Saturday, August 29, 2009

Evolving Utopia Part 5

Part 5: Fundamentals

The difference between doing religion and doing science is that science has to work. If your scientific conclusion is that "such-and-such" is going to happen, and "such-and-such" doesn't happen, you have to throw away the scientific argument that led to that conclusion and try something else.
Religions are generally based on the sayings of some prophet or messiah who either writes or says something considered inspired. If that doesn't work you only have two choices: you get the prophet or messiah (if still alive) to change his mind and say something different; or you get another prophet or messiah to say something different (which starts a new movement). That's how Paul changed the Jesus movement, a Jewish Sect, into the Christian Religion.

But if you can't get your messiah to change his mind, and you can't find a new messiah, you are stuck with a religion that doesn't work. You have no way to change it unless you, yourself, are a prophet or messiah. If your science doesn't work you merely change it to something that does work. You don't have to be a prophet, you don't even have to have an academic position. Your ideas just have to work better. This is always possible, but it isn't always easy.

The most difficult aspect to doing science, especially on the fundamental level, is that you have to "believe in" science as it is practiced in the present, while, at the same time, searching for some instance in which science as practiced is "wrong" or, at least, incomplete. You have to be prepared to "believe in" and "not believe in" science at the very same time.

My personal experience was with the notion of parity. Parity was assumed to be conserved once Lev Landau suggested it in 1932. In the late 1950s, when I was a graduate student at Columbia, Lee and Yang suggested that that was wrong, and described two difficult experiments to prove it. They were performed and Lee and Yang won the Nobel prize. Shortly afterward it was demonstrated by an experiment that could have been done in a high school, but the result was so difficult to calculate that one would not try unless one had faith that parity was not conserved.

In science belief (or "faith") may be necessary but it is not sufficient. Science is based on the consistency of theory with experience, so that no matter how attractive and desirable a theory is for other reasons, unless it is in accord with experience it is simply wrong.

This technique is not entirely unknown in religion. If one reads the literature of Zen Buddhism one keeps running into the idea that having the insight called "Satori" makes it unnecessary to "believe in" Buddhism as practiced, yet unless one "believes in" Buddhism one does not have the spiritual basis necessary to attain Satori because only Buddhism is consistent with Satori. It is reasonable to believe that that paradox is somehow necessary (but not sufficient) to the attainment of Satori.

The reason this seems to work is that science is not a description of the universe as it is, but is, instead, a description of a model of the universe that is self-consistent; i.e., that is consistent with the accepted logical (and preferably mathematical) description of all the experienced physical phenomena that we are aware of at a particular time and place in the history of the universe.

We could not, for instance, recognize the physical phenomena that are described by quantum mechanics until we recognized that the darkening of photographic film by pitchblende was caused by a previously unrecognized form of radiation, and that phenomenon wasn't observable until we had created photographic film and mined pitchblende, neither of which were done with the purpose of inventing quantum theory.

We can reasonably expect that there will be phenomena that are observed in the future that will require changes in the scientific model of the universe that we use today. We are not Gods, so we can't reasonably assume we know everything about the physical universe. We don't know everything about God, either, so we can't expect that the religious models that were used yesterday will necessarily fit the phenomena we observe today.

This will be difficult for some theologians to swallow, because the tradition in religion is to follow the insights of some particular individual who had them at a particular time and place. That individual will articulate those insights in terms of the common perceptions of that time and place. Even if that individual is more perceptive than his contemporaries, what he says will be recorded by ordinary people whose understanding is limited by the common perceptions of that time and place.

The religion that results will not have a convenient mechanism for adjusting those insights and perceptions unless they understand that perceptions of God and the universe are subject to change. Even if they do understand that, unless they "believe in" a religion consistent with their perceptions, that religion is not going to persist.

But there is no inherent reason why religious models can't be adjusted the way scientific models are.

We give great respect to Isaac Newton for his insights into classical mechanics, but we feel free to use the insights of Einstein and the quantum theorists in the areas where those modification of classical mechanics work better. There is no reason why we can't respect Jesus and Mohammed and Gautama and Lao Tzu, and their insights, and still find modifications of the systems of behavior that they inspired. The trick is to know how to do that in a way that works as well as the modifications of science we have made in the last few centuries.

On the other hand we do not discard the scientific models of the past simply because they don't explain everything. We use 19th century classical statics and dynamics as the basis for civil engineering, and we find that the 19th century model of the universe is good enough for constructing buildings and bridges and ponderable mechanical devices. It seems reasonable to retain the existing religious models to the extent that they work, i.e., to apply to those models the same kind of criteria that we use for scientific models.

What we will find is that when we start to apply scientific criteria to religion, we have to look at certain aspects of science that have become so ideological that they are more like primitive religions than the sciences they pretend to be.

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