Steven Weinberg’s Lake Views

If you read popular science, especially with a dollop of atheism, you’ll have read Steven Weinberg.  Weinberg, as most of you know, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for helping unify two of the fundamental forces of physics—weak interaction and electromagnetism—into the “electroweak” theory. He also did groundbreaking work on the so-called “standard model” of particle physics.

Weinberg’s written a number of popular and technical books, the most famous of which is probably The First Three Minutes, recounting what physicists think happened at the moment (or, rather, nanoseconds after) the universe began.  He’s  a pretty vociferous atheist,  and gained infamy among accommodationists for writing one of the great mantras of new atheism:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

I’ve just polished off Weinberg’s new collection of essays, Lake Views, published by Harvard University Press.  (The name comes from Lake Austin, which his study faces.)  It gathers 25 essays written between 2001 and 2008 for magazines and journals, and has a few transcripts of his talks.

It’s worth a read, I think, but I wouldn’t buy it (I took mine out of the library). It’s rather thin gruel, and, like Churchill’s pudding, lacks a theme.  The essays are diverse, and he’s put them in chronological order, which is a bit annoying. An essay on nuclear war, for instance, will be snuggled up to one on atheism, or Zionism, or Einstein.  One gets the impression that these pieces weren’t collected for any pressing reason, but simply to tidy up Weinberg’s oeuvre since his last group of essays (Facing Up, which was much better).

My favorites in the new collection include his pieces on Einstein’s mistakes, a good description of the idea of multiverses and how it bears on the anthropic principle, and the longest essay, “What Price Glory,” on military history (one of Weinberg’s avocations).

If you’re going to dip into Weinberg’s short pieces, though, try Facing Up first.  It has some great pieces, included a nice dismantling of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about paradigm shifts, and a lot of wonderful descriptions of what modern physics has achieved.

One of the better pieces in Lake Views is the last, “Without God,” a transcript a talk Weinberg’s gave in 2008 to Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard.  He owns up to the difficulties of being an atheist (“Cicero offered comfort in De Senectute by arguing that it was silly to fear death. After more than two thousand years his words still have not the slightest power to console us.”), and thinks that “sophisticated” theology, which tries to dispense with a tangible, easily understood God, will eventually erode religion in America:

The various uses of religion may keep it going for a few centuries even after the disappearance of belief in anything supernatural, but I wonder how long religion can last without a core of belief in the supernatural, when it isn’t about anything external to human beings.  To compare great things with small, people may go to college football games mostly because they enjoy the cheerleading and marching bands, but I doubt if they would keep going to the stadium on Saturday afternoons if the only things happening there were cheerleading and marching bands, without any actual football, so that the cheerleading and the band music were no longer about anything.

If he’s right, we should be praising Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong to the skies, but there’s the little matter of Islam, too.

13 Comments

  1. Insightful Ape
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Islam is not as big a problem here in the states as it is in Europe.
    As for secularization…well my favorite model remains the evidence-based one, described in the 2004 book Sacred and Secular and more recently in the works of Greg Paul. “Successful societies” tend to become less religious with time.
    I think scientists (from Collins to Dawkins) can base their views on religious trends on representative samples and stats, as they do for everything else.

  2. Posted May 29, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I think unfalsifiable cheerleading teleology is offered as a Summer session elective at Notre Dame.

  3. Saikat Biswas
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I think it was Freeman Dyson who once countered that religious motivation has often compelled evil people to do good things.
    Either way, one might as well disregard completely how religion or atheism for that matter make people behave. It has little bearing on the truth as espoused by either viewpoint.

    • Andrew
      Posted May 29, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I’m a little uncomfortable with the fact that Weinberg’s quote “…but for good people to do evil—that takes religion” leaves out the fact that some former criminals have been “reformed” by religion. In that sense, though, Sam Harris’ claim that “Religion gives people bad reasons to do good things when good reasons are readily available” seems like a good response.

      • Michael Kingsford Gray
        Posted May 29, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        Using religion to ‘reform’ criminals is a form of (questionably voluntary) mental castration. Is that a good thing?

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Weinberg is also, AFAIU, very much behind the modern work on renormalization theories that makes people see quantum field theories as effective theories (i.e. emergent approximations instead of fundamental interactions), and smoothed the way for progress.

    He is also the man behind the first testable prediction of the anthropic principle. (The first successful prediction of the cosmological constant.)

    Beside being a voice of reason on most other things, I believe I’ve also seen some work on more sane complexity theory than most; IIRC Weinberg doesn’t seem to think that the area is much more than an adaptable set of useful measures. Certainly not something along the lines of the religionistas exceptionalism.

    A level-headed personality on a well-rounded scientist.

  5. Stephen P
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Weinberg’s aphorism would be closer to the mark if he’d said “but for good people to do evil – that takes dogma”.

    Yes, the dogma could be religious, but communist dogma and nationalist dogma have proved very effective in the same direction.

    • Marcus
      Posted May 30, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure dogma captures it either. Rather, once it is decided for whatever reason that a group of people are evil, then it’s a short walk to rationalizing all sorts of violence against the group.

      Religion is but one path to that possible end.

  6. stvs
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Alan Guth’s Inflationary Universe deserves to be read for both the exciting science story—he gives a nice physical explanation of how the energy bound in the gravitational field cancels out “positive” energy using a simple argument that Newton failed to observe—as well as for its explicit atheism:

    The question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science—everything can be created from nothing … it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.

    I believe that the quote that achieved Weinberg’s infamy is, “”

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted May 29, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Very Zen!

  7. stvs
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Alan Guth’s Inflationary Universe deserves to be read for both the exciting science story—he gives a nice physical explanation of how the energy bound in the gravitational field cancels out “positive” energy using a simple argument that Newton failed to observe—as well as for its explicit atheism:

    The question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science—everything can be created from nothing … it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.

    I belive that the quote that achieved Weinberg’s infamy is, “The more we know of the cosmos, the more meaningless it appears.”

    One good measure of a scientist versus a non-scientists is a failure to grasp Weinberg’s meaning on this quote, or to be perturbed by it. One look at the fantastic agreement between the microwave background’s spectrum and blackbody radiation (appearing, e.g. in Guth’s book) will reinforce Weinberg’s point for anyone who can derive this spectrum from first principles.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    everything can be created from nothing … […] I believe that the quote that achieved Weinberg’s infamy is, “”

    I liked the self-referencing version of the comment.

    Actually, since religionistas are so obsessed with proof, it is ironic to note that mathematicians can create all numbers out of the empty set. (For example, by way of surreal numbers.)

  9. Posted June 1, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    If he’s right, we should be praising Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong to the skies

    I’ve already given deep thought to this topic: Eagleton, not so much. But Armstrong — yeah, maybe. She really does seem to want to remake religion into something harmless, as far as I can tell…


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