Monday, June 30, 2014

Tipping the Sacred Cow of Science--Confessions of a Science Agnostic*,**

Alice and the White Queen

Definition of "agnostic" (Oxford): "having a doubtful or noncommittal attitude toward something"
 "Behind the tireless efforts of the investigator there lurks a stronger, more mysterious drive:  it is existence and reality that one wishes to comprehend." Albert Einstein, Essays in Science.
"In support of realism there seem to be only those 'reasons of the heart' which, as Pascal says, reason does not know.   Indeed, I have often felt that belief in realism involves a profound leap of faith, not at all dissimilar from the faith that animates  deep religious convictions." Arthur Fine, The Shaky Game--Einstein, Realism and the Quantum Theory.
 "The fundamental laws of physics do not describe true facts about reality. Rendered as descriptions of facts, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their explanatory force."  Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie
When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.   The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (as quoted by Bas van Fraassen in The Scientific Image)
"Science will tell us what things are real but will refuse to say what is reality." Professor Henry Margenau, The Nature of Physical Reality
"To answer the question 'To be or not to be?' we cannot turn to a science textbook." Fr. Stanley Jaki, The Limits of a Limitless Science.
When I was much younger (almost 70 years ago) I regarded what my professors in college and graduate school said as holy writ. When Julian Schwinger strode into class (usually a half-hour or more late--we'd make book on the delay time) and in beautifully articulated sentences told us about projection operators, Lagrangian formulations, S-matrices, we sat as disciples, not necessarily understanding, but faithfully recording the gospel of quantum mechanics. It was only until after I retired that I began to inquire into the philosophic foundations of science and learned that although quantum mechanics worked, it was a house built on epistemological and ontological sand.

Given this change of belief, why this post?   I'd like to see those who justify science/Science as an all-compassing worldview, justify their faith and refute the arguments given by the "anti-realist" philosophers--those who deny the fundamental reality of scientific theories/laws/entities and claim that science is validated only empirically, by the truth or falsity of the predictions derived from scientific theories.   For these "anti-realists" there are no scientific laws, and the reality of theoretical entities--quarks, gluons, etc--is problematic.     Scientific theories do not, according to them, mirror reality, veiled or unveiled. Am I an anti-realist?   Not entirely, or perhaps I'm not sure--that is to say, maybe I'm a Science (uppercase S) agnostic.

Now, I might have  done with any further remarks and just used the quotations at the beginning, which summarize the various points of view on whether science connects to a "real" world.   But the argument needs fleshing out, so let's discuss three works dealing with this question:   Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of  Physics Lie, Bas van Fraassen's The Scientific Image, Fr. Stanley Jaki's The Limits of a Limitless Science.**

Nancy Cartwright does not believe that fundamental, theoretical scientific equations are true (e.g. Maxwell's equations, the Schrodinger equation), although she does believe  that theoretical entities are real (e.g. the electron, quarks), and that phenomenological equations (those empirically rather than theoretically derived), such as Poiseuille's Law of viscous flow, are true.   Her reason for disbelief, supported by a number of examples, is generally stated in the quote above.   The equations have to be amended, supplemented, supplied with empirical fudge factors, or require conflicting mathematical prescriptions  in order to describe real situations.   I won't go over all the examples (Snell's Law of refraction, Crooke's radiometer, quantum damping, the BCS theory of superconductivity) but only say they are well chosen and show that she knows mathematical physics.   However, in an example I'll give below I'll try to show that these criticisms do not invalidate science as it is practiced.

Bas van Fraassen believes that a  scientific theory can be judged to be true if it is empirically verified, and only by that test.    Here  I agree with him.    He does not believe that theory corresponds to the real world, discoverable by science--that would be a metaphysical assumption, a truly bad thing for the empiricist philosopher.  With this judgment, I might disagree.   Van Fraassen also argues that theory can not be evaluated as a best explanation for phenomena.  (The ether is one example of an incorrect but plausible explanation for that in which electromagnetic waves vibrate.)   The function of theory is "to save the phenomena", i.e. to give a concise description of real phenomena that is empirically verified.

Like van Fraassen, Fr. Stanley Jaki considers only those scientific theories that are empirically validated to be true, but he adds a further restriction: science concerns itself only with that which can be quantified, i.e. measured numerically:"...wherever reality offers aspects with no quantitative properties to be measured, science is not applicable." (The Limits of a Limitless Science).    Many would consider this requirement too restrictive;  large areas of chemistry, biology, geology and other disciplines that are generally considered science would be out of the pale.  I concur with Fr. Jaki's requirement in the following sense:  it removes from the scientific domain disciplines that would like the prestige of a scientific cloak, but which do not require empirically verifiable, reproducible, quantifiable tests of hypotheses.   I'm not sure whether Fr. Jaki is a scientific realist (it seems to be implied in the quote above), but as a follower of Pierre Duhem, it seems that he would require a metaphysical foundation for science:
"Now these two questions — Does there exist a material reality distinct from sensible appearances? and What is the nature of reality? — do not have their source in experimental method, ... Therefore, if the aim of physical theories is to explain experimental laws, theoretical physics is not an autonomous science; it is subordinate to metaphysics   Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory 
Here is where I jump into the pool, considering first Nancy Cartwright's comparison of phenomenological versus theoretical laws.    One of the first such phenomenological laws was Galileo's discovery of the periodicity of pendulums. Galileo timed the period of pendulum swings using his own pulse and found that the period, the repetition time of the swing, was independent of the mass of the pendulum bob.     In first year physics courses the simple pendulum (idealized as a point mass at the end of a massless rod undergoing undamped small swings) is treated as a simple harmonic oscillator.   In advanced physics classes the more realistic example of a physical pendulum is treated as a problem in rotational dynamics (still with  undamped small swings) for harmonic oscillation.   Going still further to large amplitude, damped motion chaos theory rears its terrible head and the motion follows  many paths, showing Lorenz attractors and bifurcation diagrams.  
Physical Pendulum--Attractor with Bifurcation
from The Chaotic Physical Pendulum
The point is that the original phenomenological relation deduced by Galileo progresses to a much more complicated and sophisticated account of chaotic motion as the description becomes more realistic, but at each stage when simplifying factors are removed the physics is accounted for theoretically and can be verified empirically.   Indeed there is a undergraduate physics laboratory dealing with this phenomenon.   This  progression from simple to complicated is, I maintain, a general situation in science and does not negate the validity of the theoretical foundation.    When theory can not give a simple description (as in quantum mechanical computations of electronic energy levels for very large molecules), it is because the calculations are too complicated, not because the theory is wrong.
And when the calculations become too complicated, then simplified models--e.g. the random walk model for molecular diffusion, Lewis dot models for chemical bonds--are appropriate.   But these are only models--simulacra as Cartwright would have it--not real.

The empiricist philosophers--Cartwright, van Fraassen, Fine--have much to say about quantum mechanics and its reality, but that's a subject that requires a post, nay a chapter, by itself.    There are at least 17 different interpretations of quantum mechanics and to my knowledge only the Local Realistic (with hidden variables) has been falsified by experimental tests of Bell's Theorem.   I'll just say that even scientist/philosophers who believe that science is a mirror of the real world are confounded by the puzzling, non-intuitive aspects of quantum mechanics--the delayed choice experiment, the Conway-Kochen Freewill Theorem.   "No one understands quantum mechanics." Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize Winner for work in quantum electrodynamics;"The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment." Bernard d'Espagnat, Winner of the Templeton Prize.

Well, where do I stand?  Looking at the history of science, one can see failed theories, theoretical entities disproved by experiment--phlogiston by Count Rumford's cannon-boring experiments, the ether by the Michelson-Morley experiment.  Possibly theory is converging to the truth--the Higgs boson confirmed by the CMS experiments--but that convergence is an article of faith. Faith in science as a partial mirror of reality is one component of my faith that the world God created would be an orderly and intelligible world, not the "dappled world" of Nancy Cartwright, with one set of scientific laws here and another there--Bach, not Cage.   I also believe with Fr. Jaki that science is limited in what it can explain: it can not explain itself, it can not answer the "why" questions (rather than the "how" questions), it can not explain our minds, our love, or our religious faith***.    So am I a Science agnostic?   Probably not, but it is a catchy title.

*"Cow Tipping" is actually not a real activity, despite the widespread image of drunken youths pushing a poor bovine over on its side, but, as with "science agnostic", it makes a catchy title.
**In the first writing of this post I originally went into much more detail about each of these works, particularly that by Nancy Cartwright... However, the post was growing into an elephant child, a chapter, so the discussion is much abbreviated.    Please refer to the linked references (on the web or books) to get a complete picture

***See "Are we hard-wired for faith--the religious experience and neuro-imaging."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Holy Ghost vs The Holy Spirit

Fr. Francis Libermann
…the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings
”.  Gerard Manley Hopkins
Your soul is the ship, the Holy Spirit is the wind; he blows into your will and your soul goes forward…”  Fr. Francis Libermann, cofounder of the order C.S.Sp (Congregation of the Holy Spirit--Spiritans*).
 "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: " John 16:13 (KJV)
"Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me." Psalm 51 (KJV)
"Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual." John 14:26 (KJV)
 "And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life,.." Nicene Creed, Anglican Usage Liturgy.

Last week I attended my grandson's graduation from Holy Ghost Preparatory School (Philadelphia).   It was a happy and inspiring occasion--he received athletic and academic honors (a grandfather is allowed to brag), and the graduation talks  were well-delivered, moving and spirit-filled** (unlike many I've attended as recipient or in an academic audience).

As ever when  I've come across the term "Holy Ghost"--in the school name or in Anglican Usage liturgy--I've wondered why "Holy Ghost" rather than "Holy Spirit".    Does the answer lies in a shunning of the Old Testament (see my earlier post "Should we shun the God of the Old Testament? "and Paul Sumner's Hebrew Streams)?   Or do the two terms actually mean the same, if one does the etymology?   So, let's do a dry, academic-type inquiry into Biblical language.

Going first to the original languages, Hebrew and New Testament Greek, we find the following.   The Hebrew word for "spirit" is ruach,  which also can mean breath or wind.    In the Hebrew Old Testament it occurs a number of times, e.g Gen 1:2, "ruach Elohim (breath of the Lord or wind of the Lord) hovering over the waters", Isaiah 44:3, "I will pour out my ruach (spirit, wind, breath) on thy seed", or Psalm 104:30, "Thou sendest forth thy ruach, they are created and Thou renewest the face of the earth.     In conjunction with the modifier kodesh (holy, as from God) it occurs in Psalm 51:11, "take not thy ruach kodesh (Holy Spirit) from me."  and twice in Isaiah 63.   Note in the quotation  from the King James Version at the beginning, that "holy spirit" is not capitalized.    In the Septuagint, the demotic Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew ruach is universally translated as the Greek pneuma (breath, wind, spirit).

In the Greek New Testament, only the term "pneuma" (in its various grammatical forms) is used for "Spirit".    The King James Version uses "Holy Ghost" where it is clear that the Third Person of the Trinity is meant, e.g. Matthew 1:18, "ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου" (found [with child] of the Holy Ghost--KJV).    In other contexts, pneuma is translated as Spirit: Matthew 10:20:  "ἀλλὰ τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρὸς" ([For it is not you who speak] but the Spirit of your Father--KJV).    In some places where spirit, but not the spirit of God or the Holy Spirit is meant,  pneuma is translated as spirit (not capitalized) --see Thayer's Greek Lexicon.

In the Latin Vulgate  "Holy Spirit" is translated as "Spiritus Sanctus",  in French, "the Holy Spirit" is "le Saint-Esprit", and in German, "der Heilige Geist".    The last is the clue  to the origins of "Holy Ghost".   The King James Version was not the first English Scripture translation to use the term "Holy Ghost" for the Third Person of the Trinity, although it was the first to distinguish various contexts of "spirit" by capitalization.   In the Wycliffe translation (1395) there is  "sche was founde hauynge of the holy goost in the wombe" (Matt 1:18, The Bible Corner).  (Note the lack of capitalization of "holy goost".)

Now certainly "ghost" in the scriptural context does not mean a phantasm, the spirit or appearance of a dead person.   My conjecture is that ghost (or "goost") came from an Anglo-Saxon form for "spirit", related to the German "Geist".   The translators were looking for a way to distinguish the Third Person of the Trinity, from the manifestation of God--his breath, his will--given in the Old Testament.    I don't see a rejection of the Old Testament in the attempt to make that distinction.   It is worthwhile theologically, and we should remember that it took some time for the Patristic Fathers to work out that the Trinity was three persons, but one God.  The Old Testament foretold the Messiah, but did not name him explicitly as Jesus.    The Old Testament saw the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of God, but did not see Him as a separate person of the one Godhead.    Should we then reject the Old Testament as incomplete?   Of course not.    As Pope Benedict XVI said:  "Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ", as a voyage to Truth through continuing Revelation.

I go back to the catechesis given by a priest when I was learning about Catholicism:  "There is God the Father, God above us;  God the Son, God beside us; and God the Holy Spirit, God within us."   So, the Holy Spirit is at the same time clearly evident and a mystery--God within us.   And the Holy Ghost is part of our mind, which is also a mystery.

*The Congregation of the Holy Spirit (known as the Spiritans) was founded in 1703 by Claude des Places, and revitalized after the French Revolution  in 1848 by Fr. Francis Liberman, a Jewish convert who sought to serve black slaves in the West Indies.  See the Wikipedia article about the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Spiritan web-site, and the articles about des Places  and Liberman

**It brought joy to my heart to see students--not nerdy types--talk with humor and eloquence about their education, their classmates (their "brothers") and their teachers.    There was respect, affection and insight in this.  It brought me back to an earlier time when student wore coats and ties, strove for learning and moral insight.

About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.