Is Science Fatally Flawed?

This week’s Faith and Wisdom in Science event took the discussion to the Parish of St. Luke’s Grayshott, where vicar Moray stlukes_home_8Thomas had managed to fill the village social club (excellent beer) with more than a hundred young, old and in-between.  As usual, a very stimulating question-time, including a well-posed challenge to the question of other faith-traditions in the ‘participative-healing’ theology of science.  As that issue has been partially addressed by an ealier post on Islam and Science here, I thought I ought to comment on another challenge, which was put rather differently to others over the past year.

rainbowThe accusation was that the positive view of science as a good gift to be used wisely, but one that really does give us growing insight into the natural world, is fundamentally flawed, that science is permanently doomed to be on the wrong track because of its blinkered purview.  By implication, in this gloomy assessment of science, it can have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God.  It might have someting to do with the deployment of earthly power structures, of the domination of an intelligensia, of a sort of mind-control.  It is most certainly not the the joyous, unexpected wonder that we can, for example, understand the delicate weave of colours in a rainbow, or conjour up on our minds the molecular bonding structure of water in its various forms of ice-crystal.

A New Force

Now it is important not to confuse a view that science is fatally wrong with the simple, everyday, observation that science is wrong about some things most of the time.  The discovery that we can begin to grasp something of, for example, the structure of atoms, is wonderful because it is so difficult.  We can do it, but it takes centuries, many different minds with their own

π+ decay through the weak interaction

π+ decay through the weak interaction

perspectives, many false starts and wrong-headed ideas, flashes of hopes dashed by decisive experiments, before light dawns.  My questioner conjecured. that science is ignorant of an entire force field that it has ignored, yet which affects, among other things, the structure and properties of water.  This is actually a very instructive example, since there are force fields that untial very recent history were unknown to science. The ‘Weak Nuclear Force’ was first proposed to exist by Enrico Fermi in 1933, and was understood properly as a symmetry-broken aspect of the electro-weak force by Glashow, Salam and Weinberg in 1968.  For many years its existence as a fundamental force field was contested – and its carrying particles, the W and Z bosons were not directly detected until 1983.  Should there be a new force field yet to be discovered, there simply needs to be significant weight of experimental evidence and some form of theoretical concept that allows a predictive approach to further experiments, and what was once outside science will become part of its accepted wisdom.

All you need is love…

So before 1933, and arguably before 1983, science was ignorant of an entire force field.  Did that make it fatally flawed? Was skepticism such as it was within the science community unwarrented suppression of challenging ideas? I argue in Faith and Wisdom in Science that, on the contrary, the weakness and implausibility of young ideas in science needs the exercise of love towards them on the part of their proponents.  The theological insight that our relationship with the natural world is one that starts with ignorance and fear and makes a long and arduous journey towards knowledge and wisdom is well-illustrated by the metaphors of thorns and briars of Genesis chapter 3 and even of the pains of childbirth in Romans chapter 8.  Being wrong does not make science flawed, it is part of the painful journey to understanding that underscores science as the deeply human activity it has always been, and the highest of our imaginative projects.


Can Science be more like Music? An Experiment with Light and Song

The_Light_of_Music_by_TWe4ksmallKarl Popper once wrote: “A great work of music, like a great scientific theory, is a cosmos imposed upon chaos – in its tensions and harmonies in exhaustible even for its creator”. If this is true (and it needs some unpacking before we can get to work on that question) then might great music be a source of illumination of great physics? Might physics inform and deepen our enjoyment of music? I don’t know – but I mean to find out with the help of scientific and musical colleagues in Durham this November, when we set out on a musical and experimental exploration for the International Year of Light.

FaWis_450Of course, musical themes and analogies surface frequently in Faith and Wisdom in Science.  I even imagine a nightmare world, in the introduction, where we have ‘locked away’ music from general human enjoyment and celebration in the same way that we seem to have done with science. Music, of course, has its ‘ladder’ of expertise – with international concert soloists at the top, and most of us somewhere towards the bottom – but nevertheless happily enjoying, and critically engaging with, the production of music in its new writing and performance.  The problem with science is that someone seems to have removed most of the lower rungs of its ladder!  Can we get them back by enjoying science and music together?

Perhaps it was hearing about the idea of the International Year of Light that alerted me to the amount of music, especially choral music, which seems to be inspired by the idea of light. Of course one reason for this is that light itself becomes a metaphor for so much beyond: understanding, hope, creation itself, which in turn inform and inspire music.

The first page of the printed score of Hayden's Creation (Novello edn.) - a musical depiction of chaos.

The first page of the printed score of Hayden’s Creation (Novello edn.) – a musical depiction of chaos.

Perhaps the ‘classic’ (in every sense of the word) musical moment that captures light-inspiration is the chorus in Hayden’s ‘Creation’ where order bursts out over the composer’s brilliant musical depiction of chaos: “… and … there … was… LIGHT!” – the chorus tip-toes over the introductory words from the Book of Genesis then explode in a cascade of fortissimo harmonies. Shut your eyes and you hear space filled with coruscating colour and brilliance.

But I think that Popper meant more than this by his musings on music. He is talking about form – that essential constraint on imagination that turns inspiration into art. Here he is surely onto something, for in science too we achieve understanding both through powerful imagination (‘could like be like a wave in some sense?’) and severe constraint (‘what happens if I direct a beam though this tiny hole …?). Could it be in this sense that both art and science fashion the order of form and pattern from the chaos of unfettered wild imagination and ignorance – and is it this that makes both music and science so basically human?

We are inviting all comers to an afternoon of hands-on experimental exploration of light from 2pm at Trevelyan College, Durham on Saturday November 14th. Three themes frame the activities – light as a combination of wavelengths and colour, light

Trevelyan College, Durham University

Trevelyan College, Durham University

as a carrier of information and light and a conveyer of energy for life. It will come as no surprise that we plan to explore the glaring analogy of colour and musical pitch during the afternoon – but we want to go further. Then for one hour from 4pm the Durham Singers will pick up on these same themes in a programme of music from 400 years of history. Two centrepieces to look forward to will be the Bach chorale Jesus, mein Lebens Licht, from the 17th century and a world Premiere of Light by local composer Janet Graham. Graham’s new piece sets words by another North-East artist – poet Gordon Hodgeon, now totally incapacitated by spinal injury, yet still writing. Light carries ‘words’ of information of chemistry and dynamics to us from distant stars. In this piece, Light literally becomes for us the only carrier of the poet’s words, distanced by the light-years of extreme disability. It looks like being a thoughtful and a moving occasion, and also an inspiring one. Come and join us!