Wednesday, August 08, 2007

God is in the metaphor

Science sections of bookstores are lined up with books that have God somewhere in the title (The Language of God, The God Gene, God in the Machine, God's Equation, etc). Its all about selling books and about getting attention in the media. Astronomers also have a special penchant for this. For example, we have fingers of god - an observational effect that makes clusters of galaxies appear elongated in our direction and to some it seems that cosmic fingers are pointing towards us. Some also described the variations in cosmic background radiation as the fingerprint of Creation. But here is an excellent article in defense of using such metaphors, and it focuses on the Higgs Boson - now also known as the God particle: What's in a name? Parsing the 'God Particle' as the Ultimate Metaphor

In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993. To Dr. Lederman, it made metaphorical sense, he explained in the book, because the Higgs mechanism made it possible to simplify the universe, resolving many different seeming forces into one, like tearing down the Tower of Babel. Besides, his publisher complained, nobody had ever heard of the Higgs particle.

In some superficial ways, the Higgs has lived up to its name. Several Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work on the so-called Standard Model, of which the Higgs is the central cog. Billions of dollars are being spent on particle accelerators and experiments to find it, inspect it and figure out how it really works.

But physicists groan when they hear it referred to as the “God particle” in newspapers and elsewhere (and the temptation to repeat it, given science reporters’ desperate need for colorful phrases in an abstract and daunting field, is irresistible). Even when these physicists approve of what you have written about their craft, they grumble that the media are engaging in sensationalism, or worse.

But he presents an interesting defense for the use of this metaphor:

My guide in all of this, of course, the biggest name-dropper in science, is Albert Einstein, who mentioned God often enough that one could imagine he and the “Old One” had a standing date for coffee or tennis. To wit: “The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not.”

Or this quote regarding the pesky randomness of quantum mechanics: “The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us closer to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced that He does not play dice.”

With Einstein, we always knew where he stood in relation to “God” — it was shorthand for the mystery and rationality of nature, the touchstones of the scientific experience. Cosmic mystery, Einstein said, is the most beautiful experience we can have, “the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement,” he continued, “is as good as a snuffed-out candle.”

If we didn’t already have a name for the object of Einstein’s “cosmic religion,” we would have to invent one. It’s just too bad that the name has been tainted and trivialized by association with the image of a white-bearded Caucasian-looking creature who sits in the clouds attended by harp-strumming angels.

This is wonderful stuff! However, I don't think public has a clear understanding of Einstein's impersonal god and he is often quoted out of context or misquoted altogether. But the main point of the article is more interesting:

Historians have suggested that it was a mistake for the antiwar movement of the 1960s to yield the flag — a powerful symbol of patriotism — to the war’s supporters, and likewise I think it would be a mistake for scientists to yield such a powerful metaphor to creationists and religious fundamentalists.

But at what cost? Creationists and religious fundamentalists are not the bigger problem. The more sophisticated Intelligent Design proponents are already exploiting the use of these metaphors and are successfully blurring the boundary between science & religion. Perhaps we can hold-off on these metaphors for a bit - at least until ID controversy takes a back seat in the media. But I completely agree with the spirit of the article and its ending:

Is there a God who worries about the flight of every sparrow? Einstein said that was a naïve and even abhorrent idea.

Do I believe the universe is a mystery? Absolutely. Is that mystery ultimately explicable? Intellectual empires from Plato to Einstein have been founded on that presumption, bold and optimistic as it is, and I wouldn’t advise betting against it.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t dream of depriving any future Einstein of his or her rhetorical or metaphorical tools.

Not to mention myself.

ah...written almost in God's language ;)


Marina said...

Rilke said it well:

"We must not portray you in king's robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paint boxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
'til they stand around you like a thousand walls."

Juke said...

We're trained so well to see all differences, even fundamental differences in cognition and emotion, through the filter of economic function.
So people who get in the way of the economy and can't feed themselves due to mental dysfunction are ill, and people who seem sound of mind, who have social skills and are charismatic enough to start large political or religious movements are later, when their endeavors fail, described as ill. Those who don't fail are looked back with respect, not least because they've shaped what we are with their manipulations.
Those who contribute to the material well-being of their societies are accepted regardless of what's going on in their heads. Thus we have what looks like some sort of emotional lack in many very successful businessmen, a lack that allows them to perpetrate horrendous things on the world around them, to disconnect from the outcomes of their activities, sociopaths without the cliched trappings of criminality. True a lot of it's just out-and-out greed, but not all. Some of those guys just don't feel things like "normal" people do.
These oh-so rational speculations and metaphoric constructs seem to come from minds a few clicks toward the alien.
Cheers to Marina for the reminder of Rilke's clear and insistent, and steadfast, refusal to compromise with the less than human. And his adamant recognition of the more than.

A. Arain said...


Congrats on having "God is in the Metaphor" cited on 3QuarksDaily! I of course enjoyed the original posting tremendously for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I happen to be meandering through the book "The Universe and Dr. Einstein" by Lincoln Barrett. It's more of an essay, really, and a quick read, and it very well may have been one of the sources for the quotes in your piece (though I'd imagine Einstein's quotes on God appear in myriad sources). It's a little dated, but nevertheless extremely enjoyable reading, and I would highly recommend it to your readers if they have not already taken a look at it.

Best regards, and keep up the absolutely great work,

A. Arain

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