In science, there is room for more than a “God of gaps”

By Sabine Hossenfelder (Viking, 2022)

Finding a good popularizer for cutting-edge physics, climate science, or one of the myriad fields related to biology and medicine can be difficult today, especially when faced with experts with a personal ax to grind on religion or philosophy.

It’s one of the reasons Sabine Hossenfelder’s books – and YouTube channel – are such a great and entertaining resource for people who are serious about science and their religious faith, but find themselves put off by the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or even Neil de Grasse Tyson.

Hossenfelder rejects the “faith versus science” dichotomy too often recycled in these books. She makes it clear from the start of hers, Existential Physics: A Scientist’s Guide to Life’s Biggest Questionsthat spiritual ideas and traditions can be perfectly compatible with modern physics and are often, indeed, supported by it.

“And why not?” she writes in the preface. “That physics has something to say about our connection to the universe is not so surprising. Science and religion have the same roots, and even today they address some of the same questions: where did we come from? Where are we going ? How much can we know?

For Hossenfelder, a theoretical physics researcher at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study in Germany, it’s not that she wants to be nice to religious people for the sake of being nice. “For starters, I’m not exactly known for being nice. But more importantly, scientists who claim, as Stephen Hawking did, that “there is no possibility of a creator”, or as Victor Stenger did, that God is a “falsified hypothesis” , demonstrate that they do not understand the limits of their own knowledge. When eminent scientists make such pretentious claims, they make me cringe.

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Throughout her book, Hossenfelder is delightfully direct (some ideas are “bullshit”), and her deliberately conversational tone sets her voice and style apart from those of some of her peers such as Lisa Randall, Carlo Rovelli, and Brian Greene.

In his view, scientists who cannot explain why their research matters to ordinary people may end up harming their own field as it is perceived publicly.

“It’s not just that this knowledge is worth sharing; keeping it to ourselves has consequences,” she wrote. “If physicists don’t step forward and explain what physics says about the human condition, others will jump at the chance and abuse our cryptic terminology to promote pseudoscience.”

It’s no coincidence, she points out, that weird sound processes like “quantum entanglement” and “vacuum energy” have become go-to “explanations” for “alternative healers, spiritual media and snake oil sellers”. “Unless you have a PhD in physics, it’s hard to tell our gibberish apart from the rest.”

But religious people unfamiliar with science may be more willing to listen to such claimants if they feel (understandably) discouraged by scientists who disparage their faith in radical terms.

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That’s a bad look for scientists, according to Hossenfelder. Equally damaging is the tendency of many eminent scholars to brag about their belief in the existence of highly speculative ideas, such as the multiverse, for example. It is the notion that the universe we can observe with our telescopes is only one of millions. It’s a fun idea for science fiction, for which, Hossenfelder states, there is currently no evidence. And not enough scientists are clear about this lack of evidence, preferring instead to let the media talk about it as if there is. “And because multiverse ideas get a lot of media attention, it casts a bad light on the scientific community’s ability to hold its members to high standards.”

It may seem particularly hypocritical when prominent scientists reject the beliefs and traditions of religious people for lack of evidence.

Hossenfelder is aware of the need to address the serious questions and concerns of religious readers. “It’s not just that I think Stephen Jay Gould was right when he argued that religion and science are two ‘non-overlapping magistracies.’ I’ll take it a step further and argue that scientists can learn something from organized religion.For better or worse, religions have played an important role for much of the world’s population for thousands of years. Religion matters to many people in a way that science does not.

This is partly due to the historical fact that the religion has been around longer, she adds. “But it’s also because too many people perceive science as cold, technocratic and incredibly rational. He has a reputation as a killjoy who constrains our hopes and dreams.

Of course, it’s true that science discourages children from trying to fly by flapping their arms and jumping out of windows. “But science has another side,” she writes. “It opens our eyes to possibilities we couldn’t imagine before, let alone understand. Far from taking away wonder, science gives us more to marvel at. It broadens our mind.

To prove her point, she devotes nine engrossing chapters to the physics behind the major fundamental questions that human beings have been asking themselves since the dawn of time – questions that both seem closer to personal human experience than they does not seem so at first glance:

Does the past still exist? Is there any real sense in which the lives of our deceased friends and loved ones are forever inscribed in the geometry of space and time, like individual snapshots or frames from a film? Comfortingly, writes Hossenfelder, Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that there is.

Then there’s the question of consciousness (no pun intended): is the human mind something that can simply be reduced to nothing more than calculation, as some philosophers argue? Is the world made up of numbers all the way to the end?

Of course not. Mathematics is a powerful scientific tool, writes Hossenfelder, but it seems presumptuous to him to think that humans have already discovered the fundamental language in which nature speaks, essentially on the first try and right after we appeared on the surface of the planet. “Who’s to say that there might not be a better way to understand our universe than mathematics, one that may take us a million years to figure out?” she asks.

Finding answers in science is part of the joy of being a scientist, according to Hossenfelder. And even when the answers seem disturbing or downright strange, the fact that our own human intelligence can uncover them is what makes science so valuable.


Image: Unsplash/Casey Horner