In search of strings and testimonies

I love the comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’. Sometimes I worry for our future because children are growing up in the world today without the company of Calvin and his stuffed tiger. I love Calvin’s musings on the virtues of math atheism (‘as a math atheist, I should be excused from this [homework]’), and Hobbes’ bemused look as he patiently listens to Calvin’s diatribes on the human condition. I completely identified with Calvin’s fiery outbursts as he fought to find his way in a world over which he had little control (‘You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help’).

Somewhere along the line, I overcame my math atheism (and Calvin-esque aversions to baths and babysitters), and became interested in a very watered-down, PBS version of a new explanation of our physical world: string theory. Bear with me for a second — it’s not as boring as it sounds. String theory is the latest quest to discover one single theory of how everything in our physical world works together. Currently, there are two competing, conflicting theories that explain the world we live in, and scientists have worked for decades to resolve the inconsistencies between these theories and unlock the mysteries of the universe once and for all (evil cackling of scientists fading into the background).

Unfortunately, there is little, well, no, physical evidence for the upstart string theory. Turns out we can’t smash atoms together at high enough speeds for the string theorists to find what they are looking for (or that’s what I gathered from the PBS version). But that hasn’t stopped some of the brightest minds of our generation from devoting their lives and careers to pursuing this elusive theory of strings. These scientists know string theory exists, they can do the math that shows it should exist, but they can’t ‘prove’ string theory to other scientists using accepted scientific methods.

Here’s how I think string theory could be useful: some of the most brilliant men and women in the world believe in a theory that is, so far, unprovable. They have devoted their careers and staked their reputations on a theory that is controversial in the scientific community. Yet they are respected, and by many, revered (depending on which Nobel-prize winning scientist you talk to).

This makes me think about the criticism that is leveled against those of us who profess to have a testimony, that most un-provable of religious assertions. Although we don’t stake our professional lives on our testimonies, sometimes relationships with people we care about are greatly affected by how strongly we do (or do not) cling to a testimony. Why is it okay for physicists to believe in this unprovable theory, but it isn’t okay for us to have a testimony? To believe there really were gold plates, that Joseph Smith really did see an angel (or two)?

Taking another crack at the analogy, can we learn something from the way these physicists approach string theory that will help us (a) strengthen how we go about getting and keeping testimonies, and (b) articulating to others why we feel so strongly about them? For example, these physicists hang their hats on the math. They can do their calculations, add up their equations, and say, ‘this is the way things should work, and by golly, the math sure is pretty.’ Is there an underlying logic to our faith, to how we approach God, to how the Gospel is structured, that allows us to say ‘this is how the pieces fit together, and boy, is it pretty’?

Or, maybe we are actually in a STRONGER postion than the physicists, because we do have an experiment that can provide proof. (See Alma 32 or Moroni 10:3-5). But the nature of these experiments are that they are totally individual. Is there any logic or explanation that we can give to allow other reasonable, intelligent people to say ‘you have no proof, but your theory is sound, and I respect you’?

35 comments for “In search of strings and testimonies

  1. Thanks, Travis! And Adam. This is kind of a nerdy post, but I like the idea of exploring the connections between religion and science. Mostly because science is presented to us as cut and dried, absolute truth, etc. And, of course, scientific progress has increased our standard of living exponentially, for which I’m very grateful (I think air conditioning is my favorite invention), but science can only answer a certain set of questions in a closed system that we define for ourselves.

    I wish I would have paid more attention in my high school science classes, but like Calvin, I thought “If something is so complicated that you can’t explain it in 10 seconds, then it’s probably not worth knowing anyway.”

  2. Elisabeth, people who think of math with words like “pretty” sort of scare me, but I grew up with a dad who is a passionate physicist, and absorbed a little of his excitement about the elegance of the ordered universe. So I love this post–I’ll have to see if I can coax my dad into commenting, as he might have something more than nodding appreciation to offer.

  3. First of all, I’ll confess that I have problems with math–serious problems. Just thinking about anything more than basic arithmatic makes be break out in a cold sweat. So, with that background out there up front, I have to say that the discussions by the eminent physicists in support of String Theory–even those designed for the layperson–are completely incomprehensible to me. However, I was discussing this very PBS series with a friend who has a PhD in astrophysics and related stuff from Stanford (and he’s an MIT engineering undergrad, too) and he was frank in saying that he really hadn’t had enough math to follow their arguments either. If he can’t evaluate the strength of the arguments, how am I supposed to?

    What does it mean when there are only a handful of people on the planet who really understand this theory? I’m told that these folks are the smartest people on the planet and that they are _really_ good at math. Basically, I just have to take their word for it. Or in other words, they ask me to have faith that the math really works and there’s good reason to belive in this theory–even though there is no proof to support it.

    How is this any different than religion? I guess my answer is that it isn’t. We can take the word of this handful of physicists that the math works, or we can reject it. They can only prove it to themselves (and, I suppose, each other) and then do their best to convince me that to rely on their assertion. I think this is very close to what happens with our testimonies. We learn about the pieces of the Plan of Salvation and the role of the Savior. There is certainly a logic to it all (even if there are holes to the “theory” and many unanswered questions). In the end, I perform an experiment with this thing called “the Holy Ghost” and I get a result. Unfortunately, no one else can “follow the math” of my results. I can tell them that I got a result and that I am absolutely sure of it, but at the end of the day, all they can do is take my word for it and, if they are so inclined, try and work the math out for themselves.

  4. I think it’s interesting to take this post from another angle and ask the question why people of science are so willing to take theories like String Theory “on faith” when they are so unwilling to take some aspects of religion “on faith”? I know that a lot of stupid people have done and said stupid things in the name of religion, but there’s just as much “quack science” out there (well, maybe not just as much, but there’s a lot!).

    Doesn’t String Theory deal exclusively with a world that is “unseeable” to us (at least for now)? Why can people believe this theory and not believe that there is an unseen “spiritual world”? Or that an angel could appear to a young man and give him a set of golden plates?

    My theory is that “people of science” are no different that the rest of us. When we are faced with something that makes us uncomfortable or that scares us, we don’t want to think about it. People have different personalities and aptitudes and, “people of science” use the “religion/faith just isn’t rational” argument to protect themselves in the same way that others find some other excuse to reject religion. But then, this is a theory that is unprovable, even though it makes sense to me. I’ll just have to put it on the shelf with String Theory. :)

  5. Elisabeth, you make an interesting point. A secularist might respond that scientific models are judged not only on their testability, but also on their explanatory power and their ability to unify disparate phenomena. Some argue that religion fails in these areas, while string theory does quite well.

  6. But Will, if we are judging a theory on its explanatory power, aren’t we (meaning, “religionists”) then on very equal footing with the secularists/scientists if we’re judging the validity of a religion? It seems to me that what often makes the arguments/criticisms of scientists so persuasive is that they have a specialized knowledge that they have proven to be useful/accurate in many situations. If we are judging religion only by its power to explain the world around us, why should a scientist’s opinion on religion be any better than a reasonably intelligent “layperson”?

  7. For those that are interested in a layperson’s explanation of string theory, I recommend Brian Greene’s book “The Elegant Universe.” It does a great job of setting up the problems in physics and showing how string theory addresses those problems. It’s written for non-math types, with lots of analogies and thought experiments.

  8. I’m not sure I like the idea of subjecting religion to the process of theory testing & disproving. However, it is a good retort when set upon by a supposedly secular religion-basher.

  9. Travis,

    I am pretty sure that your friend has a PhD in aerospace engineering and not astrophysics. That might help explain the lack of familiarity with the subject. I am sure that he would love this discussion and using an example from physics to have a gospel discussion.

  10. Tim, you make a good point. The secularist approach (with which I don’t fully agree) is that we resort to supernatural explanations only when no natural explanation is possible.

    We all take this approach to some extent. When I see mail in my mailbox, I assume that it was put there by the mailman and not by God. Secularists say that this approach can be extended to all phenomena, so religious explanations are superfluous.

  11. I guess the difference would be that in string theory, there is a possibility for objective qualification. In Religion there is not. Even though only a small percentage of human beings will ever have enough education to comprehend and consequent analyze the validity of String Theory, the bottom line is that one can, with effort, come to that point.

    In religion, no matter how hard one tries, the issue af validity boils down to one of subjectivity.

  12. ARJ – You are right, I knew as I typed the sentence that it just didn’t look right but couldn’t remember any better. But seriously, isn’t that a distinction without a difference? I confess that my general consciousness of math is on par with the cromagnon man, but seriously? Hmmm, I guess that I can see how the engineering focus would mean less of a focus on theory, though. That’s what I get for asking a rocket scientist…

    We actually discussed this for a while with him and had a good time with it.

  13. J. Stapley – I agree, you cannot ever truly empirically measure aspects of religion, such as spiritual experiences and faith, but perhaps other aspects can be tested for plausibility, etc. The Bood of Mormon evidences are examples of that.

  14. J. Stapley makes a key point. Physicists hold out hope that string theory will be testable. I read a statement from Brian Greene (can’t remember where) that he thinks we’re very close. I don’t think we have this hope with regards to religion, with the exception of a few diehard F.A.R.M.S. fans.

  15. Kristine (#4) – I would love to hear what your father has to say if you can convince him to stop by T&S for a chat.

  16. Mostly, I don’t understand this topic, maybe…

    But I think we’re connected with electricity. That could be a string. I think God works at the speed of light, through light, and is light…as well as has a body of flesh and bone, perfected. Science and Mormonism explained that to me, sort of.

  17. annegb – The “strings” in String Theory are the stuff from which protons, neutrons, etc. are made and these “strings”, as the theory goes, are made up of pure energy. So, you’re in good company!

  18. If God moves at the speed of light and time stops at the speed of light, then time and space can be a part of it, wouldn’t it? I didn’t understand your point about evolution.

  19. Kristine #4 – I’d love to hear what your dad has to say about these ideas as well. And the beauty and elegance of math reveals itself the farther away you get from high school trig.

    J. Stapley #13: One of the premises of string theory is that there may be more than 12 extra dimensions out there in space right now, that our current system can’t begin to accomodate or to measure. We’re limited in our understanding of reality – we can’t accurately reflect physical reality with our current science, no matter how impressive (or pretty) quantum mechanics may be.

    So scientists looking for the “truth” must believe in some sort of higher power or higher understanding in order to guide them to the truth. What is this? I think you hit the nail on the head when you and others said that a scientific belief in something that may or may not exist is more accepted than a religious belief, because, ultimately, scientific belief is quantifiable. But it’s quantifiable only after we step outside ourselves and our current limited view of reality to find what we think is out there, and then find a way to measure it! I may be rambling here, but I think that the scientific journey to discover the true order of the universe has interesting applications for our own personal journey into finding truth in our lives.

    annegb: I love reading your comments. You always have something insightful and interesting to add. I know I grasp only a small corner of string theory, but I like to play with the ideas and concepts. Sounds like you have a pretty good understanding of it yourself.

  20. Thanks, Elisabeth, this blog sure stretches my quickly dying brain cells.

    Clark, I didn’t mean to sound so blunt. Could you explain your reference to evolution?

  21. It seems to me that J. Stapley’s point should be expanded a bit. One of the characteristics of a useful hypothesis in scientific parlance is that it is falsifiable — that is, it is theoretically possible to demonstrate that the hypothesis is false through experimentation. Ultimately, science never proves something “true,” it proves it “not false in the following circumstances.” When the circumstances tested are sufficiently comprehensive, we treat the hypothesis as “true.”

    The infinitesimal amount I understand of string theory suggests that it is very nacent, but has yet to be proven not true. I’m not sure whether that is because we have not yet been able to assemble experiments that would test string theory, or because it has passed all of the tests that can be devised so far, but they aren’t sufficiently comprehensive to give anyone assurance of the accuracy of the hypothesis. But at least in some circumstances, the existence of other dimensions can be reasonably inferred from phenomena that appear in lower-numbers of dimensions. For instance, a dark circle that appears on a two-dimensional surface may be counted as evidence of a sphere in a third dimension, casting its shadow onto the two-dimensional plane. A dark shape that changes form from a rectangle to a square to a hexagon to a rectangle and so forth is pretty good evidence of a three-dimensional cube being rotated along one axis. But so far, string theory hasn’t produced any such observable dimensional predictors.

    Some have suggested that religion, perhaps by definition, is not falsifiable, but I think that this is incorrect. On occasion, we may want it to be non-fasifiable to protect ourselves from being trammelled by science. But religion, our religion, makes lots of predictions, some traditionally perceived as objective, some traditionally perceived as subjective. But recent-past and near-future precision in brain scanning suggests that one’s subjective experience is not separate from or unrelated to one’s objective neurons. And neurons are, increasingly, subject to external monitoring.

    So perhaps the parallels between string theory and religion are not as perfect as we might wish.

  22. “Science” is the dominant religion of modern America and it has its fair share of irrational zealots advocating in its behalf.

    This is unfortunate since science has little or nothing to tell us about how we should govern our lives.

    You say, according to the latest study, homosexuality is genetic?
    OK, now tell me why I should care, or how this information is supposed to guide my actions.

    Science simply can’t do it.

  23. Seth, I submit that science guides your behavior far more than you consciously realize. Whenever you make draw conclusions from observation and reason, or trust others who do so, you’re taking a scientific approach to life.

  24. Will, aren’t you using a too-broad definition of science? Surely science doesn’t include all observation and reason that leads to a conclusion. It also includes ontological and theoretical commitments. It requires a standardized method, and accurate mathematical measurement. My observation that the plants in my garden do better when the soil around them is not compacted leads me to the reasonable conclusion that keeping the soil loose will help them grow. But making that observation and coming to that conclusion isn’t science–or almost everything anyone does is science.

  25. Jim, you’re right. I suppose I was referring to science as an epistemological camp, in contrast with faith. Of course, the word is normally used in a much narrower sense.

    I think the point I was trying to make is this: When talking about an esoteric, almost gnostic, subject like string theory, we sometimes forget that physicists are people just like us and use essentially the same methods. String theorists use reason to try to unify their observations, just as we do. The main difference is that they’re much more meticulous about it, just as your logical arguments probably tend to be much more strict than my hand-waving ruminations.

  26. Jim F — why is will’s definition too broad? You make your observation about the possible relationship between your garden plants and the condition of the soil. Sounds like a hypothesis to me. Then you loosen the soil around other plants and notice if they do better than they were doing previously. If they do, you gain confidence in the reliability of your hypothesis. If they don’t, you consider whether your hypothesis was wrong, or if other circumstances (species of plant, extraneous environmental factors, different weather, whatever) might have determined the outcome despite the loosened soil.

    How is that not the core of what we label (productively?) as science — the creative formation of an idea explaining an observation, then the shaping of conduct based on that idea, then the observation of the results of the revised actions (“experiment”)?

  27. Science certainly does that, but it seems a bit much to call everything that does that science. A poet notices that certain words work well together as she writes. She tries them in various combinations and comes to conclusions about which ones work and which ones don’t. Is that also science? Will’s definition of science seems to confuse necessary with sufficient; definitions have to be sufficient–or at least aimed in the direction of sufficiency. To be sufficient, one must also have things like methods, a decision about the objects one investigates (one reason poetry isn’t a science isn’t that it doesn’t deal with scientific objects of any kind), standards of measurement, etc.

    It turns out that defining a science is not an easy problem in the philosophy of science, but I don’t think anyone would accept the definition Will has given.

  28. I think this post underestimates the respect that others have for LDS believers. (I include myself among the “others.”) Tourists from all over appreciate the hardship of crossing the plains and the work that went into creating the Salt Lake temple, even if they don’t believe in the principles to which the pioneering builders were devoted. Even secularists admire Mormons’ clean living, work ethic, and time devoted to worthwhile endeavors such as scouting and humanitarian work, even if they don’t agree with the motivating beliefs. The tourists and secularists don’t think Mormonism is so unsound that it leads all its followers into unfulfilling, unproductive lives; on the contrary, they recognize that it works well for many people. They just don’t think the LDS beliefs are sound enough to trust their own lives to that path.

    This is the same attitude other scientists seem to take toward the string theorists. They wish the string theorists well, admiring their hard work and devotion to what they believe. But they don’t trust string theory enough to want to join them. They’d want convincing evidence before becoming string theorists themselves.

    In other words, the people are great but the plan is imperfect.

  29. Greenfrog (#31): Some important authors are Thomas Kuhn, Imri Lakatos, Ian Hacking, and Larry Lauden. I like Robert Klee’s Introduction to Philosophy of Science: Cutting Nature at its Seams.

    However, I take the point about science requiring a definition of its objects as well as its methods, and the need for measurement from Martin Heidegger’s essay, “The Age of the World Picture” (in The Question Concerning Technology) suplemented with other things I’ve seen in other essays and books. For a good overview of Heidegger’s philosophy of science, go to here.

  30. Anne, I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what you are talking about regarding Evolution. I didn’t mention it here. Could you perhaps expand?

    Regarding God moving at the speed of light. If God is embodied then he has mass and can’t go the speed of light.

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