Having posted and commented on quotations from other people’s books a few times, this week I am posting a short extract from a book of mine. This is from A. Steane, Faithful to Science (pub OUP 2014), p. 60.
In my experience, doing science really well is like imaginatively entering, or taking a fantastic voyage into, another world. This could be the world of thermodynamics, or the world of quantum mechanics, or the world of tiny atoms bouncing up and down on a light field trampoline, or the world of a chemical network, or the world of a living cell, or the world of a community of gorillas, or the world of a cancerous tumour. One needs to learn to think thermodynamically or think chemical graphically or think gorilla. It takes all the mathematical and experimental tools one can muster to do this, but imagination is needed as well. Keen observation is important, but at the outset one does not always know what to look for. Make a wrong assumption and the ship of exploration will develop leaks or veer off course; the experimental alarm bells will start to ring. The ship can be steered to some extent by analytical work, but the really crucial ability is to be good at asking the right questions.
After working at a difficult problem for a long time, attacking it from all sorts of different directions, one begins to form in one’s mind a representation of the crucial components. Then, in a marvellous moment, something falls into place. The experimenter realizes what has been stopping the apparatus from working, the theoretician realizes what mathematical structure will solve the problem. The working out is still to be done, but the crucial idea is already in place, and there is little doubt that it will work.
Actually doing original science thus is not wholly different from other forms of creative human activity, and it is not completely different from, or at odds with, the attempt to live by faith. It is interesting to see the relative roles of logic and imagination in all this. Logic is not the engine of progress in science, it is the tool used to hone one’s vision and to confirm or rule out what has been guessed by intuition. But there are vastly more wrong than right intuitions that one might possibly form; what is it that makes us get the right intuitions?
image from http://wildlifesnaps.com/search_results.php?species_common=Martin,+House
Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford, Ireland. September 20th, 2009.
A poem by R.S. Thomas:
Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.
R.S. Thomas, included in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990
Here is a letter that was published in New Scientist magazine about two months ago.
“I was intrigued by your claim that science is not a belief system (4 April, p.5). Surely what it is not is a faith system. Science is belief based on evidence: faith, on the other hand, is belief irrespective of evidence.
“Science gives rise to beliefs that fit the existing evidence, allowing for them to change should new evidence make that sensible.
“Faith takes beliefs and puts them on an untouchable pedestal where they remain, no matter what contradictory evidence there is.
“Most of us frequently employ a fairly scientific belief system. Take the simple example of the day of the week. When I woke up this morning, I believed it to be Thursday, based on the evidence of my memory. Had I then looked at my computer, my phone and a newspaper and seen that day given as Friday, I would have changed my belief, trusting the evidence of the computer, phone and newspaper over my memory. However, if I applied a faith-based belief system, I would have refused to take note of the contrary evidence and insisted that the day was Thursday, no matter what.
“It is lack of faith, not lack of belief, that makes science so special and so wonderful.”
Kate Szell, London, UK
A Man Digging Potatoes, Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
So far in this blog I have tried to offer ways for people unsure about religious language to find a way in, and I have objected to various unsubstantiated or ill-argued claims coming mostly from outside the Christian movement. However, in the interests of balance and straightforwardness, I want to admit this week that the worldwide Christian movement itself has deep problems and often does much harm. I think it does a huge amount of good too, but it has its own characteristic problems and they will not go away quickly or easily.
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?
This week we had another lecture in the area of the physics of the vacuum (see Whoops! A Universe). It was the 11th Dennis Sciama Memorial Lecture, given by Professor Philip Candelas of the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford. Here are the title and abstract:
Simple Calabi-Yau Manifolds and the Landscape of String Vacua
Abstract: It is widely known that there are a great many vacua of string theory. A small subset of these lead to four-dimensional worlds that are somewhat like the world that we observe. The great majority lead to worlds very different from our own. A vacuum is determined by a Calabi-Yau manifold together with certain extra structure. I will discuss the landscape of Calabi-Yau manifolds and a programme to find realistic string vacua based on simple cases.
You don’t need to understand the technical terms in order to follow the point I wish to make. All I want to emphasize here is that this lecture illustrates very well how completely wrong it is to describe the state of the universe in the absence of matter as somehow simple and not in need of explanation. Some of the best mathematical brains on the planet are puzzling over the nature of vacuum, and it is far from obvious or easy. And yet we continue to see utterly misleading headlines like the following (selected randomly from the web):
I will be speaking next Monday (23rd Feb) in Birmingham at an event called “Can Christianity Help Science Improve the World”, alongside Peter Atkins. The event is organised jointly by Christians in Science Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Atheist Secular and Humanist society. Arts lecture theatre, 7pm-9pm.
The following are some reflections on Soil and Soil.
Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul (Aurum Press 2001) defies the normal categories of writing. It is political and spiritual at the same time. How do you do that? McIntosh shows the way. He is driven by concern for social justice, and also by the feeling that yes, for goodness’ sake, we are spiritual creatures and are allowed to sing. We are allowed to do dumb things like take our boots off in order to enact physically our recognition of the holiness of place. This does not negate, but rather empowers the crucial exercise of getting facts straight and getting objectivity in view. Also it does not negate but rather empowers the otherwise dull drudgery of writing to an M.P. or organising a petition or getting permission to address a public enquiry.
The above image is from www.nature.org.
I recently finished reading Alastair McIntosh’s wonderful book Soil and Soul (Aurum Press 2001). Next week I will write my own thoughts on the book as a whole. This week I would like simply to present an extract. Here it is (starting on page 31 of the paperback edition):
It would have been around 1970 that the fishing started to change in the Hebrides. I was coming up to fifteen years old and it was a very sudden thing; disturbingly sudden. We’d put to sea and find ourselves catching nothing, without apparent reason. The tide would be normal. There’d be no hint of east in the wind. Just nothing. Very dead, as Finlay would say. Conditions would be like that for about two weeks, and then the fish would come back in. And then: nothing again. So, very dead. Why?
The above image by James Woodend, UK can be found at Images Inspired by Nature. It is the winning image in the Royal Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year award, 2014, in the category Earth and Space.
This week’s entry got delayed by the beginning of Oxford term and some other writing commitments; apologies about that. Also, this is a week in which people have been much concerned with issues surrounding freedom of speech and its violent opponents. A brave champion of human rights that I would like to mention is Raif Badawi, now a prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia and subject to barbaric and unjust forms of “punishment” for actions that, as far as I can tell, were in fact balanced and truthful.
How to write a blog about science and religion in a world where things like this are going on?
How much we all need to champion reason and rationality, along with all the other components of a full and grown-up humanity!
This essay, as I said in my previous blog post, is about the fact that reason and rationality are not alternatives to trust in the “Father” spoken of by Jesus of Nazareth, but, on the contrary, they are its partners. They are championed by such faith.
Once upon a time there was a race of bipedal creatures. They ran around all over the place, meeting, exploring, finding food, going hungry, hurting themselves and each other, taking care of themselves and each other, and gazing at the stars.
These creatures had an unusual sort of anatomical feature: their two legs needed different types of food. Many foods could nourish their whole body, including both legs, but some types of food were only good for the left leg, some for the right. So, as a result of this, most of the creatures had one leg longer than the other and they walked about in a sort of lurching way. They did their best to find foods for both legs.