Wednesday, July 13, 2011

If relativity hadn't predicted the precession of Mercury, would skeptics be obligated to study Einstein's proofs in detail anyway?

A thought occurred to me while commenting over at Jerry Coyne's blog, and I just want to give a more concise version here.

The equations underlying the theory of relativity are quite elegant and beautiful. A friend of mine tells me of a modern physics class he was taking where the students burst into applause when the professor finished the derivation of E=mc2. So much complexity is summed up so simply and in such a cohesive theory.

This suggests that it might be true, but it's not evidence. One of the first solid pieces of evidence in favor of relativity was that it accurately predicted the precession of Mercury. And of course many more observations came later which confirmed the value of Einstein's theory over Newton's. One by one, the skeptics were forced to take Einstein's work seriously.

But let's imagine an alternate reality where relativity hadn't made this prediction, and in fact it's prediction for the orbits of all the other planets was somewhat less accurate than traditional Newtonian dynamics. Would a contemporary skeptic still have to take Einstein seriously? Would Einstein have been justified in saying, "You simply don't understand the math behind it. Look how elegant this equation is! Look how it unifies space and time in such a concise way! If you aren't convinced, I think you really need to read my book..."?

No he would not. And in a world where, it seems to me, the evidence against theism is overwhelming, we are under no compulsion to explore logical arguments for God. Arguments based on pure reason are often useful, but they ultimately carry very little to no evidential weight. I don't need to understand Aquinas' Five Ways in detail, or be able to point out the flaws in them, because I can just look around say, "Welp, no gods here. Must be some flaw in his reasoning or a concealed false assumption or something." Pure reason is valuable, but it has no power to convert the skeptic, nor should it. And that goes whether you are talking about science or theology.


  1. It's really interesting that special relativity took so long to verify experimentally -- I think that GR was verified first!

    Here's wikipedia on some experiments that retroactively constitute evidence:

    The textbook experiment confirming time dilation/length contraction with muon decay was done in the 1940s:

    And the relativistic doppler effect was measured around 1940:

    ...whereas GR was confirmed in 1919 by Eddington.

    There's interesting discussion about the feet-dragging by the German scientific establishment in accepting the validity of relativity in the Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson.

  2. Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find a completely different well-reasoned Understanding of scientism and reductionist religion via these references. Einstein meets Jesus

  3. I agree that the most compelling "proof" of gods non-existance is gods silence in observable reality around me. I look around and see no god. Hence I'm a non-theist.
    It's a leap to say though that if that's your experience too then you and I have no duty to understand other peoples subjectivity. Or theologies.
    I'm not saying you do have such a duty, I'm just saying your conclusion is a step removed from your argument about special relativity.
    Personally I think theology is still meaningful even without believing in God because it is the resolution of our ideals (the perfect being/world) with reality whether by chance, design, decay, hope and other means. Its the device we pin right, truth, etc on.
    Essentially even science is at heart a moral exercise; you have a duty to investigate special relativity when it outperforms Newton, why?
    Science is under philosophy which is really theology by another name.

  4. I had to read this a couple times before I think I get what you are saying. It's an interesting angle... If I can test my understanding: You are saying that even if we are no compulsion to understand theology as it relates to anything factual, there are potentially other reasons to compel a person to understand theology, which aren't addressed by this line of argument.

    It's a fair cop as far as it goes, but since this post was mostly in regards to understanding the theology of theologians (as opposed to the the theology of your average pew-filler), I think it still mostly stands up. Or at least, if this argument doesn't stand up, then there are literally billions of believers who are failing to do their proper duty in educating themselves on sophisticated theology so that they "understand other people's subjectivity".

    I think you make a reasonable case that atheists/nontheists ought to make an effort to understand why people believe. But I don't think this relates at all to pleas from theologians and apologists that atheists explore the nuances of the Ontological Argument (and don't forget Plantinga's modal bait-and-switch version!) or understand the metaphysical implications of God as the Ground of All Being. That stuff is not why people believe; it is the theoretical realm of specialists.

    Ordinary folks are ordinarily under no compulsion to understand the realm of specialists. There is no obligation to understand N-dimensional calculus, to know how to perform as an oncology surgeon, or to be able to do a textual critique of Ulysses. However, I would generally say that if you are going to deny the conclusions of the specialists, e.g. if you are going to deny relativity or insist the world is flat or only 6000 years old, one is then under an obligation to understand that realm a best one can.

    And this post is explaining why I think theology is an exception to that rule.

    I still find it interesting personally, as it seems do you; but I think that, unlike other fields with "experts", a layperson is fully justified in denying the factual conclusions of theologians without bothering to learn anything about their field. That's all I'm getting at.

    And for that matter, I think a layperson is fully justified in dismissing string theory out of hand, until some testable predictions come along.

  5. Sorry James, my point was so minor you might have missed part of it (not saying you missed it entirely) and it relates really to my own questions rather than your post anyway.
    I'm not saying you do have a duty to study theology, I'm just saying your idea that you don't suggests something fascinating to me. That is that we can extract a duty to adhere to a belief or follow a line of thinking for one or another "obvious" rational reasons - such as we "shouldn't" be illogical or "shouldn't" ignore a lack of results. This leap is so instinctual we seldom mention it but it ignores the is-ought divide and so contradicts logical positivism and the claim that morality is nonsense (somewhat) by being a moral claim based on what is.
    I think this leap exposes a moral framework in which all thought occurs even the dryest logic. However these moral values have to have apriori status. I agree with the is-ought divide and that morals can't be logically determined. So where does that take me... theology?
    You picked up that I like theology despite its pseudo-science of the spaghetti monster and the reason is that their the positing of a moral universe is common. They play with it.
    I agree there is no empirical substance to their worlds but I'm not sure that's an issue. There's no empirical reality to the shoulds of rationality or empiricism. Is that a fair test of what we should pursue?
    Anyway none of this is meant to derail your well written post. It's an obscure philosophical dilemma youre as duty bound to answer as anything or nothing really. Just on my own mind.
    Hope this even makes sense. And I realise you're own point was more about those theological "proofs" of the existence of God. Which is rather dull but useful still for illuminating what constitutes "proof".