Friday, October 31, 2003

Gregg Easterbrook has once again been tripped up by his views on religion. This time, he's complaining that while physicists propose all kinds of wild, incomprehensible models of the universe--multiple hidden dimensions, for example--spirituality gets no similar respect in academic circles. "To modern thought, one extra spiritual dimension is a preposterous idea," he writes, "while the notion that there are incredible numbers of extra physical dimensions gives no pause."

Crooked Timber's Kieran Healy and Eric "Educated Guesswork" Rescorla have taken Easterbrook to task, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that string theory's idea of hidden dimensions is actually scientifically defensible, whereas Easterbrook's "spiritual dimension" is not exactly bursting with empirical or theoretical support. However, I believe they miss the more fundamental sense in which Easterbrook is off-base.

Imagine, for a moment, that we were to take Easterbrook seriously, and consider his "spiritual dimension" a valid scientific concept. What would we do? Well, we'd ask physicists to conduct experiments, work out theories, and generally explore the possibility. And let us suppose that they did so, and concluded that the "spiritual dimension" is in fact the seventh of the ten-or-eleven dimensions currently being proposed by string theorists, with its properties and behavior governed by such-and-such set of equations. Would Easterbrook be any happier?

Not at all. For the whole point of the "spiritual dimension" of which he speaks is that it's not describable in scientific terms. As he notes when discussing "intelligent design" theory (what Eric Rescorla correctly calls "warmed-over creationism"), "[w]hen it comes to intellectual rigidity, there's little difference between the national academy declaring that only natural forces may be considered, and the church declaring that only divine explanations may be considered."

Well, neither Easterbrook nor the church acknowledge the possibility that God might just be a boring old physical phenomenon, governed by a bunch of differential equations--but he likely doesn't see anything wrong with that. Such a claim would be incompatible with Christianity as just about every Christian understands it. Similarly, "intelligent design" and a "spiritual dimension" are not simply bad science, but rather non-science. Easterbrook believes there's more to the universe than science, and he's entitled to believe that. But he's not entitled to demand that his belief be considered in any way relevant to the scientific endeavor.

The fact that both science and (Jewish or Christian) theology assume an independently existing reality (or "truth") doesn't mean that both pursuits necessarily have to--or are even remotely likely to--converge on the same version of it. They are in fact two decidedly different approaches to knowledge, and appreciating them both means recognizing that one has very little to say about the other, and that they needn't be--and probably can't be--fully reconciled. Then again, Easterbrook's mocking treatment of science makes it quite clear that he's not really interested in such a reconciliation at all. Rather, he'd like both to be governed by (his own) "common sense"--which is clearly more thoroughly informed by religion than by science.

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