Einstein: Know your History


I finished reading The Trouble with Physics by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. In this book Smolin tackles the current state of physics and its lack of progress in solving the five fundamental questions.albert-einstein It was an interesting read, though if you are not someone who tackles popular works of science I would recommend Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe first.

Toward the end of the book, Smolin laments the inability of the scientific community to jump start another series of great discoveries, like those of the early twentieth century, to help move science forward toward finding the grand Theory of Everything (TOE). He attributes this to an academic system that rewards master craftsman who don’t challenge the current theories, while also failing to promote an environment for seers to flourish.

[Seers] go into science because they have questions about the nature of existence that their schoolbooks didn’t answer. If they weren’t scientists, they might be artists or writers or they might end up in divinity school.

Master craftsmen are those who are technically excellent at doing math and science. The are great at doing what Smolin (and Kuhn) call “normal science”. But most are not seers. Seers are typically less proficient than their colleagues in the “technical areas” but possess the ability to dream seeing what others miss. Einstein, as you might have guessed, was a seer. His insights and challenges to Newton provided the fuel for special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory.

Smolin goes on to write that seers are frustrated with the educational system due to its lack of appreciation for “the historical and philosophical context in which science develops.”

Here is a portion of a letter, Einstein wrote to another physicist that appears in the book.

So many people today … seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

What does this have to do with theology?

Read Einstein’s letter again. This time replacing scientist with theologian and you will probably see what I am driving at.

The “prejudices of our generation” that taint our thinking can lead to Vulcan theology.

One of the ways in which we can combat this tendency is by wrestling with the way a doctrine has formed. In theology all too often the historic formation of doctrine and the history of the interpretations of passages are ignored. But when we stop and ask – what is the history behind a particular point of view and how does it relate back to the  orthodox consensus of the early church – a couple of things happen. We can be exposed to new ideas that we might otherwise miss. And more importantly we may find that the ties to early orthodoxy are sketchy at best. For more on how this might work check out how the early church can be bumpers on the bowling alley of theology.

Another method to combat our tendency to fall into Vulcan theology is to look at our theology as a whole. As we do this we should be wrestling with how consistent our views fit with all of Scripture. And just as important we should be vetting how logically consistent our interpretations are with all the others we hold. It is not uncommon to study various passages and wrestle with the possible interpretations available to us based on the grammar, context, and situation of the writing. But if we don’t look up to see the forest for the trees we may end up adopting a patch work set of interpretations (the trees) that make for one inconsistent whole (the forest). We may not ever achieve the TOE for theology but if can at least identify our assumptions and our logical inconsistencies we will have a better understanding of God as He has revealed Himself.

2 thoughts on “Einstein: Know your History

  1. You are better at seeing the forest than most, which we’ve already learned about you : ) So to put you on a tight schedule will be to miss blogs like this where you wake up with a great idea.

  2. Since Smolin’s book The Trouble with Physics was written in 2006 (prior to the discovery of the Higgs) I was curious what if anything might have changed in the last 10 years. I found this article on Scientific American where Lee Smolin was interviewed.

    Here is his current assessment of physics, particularly string theory:

    Horgan: Have the problems you identified in The Trouble with Physics gotten worse?

    Smolin: I identified two kinds of problems: scientific issues and sociological issues. The scientific issues I described which trouble string theory have not progressed much. While there has been development of the mathematics related to string theory and also progress on applications of an idea (AdS/CFT) )that originally arose in string theory to other fields, the obstacles to taking string theory seriously as a fundamental theory of nature remain unsolved. Among these are the lack of a complete definition of the theory, the landscape problem, the absence of any falsifiable predictions for doable experiments and the failure to prove key conjectures such as finiteness.

    So in a nutshell nothing has changed regarding the feasibility of string theory.

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