February 16, 2014

"Since the Enlightenment, one mode of science has always been dominant, the top metaphor that educated people use to talk about experience."

"In most of the twentieth century, physics played the role of super-science, and physics is, by its nature, accommodating of God: the theories of physics are so cosmic that the language of physics can persist without actively insulting the language of faith. It’s all big stuff, way out there, or unbelievably tiny stuff, down here, and, either way, it’s strange and spooky. Einstein’s 'God,' who does not play dice with the universe, is not really the theologian’s God, but he is close enough to be tolerated. With the great breakthroughs in understanding that followed the genomic revolution, evo-bio has become, insensibly, the model science, the one that so many of the pop books are about—and biology makes specific claims about people, and encounters much coarser religious objections. It’s significant that the New Atheism gathered around Richard Dawkins. The details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism (Lamarckian ideas of evolution could be accepted tomorrow, and not bring God back with them), but the two have become twinned in the Self-Making mind. Their perpetual invocation is a perpetual insult to Super-Naturalism, and to the right of faith to claim its truths."

From Adam Gopnik's excellent essay "Bigger than Phil/When did faith start to fade?"

55 comments:

rhhardin said...

A citation I use to prove that ad hominem was not originally an insult but rather playing to the opponent, but it happens to go into faith and science

``Some time since I had a pleasant discussion with a university professor who held that faith and knowledge are in inverse ratio. As the area of knowledge enlarges, he claimed that of faith diminishes correspondingly. Once people accepted by faith what has since become known, and science has thus made faith superfluous in all such things. The professor admitted, however, it was not likely that knowledge would ever entirely banish faith; there would still remain some unexplored regions where faith could find room, and so preachers could still find a field for their activities. I came back at this professor with an argumentum ad hominem, "Is it true," said I, "that the more knowledge your wife has of you, the less faith she has in you? And is it true that the more you know of her, the less faith you have in her? In your home are faith and knowledge in inverse ratio? If so, I pity you both." It is not true that knowledge excludes faith. The more you know of your family physician, the more faith you have in him. The more soldiers know of their general, the greater their faith in him; else the army is in a bad way. The more we know of our friends the more faith we have in them. The greater a man’s knowledge of nature, the greater his faith in nature. Intelligent faith is not weaker than ignorant faith.''

rhhardin said...

Queer as it sounds : The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this : _not_, however, because it concerns `univeral truths of reason'! Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief. This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (ie. lovingly). _That_ is the certainty charactrerizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something _else_.

A believer's relation to these narratives is _neither_ the relation to historical truth (probability), _nor yet_ that to a theory consisting of `truths of reason.' There is such a thing. - (We have quite different attitudes even to different species of what we call fiction!)

I read : ``No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.'' - And it is true : I cannot call him _Lord_; because that says nothing to me. I could call him ``the paragon,' `God' even - or rather, I can understand it when he is called thus ; but I cannot utter the word ``Lord'' with meaning. _Because I do not believe_ that he will come to judge me ; because _that_ says nothing to me. And it could say something to me, only if I lived _completely_ differently.

What inclines even me to believe in Christ's Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. - If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. _He is dead and decomposed._ In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer _help_ ; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, - what I need is _certainty_ - not wisdom, dreams or speculation - and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my _heart_, my _soul_, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say : Only _love_ can believe the Resurrection. Or : It is _love_ that believes the Resurrection. We might say : Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection ; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, _redemption_. Holding fast to _this_ must be holding fast to that belief. So what that means is : first you must be redeemed and hold on to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) - then you will see that you are holding fast to this belief. So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then _everything_ will be different and it will be `no wonder' if you can do things that you cannot do now. (A man who is suspended looks the same as one who is standing, but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless quite different, so that he can act quite differently than can a standing man.)

_Culture and Value_ p.32-33 (1937)

rhhardin said...

That was Wittgenstein

Ann Althouse said...

"believingly (ie. lovingly)" was great.

traditionalguy said...

Without a spirit there is no authority on earth...only murder and theft.

The Spirit that made a deal with Abraham,Isaac and Jacob claims to be the Ancient of Days creator God.

Why reject His offers to govern us through Jesus?
Such a deal!

Science and rational enlightenment
Still needs His authority as much as Abraham did.

Ann Althouse said...

"believingly (ie. lovingly)" made me think of this paragraph in Gopnik's essay:

"If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love."

lemondog said...

We can probe and delve the universe, speculate, postulate, purpose theory, assert axiom, but no one can know the infinite, the mind of God.

etbass said...

1. If one accepts that the accounts of miracles and the resurrection of Christ did not happen because they could not have happened, then forget about God. He doesn't exist because He could not possibly exist.

2. On the other hand if one examines the historicity of the gospel accounts as other ancient history, then one must do something with the accounts of miracles and the resurrection. Their historicity has been accepted through the ages by many intelligent and learned men.

3. If 2., then faith is based on more than feelings but rather the account of the scriptures. And science is left with yet another mystery that it has not answered.

SteveR said...

Einstein’s 'God,' who does not play dice with the universe, is not really the theologian’s God, but he is close enough to be tolerated.

He claims a lot of insight here which I maintain is not possible to have.

Original Mike said...

"But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—"

It's a stretch, to put it mildly, to equate the two. So the atheist is human; what a surprise.

n.n said...

So many pitfalls for everyone ranging from atheist to theist. The common thread, however, is faith. Sometimes it is a faith in a divine God, while more often it is a faith in mortal gods. It is a human predisposition to favor intelligent design. The atheists are well known for their schemes which have caused misaligned development on unprecedented scales. Atheists and agnostics are notorious for preferring immediate or instant gratification. Theists are notorious for their apostasy. Both would do well to moderate their egos.

As for humanism, it is not merely irrational, it is based on two articles of faith: individual dignity and intrinsic value, and specifically exceptional human dignity and individual diversity; otherwise, it is a product of enforcement or coercion. The people who anthropomorphize animals are in the minority, and either adhere to an alternate faith or possess ulterior motives. This is similar to abortionists who either believe in the principle of spontaneous conception or whose conscience is captured by their personal wellbeing.

It's amusing that they would offer the juxtaposition of anthropomorphism and pattern matching as a distinction between atheists and theists. This is a false distinction. In fact, science has become corrupted by people gifted with an extraordinary (almost supernatural) ability to detect designs in esoteric patterns, which may be and are often chaotic figments of their imagination.

Anyway, the debate between atheist and theist philosophies can only definitively be settled by referrals to articles of faith. The Judeo-Christian faith, for one, is in an entity which exists outside and independent of space-time. Their claim is that this God created space-time, and the rules which govern them. This faith cannot be extinguished through an understanding of physics nor is it incompatible with the philosophy of science, which is constrained to a limited frame of reference.

Oh, well. It's a struggle between humans and simian derivatives. While the latter offer money, sex, and self-esteem as inducements, the former should not lose hope, as most people still prefer liberty through morality to structure their lives.

Bob R said...

Evolutionary biology is today's "super-science" because it's pretty easy for stupid people to understand. Don't get me wrong, I think there is a good deal of substance in it. But it can also be used as a series of "Just So Stories" without any real rigor or testable hypotheses. The fact that Freudian psychology (which has failed so many tests) preceded evo-bio as the favorite science of English majors should give evolutionary biologists pause, but it does not seem to cause them to loose much sleep.

n.n said...

God does not "play dice with the universe". The universe is chaotic by virtue of its incomplete characterization and unwieldy stature. The dice that humans throw are merely an estimation of the system's behavior and composition. This struggle to understand is the domain of human development.

Our most notable failures are motivated by a need to maintain a pretense of intelligence design on progressive scales, which invariably result in misaligned development. Many people are afraid of organic or evolutionary development, and will defer their dignity to a mortal god(s) who promises them security, comfort, and convenience.

n.n said...

Bob R:

We need to distinguish between "Evolutionary Theory", especially the article of faith describing origin, and the principles of evolution, which are high-level descriptions of the process.

Original Mike said...
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Original Mike said...
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Original Mike said...
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Original Mike said...

"But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God?"

I think the latter.

I spent the first half of the essay wondering where he was going; what was his point? He seemed to be making the (in my view lame) argument that "atheists are theists too." But I warmed to it.

"And here we arrive at what the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins."

YoungHegelian said...

The New Atheists attack faith because attacking faith with the claims of "Reason" is shooting fish in a barrel. Always has been. Always will be.

But in their relentless attacks on faith, the New Atheists are playing the Sophists. They know that's not where the problems lie with their thought, and they know that when the spotlight gets shown on where the problems lie, they don't make out so well.

There's nothing new about Positivism. The 19th C. was chock full of it. What's new is that they claim this time, by gumber, we've got the science (evolutionary psychology) to make the claims stick.

Well, maybe. But materialist theories of mind are notoriously tough rows to hoe. That's why the default setting in 2200 years of Western philosophy is some form of mind/body dualism, and when someone went monistic it was mind that swallowed matter.

If you want to read two very good texts that pummel the shit out of the New Atheists here's two of them. From a theistic point of view, there's Where the Problem Really Lies by Alvin Plantinga. From an atheistic point of view, there's Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel. Here's an article on Nagel's book from the Weekly Standard.

And, yes, this will be on the test.

Joan said...

We know that men were not invented but slowly evolved from smaller animals; that the earth is not the center of the universe but one among a billion planets in a distant corner; and that, in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature.

Here Gopnik reveals his own (unfounded) faith, which is that science has explained (or will explain) everything in the natural world.

But it hasn't. Take gravity, for instance. We know it's there, and we can describe how it works, but we don't know why. We know, for example, that a current is a flow of electrons, and we can describe particle decay and radioactive half-lives and why Earth has a magnetic field, and even why that flips (new theories, awesome). But we don't understand where gravity comes from, other than that we know that all matter has an attractive force to all other matter. It's just something that is, and we haven't figured out the "why" yet.

If someone asks me why I believe in God, since I'm a science teacher, my short answer is: gravity, without which the universe could not exist. (Longer answers involve words like "elegance" -- the more I learn about the natural world, the more awed I become.)

Yes, I know the theoretical physicists are working on a Unified Theory of Everything, and they will probably get there one day -- totally amazing. But all that will mean is that we (the smartest of us, anyway) can finally understand what God did in creating our universe.

I take issue with Gopnik's labeling our time a "Western Age of Fatuity", because I think he meant to refer to the abundance of material wealth we now have, not an abundance of inane foolishness. I concede he may have meant that we're all stupid (except the atheists?), but that seems a bit harsh for him.

And his close is, well, fatuous: But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God? Of such questions, such causes, no one can be certain. It would take an all-seeing eye in the sky to be sure.
I suppose he's trying to be cute/funny, but after the preceding quite serious stuff, this just comes off as dumb, to me. Even the most religious pray more fervently in troubled times. Gopnik should connect the dots between this and his brief history of atheist high points:

There do seem to be three distinct peaks of modern disbelief, moments when, however hard it is to count precise numbers, we can sense that it was cool to be a scoffer, trendy to vote “No!” One is in the late eighteenth century, before the French Revolution, another in the late nineteenth century, just before the Russian Revolution, and now there’s our own. A reactionary would point out, with justice, that each high point preceded a revolution that turned ugly enough to make nonbelief look bad.

It's not reactionary to notice that atheist regimes are responsible for some of the worst behavior in the history of humanity, but Gopnik admits that only parenthetically ("with justice"). Regardless, it doesn't take an all-seeing Eye to realize that while there may actually be a few atheists in the foxholes, it's the believers who survive the wars.

chrisnavin.com said...

Well, after reading that piece and the comments here, I can confidently declare the matter settled.

Thanks everyone, for showing up.

Bob Boyd said...

Beware the intellectual who is determined to convince Phil's replacement that he doesn't need to be afraid of lightning.

Michael K said...

" the New Atheists were polemicists"

I have found some creationists who do very well as polemicists.

Joan said...

Gopnik need not be so smug about Lamarck, either:

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/411880/a-comeback-for-lamarckian-evolution/

n.n said...

YoungHegelian:

Perhaps Nagel is not a student of history. Challenging an established orthodoxy has never been a pleasant experience. He should consider himself fortunate that they have not gone beyond shunning and mocking.

David said...

We humans don't know everything.

In fact we know very little as a group and next to nothing as individuals.

Yet skepticism and humility are in chronic short supply.

Explain.

YoungHegelian said...

@n.n.

Nagel's a tenured "rock star" in the world of philosophy. He'll survive, I'm sure.

Ann Althouse said...

"Gopnik need not be so smug about Lamarck, either:"

Why are you reading what he said as smug? I don't see that at all.

Anglelyne said...

AA: "From Adam Gopnik's excellent essay..."

Not just excellent but excellent? How so? It was a pleasant enough little excursion into style-section New Atheists v. God-botherers stuff, I guess. Are there standards of excellence for that sort of thing?

Or this sort of thing: "My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design." Well, I should hope so. But that's a pretty low bar to set to for someone to qualify as favorite atheist blogger.

Or was there something else going on there that you found not only excellent but excellent that I'm missing?

n.n said...
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n.n said...
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n.n said...

YoungHegelian:

Sure, the "rock star" status helps; but, so does the presence of empowered competing interests to moderate the extreme responses. Still, the local skirmishes will persist. As the latest climate science-cum-philosophy entanglement will attest.

Jan Blickenstaff said...

Almost everything we do is based upon faith/trust/belief/knowing in somebody. Throw the light switch on the wall "knowing" that all the employees and machinery of the power company are doing their job correctly. We believe the truck driver on the other side of the white line will stay there and we will pass at a combined speed of 120mph. We have to take physics on belief and authority, since most of us cannot take the time to study it out for ourselves. We believe a lot of this based upon our experience with other drivers, light switches, teachers and experts. My Faith in God is based upon those same but different kinds of experience, teachers, and experts. Faith is not really hard stuff to do. Faith is an atheist's boogeyman that they can argue and rail against. They have nothing positive to say, only negative.

virgil xenophon said...

Ever since the great Agustus Compte conceived of the concept of logical positivism the intellectual tide has been running in favor of the secularists to such an extent that, save for a few Catholic universities, almost no Dept of Philosophy or professor of political philosophy will admit of the existence of "natural law"--a higher law eternally existing superior to man-made laws and upon which the Founders believed all man-made laws should be guided--the very bedrock upon which this nation was founded. Without a belief in its existence as an expression of Gods universal truths, the constitution as a restriction against the predations of man is useless. (As we have increasingly witnessed) Yet I am always amused when the secular followers of logical positivism, deniers of the very existence of natural law, once their gaze is directed beyond our shores, are the very first to seize upon this concept ("human rights") to use as a prophylactic against the depredations of tyrants and their corrupt puppet legislatures in third-world countries. No little savage irony in that..

Original Mike said...

Damn blogger.

Crimso said...

"But we don't understand where gravity comes from, other than that we know that all matter has an attractive force to all other matter."

By some models, yes. General relativity provides an explanation for the "apparent" force that is gravity (matter is not attracted to other matter, but rather mass curves spacetime; what appears to be an attraction is instead an object following its Newtonian path through space, a curved space). You may fairly (and properly) then turn the question to the nature of spacetime, or alternate theories of the nature of gravity.

Eventually, it devolves to "cogito ergo sum" anyway. IMHO, believing anything beyond that must require faith (though not necessarily religion). Most people to whom I've expressed that view don't like it. I think they view it as solipsism, but I have faith that something besides my kernel of self-awareness does objectively exist. Call it a hunch.

Jon Burack said...

I am not as enamored of this essay by Gopnik. Instead I recommend Ross Douthat's take on it.

http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/among-the-believers/

He says, "the possible conceptions of God are not exhausted by the lightning-hurling sky-god and the mostly-irrelevant chairman of the board."

Gopnik himself then splits the second of these groups, the defenders of a remote chairman of the board deistic entity, up into two subgroups: "Expert defenders are more and more inclined to seize on the tiniest of scientific gaps or to move ever upward to ideas of God so remote from existence as to become pure hot air." Personally, I do not think most of the great religious thinkers either of the past or present waste any time at all on the lightening-hurling god. They do not view gaps in science as all that relevant to the issue, and lastly, they do accept the idea of divinity as remote from our existence. It does not seem to me Gopnik grapples with these thinkers, the only ones in my view who really matter.

Original Mike said...

"We believe the truck driver on the other side of the white line will stay there..."

Actually, this one I actively suppress.

Original Mike said...
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Original Mike said...

"But we don't understand where gravity comes from..."

We understand where gravity comes from; it's the geometry of space. Per Crimso, I think the question is, "what is space-time?"

fizzymagic said...

n.n said...

God does not "play dice with the universe". The universe is chaotic by virtue of its incomplete characterization and unwieldy stature. The dice that humans throw are merely an estimation of the system's behavior and composition.

As a real-life physicist, I am afraid that I must point out that what you say here is demonstrably false. Read up on Bell's theorem, and on the Conway-Kochen theorem. Your description is what is known as a "hidden variables" theory, which has been known to be untenable for over 50 years.

The Universe is far stranger and more wonderful than human minds can (yet) appreciate.

Ann Althouse said...

Maybe the paragraph I excerpted is hard to read out of context. I really do recommend the whole article, which I genuinely think is excellent in covering ideas about atheism over the years and what it is missing. I think he is sympathetic to the human intuition toward religion.

If you can't see that in my excerpt, please go on to read the whole thing.

Original Mike said...

I liked your excerpted paragraph a lot, A.A. I think it's easy to be a believing physicist. Most I know are, though it didn't stick with me. It's hard for me to see how you could be a believing biologist.

Crimso said...

"what is space-time?"

IIRC, Einstein was once asked whether spacetime would cease to exist if all matter and energy were removed from it. He said it would. Someone (an Einstein biographer?) explained it as matter/energy cause spacetime to exist, but spacetime dictates how matter/energy behaves. Not sure about the theory behind all that (not a physicist and still trying to get a handle on topology and tensors to really tackle general relativity).

So perhaps Einstein's work really does touch on the very nature of existence. And would God, existing (for the faithful), necessarily have to fall within the very concept of existence itself? I tend to view the idea of "God" as being beyond the bounds of both science and metaphysics, and thus outside of or larger than the concept of existence itself.

RecChief said...

my faith does not preclude my understanding of science, nor is my understanding of science at odds with my faith. There are those out there who say that if you understand science then you can't believe in God. And I feel sorry for those people.

Lydia said...

Gopnik on the few people who actually "considered the alternatives" and yet still believe:

[they] do believe in someone—a principle of creation, a “higher entity,” that “ground of being,” an “idea of order,” an actor beyond easy or instant comprehension, something more than matter and bigger than Phil. And they certainly believe in some thing—a church, a set of rituals, a historical scheme, and an anti-rational tradition.

"an anti-rational tradition"? I guess Gopnik's never read any Aquinas, or Ratzinger, or even Francis Collins.

The Godfather said...

In olden times, the religious had the upper hand, because they could explain everything. Then, 500 years or so ago, some began to claim that science could explain everything, so there was no need for religion. Stephen Hawkings wrote a book a few years ago that purported to explain how the universe could come into existence without assuming a creator. His explanation required (it seems to me) more leaps of faith Genesis 1.

Physicists now say that something like 97% of the universe must consist of dark matter and dark energy -- neither or which they have ever seen or measured; these are concepts that are necessary to explain observations about how the universe behaves for which we have no explanation. Do you remember the luminiferous aether?

None of this has anything to do with my faith in God, but it ought to give pause to those who claim that there must be no God because we don't need that concept to understand the universe.

James said...

Jesus Christ I hate pop-science articles. Anyone talking about Einstein who doesn't know differential geometry should really shut the fuck up.

Joan said...

Special relativity and the curvature of space time is (to me) just another language expressing the same idea. It's all a wash, anyway, because we're still left at describing effects and not getting to the original cause or "why". Please forgive me if I haven't kept up, I've been out of that loop for decades.

Ann asked why I read Gopnik's reference to Lamarck as smug. I had written out a much longer post explaining how insulting that comment is, but I decided not to post it, since it wouldn't really further the discussion.

Let me attempt to explain: Lamarck's hypothesis was discredited (relatively) immediately after it was published, as Mendel's work with genetics became more widely known and scientists began to understand how inheritance (usually) works. So, Gopnik's comment was the kind of insult you only realize as an insult if you know what he's talking about.

To translate: Even the cognitive dissonance caused by embracing Lamarckian Inheritance wouldn't be enough to make believers out of scientists. If he'd wanted to insult chemists, he'd have said Lavoisier was wrong and we should all go back to measuring phlogiston.

It's just one of the reasons that I, too, question your designation of the article as not just excellent but excellent. Gopnik's survey of the development of atheism is somewhat interesting but his analysis (if that's what you want to call it) falls far short of excellent.

Joan said...

AA said, I think he is sympathetic to the human intuition toward religion.

That explains why you didn't read that Lamarck comment as smug

Gopnik tagged this as an age of fatuity, which again sounds a lot like an insult to me. I didn't find much sympathy or respect.

Fen said...

Really interesting thread guys. Thank you.

Anglelyne said...

AA: I really do recommend the whole article, which I genuinely think is excellent in covering ideas about atheism over the years and what it is missing. I think he is sympathetic to the human intuition toward religion.

It wasn't a bad short summary of the development and fortunes of un-belief, but his discussion of belief was a cartoon. Gopnik's "sympathetic" understanding is remarkably incurious - I assumed he was referencing Mel Brooks jokingly, but apparently he was invoking him as a philosopher, as his explorations of belief don't seem to have gone much further afield than Phil-anthropes. The old guy in the sky with the white beard? The IDer with the cilia obsession? Lol, I was surprised he didn't invoke the flying spaghetti monster.

I wouldn't label this sort of thing "smug" - more like "perhaps well-intentioned but too incurious to get around to examining the received views of his peer group". Maybe that is one way to describe smugness. If I were a believer, I'd probably feel enough irritation to call it smug.

James said...

Special relativity and the curvature of space time is (to me) just another language expressing the same idea. It's all a wash, anyway, because we're still left at describing effects and not getting to the original cause or "why".

SR and GR are quite different, and harmonizing them is pretty much the whole project of finding a theory of quantum gravity.

Mitch H. said...

But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God?

Sooner a camel might pass through the eye of a needle, than a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven. Who knew?

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