Monday, October 12, 2009

Where do Facts Live?

It has been a while since I have been able to post. My research group recently received a large grant from the DOE to use fusion machines to study astrophysical jets. Getting things started on that grant along with the other equally fun and challenging science projects my group is involved with has been eating my blogging science/religion/philosophy brain.

(For those interested in the use of fusion machines to study astrophysical phenomena - a subject which relatively new and very cool you can check out this link)

In my continuing research for the new book I have, however, been playing with some ideas that are new to me and I just wanted to share one of these on this fine fall morning (in upstate New York at least).

The hallmark of popular notions of science is the belief that it gives us access to an objective world. For most people science is about facts - Newton's constant G, the mass of an electron, the wavelength of blue light. These facts and their manipulation through theory have given science its power of the world and over our lives.

Traditional religious life also has its "facts" though in this domain the certainties are "derived" from scripture. The hallmark of popular notions (and practice) of religious life is a certainty in these facts of a "spiritual" universe.

The conflict of course comes because of the differing ideas of what a fact is and how it is derived. As a practicing scientist I am much enamoured with the potential to overthrow existing theories (and their interpretation of facts) in ongoing empirically based investigations. This is something that is rarely built into the structure of a religious institution. Still what I am struck by is the ubiquity of the human need for facts, for a supposed solidity in discreet chunks of knowledge. This is not a surprise of course. Our little lives are rounded by a sleep, as Shakespeare said, and the twin darkness's capping our experience make life both weird and scary. Certainty would be great if it were possible. But is it? And what price to we pay for imagining it to be so?

In the that vein I wonder how much we lean on the certainty we think science gives us as a crutch, a replacement, for the certainty which is now more difficult to maintain through traditional religion (this is related to the point Walker Percy makes in Lost in the Cosmos). For me the real radical promise of science is not its certainty but its constant creativity, its demand that we be willing, forever, to upend our most cherished beliefs. There have been many philosophies (and some religions) that emphasized the point that life is flux. Is this a place to ground our groundlessness?

Now clearly there is a world out there pushing back but... Are we demanding more of our predicament when we imagine that we can imagine the horizons away? Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security that we were never meant to have.

Just thinking out loud...

On a separate note I will try and post once a week for the foreseeable future. Hopefully on Mondays mornings. (its good to have a deadline even if its one you invented for yourself.)