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Who Cares About the Big Bang?

2012 November 25

Senator Marco Rubio, a man who is reportedly a top contender for the Republican nomination for President in 2016, caused quite a stir last week when he expressed confusion about the age of the earth in an interview.

Liberals like Paul Krugman pounced.  Conservatives like Erick Erickson defended Rubio and heaped scorn on the “atheists and secularists.”  The blogosphere erupted and the pundits licked their chops at the elevated ratings during a normally quiet holiday week.

Why should we care?  After all, as Rubio quite rightly pointed out that “the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.”  So why all the hubbub? Why waste time and energy over something that happened long ago and none of us were around to see?  The answer, of course, is that there’s a lot more at stake than cosmology.

Why The Big Bang?

The Big Bang, despite what many say, is not a fact.  As Wikipedia says, it is “the prevailing cosmological model that describes the early development of the Universe.”  It is not even a full theory, because it only explains what happened 10-15 seconds after the universe was created and not the actual moment.

Nevertheless, it suggests that the universe is 13.75 billion years old and that offends some people who believe that the Bible should be the ultimate arbiter of truth.  After all, why would anyone go to so much effort to directly contradict the origins of God’s creation if not to deny God himself?

The answer really has nothing to do with the Bible or even really the age of the universe, but with the practice of science and the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.  We can not directly observe these concepts at work because we live in a special case, where things are neither very big nor small, fast nor slow.  So outer space and particle accelerators are the only means we have to test them.

Nevertheless, we have come to rely on things that do not reside in the conditions we do. Our smartphones only work because we have come to understand the strange way electrons zing around circuits.  Our GPS navigation systems can only guide us accurately if they are corrected by Einstein’s equations and so on.

The Difference Between Science and Faith

So do I believe in the Big Bang?  Not really.  I accept that it is the theory most consistent with known observable facts.

Notice the difference? It’s not important to me whether the Big Bang or evolution or quantum mechanics are true.  They could all be disproved tomorrow and it wouldn’t bother me in the least.  As a matter of fact, the belief I hold most dear is that they all could be disproved tomorrow.

Why is that so important to me?  Because the first principle of science is that it is falsifiable.  It makes predictions that can be tested.  The reason that scientists fight for these strange ideas is that they have stood for decades (over a century in Darwin’s case) and been found consistent with every bit of experimental evidence available.

Faith does not make testable predictions and that is the secret to its power.  Anyone who subscribes to the Bible, the Koran or even Spinoza’s God can’t help but feel both humbled and empowered.  It gives strength because it allows us to look beyond our present situation and see a bigger picture.

Faith tests only our resolve and does not concern itself with the external world.

The Visceral Abstract

Now here’s where it becomes tricky.  Rubio’s assertion that “the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow” has the ring of truth.  After all, if tomorrow scientists discovered an error in their calculations and the universe turned out to be 13.74 billion years old instead of 13.75, I doubt any of us would miss a meal.

However, his implication that the theories of science and the tenets of faith should be considered equivalent is a real problem.  After all, our ability to develop the next generation of electronic components has quite a bit to do with growing our economy and creating jobs.  In fact, I think it is clear we can not have one without the other.

I have called this concept the visceral abstract and it is incredibly pervasive.  We not only depend the Big Bang to help test the concepts with which we create smartphones, but also on Darwin’s natural selection to create antibiotics, cure cancer and even run logistics systems that bring us the products and services we need at the lowest possible price.

Rubio’s remarks are problematic because, if he believes them, he is fundamentally confused about how we innovate and grow our economy and if he doesn’t really believe them, then he is just pandering to the lowest common denominator.

The Great Conflict

Therein lies the great conflct.  We need to educate, not just children but adults as well (46% of which don’t accept Darwin’s theory), about the principles of science.  This is not a distraction, as Mr. Rubio would have us believe, but absolutely essential to improving the quality of our lives.

However, life is more than just a procession of new gadgets and efficiency improvements. We live not just any lives, but human ones.  We seek meaning not through technological ascendancy, but also through our families, our relationships with each other and the comfort and happiness we can bestow on others.

As much as we’d like to gloss over it, there is a very serious discord between faith and science , as Nietzsche quite famously pointed out in one of the most misunderstood passages of all time:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

The next generation of technologies will strain our conceptions of what it means to be human.  Should we create synthetic life?  What will we do when the intelligence of our machines surpasses our own?  Should we augment our biology with nanobots?  These are questions we will have to answer in coming years and they all have theological undertows.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  We can’t go on presuming that science and faith are not hopelessly intertwined.

Who’s Responsible?

When Richard Feynman was still a young man, he got called away to a secret camp in Los Alamos, New Mexico where he played a central part in the development of the atomic bomb.  He fully grasped the implications of his work and the prospect of unleashing such power troubled him deeply.

He didn’t quite know how to resolve the tension between his responsibilities and his concerns until one Sunday when he went on a walk with John von Neumann, already a legend at the time.

Then there was John von Neumann, the great mathematician. We used to go for walks on Sunday. We’d walk in the canyons, often with Bethe and Bob Bacher. It was a great pleasure. And von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since.

He was, of course, not responsible.  Ultimately, we as a society had to decide, wisely or not, how we would deal with nuclear energy.  It’s a scientist’s mission to discover how the world works, not to make value judgments about truths they happen to uncover.  The Big Bang is more than a theory about the age of the universe, it is central to our ability to innovate.

So the problem with Mr. Rubio’s remarks is not that he, in a somewhat admirable fashion, tried to make space for both faith and science, but because he shirked his responsibility as a public servant on what is probably the most important issue of our time:  How we will reconcile our humanity with our technology.

It is a question of the most troubling kind and, as much as we may like to ignore it, concerns us all.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Ramon permalink
    December 1, 2012

    You write the best articles! Thank you so much for this incredibly insightful post.

  2. December 1, 2012

    Thanks Ramon. That’s very nice of you to say.

    – Greg

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