Cosmology does note equal Cosmogony — or why Andrew Sullivan has got to stop invoking his cartoon of science when he seeks to defend his faith.

Another post resurrected from the month (or so) of my discontent:

From Sullivan, an essaylet on the nature of God and the foundations of faith, which contains this argument:

For me, the core argument for some force behind the universe, revealed metaphorically in Scripture, is affirmed by science as we currently have it. Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding. What conceivable force made this possible?

I know Sundays are slow days in the blogging trade, but this is just awful.  Not as private faith, mind you — Sullivan has repeatedly affirmed his particular form of belief; it clearly is meaningful to him, rich in both emotional weight and in sufficient intellectual plausibility (to him) not to offend his personal experience.  But as an attempt to assert a less particularist claim, awful just begins to describe the rhetorical catastrophe above.

Unsurprisingly, what gets this blog’s goat is the invocation of science in defense of a cosmological Godhead.  Which means I’ll pass over in sort-of silence the bit of sleight of  hand in the first clause of the quoted passage, the notion that a metaphor of God (“some force behind the universe”) is the essence of what the text of scripture reveals of the deity.*

That said, the real sin of thought and word in the passage I quote comes when Sullivan writes the argument for a force behind the universe (whatever that actually means) “is affirmed by science as we currently have it.”

This is a nonsense. What does he mean by a force?  Is it anything like the meaning of the concept as it emerged in the specific science — physics — whose subdiscipline, cosmology, he is about to invoke?

Well, no, obviously.  And to give a little flesh to that blanket dismissal, consider Nobel laureate and my MIT colleague Frank Wilczek’s meditation on the notion of force as Isaac Newton first cobbled it together.

Some years ago, he wrote a three part essay, “Whence the Force of F=MA” in which he described force as a culture, or perhaps better, as a language. [Links here to all three sections] Sullivan would, I think, find some of what Wilczek writes quite comforting:

…the law of physics F=ma comes to appear a little softer than is commonly considered. It really does bear a family resemblance to other kinds of laws, like the laws of jurisprudence or of morality, wherein the meaning of the terms takes shape through their use. In those domains, claims of ultimate truth are wisely viewed with great suspicion; yet nonetheless we should actively aspire to the highest achievable level of coherence and explicitness. Our physics culture of force, properly understood, has this profoundly modest but practically ambitious character. (Essay III in the series)

If laws of morality and laws of physics are kissing cousins, as Wilczek seems to imply, perhaps there could be something to Sullivan’s claim (hope? — ed.) that the force of which physicists speak might have something to do with the Sullivan’s metaphor of God.

I’m putting thoughts in Sullivan’s mind here, of course, but the point I’m making is that analogies are tricky, and the use of implied ones even more so.

But the problem for Sullivan’s case is that Wilczek did not say that the content of  moral or civil laws mirror, even imperfectly, that of physical ones.  Rather, he simply stated that physics, more than usually understood, makes use of one of the most valuable habits of thought in the humanities:  some of what physicists “know” they learn through using an idea, rather than explicitly grappling with its inner tensions.

That’s fine, and true, and it is surely a trick used across lots of different intellectual approaches.  But for all of Wilczek’s kind bob in the direction of another division of the academy, when he gets down to the actual issue of  why such a “soft” concept of force has persisted in the famously “hard” discipline of physics, his answer embraces the nitty gritty of life as physicists actually lead it:

By comparison to modern foundational physics, the culture of force is vaguely defined, limited in scope, and approximate.  Nevertheless it survives the competition, and continues to flourish, for one overwhelmingly good reason: It is much easier to work with. We really do not want to be picking our way through a vast Hilbert space, regularizing and renormalizing ultraviolet divergences as we go, then analytically continuing Euclidean Green’s functions defined by a limiting procedure, . . . working to discover nuclei that clothe themselves with electrons to make atoms that bind together to make solids, . . . all to describe the collision of two billiard balls. That would be lunacy similar in spirit to, but worse than, trying to do computer graphics from scratch, in machine code, without the benefit of an operating system. The analogy seems apt: Force is a flexible construct in a high−level language, which, by shielding us from irrelevant details, allows us to do elaborate applications relatively painlessly. (Essay I)

I don’t want to put Wilczek in the position, even seemingly, of arguing with an essay written years after his.  But the point he makes here makes a mockery of all sorts of woo that follow from the fact that physicists are willing to accept a certain level of imprecision in order to do real work.  (Think Deepak Chopra, et al.)

For Sullivan, there are all the usual sins of woo-mongers here.  There is sloppiness of language.  He writes of a “force behind the universe” — which means … what?  Is it the quality that has powered the expansion of our observable patch of the universe since the Big Bang?  If so, it ain’t “behind” anything.

There is the mixing of categories.  Is he talking about a question of origins, of what triggered the current expansion?  More likely, I think, though Sullivan is, as is usual for writing that attempts to draw this kind of false connection between a specific problem in science and much broader question in some other domain.  If so, then Sullivan is mistaking a partial lack of knowledge for affirmative evidence of an immanent purposefulness to weight the scales our way, towards a universe in which we could emerge.

But this form of the old God of the Gaps argument misses the real action in modern cosmology.  For the point is that however much some questions may be incompletely understood  — the nature of the inflaton field, perhaps, or the implications of the certain concepts in Brane Theory and related studies for the question of the uniqueness of the Big Bang —  Big Bang cosmology is driven by a combination of theory and observation that works to describe the phenomenon(up to a point…which is why there are still jobs for cosmologists).

All of which is to say that just  because Sullivan cannot actually grasp the structure of contemporary physics, that does not mean he is free to ascribe any interpretation that makes him feel happy to what he thinks physics is talking about these days.  (By “free” I mean plausible, even remotely correct.  Obviously he, like me and any of us, is free to spout whatever nonsense we choose).

Even so, Sullivan is at least on familiar, if very shaky ground, when he asserts that a metaphoric interpretation of modern physics offers comfort, at least, if not outright confirmation, to a metaphoric vision of some concept of wholeness which we may conveniently call God.  That could fall, I guess, within my “whatever gets you through the day” category, as long as I am not asked to assent to any specific claim about the human condition based on the latest work on extra dimensions or the arrow of time.  (Hi, Lisa!Hi, Sean!)

But then there is this :

The second question is the nature of that force. The core revelation of Jesus – and the Buddha, for that matter, in some respects – is that the force is good, not evil. There is hope. Death is not what it seems. Love prevails. In this tragic, fallen, cruel world, this is not an easy doctrine. It cannot be inferred from the evidence. Which is why it is the gift of faith, from some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description. Even metaphor fails.

[lease note that I have not cut anything from this passage -- the two quotes above follow immediately one to the other.]

Most of this is just embarrassingly bad writing. (See, e.g. the phrase “some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description.”  To me, at least, this reads like the religious version of Regency Romance prose — lots of heaving and heavy breathing around but not on the point at hand. But maybe I’m just in a bad mood…)

Still, whatever you think of the prose here, the claim that because Sullivan cannot imagine a purely physical account of the origins and evolution of the universe, therefore his prior assumption must be the correct interpretation is an appalling lapse of logic, an argument so bad it makes me wonder if all the stuff we hear about the Oxford Union as Parris Island for debaters is pure nonsense.

Here’s Sullivan’s syllogism:  Science tells us that there is a mysterious force within the universe.  (Assumption not in evidence — at least in the spiritual sense.) That force is good (ditto) — which I know, because Jesus told me so.  (But that’s what you wanted to confirm, I thought, independent of scriptural assertion).  Therefore, I’m not going to really die, and the world, despite all the evidence we have, is one in which love triumphs.  (Errr, no.  Not on the evidence as presented here.)

I mean, I get it.  I do.  Andrew Sullivan believes in the traditional promise of Christianity.  In that promise, Jesus was more than a man; his death was transformative of the reality of death for all humanity.  That transformation establishes the fundamental predominance of love over evil in the universe, for no matter what grotesqueries may overtake us on this earth, redemption will be found in the next.

But that has nothing to do with science, with physics, with that branch of physics and allied disciplines that studies the history of the cosmos.  It has nothing to do with the concept of force as it is used within that inquiry.  There is nothing to support this fervid hope within the anisotropy map produced by the WMAP satellite.  No measurement, no mathematics can tell you that Jesus left his tomb before three days passed and walked among his disciples, bearing his good news about the ephemeral nature of mortality.  (I’m not even going to go into the bizarre reading of Buddhism that Sullivan compresses in so few words; it ain’t worth it.)

Sullivan might respond that this is what he means when he talks of the “gift of faith.”  But if that were truly what he meant, then why the claim that science “affirms” this view of the spiritual nature of the forces that have shaped the physical universe?

Because, I think, he knows that what he’s really saying is that this is something he feels very deeply, and that it therefore must be true — and he wishes he had something more to convince his readers (and perhaps himself) that it is so.

But it doesn’t, which is or ought to be fine:  if faith has any meaning it is that it is an individual commitment.

I’ve belabored this enough, I think.  Sorry to natter on so long.  I just hate these attempts to claim the authority of science in support of what I think of as the Dorothy mode of thought:  click your heels hard enough and any magic can come true.

*All I’ll say is that Sullivan is correct when he asserts that metaphoric interpretations are the only contemporary readings of scripture that are compatible both with modern scien and what is often termed the “problem of evil.” But despite what seems to me that obvious truth, the countervailing fact is that a very large number of religious people, including the hierarchy of Sullivan’s own church, not to mention many in the rabbinate that leads the tradition in which I grew up, do not see the Bible as exclusively, or even centrally metaphorical.  In those settings, God did tell Abraham to kill Isaac;* Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Certainly, there is no shortage of metaphor even within a plain reading of much of the Bible, and plenty of sophisticated and subtle religious thinkers have recognized the central importance of using metaphor to interpret scripture.  (Read the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s reeadings of Talmud if you want to see this kind of exegesis performed at the highest level.)

But I still think it is not so much disengenous as it is internal evidence of Sullivan’s own religious difficulties that he leaps to the metaphor whilst ignoring more direct readings of the scriptures and the teachings of his faith as he seeks to avoid the implications of purely materialistic accounts of the fate of mortal humans in this universe.

All that’s a fancy way to say what I and others have said before: ascribing to particular religious beliefs the qualities you wish they had doesn’t actually change the nature of such religious claims as they actually make their way into the world.  And if you haven’t noticed that for an awful lot of people these days the term “God” is a simple literal descriptor, then you aren’t (or are choosing not to) pay attention.

Images:  Michaelangelo, “The Last Judgment” 1537-1541.

John McLure Hamilton, “The Billiards Match,” before 1936.

WMAP data mapped onto an ecliptic projection, five years of data, 2008.

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13 Comments on “Cosmology does note equal Cosmogony — or why Andrew Sullivan has got to stop invoking his cartoon of science when he seeks to defend his faith.”


  1. I have no love for Andrew “I’m proud of promoting The Bell Curve” Sullivan*, but let us be fair.

    He does explicitly say that his “doctrine” as to the nature of the force behind the universe “cannot be inferred from the evidence.” Hammering home that it cannot be inferred from the evidence in then breaking down an open door.
    For that matter, even as to the word and concept “force” — would his meaning have been at all altered if he had written “some Thing behind the universe”, instead of “some force”? I think not. While I find the Lovecraftian connotation of “some Thing” more congenial than that of “some force”, it seems like a small thing to hang so much on.

    Still, his whole post reads like the aftermath of an unfortunate encounter between Sullivan and Frank Tipler’s works in an airport bookstore.

    *: To my mind, the best and most damning judgment on Sullivan was Carlos Yu‘s: “he STRUGGLES with his IDEAS! People, it’s because he’s not the brightest bulb on the tree. I see people STRUGGLING with MATH all the time, but I don’t ask them to do my taxes.”

    • Tom Says:

      Hey Cosma!

      Good to hear from you.

      This is a fair cop — but what gets me is the disengenousness of Andrew on these matters. He wants it both ways: “faith is unimaginable” and “science affirms my faith.”

      I’m down with the first, though his faith seems wholly unpersuasive … to me. Not his problem, as I try to make clear.

      But in this essay he clearly leads his profession of faith as free of evidence with the claim that science supports his conception of God. In doing so, he conflates his strong feeling of the reality of his personal experience of God-ness with verifiable knowledge of God in nature. He performs this kind of move a fair amount; and it drives me crazy.

      Why does it bug me so? Who knows.

  2. Thony C. Says:

    (I’m not even going to go into the bizarre reading of Buddhism that Sullivan compresses in so few words; it ain’t worth it.)

    You saved me from making the comment I was thinking of making.

  3. Batocchio Says:

    He wants it both ways: “faith is unimaginable” and “science affirms my faith.”

    That sums it up nicely, although I appreciate the depth of the post itself. On a related note, I’m really sick of the silly argument that atheism (or empiricism) is just another form of (religious) faith.

    • lichanos Says:

      …silly argument that atheism (or empiricism) is just another form of (religious) faith.

      This is an argument I often encounter, and there is no use dealing with it. If a person is committed to faith, and without commitment, there is no faith, then no matter what scientific argument you make, they will respond,”See, THAT’s [your] God!” Gravity, Planck’s constant, the Kreb’s cycle, it doesn’t matter.

      I’ve taken to thinking about it this way: Have faith in God, theism, whatever, if you like; I find it a useless, unnecessary, and incoherent notion, and I do better without it.

  4. Blake Stacey Says:

    Quoth Sullivan:

    Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding. What conceivable force made this possible?

    I tend to go with the answer proposed by Tom Weller: “All the matter in existence, which had been compacted in a tiny ball, explosively flew apart. No one knows what caused it, but kids playing with matches is suspected.”

    It’s a metaphor, of course. As I’m sure the Buddha said somewhere, the match which a child can strike is not the true match.

  5. Thehaymarketbomber Says:

    “Even metaphor fails.”

    It sure as hell does!

  6. Tehanu Says:

    the religious version of Regency Romance prose — lots of heaving and heavy breathing around

    This is a nitpick, I admit — the proper Regency romance doesn’t have any heavy breathing; it has a light step and lots of snappy repartee. Think of it as Jane Austen Lite, not a bodice-ripper.

  7. John Casey Says:

    “Which is why it is the gift of faith, from some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description”, or so Andrew chooses to describe it.

    It’s the perfect self-refuting sentence, isn’t it.

  8. Harrison Says:

    I have to take issue with another of Mr. Sullivan’s claims: “Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding.” The Big Bang theory doesn’t really address the question of where all of the material of the universe came from in the first place, which therefore leaves the answer open to the religious suggestion that some extra-universe entity “created” it all out of nothing. Science generally shies away from the question as being philosophical and not within the realm of science. I do believe, however, that there is a completely rational explanation of how the universe is eternal and therefore without need of a prime creator — an explanation that science can at least help us to understand. There’s a thoughtful essay on this at http://www.earthletter.org/firstquestion_one.

  9. RBH Says:

    All that’s a fancy way to say what I and others have said before: ascribing to particular religious beliefs the qualities you wish they had doesn’t actually change the nature of such religious claims as they actually make their way into the world. And if you haven’t noticed that for an awful lot of people these days the term “God” is a simple literal descriptor, then you aren’t (or are choosing not to) pay attention.

    Would that the folks on the science/religion panel at the recent World Science Festival had taken that to heart.


  10. The spread of woo is a potentially dangerous one. People are for the most part intellectually lazy (imho). The bastardization of science will only assist in the overall decline of our collective intelligence. Its a complete reversal of advancement and education.


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