A British journalist contacted me about this recently and we talked about M-theory and its problems. She wanted me to comment on whether physicists doing this sort of thing are relying upon “faith” in much the same way as religious believers. I stuck to my standard refusal to get into such discussions, but, thinking about it, have to admit that the kind of pseudo-science going on here and being promoted in this book isn’t obviously any better than the faith-based explanations of how the world works favored by conventional religions. (emphasis added)I know it's a throw-away line, but I'm really unaware of any "faith-based explanations of how the world works" that are favored by "conventional religions." There are creation stories, which can be read as metaphysical explanations of physical phenomena; or they can be read as stories explaining the connection between the created and the god(s) identified by those religions. We don't have a problem reading Homer or Sophocles this way; not that the gods must interfere with the battle for Troy, or Apollo must have personally cursed Thebes in order to expose the crimes of Oedipus. We can understand those terms to be explanations of human nature and society that transcend the particular personalities of individuals. Do Homer and Sophocles really require us to adopt a "faith based explanation of how the world works"? And what is a "faith based explanation" anyway, if not the line William James challenged: "believing what you know ain't so"?
It was a Jesuit priest who formulated the Big Bang theory (I know, I know; I run that one into the ground). But "conventional religions" no more offer alternative "faith based explanations" of how the world works than they offer alternatives to conventional Western medicine and mental health treatments. Hell, some of the best hospitals in this country are affiliated with mainline Christian denominations. If medical care isn't one of the most direct applications to daily life of "how the world works," I don't know that is.
So I nit-pick. But then there's also this:
Toward the end of the meeting [in Sweden, 1990], everyone piled into a bus and drove to a nearby village to hear a concert in a Lutheran church. When the scientists entered the church, it was already packed. The orchestra, a motley assortment of blond-haired youths and wizened, bald elders clutching violins, clarinets and other instruments, was seated at the front of the church. Their neighbors jammed the balconies and seats at the rear of the building.I get that part of this is a slap at Stephen Hawking's celebrity status (he's been in cartoons and even TV shows!). He's certainly the most identifiable physicist since Einstein. But here's part of the issue: were the people there all "religious folk"? Churches are grand places for musical concerts. They don't all have to be performed in concert halls. And concerts in churches don't all have to be religious occasions, nor occasions for worship. Churches usually have a space built to accommodate large numbers of people, which make them make good gathering places, especially in villages which may not have conference centers and large buildings devoted to secular gatherings only.
The scientists filed down the center aisle to pews reserved for them at the front of the church. Hawking, grinning ear to ear, led the way in his motorized wheelchair. The townspeople started to clap, tentatively at first, then passionately. These religious folk seemed to be encouraging the scientists, and especially Hawking, in their quest to solve the riddle of existence.
But, again, more to the point, why are "religious folk" antithetical to scientific understanding? Isn't that assumption a little, I don't know, parochial? I never, in my entire life, was taught by my family or my Sunday school teachers, or anyone, that science was at odds with my Christianity or my religious beliefs in general. I'm no physicist by any stretch, but to this day I maintain a decent lay understanding of science (M-theory is opaque to me, but still, I'm no ignoramus).
And yes, I know that's the popular opinion thanks to fundamentalists and "Inherit the Wind" and a lot of other jibber-jabber. But seriously; if you're going to comment on subjects outside your narrow field of expertise, either admit your ignorance, or remain silent.
Putting your ignorance on display so openly only shows how much you know about how very little, and how very little you know about very, very much.