Cutting Edge: Science And Religion News
Dr Gregory Farrelly FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2014
Science and Philosophy
Carlo Rovelli, a physics professor at Université de la Méditerranée, Marseille, makes some thought-provoking comments about the philosophy involved in science.1 As author of The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy, Rovelli views Anaximander as a sort of scientific revolutionary. Anaximander stated that nature is ruled by “laws”, just like human societies. He postulated that the indefinite (apeiron) was the source of all things, an attempt to describe all of physical reality, a conceptual abstraction typical of later Greek philosophy.
Anaximander stated that the Earth is a finite body that floats in space, without falling, and that the sky is not just over our head, but all around, ideas that were completely unfamiliar and must have seemed rather bizarre at the time. Rovelli points out that humans have always observed that the stars, the moon, the planets, etc, continually revolve around us, so it should follow that “below us” is nothing; in other words, the sky is not just over our head, it’s also under our feet. However, nobody else arrived at this conclusion. We now “know” that gravity causes all things on and around the earth to fall towards its centre. Anaximander’s view that just because things fall to the earth does not mean the that earth itself is falling frees us from a sort of “prejudice”, an unexamined conceptual structure for thinking about space.
For Rovelli, this is a key part of theoretical physics: questioning the conceptual structure used in constructing the theory and interpreting the data. For example, Einstein did not reject either of the seemingly contradictory, well-established theories of electromagnetism and classical relativity but reconciled the theories by changing the concept of time, despite the radical nature of the change in thought structures involved, namely that time was no longer to be considered absolute but relative.
Loop quantum gravity, Rovelli’s own specialism, is an attempt to take reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics even if this means a theory where there is no fundamental time. The theory is both conservative, because it’s based on previous knowledge, and radical, because it requires a major change in our way of thinking.
Rovelli views it as an error that scientists tend to spurn philosophy as redundant. Newton regarded himself as a philosopher, Galileo would never have done what he did without knowing Plato’s ideas and Einstein would never have invented relativity without an appreciation of metaphysics. Rovelli states that science is about constructing a vision of the world, constructing new conceptual structures and challenging the a priori ideas that we have. In an statement that should resonate with Faith readers, he points out that scientists who say “I don’t care about philosophy” ignore the fact that they themselves have a philosophy, a philosophy of science, yet they are generally unaware of its details, thus they fail to examine it, rendering their minds closed to new possibilities of thought, unlike Anaximander or Einstein:
“There is narrow-mindedness, if I may say so, in many of my colleagues who don’t want to learn what’s being said in the philosophy of science. There is also a narrow-mindedness in a lot of areas of philosophy and the humanities, whose proponents don’t want to learn about science.”
Rovelli however, like most scientists, contrasts the scientist’s requirement to question all a priori ideas with the “religious view” that there should be unquestionable dogmatic truths. This is often a question that young Catholic scientists grapple with and, unfortunately, the Church in this country has made few efforts to form a dialogue of philosophy and theology with scientists. It is most certainly not a question of the existence of “parallel magisteria”. The author of the universe, God, is the author of all truth, including scientific truth. In Catholic dogma, however, the truths we possess are from divine revelation and therefore not susceptible to “experiment” or the sort of questioning involved in the physical sciences. This is not to say, however, that we cannot recast our philosophical understanding and the conceptual framework surrounding such dogmas. The Faith theology of what happens in the change of bread and wine at Mass into Christ’s own Body and Blood involves a quite different philosophical framework from that of St Thomas Aquinas: Faith draws on a modern view of the co-relativity of all matter; Aquinas depends more on an Aristotelian system of form and matter.
The Evolution of Cancer
Researchers have discovered that hydra (coral-like polyps that emerged hundreds of millions of years ago) form tumours similar to those found in humans.2 Thomas Bosch, at Kiel University, and Domazet-Lošo, from the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb unexpectedly discovered tumour-bearing polyps in two species of hydra.
For the first time they were able to show that the stem cells accumulate in large quantities and do not die like “normal” cells. They evade a process known as apoptosis, in which cells with genetic errors “commit suicide”. Molecular analysis showed that there is a gene that becomes active in tumour tissue and prevents the programmed cell death, similar to the growth of human cancer cells. By sequencing the tumorous hydra’s DNA, they discovered a gene that halts apoptosis.
A similar gene halts apoptosis in humans. The hydra tumour cells were shown to be invasive: if introduced into a healthy organism, they can trigger tumour growth there. This implies that cancer genes, and the mechanisms that allow tumour cells to evade apoptosis, “have deep evolutionary roots”. It also probably means that cancer will never be completely eradicated.
Dr Gregory Farrelly is a physics teacher at Cambridge Tutors College, Croydon.
2Thomas Bosch, Nature Communications, June 2014.