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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Why you must take the ramblings of scientists with an ample pinch of salt

The Great Tree of Knowledge
I shall never forget one of my lecturers being asked what he had actually done in order to be called "Dr. Hathaway". He was one of the rare breed of humble scientists who explained to the class that knowledge could be likened to a growing tree. Each branch is a different subject, biology, physics whatever. The leaves - thousands of them - are like the individual and often esoteric offshoots of knowledge that emerge from each subject. He explained that we undergraduates were mastering a branch, and that someone with a PhD had, in addition, mastered one tiny little leaf: that's all.

He was right and rightly humble with it. He stands in the line of the really great scientists of all time who realise they are just learners. "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me" is how the great Isaac Newton put it.

The Hubris Gang
Today however, a new breed of scientists - fortunately in very small numbers - are emerging who don't take the humble view at all. They think - for some odd reason - that science has reached the stage where it can answer every question in life. Richard Dawkins and now Stephen Hawking are found among the Hubris Gang.

One blight of all working scientists is that they are so involved in their leaf, branch or in rare instances tree - that they fail to notice that their tree is but one of a thousand trees on the landcape of life. They can't see the forest for their tree.

I picked up Stephen Hawking's latest offering "The Grand Design" and decided to read it through the eyes of someone whose marriage had just broken down. Here is a book that pupports to answer all of life's mysteries and more. Surely then it would then give succour to my imaginary personage. 

It failed to bring an ounce of comfort.

For one thing, I can't imagine many people getting to the end of the book (let's call it the Hawking effect - millions bought A Brief History of Time  for their coffee tables - to show off that they have the latest cool book - but few read them). As a physicist, I myself struggled in places. If you get to the end of the book you will marvel at the amazing material universe The Grand Designer has created, but none of that will comfort you in sorrow.

The Limits of Science
There are many good reasons science has no answers for the most important questions of life. For one, science deals only with the material world of particles and forces. As fascinating as that world is, it's not where we live our lives. We live in the trees of meaning, emotion, fear, hope, dream, relationship, prayer, plans, work - and none of those have anything to do with quarks or gluons. Someone put it like this, "Science says an awful lot about nothing". 

In  the second place, science changes with the seasons. Hawking admits as much by telling us on the fifth page that his new ideas have emerged only in the last decade or so. So imagine building your life on the last set of ideas. Imagine taking science as your guide in life, 20 years ago. You drop dead and soon afterwards it is found that all the ideas you built your life upon were in fact sand. Great.

This is where we fail in our teaching of science at school and universtity. It ought to be compulsory to learn the history of science - and in one instant this would make better scientists, for instead of thinking today's science is 'final' they will question everything, knowing it will all change in fifty years. (If you don't believe that consider the changes in geology - plate tectonics, and cosmology - big bang, that have taken place over the last fifty years). Science - particularly the big stories - are all interesting, but you'd be a fool to take them as gold. Of course establishment scientists wouldn't want you to learn much about the  history of science lest you questioned present science - upon which all their prestige has been built.

In the third place, science is limited because like all men and women, scientists are flawed. Through pride they claim too much for their discipline or like the X Club of Victorian days, they actively seek power over the public mind. 

More often they are flawed through a spritual blindness that doggedly seeks to suppress the knowledge of God that continually pushes to the surface. That's the biggest enigma in "The Grand Design". We get a glimpse of the counter-intuitive wonder of the universe together with the blindness of the authors who will do anything to deny the existence of a God: the universe self-created and spawned such a large number of other universes, that it is not surprising that ours is tweaked in such a marvelous way, for in all the other infertile universes the numbers are different. "These multiple universes arise naturally from physical law" (p.9). OK, where does physical law come from?

The title itself gives the truth away. I think it was Stephen Meyer who said that so ingrained is the idea of intelligent design that like the water a fish swims in, we can't see it. The very title implies what the authors seek to deny. And without knowing it  they have named their book after the work of His hands.


  1. Thanks for this, Roy. I found that really helpful. I wrote a piece last week for our church magazine in response to the Hawking remarks. Your response is richer than mine because it brings the insights of a real scientist as well as a theologian to the issue. As you say, 'The title gives the truth away.' It's remarkable that we can't seem to find a language to describe the wonder of nature without implying a theology. Thanks again. I'm enjoying your blog. Martin

  2. n "The Grand Design" Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics...the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism at is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.