Saturday, August 31, 2013

A NOTE ON SCIENCE VS. AUTHORITY


In one of my responses to a comment on a previous essay, I used an illustration from the history of theoretical physics to make a point about the difference between reliance on authority and reliance on scientific reasoning.  I thought it might be good to expand that illustration into a separate essay in the hope that it will get a bit more exposure.  

By the mid-1920s a new area of theoretical physics was developing that went by the name of quantum mechanics and that concerned the behavior of subatomic particles.  [OK, let me stop right there.  If you feel that the following paragraphs are hard to follow or just plain boring, then go ahead and skip to the fifth paragraph.  I don’t want to lose your attention.]  Research in this area had been yielding some very strange results that seemed to call for a fundamentally different view of the world. 
One of the interpretations that seemed to fit the experimental results was the idea that at its most basic the world is probabilistic.  Under this approach a particle, for example, does not occupy a specific location; rather, it occupies a range of possible locations until someone actually measures where it is.  The leader of this school of thought was the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr.  

By this same time, Albert Einstein was riding high on the success of his theories of special and general relativity and was considered by many as the world’s most brilliant physicist.  Einstein didn’t agree with Bohr’s interpretation of the experimental results and  it was in the context of this disagreement that Einstein made his famous remark that “God does not play dice.”  For the record, Einstein was most certainly an atheist.  What he meant by the comment was that in his opinion the world is not fundamentally probabilistic.  

Einstein and Bohr conducted a series of debates to address these issues.  The debates have been recognized as one of the landmark events in 20th century science.  Both men were at the top of their game and supremely self-confident.  Observers agree that both men were well prepared to defend their positions, but the general consensus is that Bohr got the better of the argument in the debate.

Now, having said all that, here’s my point.  Members of the scientific community following the debate did not decide whether Bohr or Einstein was right because of who they believed in.  They recognized that both men were brilliant, but no one said, “I’m going to agree with Einstein (or Bohr) because he knows the truth.”  Moreover, generally speaking, no one agreed with one position or the other because they thought one was a more powerful debater than the other and had put forth a better argument.  

Rather--and this is key--the response of the physics community was to ask, “What experiments can we devise so that the results will help decide which position represents a better model?”  And in fact that is just what happened going forward.  In the following years both sides devised experiments that would help determine which position had the better argument.  Just for the record, the consensus is that the experimental evidence has continue to favor Bohr’s point of view.

And to drive the point home a bit further, in contemporary science writing no one says, “Bohr’s position is correct because Bohr said it.  It’s right here in the transcript of the debate.”  Instead, scientific accounts in the field cite all of the various lines of research that have been done that support one point of view over the other.  In the end it is the research that counts, not who said what.  I hope my point is clear.

© 2013 John M. Phillips

5 comments:

  1. Yes, I like your point. The church could use more of such open mindedness, and thankfully there are Bible scholars that are looking at "authority" and questioning the "pillars."

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    1. Lisa,
      Unfortunately, there are Bible scholars and there are Bible scholars. There are scholars who are seeking the truth concerning the historical Jesus and concerning who may have written the scriptures. These scholars are willing to use and accept any relevant evidence so long as it furthers our knowledge and understanding. Then there are scholars who already have a point of view or a faith to defend and whose goal is to support that point of view, and unfortunately that point of view can color their analysis of the evidence. See, for example, Mack, "Who Wrote the New Testament."
      But more fundamentally, the point I was making about "authority" related to the fact that we shouldn't just accept that whatever the Bible says must be true. The distinction here is between (a) "The Bible must be true, but what is the best way to interpret it" and (b) "Is the Bible accurate and why or why not." The first suffers from reliance on authority, which is the fundamental problem. I don't know how to make it plainer than that.
      I don't know what you mean by "pillars."

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  3. Recent counter-point to Bohr's view from the New York Times

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    1. Thanks for the cite. I will look at it later.

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