The trouble with science
23 September 2020
ADELAIDE - One of our species’ best inventions is the scientific method, which has enabled us to create and sustain what we call the modern world.
Importantly, science works by discovering and understanding the reality or truth about how the natural world and wider universe operates.
Sometimes, as is the case in quantum physics, science requires us to suspend disbelief because how the universe operates at the quantum level is utterly at odds with what we observe in the world around us on a daily basis.
The world revealed by quantum physics is so bizarre and counter intuitive that one of its founders, Max Planck, is said to have observed that if you were not deeply disturbed by quantum physics then you clearly had not understood it.
He also said that “anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realises that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words, ‘Ye must have faith’. It is a quality that a scientist cannot dispense with”.
These two observations by Planck draw attention to why science can be so hard for non-scientists to understand.
First, scientific concepts often are very complex and difficult to grasp, especially for minds that are not naturally able or trained to think about the world in scientific terms.
To use myself as an example, I find the world of higher mathematics utterly incomprehensible. I can add, subtract, multiply and divide with ease, and read a balance sheet readily, but differential calculus leaves me bewildered.
My brain just does not work the right way to easily grasp higher level mathematical concepts.
My guess is that I am far from alone in having this particular problem.
Second, it can be very difficult to grasp that a discipline like science, which concerns itself so deeply with matters of fact, also requires a degree of faith.
I think the primary reason for this is that the sort of faith required is not of the supernatural but rests in the ability of human ingenuity and effort to find solutions to even the most difficult scientific problems.
Most people think of faith in religious terms and so may find Planck’s assertion that faith is an essential requirement in science difficult to reconcile with its insistence on finding demonstrable proof for why and how things work.
Religious faith requires no such proof. It relies instead upon the suspension of disbelief and uncritical acceptance that certain assertions are true.
A third problem is that science can discover things that are very difficult to conceptualise or articulate in a way that seems grounded in the observable world in which we live.
A good illustration of this problem is something that has become ubiquitous in the modern world: the smart phone.
How many of us actually understand how the phone in our pocket works?
Most of us know it needs a battery and a connection to a network to allow us to communicate with others.
We also know that clever people have written computer programs that allow us to, for example, take photographs with our phone and then send them to others via things like Viber or Messenger or TikTok or similar applications (known as apps).
Beyond that, I think most of us have no idea how the machine in our hand actually works.
Worse still, attempts to explain this are virtually incomprehensible because they take us into the world of quantum physics where very strange things can and do occur.
Particles appear and disappear seemingly at random, some change their state depending on how you choose to observe them and still others are able to change state (or ‘spin’) instantly when a particle with which they are ‘entangled’ also changes state.
It is these strange things that lie at the heart of the science that allows us to create hand held computers as powerful and useful as our modern mobile phones.
The truth is that only someone deeply immersed in the study of these things has any hope of truly grasping what is going on inside our phones.
Faced with this reality, most people are content to know that their phone works and do not think about the science behind it.
Unhappily, there are some people who find it difficult to accept the science that relates to things that they either do not understand or find inconsistent with their pre-existing world view.
For example, when Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, he knew it would create uproar and dissension.
This was so because what Darwin said about how life evolves on earth directly contradicted the long held beliefs of most of the world’s major religions, especially the monotheist religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
In their view, God had created the world and everything in it and so no further explanation was required.
Also, Darwin’s theory required accepting that the world had existed for very much longer than religious thinkers had hitherto believed.
As Darwin feared, his work was greeted with outrage, anger and derision by many people. They could not accept the truth about the origins of life on earth because it conflicted with a central tenet of their faith, which insisted upon a supernatural explanation for creation.
History shows that it took a very long time indeed for the religious to find a way to reconcile their beliefs with the undeniable truth of what Darwin had discovered, although there are still those who will not accept that evolution is a reality despite all evidence to the contrary.
For those people, their faith simply cannot be reconciled with demonstrable reality and so reality must be denied.
There are many examples of this type of thinking in the world and they range from being mostly harmless through to being profoundly dangerous.
Thus racist, misogynist and xenophobic ideas persist in the world despite ample scientific evidence that they are based upon completely erroneous ideas.
In a similar way, those who insist that climate change due to human activity is unproven or simply a hoax, believe that the harms created by global scale pollution and environmental degradation of the planet either are not happening at all or are of no real consequence or can be managed without major changes to the way the world’s economy is organised.
Their faith is not religious but ideological in nature but it still blinds them to the obvious truth and, so far at least, has prevented necessary corrective action being taken. We will all suffer greatly as a consequence.
Ironically, those who find science hardest to accept may cling tenaciously to ideas that are not supported by any credible evidence at all.
Thus anti-vaccination advocates point to the supposed dangers of vaccination without any apparent regard for the observable facts about the profoundly beneficial impact this has had in eradicating what were previously very lethal diseases.
They magnify the incredibly rare complications associated with vaccination to huge proportions and either down play or ignore the risks associated with not being vaccinated.
They place their faith in the idea that the diseases which vaccination is designed to protect against are part of a ‘natural’ life experience, for which we humans have a similarly natural or inherent capacity to adapt.
This is nonsense and utterly contrary to the observable and historic reality of the human experience of communicable diseases, which has been one of enormous suffering, disability and death.
The present coronavirus pandemic is an obvious example of what happens when a communicable disease runs rampant, yet there are still many people who apparently are unwilling to even consider being vaccinated if and when a vaccine becomes available.
As a person who grew up when diseases like polio and smallpox were rampant I know that vaccination has saved countless lives, so I find the anti-vaccination movement simply incomprehensible.
I think that it is very clear that when it comes to seeking the truth about the natural world and the wider universe, far too many humans prefer to cling to unproven and unprovable faith or ideologically based ideas rather than accept any science that is inconsistent with their predetermined world view.
I think that people do this in order to protect themselves from the necessity to open their minds to ideas that might cause them to have to alter a world view in which they find comfort and certainty.
Some people will not willingly give up such ideas if they are required to live in the real world as revealed by science, in which uncertainty, ambiguity, doubt and even danger are the normal state of affairs.
Other people do not wish to be forced to contemplate the unpleasant and confronting nature of the human species as the world’s foremost predator and despoiler of the natural world.
And still others may simply be intellectually overwhelmed by the sheer complexity that science has revealed, especially as we humans seem to be programmed to seek clear and simple explanations for often extremely complex and difficult problems.
Fortunately for humanity, there are amongst us people for whom doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity are a challenge, not something to be feared.
These are the inquisitive, inventive, persistent and sometimes courageous individuals who have faith in their ability to find the truth when all others either have given up or are unwilling to make the effort required to do so.
Were it not for these people, we all would still be living in caves, enduring the nasty, brutish and short lives of our ancestors.
All this is especially relevant to Papua New Guinea because the immediate ancestors of the current generation were confronted with things that were impossibilities in their world until the very moment they appeared.
Despite that, they chose to embrace ideas, technologies and experiences that were either utterly inconsistent with their previous world view or simply had no place in it.
I vividly remember people who were living completely traditional lives happily climbing into an aircraft to fly off to the coast for work.
In doing so they placed their faith in a technology about which they had no knowledge, let alone the ability to operate. They only knew that this machine could fly because they had seen it do so and they wanted to have that experience.
They demonstrated one astoundingly useful characteristic of human beings, which is the ability to adapt to a changing world.
In the main they managed to handle their collision with scientific modernity with remarkable ease.
Very few clung with irrational stubbornness to their old ways when faced with compelling evidence that a newer and mostly better way of living was available to them.
For this all living Papua New Guineans should be grateful.
If only those of us in the so called modern world beyond PNG could be as flexible and pragmatic as they were, we might do a much better job of creating and sustaining a world based upon the precepts of the revealed scientific truth, not those of faith in the supernatural or hopelessly misguided ideologies.
Several works from the following are both worth reading:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 25 September 2020 at 01:30 PM
I think the discussion about science and religion in relation to creation and our planet has become redundant because it has been overtaken by an existential crisis that is not threatening but is actually and actively destroying our planet and everything that lives on it.
The saddest part of this situation is that we know, and have long known, what to do to reverse the situation but are blithely failing to do so. A large part of the planet has already been pronounced dead and an even larger part is known to be dying.
We were warned about this decades ago. In 1972 the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth”. It was a courageous document given that it was published when ‘growth’, ‘development’, economic expansion’ and ‘technological progress’ were mantras loudly proclaimed by everyone, including scientists and priests.
What the document said was, “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years”.
That was nearly fifty years ago, so we are halfway there already.
The contribution of science to all of those things mentioned above has been intrinsic. Science, knowingly or otherwise, has given us climate change.
This raises the obvious question of can we now trust science to help us out of this sticky mess before it is too late?
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 24 September 2020 at 09:48 AM
Bernard, I would not like my article to be interpreted as antagonistic to the arts.
I hold a BA in politics and history, not a science degree, and certainly believe that the common or garden variety Arts degree is valuable because it teaches critical thinking and reasoning.
These qualities are in surprisingly short supply partly due to the fact that the university sector (at the behest of government) is now obsessed with producing "job ready" graduates to meet economic needs.
Thus university teaching in the so called "hard" STEM disciplines apparently favours the accumulation of knowledge rather than the critical analysis, interpretation, synthesis and reporting skills that an Arts degree should, in theory at least, inculcate in a student.
Philip, I think that you have presented a rather rosy view of the attitude of the Church towards science.
While it is certainly true that some church figures have made major contributions to science, there is a long and sad history of hostility towards science generally.
For example, Tyco Brahe (1546-1601), an early cosmologist of some renown, was burnt at the stake for his heretical views. While his cosmology was not the foremost of his supposedly heretical ideas, his notion of an infinite universe containing many world's was deeply at odds with the official Church orthodoxy.
Similarly, Galileo initially enjoyed some support at the Vatican because some in the Church (notably the Jesuits I believe) had realised that his heliocentric model of the solar system was correct and that, as a consequence, the Church's officially sanctioned Ptolemaic model was wrong.
Problems arose because one of Galileo's published works was deemed to be antagonistic towards the Church by less enlightened figures within it, notably the Inquisition, which described his theories as "foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical".
Thus he spent the last 10 years of his life under house arrest and only posthumously published his last great work "Two New Sciences" in which he elaborated upon his supposedly heretical cosmology.
In relation to "Origin of Species", it was only in 1950 that the Church finally accepted that Darwin's theory was correct. The official Church doctrine now is one of "theistic evolution" or evolutionary creation.
The most eloquent and persuasive explanation for this is contained in Professor Paul Davies book "The Mind of God" (1992).
So, at best, the Church has a patchy record in relation to science and always struggles to reconcile its faith based assertions about the world with the reality revealed by science.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 24 September 2020 at 09:34 AM
Quite absorbing, Philip, to focus on where anything might be 'perfect'.
Alas, even at our current event horizon, dissipation may be lessening those 'massives' that are characterised as 'black holes'. Entropy indeed?
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 24 September 2020 at 08:12 AM
Can theology reconcile with science is a question that many Christian scientists have tried to answer in the changing technological and scientific world.
The Catholic church's contribution to science was enormous after it realised its mistake by accusing Galileo when he mentioned that the world was round.
Priests and scientists like Fr Nicolas Copernicus, a famous cosmologist in his time, give more impetus to scientific discoveries.
One of the most mysterious and unanswered theories was the origin of the universe, where Fr George Lemaitre made a surprising discovery, “the big bang theory”
Science and theology were not reconciled yet but George Lemaitre make a breakthrough with a rebirth of science and faith. He also proved Albert Einstein wrong that the universe is not static or a steady state but moving and expanding from a small atom.
There were many priest scientists in all disciplines of science including astronomers, mathematicians, biologists, geologists, physicists and chemists.
The father of genetic science was Fr Gregory Mendel. Fr Telard de Chardin, the discoverer of Peking man, supported Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Some 37 craters on the moon are named after monk and priest scientists. Earth science belongs to the Jesuits.
The pontifical academy of science is the biggest scientific organisation in the world where renowned astrophysicist like the late Steven Hawking was a member.
What the church is trying to do is to reconcile science and religion. Theology searches for the creator and science studies the created matter. Theology searches for the truth and science studies empirical fact.
Fact and truth are two different words but interrelated. Empirical science can be experimented but theology is non-empirical, only measured by faith and reason.
Christian theology is centred around Judea - Christianity in God's revelation to his people and fulfilled in Jesus Christ as the centre of creation.
In order to understand theology better, philosophy is also involved. Both ancient and modern philosophers have a concept of a created being, a higher consciousness, etc.
A branch of philosophy, metaphysics, was the brainchild of Aristotle - that is to study beyond the physical world, to sense experience, matter and form, reason, the essence of being and a unified and embodied spirit.
Thomas Aquinas, theologian and philosopher, the angelic doctor tried to proved the existence of god in his eight formulas that the church valued most.
But the most evident is creation itself. The world is created in an orderly matter and behind every created being or plant or other form of life there is a perfect designer.
The church is trying to reconcile science and religion as they don't contradict but embrace each other for the benefit of humanity.
Posted by: Philip Kai Morre | 24 September 2020 at 01:37 AM
Dear Chris, One of may favourite authors is the late CP Snow who generated a great deal of controversy with the publication of his fascinating book in the late 1950s entitled 'The two cultures and the scientific revolution':
Following industrialisation. educational systems throughout the entire western world placed an inordinate emphasis on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) over the humanities and arts, although Max Planck did claim that science advances one funeral at a time.
A relentless quest for perfection destroys creativity and extirpates communities of practice and as the late Leonard Cohen once proclaimed, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in".
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 23 September 2020 at 10:36 PM
Orbital velocity in a 'faith sphere' ain't anywhere near velocity of 'escape phenomenon', eh Chris? Yet impulsion to what?
Are not "revealed scientific truth" and 'non-disproved hypothesis' yet discrete? Language itself hardly keeps pace.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 23 September 2020 at 10:16 AM