On Faith & Physics

Spending so much time in hospitals over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about science and faith.

Lately I’ve been especially interested in the similarities between the central questions of theoretical physics and those of theology: Why us? Why here? Why now? Although most of the science is over my head, what I can understand is pretty incredible stuff.

There’s no arguing that we’re living in a golden age of physics. Although a unified theory still eludes, groundbreaking discoveries are being made all the time, most recently by researchers at NASA, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Large Hadron Collider. Their findings are expanding our understanding of the universe in ways that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago.

One of the people who has gotten me really excited about these issues is MIT’s Alan Lightman. His books, especially Einstein’s Dreams and The Accidental Universe, are some of the most thought-provoking I’ve ever read. What’s so remarkable about Lightman’s work is that although his purview is physics, his approach is philosophical, making it a great introduction for those new to the field. The conversations he raises pertain to the out of this world, but their content couldn’t be more human.

“Who would fare better in this world of fitful time? Those who have seen the future and live only one life? Or those who have not seen the future and wait to live life? Or those who deny the future and live two lives?”

Two weeks ago, I saw Professor Lightman give a talk at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod. He covered a wide range of topics, from the fine tuning problem to the predictive power of mathematical models in string theory. But perhaps the most entertaining part of the evening was watching Lightman try to sell science to a roomful of scientists.

The MBL at Woods Hole is one of the most scientifically-minded communities in the US. Most in attendance were your quintessential New England scientists; clad in LL Bean’s finest, they looked equally well-appointed for watching birds as for debating black holes.

It was obvious that everyone wanted to love Professor Lightman. He’s a brilliant scientist with a pristine academic pedigree and, despite the complexity of his work, he’s a surprisingly accessible lecturer. But, try as he might, he just couldn’t seem to make believers out of some audience members.

The night’s real sticking point surrounded the topic of multiple universes. Once we got past the issue of relevance (i.e. who cares if there are other universes?), we ran into a problem of circular reasoning, predicated, from my perspective, on a definitional dilemma. By definition, another universe is one that will never interact in space or time with our own. Therefore, if we are able to obtain concrete proof of another universe’s existence, we will, in effect, be disproving its status as another universe.

To a roomful of ecologists, chemists and organismal biologists, this is nonsense. Pretend you’re a marine biologist. You believe there’s a heretofore undiscovered species of squid. But, you acknowledge that if you are able to find said squid, it will be discredited as a new species. Success is, by definition, failure.

So, in a world where proof is unlikely, if not wholly impossible, how does a researcher forge on?

Faith.

Well, that’s a shockingly theological conclusion to sell to a room full of scientists, isn’t it?

We’re raised to believe that faith is the business of religion and proof the goal of science. Theoretical physics blows that out of the water. Using mathematical models, the behaviors of natural phenomena can be explained and predicted to shockingly high degrees of specificity. However, since many of theoretical physics’ central theories have not been, and indeed some cannot ever be, proven with experimental data, they are, in the minds of more pragmatic scientists, like many in the MBL audience, axiomatically antithetical to the rigors of the scientific method and therefore more appropriately categorized closer to philosophy and theology in the family tree of academia. Theoretical physics may be a mathematically-inclined cousin, but is it really science?

So there Lightman found himself, evangelizing for physics, arguing for faith in the absence of empirical evidence. Not faith in a divine creator (although it should be noted that he didn’t go so far as to discount one); no, Lightman was arguing for faith in the predictive accuracy of advanced mathematics. It was stunning.

I have to think about this some more…

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

• Cool episode of NPR’s Open Source from last night; includes an interview with Alan Guth about inflation theory and the recent discovery of primordial gravitational waves.

There are also a bunch of great TV shows covering these topics: Through the Wormhole, The Elegant Universe and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I haven’t had a chance to watch that last one yet, but it’s a revamp of the Carl Sagan classic starring Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced, oddly enough, by Seth MacFarlane, so it’s got to be good.

• I’d love to say my interest in the universe is all fancy and esoteric, but I’m going through a weird New Age kinda thing too. Eerie coincidences, intense bouts of déjà vu and the irksome feeling that I’m living the movie Sliding Doors. I blame Bikram.

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