Physicist Brian Greene has ably taken on Carl Sagan's role as TV's best popularizer of science. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed his recent "Fabric of the Cosmos" series on PBS. I've read his book by the same name, as well as his recent "The Hidden Reality."
This afternoon, while exercising at an athletic club, I listened to an interview with Greene on a Point of Inquiry podcast. (I've discovered a bunch of interesting new podcasts to supplement my Philosophy Talk listening after spending $1.99 on the terrific Instacast iPhone app; highly recommended.)
Listening to Greene talk with Chris Mooney, the interviewer, I wished that every religious true believer could be exposed to the reality of science.
Not the cartoon version that fundamentalists and science-deniers see, because that's a caricature of the scientific method. You know, the notion that scientists are dedicated to eliminating love, mystery, intuitions, and faith from life; that science is all about cold, hard calculations of a mechanical universe's clockwork nature; that scientists are arrogant, claiming that what can't be captured by their equations isn't worth knowing.
Here's some of what I recall from the interview that belies these ridiculous assertions.
Greene talked about how science has found that reality in the atomic micro-world, as in the cosmic macro-world, is far different from how we experience the everyday world. So if you believe there's more to reality than meets the eye, embrace modern science.
Reality, though, may not appear as you'd like it to be. This is where many there must be more believers get off the science train. Scientists are dedicated to exploring the farther reaches of reality. However, the scientific method aims to discover what is actually there, not what we human beings wish was there.
For example, Greene described how the search for the Higgs boson is going. He doesn't like the media terming it the "God particle." In fact, it was pretty clear he detests that nickname. Yes, he said, the Higgs field is theorized to permeate all of space. It's omnipresent. So, supposedly, is God.
But the HIggs field, or particle, bears no resemblance to the entity people call "God." The Higgs field, if it exists, is how objects acquire mass. Thus it would be responsible for the thing-ness of the universe, which otherwise would be massless.
Greene explained that the HIggs field is sort of like an invisible vat of molasses that is all around us. When particles are pushed through the resistance of this field, they acquire mass. (If anything, then, I see the Higgs field as an "anti-God particle," because it converts the ethereality of reality into something much more material and substantial.)
The Large Hadron Collider is trying to knock a chunk of nothingness out of the Higgs field, thereby revealing the Higgs boson, a particle, through inspection of what the boson decays into.
This is complicated stuff, but there's a lot of beauty in it. Mooney and Greene talked about how evolution caused humans to be adapted for survival and reproduction, not for understanding the secrets of the cosmos. It was important for our ancestors to be able to throw a spear so it hit a running antelope; coming up with the mathematics of relativity theory wasn't a priority back then.
In many ways, modern science goes against the grain of traditional human nature. Religiosity doesn't. This helps explain why it is easy for people to believe in God, soul, spirit, heaven, life after death, and such, while descriptions of the quantum realm and the big bang are tough for our brains to grasp.
Greene, a string theory researcher, was asked about the value of considering other competitors for a Theory of Everything such as quantum gravity. I liked his answer:
In terms of whether alterative approaches should be tried, absolutely. The health of a science, to my mind, is partly reflected in the independent lines of investigation that are trying to solve the same problem. If everybody is marching in lockstep, that's deadly.
You want to have a range of approaches that may be complementary, that may be contradictory; one may help another, one may knock off another. You know, this is great for science. I think string theory is our best approach for putting gravity and quantum mechanics together, but others think other approaches may be better. And I'm thrilled they're pursuing those approaches.
Science is open, creative, experimental. Unlike religion, science doesn't say "this is the Absolute Truth; you must not consider other truths." If someone can come up with persuasive evidence that theory Y is a better reflection of reality than theory X, then X takes a back seat to Y.
"Back seat," though, almost always doesn't mean being tossed out of the car.
This is another misconception that religious fundamentalists and other anti-science types are prone to. They wrongly believe that fundamental understandings of science are regularly overthrown, so why accept what scientists currently are claiming to be true?
Greene demolished this point of view, using Newtonian and Einsteinian physics as an example. Newton's laws of motion weren't shown to be wrong by Einstein. He just showed how they don't apply in realms far distant from what we experience in everyday life, such as at near light-speed.
Science progresses. It learns. It changes. It builds upon current knowledge.
By contrast, almost universally religions are stuck. They talk about ageless revelations that were as true several thousand years ago as they are now. They claim that a holy book or holy person has revealed all that can be known about the ultimate reality of the cosmos, so take it or leave it.
Thanks for the choice, religion. I'll leave it. Science is much more appealing.