Friday, March 17, 2006

Barrow Wins Templeton Prize

From The New York Times:


Continuing a recent trend in which the world's richest religion prize has gone to scientists, John D. Barrow, a British cosmologist whose work has explored the relationship between life and the laws of physics, was named the winner yesterday of the 2006 Templeton Prize for progress or research in spiritual matters.

Dr. Barrow will receive the $1.4 million prize during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on May 3. The prize was created in 1972 by the philanthropist Sir John Marks Templeton, who specified that its monetary value always exceed that of the Nobel Prize. Five of the last six winners have been scientists. Asked about this, Dr. Barrow said, “Maybe they ask the most interesting questions.”

Dr. Barrow, 53, a mathematical sciences professor at the University of Cambridge, is best known for his work on the anthropic principle, which has been the subject of debate in physics circles in recent years. Life as we know it would be impossible, he and others have pointed out, if certain constants of nature — numbers denoting the relative strengths of fundamental forces and masses of elementary particles — had values much different from the ones they have, leading to the appearance that the universe was “well tuned for life,” as Dr. Barrow put it.


Ugh.

Make the commonplace and trivial observation that the universe is congenial to our sort of life, assert this is evidence for God, ignore rival explanations that can claim at least some evidential support, win $1.4 million. Lovely.

The Times article closes with:


Noting that Charles Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey, Dr. Barrow said that in contrast with the so-called culture wars in America, science and religion had long coexisted peaceably in England. “The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God,” he said.


That last claim gets repeated a lot, but it sounds like nonsense to me. The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon seems amply justified by our everyday experience. Adding God to the mix only creates a reason not to have confidence in the regularities of mature.

10 Comments:

At 9:52 AM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Historically though, I think Barrow is right. It's not an accident that science as a self-sustaining force arose in Christian Europe, as opposed to, say, Aztec America or China. It's also not an accident that science arose in the one culture where universities were founded. If you don't believe the world operates acording to rational laws, science doesn't have a chance. Granted, science no longer needs to believe the universe is the handiwork of a rational creator. But science does need to believe that the world operates according to rational laws. The scary thing today is, how more and more people with no religion at all no longer believe this--and worse, cultivate as much hostility to science as do the right-wing fundies.

 
At 10:50 AM, Blogger Jason said...

john-

Perhaps. But I very much doubt that things were as clean as people saying, “Hmmm. The Christian God exists, therefore we should expect the world to be regular and lawful. Let's go investigate these regularities scientifically.” A more likely scenario, it seems to me, is that it's almost impossible to avoid doing some scientific investigation of nature (after all, as soon as you start keeping track of the phases of the moon you're doing science), and that the success of this enterprise fed its continuation. It was only later that people started justifying this investigation on religious grounds.

I may be wrong, of course, but I think the way historians of science write about this subject tends to be too simplistic.

 
At 10:51 AM, Anonymous JY said...

In this argument:


Life as we know it would be impossible, he and others have pointed out, if certain constants of nature — numbers denoting the relative strengths of fundamental forces and masses of elementary particles — had values much different from the ones they have, leading to the appearance that the universe was “well tuned for life,” as Dr. Barrow put it.


the phrase "as we know it" seems to vitiate any strength the anthropic principle might have had. For not only do we have to make highly questionable calculations about how improbable the existing configuration of the universe is, we also have to know in what other forms consciousness might arise in a universe with different fundamental constants.

The important question isn't whether life as we know it could arise, but whether some sort of self-organising complexity would be possible if the 'constants of nature' were different. Perhaps it's possible to demonstrate that this universe, of all possible universes, is the only one that could give rise to the kind of complexity that has led to consciousness, but I think it would be a pretty daunting task to do so.

 
At 10:53 AM, Blogger Ginger Yellow said...

"It's also not an accident that science arose in the one culture where universities were founded."

Eh? The oldest universities were in India, followed by Egypt and elsewhere in the Islamic world. In the middle ages the university of Timbuktu had more students than any European university. And I'm not sure how you can say science arose as a self-sustaining force in Christian Europe. Ancient Greece, perhaps. The Islamic world, perhaps, but Christian Europe? Not a chance. And why are you so dismissive of China, until 1000AD the most advanced society on earth?

 
At 12:44 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Ginger, there were no universities in India. There were academies. They were not corporations with charters that granted them freedom from government or religious oversight. It may seem like a small difference, but it's not. The medieval church invented the corporation, without which you cannot have a university.

What's interesting is that in the 11th and 12th centuries, as the Christian universities were rising, the Imams and Islamic authorities were suppressing their own world-class philosophers (many of them doctors) and schools which entertained the idea that man can learn anything reliable by reason independently of religious authority. It's the "independently of authority" part that ultimately stifled science in Islam, China, etc.

T. Huff's book The Rise of Early Modern Science goes into a good bit of detail on this.

 
At 12:46 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

BTW, it is not being dismissive of China or other cultures to point out that, beyond a certain point, their science didn't progress where it did elsewhere.

 
At 6:57 PM, Blogger DMcKeon said...

For those interested, I would strongly suggest you investigate "rational theology". A guy named Rodney Stark writes books about it. As a start, he would be a good source. It reinforces what Barrow is advocating, which I think is fairly common among those I know in the natural sciences.

 
At 7:04 PM, Blogger DMcKeon said...

Of course you could also refer to Alfred North Whitehead's Harvard lectures, circa 1925. I'm sure it's online somewhere. Whitehead, famous for his association with Bertrand Russell, basically argues that the Christian idea that God is orderly lends itself to progress. Whereas the other major religions dealt primarily with practice not doctrine.

The view that God deals in whims, that God does not deal much with His creation, combined with a mystical approach of "How can we REALLY know God" tends to stifle progress because other religions (generally) don't really believe God wants to be known. Whereas Christianity states that God does and has revealed Himself in the person of Christ. That's the high-level thesis.

 
At 4:51 PM, Blogger beervolcano said...

It's the "independently of authority" part that ultimately stifled science in Islam, China, etc.


AND Europe, until at least the Renaissance or Enlightenment. Science was very suppressed in Europe for a very long time. For whatever reason science was finally able to blossom in Europe, it was in spite of Christianity, not becasue of it.

 
At 6:22 PM, Blogger cecillia said...

Nice info. Thank you.
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