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January 9, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

Criticism of “Knocking on Heavens Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World” by Lisa Randall

The following is a critique of Lisa Randalls recent book “Knocking on Heavens Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World” which is materialist & agnostic/neo-atheist in nature (although she does admit that religion serves a purpose). Lisa Randall is an author and professor of physics at Harvard University which is available here and written by Emile Piscitelli a professor of philosophy from northern Virginia:

Science is not philosophy. I have no problem generally with Lisa Randall’s explanations concerning the state of knowledge in the field of physics today. It is her field of expertise. I have no problem with her claim that empirical science is about the material universe. My problem is with her jump into the area of philosophy or as R.G. Collingwood put it: the field of absolute presuppositions.

Proposition: The material universe is all there is to reality. That is a metaphysical presupposition not a scientific question. Science cannot resolve it.It is true that empirical scientific knowledge is restricted to conclusions that are dependent on sensible consequences. Scientific explanations are ruled by the canons of parsimony and sensible consequences. But if there are realities that do not produce sensible consequences, then they elude empirical scientific knowledge. Empirical science is restricted to first level questions and cannot deal with second level issues like What constitutes scientific knowledge? In what sense does it attain the real?

Proposition: Science can refute the objection of reductionism by appealing to “scales” of explanations. The problem the criticism of reductionism makes explicit is the philosophical problem of what constitutes a THING which in turn is about different viewpoints not just different “sizes.” For example are the things physics investigates and explains the same things that biology investigates and explains? While living things are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, the laws of biology are not reducible to more complicated laws of physics or chemistry because the sciences are determined by the viewpoint that they take on THINGS. A thing is a unity identity whole understood from a determinate point of view and is accessed through judgments based on evidence appropriate to the viewpoint of the science.

Proposition: Science and religion are opposed in principle. Is it true and in what sense? A philosophical question not a scientific one. When science is set up as the ultimate criteria of all knowledge, science becomes scientism, an ideology. Ideologies are forms of dogmatism. Science cannot answer questions concerning the existence or nature of God. They are philosophical or theological questions. For example if God is transcendent to the universe that does not imply God is external to it. External/Internal are not categories applicable to a Being that creates reality out of nothing and holds it in existence every moment. That proposition can be rejected as untrue because it lacks empirical evidence, but the quest for appropriate evidence cannot be explained by science without the explanation falling into a vicious circle or the fallacy of begging the question. If there is a transcendent being who accounts for why there is something rather than nothing or the mystery of existence and if such a being is said to be a cause, then its causality would transcend space and time. Does the universe depend for it’s existence on something beyond itself? Or is it ultimately unintelligible? That is not an argument from design which presupposes an intermundane version of causality. Why do human beings seek explanations if ultimately existence is no different than nothing and order is no different than chaos or total randomness? These are philosophical questions not scientific ones.

Proposition: Lisa Randall is a brilliant professor of physics who should stay within her expertise.
Granted. Her reference to scientists who are naive fundamentalists prove nothing concerning the conflict of science and religion. What makes humans religious is the fact that we cannot avoid the question of ultimacy: Is human existence a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing ultimately. If the answer is YES, then the atheist is taking a religious position.

In his biography of another great physicist Walter Isaacson’s description of Albert Einstein’s cosmic religion captures something of the assumptions of the first philosophers: “A spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble,” Einstein wrote. “In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”For some people, miracles serve as evidence of God’s existence. For Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence. The fact that the cosmos is comprehensible, that it follows laws, is worthy of awe. This is the defining quality of a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.” Einstein considered this feeling of reverence, this cosmic religion, to be the wellspring of all true art and science. It was what guided him. “When I am judging a theory,” he said, “I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such away.” It is also what graced him with his beautiful mix of confidence and awe..”

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