In the spring of 1974 I was in a tenth grade chemistry class that involved a little more math than I was comfortable with (i.e., an amount greater than zero). As I was browsing in the bookstore of the local university one day I saw that they had hand-held calculators for sale, and I decided that I had to have one for that chemistry class. Now, this was 1974, remember, and calculators then were not very advanced. The one that I wanted, manufactured by Texas Instruments, could do the basic arithmetic functions, plus square root, percentage, and–the feature that, for some odd reason, I was most excited by–it had a separate key for the value pi. That was all the thing could do, and the price tag was $124, a hefty sum even now but in 1974 dollars that was some real dough we were talking about.
I mention that story because at the time we were told that hand-held calculators were among the benefits to society at large that came from the space race. Yes, we paid billions of dollars to put a man on the moon, but not only did we beat the pants off the Soviets in doing that, we also got to have hand-held calculators to balance our checkbooks for us. Was it worth the billions of dollars–not to mention the lives of astronauts like Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White–to get those calculators? Well, of course, we put men on the moon, too, but even 40 years later it’s a little hard to see what we gained by doing that–so far the payoff of the space race has come in the form of new technologies, even though it is also true that we learned a lot about moon rocks and how to land machines on surfaces where gravity is not as strong as on the earth. I suppose the question I’m posing is this. Forget about calculators as such, and think more in terms of byproducts of scientific research aimed at something other than the byproducts we get along the way. The calculators are merely symptomatic of the fact that lots of scientific research winds up having nice results that we hadn’t necessarily expected. It seems fair to say, however, that if we had simply raised the question: would it be possible to make a very small machine that could do lots of complex math for us very quickly, we could have answered that question–and produced the calculators–for a lot less money. And no lives would have been lost or even put at risk in the process. It seems to be a matter of what sort of question one begins by asking. (I will simply pass over in silence the fact that the space race also had consequences of extremely dubious value, for example, more sophisticated rockets capable of conveying much deadlier payloads over greater distances with more accuracy. Not all scientific side-effects are equal.)
On Wednesday the Large Hadron Collider at the European Center for Nuclear Research succeeded in sending a stream of protons through a 17-mile long, circular tunnel. (My favorite particle physicist, Stephen Barr, has an essay at First Things on this topic.) Later they will try sending another such stream through the tunnel going the other way. The plan is to try, eventually, sending two streams through the tunnel in opposite directions, so that they smash into each other, busting up the protons into trillions of bits and pieces. The purpose of this research is to try to find out more about the conditions in the universe in the nanosecond after the big bang, at a time when the fundamental laws of physics, and indeed the fundamental fields and particles that physics studies, were radically different from what can be observed now. Among the things the scientists will be looking for in their experiments is the Higgs-Boson, the so-called “God particle”. Elementary particles are always associated with a certain kind of field or force, and if we think of elementary particles as having certain kinds of “jobs” to do, we find that there are particles responsible for such things as the strong and weak nuclear forces, the electromagnetic force, and other similarly basic, fundamental aspects of reality. In the case of gravitation, no particle has yet been discovered that could be said to be responsble for the graviational field, though the existence of one, called a “graviton”, has been postulated. Hence, the “graviton” is what we might call a “theoretical entity”, an entity that has never been observed but that plays an essential role in our overall physical theory. The physical theory within which these “jobs” are defined also predicts that there will be a field (a particle is really just a waveform in a certain kind of field) that has the “job” of causing elementary particles to have masslike properties. I say “masslike” because the photon, which is the particle associated with the electromagnetic force, is massless in the classical sense. Before things get too technical, let’s just say that the Higgs boson, associated with the Higgs field, is as yet unobserved, but appears to play one of the most fundamental causal roles in the nature of What Is in the universe, hence its nickname.
In the essay at First Things that I link to above, Stephen Barr notes that, in his own view of things, the properties of the Higgs field as we experience it can be explained “anthropically”. An anthropic principle is rather strange, in my view. It says (usually) something along the following lines: Our object of study (in the present case, the Higgs field) ought to have property P, but property P is incompatible with the universe as we experience it–in particular, if property P were present in the universe, then there could be no life in the universe, and yet there is life in the universe (specifically, human life), hence property P is not present in the universe, and this counts as the explanation of property Q, which is defined as the absence of property P (that is, Q = “what the universe is like as we experience it”). It’s that last part, in italics, that I find strange and not very explanatory. But I will save that topic for another day.
Personally, I find this sort of stuff extremely interesting. Indeed I think that, for me personally, it is just about the most interesting subject matter in science. If I had more brains and less math anxiety I would have become a particle physicist myself, but that course was closed to me in 1974 when I realized that my TI calculator was a lot better than I at doing math, even though it couldn’t do anything more than what any 8th grade math student could do. When I was in high school I was basically an atheist, and so at the time I was interested in “fundamental explanations” for another reason: it seemed to me that they were the only sorts of explanations that were the least bit plausible. This may be an assumption made by others who do this sort of research, and that may go part of the way towards explaining why someone might think that the discovery of the Higgs boson, which would virtually complete our present physical theory, would finally make belief in God literally obsolete. Famously, there are already a few folks who think that evolutionary biology has already accomplished that task on its own, but if you’re of that particular mindset you probably can’t help thinking that the Higgs boson will be the last nail in the coffin of religion.
I have already argued at some length against that sort of myopic view of explanation at my other blog, An Examined Life. Just search on key terms like “determinsim”, “explanation”, “materialism”, “Dawkins”, and the like, and you’ll find plenty to read. What I would like to suggest here is that the work of the LHC introduces another, slightly different problem, one related to the problem of the space race: the problem of cost. The LHC has already cost 8 or 9 billion dollars, depending upon whether one gets one’s numbers from the New York Times or CNN. Well, as someone once quipped, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money. For the past several days I have been listening to news stories and watching documentaries about the LHC, and in every single one of them the topic of the cost of the work is introduced as a kind of annoyance brought on by people who don’t understand the value of scientific research. One story, aired Wednesday afternoon on NPR’s All Things Considered, even included remarks from American scientists who lamented the fact that the Europeans are the ones who are doing this work, when we could have been doing it ourselves down in Texas at the Superconducting Super Collider, if only Congress hadn’t cut the SSC off from the public dole back in the mid 1990s. The race into outer space has been replaced by the race into inner space.
As valuable as I think knowledge is for its own sake, and as much as I think that this knowledge, in particular, is among the most valuable sorts of knowledge there is (I heartily agree with Stephen Barr’s assessment of it), I cannot help but think that this project is among the most massive wastes of money the world has ever seen. In my opinion, we should be grateful that it is the Europeans instead of us who are throwing their money away on this project, but we should, at the same time, lament that the money is being wasted at all, given the manifold ways in which it could have been deployed to ease human suffering. Many of the scientists interviewed on NPR on Wednesday, or on the BBC or the various other news outlets that have focused in on this story, were falling all over themselves trying to explain how this research will have many benefits to society above and beyond the purely theoretical benefit of possibly completing our physical theory. For example, it is because of this sort of research that we have certain kinds of radiation therapy for cancer; it is because of this kind of research that we have the world wide web and the internet; it is because of this kind of research that we have cell phones; it is because of this kind of research that we have been able to train up a generation of extremely gifted scientists; the list goes on and on, and I do not deny that society as a whole benefits from research of this kind, even in more important ways than just getting new and better calculators and cell phones.
Take radiation therapy, for example. That was among the first benefts listed by a scientist from Puerto Rico who was interviewed Wednesday on NPR. Is it really true that the particular sort of proton therapy that this person was talking about would never have been invented without the work done by particle physicists looking for the answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything (if you follow that link, be sure to compare the last sentence of the first paragraph with what I wrote here)? In case you’re still thinking about that one, let me help you out: the answer is No, it isn’t really true. It is contingently true that it was this research that lead to the discovery, but we could have made the discovery simply by taking some of those 8 or 9 billion dollars and devoting them to cancer research, just as we could have produced hand-held calculators without sending men to the moon along the way. It’s all about the kinds of questions you are trying to answer, and how you propose to go about answering them.
It is arguably the case that one does not need to justify certain sorts of expenditures even if all they happen to produce is a deeper knowledge of how the universe Is. As Aristotle famously maintained, the lover of wisdom does not seek knowledge because it is useful, but for its own sake (Metaphysics 1.2 982b12-27). The question only arises because we have competing values: sure, we value knowledge for its own sake, but we also value our quality of life, and it seems as though medical research contributes more directly to issues of quality of life than does research into fundamental particles. In particular, the value we place on the quality of life affects the manner in which we are able to live out the Gospel calling to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and in general be present to our fellow men as Christ and God are present to us. This is our greatest calling: we are the Sacramental Sign of God’s presence among us, and we manifest that sign by our care and concern for one another. It is what makes us One, it is what makes us the Body of Christ.
At his blog Sacramentum Vitae the other day Mike linked to a short video of John Cleese doing what can only be described as a brilliant send-up of the materialist reductivist scientistic worldview (how’s that for a trainwreck of a compound noun). It occurred to me that, not only is it a brilliant send-up of a banal and vapid worldview, it also hits upon a profound truth. We have grown accostumed to thinking that we have a genuine explanation for something when we are able to give an account of the elements of that something along with an account of the reason why those elements are arranged as they are. This is the reductivist approach to explanation, and for the most part it’s not a bad approach. When the explanandum is a material entity, reduction works quite well (though not always). The universe that we inhabit is, of course, a material one, so reduction is always at least possible, whether or not it is always fully explanatory. The search for fundamental particles and the forces associated with them is, thus, a reductive exercise. The difficulty is, however, that while reduction can explain those things that are available to us empirically, it cannot possibly explain everything, since not everything is empirically available. This assertion is denied by materialists, of course, but if one is not a materialist (and there is no rationally compelling reason to be one globally) then one will understand that our physical sciences cannot explain literally everything. They can only explain material, deterministic phenomena at a local level. Global explanations require something else entirely.
One of the great gifts God has given the Christian is the capacity to see how greatly enhanced our understanding of What Is is when we live the sort of life that God calls us to. Unless you understand how and why we are to be there for our fellow men, you will necessarily fail to understand the most important feature of the universe. You can know literally everything there is to know about the material constituents of the universe and how they interact with one another and still fail to understand anything that is the least bit important about the universe. Consider the case of a neuroscientist who understands the faculty of vision better than anyone on earth. He can give you a complete breakdown of every material process involved in, say, seeing the color red. He can tell you about the sorts of photons that will trigger the right sorts of reactions int he retina, how those reactions are communicated along the optic nerve by neurochemical reactions, how those signals are then processed by the several visual cortices in the brain, etc. In short, he can give you a complete, physicalist, reductivist account of what happens when somebody sees the color red. But suppose that he, himself, has never actually seen the color red in any form. If you were to bring him a red rose and let him look at it, do you suppose that he will be surprised by the experience of actually seeing red for the first time? Will he come to know something, or at least be cognizant of something, that he was not cognitively aware of before? If your intuition is that actually seeing red, knowing what it’s like to experience that sensation, is somehow above and beyond the mere material components of the process that is causally responsible for someone experiencing that sensation, then you will be on the road to seeing why it is the case that simply knowing all the physical parts of the universe and how they work is still not as important as being in the universe in a certain way, experiencing existence as it was meant to be experienced. God, it turns out, is not a particle at all, but he is The Explanation.
Given how much money our government wastes every day, it is difficult to begrudge the physicsts their paltry 8 or 9 billion dollars. I don’t know how much of that money was privately raised, so I can’t complain (at least not here) about confiscatory taxation rates going to fund exotic forms of navel gazing. But I do think that it’s worth urging the scientific community to think more deeply about questions of this sort. Is it really the case that we are willing to pay any price to obtain a certain form of knowledge? This is an issue that arises in the case of embryonic stem cell research, too. Some researchers are unconcerned about the status of human enbryos, and they dismiss moral worries about them on the grounds that the research has the potential for very great benefit. The benefit, if it comes at all (which is not at all certain), will come at a great price, since every embryo is a human being. Since stem cells can be obtained from other sources than human embryos, it is worth asking whether the lives of human beings ought to be sacrificed in order to give us the new forms of knowledge that will come from their sacrifice. Perhaps Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White would say that they knew that there was a risk that they would lose their lives in the space race, but that they took the risk anyway on the grounds that it was worth such a risk. The difference between that sort of sacrifice, however, and the one demanded of the embryos, is that their choice was freely made. Embryos are not capable of making choices, and it is unjust to make choices for them. Nobody would claim that Grissom, Chaffee, and White died so that we could have calculators, but then again nobody would say that they ought to have given their lives if that were the only way to get men to the moon.
Oxfam International provides an oral rehydration kit that can extend the life of a starving or dehydrated person by many days. These kits cost just pennies to produce, and Oxfam, famously, is one of those charities that maintains extremely low overhead, so for every dollar you donate to them it is possible to distribute several of these kits to people who are starving or dehydrated. Let’s be overconservative and say, just for the sake of argument, that a dollar donated to Oxfam gets a single rehydration kit safely into the hands of one starving or dehydrated person, and extends that person’s life for just three days. Eight billion dollars would still end the problem of dehydration for nearly everyone suffering from it. Much depends upon politics, of course, since you can’t even give food and water to the people in Burma, but the point is still an important one: money can be more or less wisely spent, and the history of the late 20th century seems to me to be a history of poorly spent money. It’s also a history of money raised in unjust ways to be distributed by incompetent government organizations, but I won’t go on and on about how taxes could be a lot lower if people just did what they are called to do on their own, without government coercion.
So as fascinated as I am by the workings of the universe, and as prone as I am to doing things like taking the toaster apart to see how it works, I think that if I had a choice between taking the toaster apart to see how it worked and giving the toaster to some family who didn’t have one, I would give it away. I suppose someone might object to me here, Hey, give a man a toaster, and you can give him toast for a few years, but teach a man how a toaster works, and you can give him toast for the rest of his life. How do we know that research into elementary particles won’t give us what you’re looking for–how do we know it won’t help us to care for one another? Well, I guess we don’t know that with any kind of certainty. Maybe we’ll discover some Star Trek like technology that will save millions from all sorts of suffering. That’s why I’m not saying research like this shouldn’t be done at all. The problem, as I said at the outset, is all about the questions we’re asking, and the sorts of answers we’re expecting to find. We need to think some more about those sorts of things.