Contemplation: Science and Mysticism

I am questioning whether or not this post might be better fit on I Wish I Was a Scientist seeing as it will primarily consist of contemplation and discussion concern particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider (LHD hereafter).  That being said I am choosing to include it here, on General Lordisimo, because I intend for it to be a contemplation much along the same lines as the numerous other contemplations which have become a recent staple of my blogging here.  That all being said I may add a link to this from I Wish I Was a Scientist after the post is finished (see this whole first paragraph is like some kind of introductory disclosure about self linking or some such).

Anyways, yeah, particle physics, fucking sweet right?  I have for a long time thought so, and there is some excitement about the fact that CERN will be firing up the LHC again in just a few weeks (after a year long hiatus due to some major technical difficulties).  Who knows what kind of discoveries will be made once the LHC is in running conditions.  Perhaps we might even be toying with the risk of destroying the world with such a powerful scientific experiment (I have been assured that this is relatively unlikely, but then again, so is the zombie apocalypse, but that ain’t no reason to get lazy on preparedness).   But really, quantum and particle physics gets right down to the core of what makes the universe tick and tock by focusing in on the subatomic particles that make up all existence.  It is complex and confusing stuff really.

Which is what brought me around to this posting.  Yesterday morning I read an article in The New York Times titled “The Collider, a Particle and a Theory About Fate” written by Dennis Overbye.  It was a fascinating article about the previous technical difficulties encountered with the LHC as well as some new radical theories about the Higgs Boson (a subatomic particle that many scientists are hoping to observe with the use of the LHC) and the potential for non-linear particle motion and cause-and-effect.  Really I suggest you read the article to get the full picture of these new theories, as I am not confident in my ability to articulate them accurately.

Now, as I said above, I am pretty fascinated by things like quantum and particle physics and what discoveries the LHC may make.  I have felt this way for a long time, probably since back when I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in college.  But my interest and fascination has not prevented a healthy dose of skepticism.  While I tend to agree that matter is made up of molecules which are in turn made up of atoms which are further in turn made up of a whole slew of sub atomic particles (probably the best known ones being the Neutron, Proton, and Electron) i have no means of proving this beyond pointing to a bunch of research performed by a bunch of scientists (many of whom are dead).  In much the same way that I accept the origin of the universe as being started during the Big Bang some long ass time ago (we’re talking quite a good number of billions of years ago folks — like 13.7), but I only know this because a bunch of scientists have reached a consensus on this and then shared it with the general public.

Where I run into a problem with the sciences in general and things like quantum or astrophysics is when these disciplines become so overwhelmingly esoteric that to most of us, who are incapable of comprehending the numbers and the language, it is almost mystical babblings.  It isn’t so much that I feel like science is trying to pull a quick one on me and just making up a bunch of shit, I honestly believe that the people in these fields are doing some serious work, but I am not able to validate any of that work beyond a general acceptance that “yes, this is the way the world works.”

And you know what I call that acceptance?  I call it “faith.”  That’s right, I am damn well suggesting that for many of us, the sciences and their explanations of why things are the way they are comes down to a matter of faith. 

Now I am sure that there a whole ton of religiously devout individuals who would love to leap all over this and say something like “See, science is a religion too!  So we are justified in promoting intelligent design and other quasi-sciences to be taught in public schools and all.”  Sorry, but this is not what I am suggesting or defending at all.  While I do tend to believe that ultimately people accept scientific understandings on a degree of faith, I am not saying that science is the same as, or some sort of, religion.  Science is, as best as I can understand it, a process and procedure for observing the world, forming hypothesise that provide explanations for observations, testing out hypothesise, and then adjusting and changing them based on further observations.  Science must maintain a degree of skepticism and uncertainty because even though something has repeatedly been observed in acting a certain way, that does not necessitate that it will continue to act that way in all cases.  Ultimately the sciences rely on a sense of probability and a general consensus that “this is going to keep happening.” 

A great example of all this would be the observance of gravity, which we can accept as a general law of physics.  basically we can test it again and again by dropping shit and coming to a consensus that stuff is going to keep falling back down to the Earth.  Does this mean that things will never not fall down or perhaps fly up and away?  Not at all, in fact there are experiments which can create these alternate effects, but in general, gravity will act upon objects and pull them toward a significantly massive body like our home planet.  What happens with science is that certainties can only be reached to a degree because there is always an alternative possibility or explanation which could be reached.  As such the scientific studies are constantly changing and advancing.

Yes, there needs to be a degree of faith, in the sense of faith as a means of believing something in the face of uncertainty.  But the faith in science is supplemented by the scientific method which dictates the process and procedure for coming to conclusions and revising them in lieu of new evidence or discoveries.  Faith does not necessitate a religious belief as far as I am concerned.  I believe that faith is an innate part of consciences that allows for said conscience to interact with uncertainties of the world.  Both science and religion provide platforms through which faith can be utilized to allow and understanding and promote interaction with the world, but this does not mean that the platforms are the same or even that similar.  Even the way in which faith is used in either one, science or religion (or actually the many types of religions) is different.  Basically what my point is, is that just because I think that there is faith involved in science observation and acceptance, that does not mean that there is an equal and legitmate playing ground with religion.  Religion and science are ultimately two different systems which rely on different processes and procedures to create an understanding of things.

So to bring it back to the article and my skepticism about things like the Higgs Boson and the way in which the quantum world works, I fear that there is a divide that might in some ways make the sciences take on more of an appearance of a religion.  The Higgs Boson has been called The God particle by some, to express the implications it could have on the way in which the universe is understood.  My concern and skepticism, again, isn’t that the scientists are not doing actual science, it is instead that the studies are become so specialized as to create a kind of priesthood that can access the knowledge and express it to the masses.  Why this becomes a problem is because it changes the way in which we use faith in regards to science.  Is our faith directed at the observations that allow us an understanding, or is it a faith in an authority that dictates what is or is not.

Isaac Asimov, in his wonderous book Foundation contemplated a future in which the sciences could be leveraged as a religion by taking advantage of the esoteric nature of the scientific knowledge.  The scientists who understood the math and knowledge did not see the science as anything religious, but the lay people, who could not understand the numbers and procedures assumed a degree of divine influence in the workings of technology.  It is in this way that science and religion could theoretically converge, and that, in some sense it already does. 

I can develop a general grasp about the nature of sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics, but I cannot do the mathematics which make it relevant.  I have not observed a particle collider and drawn conclusions from what I witnessed.  The most interaction I have had with this realm of science is in regards to what I have read from people who have done the math or made the observations.  I am forced to put my trust into the primary sources instead of being a primary source myself.  Could I learn the math and make the observations myself, certainly if I am willing to devote the time and effort to learn the procedures and processes.  But will I?  Probably not, because in many ways it is simpler to just read what the scientist have written.  As such I relinquish a degree of certainty to the realm of trust and faith in the workings of others.

And what about that elusive Higgs Boson, so aptly called the god Particle.  Doesn’t that assumed existence of it, paired with the vacancy of a certain observation, reek of the utmost faith in a thing which can solve the problems posed by the current studies?  Doesn’t this particle essentially become a god, especially when well respected scientists start suggesting that the search for such a particle might not work because the particle deems that it should not work.  What do things like quantum entanglement (what Einstein famously refered to as “spooky action at a distance”) and string theory become to us, and even our scientists who study them, where even our observing methods fail us?  The math might support them, but what does that mean in lieu of an actual observation?

Honestly I don’t know, but at times it makes me uncomfortable and leads to a lot of unanswerable questions.

Allow me to close by clarifying that the above is not an attempt to really criticize religious belief, which is perfectly fine for those who have it.  I am not a religious person, and never really have been.  But that being said I fully respect the right for other people to maintain their personal beliefs regardless of whether I agree with them or not.  On that note however I think it is import, whether we are religious or not, to be able to comprehend where the similarities and difference between science and religion exist.  It would be a mistake to deny any similarities, but I would say it would be an even greater mistake to assume that they are the same.  Science and religion are decidedly different from each other though they both serve similar purposes in offering explanations for why things are the way they are.  The distinctions are often overlooked in debates between matters of science and religion which leads to all sorts of confusion and sore feelings.  We need to be careful with them in regards to how we interact and understand the world regardless of which side of the spectrum we might be on.

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~ by Nathaniel on October 14, 2009.

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