A Carefree Universe?

A large pile of lip-service is paid to the notion of crossing the age-old boundaries between areas of human knowledge; of working collaboratively and gaining a bigger perspective on everything. If the germ of this idea is to be found growing anywhere, presumably it might be at the universities.

But in reality, the divides run deep. In the metaphorical basements of universities around the globe there’s a cage-fight going on between the sciences, arts and theology. Some tell us that the result has already been determined. For example, a small but vociferous group of scientists promotes the agenda of division and defeat; repeating ad nausea the myth that science has taken out God and having done so, is setting its sights on the humanities. One of the most ardent preachers is the physicist Professor Lawrence Krauss, who’s here at the moment for the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

In a recent dialogue with astrophysicist and Anglican minister Rodney Holder, in a statement reminiscent of Richard Dawkins, Krauss said “I don’t care what I like, the universe doesn’t care what we like and it certainly doesn’t care about us!” The idea that there is a transcendent purpose to it all is a significant target of the polemic of the believers in scientism, but it’s not only theologians who should be concerned by the rhetoric. Taking the claims of purposeless materialism seriously would undermine far more than religion. Concepts of justice, rights and value permeate our everyday lives and the institutions we participate in, from government to education. These claims aren’t scientific, but they are highly important.

The true believer will laugh at this; they don’t care about anything that’s not scientific, and if our society suffers for it, so much the worse for it (and us)! But there are good reasons, coming from outside science, to trust some of these things. We all have experiences of value and purpose, as well as of the physical world – to discount anything that doesn’t come directly from a scientific construct built on only a subset of our experiences is unsustainably narrow. Krauss and friends routinely extrapolate far beyond their scientific world view, when it suits them. While they are adamant that there is no purpose, they assert that we’ve got to make the most of it and do science. Where does this requirement come from? They also seem to believe that we have a range of duties, including not to be ignorant, to seek truth, and to avoid harming others. These are not conclusions of science.

If you’re a scientist, the concept that science doesn’t give us access to everything may trouble you, but it shouldn’t – science itself isn’t self-contained. Even Krauss, contra the title of his recent book, doesn’t manage to get everything from ‘nothing’ in any reasonable sense of the word, as explained well in the recent New York Times article by philosopher of physics David Albert. Science relies on the existence of matter-energy and/or laws as fundamental to the project; ultimately it supposes rather than accounts for some things. Even our memories of the past and expectations of the future, such as those encoded in scientific laws, are not strictly empirical findings; trusting them is foundational, but relies on a substantive metaphysics. Further, not just any set-up of the universe will result in the kinds of beings who can do science – modern science shows that as far as we can tell, we’re very fortunate to be here. The question of ‘why’ is left hanging.

This debate is a fight for rationality, but who its real defenders are remains open to discussion. Whatever the conclusion, a corrosive ‘value-free’ scientism should be avoided by scientists and those in the humanities alike, for the sake of science, our society, and the integrity of our universities.

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One comment on “A Carefree Universe?

  1. K says:

    Excellent post Zach.

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