This weekend I came across my old copy of Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. I love the way he can make a topic like string theory and its relevance to everything from quarks to supernovas accessible to the average person.
One thing I don't understand, though, is why he seems to think that string theory tells us something definitive about the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural. He writes:
Many find it fatuous and downright repugnant to claim that the wonders of life and the universe are mere reflections of microscopic particles engaged in a pointless dance fully choreographed by the laws of physics. Is it really the case that feelings of joy, sorrow, or boredom are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain -- reactions between molecules and atoms that, even more microscopically, are reactions between some of the fundamental particles, which are really just vibrating strings?
He goes on to quote Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, who writes of people who are "appalled by what they feel to be the bleakness of modern science":
I would not try to answer these critics with a pep talk about the beauties of modern science. The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works.
I give them points for admitting that their worldview is depressing, but I'm not sure how we're getting from A to B on this one. Why does string theory suddenly make everything so bleak? Before we came up with strings we knew that all the wonders of the universe and human experience happened through the interactions of electrons, protons and neutrons. Why are strings more repugnant than atoms? There is no denying that tiny physical particles are involved in everything from sensations of happiness to supernovae. It seems to me that whether science reveals their fundamental building blocks of nature to be atoms or quarks or strings or tiny dancing elves, it's irrelevant to the question of whether or not there are realities that transcend the material world.
Greene writes that "a staunch reductionist would claim that...in principle absolutely everything, from the big bang to daydreams, can be described in terms of underlying microscopic physical processes involving the fundamental constituents of matter." Good stuff. I'm with him so far. But here's where he loses me: "If you understand everything about the ingredients, the reductionist argues, you understand everything."
If you understand the ingredients, you understand everything. I think this is a perfect summary of where modern atheism goes off the rails. A computer program could read and analyze the words of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, and even answer questions about its content. It could "understand" all the ingredients perfectly. But does that mean that it has grasped the essence of Sonnet 18? Scientists could attach a neuroimaging device to the head of a man who is reunited with the woman he loves after a long absence. The scientists could describe in great detail every part of his brain that was in use when she first walked in the room, and explain precisely how all the neurons were firing as he gazed at her. Would that data alone fully capture the moment?
Atheists, especially those of the "new atheism" variety, are hesitant to put too much stock in any experiential data, and thus they shun any feelings that would indicate that there's something supernatural behind the universe, relying only on what we can observe and prove through science instead. This view is useful to a certain extent: When people decide what's true and what's false based solely on feelings and emotional experiences, they can end up with all sorts of crazy beliefs. Certainly it's good to take the subjective, non-provable aspects of the human experience and balance them with objective, verifiable data. But that view, too, can be taken too far. The universe, like a Shakespearean sonnet, is not meant to be seen through an analysis of its components alone, and to do so would be to miss all of its poetic beauty.