Friday, April 04, 2008

Of Quantum Mechanic Dreams
& The Nightmares of Blind Faith-Based Education

If we had a reliable way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation.

- Freeman John Dyson,
Physicist and Mathematician,
from Disturbing the Universe, 1979

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- I began my own college career back in the Fall of 1996 - not as an aspiring journalist, not as a future writer or librarian, but as a hopeful young physicist.

Yes, I wanted to be a formula jockey, a Quantum Mechanics grease-monkey, a Man of Science.

Okay... better explain this a bit...

... I guess I was what educators call a gifted, advanced student - basically, a polite way of saying that you're intellectually retarded, but in a good way.

So gifted and advanced, in fact, that I never had a "Freshman year" in college - I completed 30 credit-hours, a whole academic year's worth of classes, while still in high school. And despite all of my drug abuse and violent tendencies back then, I even managed to rack up enough credits in integral and differential calculus to officially earn my nerd stripes.

Hell, I figured, aspiring physicists need calculus at an early age. And how I loved physics! How I dreamt whilst drinking MD 20/20 in high school of toying with the EPR paradox for a living!

My senior year in high school, I'm not ashamed to admit, I spent quite a few Sunday afternoons on the porch of a sorta famous, Soviet defector physicist, picking his brain, drinking vodka and eating pelmeni whilst being lectured on both my brutish immaturities and Bell's theorem...

But I digress.

To this day, well, even long after my dreams of being one of those hardened, wild-haired theorists were squashed by my inability to pass those annoying chemistry courses, I'm still fascinated by the fact that everything on this planet falls with a gravitational acceleration of somewhere between 9.78 and 9.82 meters per second, squared.

I just wasn't cut out to be a physicist. However, I did find a calling as an information scientist...


* * * *

Thankfully, the world is run by better men and women than myself - real scientists and mathematicians who could get past those courses, who went on to run our world's research labs, to design and formulate and project the trajectories of our Mars landings and Deep Space probes, who figure out new ways to calculate our distances from and sizes of the smallest atoms and the largest suns.

Yes, Men and Women of Science created our modern world. Those men and women solve the layman's unsolvable, dedicate their lives to studying what many of us simply don't have the fortitude to comprehend. The politicos and armchair quarterback and celebrities be damned!

The laptop upon which I'm typing was made possible by the tireless efforts of mathematicians and scientists, by complex mechanics and programming and circuitry engineering that boggles the mind. The wireless Internet connection I'm using right now, the Internet itself, is the creation of our planet's collective genius.

There isn't too damned much in our technological world, in fact, that wasn't made possible by someone's research, wasn't first an idea first published in someone's dissertation or thesis, wasn't cooked up in some cold lab or drafty classroom.

Men like Freeman Dyson, yes, choose to build for us worlds of knowledge where faith is meaningless without critique and calculation, where even the best theory relies on some unseeable, intrinsic faith as it approaches the point at which it is to be tested.

Our Albert Einsteins and Isaac Newtons and Richard Feynmens and Copernicuses, our Stephen Hawkings and our Igor Tamms... their works represent Man's desire to come as close to whatever that mystery is that some call God as man can get without being driven insane.

Blessed be the thinkers, for they are the ones chosen by whatever powers that control this existence to be both condemned and praised for daring to imagine the unknown.

* * * *

As I listened to this group of college students huddled together, I recalled, for some reason, that passion I once had for physics, that sacred brushing of the face of God found in integers and variables and, yes, even the potential to discover the mechanics behind The Universe's meaning.

The undergrad prayer group (or some such thing) was debating amongst themselves, asking each other questions about why more people don't simply turn to prayer whenever the world gets under their skin, why people dare to argue that the supposedly infallible words of God were never meant to be taken literal, why kids in their science labs roll eyes whilst they argue that their Sunday School teacher told them that evolutionary theory is a conspiracy theory against Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention...

One woman, I overheard, was going to call her youth pastor for a letter, a letter to get her out of certain readings in a general education class. God created the world, so the legend goes, in six days - He took Sundays off to watch football. How dare she be forced to read heresy at - GASP! - a university!

It was to be her mission to end such things, to exempt the Flock from the wolves in the pastures of intellectual pursuit. The other group members nodded their heads in agreement, suggested things like a prayer for guidance and strength and for the faculty to all embrace that Jewish carpenter of lore...

* * * *

I'd write more about their alms and concerns and strange conversation, but, well, I'm afraid that the teenage aspiring physicist still buried inside me would puke up a rather tasty blueberry muffin the adult me really enjoyed.

Let's just say that some conversations, for one who believes that Faith, Reason, and Knowledge are the three-legged foundation upon which our great future is built, are simply hard to stomach repeating in the 21st Century, even for me.

And let's just say, too, that the next evolutionary biologist, genetic researcher, or geographer I meet will get a hearty thank you for dedicating themselves to shedding some light on our species' origin, on the history of our world, on how our own bodies work and change over time.

* * * *

What a waste of life, to debate such things with a groupthink faith devoid of reason! To waste the kinetic gift of spiritual faith, to waste a belief in a beautiful, loving god by plotting to stop Man's quest for knowledge over something as silly as a personal offense.

Constant agreement to maintain our sense of control in life's grand experiment, with prayers to eliminate the disconcerting variables that fly in the face of our beliefs, yes! That's the solution to the world's tangible problems, to understanding things like our DNA's mysteries and the existence of space-time!

Pray for it to all go away! Ask the youth pastor for a protest letter in support of some horseshit called Creation Science!

Organized religion really may be on its way back to its primordial roots of cruel buffoonery and superstitious stupidity, if this is all that is left of the Spirit.

Hopefully not, but, well, if I were one day forced to choose between faithless Science and thoughtless Religion, my take has always been to use the Bible for kindling if it gets in the way of curing cancer.

That sucking sound you hear? Normal around these parts, actually.

* * * *

I will never understand how anyone could attend college with an expectation that their belief in an Earth that revolves around a prayer group or a church doctrine will be simply validated as common knowledge, that the exploration of the mysteries behind our world and existence, our glorious Sun and heavenly galaxy's workings, shouldn't be taught because some people find such things Satanic.

To think, and to be challenged to think, is in the minds of some folks a damnable offense. And that's tragic. How little we've really learned from our great thinkers, artists, and, especially our scientists over the whole of the Human Existence.

At the root of the great tragedies of this world, from the purges of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to the horrible events of September 11th and the various genocidal insanities of our modern life, one always finds some similar need to protect Man from our ideas, from our science and logic and reason, art and literature and other beautiful things.

The greatest damnation, of our gods and of ourselves, comes from our own quixotic quest to keep our world blissfully ignorant. Ignorance is not bliss.

Instead, it is merely the Mephistopheles of our fears, of our desire to stay stagnant, creating worlds more hollow and meaningless than any illusion Doctor Faustus could ever invent.

- # # # -


The Cataloger said...

Amen, brother! Preach it.

(Oh, and I haven't been over for awhile, but I like the new tweaks you've done on the blog... Nice.)

pia said...

First--about the scientists--and then came Freeman's daughter Esther to explain it all. :) Sorry couldn't resist that

I'm no longer sure whether it's just this country that refuses to understand there is or shall be a scientific explanation for everything or most of the world

Anonymous said...

I think the answer lies somewhere in between.

Whether or not what's in the Bible actually happened, or is simply story to illustrate a point, matters little. Too many religious groups suffer from insecurity of grand proportions -- striving to disprove anything that stands in the way or as a challenge to their beliefs -- and in the process the message is lost.

Religion needs not be on the defensive. It can provide hope and a sense of peace, both of which are vital to a healthy and happy life. But it need not go on the defensive against science. The two can coexist.

Whether creationism or evolutionism are real or fictitious, honestly doesn't matter. The point of faith, ultimately, is the belief in a higher purpose than simply living out one's days. Many of the churches have lost sight of that.

What do I believe, personally? I don't know, to be honest. Mostly, I guess, I want to believe. Like when you're a kid, and you're told about God and heaven and angels and the like, and you simply accept it because it makes you good, and as a kid that's all you want -- to be good. But you lose that as you get older, and experience the world.

So what does it all mean to me, now? I think, at the end of the day, the message is what really matters. To me, The Bible essentially boils down to the principle of "do unto others", with the rest of it comprised of stories to illustrate the point. Whether those stories actually happened, or are based on truth, really doesn't interest me. The point of the religion is what matters most.

You know, you can strip every major religion down to its core, and what do you get? A basic message of peace, that's what.

Which is what matters most. Go through life with good intentions, treat others as you want to be treated, and the rest will look after itself. That's how I see it, and it is the approach that I use.

I don't believe in people, I don't believe in using the concept of God to scare people into voting or campaigning, and I don't believe that religion should be anything other than a private matter for each individual.

But I do believe in that core message of living with peaceful intentions, and treating others the way I want to be treated myself. That's all that counts.

Everything else? Just white noise.

Sorry, bro, got a bit carried away writing, there. Good post, nice to have the opportunity to write a bit about this. Thanks!

Cheers J,

James F. McGrath said...

For some people, particularly modern English speakers, "faith" means believing things on the basis of flimsy evidence, or even in spite of the evidence. That isn't what the word has historically meant - it had more to do with trust than accepting dubious propositions. There's a great book on that topic entitled Dangerous Words by Gary Eberle.

Let me conclude with a quote from P. Z. Myers that I recently shared on my blog: "If you've got a religious belief that withers in the face of observations of the natural world, you ought to rethink your beliefs — rethinking the world isn't an option".

jacob said...

People are experts at believing in things backed by little evidence.

If I could make a blog a quarter as interesting as those of the people I read I'd satisfied.

Anonymous said...

All the scientist are trying to do is turn this world into Star Trek, so they don't look so dorky :P

I, personally, would love to get a letter from some pastor about what I teach. I don't get deep into science, but I go out of my way to challenge all my students' beliefs and ideas. If they really believe something, they should be able to back it up. But a letter from a pastor . . . I'm not sure how I would respond, but I think it would go something along the lines of the responce I HAVE given to parents:

Dear (whoever),

Thank you for your interest, but since all parties involved are legal adults, and unless you are acting as legal counsel for (student), I respectfully request you to keep your nose out of my classroom.

Pinko Liberal Teacher

The ZenFo Pro said...

Re: tweaks... thanks, lol, it's really sad (but quite common) for "patrons" to point out dead links, the fact that certain elements and images really come across as "trippy" whilst on Adderall and other substances, etc, to librarians :)

Welcome back, chica!

Lmao. That's true. Can you imagine holidays in that house?!?

It's sad. We're so technologically sophisticated, yet we have folks who really, really work religiously (no pun intended) to throw our Superpower asses back into the age of Inquisitions, Witch burnings, and colonial-style missionary blackmail.

Hmmmm... ever wonder why in U.S. hospitals one runs into more physicians born in developing countries these days than physicians from Alabama, Texas, or the Midwest?

Lol, no worries. Great comment!

You know, I once got into some serious hot water for using the phrase "Americhrist" to describe the adaptation of things like modern marketing, branding concepts, viral data manipulation, repoliticization and conscription of faith, etc, to create a safe, consumer-ready version of Jesus. Christ, sometime in the 20th century, thanks to several political factors, came to symbolize the anti-communist, anti-atheist so-called "American Way" as not so much a teacher or savior but as a widget, something to be consumed...

Heh. Guess there are worse things I could be doing to offend students...

Lol, got the damned idea from a conversation at a Science-Religion group I belonged to as a grad student (which sought funding through the same Templeton Group that recently awarded Dyson an award, ironically.)

For some reason, the P.Z. quotation reminded me of that...

Yep. It's like the law - everybody's a practitioner when it comes to joining a lynch mob or demanding revenge in the guise of justice.

Hey now! We're a politically-correct blog - the proper term is Conformity-Impaired, not dork...

Sadly, at the Local U, faculty could do it, but, depending on the financial weight of Mom and Daddy, well...


Anonymous said...

I would be able to comment on this if I didn't just drink a lot of Johnny Walker and take that Vicodin...

Steph said...

Not even gonna touch this argument. I've been crucified by the God botherers before! Good luck.

The ZenFo Pro said...


I prefer my vicodin with Bicardi. A little codeine, dash of amaretto...

(To law enforcement reading, lol, just kidding, guys)

Lol, strangely, enough, I think I framed the anti-intellectualist stuff just right. Not one email full of rhetoric and the blind quotations of Scripture.

[Knocks on wood.]