One of the hazards of engaging in epistemological debate is that they almost always become religious. We look back through the haze of history, trying to understand the practices by which knowledge is revealed to us, hoping to glean insights that help us heal divisive intellectual conflicts in the present.
Currently, these discussions become religious because our era suffers from an extreme bifurcation in our pursuit of knowledge. In no other era of human history have the two great pursuits of understanding – religion and science – been perceived as diametrically opposed. The linear causality of Einstein stands in contradiction of the gift of prophesy, and the power and predictability of dumb matter seduces us into believing that we can achieve all of our desires right here on Earth. Conversely, science denies us the comfort of meaning, to the extent that some denounce the search for meaning, or go even further to propose that this reality is evidence of a malefic creator.
Given this modern myopia, in looking back at the great episodes of resistance to truth, we tend to focus on the conflict between science and religion. Consider, for example, the succession from geocentric models of the solar system to the heliocentric models. The oppression of Brahe and Galileo is characterized as resistance by a religious elite threatened by the destruction of a Platonic universe whose geometrical perfection (circles moving within circles) was advanced as proof of the existence of the Christian God.
In fact, the history was rather more subtle, and its consideration brings a great deal of insight into the intellectual resistance to the program of this blog, declared on the title bar: “Unifying Science and Spirituality.”
The Greeks advanced both the geocentric and heliocentric models. If the ancients had been capable of building the instruments used by Galileo, they would certainly have settled on the latter. They resolved on the former for entirely practical reasons: they were concerned with using the positions of the stars to calculate the calendar date and the position of objects on the Earth’s surface. Culturally, their needs were absolutely geocentric. To solve this problem, they correlated geographical position with stellar observations and the progression of the seasons. Next, they sought methods for compacting this large body of data in a form that could be used by voyagers. The technology most adaptable to that purpose was the mathematics of circular revolution. Not only was the mathematics of circular revolution relatively simple, it was easy to translate to mechanical form as instruments containing rotating dials.
The “geocentric” model of the heavens was not in essence a philosophical proposition, but a proposition of practical technology. The principle motivation for upending the model was that over the centuries, the circular approximations began to fail. Designs specified in the first century produced the wrong answers in the eleventh century. A more reliable model was necessary, and the application of the new mathematics of elliptical analysis revealed that the heliocentric model fit the data more reliably than did the geocentric model of circular revolution.
As for the resistance of the Church, Galileo insisted on publishing an insulting parody of the Pope with his observations. He made his science a political issue. This was not an idle matter: the Church used the feudal compact to constrain the rapaciousness of those with a monopoly on the instruments of war. Those scientists were well accepted that chose to engage with the Church with the aim of minimizing the social disruption that always comes with new knowledge.
In my own intellectual adventures here on this blog, I find myself confronted by those that tout modern cosmology as proof that the universe is a machine unfolding without purpose from its initial conditions. The foremost intellectual challenge to that conclusion has been “fine tuning” – the delicate balance of the fundamental constants of nature (specifically the relative strengths of the four forces) that must be preserved if life is to survive. The solution to this conundrum has been the “multiverse” variant of the Big Bang theory (the name itself is a mischaracterization). The multiverse proposition holds that universes exist with and without life – we just happen to occupy one in which life is possible.
The random generation of universes in the Big Bang, however, results from the proposition that we can explain all of nature by using two branches of mathematics: group theory and Fourier analysis. Both of these methods are relatively susceptible to hand calculation. What is little understood by the public is that the theorists trumpet their successes and ignore their failures. The application of current theory to study of the hydrogen nucleus is summarized here, and the results are incredibly ugly.
Why is the theory not abandoned? For the same reason that the geocentric theory was not abandoned: physicists and astronomers have used the current theory to justify the construction of multi-billion dollar observatories. As the Church did, they oppose any idea that might destabilize the social order that pays their salaries.
What is scandalous is that the interstellar navel-gazing saps money from problems here on Earth that desperately call for the full commitment of our best and brightest minds. The scientists need to get the heads out of the stars and back onto the Earth.