Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Limits of Knowledge

A journal called The European has an interview with Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director of the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the head man at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland.

Toward the end of the piece Heuer is asked about his thoughts concerning the interface of what we can demonstrate empirically and what we believe on other grounds, i.e. the interface of science and philosophy or theology. Here's the exchange:
The European: Do you think it is conceivable that we will eventually learn something about before the Big Bang?
Heuer: I doubt it.
The European: How do you make sense of that paradox? You want to expand the realm of knowledge but at some point, there is a definite boundary that you cannot cross. Do you simply have to accept the fact that nothing was prior to the Big Bang?
Heuer: I wasn’t saying there was nothing, I am saying that we don’t know anything about what was before – if there was a before. But here we are crossing the boundary between knowledge and belief. I think many famous scientists have struggled with this question and people today also struggle with it.
The European: So at the very borders of human knowledge, science and belief tend to converge?
Heuer: In the scientific community we don’t tend to discuss such things too often. But the more we investigate the early universe, the more people are trying to connect science to philosophy. That is a good thing. Since we are struggling with the limits of knowledge, maybe philosophy or theology struggle also with our research.
It's an interesting consequence of modern science that the more the field advances the more naive the claims that science has disproven the existence of God appear.

In the last few decades many physicists have come to believe that the materialist view of 19th century science is just wrong and that what we call matter is simply an illusion. Our minds process the world in such a way as to present it to our conscious selves as a substantial something when in fact its substantiality is only an artifact of our being the size we are. Were we very much smaller, say the size of an atom, a brick wall would appear to be almost entirely empty space and the atoms in the wall would have the appearance of mere concentrations of energy or forces.

Many physicists have also come around to the belief that not only is the fundamental "substrate" of reality not matter, it's consciousness.

All of this, of course, is pretty much what theologians have been saying for centuries - the universe is not only the product of a divine intelligence, like a painting is the product of the artist, but it's also grounded in that intelligence, much like an idea is grounded in a mind.

In any case, the physicalism of modern atheism seems with almost every revolution in physics to grow more and more unlikely, simplistic, and obsolete.


One aspect of the assault on bin Laden's compound that has received little mention in the press is that the United States was prepared to go to war with Pakistan had they interfered with the operation. Strategy Page has the details:
[B]ecause the Pakistani government was full of bin Laden fans, the U.S. did not inform Pakistan about the raid until it was underway. Apparently, that message included a reminder that if the U.S. troops in the bin Laden compound were attacked by Pakistani forces, there would be instant, and far-reaching, consequences.

The extent of those consequences have since been pieced together, from unclassified information. By May 2nd, the U.S. had assembled a huge naval and air force in the region, that was pointed at Pakistan. This force would attack any Pakistani troops or warplanes that went after the U.S. forces in the bin Laden compound, or who might be able to do so.

The U.S. had assembled three aircraft carriers, hundreds of air force aircraft in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, and dozens of helicopters, and thousands of troops, in Afghanistan. Most of these troops didn't know what they were alerted for. Such alerts happen all the time, often for no reason (as far as the troops are concerned.) But this time, as word of the bin Laden raid got out, it became obvious (at least to those who know how these things work) that the alerts throughout the region were to prepare for the possible need to quickly get the American raiders out, and destroy any Pakistani forces that sought to interfere.

Not surprisingly, the Pakistanis did not interfere. In fact, local Pakistani forces surrounded the bin Laden compound and kept anyone from getting in, or out, by land. The Pakistanis did not enter the compound until the Americans had flown away, with bin Laden's body, and documents.
If Mr. Obama keeps up with this sort of thing - lobbing cruise missiles at Libya, threatening Pakistan - pretty soon the media'll start calling him a "cowboy", or they would, anyway, if he were a Republican.