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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

physics of religion (religion of physics)

Here's two examples:

Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler of Tulane University.


Restructuring Physics from its Foundation in Light of Maharishi's Vedic Science by John Hagelin who used to teach at Maharishi University of Management.

I might also add Fritjof Capra's "Tao of Physics" to this genre. The thing to understand about these writings is that they work on a metaphorical level. They basically relieve, at a surface level, some of the cognitive dissonance for people for whom both science and religion has a hold. Its a set of word games so that when, on a breezy afternoon (or late at night?), one's mind roams freely around its different regions, there are word bridges connecting one to the other. The problem is that the bridges don't actually go where they claim to go.

I won't go into the reasons why these bridges don't go where they claim to go. Maybe I'll think about it in more detail some other time.
The game is just to build something that has an anchor in each world and then to call it a bridge. For Tipler, these structures are "God" and "resurrection". He has taken these religious concepts and defined them in physics language. "God" is what happens to life and complexity when (and if) the universe collapses on itself, and "resurrection" is the possibility that at that highly technologically advanced time, the same set of atoms that compose you could be brought into the same configuration again.

For Hagelin, he identifies the "unified field" of hypothetical physics models with subjective consciousness in a sort of Hindu (Maharishi-ized) perspective which identifies consciousness with God.

I don't object to this type of intellectual pursuit. What I object to is the lack of honesty. I think that in both these cases, the audience is mainly someone who doesn't understand much of the physics and can't really check the arguments. The role of the technical appendix in each case is just to ward off technical questions from someone who almost knows enough to counter the arguments. "Its all in the appendix" would be the response. But how the appendix relates to the text is where the dishonesty occurs. Really, a neutral language that is broad enough to include both physics and religion is needed. Or lacking that, a statement limiting the scope of the investigation to a metaphorical level is required. Some of their power derives from the over-hyped claims from physicists themselves. To explain why Hagelin is wrong, to sort of get to the other side of his thinking, as it were, one has to be able to concieve of physics as metaphor. We're used to thinking of religion as metaphor, but not science. At its most speculative level, physics requires metaphors to fill in the many technical unknowns and to ground mathematical concepts. By overselling superstring theory as more solid than it really is, people are more likely to find its connections to other areas as causal, rather than metaphorical. Perhaps Hagelin himself is confused on this issue and this is what allows him to continue selling "The Maharishi Effect" to the public. But my feeling is that its more out of intellectual exaustion and a sort of revenge on those who fed him the over-hyped string theory claims to begin with.

One interesting thing I found in reading Peter Woit's "Not Even Wrong" was that Maharishi's posters connecting the unified field theory to consciousness were popular among physicists at one point (I don't know whether seriously, or as a joke).


nige said...
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nige said...
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nige said...

Hi Boaz,

"Some of their power derives from the over-hyped claims from physicists themselves."

This is very interesting. I've been wondering if religion is mixed up in string theory here. Lubos Motl, the Harvard string theorist, for example used to sign off his comments to discussions with the claim:

"God made the world out of string and his branes (ie, 1 dimensional string and 2 dimensional [mem]branes)! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"

Source: page 21 (this source quotes Motl's claim as simply: "Superstring/M-theory is the language in which God wrote the world", but I think Prof. Bert Shroer was trying to be kind to Motl by watering down the quoted claim to make it less embarrassing).

It is very hard to determine whether Lubos Motl really derives his faith in uncheckable string theory from God, or if his claim was just a joke against string theory. On the one hand Assis. Prof. Lubos Motl is seen openly claiming that string theory is equivalent to religious belief (presumably to attract the religiously inclined amongst the physics students, who don't worry about checkable experiments so much and like to believe in Holy mysteries which only heretics can criticise). On the other hand, he condemns "intelligent design" (which is religious) as being pseudo-science.

For example, he tried to portray string theory as being equivalent to evolution theory, and then wrote an Amazon review attacking Peter Woit's book "Not Even Wrong" as being an attack on something as scientific as evolution, and therefore as unscientific as religious creationism. He seems very confused, and I worry for his sanity.

On the other hand, he can sometimes be extremely funny.

I hasten to add that not I don't think ALL extra dimensional theories are fantasies, only those which are NOT EVEN WRONG, ie make no falsifiable predictions.

Ironically, the checkable predictions made by more realistic string theories are suppressed by Cornell's, eg see:


Boaz said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm aware of the story of Lubos. I was interested in looking at some slightly older examples to help get a grasp on the phenomenon. I'm also independently interested in the Hagelin/TM situation.
I don't think that anyone derives their faith in a physics theory through God. Rather, I think the physics theory itself can replace the need for God. Or, if one independently has a sort of faith in God, then the faith in physics must somehow be made consistent with this.
I think that for people that put huge amounts of work into one area, they have to make a philosophy around that. I tend to think its not so healthy. You should feel comfortable reading history, philosophy, literature, etc. and talking openly with a variety of different people. But for those who stick to a single rigid perspective, as Lubos seems to, yes, perhaps the rest of us can feel a bit sorry for him and perhaps help him out in exchange for the intellectual work he does. Just patiently point out again and again that he has a limited perspective.
As far as all the various theories out there, I do look into them from time to time and will continue to, but probably from a rather amateurish, curiosity driven level.

Sarah Silbert said...

This reminds me of what we were talking about on the phone. Cognitive dissonance is quite the right word.

Boaz said...

Yeah, that conversation was helpful in clarifying this stuff for me.
Hope you're having a good break!