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October 27, 2003

Gregg Easterbrook -- Wait! It's

Daniel Radosh

Gregg Easterbrook -- Wait! It's a new subject, I swear! -- is back with another appalling display of ignorance. "Physicists rather casually speak of ten unobservable dimensions, in addition to the obvious three, existing in our own reality, all around us," he writes. So, why, he asks, is the idea of an unseen divinity so preposterous? "If at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or top schools, you proposed that there exists just one unobservable dimension--the plane of the spirit--and that it is real despite our inability to sense it directly, you'd be laughed out of the room. Or conversation would grind to a halt to avoid offending your irrational religious superstitions. To modern thought, one extra spiritual dimension is a preposterous idea, while the notion that there are incredible numbers of extra physical dimensions gives no pause. Yet which idea sounds more implausible--one unseen dimension or billions of them?"

First of all, I hang out with a lot of folks who don't believe in a deity, and quite a few who fervently do. And I've never heard either group laugh at the other, or avert their gaze in embarrassment. Like many culture warriors on both sides Easterbrook has a bit of a martyrdom complex, asserting a hostility to religion that isn't remotely as commonplace as he'd like to believe.

But more importantly, his post is a dud regardless of whether you believe in God or not. You see, physicists simply do not speak of multiple dimensions "rather casually." They raise the possibility of such dimensions an increasingly likely possibility -- because many long hard years of scientific experiments and calculations have led them to believe that these dimensions can explain certain observable phenomena. That's a revolutionary theory, and while it's becoming more accepted, it's certainly not thrown about "without batting an eye," as Easterfuck says. I'm the first to admit that I don't understand the math, but I get that there is math behind it, while claims about God are backed by non-math (faith, most commonly, or other kinds of evidence). If I'm reading Eastbrook correctly he's saying: string theory and God both sound weird; therefore they're both the same type of claim; but God has fewer dimensions; therefore, God is more plausible. I don't know what's worse, his grasp of physics or his grasp of theology.

It doesn't help that GE conflates rather casually, I must say the notion of 10 or so dimensions, which is fundamental to string theory and largely accepted as a realistic model that has met repeated tests, with that of "billions of unseen universes," which is, at this point, merely a theory, and one that even its proponents admit is a leap of imagination. Proponents of billions of unseen universes, unlike those of one unseen deity, are saying only that based on what we know so far, such a thing is at least possible, and worth studying worth attempting to disprove, in fact (that's how science works) because we could learn something in the process even if it turns out not to be true. See if you can spot GE's error in this passage:

Recently The New York Times science section offered a nice story about a researcher, Maria Spiropulu of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who is trying to confirm the existence of other dimensions experimentally...

But the article left out the really interesting part, which is what the question of other dimensions says about the spiritual debate. At Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other top schools, researchers discuss ten unobservable dimensions, or an infinite number of imperceptible universes, without batting an eye. Scientists banter offhandedly about invisible realities that might incorporate trillions of billions of galaxies, and suppose such things are real in spite of there being no physical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation. No one considers discussion of other dimensions to be peculiar. Ten unobservable dimensions, an infinite number of invisible parallel universes--hey, why not?

Yup, the second graf completely contradicts the first. How does "trying to confirm the existence of other dimensions experimentally" in any way mean the same thing as "banter offhandedly" and "suppose such things are real in spite of there being no physical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation." Um, that's what the experiments are for: to look for the evidence! If anyone was doing similar experiments and calculations in an attempt to prove (or disprove!) the existence of God, then you'd have a parallel. Theists I know would hardly endorse such experiments, it's probably worth mentioning.

If I seem a little more unhinged than usual about this, I think it's because I'm beginning to detect in GE's work a pretty disgusting hostility toward secularism (and even rationalism). Imagine how he'd feel if someone wrote a post exactly like his mocking, with zero understanding, the tenets of his religion - and even the way its adherents dress.

Anyway, I know some folks who say string theory is God.

I'm giving up on Gregg, but anyone who wants to get a grasp of this fascinating area of science absolutely must read The Elegant Universe. It's one of those books that will change the way you think about the world. It's not a hard read, either, but if you'd prefer, at least check out the Nova adaptation that starts tomorrow.

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