing in the dogma, you abandon the religion. There is not supposed to be any dogma in science: something that cannot be questioned. No scientific idea should have the absolute authority that revelation has in religion.

The old Ptolemaic cosmology, taken literally, turned out to have some bugs in it, granted—but as a symbol, it expressed something that’s not outdated and has not been disproved: the belief that the material world studied by science is the lowest level of being, symbolized by the earth at the center (lowest place) of the universe. Around and above it are tiers upon tiers of higher orders. Science studies the lowest level of reality. If a scientist believes that’s all there is—if he’s a materialist—he’s welcome to his belief, but he has no right to call it science; it’s a philosophical position.

When ProfessorXfrom MIT, with a string of letters after his name, holds a press conference and solemnly assures us that Science has proven that human beings evolved, body and soul, from animals, that we can know with near certainty what happened in the first six seconds of the life of the universe, that the study of chimpanzees can tell us everything we need to know about human social life, that Mother Teresa can be explained in terms of selfish genes, and, above all, that God does not exist because we can, or very soon will be able to, explain everything without him, ProfessorXis cheating. He’s taking the respect we legitimately accord him for his scientific credentials and applying it illegitimately to things he knows no more about than his lay audience. He’s playing a shell game, and if anybody catches him at it, he gets very angry and looks into their religious affiliation.

Varieties of Wishful Thinking
I don’t want to descend to the ad hominem level, but I do wonder about a certain double standard in these public controversies. Fair is fair: Why is it that the atheists are allowed to freely accuse believers of cowardice and wishful thinking—of not having the guts to face the hard truth—when we believers don’t dare suggest, even ever so delicately, that when someone prefers this non-personal “fluctuation” to the God of Abraham and Moses, there may be something at work besides heroic honesty. After all, belief in a personal God is liable to cost the worshipers something in the way of interference with their sex lives, their reputations, or even their chances of tenure. There are all kinds of wishful thinking.

But even if all the atheists have hearts as pure as the driven snow and all believers are the crabbed, bigoted, fearful yahoos the atheists would like to think they are, I still insist that this updated form of atheism is a perverse and ignoble idea, and answering it does not require a Ph.D. in astrophysics. We only need to ask what kind of hard evidence could possibly be brought forth to prove it, considering that the whole idea of proof depends on the reliability of the human mind—which must be pretty much zilch if that mind is nothing but the effect of random and meaningless processes. And that is something that even a layman can understand.

Whatever a random quantum fluctuation may be, to pretend that it (or similar theories) can explain the whole universe is scientism with a vengeance. To say that there was something that was virtually nothing, and that it somehow had a trick of flickering into true something, randomly and without any reason or purpose, and the next thing you know it just naturally, over a span of time, turned into chickens and giraffes and giant squids and Major League Baseball and the New York Stock Exchange—excuse me, I’m not buying it. I will not bow down and worship this thing even if I hear the sound of the “horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, and bagpipe” (Dan. 3:5).

They may be playing it on new instruments, but it’s the same old song. •

Marilyn Prever ( is a retired homeschool teacher, mother and grandmother of a large family, whose articles have appeared inHomiletic & Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, Second Spring,and other publications. She lives in Claremont, New Hampshire, with her family, and they worship at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

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John Dixon said...

One takes for granted there are no atheists in heaven, I postulate there are no atheists in hell.

Colin Chattan said...

Science is a wonderful, fascinating area of thought and inquiry. Even so, however, because true science is confined to the material realm, i.e. to the natures, relationships, and processes of matter and energy (and, of course, our apprehension and understanding of the words "matter" and "energy" and the concepts we associate with them, like all our apprehensions and understandings, are entirely relative and limited; everything is, to the finite human mind, ultimately a mystery), it can be, at best only a third order province of thought and knowledge. It cannot deal with or reveal meaning and qualitative value, or ethics or anything dependent on them. So, for example, the Nazi scientist who carefully observed, analyzed, and recorded the physiological effects of withdrawing air from chambers in which Jewish prisoners had been confined were, so long as they complied with scientific methodology, practising just as "good" science as researchers methodically developing and testing new drugs to combat cancer and disease. If one accepts that there are extra-material or metaphysical dimensions to reality, and subordinates the study of the material realm to them, then science can serve as a most useful, enlightening, and fulfilling area of inquiry and endeavour. If, however, one refuses to admit anything beyond the material, then science can do nothing to dispel the grim, nihilistic conclusion reached by MacBeth about human life (and, by extension, reality in general as apprehended by human beings):
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound an fury,
Signifying nothing."