Monday, September 17, 2007

Intellectual rigor?

When debating the existence of God, the illogic of theism is always one of the first things to be brought up. Science, which has given us all the modern wonders is completely logical, internally consistent, and deals only with reality as we see it, not as we imagine it; faith, in the words of our own Davidson Loehr , (who is much, much kinder than many famous atheists), “lacks intellectual rigor”. Any discussion of the supernatural- that which is indefinable, undetectable, unprovable, and yet can still affect the real world- is simply irrational. To actually have theological debates- the classic (though apocryphal) example is “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”- is just mental masturbation.

Or so it seemed for decades, until the Hubble Space Telescope was orbited. We could now see regions of space we had only imagined before... and that revealed a problem. The real Universe was not arranged the way our infallible math- the logic that traced reality and existence from the Big Bang to the present day- said it should be. The distribution of Galaxies was all wrong; the real Universe had betrayed us. How could this be reconciled?

A solution was found- “Dark Matter”. Dark Matter has gravity, we decided, so it can account for the flawed distribution of matter, but has no other attributes; we can’t see it, it doesn’t block our view of anything else, it doesn’t register on instruments, and in fact we can’t prove it exists at all- we only infer it must be there to make our theology- oh, excuse me!- astronomy work out right. How could I possibly have made a slip like that; it has much more intellectual rigor to it than theism!

Of course, as we are so certain dark matter exists, we can describe it perfectly. Dark Matter is cold, being made of slow, dense neutralinos; it sparked the creation of stars and galaxies in clumps, or “litters“... No, wait, it’s warm and zippy, it formed stars like pearls on a string... some of the debate can be seen here . That’s a lot of stew to make from meat that’s only inferred- I wonder how much Dark Matter will fit on the head of a pin?

But the problematical distribution of matter wasn’t the only shock Hubble had for them; the velocity of wandering stars and galaxies was off, too- way off. They are just moving too fast for the available energy to explain; there must be... wait for it... Dark Energy! Dark Energy is, yes, energy that shines on everything except the instruments that might detect it. It’s undetectable and unproveable, but it’s the only thing that makes the math work out right, so it must exist. Along with the other undetectable stuff. In fact, they might be one and the same!

Of course, these hypothetical constructs must only affect our understanding of the Universe around the edges, right? I mean, we couldn’t base all our understanding of physics on things that are, for all intents and purposes, supernatural, could we? Uh... “Dark matter and dark energy are two of the most vexing problems in science today. Together they dominate the universe, comprising some 96 percent of all mass and energy.”, according to Robert Roy Britt, senior science writer at . So evidently we have a firm understanding of... 4% of the Universe.

Or do we? Matter is made of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles such as Protons, Neutrons, etc. And those particles can be broken into yet smaller particles... and in this world, normal physics no longer works; a new math called “Quantum Physics” had to be invented to explain it. The smallest of the theoretical particles are called strings , at 10 -35th meters. How small is that? If an electron were the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree... strings have 10, or maybe 11, or possibly 26 dimensions. Yes, yes, we have no proof or even evidence of more than three physical dimensions, but it makes the math work out right; work with us! Why do I bring these up? because “Exotic but widely popular "string theories" of the universe explain dark matter as "supersymmetric particles" that bear no relationship to dark energy,” says Mario Livio, senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, here .
My point? Only that the layman whose knowledge of science comes from the odd course taken to fulfill the requirements of a liberal arts degree are the ones most likely to believe that science has all the answers, and that it lacks “intellectual rigor” to believe the unproven and unproveable, and then ridicule others for believing something else that’s unproven and unproveable. Theists have no corner on the “something must be out there” market, and science has no corner on truth.


CK said...

You'd enjoy the book I'm reading for class right now: "God and Other Spirits" by Phillip Wiebe.

He does philosophy of science and uses abduction as a method to argue that it is not irrational to posit spirit beings as explanations for certain phenomena.

I'm still not sold, but it's a good read and challenging.

Brian said...

Brilliant! As a scientist I was flabbergasted to realize how some members of my congregation (primarily atheist as you say) perceive science. Namely as a perfect, flawless, omniscient approach to understanding. In short, science has become the new god which is worshipped regularly.

Meanwhile as a practitioner, I see it as this messy, sausage making procress that, yes does make actual progress in objective knowledge contrary to some post modern assertions, but is enormously influenced by the limits of the humans practicing it, with no silver bullet scientific method no matter what they may have taught you in high school and with more unknown than known.

I hope to bring your piece up in a discussion group!

Suma said...

hi, thats really an intellectual rigor...

suma valluru

Joel Monka said...

CK- Thanks, I'll have to check that book out; I hadn't heard of it before.

Brian- Thanks for your kind words! Most people haven't any appreciation for the fine lines between fact, theory, hypothesis, and truth.