Monday, June 8, 2009

Living with both certainty and ambiguity

Some would claim that a "scientific" world view forces them to to dismiss out of hand Biblical events such as miracles and the resurrection of Jesus. But should we? One thing we have learnt from modern science is that things that sometimes what we think ``makes sense’’ or what we may intuitively think is ``rational’’ or ``reasonable’’ can actually be false.

Sir Arthur Eddington was the most influential astronomer in the early twentieth century. J.B.S. Haldane was an incredibly influential geneticist and evolutionary biologist. Both are credited with saying that,
the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
It is striking to me that this statement was made so long ago. The universe is indeed even stranger than what Haldane and Eddington knew 50 years ago. This was before we had to grapple with the most bizarre properties of quantum physics or the recent finding that 96% of the universe may be composed of dark matter and dark energy, completely unlike the matter and energy of which we are made and encounter in our daily lives.

Quantum theory is one of my passions. When I went to university I thought if I understood quantum theory I would understand the meaning of life. I was so young and naïve. Quantum theory raises more philosophical questions than it answers. But, it is the most successful theory in all of science. It can explain properties of everything from quarks to atoms to DNA. It can predict the outcome of experiments to an accuracy of 10 decimal places. Its resounding success challenges claims in the Arts and Humanities about the absence of absolute truth and about knowledge just being a social construct.

Yet there is no consensus on the interpretation of the most successful theory in all of science. There are an abundance of different interpretations of quantum theory. They go by names such as: Copenhagen, consistent histories, decoherence, no interpretation, many-worlds,....
Yet these interpretations cannot even agree on how many universes there are, nor whether external reality even exists! So we have both certainty and ambiguity in science.

My wife generally doesn’t share my passion for quantum physics. Yet Robin does like Schrodingers cat! It is simultaneously dead and alive. It could be either and it is only after you look to see which that it dies or lives. So looks can kill! The possible existence of such a being as this cat is the logical outcome of the most successful theory in all of science. This should humble us. We don’t have all the answers. But there are some things which science does very well. Others it does not.

I hope appreciating this tension between certainty and ambiguity in science might make us a little more hesitant about our assumptions, and about our pre-conceived ideas about how we think the world (and God) should be.

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