Living in an irrational world (cont’d)

To the rationalist, every problem, from the price of gas to the future of the universe, has one and only one correct solution.  Every other description of reality is therefore irrational, like claiming two plus two equals five.  The rationalist considers himself a worshipper at the altar of modern science, which since Newton’s day has, indeed, seemed to deliver a single rational answer to every great question regarding the world we live in.

Unfortunately, problems concerning human relations can’t be solved successfully by reason or science.  We’re too contradictory a species:  against the rules of logic, we can wish for a thing and its opposite — love and hate the same person, for example.  Our actions, our beliefs, and ultimately our happiness are determined by desires, evolved biologically.  Science can explain the material world, and even the drivers of human behavior, but has nothing to say about the stuff human dreams are made of.

For these reasons, I always found rationalism somewhat irrational.  It expects individuals and communities to behave in ways other than they always have.  Despite failures at every turn — a depressing list can be found in Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed — they have battered away at tradition in the name of the “science of man,” or “rationalization,” or “scientific socialism,” or whatever.  To repeat the same failed policies and expect a different outcome is the definition of political insanity.

But beyond the tangled complexities of human nature, it’s now pretty clear that the material world is irrational.  By that I mean that it can no longer be described by a single correct explanation.  In fact, if this NYT article is correct, cosmologists are having trouble coming up with any kind of explanation at all.

The universe is expanding at ever-faster speeds.  That defies what we know about gravity:  it’s as if Manny Ramirez’s 500th home run ball were still flying through the air, picking up momentum, never coming down.  That worked as great cinema in The Natural, but it’s making scientists crazy.

Although cosmologists have adopted a cute name, dark energy, for whatever is driving this apparently antigravitational behavior on the part of the universe, nobody claims to understand why it is happening, or its implications for the future of the universe and of the life within it, despite thousands of learned papers, scores of conferences and millions of dollars’ worth of telescope time. It has led some cosmologists to the verge of abandoning their fondest dream: a theory that can account for the universe and everything about it in a single breath.

And without further ado, and no additional comment in a field I am utterly unqualified to meddle in, I present a series of disconnected bits and pieces from the story.

“Dark energy has the somewhat unusual property that it was embarrasing before it was discovered,” he said.[…]

No fundamental principles can explain why Einstein’s constant, or any physical parameter, could be so small without being zero, Dr. Witten said.  Zero can be a fundamental number, but not a 1 with 59 zeroes between it and the decimal point. [. . .]

That idea has been given mathematical form by string theory, which portrays the constituents of nature as tiny wriggling strings, an elegant idea that in principle explains all the forces of nature but in practice leads to at least 10500 potential universes.[…]

“As for how I feel personally, I am not sure what to say,” [Dr. Witten] said in an e-mail message.  “I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic the first, or even the second, time I heard the proposal of a multiverse.  But none of us were consulted when the universe was created.”

As I wrote before:  the only obvious lesson to draw from all this is to embrace intellectual humility like a long-lost lover.  The arrogance of rationalism has no grounding in science.  Sometimes the answers are many; sometimes they are none.

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