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Artist, Heather Oliver             

“Keeping an Open Mind Is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.”

– attributed to Jim Oberg, space journalist and historian

sokalAlan Sokal was a teaching assistant in my quantum mechanics (QM) course.  I still recall vividly the day he came with a graph showing the spike of the first-ever observed strange particle.  I remember, too, the playful twinkle in his eye. Thirteen years ago, Alan (at this point a physics professor at NYU) submitted a paper to the prominent cultural studies journal Social Text, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

On the day of its publication, Alan announced that the article was a hoax, “an experiment to see if a journal would publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”  The editors of Social Text argued that Alan inadvertently expressed great truths in his article that even he wasn’t aware of – though they did take the precaution of having submissions peer-reviewed thereafter.

Slow forward thirteen years.  Fundamentalist branches of organized religions made a comeback, trying to obliterate the separation between church and state and to reclaim the domain of natural philosophy wrested away from them by science.  Some sprang to accommodate this “rapprochement” – most prominently Stephen Jay Gould with his theory of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), most loudly Matt Nisbet with his “framing” PR campaign.  We’re also awash in instant experts, courtesy of the Internet.  And all along, we have the very natural propensity to explain difficult concepts with analogies and metaphors.

As a result of this, religions from Christianity to Buddhism have been attempting to show that their tenets are compatible with concepts of reality developed through science.  Their vehicle of choice is – you guessed it! – QM.  QM enjoys particular favor for the same reasons that it appealed so greatly to the good folks of Social Text: it’s opaque, counter-intuitive, jargon-laden, safely remote from morality and has the cachet of vaguely-remembered great names associated with it (although Einstein opposed QM bitterly, because it couldn’t incorporate relativity and because he considered it ugly).  The results look exactly like Alan’s hoax paper – except that, unlike his, they are serious.


For me this came recently to the fore when my blog-friend George Dvorsky posted a link to a video  which purports to show where science and Buddhism meet.  I watched it until I heard that “a particle is everywhere in the universe at all times”.  At that point I turned the video off and wondered aloud why I wasted even moments of my finite life on such arrant nonsense.

The snippets presented as QM facts in the video are at best extremely sloppy thinking, at worst an attempt to preempt, appropriate and mislead as insidious as Intelligent Design.  The Schrödinger equation, whose mangled presentation caused me to switch off the video, was the earliest mathematical description of a particle’s wave function. This formulation, although instrumental in the progress of QM, has problems with the time component and cannot integrate any aspect of relativity. The older formulations often lead to absurd results, such as zero denominators in equations — or infinitely spread particles. Since then, descriptions such as Feynman’s path integrals have solved some of these problems, although the final reconciliation may require the advent of a working grand unified theory.

Physicists and mathematicians are aware of these limitations when they use such constructs.  In contrast, when people who are not conversant with a scientific concept use it to lend credibility to shaky or shady conclusions, they become demagogues and/or charlatans.  And before anyone trots out the elitism hobby-horse, all I can say is, just have the next person you meet on the street repair your car or give you a haircut.  The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.

Buddhism has become fashionable among people who wish to be considered spiritual but not “conventionally” religious, many of them self-proclaimed progressives – hence it’s de rigueur not to criticize it.  Some of its prestige comes from politics (primarily the Tibet/China situation, but only because it’s pertinent to US financial concerns), some from the intelligence and charisma of the current Dalai Lama, some from the simple fact that it appears exotic to Westerners when compared to the home-grown Abrahamic monotheisms.

tokonoma-3283I like the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism very much.  However, there is nothing to attract me in the religion’s misogyny (women cannot become Buddhas and must be reborn as men to attain Nirvana), its primitive cosmology of universe-toting turtles, its punitive stance that suffering is the result of bad past karma, its oppressive policies whenever it gained temporal power (including pre-Chinese Tibet, which was a far cry from Shangri-La) or the dog-like master/disciple formula that I dissected in my critique of that pinnacle of ersatz mythology, Star Wars.

Worse yet, what is the outcome of suppressing desire, Buddhism’s ultimate goal?  It’s the fate of the Miranda settlers in Serenity, the fate of any conscious being that gazes obsessively at its navel with the belief that reality is but an illusion.  If this is true, why explore or invent?  The Western religions have an awful lot to answer for.  But at least in their figures of defiance, from Prometheus to Lucifer, they incorporate a key element: striving for something larger than one’s puny self without letting go of one’s individuality.

I’m often told that science strips away comforting illusions or the mysteries that add beauty and meaning to life.  Yet which is a more potent (let alone true) image – stars as glittering nails inolympics crystal domes, or as incandescent engines that create life?  Science needs no pious platitudes or sloppy metaphors.  Science doesn’t strip away the grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more keep appearing and coming into focus.  Science leads to connections across scales, from universes to quarks.  And we, with our ardent desire and ability to know ever more, are lucky enough to be at the nexus of all this richness.

59 Responses to ““Keeping an Open Mind Is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.””

  1. Athena says:

    Glad you liked it, Ben! The too-liberal left can be as anti-science and/or as anti-sense as the too-illiberal right. I’ve slogged through postmodern tracts that made me simultaneously shudder and laugh. It’s true that technology can be used for ill, and that scientific interpretations are subject to the prejudices of scientists and their context. But the grace that saves it is the mindset of constant revision as more facts come into view.

  2. Sanscardinality says:

    Hi Athena,

    So I agree with you in general on the whole article, but I do have a question for you. I agree that the “particles are always everywhere” pseudo-interpretation of QM is at least misleading, the same cannot be said of describing light as being eternal from its own perspective and therefore outside all causality. In other words, a photon is in all-time/no-time because it has no time dimension due to its speed. Similar circumstances seem to exist inside the event horizon of black holes. I do think many inner “spiritual” traditions – not their exoteric, dogmatic forms, have intuited such a state. Buddha described it as not being of the four extremes (self, other, both, neither). So while I disagree with religionists using science to justify their dogma, I do think spiritual writers and explorers have predicted some general directions that physics is headed in. What do you think?

    - SC

  3. Sanscardinality says:

    PS> Buddhism proposes there is no soul – either male or female. They do often say that women are incarnations incapable of enlightenment and many other stupid, misogynist things. In my experience in Christianity, Buddhism and other ways of looking at the spiritual, they all have bullshit dogma around their inner, practical teachings. Buddhism at least warns you it is bullshit :)

  4. Athena says:

    To your second point first, Josh — all organized religions sooner or later resort to convenient recipes that reflect the prevailing social milieu. The problem is bad enough when they purport to be agents for benign change, but gets even worse when these recipes harden into “gospel truth”.

    Regarding your first point, light cannot be everywhere at once even at its own speed — the universe is billions of light years across and it takes time for a beam of light to traverse it. Also, light can be slowed by massive objects, at which point it acquires a time arrow and a history. We have no idea (or, more likely, no easy way to express) what’s inside a black hole horizon.

    Finally, I guarantee you that the counter-intuitive concepts of quantum mechanics and general relativity were not even a twinkle in the eye of anyone who started a religion in the Bronze or Iron Age. The forced shoehorning of scientific theories into religious thought by vague, imprecise analogies is an attempt to remain relevant or “edgy” by (mis)appropriation. Calvin may have more to add to this discussion, if he sees these particular comments.

  5. Athena says:

    There is one other point I wanted to make about science versus intuition. Science relies on observation and/or experimentation. Intuition (which is often informed conjecture) is a useful tool in science, as it is in society and other activities that involve thought and interaction.

    However, armchair thinking, no matter how radical, is just that. Theories without experimental proof are all equal (and hence equally in/valid) unless we can distinguish which one approximates reality. The intuitions of religions and philosophies fall in that category. So does string theory, despite its great beauty and potential as a Theory of Everything, until/unless it comes up with specific testable predictions. And we also tend to forget that for every “intuition” that roughly corresponds to something confirmed by experimentation, at least ten were disproved.

  6. aoanla says:

    Athena, I think you’ve misinterpreted what your commenter meant by “light has no time dimension due to its speed”.
    What they probably mean is that things moving at the speed of light, if we’re limiting ourselves to Special relativity here, experience infinite time dilation (or, from their perspective, experience the universe compressed to infinitesimal thickness in their direction of travel), and therefore, from both our and their perspective can be said to “experience no time, internally”. (From their perspective, of course, this is because in the light’s frame of reference, there is literally no distance to travel between points on its path.) Even massive objects don’t change the local speed of light (gravitational redshifting doesn’t work that way, if that’s what you’re thinking of), so this is still true in GR. Indeed, switching to a “light’s view” of the universe is a transformation used by twistor theory (for example), precisely because of the status of luminal paths as “zero-time” paths.

    Of course, this has nothing to do with the religious perspectives of any group, but it is a reasonable interpretation of the mathematics.

  7. Athena says:

    True, I was thinking of the outsider viewpoint. I’m well aware of the Lorentzian time dilation/space contraction and of zero-time paths. As you say, the simultaneity due to infinite time dilation can be “experienced” by massless objects traveling at light speed. Which precludes most ordinary matter in all but the most extreme circumstances (black holes, Big Bang) — and certainly precludes our very macro brains/minds, which are the focus of religions and of the video that set this in motion in the first place!

  8. Tenzin says:

    hi Sans,
    I wonder if that “that women are incarnations incapable of enlightenment” is correct. I think there was a female buddha called Tara. Not that it would make any difference if there is male or female.

  9. Athena says:

    I can think of two female buddhas, but both are re-incarnations (so to speak) of local goddesses: Kwan Yin (China) and Tara (Tibet). The Hindu equivalents of both are male. The Mahayana is more progressive and relaxed on this aspect than the Hinayana. The latter specifically states that women must first be reincarnated as men to either achieve Nirvana or become buddhas.