Unlike some of my readers, I don’t dismiss all academic philosophy as worthless. The discipline imparts the tools of logic and throught that can clarify questions and bring contradictions to light. I think it’s of most value in illuminating (but not necessarily solving) ethical problems and dilemmas, but of less value for working scientists.
But in an ongoing meeting in Geneva described by the BBC, its value would seem to be nil (the CERN-sponsored conference, which ends tomorrow, is called “The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?“)*
Worse: at this conference philosophy is rendered even more ineffectual by diluting it with theology—a form of intellectual homeopathy. As the BBC reports:
Some of Europe’s most prominent scientists have opened a debate with philosophers and theologians over the origins of everything.
The event, in Geneva, Switzerland, is described as a search for “common ground” between religion and science over how the Universe began.
It will focus on the Big Bang theory.
The conference was called by Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in the wake of its Higgs boson discovery.
And, at the outset, the the theologian-philosophers parade their hauteur, trying to tell physicists that they’re doing it rong (Pinsent, mentioned below, has degrees in physics and philosophy and is on the theology faculty at Oxford):
The first speaker at the conference was Andrew Pinsent, research director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University.
He said that science risked “trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.
“Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas,” he told the BBC.
“Einstein began by asking the kinds of questions that a child would ask, like what would it be like to ride on a beam of light.”
That, Dr Pinsent said, was what science should return to.
Not so good for producing ideas? That claim is what comes out of the south end of a horse facing north. First of all, many scientists do engage with religion and philosophy, but I suspect the kind of engagement Pinsent wants is not debate (as occurs on this site), but mutual back-patting.
And in the case of this conference, that engagement is useless. What do theologians, or philosophers for that matter, have to say about the origin of the universe that’s of any value to scientists? Any “philosophizing” about things like multiverses can be done perfectly well by scientists on their own.
The stuff about “turning society into a machine” is alarmist hype; nothing like that would happen without the vaunted “dialogue”, even if all scientists buried themselves in their labs like hermit.
Finally, who the hell does Pinsent think he is telling scientists that we’re not coming up with new ideas in the right way? Isn’t string theory a remarkable imaginative achievement, even if we can’t yet test it? So is the idea of multiverses; and Lee Smolin‘s theory of “cosmological natural selection” is highly original, even if it proves to be wrong.
Sadly, the BBC article doesn’t report any dissent, or pushback, by scientists. It reports only annoying statements by philosopher and theologians, and one rump-osculating statement by the director of CERN:
Prof Rolf Heuer, director of Cern, explained that the Higgs results provided a “deeper insight and understanding of the moments after the Big Bang”.
He added that he hoped, by the end of the conference, that delegates from very different backgrounds would be able to “start to discuss the origin of our Universe”.
Yeah, but only scientists will be able to make progress in understanding the origin of our universe. The rest of the attendees will stare at their navels and aver that scientists can’t answer the Really Big Questions, like why there was a Big Bang:
Co-organiser Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, said that the Higgs particle “raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer”.
“They need to explore them with theologians and philosophers,” he added.
No they don’t. That’s a waste of time, and gives theologians and philosophers unwarranted credibility in what is a purely scientific problem. That looks good on their c.v.s, but not so good on the physicists’. As scientists’ efforts continue to shrink the bailiwicks of both philosophy and, especially, theology, practitioners of these disciplines are desperate to retain a seat at the Big Table and anxious to show that they, too, have something to contribute to the progress of science.
The thing is, they don’t. Philosophy of science is a meta-discipline, which can analyze the sociology of our field, often in enlightening ways, but hasn’t, as far as I can see, contributed to science’s progress. Yes, insofar as scientists themselves ruminate about the meaning of their achievements (philosophers love to count this as philosophy), that leads to progress. But with few exceptions (for me, Dennett and Kitcher, because they know a lot about evolution), formal academic philosophy of science has not advanced science itself. Most honest philosophers of science will admit this. And of course theology is useless for advancing knowledge—it only impedes science by confusing the public and raising “science stoppers” like the fine-tuning argument and the claim that morality implies a God.
This is what you get when a conference is co-organized by a physicist and a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury: a few shreds of meat floating around in a bowl of porridge:
The organisers are expecting some disagreements during the three-day event.
For example, one of the speakers, Prof John Lennox from Oxford University, has been an outspoken critic of atheist scientists in the past.
Most recently, he took issue with Prof Stephen Hawking’s assertion that God did not create the Universe.
In an article in the Daily Mail, he said that he was certain that Prof Hawking was wrong.
Prof Lennox wrote: “When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?”
Well, maybe it lit itself, Dr. Lennox? Have you ruled out that possibility?
But the theologian-philosphers press on, like kids who beg to sit at the adults’ table at Thanksgiving:
Dr Wilton, though, said he was hopeful that “scientists, theologians and philosophers alike might gain fresh insights from each other’s disciplines”
“This is such an exciting conference,” he told the BBC.
For him, maybe. He gets the cachet of getting to debate real scientists and pretending that he has something meaningful to say to them. But the conference isn’t so exciting for physicists.
And since when did the estimable scientific organization CERN start acting like the Templeton Foundation?
h/t: John, Matthew Cobb
*The answer is “no.” You can download a pdf of the conference program here; warning—it’s infuriating.