24 April 2012

The Atlantic: “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?”

You have said that your book is meant to describe "the remarkable revolutions that have taken place in our understanding of the universe over the past 50 years--revolutions that should be celebrated as the pinnacle of our intellectual experience." I think that's a worthy project and, like you, I find it lamentable that some of physics' most extraordinary discoveries have yet to fully penetrate our culture. But might it be possible to communicate the beauty of those discoveries without tacking on an assault on previous belief systems, especially when those belief systems aren't necessarily scientific? Ross Andersen
Krauss: Well, yes. I'm sympathetic to your point in one sense, and I've had this debate with Richard Dawkins; I've often said to him that if you want people to listen to you, the best way is not to go up to them and say, "You're stupid." Somehow it doesn't get through.
It's a fine line and it's hard to tell where to fall on this one. What drove me to write this book was this discovery that the nature of "nothing" had changed, that we've discovered that "nothing" is almost everything and that it has properties. That to me is an amazing discovery. So how do I frame that? I frame it in terms of this question about something coming from nothing. And part of that is a reaction to these really pompous theologians who say, "out of nothing, nothing comes," because those are just empty words. I think at some point you need to provoke people. Science is meant to make people uncomfortable. And whether I went too far on one side or another of that line is an interesting question, but I suspect that if I can get people to be upset about that issue, then on some level I've raised awareness of it.

Short answer: No. And it will probably never do.

Long answer: I an wary of people who arrogantly believe they hold the final answer to every question. That’s the root of religious fundamentalism and to see a scientist go down that route is just sad – science should first and foremost be about keeping an open mind about the world around you. And even more wary of people lacking solid arguments and resorting to calling others moronic. More to the point: physics is as far away from an unified theory as it was about a century ago after Einstein introduced general relativity. There are a number of theories that look promising, but none of them has been completely proven or disproven. Even with a final theory in physics and cosmology, does anyone seriously expect that it will answer all the questions humans have been asking themselves since the dawn of civilization, up to the appearance of life on Earth and the emergence of intelligence and consciousness?! Science still has a long way to go and I’m not sure it will ever get there.

Update: An apology to the philosophers (sort of) from the book author, published in Scientific American.

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