Scientific American carried a recent article asking the question of whether string theory was science or philosophy? As a theologian, what little I know of the subject presages me to answer in the affirmative. Yes. I think its a little bit of both. Or a lot of bit of both and a little of bit of each. Which is not a way to be silly but in effect, to say we should always be open to the helpfulness of uncertainty and the tension of not knowing (the article itself is provided further below).
The larger question which looms overhead for me is how the church absently discounts science and philosophy's ground-moving discussions as specious while not even questioning itself as to why it may be important to pay attention to these disciplines in the larger scheme of things. Mostly, I'm sure, the church responds this way because it feels these discussions are not "spiritual" or "biblical" or "pertinent" and hence, do not fit into the rhetoric of biblical topics as it presses the bible closely against its martyred breast.
However, it cannot be said too often that the newer insights by science and philosophy of the 21st century must demand a fundamental re-evaluation between the church's theologies and its apprehension of academia. If not, we do the Christian faith an injustice. An injustice which puts it "above" academic reproach in the minds of its congregants who are all too ready to disbelieve anything that it doesn't hear from the pulpit or read in the holy pages of Scripture.
But this is not a good thing, its a bad thing. It makes God irrelevant to the world at large as well as to the church without. It causes the God of the bible to be too-separate from His creation when we as Christians do this. And it subsequently casts doubt on God's presence in humanity when we begin to think of Him as an "unapproachable deity" by any other means than by the mystical (or subjective) approach of belief. Moreover, it causes God to be held as a "fictional reality" to the world at large whom the Christian is to witness to of God's truths in Jesus (who then becomes "myth" Himself, unfortunately). And so, in reality, the church must wrestle with postmodern science and philosophies whether it wants to or not for if it doesn't, it affects both itself, and its witness, if nothing else.
As example, a couple years ago quantum theory provided quite a bit of fertile ground in rethinking the basic ingredients of life, the cosmos, time, ontology, etc. More so, it caused the church to confront its hallowed, classically-based doctrines and dogmas, built up over eons of time on outdated foundations of Hellenism, medievalism, scholasticism, enlightenment theory, and secular modernistic philosophies. However, since the occurrence of these older outlooks another kind of foundation has come. One that is postmodern, postsecular, post-structural, and post-Christian. And one which is very conversant with science and philosophy. A conversation which can be quite helpful in addressing the church's static conversations with itself and the world by questioning "what it thinks it knows in the bible when faced with newer interpretations questioning its quasi-foundational biblical beliefs."
Contemporary theologic (biblical) investigations and dialogue keeps faith's relevancy wide, exploratory, and expansive. It allows the church to question things it never really allowed itself to question before (like, fear, uncertainty and doubt, for instance). Or by providing more answers than it would've had clinging to older theological forms of "biblical thinking" (shorthand for "popularly approved" church doctrines and dogmas).
By way of another example, science is a lot like listening to the recent fallen political theories and conducts seen on social media of the 2015-2016 presidential candidates and their proposed policies. Proposals and conducts which seem to soar until confronted with biblical truths that say, "Hey, not so fast, here's why this doesn't work anymore! Here's why this policy or action must come under scrutiny!" (Think gay rights; protection of individual Constitutional and legal rights; immigration; equality of women and genders in society; the value of peace over the heinousness of going to war in closely connected global economies; gun control; and, etc). By all accounts, these popular candidates who are supposedly the best our society can produce have each shown a gross incomprehension across a multitude of issues when landing in the area of ethics and morality. And its been a very difficult campaign season for voters to listen to or decide within. Worse, in watching the response of the church as it throws out the gospel of Jesus in favor of discrimination, racism, sexism, misogynism, war, the trampling of constitutional rights, and a whole host of other sordid issues.
Consequently many contemporary theologians are rethinking and rewriting every doctrine they have grown up with by replacing (where necessary) each part with larger ideas they hadn't grasped until more recently because of the biblical systems they were indoctrinated within. Why? Because many of those systems were forcing furious apologia rather than constructive dialogue with the sciences and philosophies. And when practiced either socially or politically, could be seen as totally without personal or community affect upon its listeners, readers, and respondents.
More simply, if God is real, if we are finite human beings, if we struggle with existentially grasping another's life circumstance, than most assuredly our epistemologies (what we think are true) must require re-examination. Thus the labor I and others have been giving ourselves to in deeply rethinking the centers and meaning of the historic Christian faith. An orthodox faith which must become current, contemporary, and relevant, if it is to be missional.
Or, as fellow Christian friends repeatedly ask, "Do you ever wonder why the old timey rants and gospels don't work anymore?" My response? "Its not because they are untrue but because they are no longer communicating into people's lives. They need another basis, direction, level of depth, or meaning altogether that cannot be found when using anti-academic, anti-science, anti-intellectual rants and dogmas." Consequently, this means that the gospel we speak must not only embrace the sciences and academia but also the lives of those whom we minister to. And it must certainly convict even the politics and political policies we espouse to one another and to the world at large. If America is a Christian nation than let's act like it and press for social justice, world peace, and global cooperation. These things are not hard to do unless we fear and distrust one another wishing to be empire builders instead of kingdom builders. Than they become impossible to accomplish. Let's begin with changing our attitudes of one another.
One last example... I can no longer vote for a political party but for the gospel itself. I wish to see its message of service, love, peace, and mercy displayed in the Constitution as America's legal charter and no longer can vote for a political party or personage which under-represents - or opposes - basic gospel moralities and ethics. As a Christian, I strive to create a redeemed society and not a fallen one - however worldly (or Christian) I may think it might be (or once was).
And so, yes, change must be embraced, listened to, and not goal-posted around as something sinful or harmful because we don't like it or fear its results. God is there, but most likely not in how we think He is there. And if God is there (or here), than I might find that I, as the church, might speak of His truths in a more relevant conversation with the world once I let go of past unhelpful church doctrines and dogmas which refuse to be so conversant with the very world we are to restore, redeem, heal, and resurrect through Christ Jesus in the power of God's Holy Spirit. Amen.
December 23, 2015
Wikipedia - The Fabric of the Universe
Wikipedia - String Theory
Brian Greene - The Fabric of the Cosmos (parts 1-4)
Universe or Multiverse? New String Theory ☆ Parallel Universes & Timelines
☆ Best Full Documentary
Published on Aug 13, 2014
Part 4/4: The Fabric of the Cosmos: Universe or Multiverse? - by Scientists, hosted by Brian Greene
"The Fabric of the Cosmos," a four-hour series based on the book by renowned physicist and author Brian Greene, takes us to the frontiers of physics to see how scientists are piecing together the most complete picture yet of space, time, and the universe. With each step, audiences will discover that just beneath the surface of our everyday experience lies a world we'd hardly recognize—a startling world far stranger and more wondrous than anyone expected.
Brian Greene is going to let you in on a secret: We've all been deceived. Our perceptions of time and space have led us astray. Much of what we thought we knew about our universe—that the past has already happened and the future is yet to be, that space is just an empty void, that our universe is the only universe that exists—just might be wrong.
Interweaving provocative theories, experiments, and stories with crystal-clear explanations and imaginative metaphors like those that defined the groundbreaking and highly acclaimed series "The Elegant Universe," "The Fabric of the Cosmos" aims to be the most compelling, visual, and comprehensive picture of modern physics ever seen on television.
* * * * * * * * *
The idea that our Universe is part of a multiverse poses a challenge to philosophers of science.
Credit: R. Windhorst, Arizona State Univ./H. Yan, Spitzer Science Center, Caltech/ESA/NASA
Is String Theory Science?
A debate between physicists and philosophers could redefine
the scientific method and our understanding of the universe
December 23, 2015
Is string theory science? Physicists and cosmologists have been debating the question for the past decade. Now the community is looking to philosophy for help.
Earlier this month, some of the feuding physicists met with philosophers of science at an unusual workshop aimed at addressing the accusation that branches of theoretical physics have become detached from the realities of experimental science. At stake is the integrity of the scientific method, as well as the reputation of science among the general public, say the workshop’s organizers.
Held at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany on December 7-9, the workshop came about as a result of an article in Naturea year ago, in which cosmologist George Ellis, of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and astronomer Joseph Silk, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, lamented a “worrying turn” in theoretical physics (G. Ellis and J. Silk Nature 516, 321–323; 2014).
“Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe,” they wrote, some scientists argue that “if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally”.
First among the topics discussed was testability. For a scientific theory to be considered valid, scientists often require that there be an experiment that could, in principle, rule the theory out — or ‘falsify’ it, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper put it in the 1930s. In their article, Ellis and Silk pointed out that in certain areas, some theoretical physicists had strayed from this guiding principle — even arguing for it to be relaxed.
The duo cited string theory as the principal example. The theory replaces elementary particles with infinitesimally thin strings to reconcile the apparently incompatible theories that describe gravity and the quantum world. The strings are too tiny to detect using today’s technology — but some argue that string theory is worth pursuing whether or not experiments will ever be able to measure its effects, simply because it seems to be the ‘right’ solution to many quandaries.
Silk and Ellis also called out another theory that seems to have abandoned ‘Popperism’: the concept of a multiverse, in which the Big Bang spawned many universes — most of which would be radically different fromour own.
But in the opening talk at the workshop, David Gross, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, drew a distinction between the two theories. He classified string theory as testable “in principle” and thus perfectly scientific, because the strings are potentially detectable.
Much more troubling, he says, are concepts such as the multiverse because the other universes that it postulates probably cannot be observed from our own, even in principle. “Just to argue that [string theory] is not science because it’s not testable at the moment is absurd,” says Gross, who shared a Nobel prize in 2004 for his work on the strong nuclear force, which is well tested in experiments, and has also made important contributions to string theory.
Workshop attendee Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist at Aix-Marseille University in France, agrees that just because string theory is not testable now does not mean that it is not worth theorists’ time. But the main target of Ellis and Silk’s piece were observations made by philosopher Richard Dawid of Ludwig Maximilian University in his book String Theory and the Scientific Method (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013). Dawid wrote that string theorists had started to follow the principles of Bayesian statistics, which estimates the likelihood of a certain prediction being true on the basis of prior knowledge, and later revises that estimate as more knowledge is acquired. But, Dawid notes, physicists have begun to use purely theoretical factors, such as the internal consistency of a theory or the absence of credible alternatives, to update estimates, instead of basing those revisions on actual data.
At the workshop, Gross, who has suggested that a lack of alternatives to string theory makes it more likely to be correct, sparred with Rovelli, who has worked for years on an alternative called loop quantum gravity. Rovelli flatly opposes the assumption that there are no viable alternatives. Ellis, meanwhile, rejects the idea that theoretical factors can improve odds. “My response to Bayesianism is: new evidence must be experimental evidence,” he says.
Others flagged up separate issues surrounding the use of Bayesian statistics to bolster string theory. Sabine Hossenfelder, a physicist at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm, said that the theory’s popularity may have contributed to the impression that it is the only game in town. But string theory probably gained momentum for sociological reasons, she said: young researchers may have turned to it because the job prospects are better than in a lesser-known field, for example.
Historian of science Helge Kragh of Aarhus University in Denmark drew on historical perspective. “Suggestions that we need ‘new methods of science’ have been made before, but attempts to replace empirical testability with some other criteria have always failed,” he said. But at least the problem is confined to just a few areas of physics, he added. “String theory and multiverse cosmology are but a very small part of what most physicists do.”
That is cold comfort to Rovelli, who stressed the need for a clear distinction between scientific theories that are well established by experiments and those that are speculative. “It’s very bad when people stop you in the street and say, ‘Did you know that the world is made of strings and that there are parallel worlds?’.”
At the end of the workshop, the feuding physicsts did not seem any closer to agreement. Dawid — who co-organized the event with Silk, Ellis and others — says that he does not expect people to change their positions in a fundamental way. But he hopes that exposure to other lines of reasoning might “result in slight rapprochement”. Ellis suggests that a more immersive format, such as a two-week summer school, might be more successful at producing a consensus.
Davide Castelvecchi is a freelance science writer based in Rome and a contributing editor for Scientific American magazine. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Stanford University and a science writing degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has been a staff editor atScientific American and a reporter at Science News magazine.