Thoughts for a debate at Cheltenham Science Festival, June 4th
Reductionism and Scientific Ontology My thesis would be that the central issues of the debate are the epistemology of reductionism and the ontology of modern physics.
First epistemology: The most important correlate of reductionism is that the universe is governed by a set of natural laws. Modern Physics would argue that, knowing these laws is sufficient for knowing the Universe. The discovery of the Higg’s boson at CERN, by completing the last gap in the Standard Model, would seem to triumphantly reconfirm this notion. And yet, there are obvious problems with reductionism, the most obvious one being the irreducibility of biology into physics. We have a huge epistemological problem here: we cannot explain complex emergent phenomena by reducing them to particles or strings. The problem becomes ever harder when we need to explain agency, for example economics or consciousness.
To Ontology: If we accept that all that is real are particles (or strings) then Science has nothing to say about Religion; like two complete strangers they sit on the opposite banks of a vast ontological abyss. If however, we accept that the ontology of the universe (i.e. “reality”) includes emergence and agency, then the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, we have moved away from Determinism and have embraced Indeterminism, not as a sign of Ignorance or Epistemological Weakness but as an ontological fact. We can then accept without feeling uncomfortable that emergent phenomena are impossible to predict (i.e. computed in advance) regardless of the computing power available. In this sense, Emergence expresses a universal agency for creativity that is unpredictable and yet at the same time, scientifically comprehensible. Unpredictability is neither mysterious nor metaphysical.
If nature is irreducible, then what? It is widely accepted today that physics is more “advanced” than biology because it is more “mathematical”. I think it too early to draw this conclusion. In fact, I would bet that the opposite will become apparent in the decades to come. Physics, as it advances beyond reductionism, as it faces through experimentation new levels of reality which are irreducible, will come to the realization that complexity rules not only at large scales but at the fundamental fabric of reality too. Physics, one day, will be more like biology.
The Unifying Theory of Everything as Jehovah-in-disguise The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of monotheism has much to do with the inherent conviction of western scientists that “a unifying theory must exist”. Whether it is strings or not, the idea of an “equation that will describe everything” – or a “fundamental law of nature” - echoes the mathematical mysticism of the Pythagoreans and Plato. But why should there be a unifying principle? Perhaps the universe is governed by a number of driving forces, or not governed by anything at all? Perhaps the universe is evolving by constantly finding new ways to do so. Perhaps we know this already: classical physics may be an emergent phenomenon of quantum physics.
Defining God(s) the Science Way Finally, as in all discussions about Religion, one must define the word “God”. Since Galileo science has gathered enough evidence to support the claim that a Creator God - although not completely impossible – is probably unlikely. From this, orthodox-cum-reductionist point of scientific view, “The God Particle” is a very ironic way to describe the Higg’s boson! Nevertheless, a non-reductionist Science would be less opposed to a broad definition of divinity. But do we need such a Science? One that could replace medieval-mindset religions with a new sciento-spiritual ethic? One closer to - as Carl Sagan used to say - an “informed worship” of the natural creativity of the universe? But this might be a topic of a future debate!
Event Information The God Particle: Is Science the New Religion? Town Hall, June 4th, 4.15-5.30pm What would scientific proof for a ‘theory of everything’ mean for religion? The world’s largest particle accelerator switches on in Switzerland this year. It will hunt for the Higgs boson, often called the ‘God Particle’ for its importance in confirming our most fundamental theories of matter. In an international panel facilitated by physicist Jim Al-Khalili , former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, CERN particle physicist Albert de Roeck and Greek journalistGeorge Zarkadakis debate whether science could ever address the ultimate questions of reality. In association with the British Council (South East Europe) Beautiful Science project