F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
July 2005



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Possible Solution for the Two Brain Syndrome

David Griffiths

In a recent commentary (P&S, January 2005), A. M. Saperstein expressed concern at the tendency of his students to use two modes of thought – an “in-school brain” for science classes and an “out-of -school brain” for the rest of their lives. This gap has severe implications for our society. It implies that the students (and most citizens) cannot be expected to understand issues such as nuclear proliferation or global warming. The question arises, why does this two brain syndrome occur?

When my children went though junior and senior high school science classes I was appalled at the course content. The tendency was to present science as a set of absolute truths handed down by higher authorities. There was, of course, always a paragraph or two on the scientific method, but this was forgotten as quickly as possible. The courses drowned the students in a flood of “facts”, concepts and canned calculational procedures. In this situation the students could hardly be expected to appreciate the beauty and honesty of science. It was all they could do to survive from test to test. A quick perusal of high school science texts suggests the situation has not improved, and in fact the problem seems to be well known. The Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Education Project (Project 2061) commented that "Surprisingly, although the [high school biology] textbooks are filled with pages of vocabulary and unnecessary detail, they provide only fragmentary treatment of some fundamentally important concepts" (http://www.project2061.org).

In a recent NY Times article (Op. Ed. May 6th, 2005), Thomas Friedman, author of “The World is Flat”, remarks that “learning how to learn” is a key skill for the future. This requires that students gain the ability to distinguish honest from dishonest reasoning. Ideally physics should give the students a shining example of honest reasoning at its best. But what defines honest reasoning? It is certainly more than avoiding outright lies.

The idea of an honest reasoning (or proof) was pioneered in mathematics and led to the axiomatic approach, the key components being:

      -     Specification of the legitimate area of argument (geometry, laws of nature, morality, …..)

      -     Clear definition of the meaning of the terms used (point, line, mass, God, justice,….)

      -     An agreement as to the method of reasoning (Aristotelian logic, analogy,…)

      -     A statement of all assumptions & principles used (Occam’s razor, literal interpretation..)

      -     Consistency, that is, it should not be possible to prove a statement and its converse  

Consistency is a key aspect of honesty. A well known example is Galileo’s logical demonstration of the inconsistency of Aristotle’s statement that heavy objects fall faster than light objects. (Galileo Galilei, “Two New Sciences”, Dover Publication, page 64). Galileo points out that if you attach a light object to a heavier object to form a composite object then, you can argue both that the composite object falls faster than the heavy object, and that it falls slower than the heavy object. This inconsistency leads Galileo to conclude that the rate of free fall cannot depend on the mass (neglecting air resistance). The experimental demonstration is, however, more convincing than the logical demonstration.

The results of honest reasoning will depend on the starting assumptions. For example, one characteristic of scientific theories is that they typically assume the principle of uniformity, that is, the laws of nature are assumed to hold everywhere and for all times. This assumption is not provable, but might be called definitional, rather as Euclid’s parallel postulate is not provable but is part of the definition of Euclidean geometry. Change the parallel postulate and you get a different but equally honest geometry. In the same way it could be argued that an honest religious estimate of the age of the universe might be different from a scientific estimate if the religious theory substitutes literalism for the principle of uniformity. Even Newton tried to estimate the age of the earth using a literal interpretation of the Bible for dating purposes. However, while the initial assumptions are not subject to logic, for honest reasoning you would expect the assumptions to be consistent. However, a consistent literal interpretation of the Bible leads to the view that the earth is flat, and that the sky consists of an immense dome (firmament) with holes or doors to allow the rain to fall. Scholarly books on the Bible sometimes provide fairly detailed pictures of this model (for example, L. Boadt, “Reading the Old Testament”, Paulist Press, page 115) The honest literalist is thus faced with the problem that literalism leads to a conclusion contradictory to everyday experience. So to be honest the literalist must either drop the principle of literalism, use it selectively, make it vague, or deny everyday experience.       

While I doubt that any system of physics education could completely cure the two-brain syndome, I think we could improve the situation by reforming introductory physics courses. The amount of material should be reduced, and more emphasis should be placed on history, scientific reasoning, and the resolution of scientific controversies (this is where reasoning becomes interesting). The development of the heliocentric model and Newtonian mechanics could provide a fascinating case study of a controversy in the past. Global warming provides a contemporary example of the application of physics to a “controversial” issue. While the scientific consensus is that global warming is real and driven by CO2 emissions, powerful interest groups resist this conclusion, and the general public is confused. An introductory physics could demonstrate how honest reasoning applies to global warming, and should also be able to show the students the importance and relevance of key concepts such as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the absorption spectrum of CO2, and black body radiation.

In short, my view is that the best course of action to improve the “two brain” syndrome is to teach introductory physics as a shining example of the application of an honest brain to difficult and controversial topics.

David Griffiths
Ann Arbor, Michigan

David Griffiths recently retired from the Ford Motor Company where he did research in noise and vibration. Before joining Ford he did research in elementary particle physics at Argonne National Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University and Wayne State University.

The Role Of Faith

Emily Glad

As someone who believes in God and the eternal truths of His Word, I find it hard to reconcile modern scientific thought with the Biblical account of Creation.  In this regard, I am not unlike many other Christians.  Believers often find themselves fractured over this issue.  There are two basic camps of thought within the religious community: Those who believe in the literal seven-day creation account of Genesis and those who believe in a symbolic rather than literal interpretation of Genesis.  At its core is the often-heated debate between those who believe in a young earth and those who believe in an old earth.     

But why has this issue become such a litmus test for believers?  In fact, the issue is so divisive that many who subscribe to the young earth theory would go so far as to question whether or not those who accept the old earth theory have a genuine faith.  Their fear is that the rest of the Bible’s authority would be undermined if the opening chapter were not interpreted literally.  But in fact, each camp is so blinded by its own understanding of what is true that neither can see the fact that on the most important issue their is no disagreement between them:  Each equally embraces the unexplainable mystery of creation, albeit both choosing to explain this mystery in dramatically different ways. 

Amidst this debate I find myself grappling with the very same issues.  Why is it that my fellow believers and I must know the age of the earth, and why must there be such dissension when we have differing points of view?  We all agree that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” but somehow we’ve lost sight of that being the most important thing.  At the heart of the issue is how strong our faith as believers actually is.  And the question I must ask myself is this:  Does my faith in God take priority over man’s ability to explain rationally the world He has given to us?  I would hope that it does.  Because it is this faith alone that provides me with a meaningful existence.  Despite the progress science has made in its ability to explain the world around us, it will always be limited in its explanatory power.  After all, scientists are human just like the rest of us, and are we not all limited by our own humanity?  I would hope that despite man’s best efforts to prove scientifically a young earth or an old earth, he would not forget that there are eternal mysteries of the universe that we will never understand, despite all the rational, logical thought in the world. 

I find the universe to be awe-inspiring.  But when confronted with the cold calculated numbers of science, the cosmos becomes a vast, lonely place devoid of hope, and I feel overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance. At such a moment the only thing I have that has any meaning at all is my faith.  And I believe that is exactly where God wants me to be, fully relying on Him for understanding.  Science cannot prove the existence of God.  The question of His existence is far too abstract to be scientifically proved or disproved.  Yet that does not discredit my belief in Him.  God’s existence makes perfect sense to me, and not only to me, but also to countless other believers at every intellectual level.  I have no scientific proof, but I have a personal conviction of His presence. 

In reality for me it’s not so important how old the earth is.  Humanly speaking it would be comforting if I had a definitive answer.  But ultimately, what’s more important is that I have a faith that can hold fast despite all the answers that I don’t have.  Comforting thoughts and easy explanations are not promised to believers any more than they are to the rest of mankind.  The noted author and critic C.S. Lewis put it well when he said:

“It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us when we think about the nature of things.  It comes to intensify them.  Without such sensations there is no religion.  Many a man, brought up in the glib profession of some shallow form of Christianity, who comes through reading Astronomy to realise for the first time how majestically indifferent most reality is to man, and who perhaps abandons his religion on that account, may at that moment be having his first genuinely religious experience.”

We are none of us so privileged as to hold the answers to the mysteries of the universe.  It would be pure arrogance to think so.  In this regard, the scientist and the believer share the same position.  Brilliant men, such as Einstein, rather than becoming puffed up by their accumulation of knowledge have found themselves humbled by the unexplainable.  A good scientist should always allow the room to believe in something, and to concede to the fact that there is more going on than we can possibly ever know.  Because of this I recognize the danger of putting all of my trust in the strength of man’s arguments.  If I were to only believe what men tell me, I would never fail to be disappointed.  But if I put my faith in God, acknowledging that His ways and thoughts are higher than my own, how can I ever be troubled by the ever-changing knowledge of man?  This is not some blind faith that recklessly abandons all sensible thought, but rather a faith that embraces the peculiar and limited position of mankind. 

I believe that it is in the beauty of the unexplainable that faith is found.  Rationality is a gift from God, but it should never replace the need for God.  Nor is it necessary that all rational thought be scientific thought.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  But it is necessary that our rational thought does not prevent us from seeing the larger picture.  A person of true faith should be careful to view the knowledge of man through the lens of God’s eternal truths.  Likewise, the community of faith must be careful not to become so entangled in debates over the age of the earth that it loses sight of the beautiful and unexplainable mysteries of God’s universe.                  

Emily Glad
B.A. in Theater, Wayne State University, December 2004

School Boards Want to 'Teach the Controversy.' What Controversy?

Lawrencee M. Krauss

The recent so-called debates on the teaching of evolution in Kansas have me thinking about different theological reactions to the teaching of evolution.

The Roman Catholic Church, which stands on common ground with conservative Christians in opposition to abortion, and which is doctrinally committed to notions like the Virgin Birth, apparently has no problem with the notion of evolution as it is currently studied by biologists, including supposedly "controversial" ideas like common ancestry of all life forms.

Popes from Pius XII to John Paul II have reaffirmed that the process of evolution in no way violates the teachings of the church. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, presided over the church's International Theological Commission, which stated that "since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism."

At the same time, those who wish to include "intelligent design" in the science curriculum insist that if we leave the creator out of discussions of the origin and evolution of life, then such "naturalism" must be incomplete - and that it opens the door to moral relativism and many of the other ills that go along with it.

The ultimate extension of this position may be Representative Tom DeLay's comment that the tragedy at Columbine happened "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud." Evolutionary biology is not the only science that appears to raise theological issues.

As a cosmologist, I am reminded of a controversy that arose from the development of a consistent mathematical solution of Einstein's equations, devised in 1931 by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest and physicist.

The solution required what today we call the Big Bang. By confronting the conventional scientific wisdom that the universe was eternal, and instead demonstrating that it was likely to have had a beginning in the finite past - indeed, one that could certainly be said to be born in light - Lemaître was hailed by many, including 20 years later by PopePius XII himself, as having scientifically proved Genesis.

Lemaître, however, became convinced that it was inappropriate to use the Big Bang as a basis for theological pronouncements. He initially inserted, then ultimately removed, a paragraph in the draft of his 1931 paper on the Big Bang remarking on the possible theological consequences of his discovery. In the end, he said, "As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question."

"While this argument may seem strange, Lemaître was grasping something that is missed in the current public debates about evolution. The Big Bang is not a metaphysical theory, but a scientific one: namely one that derives from equations that have been measured to describe the universe, and that makes predictions that one can test.

It is certainly true that one can reflect on the existence of the Big Bang to validate the notion of creation, and with that the notion of God. But such a metaphysical speculation lies outside of the theory itself.

This is why the Catholic Church can confidently believe that God created humans, and at the same time accept the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of common evolutionary ancestry of life on earth.

One can choose to view chance selection as obvious evidence that there is no God, as Dr. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and uncompromising atheist, might argue, or to conclude instead that God chooses to work through natural means. In the latter case, the overwhelming evidence that natural selection has determined the evolution of life on earth would simply imply that God is "the cause of causes," as Cardinal Ratzinger's document describes it.

The very fact that two such diametrically opposed views can be applied to the same scientific theory demonstrates that the fact of evolution need not dictate theology. In other words, the apparently contentious questions are not scientific ones. It is possible for profoundly atheist evolutionary biologists like Dr. Dawkins and deeply spiritual ones like Dr. Kenneth Miller of Brown University, who writes extensively on evolution, to be in complete agreement about the scientific mechanism governing biological evolution, and the fact that life has evolved via natural selection.

Students are completely free to make up their own minds, in any case. What is at issue is whether they will be taught the science that should allow them to make an informed judgment. But impugning the substance of the science, or requiring the introduction of essentially theological ideas like "intelligent design" into the curriculum, merely muddies the water by imposing theological speculations on a scientific theory. Evolution, like Lemaître's Big Bang, is itself "entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question."

The Discovery Institute, which promotes "intelligent design," a newer version of creationism, argues that schools should "Teach the Controversy." But there is no scientific controversy.

State school board science standards would do better to include a statement like this: While well-tested theories like evolution and the Big Bang have provided remarkable new insights and predictions about nature, questions of purpose that may underlie these discoveries are outside the scope of science, and scientists themselves have many different views in this regard.

Or one might simply quote Lemaître, who said of the limitations of science and of his own effort to reconcile his scientific discoveries with his parallel religious beliefs: "To search thoroughly for the truth involves a searching of souls as well as of spectra."

Lawrence M. Krauss
Reprinted, with permission of the Author, from the NY Times,May 17, 2005

Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University. His new book, "Hiding in the Mirror," will appear this fall.



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