Are There Limits to Scientific Speculation? A Royal Case
Question: When does science become like a priesthood? Answer: When its practitioners engage in speculation on big questions impossible to verify with empirical observations. Is this what the chief astronomer in Britain is doing?
Sir Martin Rees certainly would not have thought of himself as a priest as he wrote an article for the BBC News, “Hubble’s Role in the Search for Aliens.” As the Astronomer Royal of Britain, master of Trinity College and president of the Royal Society, he fancies himself as a scientist. We think of scientists as dealing in observation, empiricism, data, evidence. How many of the following statements are amenable to experimental verification, at least within his own lifetime or a reasonable extension of our civilization’s (say, a few decades), such that his statements could be verified within the memory of people hearing him?
- We have established, in outline, a consensus picture of how, from a hot dense beginning nearly 14 billion years ago, our expanding universe developed galaxies, stars and planets.
- We can set our entire solar system in a grand evolving scenario stretching back to a Big Bang – an era when everything was hotter than the centres of stars, and expanding on a timescale of a few seconds.
- If there is life on Mars, it is very primitive.
- But could some newly discovered planets orbiting other stars harbour biospheres as complex as our Earth’s, perhaps with intelligent life?
- There are on-going searches for transmissions that might be “artificial” in origin…. Despite the heavy odds against success, I certainly support these efforts, because of the philosophical import of any detection of a manifestly artificial signal.
- Even if we couldn’t make much sense of it, we’d have learnt that “intelligence” wasn’t unique to the hardware inside human skulls, and had emerged elsewhere.
- When we look at Andromeda, we sometimes wonder if there may be other beings looking back at us.
Maybe there are.
But on these remote galaxies there surely aren’t. Their stars haven’t have had time to fuse pristine hydrogen into carbon, oxygen and silicon – the atoms needed for planets and life.
- What about the far future? Six billion years from now, when the sun dies,….
- But what might happen still further ahead?…. The best long-range forecast, therefore, is that the cosmos will continue to expand, becoming ever emptier, ever darker and ever colder.
- We can’t predict what role life will eventually carve out for itself: it could become extinct; on the other hand, it could achieve such dominance that it can influence the entire cosmos.
The latter is the province of science fiction, but it can’t be dismissed as absurd.
- After all, it’s taken little more than one billion years for natural selection to lead from the first multi-cellular organisms to Earth’s present biosphere (including us).
Rees continued by espousing inflation theory and other consensus ideas in cosmology. His speculations were all encompassing, from the origin of everything to the eternal future, from the emergence of life in galaxies he will never see, to its evolving to the point of a kind of godhood over the entire cosmos in eons long after his own death. Even the “mysteries” of the universe were things he felt comfortable discussing as a scientific spokesman.
Other than the elevated language, this sounds like the kind of storytelling a shaman would tell gullible tribespeople around a campfire, or a Chaldean would explain to the Assyrian king and his lords to amaze them with the mysteries of the universe. We need to think big picture, you know; Year 2010 A.D. is nothing in the big scheme of things, especially when you want to talk billions of years and the births and deaths of galaxies. Rees is a blip on a screen of no consequence to the scientist in Andromeda who is 100 times his superior intellectually. For all he knows, the Andromedans are creationists.
With all due respect to Sir Rees and his education and accomplishments in science, what does he know about these things? What does he know about life on Mars? Nothing. What does he know about the beings in Andromeda looking back at us? Nothing. What does he know about the first microseconds of the universe? Nothing. What does he know about what came before that? Nothing. What does he know about inflation? Nothing. What does he know about the universe six billion years from now? Nothing. What does he know about the interior of stars, the atmospheres of exoplanets, the hardware inside human skulls that give rise to the mind, the conditions for life, and whether those conditions exist in distant galaxies? (We use the term “know” advisedly, because having theories about them is not the same as knowing first-hand.) Nothing to very little. If he restricted his science to empiricism, his essay would be very short, and very dull. Speculating like a shaman is a lot more fun. That does not make it truthful. Wearing badges of authority, like advanced degrees, knighthood, the consensus, and the respect of one’s peers, does not confer truthfulness either. Ancient authorities had their badges of honor, too. Modern scientific authority is supposed to be derived from its rigorous, slavish dependence on experimental methods that are observable, testable, and repeatable. OK, Dr. Rees, we’d like to see them.
We have another challenge to Dr. Rees. Our readers will notice that Darwinism is a linchpin of his argument – “it’s taken little more than one billion years for natural selection to lead from the first multi-cellular organisms to Earth’s present biosphere (including us).” Yet he turned right around and validated intelligent design, by supporting SETI – “searches for transmissions that might be ‘artificial’ in origin…. ” Why do you put “artificial” in quotes, Dr. Rees? Define artificial. In your world view, there is no such thing. Everything has to be “natural” because it all came out of the big bang. Oh, we get it; that’s why you also put “intelligence” in quotes later on – “Even if we couldn’t make much sense of it [i.e., the alien message to us], we’d have learnt that ‘intelligence’ wasn’t unique to the hardware inside human skulls, and had emerged elsewhere.” So intelligence is not really intelligence; it’s just an artifact of hardware. It just emerged. How did that happen? Was it a miracle? Once it emerged, how was its power to connect to reality validated? You talked about the “philosophical import of any detection of a manifestly artificial signal.” What is philosophy? Is it something that refers to that which is universal, necessary, timeless and certain – i.e., something prior to, and outside the big bang? If not, if it “emerged” after the big bang, maybe it will evolve, too. If it evolves, how do we know that the “truth claims” you allege today might not evolve into their opposites, such that a future Scientific Priest six billion years from now might proclaim as true that the big bang never happened, and Darwinism is a myth? How do you distinguish a “manifestly artificial signal” from a natural artificial signal, if everything in your world view must be natural by definition? Is your philosophy ultimately derived from hydrogen? Then how can you possibly contend that it offers knowledge, whatever that is? But if you aren’t offering knowledge, we’re not interested in what you have to sell.
So let’s assess the credibility of Sir Martin Rees, Chief Priest and Knight of the Secular Cross of the Royal Empire of the United Kingdom. He fancies himself a naturalist, but believes in miracles (emergence). He fancies himself a Darwinist but believes in intelligent design methods (detection of SETI messages as “manifestly artificial”). He is a scientist but spent 95% of his time talking about things with no experimental evidence to support them. As a scientist, he is supposed to be an empiricist but referred to consensus, an argument from group authority. He pretended to be intelligent, but put “intelligence” in quotes, indicating he does not believe intelligence is real. So why is he trying to reason with us? Can we not assume the poor soul is babbling like a madman? His views are hopelessly muddled and inconsistent; he must be judged, therefore, a false prophet. In the old days he would be stoned. These days, they do it painlessly at the Royal Pub; take him away and give him a rocking good time with some adult beverages to put him out of our misery.
Footnote: In an interview for New Statesman, Dr. Rees said that “creationists are people who are intellectually deprived.” And why is that? “They don’t appreciate the wonderful story that science has opened up for us.” (By that he means molecules to man evolution, with Charles Darwin the Grand Poobah Storyteller.) Well, Dr. Rees, if you’re talking stories, the Chaldeans, Greeks and Egyptians had a lot more sex and drama in theirs. Even the interviewer was a little taken aback by his answer: “‘Story’ is an unusual way to describe it,” Sophie Elmhirst said (good for her). Stick it to him, Sophie; as Stan Freberg remarked, “we’re tired of this Royal jazz.” The Royal Society, of which you are president, founded largely by creationists, was built on the principle of “nothing on mere authority.” Certainly you don’t want us to believe your big sweeping story on the basis of your authority or Darwin’s, do you, or because you can ridicule those who disagree with your story? Stupid is as stupid does. Sweeping away your critics with a cheap insult is not exactly the way to establish yourself as intellectually advantaged. Maybe a little wisdom will emerge from your hangover.