Steven Weinberg essay

From: John W Burgeson (
Date: Fri Jun 29 2001 - 16:24:03 EDT

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    Stephen Weinberg, the University of Texas Nobel Prize winner, a gentleman
    I respect highly, a non-theist, has an essay entitled "Can Science
    Explain Everything? Anything?" dates May 31, 2001 which is available on
    the net at

    This site is the beginning of about 10 pages, each its own web page,
    which make up the body of his essay.

    Dr. Weinberg was challenged once by a fellow faculty member who said to
    him, "Well, of course, you know science does not really explain things --
    it just describes them." Dr. Weinberg, taken aback by this, penned this
    essay in response.

    A cat may look at a king, so the old adage goes, and so I will make a few
    comments on Dr. Weinberg's essay for this list.

    Because Dr. Weinberg's worldview is that of a non-theist, he falls into
    an understandable, but distressing, trap on page two, where he says,

    "Perhaps some of those who mean to say that science describes but does
    not explain mean also to compare science unfavorably with theology, which
    they IMAGINE (caps mine) to explain things by reference to some sort of
    divine purpose, a task declined by science."

    The fact that the word "imagine" in the above is a pejorative term
    probably never occurred to Dr. Weinberg; it is pejorative for his
    innocence. For Dr. Weinberg, confessedly a non-theist, can almost by
    definition have no idea of "theology" in its operative sense.

    Perhaps the error can be described better this way. Suppose a Ph.D.
    theologian were to write these words in a similar essay:

    "Perhaps some of those who mean to say that theology explains but does
    not describe mean also to compare theology unfavorably with science,
    which they IMAGINE (caps mine) to describe things by ignoring divine

    Now the fact seems clear that both describing and explaining are parts of
    both science and theology, albeit with different referents and different
    rules of engagement with the issues. But Weinberg says, on page three,
    that "It is not the job of philosophers ... to dictate meanings of words
    different from the meanings in general use." Of course, this is done all
    the time, by everyone, not only philosophers. What happens next is that
    Weinberg begins arguing about word meanings, rather than issues of
    substance. Or so it seems to me.

    Don't get me wrong, this is a good essay and worth reading, perhaps even
    keeping (I shall do so). I gained a new insight into the task of science
    on page 4 when Weinberg wrote, "... physicists are interested in the
    explanation of regularities, of physical principles, rather than of
    individual events." I KNEW THAT! But I had never articulated it to
    myself. It was an "aha" recognition of a part of science which is so
    fundamental I had assimilated it without thinking.

    Weinberg says later that "... we explain a physical principle when we
    show that it can be deduced from a more fundamental physical principle."
    The balance of his essay enlarges on this claim, with a focus on the
    three words "fundamental," "deduced," and "principle." It is darn good

    I find it interesting that Weinberg uses the words "we believe" in an
    explanation of quantum chromodynamics (about page 5) and then makes the
    bold (IMHO) assertion that "we already understand the strong nuclear
    force well enough to KNOW (caps mine) that no new laws of nature will be
    needed in this calculation." He sounds here like the 1890 US Patent
    Office manager of lore.

    Weinberg's discussion of the differences between "principles" and
    "accidents," about page 9, is excellent, although he again says "... we
    know..." in a place where, perhaps, a milder term would have been more
    appropriate. He does use a softer touch, a page or so later, when he
    observes that "But we have to keep in mind the possibility that what we
    now call the laws of nature and the constants of nature are accidental
    features of the big bang ... ." Yet two pages later he slips back into
    the "senior scientist" role when he says "Only when we have this final
    theory will we KNOW FOR SURE (caps mine) what is a principle and what an
    accident, ... ." I have to wonder what Clarke thinks of such wording.

    In the ninth section (about page 18 or so), Weinberg returns to his
    primary question, whether science can explain everything. Here the prior
    developed concept of accident plays a key role, and I found it very
    convincing. Weinberg wrote: "Physicists try to explain just those things
    that are not dependent on accidents, but in the real world most of what
    we try to understand does depend on accidents."

    After arguing that science can never explain any moral principle (most of
    us here would agree), he softens the thrust of the essay by writing,
    "There are also limitations on the certainty of our explanations. I don't
    think we'll ever be certain about any of them. ... You give up worrying
    about certainty when you make that turn in your career that makes you a
    physicist rather than a mathematician."

    Again -- read Weinberg's essay. This cat has looked at a king; Weinberg
    is a king for all my pebble throws.

    John Burgeson (Burgy)
           (science/theology, quantum mechanics, baseball, ethics,
            humor, cars, God's intervention into natural causation, etc.)

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