Physicist Steven Weinberg is not usually cited as one who teases out reasons for personal despair from the realm of science. But in my blog post entitled WHY CERTAINTY IN SCIENCE IS UNSCIENTIFIC (June 7, 2012), I showed him doing just that. And, as it turns out, he’s not alone. The second law of thermodynamics has evolutionary biologist and vehement neo-atheist Richard Dawkins feeling blue.`
Writing in 1996, in the online magazine, The Humanist, Dawkins declares: “(W)e know from the second law of thermodynamics (which predicts that isolated systems will eventually wind down) that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow is hell-bent on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They—and we—can never be more than temporary, local, buckings of the great universal slide into the abyss of uniformity.”
In the same article, and over and over again in his books, Dawkins has expressed delight at what science has shown us. But the above statement, profoundly negative in tone, demonstrates, at the very least, that his is a complicated response to impermanence on a universal scale.
I have caught him out in a rare (but telling) instance in which he appears disappointed in reality as it is revealed by science.
He’s right, of course, that no one has yet shown the second law can be violated; fortunes are not being made on the stock market from investments in perpetual motion machines. The heat death of the universe (meaning, ironically, the cessation of movement in cold, empty space), predicted by the second law, may indeed transpire.
But to speak decisively, authoritatively, of an apocalyptic event that may—or may not—occur billions of years in the future seems an inappropriate scientific extrapolation.
Yes, the second law does point to a universal winding down. But consider this: our familiar universe just might come into and out of existence over and over again.
Cyclic theories such as those proposed by Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok as well as by Lauris Baum and Paul Frampton circumvent conversion of everything into “cold nothingness in the end.” Eric Chaisson’s work, based on Ilya Prigogine’s far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, has also brought into question the heat death scenario.
As regards cosmology, we are in the middle of a fascinating wrangle. Various theories depict our possible fate. Uncertainty rules, and this is as it should be.
Even Dawkins has admitted to the mysteriousness of the universe, especially as it is revealed by quantum mechanics. He’s just forgotten that admission here.
He knows the science, of course. But he’s not consoled. Indeed, he seems distressed that our human experience has no obvious value or meaning. Like many other atheists who deny that God has reserved a unique place in the scheme of things for man, he’s still a bit upset that it’s not the case.
Dawkins, dissatisfied with science?
There’s no getting around it. For a brief moment, the great science apologist, Richard Dawkins, was at odds with science. His words even hint that he would be happier with a kinder, gentler universe, one disposed toward the human race. (It’s hard not to think of conventional religious views, in this context.)
He’s missing the mark, of course. We should not feel estranged from our world because of physical laws, much less because of our theories about catastrophes those laws may bring to pass. This is just drawing out bitterness from abstraction.
Let us mourn, lament, and rejoice. Let us feel all the pleasure and pain it is our lot to feel, holding dear our extraordinary lives and our extraordinary world, which is at once so beautiful and so terrible. But let us refrain from making into something personal the notion of inescapable cosmological disaster.
We just don’t know enough to take such speculation seriously. There are important, pertinent matters we don’t have a clue about. For example, the provenance of our physical laws—indeed their very nature—is unknown. We can’t ascertain if they are human impositions onto the majestic chaos of reality or if they possess transcendent reality, as the mathematics suggests. (We have the same predicament with mathematics itself.)
If we did, in fact, “discover” the so-called laws of nature, and they have an objective and primordial existence exactly as we have formulated them, who’s to say even then that we have arrived at the final, ultimate, algorithms?
And if they are primordial, what caused them to come into being in the first place? It’s impossible to explain how everything got started without positing a prior term. Infinite regress is unavoidable. Dawkins should remember how he himself refuted the existence of God as a final term by asking what brought God into existence.
No methodological errors, please
We are small creatures in the prodigious scheme of things. The known universe consists of a hundred billion galaxies and a hundred billion stars in each of them. From our vantage point on Earth, we work day and night to unravel the unknowns of this ever-expanding cosmos, and properly rejoice at our findings when they seem confirmed.
Over three hundred years of modern science have gone into our current understanding of the nature of things. It’s great!
Let’s just not forget the big picture, as we spin around our radiant star. We can—and must—try to figure out every jot and tittle of existence. But we need always to keep in mind that we are doing so from a point of view limited in space and time, and limited by the nature of our own human brains.
Cosmologist Stephen Hawking, probably the most well-known scientific figure of our time, would agree. In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, he maintains: “There is no picture-or theory-independent concept of reality.”
This is because we undeniably filter everything through the categories of our own minds. We cannot apprehend reality except through the lens of our human consciousness. Our data are massaged from the git-go by the human factor.
We would do well to admit: All-that-is, is more than our minds can comprehend. A modicum of humility is in order, here on this “pale blue dot” of Earth.
And isn’t humility, in light of the hypothesized multiverse, the most scientifically respectful position to stake out, choosing to make as few assumptions as possible?
Here’s my point: Not to acknowledge the mystery that underlies our experience—and that underlies, as well, our great human enterprise of science—is a serious methodological error.
Nobody, not even Richard Dawkins, should waste one moment of life bemoaning the personal implications of scientific theorizing.
Future posts will expand on this point.
Want to know more about Richard Dawkins? See http://richarddawkins.net/.
Your comments on this blog are welcome.