Ludwig Boltzmann was a successful nineteenth-century physicist who extended the work of James Clerk Maxwell in understanding how the movement of atoms and molecules explains many of the properties of things. He was a professor at the University of Munich and later at the University of Vienna. His greatest success was explaining the nature of entropy (see the comments on post 16.18). However, he had constant disagreements with other powerful physicists in Austria and what is now Germany because they believed that atoms and molecules were just ideas and not real particles. In the end Boltzmann killed himself because he could not live with the criticism of his work.
Boltzmann was very successful as a scientist and has several laws and a fundamental constant named after him
Other ways of thinking may lead to his life being considered as less of a success. For example, some Indian thinkers stress the importance of understanding oneself in order to live in harmony with the world. I think protestant Christians are thinking in a similar (but not identical) way when they seek a personal relationship with God. However, scientific thinking does not include this kind of search for personal enlightenment. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may realise that these are not the sort of ideas that I usually have. This is because I have learned about them mostly through conversations with my friends Avtarjeet Dhanjal and Richard Aspden. I am sure they could explain them much better than I can.
Art and music evoke a personal response that bring us in touch with our own emotions. Ethics is about personal behaviour and aesthetics about personal appreciation of beauty.
In contrast a scientist tries to view the world external to him or herself in a way that is impersonal. This is why science is so good at understanding some things. For example, if you and I do exactly the same experiment, in exactly the same way, we would expect to get almost the same results. Similarly, if we use the same scientific laws (see post 16.2) to analyse a problem, we expect to get the same result.
Engineering and medicine use the results of science to solve problems of importance to many people. When an engineer designs something, he or she tries to think of something that meets a well-defined need; he/she is not trying to express his/her own personality. A surgeon operates on an individual with a problem whose details may be unique to that person. But the surgeon is not trying to express his/her own personality by doing the operation.
Both the engineer and the surgeon have completely different aims to those of a sculptor who is expressing his/her own personal perceptions or ideas. When you read this blog, I expect you to interpret my words exactly as I intended; I think most poets would be happy for you to put your own interpretation on what they write.
Of course it is possible for an engineer to also be a sculptor, in the same way that an accountant might also play the piano. But both are doing very different things in their dual roles. Similarly, it is possible for a scientist to also have religious beliefs or to enjoy music.
So, what can science tell us about religion? I think the answer is probably – nothing! Suppose somebody believes in a miracle that was supposed to have happened two thousand years ago. We can’t do an experiment to falsify the hypothesis that this miracle occurred (see post 16.3). It happened once and in the past. Neither can we use scientific laws (see post 16.2) to demonstrate that the miracle never occurred. By definition, a miracle is outside our normal experience which is another way of saying that it doesn’t obey the laws of science (see post 16.2). I tend not to believe in miracles because I am used to things following expected patterns of behaviour – but this is a personal opinion, not the result of my being a scientist.
So science, can tell us a lot about the world external to ourselves. But it does not attempt to provide an explanation for everything because it limits itself by its own impersonality. Stephen Hawking’s book and lectures on the “The Theory of Everything” (also the title of a movie) are really only about “the history of [scientific] ideas about the universe” and “theories of physics”. So they’re not about everything – there is more to life than just thinking about science!