Truly dangerous thinking

Not long ago, over at Incoherently Scattered Ponderings, my views on standardized testing were referred to as ‘dangerous.’ The context, however, was a (somewhat) friendly intellectual exchange and while there were strong views on both sides, everyone (at least in my opinion) was motivated by rational thought.  The same may not be said about a disturbing trend in science that is witnessing the encroachment of religion in an insidious way.

I was recently invited to attend a conference sponsored by an organization known as the Institute for Advanced Physics, not to be confused with several institutes of a similar-sounding name.  The director (and, from what I can tell, founder) of the institute has excellent credentials and I don’t wish to take away from his legitimate achievements.  Nor do I wish to slight anyone’s spiritual beliefs.  Nonetheless, I take issue with an organization whose mission statement expressly declares its desire to reintroduce philosophical, moral, and spiritual components to science.  While I firmly support dialogue between religion and science,  such dialogue should be of a more scholarly type, much like the recent initiative undertaken by my PhD alma mater, St. Andrews (a university with a long and bloody religious history, I might add).  In addition, I wish to emphatically state that the modern Roman Catholic Church, at least when it comes to physics, has been generally supportive (in fact one of the first to suggest the Big Bang theory was Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Jesuit priest).

My opposition to the IAP does not solely lie with their mission statement, however.  Primarily, it is centered around three particular points.

1. On the front page of their website, they specifically claim that “[l]eading scientists hold, for example, using facts of quantum mechanics, that the world is not there when you’re not looking at it.”  While I can’t say for certain, I do not know of any leading quantum physicist who truly believes that, at least in the way it is implied.  This extremely misleading statement is, of course, a veiled reference to the measurement problem.  Note that in writing this post I have just discovered that IAP director Anthony Rizzi wrote a paper on Bell’s Theorem five years ago that I have not yet had an opportunity to read.  The quality of the paper, however, does not change the fact that the statement on the IAP’s website is misleading at best.

2. They are promoting the use of a new textbook they have written that purports to reintroduce Aristotelean reasoning – a reliance on one’s senses – as a pedagogical tool.  I spend considerable time in my introductory courses showing expressly why Aristotelean thinking has inherent problems (see the Aristotelean thinking test in Six Ideas That Shaped Physics, Unit C: Conservation Laws Constrain Interactions, chapter one, by Thomas A. Moore who, in fact, is an ardent Christian but who realizes that fact shouldn’t affect how he performs his work as a scientist).

3. Rizzi’s statement in an interview that “[m]odern science was not born in China, or in undiscovered North or South America, or anywhere else but Catholic Europe.”  First, this is patently false, particularly in relation to the mathematical foundations of modern science.  See, for example, Roger Cooke’s The History of Mathematics: A Brief Course.  While I don’t always agree with Cooke, his historical scholarship is excellent.  Certainly much of modern science did get its start in predominantly Catholic Europe, but note that, at least in the case of physics, many of the advances were in the post-reformation era and in non-Catholic countries (e.g. Newton, Kepler, Gregory, etc.).  In fact it was Catholic Italy that persecuted Galileo and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake.  Let me reiterate that my last point is not meant as an attack on the Catholic church.  It is simply a statement of historical fact.

In short, it seems the IAP and Rizzi are either surreptitiously or unwittingly attempting to sneak not just religion but specifically Christianity into science (note their Christian Press Kits).  Now that is dangerous since it undermines the very foundation upon which science is built.  In addition they rail against the “subjectivism” of science (see point 1. above) but, while scientists may be subjective sometimes (though they shouldn’t be), science itself is most certainly objective for it cares not what religion, gender, race, nationality, nor even species you are.  The universe is what it is.  Whether or not it was created by a divine being is (despite what many scientists might argue) an open question that will likely never be closed.  But science is interested in how it works, not why it exists or where it came from in the first place.  The latter are the concern of philosophy and theology.

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