The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.– Albert Einstein
With the idea of god, early humans were imagining someone or something who knows, who understands, who can explain things well enough to build them. Now then, if God knows, then maybe, just maybe, we can learn to do what He does. That is, we too can build models of how things work and use them for our purposes.
The idea of modeling emerges naturally from the idea of god because with the positing of god we’ve made understanding itself something we can plausibly aspire to. There has probably never been an idea so consequential as that of the world’s comprehensibility. Even today’s scientists marvel at the fact that, if we try hard enough, the universe seems intelligible. Not a few scientists share Nobel-laureate E. P. Wigner’s perplexity regarding the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.
Comprehensibility does not necessarily mean that things accord with common sense. Quantum theory famously defies common sense, even to its creators. Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” But a theory doesn’t need to jibe with common sense to be useful. It suffices that it account for what we observe.
Our faith in the comprehensibility of the world around us mirrors our ancestors’ faith in godlike beings to whom things were intelligible. Yes, it was perhaps a bit presumptuous of us to imagine ourselves stealing our gods’ thunder, but Homo sapiens has never lacked for hubris.
Genesis says that after creating the universe, God created Man in his own image. The proverb “Like father, like son” then accounts for our emulating our creator, and growing up to be model builders like our father figure.
In contrast to polytheism, where a plethora of gods may be at odds, monotheism carries with it the expectation that a single god, endowed with omniscience and omnipotence, is of one mind. To this day, even non-believers, confounded by tough scientific problems are apt to echo the biblical, “God works in mysterious ways.” But, miracle of miracles, not so mysterious as to prevent us from understanding the workings of the cosmos, or, as Stephen Hawking famously put it, to “know the mind of God.”
Monotheism is the theological counterpart of the scientist’s belief in the ultimate reconcilability of apparently contradictory observations into one consistent framework. We cannot expect to know God’s mind until, at the very least, we have eliminated inconsistencies in our observations and contradictions in our partial visions.
This means that the imprimatur of authority (e.g., the King or the Church or any number of pedigreed experts) is not enough to make a proposition true. Authorities who make pronouncements that overlook or suppress inconsistencies in the evidence do not, for long, retain their authority.
Monotheism is therefore not only a powerful constraint on the models we build, it is also a first step toward opening the quest for truth to outsiders and amateurs, who may see things differently than the establishment. Buried within the model of monotheism lies the democratic ideal of no favored status.
To the contemporary scientist this means that models must be free of both internal and external contradictions, and they must not depend on the vantage point of the observer. These are stringent conditions. Meeting them guides physicists as they seek to unify less comprehensive theories in a grand “theory of everything,” or TOE. (A TOE is an especially powerful kind of model, and I’ll say more about them later.)
There’s another implication of monotheism that has often been overlooked in battles between religion and science. An omniscient, unique god, worthy of the name, would insist that the truth is singular, and that it’s His truth. In consequence, there cannot be two distinct, true, but contradictory bodies of knowledge. So, the idea of monotheism should stand as a refutation of claims that religious truths need not be consistent with the truths of science. Of course, some of our beliefs—be they from science or religion—will later be revealed as false. But that doesn’t weaken monotheism’s demand for consistency; it just prolongs the search for a model until we find one that meets the stringent condition of taking into account all the evidence.
It’s said that it takes ten years to get good at anything. Well, it’s taken humans more like ten thousand years to get good at building models. For most of human history, our models lacked explanatory power. Models of that kind are often dismissed as myths. It’s more fruitful to think of myths as stepping stones to better models.
We now understand some things far better than our ancestors, and other things not much better at all. But the overall trend is that we keep coming up with better explanations and, as more and more of us turn our attention to model building, our models are improving faster and our ability to usurp Nature’s power is growing. To what purpose?
Religion offers a variety of answers to this question and we’ll examine some of them in subsequent posts. Religion has also famously warned us to separate the wheat from the chaff, and we must not fail to apply this proverb to beliefs of every kind, including those of religion itself.
Breaking Ranks: Dignity Is Not Negotiable
Posted: Monday, 9 July 2012