Flies on God’s Coffee Table

A few years ago Nature — one of the most venerable and prestigious science magazines in the world — asked its readers who are primarily scientists what their attitude towards religion was and to what extent, if any, they believe in something we might call god.

Based on the responses, Nature then ranked the four main groups of its readers — mathematicians, physicists, chemists and biologists. the ranking was the following, from most religious to least religious:

1. Mathematicians
2. Physicists
3. Chemists
4. Biologists

The order is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it seems to be in the reverse order of the scientists’ proximity to study of life and living things. that is, the closer you see the inner workings of life and the more you work with them every day, the less likely you are to believe in something divine.

But more interestingly, it also seems to reflect the decreasing levels of abstraction in each of the sciences. Physics and chemistry were until very recently very descriptive, not highly mathematical sciences. today, they are increasing mathematical to the extent that a few years ago the chemistry Nobel Prize went to two mathematicians. Biology has been the last stronghold of verbosity and descriptive enumeration, but even this science — luckily — is changing.

This prelude aside, it seems to be very hard to explain why some great scientist such as Einstein used religious vocabulary in their thinking. Is it not anti-scientific to entertain religious thoughts? Is it a sign of clear senility and fear of death that drives them there towards the end of the life?

The von Wright Experiment

Georg Henrik von Wright

To answer this question, I often recall a thought experiment put forth by a fascinating Swedish-Finnish philosopher George Henrik von Wright who was a student of Wittgenstein, and succeeded him at Cambridge on his chair as a philosophy professor.

The von Wright thought experiment goes as follows. Imagine sitting at a coffee table in paris (or bombay for that matter), conversing with your friend and noticing a fly hovering above your coffee table. It is quite likely that the fly has very limited, if any, understanding of the conversation you and your friend are having. it is also missing several faculties to see and understand the world the way you see and moreover, it is probably completely unaware of your existence, at least the way you experience it.

But what if we are no different from the fly with respect to some other being? what if we are simply flies on god’s coffee table so to speak?

This is not to be taken very literally, but simply goes to illustrate that one way to understand consciousness of the world is that there are levels of consciousness in animal kingdom and the levels with less faculties or lower on the evolutionary food chain so to speak, cannot by definition understand levels above them.

Wright suggested that it is very arrogant to always assume that you are the last level. It is an instinctive thing to feel, but not necessarily the most logical then. This experiment is the best illustration of an agnostic attitude which — in my humble opinion — is the only attitude a rational person can have towards such questions. That is, rather than negating god (a-theos) we should be admitting that we simply cannot know (a-gnos).

Thus, for many scientists the question of religion reduces simply to being humble and admitting one’s limits since this is in fact the best attitude for learning, researching and observing things around you. So not only the best but in fact the only attitude towards learning is to put one’s ego aside and assume for a moment that you might not know everything. Because if we did why would we need science or any research. Or as einstein put it: “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”