Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lord Kelvin

William Thomson was a British mathematical physicist, engineer, and seafarer who lived back in the 1800s. He had a long and storied scientific career, which included notable success in a number of different subfields, including thermodynamics, a physical science concerned with the relationship between heat and energy. After his efforts in contributing to the development and laying of the first trans-Atlantic communications cable, Thomson was knighted. Ultimately, he became known as Lord Kelvin.

An internet search of quotes by Lord Kelvin will likely turn up a few that you might recognize, even if you could not previously relate who they came from. At a recent scientific conference, one of the speakers dressed one of his Powerpoint slides with one of his quotes that gave me pause,

"When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science."

The context of this quote was obviously related to what could be termed "hard" science and what separates it from conjecture, speculation, superstition, or philosophy. However, as I continued to consider these words, to roll them over in my mind, it finally occurred to me that they also pertain directly to the issue that so many have with religion. Religion cannot be approached using true scientific inquiry. Seemingly no experiment can ever be devised to conclusively prove the existence of God. Some might then use this to argue that as the basic tenets of religion cannot be tested experimentally, then it must surely disintegrate under the unerring gaze of logic and reason. Some have called religion a crutch for the weak-minded. It wasn't until I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis that I began to appreciate, to recognize how false this line of argument was.