In science we trust

Bryan Appleyard

April 12, 1993|By Bryan Appleyard

GOD has made a comeback in big science.

"We shall know the mind of God," wrote Stephen Hawking in "A Brief History of Time," when we arrive at the theory of everything, a set of equations that will resolve the contradictions of modern physics and, in doing so, contain the history of matter.

Some believe such a theory is possible, some do not. But either way, great things are afoot and God is involved.

"It is a mystical experience, like a religious experience," said George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory when he detected ripples in the cosmic background radiation that seemed to support the big-bang theory.

"It really is like finding the driving mechanism for the universe," he added, "and isn't that what God is?"

Paul Davies, a physicist, followed up on Mr. Hawking's conclusion in "The Mind of God," which blended physics, theology and philosophy to conclude that we are truly "meant to be here." And the list seems endless.

Albert Einstein is the godfather of this rhetoric. He regularly evoked God -- notably in his insistence that the quantum theory must be wrong because "God does not play dice" -- and he spent the last years of his life in a search for a final, unifying theory.

Yet, fruitless though his search was, his physics had taken us so far so quickly that many believed he could eventually take us all the way.

God, for Einstein, had a certain reality, a moral force, which was why Einstein could not bear the thought of Him playing dice. But what does God mean in these new battle cries from the leading edge of physics? The short answer is very little.

Mr. Hawking does not believe in God and his rhetoric seems nothing more than a bit of easy drama. Mr. Smoot quickly tTC backed away from his statement, saying, "I want to leave the religious implications to theologians."

Mr. Davies belongs to a band of scientists who believe science is leading us to a vision of purposefulness in the universe. But the rest, on the whole, are playing games with God, or rather, using Him to dramatize the importance of big physics.

The more mainstream, scientific view of the significance of a theory of everything was put forward on these pages by Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Mr. Weinberg was defending the $8 billion Superconducting Supercollider, which, it is hoped, will reveal the final pieces of a unified theory.

He admitted that such a theory would be incomprehensible in lay terms but then added: "News that nature is governed by impersonal laws will percolate through society, making it increasingly difficult for people to take seriously astrology or creationism or other superstitions."

Amid all the God stuff this may sound like hard-headed science. But in fact Mr. Weinberg is making as extravagant a claim as the rest of them.

He is not content to let a unified theory be merely a set of equations, he believes it will have moral and cultural force, dispelling superstitions, turning us away from our horoscopes. In other words, it will have meaning.

This is a dangerous state of affairs. Science and religion, after almost four centuries of conflict, had arrived at a modus vivendi. Science did one thing, religion did another: there was no logical contradiction.

But for Mr. Weinberg and others, there clearly is: Physics seems capable of invading -- and supplanting -- the realms of religion and philosophy.

Many scientists are made uneasy by such rhetoric. They see the danger of breaking out of science's historical role as a purely descriptive exercise. But the big names are making the big claims and, in doing so, they are reinforcing the perception of science as a type of religion.

Religion, however, is about explanation, not description, and no explanation of life will ever be found in a set of equations.

Science need not abandon its speculations, but it should watch its language.

It would be a rash act of destruction to throw out a body of philosophy and superstition on the grounds that it is not scientifically verifiable.

Bryan Appleyard is author of "Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man."

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