I often rant on science and religion here, and one subset of science and religion issues I have a special interest in is how such matters play out in an Islamic context.

If you happen to have an interest in science and religion in Islam, I highly recommend Salman Hameed’s Irtiqa blog. Hameed is an astronomer teaching at Hampshire College, who comes from a Pakistani background. He also has his ear to the ground concerning a wide variety of pseudoscientific nonsense in the Islamic world, and regularly provides some of the sanest commentary on Islam and science to be found.

bookmark_borderBlobs of substance

One of the both frustrating and rewarding things about teaching physics is how much I have to work against the grain of everyday common sense thinking.

The obvious example is how almost everybody, unless they’re corrupted by having physics beat into their head for years on end, has an Aristotelian conception of force, inertia, and motion. But I also run into a more subtle obstacle. Most everyone has a quasi-Aristotelian conception of matter, of substance. And I run into traces of this not just among undergraduates, but in many common antimaterialist intuitions, often defended in sophisticated philosophical terms, that support the commonsense notion that there has to be an irreducibly mind-like principle at work in the universe and in our brains. After all, what is mere physics about, but material things? And what is matter, but blobs of substance that mix and collide with each other?

But such a conception can lead to all sorts of confusion, such as considering relationships between material objects as somehow separate from physical reality. Relationships become part of a shadowy Platonic plane of existence beyond the material. The math I put down on the blackboard becomes a glimpse of an immaterial essence; some principle that structures the otherwise shapeless blobs of substance that make up what we play with in the lab.

But to a physicist—someone brainwashed by having physics beat into their head for years on end—it makes no sense to talk about material objects, such as elementary particles, without their relationships. A photon or an electron is a bundle of properties that tell us how they interact. There is no “material substance” that remains after you strip away properties (charge, mass, spin, etc. etc.) that have meaning only in the context of interactions. If you’re talking about matter, you’re already talking about patterns and relations—inseparably, not as an attachment from a Platonic realm superimposed on shapeless blobs.

I sometime run into the accusation that materialists continue to rely on an outdated, 19th century conception of matter. Nonsense. Those of us inclined toward physicalism hold our views partly because we have a very 21st century conception of physical entities. The difficulty we often face is in explaining why. It becomes a hard task, since where most people’s intuitive ideas of matter are concerned, the 19th century would be a vast improvement. Whether we’re in the classroom or rolling our eyes at theistic philosophers, the quasi-Aristotelian “blobs of substance” picture is still an important obstacle we have to deal with.

bookmark_borderTaibbi on Fish and Eagleton

Stanley Fish reviewed Terry Eagleton’s atheist-bashing book in the New York Times this week. I read the review, and emailed a friend that “it seems to be about a book talking nonsense about science, written by somebody clueless about science, reviewed by someone equally clueless about science.”

I was going to leave it at that, since I had (and have) no intention of reading a book that promises largely to be drivel, and academese drivel at that. (I like drivel, but other varieties.) Still, Matt Taibbi just blogged about the review. He’s one of my favorite writers, who does real quality rants. So I thought I’d point it out.

bookmark_borderA disproof of God

Since at least the European Enlightenment, there have been defenders of a distant, remote version of God. Deists don’t generally have a lot of influence on popular religion, but mainly provide a way of maintaining both intellectual respectability and the ability to call oneself devout.

A common argument in the service of deism is that a miracle-performing God actually works against himself. After all, God is responsible for the Laws of Nature that miracles violate. Wouldn’t it be a more impressive God, a greater God, who accomplishes his purposes for humans without having to tinker with the natural order? Isn’t a God behind the scenes, who accomplishes everything through the lawful order established at creation, a more efficient, more economical, more majestic God? Doesn’t the miracle-mongering, prayer-granting theistic conception of God reduce the Author of the Universe to a second-rate hack constantly in need of editing the story?

If you don’t like Enlightenment deism, similar ideas can be expressed in a more Platonic idiom, where God is all the greater by not being directly entangled with all the imperfections of material existence.

Let’s combine these insights with the profound metaphysical intuitions expressed by the ontological argument.

1. God must be such that no greater being is conceivable.
(Seems reasonable. Stolen from the ontological argument.)

2. A being that accomplishes a purpose indirectly, with less involvement, is greater than one who has to oversee or modify its plans.
(Deists, NeoPlatonists, and a boatload of modern theologians concerned to reconcile God with science seem to think so.)

3. The least level of involvement is no involvement at all.
(There is no minimum level of involvement, as we can always conceive a more indirect approach. This is the same way there is no minimum positive real number. No involvement at all is an infimum, the way 0 is the infimum of the set of positive real numbers.)

4. It is not possible to achieve a purpose with no involvement at all.
(The purpose can still be achieved, but if you’re not involved, not even indirectly, you don’t achieve anything.)

5. Therefore a God that achieved the creation of our universe does not exist.
(If God was at all involved, 1-3 are problems. If God wasn’t involved, 4 is the obstacle.)

In other words, the greatest possible God is a God who does not exist.

bookmark_borderOverdoing Origins

In public controversies over science, there’s a lot of interest in questions concerning the origins of things. Evolution, cosmology, the origin of life—these are considered big questions. I see this in the classroom as well. I like to devote a fair bit of time to questions by students, which can range far beyond what’s in their textbooks. I often get questions about the big bang. This is good; I get to take them on a whirlwind tour of some interesting physics, starting with general relativity. I mess with their concept of time.

But I also wonder. I never get diverted into that sort of discussion because somebody asks me seemingly naive questions that can lead to profound thinking about physics. These are students who haven’t been corrupted by too much physics knowledge yet, so I keep hoping they don’t take too much for granted. Yet nobody asks why the Newtonian gravity equation they first learn is an inverse square law rather than something else. No one asks about whether we can have negative mass. They just take F=GmM/r2 as a formula to use in solving some idiot problems, no questions asked. It’s only when they get curious about the big bang—something about origins—that they give me the opportunity to shake things up.

So I have to ask if this is mainly an artifact of our intellectual culture, linked perhaps with theistic religious habits, that puts so much emphasis on “origins” questions. We seem to have the prejudice that if we sort out the events of creation—of the universe, of humans as a species, and so forth—that gives us some profound knowledge of what is to follow. Origin stories determine the important features of what we have today. God infuses his holy purpose into his creation as he creates it: all that matters is foreshadowed from the Beginning. Even if we start doubting the gods, secular echoes of the sacred Time of the Ancestors remain with us.

I shouldn’t complain about whatever excuse I get to talk about interesting science. But I also worry that emphasizing origins distorts our understanding of science. It certainly isn’t true to the physics. There are vast amounts of profoundly important physics that have little to do with the cosmology of the early universe. And it simply isn’t true that if you understand the big bang, you automatically know the important features of our universe, 13.7 billion years after the fact.

Intellectual nonbelief today is unavoidable deeply colored by its recent history, dominated by an oppositional stance. I suspect that if we were to achieve a truly post-theistic culture, things would be different. Physical cosmology would be a perfectly respectable and exciting subdiscipline of physics, but it would have less of an aura of Significance. Evolution would remain key to understanding life, but perhaps be less entangled in conceptions of a human nature fixed once-and-for-all by its origins. Maybe we would realize better that we live in the here and now if we did not feel compelled to ask how we fit into an Original Drama, with a script written by the gods in a sacred past.