Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Real Meaning of Relativity

As a willing participant in the sins of the book publishing industry, I feel compelled to warn you: the people who have recently released Stephen Hawking's new book (The Grand Design) are trying to sell you something.

By saying this I mean no disrespect whatsoever for Dr. Hawking. That dude is a straight-up genius, I'm sure. Plus, he's been a leading scientist and cultural icon for decades, and should be given the respect due such a public treasure. Nevertheless, the "big idea" being culled from his new book is, I respectfully submit, no big idea at all. As publishing events go, this emperor has no clothes.

The central idea being promulgated is that, according to Hawking, there's no need to presume that God had anything to do with the origins of the universe. By saying that, Hawking is discounting the people putting forth "intelligent design" as a counterproposal to evolution. And by doing that, Hawking is joining the chorus of any number of his peers who have already sung the same song. An astrophysicist disputing the role of a divine force in the origins of the universe is not news, people; it would be only slightly more newsworthy to report that an astrophysicist had allowed for the possibility of a God bringing the universe into being.

I feel reasonably confident in how the debate will proceed from here--including, no doubt, the release of a handful of books along the lines of The Case for the Grand Designer or Debunking "The Grand Design." That's because this perennial argument across the divide of faith and science sells books. For the next several weeks, every time you see Stephen Hawking showing up in your Twitter trending topics or on your Yahoo breaking news board, it would be helpful to imagine a room full of publishing professionals brainstorming how they're going to move product. Consider that your grain of salt; don't say I never gave you anything.

Meanwhile, I've taken to reading the late great G. K. Chesterton's The Well and the Shallows, a relatively late entry in his corpus, contending with the controversies of his day (which, in case you're unfamiliar, was the first half of the twentieth century). Today's reading took me through a handful of reasons he offers for being inclined to convert to Catholicism--if only he weren't already a Catholic. Tucked in among the follies of state churches in the Protestant tradition and other musings of the modern era is a rant against materialist critiques of theism--the new scientists, taking on old-time religion.

Many scientists contemporary to Chesterton were particularly dismissive of religion, which they saw as an outdated artifact of a less sophisticated era. Chesterton prefaces his critique of such dismissiveness with the provocative phrase "In order theorise, it is sometimes useful to think." The presenting problem for Chesterton was a paper delivered by Dr. David Forsyth, whose "thesis" regarding what eventually came to be called the "non-overlapping magisteria" of science and faith

was essentially this; that science and religion, so far from being reconciled or even reconcilable, were divided by the vital contradiction that science belongs to what he called "reality-thinking," or we call objective truth; while religion belonged to what he called "pleasure-thinking," or what most people call imagination.

But this imagined divide between science and faith has a different source, according to Chesterton: not the intransigence of the Catholic but the "the very common combination of a superiority complex with arrested development."

Scores and hundreds of times I have heard . . . the repetition of that ultimatum: "You must accept the conclusions of science." The new scientists themselves do not ask us to accept the conclusions of science. The new scientists themselves do not accept the conclusions of science. . . . The finest intellects among them repeat, again and again, that science is inconclusive. . . .

The Victorian agnostics waited hopefully for science to give them a working certainty about life. The new physicist philosophers are in no way different, except that they wait hopelessly instead of hopefully. For they know very well the real meaning of relativity; that their own views may pass from being relatively right to being relatively wrong. And meanwhile, as I say, there is such a thing as wanting a working rule as to whether we should pay our debts or murder our enemies. . . . If we want a guide to life, it seems that we must look elsewhere.

Again, no disrespect to Stephen Hawking or any of the other great minds who have developed our understanding of the way the universe works. But regardless of the role of gravity in causing the universe to come into being, or the nagging question of where the law of gravity came from, meanwhile we ourselves are but dust--and to dust we shall return, and we must one day give an account for all we've done and left undone, and fall on the mercy of whoever calls us to account.

1 comment:

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

This reminds me of the excellent book "Ockham's Razor" by Wade Rowland (and his less known book "Galileo's Mistake"). Both sides make the same kind of exclusionary claims. The divide between the "spiritual" and "physical" world is what Rowland tracks down brilliantly.