Separation of Physics and Theology?

Down in the comments section of this post, reader St. TY has the following kind thing to say about me:

What an excellent blog. I have been looking for one like this for a long time. I tell what I like about it: Although we all know St. Aron’s Christian bias, but he does not let it intrude into his physics and, as one with a mathematical background, I like that separation of Church and State.

As for the format I’m old fashioned and I like the written word because good writing demands clarity and coherence I must add honesty, and so I like reading Aron’s pieces and the comments.

I would like Aron to put all of this meaty stuff in a book.
Would you, Aron?
Thank you.

Thanks so much for your gracious compliments about my blog!  It's too bad really, that I must strongly disagree with you when you say that

Although we all know St. Aron’s Christian bias, but he does not let it intrude into his physics and, as one with a mathematical background, I like that separation of Church and State.

Your proposal that I keep a separating wall is not really very undivided, is it?  I expressed a different aspiration in my About page:

"Undivided Looking" expresses the aspiration that, although compartmentalized thinking is frequently helpful in life, one must also step back and look at the world as a whole. This involves balancing specialized knowledge with common sense to keep both kinds of thinking in perspective.

So in response I would say, that one's physics views can and should be influenced by one's theological views (or vice versa), if there is a legitimate reason why it should do so.  There is, after all, only one universe, and therefore no compartments can be kept completely watertight.  For example, most economists don't need to know much about chemistry, but if they're talking about buying things that might explode then there needs to be some cross-talk.

Christianity is not a "bias", but a "belief", one which happens to be true.  Deducing things from one's beliefs is not bias unless it is done in an irrational and capricious manner.  But perhaps you were speaking in a semi-humorous way, in the way that we might say that all scientists seek to be biased towards the truth!

Reasonable physicists will probably have similar intuitions about how physics should be done (I'm excluding unreasonable people like Young Earth Creationists), regardless of whether they are atheists or theists.  Or rather, people have different intuitions about physics but they mostly don't correlate with religious views!  But if on a particular matter (e.g. the universe having a beginning in time) somebody happens to be influenced by their religion (or lack thereof) to think that one viewpoint is more likely than another, I don't think that should be taboo.

Far from corrupting the scientific process, I think science usually works better when people explore a variety of intuitions and options.  As I said in discussing the importance of collaboration in science:

Healthy scientific collaboration encourages reasonable dissent.   Otherwise group-think can insulate the community from effective criticism of accepted ideas.  Some people say that scientists should proportion their beliefs to the evidence.  However, there's also some value in diversity of opinion, because it permits subgroups to work on unpopular hypotheses.  I suppose things work best when the scientific community taken as a whole proportions its research work to the evidence.

It doesn't necessarily matter whether the source of the original intuition is something that could be accepted by all scientists.  What matters is that the resulting idea can be tested.  Sometimes, the original motivation for a successful scientific theory is rather dubious (e.g the Dirac sea motivation for antimatter), but nevertheless the resulting theory is confirmed by experiment and later is motivated by a different set of considerations.

So I don't believe in the complete separation of Physics and Theology, hence the blog.  But maybe I believe in something else which has some similar effects on my writing.  You must after all be detecting something about what I am doing which provoked your favorable statement.

Perhaps it is this: I believe in being honest.  I must to the best of my ability weigh the evidence on fair scales, and be open about what I am doing.  It would be dishonest if, because I want to prove the truth of Theism, I were to report the relevant Physics data in an imbalanced way, playing up anything which might seem to help my case and playing down anything which does not.  People often do this kind of thing reflexively when they argue, even to the extent of first deceiving themselves before they deceive others.  But it's still unfair tactics, especially when deployed by the expert against the layman.

It is not dishonesty for me to have my own views about what's important in Physics and what's not, but it would be dishonest if I implied that all physicists agreed with me about that when they don't.  Nor would it be dishonest if my views about speculative physics are influenced to some extent by my theological views—I think this is inevitable, and possibly not even fully conscious—but to pretend that a view is based on purely physical considerations when it is not, or to distort the data about Physics to match a preconceived agenda (theological or otherwise) is repugnant to me.

So I'll do the best I can to be honest, and hopefully that will tilt the scales in the right direction.

Once upon a time, a college friend and I planned to write a book about Science-and-Religion topics, but that never got off the ground.  A few of the ideas from that time are being recycled here.

I originally started this blog because an elder Christian whom I respect back in Maryland told me (and gave me to understand that it was a divine revelation to him, and I trust him to know the difference) that I should not neglect my gift of teaching when I went to Santa Barbara.  At first I tried to start a Bible study with my church, but it already had lots of other groups, and it kept not working out for various reasons; then I thought of the idea of blogging instead.

Once I reach a critical mass on the blog, perhaps some of them could be organized into book format.  But I don't need to decide that yet.  For the time being, the informal blogging environment seems more fruitful for developing ideas.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
This entry was posted in Blog, Ethics, Scientific Method, Theological Method. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Separation of Physics and Theology?

  1. Jack Spell says:

    Nice post.

  2. TY says:

    Aron:
    Thank you for your thoughts and I nearly fell off my chair when I came to this part of your blog:
    “There is, after all, only one universe, and therefore no compartments can be kept completely watertight. For example, most economists don't need to know much about chemistry, but if they're talking about buying things that might explode then there needs to be some cross-talk.”

    Yes, I am an economist and this discipline suffers from physics-envy in that it attempts to mimic theoretical physics by constructing tight mathematical models of the economy, but our success at predicting has been limited (though not from lack of trying or the absence of intellect). Economics can never be like Physics because modeling human behavior is a challenge. In Physics, Black Holes don’t react to the physicists’ Black Holes models, so that model prediction isn’t affected. In contrast, economic agents can and do react to an economic forecast, thus affecting the initial prediction. (If you know of any mathematical way in Physics to overcome this modelling problem, please tell me and I’m on my way to collecting the Nobel.)

    But back to your comments. When I said that St. Aron does not let his religion intrude into his physics, I meant it in a very particular context. Economists (even the “scientific” ones who win Nobel prizes) are guilty of allowing their political ideologies influence their models. For example, free-market capitalism is reflected in models in which the variables (prices, interest rates, inputs, outputs, etc) change smoothly and move continuously to equilibrium in a deterministic fashion. Implication? No need for government intervention in the economy. (Doesn’t that sound familiar in Physics: Leave out the Creator by building a model that assumes the energy of the universe is zero; or leave out the Biblical notion of a beginning by assuming energy isn’t zero). On the other hand, those economists who see a necessary role for government typically build models where markets are in disequilibrium and can stay there form long time, functions are not well-behaved, smoothness and monotonicity don’t happen in real economic life; hence the need for well-crafted government policies and regulations to correct perceived disequilibria (such as chronic unemployment, insufficient and inadequate health care, etc).

    Given my experience I can see your blogs are honest and it is in this specific content that I belief separation between Church and State (roughly) obtains. I admire the rigour, clarity, and honesty in your writing. I can't speak for others but the next point is the primary reason I like your blog: The fact that you are an accomplished Physicist and a Christian -- no dividing Wall here; pardon the pun – is living proof that theists are not morons, and that science and Christian beliefs are complementary as John Polkinghorne, a world-class mathematical physicist turned (Anglican) priest, has been writing about for over a decade. Pardon me for comparing you with Polkinghorne and others of the same bent, but I see you carrying on this effort for the younger generation. There are not many like you around and when we can locate them, we want to listen with eager ears. And we want more Aron Walls who are capable of taking the discussion to a level where scientists who are atheists no longer see Christian believers as superstitious and stupid. Your Physics-Theology Blog, Undivided Looking, is revolutionary! Imagine if it was around when Bertrand Russell wrote his 1927 Essay, “Why I am Not a Christian”. The Independent newspaper hailed the essay then as "devastating in its use of cold logic". Well, looking at it now, I dare say it was cold but not logical. Imagine if there was an Aron Wall blog at that time to refute the Logician’s thinking.

    As for your other comment:
    “Christianity is not a "bias", but a "belief", one which happens to be true. Deducing things from one's beliefs is not bias unless it is done in an irrational and capricious manner. But perhaps you were speaking in a semi-humorous way, in the way that we might say that all scientists seek to be biased towards the truth!”

    I totally agree with you.

    I look forward to your magnum opus – the BOOK -- one of these days. My apologies for being so wordy.

    Thank you for the good work.

  3. Vasco Gama says:

    Aron,

    First I would like to say that I appreciate to follow your blog, and I congratulate you for the good level of your writings, even if sometimes it is hard for me to follow as I am not a physicist, (I am a chemist researcher with a strong curiosity on philosophy and theology).

    I find the name of your blog, "Undivided Looking", a happy choice and quite inspiring.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I'm kind of late on this, but when you were explaining the theorem you published (in a different post), you said that either the universe began or there were like three exceptions. The first one you complained had a Boltzman brain problem. Doesn't that presuppose the standard measure from statistical mechanics? I thought other physicists use different measures intended to avoid it. Cheers.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Vasco, TY, Jack,
    Thanks for your comments.

    Anonymous,
    There is no time limit on posting comments, so please feel free to leave comments on the original post (if there is a particular post which your comment relates to, that is).

    The choice of measures arises in a different context, for example if you have a universe which produces ordinary observers, and then (perhaps at some later time, after all the regular observers have died) a large number of randomly fluctuating Boltzman Brain observers. If the theory gives rise to both types of observers, you could wonder how to weight the BB observers relative to the regular ones (if at all). That's the kind of worry that St. Craig brought up in the debate, except for some reason he thinks it is only a problem when you have a multiverse.

    In the post you are referring to, I was considering the hypothesis that the entire universe we observe is one big thermal fluctuation. If that were true, then all observers would be BB's by definition, and pretty much any reasonable measure would give results different from what we observe. So there is pretty much a consensus among physicists that this doesn't work.

    The big controversies arise in models which predict both regular observers and BB's. I will be commenting on this in later posts.

  6. Tim says:

    Thank you for all the work you put into this blog, and for the person I know you are. What a gift you have, and what a gift you are giving to many readers.

  7. Dave says:

    You're like the Christian Sean Carroll.

  8. g says:

    TY: Does any halfway competent scientist really see Christian believers as superstitious and stupid?

    My impression is that the more enthusiastically atheistic scientists take a different view: that Christianity is superstitious and (maybe) stupid, but that human nature is such that even very intelligent and sensible people can be taken in by stupid superstition, without any need for individual Christians to be superstitious and stupid in any other respect.

    Of course that isn't in any way refuted by pointing to an outstandingly smart person who is a Christian. (Which doesn't mean it's right, only that the existence of Aron's excellent blog probably isn't going to change the opinions of those people.)

    I think Aron's position on the relationship between scientific and other beliefs (I take it it's clear that there's nothing very special about theological beliefs here, and that the same considerations apply to other fields) is about 98% right. The 2% is this:

    When a scientist, particularly one known to be very expert and/or very smart, expresses an opinion on a topic in their field informally, without stating exactly what assumptions they're making and displaying their reasoning, whoever's listening is liable to take this as good evidence for whatever statement they're making. This is generally very sensible, even when the scientist's expressed opinion is based on intuition rather than carefully reasoned-out analysis: when a very smart person works for a while on something, they get a good feel for what's likely to be true.

    But in so far as the opinion is actually derived not from carefully worked-out scientific analysis nor from well-honed scientific intuition, but from the scientist's religious or political or aesthetic or historical or (etc.) beliefs, the interested layperson (or other scientist, for that matter) can no longer make the inference "Aron believes X; Aron is an expert in this field; so I should think X more likely than I did yesterday".

    That doesn't (I think) mean that scientists shouldn't allow their opinions on scientific matters to be influenced by their other beliefs. Consistency is a Good Thing! But for my part, if I were opining on something within my sphere of professional expertise where my opinions were actually derived from elsewhere, I would want to issue a prominent disclaimer to that effect.

    I say "(I think)" because actually there might be something to be said, methodologically, for compartmentalizing. It may be that that would lead to better results overall, at least within science. Because on those non-scientific points, lots of scientists are going to be wrong (e.g., on the question of theism it isn't possible for both Aron and Sean Carroll to be right) and it's possible that the downside of having a lot of scientists led astray by extrascientific errors outweighs the upside of having some scientists led the right way by extrascientific truths that they happen to have got right. I'm not sure, though; compartmentalizing is probably a bad mental habit for a scientist to have in general, and maybe having extrascientific pressures pushing different scientists in different directions is useful in something like the same way as mutation is useful in evolution.

    (If anyone other than me and Aron was following our regrettably intemperate recent exchange in comments to another post, this sort of consideration is what underlies it, at least on my side.)

  9. g says:

    Regarding my first question: for the avoidance of doubt, of course I am sure that some competent scientists see some Christians as superstitious and stupid, for the simple and boring reason that some Christians are superstitious and stupid -- just as and some atheists are bigoted and stupid, and some members of any group you care to mention are [insert appropriate stereotype here] and stupid. What I'm doubting is that it's in any way common for good scientists -- or sensible people in any field -- to hold that Christians in general are superstitious and stupid.

  10. TY says:

    Hi g:
    Nobel laureate in physics Stephen Weinberg was quoted as saying at his acceptance speech at "Emperor Has No Clothes" award in 1999, "I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive of religious belief, and I'm all for that! One of the things that in fact has driven me in my life, is the feeling that this is one of the great social functions of science--to free people from superstition.” Weinberg is one of many “good scientists”.
    In this one statement, the very beliefs such as God the Creator or the universe, the Trinity, the Resurrection, the virgin birth, life after death, the very things that define Christianity, are dismissed as superstition. Therefore the Nicene Creed is superstition and, as such, no thinking person would or should believe it.
    Now, I must admit I have not seen the results of any poll done on the population of atheistic scientists regarding their opinion of Christian believers, but I would be willing to guess that more than half of these good scientists would line up behind Weinberg.
    g, I pray you are right in saying “What I'm doubting is that it's in any way common for good scientists -- or sensible people in any field -- to hold that Christians in general are superstitious and stupid.” For now, I am not sure that these good scientists go into the trouble of differentiating the superstitious from unsuperstitious Christians, or indeed, of determining that what they include as superstition are in fact historical occurrences, albeit miracles.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. g says:

    It seems to me that that quotation fits my account as well as it does yours. We are agreed that Steven Weinberg sees religion as superstition. The question is what he thinks about religious adherents.

    I think we can get at least a hint from a famous (anti-religious) quotation from Weinberg. He said something along the following lines: "With or without religion, good people can do good things and bad people can do bad things; but it takes religion to make good people do bad things." Now, there's plenty to dispute about that -- e.g., there are those who would say that religion is also what it takes to make bad people do good things, and the distinction between "good people" and "bad people" is pretty dubious, and it's not hard to think of other forces that might lead generally-good people to act evilly. But I submit that if that's Weinberg's position then he might well also endorse something along the following lines: "With or without religion, rational people can have rational beliefs and irrational people can have irrational beliefs; but it takes religion to make rational people embrace irrational beliefs." (I might add that I have much the same misgivings about the proposition, when stated like that, as I do about the actual Weinberg quotation. I suspect that Weinberg, if induced to reconsider, might have too. But I wouldn't expect him to recant the underlying idea that the influence of religion can distort a person's thinking and make them act worse, or think less rationally, than they otherwise would. Which is the point here.)

    Pick a religion that differs very greatly from your own. (Some variety of animism or ancestor-worship, perhaps.) I conjecture that (1) you regard its beliefs as something akin to superstition, and (2) you concede that its adherents are not necessarily any less intelligent, rational, or sensible than you are; they just have the misfortune to have been (let's suppose) brought up with a systematically wrong set of religious ideas. I'm sure you can make that distinction. I know I can. I see no reason to think that an inability to make it is widespread among atheist scientists.

  12. TY says:

    g,
    I think the question might be better framed in terms of the natural compared to the supernatural (let’s not get too philosophical on what is “supernatural”), and whether “good science” embraces both. In his blog, Separation of Physics and Theology, St. Aron makes offers some useful views and I use them as guidelines. The quotations are as follows:

    1. “So in response I would say, that one's physics views can and should be influenced by one's theological views (or vice versa), if there is a legitimate reason why it should do so.”
    2. “Far from corrupting the scientific process, I think science usually works better when people explore a variety of intuitions and options.”
    3. “It doesn't necessarily matter whether the source of the original intuition is something that could be accepted by all scientists. What matters is that the resulting idea can be tested. Sometimes, the original motivation for a successful scientific theory is rather dubious (e.g. the Dirac sea motivation for antimatter), but nevertheless the resulting theory is confirmed by experiment and later is motivated by a different set of considerations.”
    4. “So I don't believe in the complete separation of Physics and Theology, hence the blog.”
    5. “Perhaps it is this: I believe in being honest. I must to the best of my ability weigh the evidence on fair scales, and be open about what I am doing.”

    All of the above tells me that good science should at least be honest, non-exclusionary, collaborative, and, ultimately testable. (By the way, Isaac Newton devoted as many hours writing on alchemy as on physics, for which he is famous. Arguably, Newton might be called superstitious but certainly not stupid, and so, g, I concede that you are right in saying there is no necessary link between ones beliefs and ones intelligence or rationality.). Good science, so defined by those attributes, is least likely to dismiss religious beliefs as irrational and its adherents as stupid. And I want to share g's belief that the inability to make the distinction is not as widespread amongst atheistic scientists.

    I’m afraid I’ve nearly exhausted all I can say this topic, so I wouldn’t mind hearing and learning from other readers' comments.

  13. The scientific approach (my explanation of science is in http://home.roadrunner.com/~rrr33/reason.pdf) is the objective way to determine what is true. It is a process that does a comprehensive investigation to see if something is false before concluding it is true. This is a high standard and it is difficult to meet, so there is always some faith involved with most every belief. If there is solid and strong evidence for some theory being true, then those that fully respect science would make all their beliefs consistent with this theory and they would not believe anything which science has definitely determined false.

    I do not think this scientific approach can determine fundamental values or what is important (see Hume’s Is-Ought Gap). However, I think it is important that humans live their lives in pursuit good values. And I think it is valuable if there is a God with a purposeful plan for humans. This is a personal preference which in a way is a bias. I think it is appropriate to have a bias in believing things that support ones values as long as it does not violate the objective constraints for beliefs I mention above. But of course the more objective evidence for the belief the better.

    Religion is about developing beliefs about God and his plan for humans so values are involved. If one is interested if this God is real, then truth is also involved so should be science. So I am impressed when I see somebody sticking with being honest and objective when explaining scientific evidence that relates to religious beliefs. So when the scientific evidence does not support their personal preference or somebody else’s personal preference, if they are honest they when go ahead and tell it how it is according to science which has only one bias, the truth. But I think a religious person who knows science, would have a bias in their interest to investigating the parts of science which might make conclusions about the claims related to God so naturally cosmology is a relevant field.

    I think Aron blogs make it obvious he has religious interest and very good scientific knowledge so I greatly appreciate his honest detailed explanations of the relevant scientific evidence.

    I should point out that I am not going to wait for a very strong and solid scientific proof for God, before I decide where I am going to put my faith in God. But I think a person who is a scientist with religious interest would prefer religious beliefs that are more compatible with science. Morals are important too, but that is a values question.

  14. http://home.roadrunner.com/~rrr33/spntid.pdf explains how the reasoning of science could conclude evidence from reality supports a claims for Supernatural Intervention. My website (http://home.roadrunner.com/~rrr33/homepage.html) provides information for and against Christianity, but it does have a bias towards presenting evidence for Christianity. But I think there is no significant bias in http://home.roadrunner.com/~rrr33/critic7.pdf that uses the reasoning of science to provide evidence for Jesus as the divine Messiah.

    Considering three observers of a hypothetical Guru. The biased naturalist, the biased super-naturalist and the unbiased scientist. They all sit and watch the Guru flip a supposedly fair two sided coin and the coin keeps landing heads. The more it lands heads the more the biased naturalist believes it has heads on both sides. The more it lands heads the more the biased super naturalist believes in the super natural powers of the Guru. After the Guru is done the biased walk away with their strong opposing beliefs that contradict each other so they could not both be correct, but these two do not investigate further.

    The unbiased scientist is not convinced either way; however, for him the more the coin lands heads the more he wants to check out the coin to see if the super natural is occurring. After the Guru is done he goes up and ask the Guru if he can look at both sides of the coin. Also, he asks the Guru to do the same thing with his own coin he brought that he knew was not rigged. He brings in his equipment measure all properties of coin. Has the Guru run flips with his force field detectors in place. Still no detection. After a comprehensive investigation, if the Guru still keeps getting heads even with a coin that when not used by the Guru lands heads 50% of the time, then the unbiased scientist becomes convinced that the super natural has intervened. However, if the unbiased scientist discovers a trick such as the coin has heads on both sides, then he does not believe the Guru was performing a supernatural event.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>