Reader Adrian sent me the following two links from the Guardian, which comprise a critical but humorous exchange between a theologian and a physicist (the humor is all on the physicist’s part). You already know who is going to win.
The first “Comment is Free” piece is by Giles Fraser, described this way:
Dr Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. He writes the column Loose Canon for the Guardian.
His piece is called, “Good luck, physicists, with those tricky ‘meaning of life’ questions,” and of course it’s about non-overlapping magisteria. His beef is that scientists are impinging on questions that used to be the purview of theology. And he starts off by asking physicist Jim Al-Khalili what caused the universe. Fraser is reviving the cosmological argument. As any physicist would, Al-Khalili answers with something like, “It’s like asking what is south of the South Pole”, he says. “In other words, it’s a mistaken question.”
That gives Fraser his chance to gloat:
. . . a hundred years ago, these questions would have been asked of theologians – if God created everything who created God? And, of course, we had no answer either. Or gave some similarly evasive version of the South Pole answer. But now that people don’t care what religion has to say, it is physicists who are facing a very similar interrogation. My smile was … good luck, mate. Over to you. And what made the situation even more delicious was that Al-Khalili is also now president of the British Humanist Association. We are turning our physicists into theologians – even the atheist ones. What are gravitational waves, I ask my scientist friend Adam Rutherford. “Think of them as divine burping,” he says.
As least Fraser says that religion couldn’t answer that question, though he beefs about people not caring what religionists have to say about that.
But why should we? Theologians can never answer questions like that, or tell us anything definitive about the universe. Is there one God, or many? Was Jesus reincarnated? (Muslims say no, Fraser probably says yes.) What the hell is the Trinity? Do Catholics think that Jews go to hell?
Theology has always addressed questions, but never answers them. It can’t because it doesn’t have the tools. At least science can tell us something about the origins of the universe, and maybe, just maybe, that our universe is only one of many universes that pop into existence. Theology couldn’t tell us that, no matter how many revelations they get, so they shouldn’t be so smug. Fraser is playing the old game of “Science is just as bad as theology,” not realizing that he’s implicitly admitting the flaws in his own area.
But then Fraser says that although science can answer empirical questions, it doesn’t matter existentially.
It seems odd to argue that science is long behind the curve, and way behind theology, but when it comes to cosmology it feels very much like that to me. It’s not that I think what they say is untrue. Science is better at dealing with truth questions than theology. Rather, I think that it doesn’t much matter existentially. At least, I can’t see how something that happened 13bn years ago helps me understand anything about what I am up to this morning.
That is, it doesn’t help Fraser live his life, though such knowledge does enrich life for many of us. And perhaps Fraser might think about how science (not cosmology, granted) has helped him survive disease, get better food, and travel about in airplanes. Did you take any pills, Mr. Fraser? If so, thank science. Are you using a cellphone? Thank science. And the good thing is that you don’t have to understand how those things work, because science has done the understanding for you.
How solipsistic you are, pastor Fraser, thinking that a). the sole value of science is helping you figure out what you’re up to at the moment, and b). that science doesn’t really ease your life in any meaningful way. Think about it; of course it does! You are, in fact, acting like a spoiled brat whose toys have been stolen by Big Bad Science.
And about those big questions, well, Fraser tries to fly the dead canard about religion answering the Big Questions that science can’t:
Likewise, there is no answer to the meaning of life hidden behind an exploding gas of atoms. So why do the Sheldons of this world persist in aping the theologians and looking for deep meaning in so distant a place? It’s not just that there is no God of the gaps – there is no ultimate meaning in the gaps either. Neither science nor theology can provide any sort of answer by looking in this non-place. But the popular imagination still assumes that there is something about cosmology that is a big deal for the human condition.
Well, yes, cosmology does tell us something about our condition: that we are largely alone in a hostile universe, the product of unimaginably powerful physical forces that exploded stars, which made our lives possible. Most of the universe is hostile to life, and, as far as we can see we arose through the naturalistic process of evolution, which involved, and still involves, terrible suffering. In about four billion years we’ll go extinct on Earth as the Sun expands.
That all has implications for our condition, including the absence of a beneficent and powerful God. How could he burn us to a cinder? Can’t he keep the Sun from giving us a heat death, or even save a kid from leukemia? In response, theology just makes stuff up. It can’t convey meaning because it can’t convey truth—for, in the end, the meaning conveyed by faith depends on the truth of what faith reveals; and faith, by its very nature, can’t reveal truth. What meaning can you get from the Resurrection if you can’t show that the Resurrection happened? Only the meaning that you can derive from any work of fiction. Personally, I get more meaning from Zorba the Greek (read it!) than from the Bible.
Fraser winds up as follows:
What is so amusing about the current interest in popular science is that we too often assume it has come to replace theology as a way of answering ultimate questions. And the problem with this assumption is that turns scientists into the very thing they were supposed to be replacing. The best of them stick to the cool reason of experimentation. But at the point where science bleeds into metaphysics, some have started sounding surprisingly like Thomas Aquinas banging on about the “uncaused cause“.
I’m a scientist, and I don’t see my colleagues telling me that science gives clues about how to live. They may offer opinions on how to live, but everyone does that, and most don’t claim the answers come from science.
The truth is that theology has no way of answering questions like “how should I live?” except by answers like “follow Jesus.” All other answers, about morality and such, are not the privileged domain of religion, but can be answered even better by philosophy and secular reason. Secular reason, for one thing, deals with questions about sexual behavior much better than does theology. And, frankly, I don’t see how Al-Khalili’s answer says anything about the “how should we live” or “what does it all mean” type of “ultimate questions.”
Happily, I have a physicist, Jon Butterworth, right behind this sign, and he tells Fraser that the good pastor knows nothing about his work. Butterworth is described thusly:
Jon Butterworth is a physics professor at University College London. He is a member of the High Energy Physics group on the Atlas experiment at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. His book Smashing Physics: The Inside Story of the Hunt for the Higgs is published in May 2014
Butterworth’s response, also in the Guardian, is great, starting off like this:
I enjoyed [Fraser's] article “Good luck, physicists, with those tricky ‘meaning of life’ questions”, and I appreciate the good wishes as he acknowledges the perceived transfer of intellectual leadership from theologians to physicists
Then, pwn #1:
Fraser talks about two desires that many (though perhaps not all) of us have. One is to understand the world we live in; the other is to find a meaning to it. I see these as quite distinct, though it’s possible Fraser does not.
On the first, the understanding front, physics – or science in general, I would say – does seem to have theology beaten, for the same reason that actually looking at the clues gives you a better chance of doing a crossword.
I would have written it a bit differently, for theologians do think they have “clues”—it’s just that the clues are the stuff they make up in their head, what their predecessors have told them, and what’s written in ancient works of fiction. What Butterworth means is that science has the proper tools to understand the universe, while Fraser is trying to hammer a nail with a wet noodle.
Pwn #2 (it’s clear Butterworth doesn’t think much of religion!):
When it comes to meaning, well, that’s different.
The ability to juggle atoms, quarks or chromosomes may help you understand what life is, but that is different from telling you its meaning, or a moral code to live by. On the plus side, this means that Higgs boson doesn’t, as far as we know, have an opinion on your sex life, and is unlikely to encourage martyrdom. On the other hand, it is pretty clear uranium 235 doesn’t care one way or the other about mass killings.
And then the sensible response, with a bit of snark at the end:
Personally (and remember I am not especially qualified to pontificate on this*), I think it seems very likely that we are the result of the random interplay of a set of physical laws, the origin of which we may or may not ever fully comprehend. Once the bunch of atoms that constitute my self stop being able to maintain themselves in this arrangement, I see no reason to think there will be any essence or soul that is scooped up by a higher power for continued existence on this or any other plain or brane.
But none of that makes life meaningless. Meaning is something that goes on in our heads. It is something this bunch of quarks and electrons (me) finds within itself. And the more I know about physics, the more robust will be the meanings I come up with, because they’ll be based on better data. [JAC: I'm not quite sure about this last bit. Will understanding how our brain works truly help us give meaning to our lives? Perhaps, but it's a stretch.]
Within this, we have to accept that there are some questions that are unanswerable in their own terms, because they are badly posed. “What is south of the south pole?” is one of them. “What came before the big bang?” may be another, unsatisfying though that may be. Mysteries will remain, though I see no need for a “God of the gaps” to inhabit them, and no reason to stop trying to find out more about them.
And that footnote:
* I’m not sure who is qualified to pontificate on this, really. Etymology would suggest Popes are, but their track record doesn’t look too hot to me.
That’s pretty much all there is to be said about life being meaningless without religion.