Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mythology, Physics, Cupcakes, and the Search for Truth

I know a Mormon who says some pretty offensive homophobic things, but always while flashing the biggest and most disarmingly polite smile. When he says such things, I am usually too paralyzed by disbelief that those words actually escaped his otherwise scientifically-educated head, and then I just make a mental note to pick his brain to shreds about his homophobia at a later date.

Mormons frighten me. Homophobic Mormons frighten me. Glenn Beck is Mormon, isn't he? Man, what an asshole. Mormon mythology is seriously fvcked up. I recently watched a cartoon on Mormon mythology that made my head explode at the institutionalized racism and general redonkulousness of it all. Just go to YouTube and search for "banned Mormon cartoon." I refuse to link to it. In contrast, the South Park episode on the Book of Mormon (season 7, episode 12) is absolutely brilliant!

Physicists frighten me, too. Rather, it's their intelligence that intimidates me. I have a respectful fear of physicists, fear with a caramel swirl of admiration. They do cool stuff with math, lasers, and particle accelerators. I just read an NPR blog post by Marcelo Gleiser on the Large Hadron Collider and its most hoped-for discoveries: the Higgs boson particle, supersymmetry, and other dimensions in space. I don't really know what this means, but I take Marcelo's word for it that it all has to do with finding that theory of everything:

For most theorists, finding the Higgs is minor compared to discovering supersymmetry or extra dimensions. That is because proving the existence of a unified field theory would satisfy a need deeper than scientific curiosity. Such a discovery would go right to the heart of our age-old longing for the "final answer," what physicist Stephen Hawking and others call "knowing the mind of God."


Einstein spent the last two decades of his life trying to find this answer. He, and everyone else so far, have failed. The notion that Nature hides some kind of code -- an overarching mathematical structure -- is a scientific version of monotheism, a theme that has dominated philosophy for millennia. Now that the LHC has been turned on, we must ask ourselves if we're pursuing the right questions.

[. . .]

We really have no evidence whatsoever that Nature is unified at its core -- even the unifications that we have achieved to date, such as the famous electromagnetic theory of electricity and magnetism, only work under certain assumptions. If Nature is telling us that it likes imperfections, that our expectations of all-encompassing symmetries are the result of centuries of monotheistic baggage, we should listen. Beauty, it turns out, is not truth.

Perhaps the physical limits of Nature as we can perceive it make this theory of everything unattainable. At the moment, certainly, the LHC generates energies many dozens of orders of magnitude less than those generated at the Big Bang. The research is still worth it, though, because we can still learn some cool stuff from it.

My disarmingly polite, homophobic Mormon friend believes that science and religion are both searching for the truth. Science does tend to supersede mythology when explaining natural phenomena (e.g., evolution vs. creation). Eventually, he says, when time goes to infinity, the searches of both science and religion will converge at the truth.

But what if the truth is an asymptote that we can never quite get to? What if truth is ultimately unknowable?

Let's look at this from the science point of view. If all those ridiculously smart physicists didn't figure out the theory of everything, I'd still go on with my daily life. I'd still run my not-fully-optimized experiments with no thought to the probabilistic, biophysical movements going on in the test tubes. Heck, even if the physicists did elucidate the theory of everything, that awesome feat still wouldn't cure, say, diabetes. Researchers would still have to work on a larger scale (larger compared to subatomic particles, of course) to figure out disease mechanics and cures.

Now let's look at this from the religion point of view. The Catholic church claims to be the keepers of the truth. (Aside: Representatives of the keepers of the truth really should be more careful about disputing HISTORICAL FACT ABOUT GENOCIDE [link], for those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it, and we can't have that.) If we remained lost sheep on Meta-God mountain, would that excuse us from being men and women for others? Would that negate Jesus' message to feed the poor and cure the sick and all that? If the keepers of truth are right, would it then be justified for a believer to eat lots of cupcakes because believers are rewarded in the afterlife, and atherosclerosis gets you there faster? And what if it turns out that the keepers of the truth were wrong? I would stop eating cupcakes continue to ride my bike through dark, rain, and knee pain to keep myself healthy and to live a long life to do good on this earth. That's what I should be doing anyway, right?

I'm OK about unattainable asymptotic truth because to me it does not matter on the love-thy-neighbor scale. Independent of what the truth might be, selfless altruism is still worth doing because it deepens the heart and spreads the love.

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