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Science as Salvation

Entry 1557, on 2013-08-02 at 19:48:37 (Rating 3, Science)

I recently discovered a discussion forum (through a convoluted path, as often happens) which tackled the topic of "amazing physics facts". One of the entries there seemed a bit odd which made it worth thinking about. It asked a series of intriguing questions which it claimed there were no answers to. It also seemed to question the validity of science as a mechanism to try to find the answers. Needless to say, I have to comment...

Here's the opening statement: "Let's admit it: Physics can't explain reality. All the current theories are incomplete at best and, at worst, flat out wrong. Midgley was correct when she wrote, 'Science as Salvation: The Modern Myth and its Making.' Salvation indeed."

As you might have already assumed, I disagree. Physics actually can explain a lot of reality. If you want to calculate the correct path to get a rocket to the Moon, for example, what do you do? Consult an astrologer, or a religious text, or a book on philosophy, or a work of fiction? No, you use physics and you get an answer which works, and has worked many times. Why does it work? Because physics explains reality.

That's not to say that physics can explain every aspect of the universe to an arbitrary degree of detail, but I think that requirement is misleading. Every understanding we have of the real world is necessarily an approximation. At the most basic levels uncertainty predominates and it is fundamentally impossible to get past that.

I haven't read any of Mary Midgley's works on evolution or science in general but I am aware of her arguments and I don't think they stand up to any scrutiny. She seems to rely primarily on straw-man arguments, especially against Richard Dawkins, so I don't think her opinion is particularly compelling.

Regarding whether science is a form of salvation and whether it is a myth, well that depends on your definitions of those words. Again, I would need to read the book to comment with certainty but if by "salvation" she means a way to save ourselves from superstition and false belief then sure, I totally agree. But I don't think there is any reasonable interpretation of the word "myth" which can be applied to science. The overwhelming fact-checking, peer review, and skepticism involved in the scientific process makes myths (in the form seen in religion, for example) in science very unlikely.

The poster went on to ask some questions under the title "amazing or not" and concluded with the claim that "There are, at present, no agreed-upon answers to these fundamental physical or philosophical questions." So let's look at these questions...

Question 1: What is attractive force of the universe?

Comment 1: Would that not be gravity, the strong force, the weak force, and the electromagnetic force? All of these are, or can be, attractive on different scales. All have been measured and we have some degree of understanding of them with excellent experimental verification. I think there is little doubt: we understand these forces quite well.

Question 2: What is the repulsive force in the universe?

Comment 2: The electromagnetic force can be repulsive which you can easily verify by trying to push to similar poles of magnets together. But maybe this is referring more to the cosmological repulsive force, or "dark energy" which really is a bit of a mystery. I will concede that no one really understand this at the moment.

Question 3: What puts spin on matter?

Comment 3: That would be a result of asymmetric forces applied to collapsing objects and other similar phenomena. The Big Bang was rather violent and material was thrown out in a chaotic way. As the gas clouds created in the BIg Bang collapsed they spun faster and faster and that is why everything in the universe spins. No great mystery there.

Question 4: What is energy?

Comment 4: The "what is" question can be asked about everything and inevitably it has to be answered using words which in turn can be questioned. In the end these scientific concepts are best explained using maths and from that perspective we know what energy is.

Question 5: What gave laws to the universe?

Comment 5: Now this is the sort of question which really is interesting. Or is it? I think in many ways it's a non-question: it cannot be answered because it shouldn't be asked. Inevitably any process which results in the creation of laws must itself follow laws which in turn must be explained, ad infinitum. Or maybe we should invoke some of the more radical ideas on the edges of physics and say the laws created themselves because reverse time-travel is OK according to most theories.

Question 6: Whence the order in the universe?

Comment 6: This is really just a re-statement of question 5 so I will apply the same type of response, that is, see comment 5.

Question 7: How is the universe complexifying?

Comment 7: Is "complexifying" even a word? If it isn't, maybe it should be because I know exactly what it means. The answer, of course, is that it isn't. Looking at the universe as a whole entropy in the universe is increasing (it's becoming more "chaotic") and increased complexity only occurs in systems with energy sources which drive the process (for example the Earth which has the Sun as an energy source). There's no totally unanswerable mystery here.

Question 8: How did the universe originate?

Comment 8: This is another interesting question which many people would like to answer. But the fact is we don't know at this point, although there are many ideas out there which cannot be conclusively tested yet. We know that the universe started in a Big Bang (the evidence is overwhelming) but what caused that is far more difficult. Maybe our universe is just one of a repeating sequence going on infinitely in the past and future. Or maybe it is one "small bubble" in an infinite multiverse. Or maybe the universe created itself through one of those reverse time events! I admit we don't know but we are getting closer to an answer.

Question 9: How did life originate?

Comment 9: Unfortunately, because life on Earth originated billions of years ago and involved no material which could be easily preserved this is always going to be a difficult problem. But it's not so much that the process is difficult to explain, it's more that there are so many possible ways it could have happened that we find it hard to distinguish which one was responsible. Maybe life originated through processes involving starlight acting on organic chemicals which we know exist in space. Or maybe it started in Earth's oceans. Or on the surface of clay. There are many ideas and maybe it will never be possible to know the exact mechanism. But at least there are many possibilities which make a lot of sense.

So there's a bit of a mixture here: some of these are very good questions with no current answer, and the rest are quite well understood already. But whatever the status of these questions one thing is sure, science is the only way we have which will ever find the answers.

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