Friday, 18 June 2010

Thank God For Science

Lord, thank you for making the universe simple enough that we can understand the principles of how it works, from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy; that could have been otherwise. But thank you also for making the working out of those principles so wonderfully complex and beautiful; that could also have been otherwise.

Two of the more disturbing books I've read are China Miéville's Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. They give me a peculiarly strong impression of a world where there is no underlying order --- where real science is impossible. They're wonderful stories though --- highly recommended :-).

(Yes, I need to locate The Scar...)



21 comments:

  1. God and Science are two opposing ends of the same coin. God explains reality (even if in part only - due to knowledge) by not questioning the explanation. Science explains reality (even if in part only - due to ignorance) by questioning the explanation.
    In the end, Science is the purest form of God (in the biblical understanding of it) there is. Science is knowledge (yeah, go check the origins of the word), which god is dogma, ignorance, bliss.
    This all from an anthropological point of view, of course. We're all free to believe what we like to believe, be it god or that man has never been to the moon. Just as long as you don't come bothering me for not believing too, I'm ok with it.

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  2. Isn't a world with no underlying order a contradiction?
    A world with no underlying order = No cause and effect = Every event is a first cause = Not a world, just a set of random events
    Or do you mean "no underlying order" in a political sense?

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  3. And thanks for having put so many misleading and contradictory hints in that book of yours, just to make our quest a bit more funny and adventurous...
    Hypatia, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, did you wish it had been otherwise, maybe?

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  4. I'm wholey unconvinced we are close to understanding how atoms or galaxies work. Sure we've come a long way, but much more needs to be done. And the more I come to understand about higher level physics, the more I am unconvinced we'll ever really get there.
    Sure we've become somewhat good at predicting their behavior or probable behavior, but that's a long way off knowing how they "work".

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  5. I have a copy of The Scar that I don't particularly want anymore. Assuming my SO doesn't want it either (I think she's read it) I could hand it off to you at the summit.

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  6. The Scar's probably the best of the three. I think Mieville was trying to fit too much into Iron Council while Perdido Street takes a while to find a story to tell. The Scar is just a solid story from beginning to end.

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  7. I went to China Miéville's keynote address at the 2008 Eastercon. It was well worth going to, and if you have the chance, do listen to one of his talks. Oh and Charles Stross too if you are a techie of any stripe.

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  8. > Lord, thank you for making the universe simple enough
    > that we can understand the principles of how it works
    All those physicists that claim to "understand" how it works always incorporate sort of deviation/randomness in their formulas when modelling the reality. The concept of "scientific deviation/randomness" in physics is clear sign that the "simple" reality is not that simple.
    Otherwise if it were so simple we could do at least the real weather forecast, don't you think? ;-)

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  9. Robert O'Callahan21 June 2010 22:58

    Weather forecasting is hard because weather is a chaotic system. The low-level physics behind weather is very well understood.

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  10. I don't understand the "just so" logic here. The first time I heard it I thought it was a perversity of the individual claiming it, but now it seems this is a common religious conceit, or perhaps just a Christian conceit.
    You might as well have said, "Thank you, Lord, for making my legs exactly the right length, neither too short such that I am unable to gain traction, nor too long to make walking awkward and uncomfortable."
    That humans can begin to understand the workings of physics is taken here as proof that God has arranged it all for our benefit, evidence of His goodness. Yet if it turns out that physicists are way off the mark, it would be taken that science is folly and that God must be behind it all. Either way God is good, a projection of what you want the universe to be.
    Another way of putting it is that God created 10^11 galaxies (or so), each with 10^11 stars (or so), and for 99.99% of the history of that universe there was no mankind to comprehend things any more perceptively than a chimp does. Somehow this is taken as evidence that God has the attributes which we have ascribed to Him in the Bible (specifically, the parts of the Bible that we care to observe).

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  11. Robert, if you say that you understand the atom but you don't understand 10e1000e1000 atoms put together - then you cannot state: "..universe simple enough that we can understand the principles of how it works".
    All science is strictly hierarchical based on proofs - every statement is provable by other previously proved statements... (I am not an expert in all the science but I hope I have at least small glimpse how mathematics works).
    But as far as I know the hierarchically based system of proofs has one weak point - it is the very top of the pyramid of proven statements.
    Scientists overcome this problem with something they call Axiom. To me an Axiom is nothing else then a strong expression of believe (for example of "point" as self-evident Axiom).
    Physics - which I consider a "science" about the matter that uses mathematics as a wheel suffers from the same weakness. Even though physicist will crucify me for this - in the very core the physics is based on the same believes as mathematics making it no different from any other religion... ;-)
    So we do not understand the universe... we - "scientist" - _believe_ we do understand. :-)

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    1. I think you're confusing aspects of mathematics with the scientific method. Scientific knowledge and theories are essentially models of reality that are able to predict the behaviour of the universe. Models are clearly not reality itself. But if a model is extremely successful at predicting the behaviour of reality, it deserves to be taken seriously. One can always point to the fact that scientific models are not reality, so hence we don't really understand. In one way, this is true. But what is understanding anyway? One could argue that if our model predicts reality that we do understand. We might say that an optimal predictive model is the definition of understanding. This is more an issue for philosophy and splitting hairs. You can always argue about what it means to know anything and this will always be controversial. But clearly an excellent predictive model is a huge achievement and needs to be seen as something more "solid" than believing (clearly people can believe things that are not true) or thinking that you might know something.

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  12. Robert O'Callahan22 June 2010 22:58

    > Yet if it turns out that physicists are way off
    > the mark, it would be taken that science is
    > folly and that God must be behind it all.
    Straw man argument, as far as I'm concerned.
    The alternative is not that physicists are way off the mark; the alternative is that science is impossible.
    > All science is strictly hierarchical based on
    > proofs - every statement is provable by other
    > previously proved statements...
    Not true in theory or in practice. I don't think you're being fair to science; what you describe is mathematics, and science is not mathematics.

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  13. > Straw man argument, as far as I'm concerned.
    I'm not sure what you are claiming is a strawman; is it my claim that believers point to real or perceived failures of science to explain things is reason to believe in a divine intelligence?
    If you want examples, I'll provide some.
    The supposed lack of fossil evidence of evolution proves that scientists don't understand life, therefore the Bible's description the creation of man is literally true.
    Science can't explain how the universe got here, therefore the Bible's description of the creation of the universe is literally true.
    Science can't explain why quantum mechanics happens like it does, therefore God is behind it, using His omniscience to guide the course of universe, including answering your prayers about whether Aunt Martha's cancer spreads or goes into remission.
    Perhaps you don't subscribe to all, or any, of these notions, but there are PLENTY of other people who call themselves Christians who do.

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    1. Are you for real? A few centuries ago, there were PLENTY of people who believed the world was flat. Hence it must have been true (for them at least). The religious people of that time were pretty cruel to the smart ass (Galileo, father of modern science) who suggested the world might be a (near) sphere.

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    2. You're replying to someone who violently agrees with you as far as I can tell.

      You seem to buy into the "Myth of the (belief in) the Flat Earth":
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth
      Christian scholars always knew and taught the earth was round; the myth they did not is a lie spread by later opponents (sometimes other Christians).

      http://xkcd.com/1255/ :-)

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  14. > and science is not mathematics
    I think you wanted to say that mathematics is not science. Very thin ice ;-). Fair enough.
    Without all the fancy words: I just wanted to say that I don't know to whom you refer to as "we" in your post but I feel very much excluded from "we"... :-(
    You are probably very lucky/gifted guy if you dare to write this.

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  15. Robert O'Callahan23 June 2010 06:37

    Jim, I don't feel responsible for everything other Christians have said.
    However, I think these two statements are logically compatible:
    -- The simplicity of the universe makes it remarkably amenable to investigation by rational beings
    -- There are features of the universe which have no natural explanation

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  16. I'd be happy to agree with a slight rewording: "There are features of the universe for which there are currently no known explanations."
    The problem with your phrasing (aside from it being an unfalsifiable assumption) is that it's a God of the Gaps argument, which have a consistent history of harsh erosion. And even if it were true, an intelligent creator god doesn't follow from it.
    I'm somewhat reminded of the story Hitchens tells about his grade school teacher who praised God for making vegetation green because green is most pleasing to the eye. When you start with the assumption that the Great Juju at the Bottom of the Sea is responsible for all creation, you will find no end of evidence to support it.

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  17. > There are features of the universe which have no natural explanation
    Define natural!
    It's only us 'rational' humans that separate natural and man-made as if we aren't a product of the universe.
    Your statement comes across to me as: there are features of the universe that aren't part of the universe. Which highlights the conceit I think.

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  18. Interesting discussion. I used to debate on this issue with many others. Now I come to realize that God is not debatable. People can only know God through belief and faith.
    "No one has ever seen God, but Jesus Christ, who is at the God Father's side, has made God known." John 1:18

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