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Science, Hubris, and the Importance of Admitting Ignorance

Posted by M.Ferris on

I heard a piece this weekend on the TED Radio Hour that got me thinking a bit about assumptions, the scientific method, and how science is for some, a kind of faith. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at Cal Tech, gave a talk entitled “Cosmology and the Arrow of Time.” Some salient points Carroll made were, the universe is changing as time passes. It is expanding. The universe was “smooth” at the beginning. This was a time of low-entropy, of high order. The universe was in a very delicate arrangement, it was not random, but we’re not quite sure why.

Through the program, host Guy Raz and Sean Carroll discuss some of these ideas, and Raz asks this: “If there was low entropy in the beginning, if there was order, could it suggest that there was something that intended it to be that way?” Carroll’s somewhat extended reply:

“It could be. If you ask a question like that, the answer is yeah, it could be. There are many things that are possible. That’s certainly something that people have thought about. There’s something called the teleological argument or the argument from design for the existence of a supernatural creator that says that, you know, features of our universe, if they were very different wouldn’t have allowed for us human beings to exist. But the early universe, interestingly, the problem is not just it was quite orderly, but it was really way more orderly than it needed to be for us to be here. If you really want to make this argument that the universe is set up to allow for the existence of life or humanity or something life that, the early universe is overkill. So it seems that whatever the explanation is, for why the early universe has the features its does, that’s not a really good one. We need something to explain why it is so exquisitely low entropy, so many particulars in such a very, very specific state. And as physicists, we have theories, you know, we don’t know which one is right, it’s early times as far this big question kind of thinking goes, but it’s not hard to imagine that we’ll get a good physics explanation rather than reaching for something beyond the physical world.”

Christians, of course, call that explanation for early order “God.” Genesis begins with an account of God creating the heavens and the earth. But the account is low on details, because, as Herbert Lockyer noted, “The Scriptures were given to tell men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The Bible is not a textbook on cosmology, so we shouldn’t expect that kind of detail. But Carroll discounts an explanation involving the supernatural, apparently because the early universe is too orderly than it needs to be. He doesn’t explain why a situation of too much order is problematic. Too much order for what, or why? I don’t think that’s a good reason, but one thing he does admit is, “We don’t know.” My intention here isn’t to pick apart his argument, but to highlight this overarching theme: What we often think of as science has lacunas of understanding, and for all we may know, there is much that is not known.

In other words, a basic question on the origin of the universe, an important piece of information about solving a scientific problem, remains out of reach, not understood. How does that fit in with the idea of “settled science” I wonder? My question is not so much to induce a revision of cosmology, so much as ask my atheist friends if they are prepared to acknowledge there are gaps –in human understanding of science, and these gaps are sometimes wide. Knowledge has so often been revised; updated, and indeed supplanted; that it seems a posture of humility is a good one to assume on so many of these questions. It’s very difficult to set up an experiment to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, so there is theory, some data surrounding those theories, but in the end, they are theories. And the very fact that those theories have been revised demonstrates they can be wrong. Scientists appeal to a lack of evidence for the existence of God, but an honest scientist will likewise admit that there is no proof of the non-existence of God. In other words, it’s not a good argument.

For a working cosmologist such as Sean Carroll, he can get closer to the data, and whatever experiments may be possible, but for the rest of society, that’s out of reach. What we are left with is faith, belief in information given to us from someone else, and those who believe do so not because of firsthand knowledge, or eyewitness accounts, but on a personal decision to trust the information you’re being given.

So, for my atheist friends, I have a suggestion and a plea. It’s forthright to acknowledge science involves gaps and theories, and remains not at all settled, but elusive and faith-based. I think this should be uncontroversial, for it is demonstrable. And given this, my plea would be for humility in the light of this. Current science may be the best it has ever been, but it’s incomplete. That’s a fact.