West London Humanists and Secularists

Discussion on the Relevance of Scientific Method to Humanism - Meeting 27/01/10

Our first speaker gave an introduction to a video that was shown of Lisa Randall being interviewed by Charlie Rose. He first gave a brief outline of the Anthropic Principle and its basis. It notes that the universal constants, such as the speed of light and the strength of gravity, happen to be very carefully aligned down to exact values such that human life can exist in this universe. Relatively small changes in the values of these constants could lead to an unlivable universe in which we could never have evolved. The Anthropic Principle then points to God/s as the engineer behind the fine-tuned values.

The speaker explained to us how new developments in theoretical physics created by people such as Lisa Randall could provide scientific proof for a counter argument. Lisa Randall has been a Professor in the field of theoretical physics at MIT, Princeton, and now Harvard. She is very keen on promoting public understanding of physics, which is why the speaker recommended her interview. Part of her proposal is that the universe we can see exists on a 3-dimensional slice, or "brane" in a space with, probably, 11 dimensions in which at least one other "gravity brane" also exists. If the existence of these branes could be proven, there could be many billions of universes, or even infinite universes with every imaginable combination of universal concepts. In that case our liveable universe would not be a bizarre coincidence, instead it would be highly probable without needing a God for explanation. Also a "trial-and-error" approach would not be very indicative of a designer.

The speaker then gave some background information about the Large Hadron Collider, LHC. He explained that a Hadron is a strongly bound body composed of gluons, quarks, and other such sub particles. The most common example of a hadron would be a proton. In the LHC, protons are stripped from hydrogen atoms and send round a huge track until they are moving at near the speed of light. They then collide with another stream traveling at the same speed in the opposite direction. The collision produces a huge amount of excess energy, and it is theorized that this should make the protons 20x more massive for a short time. Lisa Randall proposes that Gravitons could be created at this moment, and then immediately leave our brane and travel to the gravity brane. Detecting Gravitons in the LHC could lead to proof that there are many universes, and that we are not uniquely created by God.

The video (click to view) was then shown: For those interested in Lisa Randall's book, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, a paperback edition is available in the UK.

After the video, discussion was opened up to the group. Topics of discussion included the media treatment of science, and of scientists such as Lisa Randall who do a fair amount of work as popularisers of science. A comparison was made with Feynman, but then dismissed as Randall is a pure theoretical physicist, and Feynman a theoretical physicist with a strong experimental leaning. The question was posed as to whether most people really know enough about science to be able to consider it in a Humanist context. There was debate over whether school children are currently learning enough scientific thinking, and how the situation could be remedied. We asked why should physics be exciting, and do children have an innate ability to question scientifically when they are young? There was talk about an analogy with the Poverty Gap, in terms of a Knowledge Gap, where some families and sections of society are disadvantaged by poor education.

Discussion also covered the group's opinions on Gravitons, whether we could see them in our universe, and what the significance would be if we found them. This brought up a question over what constitutes proof - it was pointed out that the meaning of proof is very different depending on whether it is mathematical, scientific, or just proof in everyday life. We spoke about how it is interesting how scientists deal with the conflict of ideas between them and their colleagues, and how peer review is deeply involved in the scientific form of thinking. In personal terms, we were interested in how developments in the LHC would have a bearing on our everyday lives, and whether we could know enough about the universe without getting into any "hard maths". It was commented that the LHC could be seen to be "solving a problem I didn't know I had" - Randall's theory worked on the basic assumption that gravity should be as strong as other nuclear forces, but could we not just accept that gravity, by it's nature, is weak? We finished with an observation that if popular science is opening the minds of some people, and improving their understanding of how science works, then it is very commendable.

Our second speaker was David McKnight from Humanists 4 Science, a special interest group affiliated with the BHA. David Mc Knight is also a member of the Berkshire Humanists Society. He started with an outline of H4S's history, including the first attempt at a special interest group for scientists set up by Madelaine Pym in 2003. A few years after the first society failed, David McKnight was one of the co-founders of the new society, H4S. H4S aims to provide a forum to discuss matters of science, and to hopefully turn more scientists into active Humanists. They also aim to represent science in local Humanist groups and in local society as a whole.

The H4S website can be found through the BHA website under "Meet Up/Groups/Special Interest Groups", where they host a mixture of discussion topics. David McKnight asked us what should Humanism be doing for science? He put forward that maybe we should be helping communicate science to more people, and encouraging scientific thought where it occurs as a natural quality in children. He made the point that each one of us is a scientist whenever we try to rationally understand the world around us.

David spoke about dissecting science into separate processes which could be demonstrated in a human and friendly way. He emphasized that it should be explained so as to help people see the "nuts and bolts" by only using common-sense English. He ended with an invitation to contact him if anyone would like to be more involved in H4S, or if anyone has ideas and suggestions for them.

We ended the meeting by viewing a clip on the development of Cyborgs. We asked whether machines will be taking over, and whether the line between humans and machines will become blurred in the future.

E.R. - 15 February 2010