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Against Mystery

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? – Douglas Adams

This post began as a response to Jenny’s article, but it got a little tangential.

I just watched the first in a series of programmes on the history of the Bible, presented by the novelist Howard Jacobson:  “Creation”

I’m wary of entering religious discussions, because they rarely, if ever, go well unless you’re already in agreement with the person with whom you’re discussing.

Nevertheless, I feel, as an atheist, somewhat denigrated by that programme. I feel almost cast as if I was an robotic automaton, in thrall to the iron certainty of my science, of “mere fact”, so blind to art and literature that I would come out of a performance of King Lear and wonder if the man really existed.

They complain about the so-called “New Atheists” campaigning against the straw-men of religious believers; I say that they’re talking about straw-men atheists.

Personally, I love myth, and legend. If we weren’t called atheists, I would love to call ourselves Prometheans, stealing fire from the jealous gods for the benefit of Man. I love reading the modern myths of an author like Neil Gaiman, spinning stories of Dream and Death. I love the musings of Hamlet on death and existence, and I read the philosophy of Sartre and Nietzsche, trying to get to the nature of existence and the human condition.

I see no reason why Genesis should be venerated over and above, say, the Theogony, or the creation tales of the Shintoists, or any other work of literature. The artistry is incredible, but I see no reason why I should be compelled to find truth in it, other than the truths it reveals about the people who wrote these stories.

I find myself most agreeing with the wonderful A.C. Grayling; people wrote these stories to find agency, meaning, in a disordered universe. There’s a good reason most of them start with the division of disorder into order! Jacobson recoils when the ancients were described as ignorant, as if it’s a perjorative; the truth is that they were, they simply did not know then what we know now, after years of struggle and careful experiment. Newton was ignorant of quantum mechanics; that’s hardly a slight on his genius.

As usual, the non-scientist’s misunderstanding of the nature of science is dredged up; that we possess a cast-iron certainty, blind to everything else.

This is bollocks of the absolute highest order. Science is doubt. Science is questioning, science is about looking at the universe and admitting that our understanding of it is fragmentary and incomplete, and that we should rectify that.

Take, for example, particle physics. We have this awesome theory, the Standard Model, that describes to a truely astounding accuracy the behaviour and interactions of every known fundamental particle. It’s a staggering intellectual achievement. We’re not sure about it yet; one component of it (the Higgs particle) is still as yet unobserved, and we know that the theory will break down at higher energy scales.

This isn’t blind certainty, it’s a diligent quest to know and understand more.

What men like Jacobson and his hero, Keats, fear is that all the important things in life lie in the gaps between our knowledge, and that as science carries on it will stitch up those gaps one by one until there is nothing transcendent left in the universe, because something can be transcendent only by being unknown and mysterious, clouded in haze. They fear that the God-of-the-Gaps will be driven out.

One, if your faith is only in a God-of-the-Gaps you deserve to be driven out. What does your faith really mean if it must be constantly modified so that it isn’t obliterated by the encroaches of science? The only way I can see that ending is in a God that has been so declawed as to be nothing more than a vague spirit, not even finding a refuge beyond space and time or after death as he does now.

Two, they ignore the beauty in the truth that science reveals. The inconceivable age of the universe, the bizarre era of the condensed quark-gluon plasma, the last fading microwave echos of the time the universe was opaque, the twisted time and space of a black hole, the wonderful mad complexity of life, the nuclear-powered twisting fury of the Sun, the emptiness in the heart of the atom… the examples of wonderful ideas that come out of science and mathematics are innumerable.

Keats blamed Newton for destroying the poetry of a rainbow by explaining it; I say that a rainbow is still as beautiful today, and I think more so because I understand it; I understand how light is refracted through a drop of water, reflecting off the back surface of the spherical drop. I think that’s beautiful. I think that the solutions of the Maxwell equations of a dielectric interface that describe the reflection of light are beautiful.

Jacobson and Keats would have us give up. To throw our hands in the air, and declare that some things should be unknown, un-sought for. Thank goodness nobody listened to Keats; I dread to think where we would be if Newton’s ideas had been suppressed. This is why we should never, ever give in to irrationality. Some things are far too important.

I think our own origins as creatures who have evolved and transcended our ancestors, who have toiled against the odds to create our civilisation and our knowledge is a far more beautiful story than any that could be told by a religion, and I feel that it is ever the better because it’s what actually happened.

The title of this post is a reference to John Bell’s paper “Against Measurement” which you can read if you happen to be on a University campus. It is a piece of essentially scientific doubt on the admittedly dubious interpretation of the concept of measurement in the foundations of quantum mechanics.