Friday, April 09, 2004

More on Faith and Science

Old Post: The previous post is here.

John Zimmer has commented on my post and put up a new post on letters from babylon. He notes in an e-mail that he didn't mean to imply that avoiding offense should be our motivation for accepting new scientific theories. He's not clear on what he believes is the proper motivation, but I suspect that we both agree that we are all engaged in a search for a better understanding of the Truth, and that includes both the spiritual and the physical. Our understanding is never perfect, and it's worthwhile to improve it. Many of the great scientists viewed it as an act of worship to study the nature of the universe, believing that in so doing, they could better understand the nature of God.

The point Zimmer was making is that we should never assume that our understanding has no need of revision, especially our understanding of the natural world, where we must rely on observation rather than revelation. Even scientific theories which work do not necessarily explain the true nature of things. To quote John Derbyshire from The Corner (you find all sorts of interesting stuff in The Corner):
The General Theory of Relativity, on which all modern ideas about gravitation are based, has been verified to a very high degree of precision. That makes it a respectable and useful scientific theory. Think of Newton's mechanics, which was likewise verified to a very high degree of precision over 200 years. That was also a respectable and useful scientific theory. And in fact it still is, notwithstanding the fact that Einstein showed that, at an even HIGHER degree of precision, it fell apart. Over a wide range of physical applications -- oh, building a tree house, for example -- Newtonian mechanics works just fine. The last time you flew to visit your aunt in Florida, you were flying on a plane designed and operated according to Newtonian principles.

It's just that, in more esoteric applications -- designing Global Positioning Systems, for instance, Newton isn't quite good enough, and you need the extra refinement of Einstein. Now, what the Gravity B experiment will seek to discover is whether Einstein's equations continue to hold true at EVEN HIGHER degrees of precision. If they don't, I guess you could say that the experiment has "disproved" Einstein; but just as engineers are stull designing planes on Newtonian principles 90 years after Einstein "disproved" Newton, so the General Theory of Relativity will go on being a darn good theory across a wide range of physics, even if Gravity B "disproves" Einstein.

A scientific theory is "good" not by being infallibly, hermetically, eternally true. It is "good" if it explains a good range of observable phenomena, is not flatly contradicted by those phenomena it cannot explain, and is fruitful in verifiable predictions. Newtonian mechanics is a very good theory indeed, in spite of the fact that (for example) it cannot explain the precession of Mercury's orbit. I personally would vote it the best scientific theory ever, even though we know it's not true at high levels of precision.

As our understanding of the Truth, both physical and spiritual, is (hopefully) always approaching but never achieving perfection in this world, and it is always in need of examination and revision.

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