Nate Reads – 13 things that don’t make sense

Sometimes I wonder if Science needs Religion in order to survive.

Wait, let me explain.

On a bit of a whim, I picked up Michael Brooks’ 13 Things that don’t make sense and it is, really an awesome read (but that is my inner geek within speaking).  Brooks talks about the [currently] most baffling mysteries of our time in a simple and engaging way without getting bogged down in all the minutia that frequently erects barriers between PhD’s and the people outside their field.  Which is good because this book covers everything from physics to biology so if any field of science interests you, there should be at least 1 chapter you’ll want to read.

Each chapter is devoted to one of the aforementioned mysteries, opening with a selected protagonist which Brooks uses to give the readers a reference point in understanding not only what is being asked, but why it is asked in the first place.  However, the book isn’t pure fluff and there is a fair sized bibliography in the back from which you can delve deeper into the curiosities.  This isn’t to say that Brooks is purely objective in his writing, but he is very fair and makes an effort to present even positions he disagrees with in a fair light.  The only real exception is when funding comes up.  As you would expect of any scientist or science lover, he always thinks there should be more money for whatever project.  As an example, on page 104 he says, “Money, greed and ambition have continually thwarted the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”  Of course, one could blame money, greed and ambition for almost any shortcoming in any field but they are a fact of life in our currently finite reality.  Thankfully, rants and anger like this are few in the book and usually short enough it’s no trouble to skip over, though readers might need to remain aware at efforts to manipulate their emotions (willingly or not on the part of the author).

However, there are two weak chapters and one can’t help but get the feeling that they were only included because “11 things that don’t make sense” just isn’t a sexy enough title.  Still, his chapter on “Free Will (11)” seems based upon a faulty premise.  In fact, if one has spent any time studying martial arts, meditation, or even classical religious thinkers (particularly Christian ones) almost nothing in the chapter will come as a surprise.  After finishing it, I was left with the impression of mathematicians trying to figure out the answer to 2 and 2 by studying the color blue.

The last and final chapter is on “Homeopathy” and you can tell that Brooks’ heart is not into the subject.  The whole chapter reads more like a sociological oddity than a scientific one.  There is a brief glimmer of interest when he talks a bit about Martin Chaplin’s studies on water (yes, plain water) but it is gone too fast.  This is the only chapter of the book I’d advise skipping all together just because of how poor it is compared to the others.

But what about this book made me think of symbiotic relationship between Science and Religion? (though this book blessedly stays far away from that thorn bush)

I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said, “Every person has a ‘God-shaped’ hole in  their heart.”  The point being that human beings have a need to worship something.  I think it can also be looked at from C.S. Lewis’ “first things first” principle in that, something must have the greatest importance to you.

To say that “science” (the concept at least) has become the “most-important-thing” for many people is surely not a controversial statement.  You see it when two sides of a very controversial topic debate each other.  Abortion proponents and opponents each fight viciously over who the “science” supports.  Search but a moment on “game” and “pick up artists” and you’ll find proponents of it along with their opponents slinging the term “anti-science” as if was the most hateful invective of all time.  Even as I watch this, I keep hearing echoes in the back of my mind.  Echoes of Catholics and Protestants arguing over who’s side God is on.  As I read message boards dealing with the unfolding ‘climategate‘ and seeing some of the sheer hatred some people display, I wonder if I’m the only one also hearing “burn the witch” repeated…

The fact is, 13 Things that don’t make sense is a heretical book.  Whatever certainty people might have had in a deity once, is now sought from science.  “All but the most esoteric questions have been answered!” goes the refrain.  Yet science cannot ever be certain less it cease to exist.  On page 2, Michael Brooks describes this very point:

I like to think of scientists as being on top of things, able to explain the world we live in, masters of their universe.  But maybe that’s just a comforting delusion.  …In science, being completely and utterly stuck can be a good thing: it often means a revolution is coming.

To be a true scientist is to be ever questioning.  (I think there’s a joke that goes, “Scientists are two-year olds that never grew up.”)  Yet the way I’ve seen many place an expectation on science and scientists that simply cannot be fulfilled by it and them.  There always seems to be the assumed demand for questions to stop and a straight answer given.

Does Science then need Religion to fulfill people’s desire for consistency?  Perhaps.  Perhaps only then can Science be allowed to be free and chaotic as it needs to be.  Perhaps when there are some questions people always know the answer to, they are less upset over constantly asking the rest.

I leave you with my favorite quote from the book. (page 4)

Scientists work with one set of ideas about how the world is.  Everything they do, be it experimental or theoretical work, is informed by, and framed within, that set of ideas.  There will be some evidence that doesn’t fit, however.  At first, that evidence will be ignored or sabotaged.  Eventually, though, the anomalies will pile up so high they simply cannot be ignored or sabotaged any longer.  Then comes crisis.

Crisis, [Thomas] Kuhn said, is soon followed by the paradigm shift in which everyone gains a radically new way of looking at the world.


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