“If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” –Jocasta Nu, very wrong Jedi archivist in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”
There’s an old story intended to illustrate the observational bias that plagues certain branches of science. No one knows for certain who first came up with it, but QuoteInvestigator.com tells it thus:
A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success, then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.
“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.
The so-called “streetlight effect” is the manifestation of this kind of laziness or confusion in any discipline. The investigator asserts the nonexistence of something based on his inability to study it using a given methodology or sample.
Natural sciences have fallen into veritable slavery to this illusion. We regularly hear neurologists attribute consciousness, morality, emotion, and any number of other intangible experiences to chemical reactions in the brain. Late last month, particle physicist Brian Cox joined them by declaring with cringeworthy confidence that the missing keys of metaphysics must be under the streetlight of his particular discipline.
In a special edition of his “Infinite Monkey Cage” podcast, Cox told Neil Degrasse Tyson that ghosts and spirits can’t possibly exist, because if they did, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, the large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Council for Nuclear Research), would have detected their energy signatures:
If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That’s almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies.
In other words, as The Independent summarized, “If ghosts existed, they would need to be made of pure energy, since by their very definition, they can’t be made of matter. But if they were made only of energy, they would quickly dissipate, because the second law of thermodynamics proposes that energy is always lost to heat.”
Tyson asked Cox to clarify whether he had just asserted that CERN disproved the existence of ghosts. Cox replied, “Yes,” and the two shared a hearty guffaw.
Judging by this exchange alone, it’s difficult to tell how serious they are. But given the taste celebrity scientists like Cox, Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and others have developed for metaphysical conjecture, there’s little reason to doubt that these men really believe they have a solid argument against the existence of a spiritual realm.
Their smug confidence brings to mind Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s purported words after returning from Earth orbit: “I looked and looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” (This quotation probably originated in a speech about the flight by Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, as Gagarin was himself a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.)
Either way, C. S. Lewis’ reply, as quoted by Timothy Keller in “The Reason for God,” is devastating: Saying God doesn’t exist because you didn’t see Him in space is like saying Shakespeare doesn’t exist because Hamlet can’t find him in the attic of his castle.
What we have in Cox’s analysis is not a scientific statement of the least value, but an assertion of philosophical materialism. His first principles dictate that nothing exists outside of the physical realm of quarks, leptons, and fermions. Ghosts, if they’re real, must therefore be composed of such elementary particles. But since no “ghost signature” has been detected during all the subatomic target practice performed at the Large Hadron Collider, they must not exist.
It’s a tidy little syllogism if we ignore the fact that, as any third-grader could tell you, ghosts and spirits don’t inhabit the physical universe, and aren’t made of the same stuff as stars, planets, black holes, and gluten-free bread. Cox and Tyson un-self-consciously chortling at their own cleverness are little better than Ghostbusters waving pseudoscientific instruments around a haunted house hoping to detect “anomalies.” They’re trying to smell the color nine.
Tyson’s involvement should have signaled this not-so-subtle shift from genuine science to amateur-hour philosophy. He’s already firmly established himself as a virtuoso scientismic sermonizer with his 2014 remake of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series. (Evolution News has an outstanding point-by-point critique of Tyson’s parade of anti-religious propaganda and historical howlers). And his boilerplate about the power of science to forge a perfect society built on facts and objectivity is a subject I’ve written about in the past.
I wouldn’t be so hard on him or Cox if everyone paid attention when they discussed their areas of expertise and dismissed them when they waxed eloquent on subjects on which the local grocer rivals their authority. But their dime-store physicalism is routinely passed off by the media and popular culture as the final word on questions of ultimate meaning, spirituality, and God. It’s tiresome for me, as a layman, to listen to this stuff. I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for someone trained in theology or philosophy.
Ghosts, spirits, angels, demons, and God aren’t made of matter or energy. They’re on a plane of reality as inaccessible to the instruments of science as the ascended Christ is to the Hubble Space Telescope. That is why, to invoke a core concept of Christian theology, these beings must specially reveal themselves to us. They must make the first move, which is what theists have been insisting they do since before modern science was a twinkle in Western Civilization’s eye.
So although particle physics offers us a wonderfully clear view of the material universe, scientists in this and other fields need to understand that there are worlds of knowledge outside the light of their lamppost, and perhaps—for once—try looking for the keys somewhere else.
Image courtesy of Thomas Northcut at Thinkstock by Getty Images.