Thursday, June 21, 2007

God at the Perimeter of Ignorance?

Here is the link to the essay "The Perimeter of Ignorance". A must read!

Neil Tyson argues with multiple examples from history that people tend to invoke God right at the limits of their understanding. When the "boundary" of their understanding gets extended, they stop invoking God for the earlier things, but instead invoke him for the updated list of things that they do not understand. He aptly calls this "the God of the Gaps".

Similar is this article below.

I particularly liked the last few paragraphs from this essay, which I reproduce below.


When scientists do talk about God, they typically invoke him at the boundaries of knowledge where we should be most humble and where our sense of wonder is greatest. Examples of this abound. During an era when planetary motions were on the frontier of natural philosophy, Ptolemy couldn't help feeling a religious sense of majesty when he wrote, "When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch the earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia." Note that Ptolemy was not weepy about the fact that the element mercury is liquid at room temperature, or that a dropped rock falls straight to the ground. While he could not have fully understood these phenomena either, they were not seen at the time to be on the frontiers of science.

In the thirteenth century, Alfonso the Wise (Alfonso X), the King of Spain who also happened to be an accomplished academician, was frustrated by the complexity of Ptolemy's epicycles. Being less humble than Ptolemy, Alfonso once mused, "Had I been around at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe."

In his 1686 masterpiece, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton lamented that his new equations of gravity, which describe the force of attraction between pairs of objects, might not maintain a stable system of orbits for multiple planets. Under this instability, planets would either crash into the Sun or get ejected from the solar system altogether. Worried about the long-term fate of Earth and other planets, Newton invoke the hand of God as a possible restoring force to maintain a long-lived solar system. Over a century later, the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace invented a mathematical approach to gravity, published in his four-volume treatise Celestial Mechanics, which extended the applicability of Newton's equations to complex systems of planets such as ours. Laplace showed that our solar system was stable and did not require the hand of a deity after all. When queried by Napoleon Bonaparte on the absence of any reference to an "author of the universe" in his book, Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

In full agreement with King Alfonso's frustrations with the universe, Albert Einstein noted in a letter to a colleague, "If God created the world, his primary worry was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us." When Einstein could not figure out how or why a deterministic universe could require the probabilistic formalisms of quantum mechanics, he mused, "It is hard to sneak a look at God's cards. But that he would choose to play dice with the world?is something that I cannot believe for a single moment." When an experimental result was shown to Einstein that, if correct, would have disproved his new theory of gravity Einstein commented, "The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not." The Danish physicist Niels Bohr, a contemporary of Einstein, heard one too many of Einstein's God-remarks and declared that Einstein should stop telling God what to do!

Today, you hear the occasional astrophysicist (maybe one in a hundred) invoke God when asked where did all our laws of physics come from, or what was around before the big bang. As we have come to anticipate, these questions comprise the modern frontier of cosmic discovery and, at the moment, they transcend the answers our available data and theories can supply. Some promising ideas, such as inflationary cosmology and string theory, already exist. These could ultimately give to the answers to those questions, thereby pushing back our boundary of awe.

My personal views are entirely pragmatic, and partly resonate with those of Galileo who, during his trial, is credited with saying, "The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." Galileo further noted, in a 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, "In my mind God wrote two books. The first book is the Bible, where humans can find the answers to their questions on values and morals. The second book of God is the book of nature, which allows humans to use observation and experiment to answer our own questions about the universe."

I simply go with what works. And what works is the healthy skepticism embodied in scientific method. Believe me, if the Bible had ever been shown to be a rich source of scientific answers and understanding, we would be mining it daily for cosmic discovery. Yet my vocabulary of scientific inspiration strongly overlaps with that of religious enthusiasts. I, like Ptolemy, am humbled in the presence of our clockwork universe. When I am on the cosmic frontier, and I touch the laws of physics with my pen, or when I look upon the endless sky from a observatory on a mountaintop, I well up with an admiration for its splendor. But I do so knowing and accepting that if I propose a God beyond that horizon, one who graces our valley of collective ignorance, the day will come when our sphere of knowledge will have grown so large that I will have no need of that hypothesis.


Infidel said...


Mayur said...

I read something similar long ago in Feynman's biography "Genius"---that he strived to understand things in terms of nature, and considered only things he couldn't understand as supernatural.