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« The God Asterisk* ? | Main | An Interview With Psychotherapist Louis Breger, Author Of "Psychotherapy: Lives Intersecting" - Part 1 (Norman Costa) »

July 08, 2012


But crafting a figure of speech drawn from the language of divinity has nothing to do with "explaining god," just as the video isn't pretending to explain social drinking. Sometimes such figures work precisely because the two topical realms--the literal one being described and the figurative one providing the analogy--do not mix well. As with the tenor and vehicle of some metaphors, their dissonance improves their effectiveness, because one is compelled to imagine how vehicle maps to tenor, and in doing so one begins to see aspects of the vehicle one had never considered. I think you're pointing to extra-linguistic forces, namely, politics, that have unpleasant effects. This is the implicit point of Godwin's Law, as I understand it.

If scientists were to casually mix god metaphors just as we do in day to day conversations for effect, there will be howls of protest about their misplaced chutzpah. Just remember how many times you yourself have objected when a scientist compares a mathematical formula to poetry or a stunning NASA image from outer space to art. They are asked to back off and stay within their own realm of reality and not tread into the "finer" human pursuits like art, music and literature. No surprise then that the "science types" would be even more leery of going into god territory.

I complain when a scientist proclaims a formula an instance of poetry. I also complain when scientists--not really, when popular science writers--purport to having explained poetry. Granted, I'm wary now of mere analogies of the "These images from the Hubble telescope are as richly beautiful as Cezanne's" or "Those football players dance across the grid" variety. Those, to me, are absurd analogies; their disjunctive quality doesn't help me, the way this one's might: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere." Similarly, if no less vulnerable to a charge of nonsense, "The Higgs field is like a cocktail party" and "The Higgs Boson is the God Particle" help, albeit at different registers of meaning.

Scientists and "science types" are big boys and girls. A little name calling, so what? You'd think a cocky appropriation of the language of religion and the divine would be a useful strategy to reducing its effect.

Well, looking at it one way, Science is a religion. So what's the big deal with borrowing religious terminology to explain the way scientists experience it?

@Sujatha: I have no problem if scientists borrowed religious terminology to describe their experiences. But unlike "cocktail parties" I don't think they are confident of what exactly "god" means.

@Dean: Artists themselves have had little conflict with science through the ages. It is their fans and gatekeepers who draw the boundaries. BTW, "God is a circle whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere." is an analogy where religion is borrowing from science and not the other way round.

Of course they are confident of what "god" means! If not, they know they can look it up in a dictionary. How strange to think that scientists won't use and share terms not exactly defined within their professional lexicon.

Similarly, if no less vulnerable to a charge of nonsense, "The Higgs field is like a cocktail party" and "The Higgs Boson is the God Particle" help, albeit at different registers of meaning.

I question the factual premise. I am indeed somewhat wary of the G-word to some extent, since physics has mercifully (and somewhat inexplicably) avoided the religion troubles biologists get into and that seems worth preserving. But that's a secondary consideration - Stephen Hawking comparing the acquisition of a theory of everything to 'knowing the mind of God' makes me only mildly uneasy, and it's still an evocative phrase despite my unease with the politics.

So if someone discovered the inflaton [*] I wouldn't mind particularly if he called it the God particle or the big bang particle in the press, since it vaguely captures something interesting and isn't deliberately misleading. Similarly if we identified something that leads to a big rip, I wouldn't think it crazy to call that an apocalypse particle or hell particle to the New York Times.

The big problem with calling the Higgs the 'God Particle' is that it doesn't explain anything about it, or tell you why it's interesting, and in addition it leads the layman thinking about its importance on a wild tangent involving god concepts. The Higgs is an important particle, sure, but so is the photon ('let there be light') and calling it as opposed to anything else a god particle is completely arbitrary. I think it's telling that essentially no physicist thinks it's a useful name.

The cocktail party analogy is rather different; it actually says something about higgs interactions by drawing an explicit analogy to "interactions" of a different sort. There's something actually useful conveyed, without math, about speed of propagation and 'mean free paths' in the presence of interactions. Plus no-one even halfway sane would interpret that analogy as giving the Higgs a social life the way people read in theological implications willy nilly.

[*] I didn't get to the inflaton aside - the inflaton is supposed to be a scalar, and so is the standard model higgs (we don't know yet about this month's discovery). And if there are scalars floating around, conceivably this scalar might be that scalar. So in such a scenario, the higgs can actually have the desired fuzzy vaguely godly role. But it's just a random "why not" type idea, not something that needs to be true for any particular reason.

Ah, just go to the dictionary to find out what god means? Why didn't I think of it all this while? Silly me!

Thanks, Prasad.

Ruchira: You're applying two different standards and largely begging the question. The concept of god is vague. The concept of cocktail party is not. Knowing as much in each case helps one to understand exactly what each means.

Meanwhile, as we discuss science and religion (more or less), this appears today on Ron Silliman's blog, linking to, inter alia, this. I hope to explore these further.

Again, I think Prasad pretty clearly points out that the problem is a political one, in the sense of politics as side-issue to substance. That there are some people who read theology into anything, "willy nilly," is indisputable. But is that a reason to shy from using theological terms figuratively? For some it is. Lederman's figure was by no means the most poetic, most precise, most apt, most compelling...what have you. But this is far too high a standard to expect of ordinary, popular non-fiction, if nevertheless a good reason to avoid reading it.

No, I am not applying two different standards. Scientists, at least physicists, understand cocktail parties and Higgs; they may or may not understand god and even if they have a personal image of god, they must know that it won't meet everyone's take on the idea. So what are they comparing it to when they say god - a loosely universal but vague concept or a specific believer's understanding? Why should they go there just for rhetorical flourish? Moreover, as Prasad explains, assigning a godly characteristic to the Higgs particle and not to other equally interesting ones, is "arbitrary." So the analogy is specious at best and exactly the kind of popular science claims that you object to.

And I don't understand what you have tried to convey with the two links to poetry and science.

The two links point to a mild coincidence of a discussion of language and science, which is where I think our discussion of religion and science has turned. However, it involves the treatment of science by artists whose medium is language, where we are talking to some extent about the treatment of language by scientists.

Alright, let's turn to OED. The first series definition of "god" pertains to "the original pre-Christian sense." It's fair to assume that neither Lederman nor anybody subsequently responding to his use of "God" understands him to intend that sense, so we'll move on to the second defiinition, which pertains to "the specific Christian and monotheistic sense." It reads, "The One object of supreme adoration; the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. (Now always with initial capital.)"

Now, "cocktail party": "a party, esp. one intended for social conversation, at which cocktails are served, usually together with other alcoholic drinks, savoury snacks, canap├ęs, etc."

For purposes of getting the analogies and labels used by Lederman and others to explain or characterize the Higgs boson, neither of these requires reference to any specific individual's understanding. Yet you would demand his use of "God" satisfy such a test. It is undoubtedly true that more people have especially personal notions of God or a god, that there are countless distinct ways in which people conjure their own specific definitions of God, but that has no bearing on whether the word is admissible as, indeed, a rhetorical flourish. Its manifold connotations account precisely for one of the reasons Lederman chose the figure in the first place. He uses the story from Genesis of the tower of Babel to describe times when "confusion reigned" among scientists.

You are correct that I object to bad science writing, as I did indirectly in my previous comment. I'm not defending Lederman's prowess as a craftsman of prose. Rather, I wonder why the mere mention of things divine, unlike unicorns, wedgies, or cocktail parties, sets some readers' teeth on edge. The answer seems to be that it produces bad publicity for scientific communication that, despite acceptable references to cocktail parties, aims to be taken seriously. It is the association of God the object of supreme adoration (a semantic goldmine when it comes to fashioning figures of speech) with God the non-existent creator of the universe (the epistemic hangover after our long night of bacchanalia) that spoils the word for some.

Random thought 001:

When Ruchira gave herself a slap on the forehead and a mild self-rebuke for not going to the dictionary, I thought, "Dictionary? Isn't that Dean's job?" Then Dean came through and it reaffirmed my faith that I can count on him when he's needed the most.

Random thought 002:

Poetry and equations? I remember the video series, "The Ascent of Man," that was hosted by Jacob Bronowski on Public Television about 35 years ago. It was the warm up act for Carl Sagan's "Cosmos." In one of the final episodes he featured an artist who was painting a human figure from a live model. The artist's view of the subject was different, obviously, from the video. Both differed, still, from an infrared rendition of the model. He was striving for some kind of rapprochement between science and art as he was winding up his series on the intellectual development of Western Man. I don't think he delivered the impact he desired, but his point was made.

Michio Kaku talked about scientists being moved to tears by the simplicity and elegance of the equation E=mc^2. About 35 years ago I had what others have described as a profound spiritual experience. Since that time, there has been only one thing that brought back a faint whisper of that moment, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image. It still does, every time. There are only a few works of art that hold me and transport me to another place. One is in the Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne Valley in Southwestern France.

Random thought 003:

Until a couple of weeks ago, I never knew how a knuckleball was thrown. I knew nothing about the physics and aerodynamic properties that gave the knuckleball it's unpredictable path in flight. I was stunned to find out that the knuckleball was not thrown with a spin. Instead, the pitcher pushes the baseball through the air without giving the ball a spin. I discovered the properties of the knuckleball in a couple of articles, at, about R.A. Dickey, the knuckle ball pitcher for the New York Mets.

I went back to Steven Weinberg's July 13, 2012 NY Times article on the discovery of the Higg's boson [1]. He wrote, "...if the new particle is the Higgs boson, it would have to be like a KNUCKLEBALL [my emphasis] in baseball; unlike all other known elementary particles, it would have no spin. This too must be tested." Physicists use the darnedest analogies.


Random thought 004:

Mixing science and religion. First I need some breakfast.

Norm, hope the morning repast was satisfactory. I am enjoying the second cup of tea of the morning.

Thanks for explaining the point I was trying to make with simplicity and fitting examples.

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