enlightenment woes in science

Over the weekend the Discovery Channel played several programs featuring Stephen Hawking discussing contemporary physics and the origins of the universe. The overarching questions ranged from “does life have any meaning?” to “does God exist?” in these 1-hour shows.

I happened to catch the second half of the “Did God create the universe?” program. I’m not going to go into the specific examples and exact arguments used by the scientists on the show, simply because I’m not a quantum physicist and do not wish to butcher highly complex concepts. But towards the end the narrator stated that after 3000 years of human inquiry, we finally have the answer to how the universe began. Drawing upon several arguments concerning protons and anti-protons, black holes and time, and a few other things, the narrator concludes that something can actually arise from absolute nothingness (∴ big bang explained). Of course this might sound strange with a Newtonian conception of the universe, but this rests heavily on recent quantum physics breakthroughs. Hawking then delivers the final statements reflecting upon how God does not exist and did not create the universe. Check out the end of the program at 39:40.

Now this is where people from all religious backgrounds will undoubtedly raise objections and likely send nasty emails to the Discovery Channel, answered with nastier anti-religion rants on message boards. Certain communities of scientists will accuse religion as primitive fact-denying fairy-stories and certain religious groups will accuse science of polluting our world. It’s a mess.

But I hope to disagree with the program from a different approach, namely that such claims are a little too bold.

Perhaps a crude but somewhat fitting summary of the start of the Enlightenment might be “well, Descartes locked himself in a room and thought about himself for days… and boom, the Enlightenment was in motion!” I know that Descartes scholars and fans everywhere might cringe at such a gross simplification, but we have to acknowledge that a huge focus of the Enlightenment is on self-inquiry and autonomous reason- namely that through using our cognitive “stuff” (whether common sense, practical reason, logic, and whatnot), we arrive at provable truth. From Berkley, Leibniz, to Hume and beyond, there is an undeniable emphasis on using one’s own mind and rationality in order to develop a metaphysical account for how the world works.

Are we still feeling the effects of the Enlightenment? Well, with using scientific methods as supposed fool-proof means for providing a huge account of how the world works, I’d say yes.

Some might even accuse Hawking, the narrator, and the writers of practicing bad or poor science. Several weeks ago, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein appeared on NPR to talk about the role of ignorance in the scientific process. When asked about our scientific process, Firestein notes that:

In fact, I think a hypothesis is, in some ways, a bad idea for science; because a hypothesis is, after all, your best, cutest idea about how something works. And it’s bound to buy us everything you do after that. If you have too strong a hypothesis, you become naturally invested in it. You’re a person like anyone else, and so pretty soon you begin doing experiments that are likely to prove the hypothesis.

You spend more time looking at the data that supports it than the data that doesn’t. There’s a wonderful story about Enrico Ferme and his students, the famous physicist, who used to say if you make a measurement – I’m sorry, if you do an experiment, and it proves the hypothesis, you’ve made a measurement.

For Firestein, ignorance and the unknown ought to be necessary driving forces for how we do science. Hypothesizing about things can actually produce a sort of “tunnel-vision” effect. Now I’m not aware for Firestein’s cosmology, but we can see how his viewpoint in the article could stand in conflict with what the confident conclusion the Discovery Channel program.

I’m not a scientist and I would be utterly clueless on a lot of things that people like Hawking would bring up in conversation. And if you’re not a fan of criticizing the Enlightenment, you’d take issue as well. But the most insightful voice on this matter for me has been Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.

According to Brueggemann in An Unsettling God, one of the virtues embraced by Judaism is a somewhat open approach to interpretation. Liberal hermeneutics allows for passages in holy writings to be discussed in a lengthy manner because of God’s infinitely deep nature. Rabbis and students would debate the meaning of something and the discussion would never be capped or closed off. To provide an example, I once heard that reading the Scriptures coul be likened to looking through a many-sided gem. You can look through it so many different ways, and each time something new and even more beautiful can be seen in the refracted light. Brueggemann also argues that there should never be a “final interpretation” that completely silences the matter. The Scriptures invite us to participate, even along the lines of Jacob wrestling with God.

Analyzing Roma Women (photo from the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno)

Brueggemann warns against final interpretations because they can lead to “final solutions”- a hauntingly keen observation in our post-Holocaust world. Could it be possible that this openness is equally applicable to hard sciences as well, and not just literary theory? I think it might be. After all, a lot of Nazi justification for the Holocaust was backed by “scientific” claims of “hard facts” that supposedly proved racial superiority. We are all aware of this horrendous pursuit to silence all other voices and viewpoints in Nazi Germany.

Of course Holocaust-type horrors do not always necessarily follow from closing off dialogue, but I was still very hesitant when I heard the narrator’s words that the entire problem has been solved concerning the origins of the universe. Must scientists pack their bags and head home, now that we supposedly know everything about the subject? When we seek or proclaim such a sense of certainty, it seems as though its possible that we take our many-sided gem and smash it to pieces, and could even immediately reject any other possible voice, interpretation, or viewpoint. I think this is applicable and highly important for anything from scientific discourse to Sunday morning Bible studies.


  1. Pingback: The Myth of “Rising Secularism” « Things Billy Says

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