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Science After Babel

Read an excerpt of a new book by mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski

By David Berlinski

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Science After Babel, the latest book from mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski. This article is adapted from the book’s Introduction.

The scientific revolution began in the 16th century, and it began in Europe. No one knows why it happened nor why it happened where it happened, but when it happened, everything changed. 

Until the day before yesterday, the imperial architects of the scientific revolution were well satisfied and sleek as seals. An immense tower was going up before their very eyes. The physicists imagined that shortly it would reach the sky; the biologists were satisfied that it had left the ground; and only the theologians were heard to observe that it would soon collapse. 

The Tower is still there. It is, in fact, larger than ever. But it has neither reached the sky nor left the ground. It resembles Bruegel’s Tower of Babel far more than the Chrysler Building, and if it suggests anything at all, it suggests that its original plans have somehow been lost. Some parts of the Tower are sound and sturdy; but, my goodness, the balustrade devoted to the multiverse — what were they thinking?

Who Knows? 

In looking at the Tower, if we are moved to admire its size, we are also bound to acknowledge its faults. The algorithm and the calculus are the two great ideas of the scientific revolution. They are radically different. Algorithms belong to the world of things. The creation of numbers, Thierry of Chartres observed, was the creation of things. In the theory of recursive functions, some part of thinginess has been brought under rational control. 

It is the continuum, on the other hand, that is essential to the calculus. If an algorithm is a part of the world of things, in war, Lewis Fry Richardson once remarked, thinginess fails. In quantum field theory, too. A quantum field is not a thing. The true continuum, René Thom once remarked to me, has no points: it reflects at a distance Freud’s oceanic feeling — what Meister Eckhardt described as pure formlessness. And these, too, are ideas deep in human experience. In the calculus, and mathematical analysis generally, some part of the continuum has been brought under rational control. 

Mathematical analysis and the theory of recursive functions are great achievements, but they are different; they answer to different imperatives; they are the work of different architects.

No wonder the Tower looks as it does. It is a miracle that it remains standing.

The result has been a popular culture littered with ideological detritus: atheism, of course, or naturalism, or materialism, or physicalism, or scientism, or even, God help us, transhumanism. These are not very precise terms, nor do they denote very precise ideas. Naturalists can rarely say of naturalism anything beyond that it is natural. 

“I come from a scientific background,” David Chalmers modestly remarked. “I want everything to be natural,” he added at once, “reduced to the simplest possible set of laws and entities.”1

A Foundation for Belief

On this view, it is hard to see why stuff happens should not be considered a foundation for belief, the declaration requiring only two words and one substance. 

Materialism has just a bit more by way of oomph. From a material base, as Marxists might say ominously, everything. Within contemporary physics, the deduction of everything from something is by no means complete and remains in that empyrean of assurances of which your check is in the mail is a notable example. Nor is the requisite something persuasively a material object. On current physical theories, that material base is occupied by various quantum fields, where, like so many electric eels, they occupy themselves in quivering with energy. Leptons and bosons emerge as field excitations, and so does everything else. 

The great merit of materialism has always been its apparent sobriety. A world of matter? Look around! Bang the table, if necessary. Quantum fields do not encourage a look-around. There is no banging them beyond banging on about them. And for the most obvious of reasons. “Quantum field theory,” Lisa Randall writes, “the tool with which we study particles, is based upon eternal, omnipresent objects that can create and destroy those particles.”2

This is an account that suggests the dominion of Vishnu as much as metaphysical materialism, a point not lost on Indian physicists. And it may well change, that account, those infernal quantum fields vanishing tomorrow in favor of otherwise unexpected entelechies. 

What Everyone Accepts

There remains the curious fact that no one much likes what everyone accepts. What everyone accepts is something like the scientific system of belief. It is to this system that every knee must bend, with trust the science functioning both as an inducement and an admonition. If contemporary scientists are not voyaging strange seas alone, to recall Wordsworth’s epitaph for Isaac Newton, they are yet determined to put as much distance as possible between themselves and dry land. That quantum mechanics makes no sense is widely celebrated as one of its virtues. Not a day passes in which its weirdness is not extolled. As much might be said of the Eucharist, but with this considerable difference: scientific weirdness tends inexorably toward a kind of bleakness. “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie,” Pascal remarked3; and had he been acquainted with contemporary cosmologies in which the universe is destined to gutter out into something barren, formless, flaccid, lightless, and large, his anxieties may well have been proportionally increased.

Implacable and Unavoidable

The scientific system of belief remains what it was: implacable and unavoidable. There is no getting around it and so no getting out of it. The notes, incidental remarks, essays, and reviews that comprise this book represent an inside job, and it is in the nature of inside jobs that the inside jobber cannot expect outside help. It is an irony of any imperial enterprise, whether political, social, or intellectual, that it determines the conditions under which it may be criticized. 

For this reason, what I have written in this book is an exercise in self-criticism as much as anything else. I often wish that things were otherwise. “The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks.”4 No one quite gets what he wants — not in life, nor in love, nor, as it happens, in writing critical essays. 

— Paris, 2023

Cross-posted at Evolution News.

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Science After Babel