Are We All Theists?

No doubt you’ve had this conversation with someone you know:

A:  Nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

B:  How do you know?

A:  Science.

B:  Do you know the science, or did you just believe someone who told you the science?

A:  I know that scientists agree.

B:  That’s not the same as knowing.

A:  Shut up, dick.

B:  You know I’m right.

Or maybe your version was about the Big Bang, or about quantum mechanics, or that the earth is round and whether there’s a teapot orbiting the sun.  Either way, it’s all the same thing:  we take those things on faith that we can’t know ourselves.

When it comes to science, most people can grasp the basic foundations of human understanding.  It’s fairly easy to understand that the moon orbits the earth which orbits the sun which is adrift in a vast sea of stars with basically nothing in between.  Most people understand that matter can be broken down into tiny things called atoms, some understand that there are even smaller bits, but after the Plank length there’s not much use in pursuing further detail.   Save for the experts, whether they be academic or applied scientists, there’s little reason for a person to tax their mind with why photons have a dual nature as wave and particle.  Is this true? Yes it is.  How do we know?  CAN most of us know?  There are ways of explaining it that can outline the concept, but the proof of such a notion is virtually unknowable to the layman.  The underlying math is far too complicated to be accessed and the experimental data is meaningless without a degree in physics.

There is evidence all around us that scientists are right.  Electricity, radio, nuclear power, microprocessing, all of these things required someone, even if it wasn’t you or I, that understood the underlying physical characteristics of matter and energy to develop.  You can refuse to believe that the sun is the product of fusion, but it’s impossible to assert that the Tsar Bomba was not.  But when it comes to questions that don’t have such obvious real-world applications, questions like the nature of nonlocality, curved spacetime, or the first cause (see: the creation of the universe) will almost certainly evade the direct understanding of the average man, even after they are explained by science.  So what is an natural-/human-/atheist to do?

In a series about cosmology sponsored by NPR, biologist Ursula Goodenough describes how she has come to terms with those things she, and science, cannot understand.  She has made peace with mystery, not-knowing for her is good enough.  (baw)  And what has mystery given her in return?  “My covenant with mystery anchors my being,” she says, it gives her ‘peace of mind.’  Now, I don’t know about ya’ll, but hearing this from an accomplished scientist makes me woozy.  Science IS knowing, how can someone whose life’s quest is to know settle herself with an unbearable incongruity of mystery?  Is she just giving up and tagging the word ‘Mystery’ onto a personal God and leaving it at that?

Reading this account I got to thinking about how little we can positively know in the first place.  Goodenough is a biologist, she knows the ins-and-outs of the chemicals that make us up.  She rubs elbows with the people who conceived the very models of the universe to which I, and I imagine many of you, have come to regard as true. Yet even she acknowledges that she and her colleages will never know the cause of everything, and that at some level, they shouldn’t even try.  And though a mindset like this is unlikely to breed any fundamental leaps in the scienctific paradigm, it is the same mindset that nearly every human being must adopt in order to move forward in a world they cannot know.

Does this place folks like me (hard atheists who out-right reject supernatural fantasies like ESP, wishing/praying and magic ‘souls’ that live forever) in the same category as religious zealots?  Because I do not (and according to Goodenough, cannot) directly know the basic origin and operation of the universe, is it unfair of me to ridicule others for their cosmology?  Is faith a measure of arrogance?  Am I what I hate?

I think the answer is no, and my reason for this draws from the very quantum-level properties that I probably don’t understand a lick of.   The principle of uncertainty has disseminated into popular nomenclature fairly well.   We cannot know everything about a particle’s location, only a very reliable probability.  (Einstein HATED this fact, but it is nonetheless true.) Also commonly known is the fact that the act of observation affects the circumstances of a given quantum system – the universe does not coalesce until we look at it.  Physicist have also shown that observation not only affects the present of a reaction, but also its past.  Objects exist in a suspended state until they are examined, at which point they collapse into a single concrete outcome.

That’s right.  Particles literally decide their pasts based on independent observation.  That means that, in some ways, the past does not exist yet.  It also means that knowledge, consciousness itself, is a fundamental principle of how the universe behaves now AND behaves in the past.  So. while there may be a limit to the level of detail in my picture of the universe, so too is the universe limited by my (not) knowing of it.  Any underlying reality is still subject to awareness, regardless of whose awareness that is.

With this connection between mind-universe firmly in place (it makes me feel so good, even if it isn’t true) I’m once again terrified by the prospect that I have simply created a personal religion that carries me through the dark introspection of not-knowing.  But there is a very fundamental difference between a world view that acknowledges the limits of the mind (and reality) and one that subscribes to myths that hand those limits to an outside actor (like the ‘Lord’).  The more deeply I examine the universe, the more it will look like the scientific models I currently take for granted.  If I had a reason to doubt this, I could simply take a look myself and either 1) see that I was wrong to doubt science or 2) publish my findings and change science to reflect my observations.  That’s what science is: people looking deeper and finding the same things to be true over and over again.

A man of ‘faith’ will not share this certainty.  He can look and find his God in everything, but it will not be the same God that I will find, or you, or Ghandi or Osama Bin Laden or Tom Cruise.  Because his God, unlike science, is unchangeable.  There is nothing he will ever see that will convince him he is wrong.  The universe may be only partially knowable, but it exists, and so do I.  I don’t need to walk to France to know there is a Paris.

Categories: Features, science

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