The Mystery in Science vs We Know Everything (nearly)

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There is something I’ve observed from my (admittedly limited) experience of people in science.  There are people who are often leaders in their fields, who make progress and extend understanding, who tend to be mostly occupied with what we don’t understand.  Thats what drives them, and they are happy to admit that they find themselves humbled by the mysteries their subject still holds for them.

This is in great contrast to what the ‘man or woman on the street’ thinks about scientists, which tends to be that they know so much about everything that what they don’t know is hardly worth knowing.  There is also a large group within science, the type that want everything everywhere to be organised and tied down, who have a similar view that science has almost discovered everything thats important, and whats left is mainly refining accuracy and tidying some loose ends.

This latter view has been shared by men throughout the ages.  To quote an example often ascribed to Lord Kelvin in 1900 ;

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

In fact this may have been misattributed to him, but there were people who thought this at the time.  Of course, over the next couple of decades there were two great revolutions in science – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – both of which turned many assumptions completely upside down.  The same could be said of the discoveries of Newton, Copernicus and Darwin, of several of the Greek philosophers, and many others before and after.

Its understandable that this assumption has slipped into peoples worldview yet again.  We have sent people to the moon.  We have built computers that sit in our pockets, and can do things that would once have seemed like utter and undeniable magic.  We have eradicated diseases from the planet, and tamed the power of nature in countless ways.  We understand the process through which creatures developed from small cells into complex organisms than walk, and talk, and ponder on the meaning of their existence.

Yet in many ways we have less reason to think like this than we ever have.  We have good reason to believe -from the Cosmic Background Radiation observations by WMAP – that what we see and detect around us is less than 5% of what is actually there.  The rest of it appears to be a mixture of things we have called “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy”, both named because we just don’t know what they are.

We know something about light and radio waves and microwaves etc, but a simple experiment done with light – Young’s Slit Experiment – is still deeply mysterious.  We have developed a mathematical model – the quantum formalism – which is brilliantly accurate and drives much of the modern world from phones to GPS.  But we simply don’t understand what its describing in any meaningful way.  In fact Young’s Slit Experiment has been refined now to show that a single photon can pass through both slits (in that it interferes with itself at some level), and yet if you measure it, you will only ever ‘see’ it at one slit.  This is just the thin end of the wedge with Quantum Physics – its gets stranger the deeper you go.

Follow that photon into the extensively tested and proven theory of Relativity, and from the perspective of a photon time does not exist.  To us and our instruments however it moves – always at a fixed speed away from you no mater how fast you approach it!  Trying to imagine what the world must seem like from the perspective of a photon (or any weightless particle) is a mind boggling mystery if ever there was one, especially if you consider that relativity also states that space has collapsed to a single ‘point’ for all them.  There have even been a suggestion by a leading physicist that there is only a single electron, a single photon, moving backwards and forwards in time to create the universe.  From a materialist perspective this is crazy, but its not quite as crazy from the best theories we have to describe nature.   Things are certainly not as they seem.

The holographic principle suggests that the information in the universe is described by its surface area, as if the whole universe is some kind of projection ‘from the outside’.  Wherever you look in so many areas there are massive great mysteries hinting little clues towards understanding out great ignorance.

I won’t venture outside of physics right now, but in areas such as consciousness and free will, things are just as weird and poorly understood.  What I’m not suggesting here is that we have not come a long way, nor that science should in some way be distrusted.  Its a very necessary process when trying to understand the aspects of the world we can conduct experiments on.  It avoids the ingrained human habit of looking for patterns whether they are there or not.

I do think its very important, however, that we celebrate mystery.  Not to the extent that our brains fall out whilst we try to work out which group of aliens built the pyramids, but as an important part of why we are alive.  Like most people I was put off science at school.  It was simply a task to transfer text books into our brain, to learn about instruments and how to use them.  Far better surely to at least in part teach it to people (including children) as an adventure, one we’re just at the start of.  How much more interesting, how much more likely each one of us would be to actually want to learn something new.

Categories: Religion, Science


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When I think back to why I once decided to be an atheist, there were two main foundations on which this was based.

The first was simply that it seemed like wishful thinking by people who understood no better.  Once you understand the fundamentals of cosmology and evolution, there is simply no need for primitive fairly tales.  The majesty of truly ancient cosmological, geological and biological processes slowly carving out our existance takes on a logical and explanatory power that wipes the floor next to some archetypal father figure in the sky lecturing us on morals.  This one I can now see is easily corrected, but not easily heard, and so it must be left for when people are ready to listen.  This is more true than ever in this age when we think we as a species understand so much, just as most previous ages have done.  Essentially, once you believe in a creator god, its clear that he very deliberately made his existence implicit rather than explicit.  As Jesus put it,  “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.”

The other reason I became an atheist was suffering.  It overwhelmed me as a teenager – not my own suffering but that of so many of the creatures living on the planet (this was probably not helped by my music tastes at the time which included the likes of The Cure).   From the innocent causes of suffering; of predators hunting their dinner, or disease, or hunger – right through to the cruelty of snares and poaching, of violence and war and the cruelty of hatred and indifference.  It seemed very clear to me at the time that there was only one sane conclusion about any supposed creator.  Either god is weak and powerless to do anything about this, which makes him a fraud.   Or he has the power to change it and chooses not to, in which case he is not loving and therefore – again – a fraud.

It was only later that I found out this was a well known argument.  So do I now try to love a cruel god ?  Am I relaxed about suffering ?  The answer to both is no, but my perspective has definitely changed.  Compassion and empathy are human traits, but they are also choices.  And there are choices in how we respond to suffering and difficulties; whether we become hard as a protection, or more sympathetic to the condition in our fellow creatures.

I think this process happens regardless of our beliefs, although a belief system anchored in compassion and forgiveness has the power to affect choices.  But we all struggle in these things, and we all equally know people of all faiths and of none can be both cruel and kind.

There does however seem to be a need for suffering, certainly when you look at this life as a brief preparation for eternity.  Just like a body cannot survive without pain generated by its nerves, so the soul cannot truly understand love in a world devoid of suffering.  The journey of the Buddha only started when the seals that kept out suffering failed.  The archetypal spoilt child finds very little room inside their being for empathy.

When your worldview has changed such that you can actually think about why an intelligent and loving all powerful god would choose to create living sentient beings, beings he creates in his own image such that the temporal becomes atemporal, then there must be an aspect of this life which is a preperation.  The bible has a quote where god says that he will take those he loves and “refine them like silver in the furnace”.

It can be difficult to accept suffering when confronted with it, especially when its raw and close.  But maybe thats necessary in the big scale of things in a way thats difficult to see moment to moment.  We can do our best to change it where we see a small opportunity. We can do our best to take our own challenges gracefully. I’m certainly not qualified to talk about any of this,   I’ve had a very lucky life, and am naturally both lazy and selfish.  But nonetheless I do believe that when we die we will see that its all exactly as it had to be, meaningless as that may seem at times.  As Julian of Norwich put it, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

update:  The TV series Blue Bloods this week ended with a quote I’d not heard before, and it seemed maybe appropriate to quote here;

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.


Categories: Religion