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Lecture 21: Intro Section 3 -- 20th Century Physics

God and the Astronomers

The 19th century was the century of Materialism. In biology, the triumph of Darwinism marked the coup de grace to the slow malingering death of purpose; banished first from Newtonian physics, then chemistry, and finally, life itself. Ludwig Boltzmann in a series of brilliant papers demonstrated that all of the material universe could be shown to be composed of small, discrete but invisible atoms, a glorious triumph for Epicurus who had proposed the atomic theory of matter in the fifth century BC! Epicurean philosophy was also dedicated to eradicating non-materialistic causes such as gods and spirits, so that throughout the intervening 24 centuries, it was inevitabley associated with atheism and the denial of purpose. Epicurus himself was an ascetic, and saw in materialism a tremendous freedom from onerous religious obligations, but his followers, at least by Roman times, made "Epicurean" synonymous with debauchery and license "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die". It is not insignificant that Boltzman, at the height of his career, committed suicide, for the denial of purpose does more than promote atheism, it leads to despair.

It was no doubt in response to such popular world views that Augustine of Hippo, a 4th century professor of philosophy who converted to Christianity, developed his neo-Platonic theology that so profoundly transformed the Christian Church. Despite continuous accretions and additions over the next 15 centuries, Augustine's formulation of Christianity and his response to materialism has continued nearly unchanged. For example, when the Crusades rediscovered Aristotle, and the medieval scholastics were debating the merits of incorporating Aristotle's semi-materialistic metaphysics, the bishop of Paris constructed a long list of "heretical" Aristotelian propositions that could not be advocated since they ran counter to Augustinian theology. Thus it should come as no surprise that in the 19th century, "atomism", "materialism", and "determinism" were all viewed as atheistic philosophies in direct conflict with orthodox Christianity.

If the 19th century can be seen as the victory of materialism over purpose, then the 20th century can be seen as the ignoble defeat of materialism by the hand of science. Although materialism is not unconscious by any measure, neither is it the reigning champion parading around the ring as one might conclude from reading Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan. Rather, to the great embarassment of the National Academy of Science, Augustine has won nearly every round of the 20th century. By way of analogy, physicists in 1890 spoke with great hubris that nearly everything physical had been explained, leaving a few loose ends to tie up such as the black body spectrum and the nature of the luminiferous ether. When these loose ends were explained in the early 20th century, they became Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, unravelling all the physics so neatly packaged by 19th century materialists. In the same way the mysteries remaining at the end of the 20th century threaten to undo our uneasy armistice with purpose; the stubborn incompleteness of quantum mechanics, big bang cosmology, and the anthropic principle.

That is, physicists today do not argue with Bohr or Einstein about the meaning of Quantum Mechanics. Indeed, much like hydrodynamics is no longer viewed a proper subject topic for physics students, so the foundations of quantum mechanics are viewed as a proper subject for philosophers only. We are told by countless professors and "serious" textbooks that one no longer need understand what quantum mechanics "means", only that it works. Such agnostic arguments are quite ancient, used by medieval scholastics "to save the appearances", as for example, by Osiander in his introduction to Copernicus' posthumous astronomy text proposing that the planets orbited the sun. Osiander attempted to blunt the inevitable criticism of this radical view by suggesting that it was just a "dumb math trick" that achieved the same answer as Ptolemy's more orthodox geocentric universe. No one bought the argument even then, and certainly none of the proponents of quantum agnosticism want to return to Ptolemy, they actually believe that Copernicus' elegant theory is closer to reality. Despite this naive realism in all other fields, there remains among physicists more openness to discuss sexual preference than the meaning of quantum mechanics. Why all this reluctance? Because there is a reason for this family secret, this skeleton in the closet, this elephant in the living room, that is tied to the rise of modern physics. Modern physics is all about the revival of purpose, and purpose leads inexorably to God.

My own awareness of this skeleton came from reading two books in the early 80's, both by well-respected heavyweights in physics, Robert Jastrow's "God and the Astronomers (1978)" and Paul Davies "God and the New Physics" (1984). Jastrow wrote as a sympathetic agnostic, Davies as a searching materialist, but both of them honest about the impact of 20th century physics on the scientific materialism establishment. Very disturbing. Here is a highly excerpted passage from Jastrow's book: Jastrow, even more than Davies, is willing to admit that Epicurean materialism is facing perhaps its greatest challenge since Augustine, and even worse, the Augustinians are winning "at least in the foreseeable future". (What do you want to bet that his editors made him put that silly caveat next to his emphatic "never"? This is a perfect illustration of the uneasy armistice between science and purpose.) This is why both Davies and Jastrow use the word "God" in their book titles, because for the last two centuries, the debate has been cast as "science versus religion" or "naturalism versus supernaturalism" or "materialism versus spiritism" etc. Now that materialism is losing, it seems very normal to assume that God must be winning. Davies, in a clever sleight-of-hand, tries to redefine the battlefield itself, much as the cold-war joke of a Soviet news release reporting on a race between the USSR and the USA: "the Russian came in second and the American next-to-last". Jastrow, to his credit, ends his book with the comment that astronomers have scaled the highest peak and climbed the last pinnacle only to find the philosophers and the theologians waiting there for them.

In this last section of the course, we want to look at how the "New Physics" changes the 19th century paradigm in highly disturbing ways. Whether you come to this topic as an avowed atheist, confused agnostic or ardent Christian, the 20th century discoveries should be greatly disconcerting to your world view. My goal in this part of the course, is more than creating an apology for some particular view, but to provide a critique for any view, a tool that will enable the reader to evaluate not just the musty theories of forgotten physicists, but the latest, snazzy theorie-du-jour coming down from the ivory pinnacles of Harvard, Oxford or Paris. And like any good detective, the first step is understanding the motives of all involved. Discounting greed, power and sex (which, though important, cannot explain the reigning priesthood of science), we turn to every detectives fourth most important motivation: metaphysics. (Okay, I admit it, I've been reading too many Father Brown mysteries.)

In psychology, a popular phrase to describe this problem was "cognitive dissonance". That's the feeling you get when two facts you thought were true contradict each other. The human brain is marvellously adept at navigating these treacherous waters, even engaging in outright deception to mitigate these dissonances.
"You thought your mom wanted you healthy all those years that she made you eat your liver, and now you find out liver has enormous amounts of cholesterol and your arteries are clogged."
"She didn't know about cholesterol back then."
"Then why did she stop serving Dad fried eggs and bacon?"
"Well, perhaps she knew it was bad for adults but thought it was good for children."
"If she had a double standard for food, how do you know she didn't have a double standard for health?"
"How ridiculous, she would never do that."
"How do you know? Are you sure you aren't just in denial?"
"Well look here, if she really wanted me unhealthy, why did she send me to school with milk money all those years?"
"Was it whole milk?"
"Four percent milkfat has a lot of cholesterol."
"I don't believe you! You must be paranoid schizophrenic."

Such cognitive dissonances can be very useful, because they probe the deepest held beliefs, and bring to light all the hidden assumptions. But we must be aware of all the sophisticated forms of denial that try to make the problem go away. So when Jastrow says that the big bang theory had traumatic implications, he's saying that scientists had a cognitive dissonance and it couldn't be easily brushed under the rug. The same thing is true of Quantum Mechanics or the Anthropic Principle. Let us examine these 20th century discoveries then, with an eye to discovering the cognitive dissonance, the metaphysical problem being addressed. Only then can we evaluate whether a theory has any likelihood of success.
Last modified, April 3, 2002, RbS