Light-speed doubt

Lets see if we can link the faster-than-light neutrinos with Richard Dawkins.

This morning I listened to Start The Week (yes, I overslept …)  featuring a bunch of soft-core religious types, positioning themselves as the cuddly middle between Fundamentalism and Militant Atheism. Reminded me a bit of politics in the 90s. After many years of Socialist Worker Party nutters and in-your-face Thatcherite nasties slugging it out, Toady Blair smooths in, all calm and nice, bundles up the masses in the middle, and sweeps to power. Well anyway, lets not carry the analogy too far or I will start writing a whole different blog post. Lets just say that mostly I am happy with the idea that bitter polarisation does not help the rational cause. The more religion becomes a kind of fluffy lifestyle choice the better. Might even try one on for a bit sometime. Something with a bit of mystical chanting sounds fun.

What threw me though was that the cuddly ones were holding up doubt as a strength of good religion. One described himself as an Agnostic Christian. Hang on there Jim, isn’t Doubt our banner ? If there is one thing that defines the scientific approach to life, its scepticism.

Of course the paradox of scientific scepticism is that it has been so successful for four hundred years, that humankind has built up an amazingly reliable body of knowledge and understanding. In practice, if a student interrupts to say “Aha ! but Newton’s Law could be wrong, and then  everything else in this Lecture is wrong !”, we sigh patiently and say “just stick with me for a while here …”. Truly maximal doubt can be grossly inefficient.

So instead we have a kind of hierarchy of doubt.  Or maybe layers of an onion catches the situation better. Although it is rarely quantified, we have a clear sense  of which things to doubt, in which order. This is why the Opera neutrinos story  is so interesting. You don’t casually suggest that the speed of light limit can be broken. But the Opera folk did such a very very careful job of checking everything, and were so up front about their result and analysis, that people had to take it seriously. The betting was still very heavily on some mistake being found, but enough layers of the onion had been peeled that there was a non-zero chance of reaching the core.

Now the Opera team have announced  that they have found two technical problems, including a dodgy connection. So it looks like Einstein is safe for now. Jon Butterworth has written a nice Guardian science blog post  making the case that they were nonetheless right to publish. Where would we be if we avoided publishing things that seemed to contradict our pet theories ?

I think the striking thing about the FTL neutrinos is not just that the Opera team were prepared to think bold thoughts, but that the whole community was prepared to question Einstein if necessary. I think this is what separates doubt in science from doubt in religion. For many religious folk, surviving doubt strengthens their faith; others oscillate in an endless nervousness; and a few can have a catastrophic loss of faith and abandon their religion. But its always a personal issue. You never hear of an entire community of co-religionists trying to collectively decide whether their holy book is correct.


19 Responses to Light-speed doubt

  1. Tony says:

    As both a long-time SFF reader and avid follower of physics, I would have loved it if the Opera results were real and confirmed but realistically knew the chances were slim.

    What was remarkable was that no-one else in the world really thought that the results would be confirmed. Even with seemingly good evidence for FTL, there was little hoopla and celebration of a dawning new age of advance in physics. Everyone was, rightly, cautious. That shows how much we are imbued with scientific thought processes. Yet, the same people exercising that caution will believe, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, in some omnipotent boogeyman in the sky and any sort of earth-bound woo. Astonishing.

  2. Andy – I’m not sure that seriously entertaining the possibility that Einstein might have been wrong is quite on the same level as a religious believer holding their core beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny. For a start, pretty much everyone knows that Einstein was wrong anyway – in the sense that GR doesn’t work at all well on very small scales. Perhaps a more “core” belief would be the belief held by many that physics as a closed system is able – in principle – to explain all phenomena, from biology to psychology and beyond. But the trouble is that such a belief is pretty hard to test by experiment, so if someone has that belief, and also refuses to believe things that can’t be tested in the laboratory, then there’s not much pressure to doubt that belief. Hope that made sense…

    Basically: I think we are all very reluctant to doubt our core beliefs.

  3. andyxl says:

    Anthony – what took you so long ? OK, lets try to re-calibrate. Maybe the belief “some kind of God exists” does indeed equate to a really core scientific belief, like “the Universe is explicable by the scientific method” and either of these would be pretty hard to shift. But I think the physics specific belief “the speed of light is constant” equates reasonably well to the Christian specific belief “Jesus was crucified and rose again on the third day”. Both of these are pretty hard but not impossible to shift. In both cases, individuals may come to doubt them. In the case of Physics, it is at least possible that the whole community may decide to agree that the belief is wrong. If they did so, the altered belief system would still be Physics, and the same community would carry on. In the case of Christianity, you cannot doubt that item of dogma without ceasing to be Christian; and it is not possible that the whole Christian community will decide to change its mind.

    Or maybe now you can now give me a lecture about the Synod of Whitby or something…

  4. Tony says:

    This is going to sound confused as I’ve not yet thought it all the way through. I don’t think ‘the belief “some kind of God exists” does indeed equate to a really core scientific belief, like “the Universe is explicable by the scientific method”’.

    The scientific method isn’t a belief, it is a mode of existence. As animals, we survive by trying and learning. We do so as individuals and, through evolution, as species. The scientific method, trial and error, testing hypotheses, looking for patterns, are all about finding a way to survive.

    Religious thought is wholly contrary to that. It may have arisen as the result of thinking there was some motive force in the way the Earth moved and why volcanoes erupted, but it has only persisted in the face of real observation and real evidence through indoctrination and violence.

    So, no, I don’t agree there is any equivalence to the religious and the scientific.

  5. andyxl says:

    Tony – interesting. Us old hippies like to say that Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Taoism, are fundamentally different from Western religions, because they are not a set of beliefs : they are a path to enlightenment.

  6. Tony says:

    Played with those, myself, in earlier days. But I think I’ll stick with the Western version of the Enlightenment. The internet service is more reliable 😉

  7. Andy – I tried to leave a comment on Monday morning, but it gave me some error message about causation and the arrow of time, so I had to wait 🙂

    I do agree that the physics community is more willing to change its beliefs about physics than the Christian community is willing to change its beliefs about, say, Jesus’ death and resurrection. But I think the reason for that is still that we’re talking about different levels in the hierarchy of beliefs. You get top-notch physicists with a wide range of beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality: naturalism, theism, Eastern religions, etc. You can change what you think about the speed of light without finding those deeper beliefs threatened.

  8. Michael Merrifield says:

    Surely, it’s largely a question of evidence. If there had been FTL neutrinos, and we had used them to develop a time machine to prove the truth or otherwise of the New Testament story, then I suspect there would be a major shift in Christian worldview. In the absence of evidence, it is all about faith, which is an intensely personal matter, so is very resistive to simultaneous community-wide questioning.

    • “I suspect there would be a major shift in Christian worldview”

      I doubt it. Any proof can be the devil playing tricks. The devil made the fossils, you know.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        You are assuming that the proof comes back negative, Phillip!

        There’s actually quite a good potboiler about what might happen in the modern (well, 1970s) world when historical evidence is brought to light in the form of an apparently undiscovered gospel, and how the various vested interests react

      • I made an educated guess. I also guessed that the FTL neutrinos weren’t real, but due to an experimental error. 😐

        It’s called “faith” and not “knowledge” for a reason. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. That’s how most religious people think. Facts? Who cares? There are already so many facts which directly contradict religious doctrine and this impresses most religious people not at all. Also, there really have been other gospels discovered, or rather they have been there all along. It was decided by vote, several hundred years after the fact, what canon is and what is not. The stuff which was voted out was written by heretics, so any new discovery would fall into the same category. These other gospels of course tell a slightly different story. On the other hand, the four official gospels disagree on a huge number of points, including essential stuff like Jesus’s last words on the cross. Since even these contradictions among official doctrine don’t faze the religious, I doubt any new discoveries would.

        Going in the other direction, i.e. positive proof: That would mean using the scientific method to prove that things exist which violate science. Not logically consistent. Sort of like the new-agers using reductionism to disprove reductionism (“If the quantum world is bizarrely interconnected, then, since we are made of atoms, we must be bizarrely interconnected as well!”).
        I am not a fan of Fritjof Capra.

      • “God said it, I believe it, that settles it. That’s how most religious people think.”

        Actually no, it isn’t.

        “However, taking Dawkins’ own advice we ask: Where is the evidence that religious faith is not based on evidence? … mainstream Christianity will insist that faith and evidence are inseparable. Indeed, faith is a response to evidence, not a rejoicing in the absence of evidence. … Dawkins’ definition of faith as ‘blind faith’ turns out, therefore, to be the exact opposite of the biblical one. Curious that he does not seem to be aware of the discrepancy. Could it be as a consequence of his own blind faith?” (John Lennox, “God’s Undertaker”, 16-17)

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    Not sure that Dawkins’ faith is quite that blind. After all, a week or so back on national radio he was heard to mutter “Oh God” when put on the spot about the exact title of The Origin of Species.

  10. Monica Grady says:

    And put on the spot by a clergyman. It was one of the funniest interviews I’d heard in a long time.

  11. andyxl says:

    I hope I am not a ranting anti-religious type. But I must confess that right now I am listening to Dumb All Over by Frank Zappa and kinda enjoying it.

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