Physics as Theodicy

Don Howard

A few years ago I had the good fortune to participate in a great conference at the Vatican Observatory on “Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil.” The conference was organized by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, at Berkeley, and co-convened by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory. The Observatory shares Castel Gandolfo with the Papal summer residence, and Pope Benedict was in residence during the entirety of the conference. Many fond memories, among them a state visit by Queen Noor of Jordan, and our being serenaded by Benedict one afternoon as he practiced a Beethoven sonata on the piano. But the really cool thing was being saluted by members of the Swiss Guard every morning as we entered and every evening as we left, snapping to attention with the greeting, “Buongiorno” or “Buonasera.”

Nancey Murphy, Robert John Russell, and William Stoeger, S.J., eds. Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Evil. Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 2007.

There were many fine presentations by a first-rate group of scholars. I measure the quality of a conference by how much I learn that is new and interesting to me. By those metrics, this meeting is among the very best I’ve ever attended. Take a look at the contents of the published volume, which came to fruition largely through the efforts of Nancey Murphy and her colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and was co-published by CTNS and the Vatican Observatory:

Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil

My own presentation was entitled “Physics as Theodicy.” A “theodicy” is a solution to the problem of natural evil. Traditionally we distinguish “natural evil” from “moral evil.” Natural evil is suffering that is a consequence of the operation of natural law. Death and destruction wrought by earthquakes, hurricanes, and disease are classic examples. Moral evil concerns suffering in consequence of the moral failings of human beings. Murder, slavery, and too many other sins afford examples. The classic problem of natural evil, famously discussed by Leibniz in his Théodicée (1710) and Voltaire in Candide (1759), is how there can be natural evil in a world governed by an omnisicient, omnipotent, and benevolent God. Leibniz argued that ours is the best of all possible worlds, a view echoed by Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Man” (1734) and viciously mocked by Voltaire.

The traditional problem of evil interests me less than the question of where and how we draw the line between natural and moral evil. The main point of my talk was a simple one: With the progress of science, physics leading the way, we learn more about the laws of nature and so acquire an ever greater capacity to prevent or ameliorate the suffering caused by disease or natural catastrophes. We still cannot prevent an earthquake or a tsunami, but we can predict them, and we can build office towers and bridges that can survive an earthquake, sea walls that can control storm surges, and warning systems that can give people time to take refuge. But do we choose to exercise this power? If we could have prevented a catastrophe or lessened the suffering, but chose not to do so, then the evil is moral, not natural. Thus, with the progress of science, the boundary between natural and moral evil shifts. As science teaches us more about our world, we must accept the moral responsibility for making the world a better place. Even without global climate change, Hurricane Katrina would have been a terrible storm. But at the very least, we could have built stronger dikes. We could not have prevented the earthquake that caused the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, but we could have put in place a tsunami warning system that would have saved many tens of thousands of lives. Those deaths are our fault, not nature’s or God’s.

Want to know more? You can download the full paper here:

“Physics as Theodicy”
(Made available here with the permission of the Vatican Observatory.)

And you can buy the book through the University of Notre Dame Press:

How to Talk about Science to the Public – 1. Don’t Insult the Intelligence of Your Audience

Don Howard

About ten years ago I wrote the Einstein article for the new edition of a major encyclopedia. It shall remain unnamed, but you would most definitely recognize it. I enjoyed the challenge and am proud of the product, both because such writing is important and because it is hard work. One must be engaging, intelligible, and concise. Academics must resist the urge to splurge on words.

Writing this article was, however, harder than it should have been, because my editor kept repeating the old journalist’s mantra about writing to the level of the typical fourteen-year-old. We fought. I resisted. He won. He demanded plainer language. He insisted on tediously pedantic explanations of what I thought the reader would see as simple, even if slightly technical concepts. He struck whole paragraphs that I thought were wonderful and he thought were too arcane. Time and again I said that the real fourteen-year-olds I knew could easily understand points that he thought beyond the reach of his imaginary, teen reader. I don’t think that I made a friend. I taunted him by noting that the reader confused about concept X could simply look up the article on X elsewhere in the same encyclopedia. Impolitic, yes, but I couldn’t stop myself. Naughty Don.

A few years later I was asked to do a series of lectures on Einstein for the company then called The Teaching Company and now re-branded as The Great Courses. This was a totally different and far more enjoyable experience, largely because the smart folks in charge at The Great Courses start with a very different assumption about the audience. They asked me to imagine an audience of college-educated professionals, people who loved their student experiences and were hungry for more. Of course, one still had to adjust one’s writing to the level and background of the audience, as one must do with any class one teaches. That is a trivial truth. But what I knew about those kinds of students in my classes was that they wanted to be pushed and challenged. They wanted to be taught new things. They didn’t run in fear of difficult concepts and ideas. Like athletes striving for a personal best, they enjoyed the hard work. The muscles ache, the brain needs a rest, but the achievement makes it worthwhile. Most important is that such students appreciate one’s flattering them with the assumption that they have brains, that they are smart, well-educated, and able to rise to the moment.

I am really proud of the lectures: Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The uniformly positive feedback confirms the point that the intelligent student, reader, and listener can and wants to understand more than journalistic mythology asserts.

Don Howard. Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The Great Courses.

My old encyclopedia editor friend will object, I’m sure: “What about all of the others, the ones who didn’t have a college education or weren’t even ‘B+’ students?” Well, yes indeed, what of them? They are a numerous lot. And if one has the crime “beat” at the local newspaper or writes the “Friends and Neighbors” column, then, yes, ok, I suppose that one must write down to the level of a poorly-educated, fourteen-year-old.

But is that the audience for those of us who write about science for a general public? I hope not. Is it elitist of me to say that I don’t want “Joe the Plumber” making science policy for the 21st century?

I like to think of the main target audience for good science writing as the educated, scientific laity or those (such as smart high school students) who are soon to become part of it. These are the neighbors and fellow citizens who must be involved in the national and global conversation about science and technology for the future. These are the people whose voices should count in debates about climate change, biotechnology, space exploration, and cyberconflict. These are the people for whom we must learn to write and speak.

They deserve our respect.

(Subsequent posts in this series will address more specific challenges in writing about science and technology for the general public.)

Physics and Humility

Don Howard

(Orignally written a few years ago as sort of an op-ed after an interesting meeting on fundamental physics in the gorgeous resort town of Lake Bled in Slovenia, “Time and Matter 2007.”)

As the sun sets over the Julian Alps, as evening embraces the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church in the middle of Lake Bled in Slovenia and church bells herald day’s end, we come to the conclusion of Time & Matter 2007, an unusually diverse gathering of physicists and philosophers, assembled here to bring their different perspectives to bear on the deep, unsolved problems of contemporary physics.

Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church Lake Bled Slovenia (Slovenian: Cerkev Marijinega vnebovzetja)

In the one hundred years since the quantum and relativity revolutions, advances in fundamental physics have completely transformed our understanding of nature. Powerful particle accelerators allow us to probe the structure of the tiniest subatomic particles, while orbiting observatories let us look out to the edge of the universe and back in time to its beginnings. No century produced an expansion of physical knowledge such as we saw in the twentieth century.

But where do we stand now? Modern physics is built on two foundations. Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains gravitation and the large-scale structure of the universe. Quantum mechanics–the work of Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and others–is the framework for explaining the other three fundamental forces–electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. With quantum field theory and the so-called “standard model” of particle physics–the quark model–quantum mechanics explains the microstructure of the universe. Part of what’s remarkable about twentieth-century physics is that each of these theories has been confirmed with extraordinary precision. One could be forgiven for thinking that we are on the verge of achieving a complete and final understanding of nature.

And yet the presentations and conversations here at Lake Bled have been dominated by talk of theoretical analyses and experimental tests that could very well refute every one of these theories. Tests of what are known as Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen correlations in neutral kaon decay could refute quantum mechanics. The still unresolved black-hole information loss paradox could point to a fundamental contradiction between quantum mechanics and general relativity. When CERN’s large hadron collider begins operation in 2008 the standard model might be refuted if the Higgs boson is not detected. More than one talk at Time & Matter 2007 used the acronyms, “BSM” and “NP” for “beyond the standard model” and “new physics.”

But more than anything else, the question looming over the meeting–in conversation at the opening reception and in talks on the closing day–are the problems of dark matter and dark energy. Within just the past ten years, observation has shown that the universe is populated with a strange form of matter, “dark matter,” that interacts gravitationally with ordinary, “baryonic” matter but is otherwise invisible, so far, to our current physics. Other observations have shown that the expansion of the universe is accelerating in a way seemingly explainable only if it is filled with a still stranger stuff, “dark energy,” that is completely invisible to current physics. Moreover, we now think that 96% of the universe consists of this strange new stuff. According to our best estimates, 22% of the universe is dark matter, and 74% is dark energy. That means that only 4% of the universe is made up of the kind of stuff–baryonic matter–that is explained by all of the revolutionary, new, physical knowledge that we accumulated in the twentieth century. That’s right. After all that hard work, our current best physics explains, at most, 4% of what’s in the universe.

There is irony in the fact that it was the very physics whose dramatic shortcomings are now revealed that made possible the discovery of those limitations. And physicists are to be admired for the fact that, proud as they are of what they’ve done, they turn right around and subject it all to tough, critical examination. No dogma here, just the patient, steady, self-critical effort to know more. But perhaps most important is the lesson of that 4% figure. The discovery of dark matter and dark energy provide the clearest proof known to me of the basic insight of Socrates, that wisdom lies in knowing what it is that we don’t know, that intellectual humility is the mark of true wisdom.

These are very exciting times in physics.

Bled, Slovenia
August 31, 2007