On his Scientific American website Cross-Check, John Horgan interviews Carlo Rovelli, a physicist well known for his work on quantum gravity. They cover a number of topics, including whether there will soon be a “theory of everything” (Rovelli says no), the role of philosophy in physics, and the compatibility of science and religion. You can read the whole thing for yourself, but I want to highlight Rovelli’s answers in three areas.
On philosophy and physics:
Horgan: What’s your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Rovelli: Seriously: I think they are stupid in this. I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong. Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr…. and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than the names you mention, of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly. You see: the scientists that talk philosophy down are simply superficial: they have a philosophy (usually some ill-digested mixture of Popper and Kuhn) and think that this is the “true” philosophy, and do not realize that this has limitations.
Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories. This is the physics of the “why not?” Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe? Science has never advanced in this manner in the past. Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories. Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking’s black-hole radiation, which is exactly this. But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort. Why? Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.
Like Rovelli, Sean Carroll, and (I’m forced to admit) Massimo Pigliucci, I agree that dissing philosophy in general is dumb, and that philosophy has a lot to offer science, most importantly in enforcing the rigor of our thinking. Philosophers are experts in picking out bad arguments and logical flaws, and we’d be silly not to benefit from that. They’re also good at clarifying problems. On the other hand, many things can be construed as philosophy, including lucubrations like the back-and-forth Gedankenexperiments that Einstein and Bohr had about quantum mechanics. At its boundaries, the disciplines are continuous, though philosophy by itself cannot tell us what’s true about the universe.
What I’m not sure about is whether, as Rovelli seems to hold, formal academic philosophy is crucial to physics. He certainly doesn’t give an example of that. Give me a little time, and I could construe almost any form of science, including evolutionary biology, as depending critically on philosophy, but you have to stretch the definition of “philosophy” to maintain that.
This is not, of course, to denigrate the real contributions that philosophy has made in non-scientific areas, particularly in thinking about morality. But it’s not clear to me how Hawkin’s black-hole radiation is deeply dependent on philosophy. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me. All I know is that most scientists, including those in biology, never read formal philosophy.
Horgan: Do you agree with philosopher Thomas Nagel that science needs a new paradigm to account for the emergence of life and consciousness in the cosmos?
Rovelli: No. When we do not understand something, people are tempted to think that “some new paradigm” is needed, or a “great mystery” is there. Then we understand it, and all fog dissolves.
That’s a great answer. Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False—a book that provided great succor to creationists and woo-lovers—was simply dreadful: a claim that something was clearly missing from evolutionary biology, and that “something” was an unspecified teleological element (see my post on three devastating reviews of that book). There’s a lot that we don’t understand about evolution (i.e., what form of sexual selection explains sexual dimorphism in birds?), but, contra Rovelli, there’s nothing to suggest that major elements are missing evolutionary biology that have us all flummoxed.
On the existence of God:
Horgan: Do you believe in God?
Rovelli: No. But perhaps I should qualify the answer, because like this it is bit too rude and simplistic. I do not understand what “to believe in God” means. The people that “believe in God” seem like Martians to me. I do not understand them. I suppose this means that I “do not believe in God”. If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.
If the question is whether I believe that “God” is a powerful something in the people, which causes a lot of disasters but also a lot of good, then of course I believe it. In fact, I am extremely curious about religion. I think that we should study what is religion much more than what is done. There is a sort of taboo in this, a sort of respect towards people who “believe in God”, which makes it difficult to understand better.
I think that viewing the “belief in God” just as a bunch of silly superstitions is wrong. The “belief in God” is one form of human religious attitude, and human religious attitude is something very general and universal about our functioning. Something which is important for man, and we have not yet understood.
This seems a bit disingenuous. It’s pretty clear what Horgan’s question meant: did Rovelli believe that some supernatural being existed, one who probably interacted with the universe? Rovelli says that he doesn’t understand what “to believe in God means,” but then he answer the question with a definitive “no.” He then moves the goalposts and says that it’s still an interesting question why people are religious. Here he conflates “belief in God” with “understanding why people are religious.” The former is indeed a bunch of silly superstitions; the latter is a perfectly valid historical and psychological endeavor. To imply that nonbelievers see the phenomenon and practice of religion as unimportant, or not worth studying as a psychological and historical curiosity, is simply misguided.
On the compatibility of science and faith:
Horgan: Are science and religion compatible?
Rovelli: Of course yes: you can be great in solving Maxwell’s equations and pray to God in the evening. But there is an unavoidable clash between science and certain religions, especially some forms of Christianity and Islam, those that pretend to be repositories of “absolute Truths.” The problem is not that scientists think they know everything. It is the opposite: scientists know that there are things we simply do not know, and naturally question those who pretend to know. Many religious people are disturbed by this, and have difficulty in coping with it. The religious person says, “I know that God has created light saying, ‘Fiat Lux.’” The scientist does not believe the story. The religious people feel threatened. And here the clash develops. But not all religions are like that. Many forms of Buddhism, for instance, have no difficulty with the continual critical attitude of science. Monotheistic religions, and in particular Islam and Christianity, are sometimes less intelligent.
I have an idea about the source of the conflict: there is beautiful research by anthropologists in Australia which shows that religious beliefs are often considered a-temporal but in reality change continuously and adapt to new conditions, new knowledge and so on. This was discovered by comparing religious beliefs held by native Australians studied by anthropologists in the thirties and, much later, in the seventies. So, in a natural situation, religious beliefs adapt to the change in man’s culture and knowledge. The problem with Islam and Christianity is that many centuries ago somebody had the idea of writing down beliefs. So now some religious people are stuck with the culture and knowledge of centuries ago. They are fish trapped in a pond of old water.
Well, if you see compatibility as the ability of human minds to do science and believe in fairy tales, then Rovelli’s right. But in those lights, science and creationism are compatible, because you can find some scientists (engineers, chemists, and so on) who are creationists. Further, the incompatibilites extend deeper than just “provisional vs. absolute” truth. Religion has no way to find truth: no way to check whether its claims, as opposed to those of other faiths, are right or wrong.
Most of the rest of the first paragraph is good; it’s useful to realize that religious people dislike science because it forces us to live with doubt, and many believers aren’t comfortable with that. (Richard Feynman particularly emphasized that difference, as in the video below) HOWEVER, although some forms of Buddhism don’t believe in a god, even some liberal sects accept the supernatural. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is always cited as being down with science, and he says in one of his books that if science disproved a tenet of Buddhism, Buddhism would have to give up that tenet. Yet Gyatso himself accepts not only reincarnation but also the “law of karma,” both of which are instances of pure, supernatural woo. And surely some polytheistic religions, like Hinduism, are just as ridden with superstition and false certainty as the monotheistic ones.
As for the continual change of some religions, that’s fine, and I didn’t know about that work in Australia. But one must realize that if religions change in such a way as to accept the findings of science, eventually they will no longer be religions, but will morph into secular humanism. Rovelli’s point about scripture forcing people to adhere to changing dogma is, however, a good one.
If you haven’t watched this wonderful clip of Feynman, one of my favorites, do so immediately: