Can Physics Bring the Earthly and the Platonic into Conversation?

Can Physics Bring the Earthly and the Platonic into Conversation?

The United States is unique; it enjoys a high standard of living, due in large part to modern scientific advances, while remaining the most religious country in the western world. There appears to be far too little discussion about the anomalous relationship between America’s religiosity and scientific sophistication, and this anomaly is only made stranger by many religious Americans’ wholesale rejection of science. A 2017 Gallup poll shows that roughly 40% of Americans believe God put humans on earth in our present form, another 40% think God is directing evolution, and a little under 20% believe evolution selects for traits without the help of God.

This is not to attack the doctrine of fundamentalist Christians. Though they do not have science on their side, the aim of this piece is actually to critique the way scientifically minded people—some of whom may identify as atheist—approach the coexistence of metaphysical considerations and science. Scientifically minded people should avoid conflating metaphysical considerations with believing in the burning bush, the talking serpent, etc. as historical realities, for this false equivalency hurts far more than it helps. First, this dismissal is lazy, and looks a lot like the mindless dismissal of scientific findings of which many fundamentalists are guilty. Second, accidental though it may be, this dismissive attitude helps propagate the reductive narrative that science is only good for, to put it colloquially, making things better, faster, and stronger.  This view is relatively modern, and a useful way of conceptualizing this trend is to think of science as becoming nearly indistinguishable from engineering. If all of the otherwise intelligent scientifically minded people advocate for a quarantining of science and metaphysical considerations, science’s chief task is to make smartphones faster, polymers stronger, and artificial intelligence ever more lifelike. Fortunately, some of the world’s foremost physicists arrived at metaphysical considerations via their dedication to their discipline, suggesting such a bifurcation is as silly as it is unnecessary.

But aren’t there already many scientists who also subscribe to a religion, thereby weakening the supposedly impassable dichotomy between the two? While this is not an entirely unfair observation, one fundamental difference between some of the world’s metaphysically oriented physicists and incidentally religious scientists needs to be discussed before further claims can be made. In Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist, he explores perhaps the greatest metaphysical questions by interviewing several leading physicists. Many, thought not all, had no particular allegiance towards a religion, but nonetheless described their view of the universe in remarkably religious language. Contrast this type of approach with that of Francis Collins—leading contributor to the Human Genome project and head of the National Institutes of Health—who was converted by the writings of C.S. Lewis. Put simply, some physicists transcended the physical via their scientific work, while Collins, and those scientists like him, practiced their science, underwent a religious conversion, then retroactively attempted to synthesize the two into a coherent whole.

Undeniably, Collins is a brilliant scientist whose work has proved, and will continue to  prove, indispensable for treating illnesses and prolonging life. One should read Collins’s book The Language of God for full context, but in it, one begins to wonder exactly how a world-renowned geneticist earnestly adheres to a version of Christianity wherein humans are a purposeful part of the universe while still subscribing to evolution by natural selection and rejecting intelligent design. Collins has stated that he took the “leap of faith” one day when he saw a beautiful waterfall frozen in three layers, a sign of the trinity in Collins’s eyes. No one ought to doubt either Collins’s merit as a scientist or the sincerity of his  religious belief, but to claim that he was diligently practicing science until he reached the undeniable conclusion that a Christian God exists would be to engage in wishful thinking.

Collins’s character foil could be said to be Richard Dawkins, an equally decorated evolutionary biologist who so vehemently refuses to accept any sort of metaphysical account of the universe that one begins to question how seriously Dawkins is entertaining alternative viewpoints. Dawkins’s criticisms of fundamentalist thinking are justified, and point to faulty ways of viewing the world, but at times it seems as though Dawkins is not only defending science but also his personal anti-theism. One can make a good case that the non-existence of God is indicated by the preponderance of evidence, but this is an ongoing and active process. Once one bases one’s career in being an atheist as well as a scientist, it becomes harder to disentangle personal interest from honest convictions.

So, if Collins’s type of synthesis between scientific and metaphysical claims can be cynically viewed as an example of backward-looking confirmation bias, and Dawkins’s pure materialism is simply too reductive, then it seems we should pursue an alternative position that simultaneously exemplifies proper science, without removing science from the metaphysical arena altogether. This alternative may lie in the field of theoretical physics, as Jim Holt seeks to explore in Why Does the World Exist. Within the roughly 250 pages, Holt poses the simple, though vexing question of why anything at all exists to top-rate physicists and philosophers of science, and the resulting answers are sometimes hard to believe. Take, for instance, Sir Roger Penrose, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Oxford, who is a vocal Platonist. Without providing a lengthy account of Platonism, his theory holds that the observable world with which humans interact is an outcropping of the Platonic world of forms, the forms being ideal, incorporeal beings that constitute the “realest” things in the universe. That which we deem good in our world, is an iterative shadow of the Good that exists in its purest form in the Platonic world of forms.

Penrose’s work in physics by no means qualifies as niche or self-serving, despite the unorthodox metaphysical outlook he adopts. His most famous work involves the idea of an “event horizon” that prevents the laws of physics from dissolving as one approaches the singularity of the Big Bang, as well as work in quantum mechanics. All this is to say that Penrose seems to have arrived at a quasi-religious Platonism as a product of his high-level work in physics. By carrying out his science and suspending the absolute rejection of the metaphysical a la Dawkins, Penrose truly stayed open-minded. He did not have to praise God for all of his subsequent findings, nor did he have to maintain a materialist’s viewpoint all the while. Undoubtedly, Penrose need not have arrived at the Platonic view he eventually took, but it is nevertheless particularly interesting that he did arrive there after his high-level work in physics.

Subtle though the difference may be, Collins was first and foremost a scientist, later converted to Christianity, finally utilizing his scientific findings post-conversion to bolster his newly held beliefs. Crucially, the above musings ought to be construed neither as endorsements, nor criticisms of, any particular metaphysical claim. Rather, the contrasting of Collin’s and Penrose’s positions should serve as two ways in which scientists who have metaphysical or religious tendencies can go about reconciling the two. Surely, there are rather convincing arguments from strict atheists and materialist scientists of all stripes who simply deny anything transcendental whatsoever. However, most human beings, scientists or not, are highly reluctant to accept an explanation of the universe that concludes that our consciousness is simply a matter of neuronal activity, and our fate is to decompose beneath the ground upon our death. With that said, Penrose’s Platonism represents a possibility, albeit not inherently correct, that could prove copacetic for scientists desiring something “more.”

To close, it is worth briefly addressing how the Penrose-type approach to empirical science and metaphysical curiosity fits into the modern context. Primarily, the approach is pragmatic, for it recognizes a basic human desire to explore metaphysical questions, irrespective of the seeming impossibility at arriving at conclusive answers. In other words, if we suggest that those caught between being following the scientific method and taking a leap of faith (as Collins did) look to Penrose for guidance, then we presuppose that individuals do indeed wish to discover a nexus between their science and potential faith. Richard Dawkins is not guilty of failing to have  faith, but rather of dismissing metaphysical claims on the grounds that certain interpretations of the major monotheistic religions seem manifestly false to him. Penrose does not introduce some irrefutable proof that strict materialists are necessarily wrong. Instead, just as scientists ask religious folks to remain open to the possibility that science can explain something better than can faith, Penrose implicitly recommends that scientists remain open to the possibility that empiricism can bring one to a place so vexing and beautiful that Plato’s world of the forms becomes just a bit more palatable.

(Overhead picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

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