Bursting the God balloon

Science can say what caused an event to occur, but not what caused reality to be such that it did, Michael Bulley observes

February 21, 2008

In biology, we have seen the theory of intelligent design. Some prominent scientists have said similar things about the universe as a whole. One of them, John Barrow, was awarded the 2006 Templeton Prize for "progress in spiritual discovery". But while science is meaningful, its topic is not.

It has been said that scientific reasoning would not be possible if nature were capricious. One well-known proponent of this line is the physicist Paul Davies, who has said: "The universe is ordered in a meaningful way, and scientists seek reasons for why things are as they are. If the universe as a whole is pointless, then it exists without reason." I say there is no necessary relationship between science and its topic.

What do you understand in science? It is not planets or atoms, or even the brain. They are objects of study but convey no meaning. Understanding something about a natural phenomenon does not require a correspondence between it and your brain. When Newton asked why the apple fell down and not up, his question and answer had meaning, but the falling apple had not. Science is the understanding of thoughts about nature, an important part therefore of our understanding of ourselves, but far from the whole.

The idea that there are laws of nature has tempted some people to go so far as to say the universe may have a purpose. We do see examples of purposeful behaviour: twigs arranged by birds to make the nest, bricks organised to construct a supermarket. The twig is in the nest for a purpose, but it did not exist to become part of that nest. If it did, you would have to say we were destined to be creators of supermarkets. Sometimes biologists are misunderstood as claiming that some features of animals developed for certain purposes. That is, of course, not what they mean. Those developments happened, but there was no intention behind them. It is the same with the universe as a whole: things change, but that does not mean they were there to be changed that way.

The laws of nature are generalisations we have come to about what we think exists and happens. If they were real, we would have an infinite regress. For then they would be part of nature and we should have to explain them with other real laws, and so on. We should not, therefore, regard scientific laws as governing any state of affairs or event in the real world. Dodging the apple this time, consider the balloon that is inflated until it bursts. I could describe that event in everyday language or with terms such as air pressure and sound waves. The latter way would not explain the event but just describe it more scientifically.

Science can tell us what caused the balloon to burst but cannot tell us what caused reality to be such that it did. There is no answer to that question, scientific or otherwise. There is nothing that is its own cause. That we can discuss natural events rationally does not mean nature is rational. There is no structural correspondence between a scientific idea, such as that of air pressure, and the reality related to it. When the balloon bursts, that event is not caused by some law of nature whose rationality makes it possible for our reason to discover it. It is caused by our blowing up the balloon.

Scientists should do no more than describe nature logically, for various reasons, none better than to satisfy our curiosity. Once any of them starts arguing back-to-front, saying the universe developed as it did because that was what would favour the emergence of human life or that nature is formed so that humans can understand it, you know faith has taken over from logic.

The possibilities in the universe are ultimately explicable only in the way you finally tell the irritatingly questioning child "because". How we talk about things in nature has meaning, but nature itself is simply how things are, with neither order nor meaning. That I am a human and not a tree-frog is just how things happen to be. When Paul Davies said scientists seek reasons, I thought at first he meant causes, but then saw he really did mean reasons, in the sense of purposes. That is not science. Seeking causes is physics; seeking reasons is metaphysics. As Wittgenstein said, the meaning of the world must lie outside it.

Michael Bulley does freelance language work in France and writes on linguistic and philosophical topics.

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