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Aug 28 2012

The awe of science

I wrote earlier about the puzzling feature of some atheists going out of their way to praise religion, sometimes even denigrating science in the process in order to make their point. Reader Baga sent me a link to this article in Nature that has yet another atheist (this time a scientist) trying to do the same thing.

Daniel Sarewitz, who is the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, contrasts his reaction during a walk through the temples of Angkor in Cambodia with hearing the news of the discovery of the Higgs boson. The former left him with the sense of awe. The latter, not so much. And from tis he infers that somehow science is incomplete.

Here he is on the temples.

The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.

And here he talks about the Higgs.

Science advocates have been keen to claim that the Higgs discovery is important for everyone. Yet in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle.

By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown.

Why bother to compare the reaction to two very disparate events? Sarewitz uses as a link the unfortunate nickname of the ‘The God Particle’ that Leon Lederman gave to the Higgs, trying to hype it up as the final piece of the puzzle that would reveal the secrets of the universe. It is safe to say that most physicists hate the label and wish he hadn’t done it. Some have suggested that a better nickname might be ‘that goddamn particle’ since it proved so hard to detect.

Sarewitz seems confused about what rationality means. He even hauls out that old chestnut about science also involving faith.

Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs, and too quick to draw a line between the scientific and the irrational. Take, for example, how we come to know what science discovers. Most people, including most scientists, can acquire knowledge of the Higgs only through the metaphors and analogies that physicists and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.

For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.

Any scientist would readily concede a lack of complete knowledge of how the world works. We know that we cannot prove that the laws of science are true or will hold the next time we test them, however many tests they have passed previously. So we do take it on faith that they will continue to hold. But the faith of the scientist lies in the taking of the final small step that crosses the tiny gap between confidence that a proposition is true because of overwhelming evidence in support of it, and certainty. It is a perfectly rational step to take. The faith of the religious, on the other hand, involves a huge step because it requires the crossing of an enormous gulf to believe in the absence of evidence.

It is the difference between crossing a wide raging river by taking steps on rocks that are closely spaced and span the width of the river and provide firm footholds, and trying to leap across it in one go. The former would be rational to do, the latter not so.

Sarewitz goes on to praise the sense of awe that the ruins generate.

At Angkor, the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs boson can. Put another way, if, in a thousand years, someone visited the ruins of the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs experiment was conducted, it is doubtful that they would get from the relics of the detectors and super­conducting magnets a sense of the subatomic world that its scientists say it revealed.

The reason that Angkor and other religious edifices strike an emotional chord is because they were designed to do so, to inspire awe in their beholders. You can be sure that aesthetics played hardly any role in the deliberations of the designers of the LHC. They were not building a timeless monument in praise of the Higgs boson. Their goal was to find that goddamn particle as quickly and as efficiently as possible. After the LHC has served its purpose, it will likely be stripped of anything of value and the rest buried. To disparage the scientific achievement of the LHC in detecting the Higgs boson because future ruins will not inspire a sense of awe is as absurd as to disparage the creators of the Angkor temples because it did not discover the Higgs boson centuries earlier.

The discoveries of science are more timeless and universal than any temple ruin. The fact is that we puny humans, having been around for just a tiny fraction of the time that our universe has existed and occupying a tiny speck of the universe, have been able to learn so much about where we came from and where we are going. To me that generates much greater awe than a bunch of decaying buildings, however much they might be architecturally pleasing, that were dedicated to promoting a false belief.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    sailor1031

    Sarewitz has a PhD in Geological Sciences, although he doesn’t appear to have actually worked as a scientist. If geology didn’t impress him as the temples at Angkor have, what chance in his mind for the Higgs boson (which is obviously only abstrusely theoretical compared to religion which is magnificently mythological…)?

  2. 2
    jaytheostrich

    Why don’t they just start calling it the Mass Particle, that would solve a few problems. It’s what it’s supposed to do, isn’t it?

  3. 3
    The Rose

    he-he, I used to live in this small town near Boston called
    Ayer, Mass. Get it?

  4. 4
    The Rose

    …loved this article. Thank you, Mano.

  5. 5
    Hamilton Jacobi

    Some have suggested that a better nickname might be ‘that goddamn particle’ since it proved so hard to detect.

    Actually, ‘the God Particle’ is quite appropriate in that respect.

  6. 6
    Hamilton Jacobi

    But I guess they should stop calling it that now since someone has found evidence for it.

  7. 7
    Crudely Wrott

    I can certainly appreciate Sarewitz’s sense of wonderment as he walks through the temples. Their design and embellishments were so designed. Their antiquity and their slow succumbing to the embrace of the jungle create a heady sense of history and stoic strength.

    That said, I think he would have a slightly different sense of things if he were to tour the LHC in person. There is more than sufficient awe in that edifice. Why, the excavations alone can overwhelm one with a feeling of insignificance and impermanence!

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