I have come to the conclusion that we physical scientists need therapists to help us with our swings in world view. I arrived at this epiphany after several recent conversations with social scientists on this blog and others. You see, physical scientists and social scientists are no longer on the same page concerning the importance of catastrophe in understanding how the world works. And that has implications for how religionists in those two communities expect God works, and how they think churches should work.
The western tradition of physical science grew out of very mathematically-oriented Greek roots. The Greeks tied their science and technology implicitly to philosophy and worship of the gods. Mathematics was the expression of the Divine.
As I noted in a report on ancient technology recovered in a shipwreck, the Greeks developed sophisticated navigational devices and found their most important use to be the timing of festivals — even at minor-league city-states. They developed steam engines before the birth of Christ, and used them to demonstrate metaphysical ideas — not create an industrial revolution. Rationality and faith were not considered as opposites or non-overlapping. They were fully integrated into a single worldview.
By the time of the Enlightenment, the Christian West that had succeeded the Greeks by way of Rome had lost that integrated view of science and faith. Faith had become dominant, but it was a faith tied so closely to political power that rational doubt in either theology or explanations of physical events was not allowed. Religious authority was supreme. It should be noted that Galileo was less persecuted in this regard than Luther; the latter’s heresy was simply more useful to powerful political protectors and, thus, a greater political threat.
So intellectual freedom was set against faith by historical events in the West. In a post earlier this week on the rise of “unbelief”, Young Stranger also discusses how the collusion of religious and political powers magnified this rift between faith and intellectual freedom in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. While I generally agree with his points, I’d like to look at another aspect of this conflict: the content of what we regard as scientific because of this history.
When the Enlightenment came, the Western Church believed in both catastrophism and literalism. God directly intervened in history, often in violent and unexplainable ways. Of course, the Church was not aware that it believed in either concept, but only because there was nothing intellectually to contrast with the concepts.
So, it seems unsurprising to me that as scientific freedom arose and scientists took up positions against church authority, they could only do so by also opposing literalism and catastrophism. Otherwise, they would have been seen as mere apologists in a new guise, as Young Stranger’s post notes.
Although the first scientific challenges to church authority focused on physics and astronomy, it fell to geologists to create a coherent world view alternative to catastrophism. This alternative, known as “uniformitarianism”, appeared and took hold at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Indeed, catastrophism was first used as a term of derision by its ascendant opponents.
Those who adopted uniformitarianism asserted that the same geological processes visible by careful observation on earth today could readily and naturally account for everything observed in earth history. This approach emphasized the gradual, steady accumulation of change as the key to understanding. Wild swings in events were anathema.
Darwin drank from the same intellectual fountain in formulating the theory of evolution, and in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and into the Twentieth, this world view brought forth and nurtured the social science disciplines as well. History as a study of what occurred rather than thinly disguised advocacy appeared for the first time. Economics, focusing on equilibrium conditions, began to flourish. Catastrophism became associated with anti-intellectual, religious primitives who hadn’t quite gotten the word about the Enlightenment. Indeed, the catastrophes of the World Wars and Great Depression, which might in earlier times have promoted calls to return to God seem, instead, to have only increased “faith” in the “priesthood” of scientists who were thought better able to control events than the shamans of old.
And then, at the onset of the Cold War — and perhaps because of it — the physical sciences shifted back toward catastrophism in a new form and left the social sciences on a different page. The key was instrumentation arising out of military technologies.
For example, you needed to know a great deal about the details of the earth’s gravitational field if you were going to fire missiles across the globe. You needed to have accurate maps of the sea floor to find and hide submarines to fire those missiles. You needed platforms to look down at the earth as a whole in order to see the movements of your potential enemies, and powerful radars and sonars to detect what was happening under the seas and in the skies. You needed more advanced communication systems, and computing power. You needed to tell the difference between an earthquake and a nuclear test. You needed to probe matter at tinier and tinier scales to understand the nucleus and create larger bombs, etc.
But military technology doesn’t stay military alone for very long. Consider the GPS systems you have in your cars. They descend from the satellites the US Navy first launched decades ago to ride the gravitational field of the earth and send back very precise information on their own orbits.
As physical scientists found themselves seeing a larger vista, their appreciation for the importance of catastrophe in human events reappeared. In a period of less than twenty years, we went from debating whether the moons craters were caused by impacts or volcanoes to standing in those craters. We came to the understanding that the moon itself had been created in a massive collision between the earth and a Mar’s-sized body, and that Hiroshima-sized detonations were occurring in the earth’s upper atmosphere several times a year (a finding that had intelligence services searching for a rogue South African nuclear program) as small objects collided with the earth. We discovered that Venus was not a jungle planet with life teeming under its clouds, but worse than Dante’s inferno. We discovered that Mars had once had oceans, but lost them.
We discovered that the largest volcanic mountain range on earth ran continuously along the center of the ocean basins around the entire planet. Magnetism frozen into the lavas as they erupted and cooled proved that even continents had been ripped apart and rafted across the globe to collide and push up mountains on land. Global sea levels themselves vary repeatedly over several hundred feet. Climates have varied from the oceans being frozen even at the equator to most continents being searing deserts. The basic composition of the atmosphere has, at times, been destabilized.
Looking farther afield, we see occurring elsewhere a variety of earth-destroying catastrophes that we never imagined were possible. Trust me; there are cable channels that can run documentaries on the potential for natural disasters nightly. Even the creation of the physical universe involved an explosion of space itself in a “Big Bang” — a term. ironically. of derision coined by believers in a more placid steady0state universe just as “catastrophism” had been coined by opponents earlier.
Catastrophism is “in” again. It cannot be associated with religious primitivism or anti-intellectualism. Today’s environmental movement, for example, only gained force when we realized that mankind might induce global catastrophe because nature had done so many times on its own. And it has perhaps reached its peak as people start to question the human and economic costs of trying to control systems we don’t really understand. As a further example, the inability of economic models to predict the financial responses of the last few years has led to an appreciation that equilibrium models have a lot less to do with real world behavior than we thought. Economists are now paying attention to non-equilibrium models that can better reproduce wild swings in behavior.
The physical sciences have relearned that nature is bigger than we are, and that it has perhaps many more surprises in store for us. Catastrophe and gradualism both have their places in understanding the way the world works. And that reassessment about our small place in the scheme of things also poses a subversive threat to the powers that be in both the religious and secular realms. Shamans and kings are only useful when the mysteries of life are too great for commoners to understand on their own — but not when it becomes apparent that events are also well beyond the control of the powerful.
Indeed, that reassessment may be what puts an end to what Young Stranger called “The Age of Unbelief” in his post. Disposing of faith in our human control of events may be a prerequisite to an understanding and blossoming of our human gifts. The world will be transformed — whether we like it or not — but we should not look to human powers for the transformation.