Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Barrow Full of Shit

I was going to discuss mathematician, cosmologist and physicist, John Barrow in the last post on math angst, but I thought he deserved his own post. I found an interesting talk by Barrow to the Royal Society, where he discusses what maths is (amongst other things):

'What is mathematics and why does it work' ? In this talk John Barrow takes a look at some of the ways in which mathematics can tell you things about the world that you cannot learn in any other way: how computers have extended the reach of human mathematicians, the simple nature of many hard' problems that no computer can solve, how to win at dice and even discover whether the Premier Football League is just a random process. He explains the modern concepts of chaos and complexity, showing how we can use them to shed light on Abstract Expressionist art, detect art fraud, and discover why it is possible to send spacecraft to the Moon with pin-point precision and yet fail to predict tomorrow's weather.
But now consider this: in 2006 Barrow was awarded a grant of over £700,000 from a religious organisation. From the Guardian:
So what is Barrow's work all about? His abiding point, it seems, is that science and religion need not clash in quite the manner that the likes of Richard Dawkins would suggest; as Barrow puts it, "Many of the deepest and most engaging questions that we grapple with about the nature of the universe have their origins in our purely religious quest for meaning. The concept of a lawful universe with order that can be understood and relied upon emerged largely out of religious beliefs about the nature of God." To ask the big scientific questions, he seems to suggest, is a quasi-religious enterprise - one that "has transformed the simple-minded, life-averse, meaningless universe of the sceptical philosophers" - and the mathematical aspects of astronomy are a perfect case in point.
Isn't this backdoor theism? Trust somebody who looks at the wonder of the universe (and the mystery of mathematics) to conclude that god is behind it all. For the rest of us who appreciate the answers evolution gives us, the mystery of maths is like the mystery of consciousness - it isn't going to make the universe pointful (and we won't find the signature of god in either location).

I say it often, but science never promised that the answers would be appealing - only that we'd try and get at the truth. Mathematics is strange, but then so is existence. The whole god damned thing is thoroughly absurd! But if things are ever going to improve, then the bare minimum required of science is to police its own members. Science and religion are mutually exclusive. Professor Barrow, step away from the money and let's feed some starving people. Scientists should not promote the supernatural. We've got a difficult enough job dealing with reality.