Friday, April 5, 2013

The world's whole frame quite out of joint

As a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Marco Rubio’s comments regarding science and theology causes one to wonder about his qualifications for the job.  Back in November 2012 he stated that

I'm not a scientist, man.  I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.  I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all.

The media had a field day with this snippet of small minded sophistry, but his poor grasp of science and the difference between theory and theology caused me to reflect on the fact that a singular difference between Antiquity and Modernity is the character of the shared common knowledge about our origins.  In ancient civilizations, each society enjoyed a broad consensus regarding the origins of mankind and the cosmos.  This is part of the “organic unity” that Georg Lukács praised at the beginning of his Theory of the Novel.  Although there was always a priestly caste entrusted with interpretation of the esoteric mysteries of their belief systems, the people shared a set of common ideas about their origins, shared stories of heroes and gods, and they understood certain basic principles about the nature of the world in which they lived.  Today, most people do not understand the basic principles governing nature or their ramifications, and while we still share a host of stories spun off from the traditional metanarratives that structure our values and ideas, there is a radical disjuncture between the knowledge we possess about reality and the beliefs to which we cling.

Metaphysics was once the branch of thought that underwrote all others because it purportedly explained reality; science has usurped that role, but even while many of its concepts suffuse the popular culture in entertaining forms, they have not yet provided for the mass of mankind a consensual understanding of the laws of nature.  We all know the formula E = MC2 but how many of us know what it means?  How many of us realize that the formula which defined the equivalence of mass and energy revolutionized physics in part because it confirmed that size does not matter?  And how many of us know that mass and energy are properties of matter, or more precisely, what we call “physical systems,” and that energy and mass can neither be created or destroyed, but matter can?  In science very simple equations bear vast consequences.  As Einstein summarized it, “It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing — a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind.  Furthermore, the equation E = mc², in which energy is put equal to mass, multiplied by the square of the velocity of light, showed that very small amounts of mass may be converted into a very large amount of energy and vice versa.”  Welcome to the age of nuclear power.  The shallow understanding of fundamental scientific concepts is rife.  For most people, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has done nothing more than provide a rationale for the very different idea that “everything is relative.”  And Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has provided many a blogger with the notion that nothing can be known for certain since the act of observation inflects the observed.

Today there is a radical split between what we know about the universe and the ideas about creation that are shared by the masses.  The caste entrusted with special knowledge is a group of geneticists, physicists, and other scientists whose concepts are unknown, misunderstood, or rejected outright, because they are so abstruse and they are taught haphazardly or not at all in our schools.  Plus, in order to comprehend them, one must patiently undergo a long process of study in higher mathematics and advanced science courses, not to mention a rigorous training of the faculty of the imagination.  As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.  For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.  It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”  The popular debate between Evolution and Creationism focuses largely on the origins of Man: is he an outgrowth of natural processes of adaptation, or is he the creation of a Divine Intelligence?  Yet the real thrust of Evolutionary Theory is the paradoxical proposition that the order of Nature depends on chance events.  The laws of nature, then, unify order and randomness, and Darwin bequeathed to us a conceptual framework which has underwritten most of the thinking of the past century.

This framework eludes many people, who prefer instead to think in terms of either/or, as in the case of Marco Rubio.  He would rather suspend judgment and, in a parody of fashionable relativism, and as a sign of his judiciousness, acknowledge simply that each mode of thought makes a valid claim.  We live in a world in which a select few grasp the hidden workings of nature, and a vast majority have no clue other than knowledge of a few buzz words like “relativity,” “evolution,” “genes,” or “DNA,” while they obdurately maintain a belief in various theologies which no doubt serve to strengthen them in their struggles and provide moral guidance, but which are ludicrously out of step with incontrovertible facts about the workings of the universe.

Never before has humanity been so mired in superstition and yet so possessed of profound knowledge.  Never before has such a split arisen between those who, like the oracle at Delphi, can interpret the mysteries of nature and those who pray for answers but cannot hear.

Which of them is a true infidel?  The scientist who follows the dictates of nature, or the faithful who persist in believing that god’s Creation occurred in the space of six days, thus defying what nature plainly teaches?  Which is the false idol?