Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Idolatry in Science - By Thomas P. Sheahen

One of the enduring controversies over the years has been the purported conflict between science and religion. An alternate view is that religion and science are complimentary paths to knowledge, not opponents at all. Long ago, St. Augustine said “the book of nature and the book of Scripture were both written by the same author, and will not be in conflict when properly read and understood.”

Among scientists who attend to matters of religion, one of the most famous quotes from the 20th century is this couplet by Pope John Paul II, circa 1987:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition;
Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.

I doubt that many scientists have ever thought much about the word "idolatry"; the typical reaction would be "who, me?"  In science, it's hard to imagine what the word "idolatry" could possibly mean.

Separately, "The Teaching Company" publishes CDs and DVDs on a wide assortment of course materials, including one cluster on world religions, which contains a set of lectures on Hinduism. Within that, there is a remarkably concise definition of idolatry:  “confusing your own concept (or model or image) with the actual reality.” 

Whether in Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion, that's a pretty clear warning not to think that your own understanding of God is fully accurate. When the 10 Commandments prohibits making graven images, we immediately think of physical objects like a golden calf standing in for a god. Of course we see the folly of that, and take the warning seriously. Several faiths disapprove of any images at all, lest those inferior representations become the object of worship.

About the only graven-image superstition still around today is the essentially humorous custom of burying a statue of some patron-saint-of-realtors in your back yard, in order to make your house sell faster. That gets a chuckle out of almost everyone, including the folks who plant the statue.

But now let's think about science, and examine that Hindu definition of idolatry again. For several centuries now, we have had some scientific models of nature that are exceptionally good. Newton's Classical Mechanics is perhaps the earliest shining example. It accounted for things in motion on earth, and even for the motions of the planets.  

When slight abnormalities were found, LaPlace introduced perturbation theory to explain them. By the late 19th century, Classical Mechanics was complete and so good that scientists believed the world was deterministic.  Scientists had a very good theory, and believed it represented nature perfectly.

That was idolatry: thinking that your model truly represented the underlying reality.  Around the turn of the 20th century, nobody thought to call it idolatry, but churchmen who accepted the determinism implicit in Classical Mechanics found themselves backed into a corner trying to defend the notion of free will. It was an awkward time for religion.

Events of the 20th century exploded that particular false absolute, and today we have "The Standard Model," a combination of Quantum Chromodynamics and General Relativity. It's an uneasy partnership, with physicists aware of the need to patch things together and refine the model. There may be a danger of once again believing that a new model represents nature perfectly, as suggested by Hawking and Mlodinow's 2010 book "The Grand Design," where they said the universe created itself. All physicists wish for a "theory of everything," so the temptation toward idolatry will always be there. Forbearance against that temptation is a virtue displayed by those who remember the history of physics.

The factor that saved physics is the predominance of observational data over theory. Richard Feynman's famous quote is taught to every grad student:  "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong." Because data trumps theory, today physicists are puzzling about dark matter and dark energy. It is theory that has to change. The phrase "facts are stubborn things" comes to mind. No false absolutes are allowed.

Meanwhile, over in the life sciences, the theory of Evolution has great explanatory power, and is far more comprehensive than any alternative theory. The combination of Darwin's three cornerstone principles  (random mutation, natural selection, and deep time) coupled with knowledge of DNA and genetics gives us the "Neo-Darwinian Synthesis," which is nearly bulletproof. A large majority are convinced that this model represents nature perfectly. This belief is so dominant in biology that you're better off changing careers rather than challenging it. To an objection like "time isn't deep enough," or "there is irreducible complexity," the prevailing orthodoxy of biology imperiously responds that pretty soon those annoying little discrepancies will be figured out, so get out of the way.  There is only a very faint echo of Pope John Paul II's words cautioning against idolatry and false absolutes.

A new temptation towards idolatry has arisen along with the advances in computing power.  Enormously complex models of the climate of the entire globe run on supercomputers, and the output results are sold as accurate representations of what nature does and what it will do.  National and international policies about energy supplies are driven by decisions stemming from belief in these models. There is enormous momentum behind their predictions, mostly provided by people who don't actually know the science itself, but want to believe that scientific models account for nature perfectly. Cautionary phrases like "mathematical chaos" and "data first" go unheeded in the rush to believe in a perfect theory.

This is one very pernicious example of false absolutes, because when such policy decisions are implemented, the impoverished countries of the world are denied the energy sources they need to improve their economies.  If religious leaders across the world stood up and called this belief in computer models "idolatry," it would be a good first step toward re-focusing international attention on practical solutions to contemporary problems facing humanity.

Idolatry has been a recurring stain across all of human history, and each time one form is eliminated, it pops our somewhere else. Within science, recurring instances of false absolutes slip by unnoticed, allowed to propagate unchallenged for long periods of time – and ultimately producing very negative consequences.

Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.