“And through the grace which I have been given, I say this to every one of you: never pride yourselves on being better than you really are, but think of yourself dispassionately, recognizing that God has given to each one his measure of faith. Just as each of us has various parts in one body, and the parts do not all have the same function: in the same way, all of us, though there are so many of us, make up one body in Christ, and as different parts we should be joined to one another. Then since the gifts that we have differ according to the grace that was given to each of us” (Romans 12:3-6).I usually try to attend our physics department's weekly colloquium. This is the hour when a good portion of our department comes together to hear a general talk given by a person conducting research in either physics or a related field, given at a level that an advanced graduate student (or a professor) in physics can follow. Most recently, the talk in question was given by Professor Gennady Shvets, whose research interests are fairly widespread--both experimental and theoretical, with plasmas, lasers, photonics, and materials science--a youngish professor in our department. The topic of the week was metamaterials, which are themselves fairly interesting, but it is not the talk itself which is of interest today, but rather something which the professor said in introducing his talk.
He began by noting that he would talk about “metamaterials,” and that “meta” comes for the Greek word for “after” or “beyond.” So far, so good, as best I can tell. Then he made the uneasy joke that this is where the word “metaphysics” comes from--discussions of things which are “beyond” physics--and that this is a bad word in these parts (meaning in this department, and perhaps in the sciences writ large). The implications, of course, is that there is nothing “beyond” physics to discuss, not that physicists aren't qualified to discuss metaphysics with any particular authority.
This, of course, should come as no surprise to those who have followed the development of outward disdain for anything which may trace its roots back to philosophy--let alone theology--amongst physicists. We need go back no further than to the renowned--and widely popular--physicist Dr Richard Feynman. One of the final remarks made by Dr Feynman in the Feynman Lectures chapter about “The Flow of Dry Water,” he remarks that “today we cannot see whether Schrodinger's equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality--or whether it does not.” Others, such as Doctors Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and A H Guth--eminent physicists all--have argued along similar lines, leading their accolades to the conclusion that physics is all there is, physics is all we need. As the late Fr Stanley L Jaki puts it in his analysis of the situation,
"Feynman does not say categorically that [Schrodinger's equation] does [contain frogs, musical composers, or morality]. Yet by taking as plausible the possibility that Schodinger's equation may contain all of these things, Feynman claims that science is limitless in a sense very different from from the one already stated, namely that science is applicable wherever there are quanititative properties to measure. This unlimitedness of science is extended by Feynmen into a sweeping suggestion with no restriction whatsoever: Not only matter but everything else, morality included, can be measured, and is contained in some future form of physics....
What Penrose really claimed [in The Emperor's New Mind] was the old Platonic idea that quantities necessarily turn into real matter with quantitative properties. Therefore, since mathematical physics is the best way of dealing with the quantitative properties of matter, mathematical physics is declared to be all that we need in order to cope with existence, material as well as intellectual and moral....
Now, if such scientifically coated claims are true, one might as well follow the advice which David Hume gave at the end of his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and burn all books except those that contain quantities and matters of fact. Obviously, Hume meant only those facts that were material and therefore could be measured in terms of quantities. At any rate, ever since Hume the book burning recommended by him has been done, at least in a metaphorical sense. It is, however, well known that during the French Revolution and kindred ideologico-political revolutions, pyres were made of books that lacked quantities and matters of facts as understood by Hume. Metaphorically, that book-burning can be done (and this is the way it is done in the name of science), by declaring that anything that cannot be measured is purely subjective, almost illusory.” (From The Limits of a Limitless Science, reprinted in The limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays pp 8-9).
Such Platonism is alleged by Hawking himself to be in his latest book, The Grand Design. Hawking has been more than happy to declare his atheism by stating that a Creator of the universe--that is, God--is not needed because of the way that the Law of Gravity is. That is to say, because of the quantities found in the Law of Gravity, our universe (along, perhaps, with an uncounted many others) can pop into existence from nothing. That no universe has ever been observed to come into existence from nothing--in a scientific “laboratory” setting or otherwise--is wholly disregarded in favor of the “scientific” theory which does its best to replace metaphysics.
However, to declare that metaphysics is a “bad” word, or that its subject matter is “illusory” is not to cease to engage in it. Rather, it is to engage in metaphysics under the guise of physics, which is to do an injustice to both realms of knowledge. After all, to cite the laws of gravity (or of quantum mechanics, of general and special relativity, or any other branch of physics) as the ultimate cause* of the universe is to suppose that such laws preexist the universe to which such laws belong.
It is similarly bad science to declare that God does not exist simply because no scientific evidence for Him exists, since science itself consists of of the study of the laws of nature. But those laws can only be studied within the sphere of our own observable universe, and so it is useless to speculate--as Dr Hawking himself has done previously with his Wave Function of the Universe--what those laws are beyond even our own universe, assuming as he and others have done that multiple universe exist in the first place. To assume the existence of those universes is indeed to assume something beyond our own universe: that is, to assume in a different sense that there is something “beyond” physics.
There are indeed a number of physicists who have taken to proven that ours is but one of an infinite number of possible universes. Some attempt to show that ours is the only one which is possible, as Hawking has attempted to do with his Wave Function; others are content merely to state, more practically, that ours is the only one which matters, since it is here that we find ourselves. Both sets of scientists go on to assume that since they have thought of an infinite number of universes, they have therefore covered all possible universes, a gross error in reasoning which is motivated perhaps solely by their desire to rule out God.
They have, in any case, attempted to ignore and even denigrate metaphysics, which is not the same as actually avoiding it. Rather, to ignore metaphysics as “illusory” when compared with there own familiar field of physics is to still to engage in metaphysics, but to engage in it badly. Since many of these scientists have engaged in a form of Platonism as their metaphysics--perhaps accidentally, perhaps by design--it is worth noting what Plato himself had to say about experts in one subject matter brazenly blundering through another in which they held no special competence. In his Apology, which was the first of his Socratic Dialogues in The Last Days of Socrates, he portrays Socrates at the trial in which he would be condemned to death, a trial at which Plato was presumably present himself. Socrates, in his search for a man wiser than himself, first questioned the politicians (with my emphases):
“Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation for wisdom, and observed him...and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,--for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nothing nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him....
After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them--thinking that they would teach me something....Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving of myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.
At last I went to the artisans. I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken,for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets;--because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom; and therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.”
It would appear that now, 2500 years after the time of Socrates and Plato, the great intellects have learned nothing. They continue to believe that particular competence in one field--then, as poets or artisans, now as scientists--grants them a special competence in all other fields of knowledge, either by claiming some wisdom in those other fields or by dismissing said fields out of hand. Then as now, the intellects are made to look foolish and ignorant by their presumptuous metaphysical blusterings, which are little more than blind bumblings in a field of knowledge in which they are ill-equipped to tread.
*Not to mention that it is never really clarifies to which cause, exactly, Dr Hawking and his colleagues are referring. “The Laws of Gravity” provide at best an efficient cause and possibly a formal cause, but “gravity” does not generally exist in the absence of mass--that is, matter, material--and so it cannot be the universe's material cause. The very thrust of the atheists is, of course, that there is no final cause to the universe's existence, though this is again a matter for metaphysics more so than physics.
Originally published on the Catholic America Today website.