Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Suspending disbelief scientifically

I'm a layperson in every sense that word is ever used. I'm not a priest or any sort of religious official, I'm not an academic, I'm not a scientist. I've been thinking quite a lot recently about the widening gulf which there seems to be between people labelling themselves as scientists - who often also choose labels like atheist or sceptic as well and those who label themselves as other things... mystics, believers, people of faith.

I'm curious, interested in thinking about life, the universe and everything, and I'm puzzled by the dogma of both ends of the spectrum. It seems to me that both ends have pretty closed minds, and that both are unhelpful. It was the fact that two people labelling themselves as scientists had the TEDx Talk by Rupert Sheldrake removed from the TEDx London website which started me examining this, although there's been more and more online and in print recently about this debate between faith and science, creationists and atheists.

The official scientist view of the world, for me, requires no fewer leaps of faith than the creationist view of the world. Scientists, especially nowadays, are just as capable of trying to believe six impossible things before breakfast. My ability to grasp the ideas of Quantum Physics are limited to my teenage understanding of mathematics, and the lack of ability to encompass the idea that so much of the quantum world conflicts so badly with the material universe I think I can see and touch.

The idea that anyone is prevented from postulating a theory or trying to explain a phenomenon because it seems unlikely or far-fetched, would surely have prevented anyone from suggesting quantum theory in the first place? There are still large areas of our world and universe which are little understood and there is still quite a big conflict between the Newtonian universe we were used to and the new Quantum universe that scientists are busy imagining for us. In fact, that quantum multiverse has far more in common with the magical universe of the creationists and mystics than it appears to have with the nuts and bolts universe I think I live in.

What's more, scientists seem pretty ok with people postulating theories which are not backed up by experiment or proven mathematical theory, as long as those theories are postulated by people who are acknowledged as scientists. As I was reading only a couple of days ago in an old copy of the New Scientist, cosmologists at MIT and Stamford have suggested that the Universe expanded in the first few seconds of its existence by a factor of 10 30. This theory has somehow led to the theory of a multiverse, which leads on inevitably (it is claimed) to the idea of parallel universes.

Forgive me my ignorance... but I find it no greater leap of faith on my part to accept this idea, than to think that a Creator is responsible for the Creation of the Universe. To me, those ideas may not be mutually exclusive, either. This Multiverse theory is in itself dependent upon the theory of the big bang start to the universe we know and love, which is itself not proven, just an idea. I am wondering why those ideas are any different from the ideas that Rupert Sheldrake postulated, which were his views on the science-as-a-religion worldview.

To me, science is the business of having a theory about the nature of some part of material reality and then doing whatever you can to work out whether that theory is tenable, but the ides that Science is a thing which can only encompass that which we know to be true and not that which we believe to be true is manifestly untrue, and always has been. There are also many things in our universe, much smaller-scale, ordinary things, which do not fit neatly into the category of things that can be known. How do we see love? Where is it in the body? Where does the mind reside? Many of the the biggest discoveries in science have been made by laypeople - not professional scientists, not academics, not people who worked within the structure of science, but people who were curious about the world and set out to explore it. I am not sure how many of their discoveries were the results of experiments that would be properly accepted as part of scientific method today. Many of them faced prejudice because they were card-carrying scientists.

All investigation starts with an idea and a question, and I don't think it is any more scientific to start from the premise that this or that "cannot" be true, than it is to believe that a higher-dimensional being is channelling information from the 24th century. If you start out from a belief that you know better, without examining the evidence, that's prejudice, not science.

In any case, however sceptical you may be about the likelihood of messages being from the 24th century, I think there is a lot to be learned from listening to the stories that a community tells itself, whether that community is a bunch of new age seekers after spiritual truths, or a bunch of scientists. The major lesson that both groups, all people have to learn, is the art of allowing other people to be wrong, deluded or deliberately deceptive and listening anyway to see if they have anything that speaks to your condition, as Quakers say. They may tell you far more than you anticipate about yourself.

Rupert Sheldrake is none of the above things. I have a lot of respect for his ideas and his work, and I think it is telling that some people are unable to let his views be what they are and instead feel that they have to challenge and what is more, suppress them. Anyone can be wrong, and that's human. But not allowing other people to postulate something that conflicts with your own opinion is the opposite of scientific. I hope that the community conveys to TED how disappointed they are that they gave in on this subject, and I hope that the controversy over Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk makes it the most viewed TED video ever.