Thursday, 3 April 2008

"Thinking faith" , science and religion, and Richard Feynman

"Thinking faith" is an online journal, published by the British Jesuits. It has no regular publication date, new articles being published as and when. You can subscribe to an e-mail alert when each new article is posted.

A recently posted article is entitled "Astronomy, God and the Search for Elegance" and is written by Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit member of the Vatican Observatory. It is in some ways a disappointing article and left me wondering at the end what particular point, if any, it was trying to make. Nevertheless, there are one or two paragraphs that are worth noting.

"Yet those who would put up a watertight barrier between science and religion miss a very important point. Science and religion do intersect without doubt in at least one point: in the human being who is the scientist, in the human being whose ultimate motivations and yearnings are, overtly or not, religious."

I suspect that there are many scientists (Richard Feynman included) who would vigorously deny any religious motivation to their love of science; Consolmagno seems to suggest that, to adapt a Rahnerian phrase, they are "anonymously religious". This seems an overly optimistic view to take of atheism! However, I do think the paragraph raises an interesting question: Can a case be made that the scientific enterprise is a manifestation of the essentially religious nature of the human person and of human society? Some detailed phenomenology of human society and of science is needed to answer that one!

Towards the end of his article, Consolmagno offers some thoughts akin to Richard Feynman's observations on the mathematical nature of physical laws:

"Not only is the Universe good, and beautiful; so are the laws that control it and explain it....The equations that describe the colours of a sunrise are remarkable for being, in their own way, every bit as beautiful as the sunrise themselves."

It is possible to be rather fussy over whether or not the "laws" control the universe or the universe is controlled in accordance with those "laws", and the scientists knowledge of the "laws" represents his knowledge of the universe (if you know what I mean). Consolmagno appears looser in his use of language in this regard than Feynman would be. Like Feynman, Consolmagno recognises that science always has something more to learn, describing this as "the key and the essence of true science".

I do take rather more substantial issue with the following passage from Consolmagno's article (my emphases):

"Think of a pendulum, a weight on a swing, moving slowly back and forth. If you’re Aristotle, you see that eventually it comes to rest, hanging straight up and down, and you conclude that all things in nature seek a natural resting place. If you’re Galileo, you notice that the period of the pendulum stays constant, even as it swings less and less. If you’re Newton, you see that there are outside forces, friction in the string or in the air, that slow down the pendulum; without those external forces, there’d be nothing to stop the pendulum from swinging forever. Same pendulum: three completely different interpretations.

"Does that mean that science is not objectively true? Well... yes, to some degree. Does it mean that science is invalid? Absolutely not. For one thing, it works — if not perfectly, then good enough."

Yes, there are three different "interpretations" or understandings of the underlying physical laws; but there are also three different sets of experimental observations, each one progressing more deeply into what can be observed about a pendulum. Each set of observations enables a different and deepening understanding of the underlying physical law. It seems unfair to me to allocate the different "interpretations" to the people associated with them rather than to allocate it to reflection on the different experimental observations, that is, to consideration of the reality being studied. The suggestion that science is not objectively true then simply does not arise. Consolmagno seems to hint at this connection between the science and the reality that it studies when he uses the phrase "For one thing, it works" and continues to exemplify this in describing the working of a clock.

"And most beautiful of all is that we have been given, undeserved, the ability to understand those laws ....Another, most surprising aid we get, and the compass that directs our intuition, is this yearning for truth, for beauty, for elegance, that directs our souls and needs to be nourished in every aspect of our human lives."

1 comment:

Michael A. Gottlieb said...

Dear Joe,

- just a quick (and probably irrelevant) word on Consolmagno's comments on pendulums: Of the presumed interpretations of Aristotle, Galileo and Newton, Aristotle's is arguably closest to the truth for a _real_ pendulum, such as what might have been observed by these fine gentleman. In fact Galileo's observation, that the pendulum's period is independent of its amplitude, is untrue, even for an ideal pendulum (the period is only approximately constant for small amplitude oscillations). Newton, I believe, was a bit smarter than what Consolmagno implies: he would realize that for a real pendulum, where the weight is not a point mass and the string is not massless, there are torques on them from gravity as the pendulum swings back and forth, so even in a complete vacuum, where there is no friction from the string or from the air, there IS something that keeps the pendulum from swinging (at constant amplitude) forever.

Best regards,