Monday, October 01, 2007

What’s God got to do with it

There’s a curious article in the September issue of the New Humanist by Yves Gingras, a historian and sociologist of science at the University of Quebec. Gingras is unhappy that scientists are using references to God to sell their science (or rather, their books), thereby “wrap[ping] modern scientific discoveries in an illusory shroud that insinuates a link between cutting-edge science and solutions to the mysteries of life, the origins of the universe and spirituality.” But who are these unscrupulous bounders? Well… Paul Davies, and… and Paul Davies, and… ah, and Frank Tipler. Well yes, Tipler. My colleagues and I decided recently that we should introduce the notion of the Tipler Point, being the point beyond which scientists lose the plot and start rambling about the soul/immortality/parallels between physics and Buddhism. A Nobel prize is apt to take you several notches closer to the Tipler Point, though clearly it’s not essential. And such mention of Buddhism brings us to Fritjof Capra, and if we’re going to admit him to the ranks of ‘scientists’ who flirt with mysticism then the game is over and we might as well bring in Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner.

Gingras suggests that the anthropic principle is “bizarre and clearly unscientific”, and that it has affinities with intelligent design. Now, I’m no fan of the anthropic principle (see here), but I will concede that it is actually an attempt to do the very opposite of what intelligent design proposes – to obviate the need to interpret the incredible fine-tuning of the physical universe as evidence of design. The fact is that this fine-tuning is one of the most puzzling issues in modern physics, and if I were a Christian of the sort who believes in a Creator (not all have that materialist outlook), I’d seize on this as a pretty strong indication that my beliefs are on to something. The Templeton Foundation, another of Gingras’s targets, has hosted some thoughtful meetings on the theme of fine-tuning, and while I’m agnostic about the value and/or motives of the Templeton Foundation, I don’t obviously see a need to knock them for raising the question.

Paul Davies has indeed hit a lucrative theme in exploring theological angles of modern cosmology, but he does so in a measured and interesting way in which I don’t at all recognize Gingras’s description of “X-files science” or an “oscillation between science and the paranormal.” Frankly, I’m not sure Gingras is on top of his subject – when, as I expected resignedly, he fishes out Stephen Hawking’s famous “mind of God” allusion, he seems to see it as a serious suggestion, and not simply as an attempt by an excellent scientist but indifferent writer to inject a bit of pizzazz into his text. Hawking’s reference is obviously theologically naïve, and gains supposed gravitas only because of the oracular status that Hawking has, for rather disturbing reasons, been accorded.

Still, I suppose I will also be deemed guilty of peddling religious pseudo-science for daring to look, in my next book, at the theological origins of science in the twelfth century…

5 comments:

Lisa said...

Your next book? What is it called and what about?

JimmyGiro said...

Speaking as GOD, I'm annoyed at all these new theories postulated by religious lawyers.

If I'd meant for intelligent design I would have sent Euclid down from the mount with some elements rather than that Moses bloke.

By the way, I'd give it a few eons before going into the crab nebula right now; I've just done a load of dark matter!

Philip Ball said...

Ah Jim, you can still make me giggle after all these years.

Lisa: the book is called "Universe of Stone" (UK: Bodley Head; US: Harper Collins), and it is about the intellectual changes in Western philosophy/theology in the twelfth century that led to the emergence of the Gothic style of church building, focusing particularly on Chartres. There are more details on my web site.

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