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Question to Weinberg: On What Science Cannot Explain

Gingerich: Steve, you stated that there is a mysterious realm that science will never explain and that a similar statement is true about religion. What do you see as the nature of this mysterious realm? How is it different from your conception of a religious realm?

Weinberg: Well, the realm I refer to is just the - I do believe we will find, I am not certain about this, but I do believe that sometime in the next century or so we’re going to find that all our physical theories converge to a fundamental theory, maybe something like the string theories that people are talking about today, maybe something deeper, from which in principle all other scientific generalizations that don’t simply rely on historical accidents can be inferred. The mystery will be: why is that true? It will be something very specific, very crystallized into a clear scientific statement. We will then wonder why is it true? As I said there may be a chance of answering the question why it’s not slightly different, but we probably will not ever get the answer why the truth is not totally different.

There is the possibility that we may be able to show that there is no other logically consistent theory which would allow a rich enough universe to allow for people to be raising the issue. That doesn’t completely satisfy me but it may give some satisfaction. I mean when, for instance, you look for alternatives to quantum mechanics you think of Newtonian mechanics which don’t allow for atoms and I can hardly imagine how life could evolve in a purely Newtonian world.

But, on the other hand, the religious mystery is, well, a mystery of whether any of it is true which will always be with us because there’ll never be any - unless the flaming sword descends, unless miracles start happening again in a reproducible way that they haven’t - there’ll never be any way of being certain about religion and the truth as the religious thinker finds it will always be flexible, it will always be something that can be - that can vary indefinitely.

Polkinghorne: May I just say that, God forbid, if a flaming sword were to come and decapitate Steve before our very eyes that would pose a very big theological problem. Because that would be the capricious act of a magical, vengeful god and that’s not the God of my belief. You see the problem of miracles ...

Weinberg: It is the god, however, of your religious tradition.

Polkinghorne: Ha. I wouldn’t say that the religious tradition is unsullied with that belief but it’s certainly not the sole element, strand within that belief. The problem of miracles is the problem of divine consistency. God is not capricious but God is not condemned equally to dreary uniformity.

Weinberg: Well, it would pose not only a theological problem but a janitorial problem.

Contributed by: Sir John Polkinghorne and Steven Weinberg

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne: An Exchange

Question to Weinberg: On What Science Cannot Explain

Complete Dialogue
Question to Weinberg: What About Scientific 'Inspiration'?
Question to Weinberg: What is the Point of Living in a Universe with no Purpose?
Question to Polkinghorne: Can we Prove that God does not Exist?
Question to Weinberg: On Believing in Multiple Universes and Religious Faith


Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne

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