And then I wrote... in 2013 I was invited to give a talk at the Jesuit parish in central London, and then the British online site Thinking Faith invited me to adapt it for one of their postings. They wanted a shorter version to fit their format; here is the original text, about twice as long, divided into two bits for this week and next. Here is Part 2, which starts with a riff that I wound up reusing a lot in later things I wrote...
What I’ve come to see, especially given those philosophy courses that the Jesuits made me take as a part of my formation, is that belief itself plays a fundamental role in doing science.
There are three religious beliefs that you have to accept on faith before you can be a scientist. You may not think of them as religious, but I can name religions that don’t have these beliefs.
The first thing you must believe is that this universe actually exists. This may seem obvious; but if you believe, as some religions do, that “everything is illusion,” then what is there for a scientist to study? If you are a solipsist, then being a scientist is just wasting your time studying a figment of your imagination.
The second thing is that the universe operates by regular laws. How can you go searching for the physical laws of the universe if you don’t believe there are physical laws to be found? Today we have a thousand years of finding those laws and seeing how we can use them to make telephones work; but who was the first person a thousand years ago to think that such laws exist, and that they could be discovered? Where did he or she get the faith to believe that there might be laws to be found?
If you were a pagan Roman and you saw lightning strike, your explanation was that the god of lightning threw it; if you saw crops grow, you attributed that to the goddess of crops. Things that happen in the universe, they believed, happen because deities in the universe made them happen. And if you believe that everything that occurs in the universe are the result of the whims of demons and deities, there’s no point to look for scientific laws.
Christians in Roman times were accused of being atheists because they refused to believe in these pagan gods. And rightly so; there are many gods I do not believe in. Indeed, even Richard Dawkins only believes in one fewer God than I do!
And the God I believe in is not of the universe, but existed before the universe began; not a part of nature, but super-natural. If you believe in that kind of God, then there’s room to ask how the rest of the world works, and room to wonder if it works by regular laws. We know from scripture that God is responsible for the universe, in a step by step manner. Genesis outlines a creation story that is fundamentally different from the Babylonian story in that rather than the physical universe being an accident, Genesis tells us that God deliberately willed it to exist.
And here’s the third thing you have to believe as a scientist: you have to believe that the universe is Good. We get that, again, from Genesis. If you think the universe is a morass of temptations, then you’ll be afraid to be too involved in it; you’ll want to meditate yourself to a higher level, perhaps. If you believe that, you’re not going to want to be a scientist. But instead we believe in a God who so loved the universe that He sent His only Son.
So why do people think that there’s a conflict between science and religion? Too often the assumption is that science and religion are systems of epistemology, ways of knowing facts. Science gives me one set of facts, religion gives me another set of facts, and so surely there’s going to be a time when the two systems conflict.
But that’s not what science is at all, and not where religion is at all.
We all learn science in school, where it’s taught as a big book of facts; and you’d better use this year’s book, because last year’s book of facts is out of date. But that should immediately tell you that science is not just facts. Science continues even as the facts change. What we do in science is learn how to have a conversation about those facts… how we can talk about understanding how the universe we’ve observed seems to work, and how we can use that understanding to guess the next place to look. It’s not about the facts, it’s about the conversation.
In the same way, faith is not about a bunch of things I must accept, blindly, closing my eyes to the truth. To the contrary, remember what Moses says to his people after giving the the Tablets of the Law: “do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” (Deut. 4, v. 9) It’s not, “close your eyes” but rather, “pay attention to what you have seen.”
Faith is not accepting a bunch of things in the absence of evidence. It is making choices in the absence of all the facts… whether it’s your choice of school, or job, who you will marry, where you will live. When you made those choices, there was no way you could know how it would turn out. That’s life, making choices in the absence of sufficient data. But you make these choices in the expectation that things will turn out well. That’s faith. Sometimes that expectation is going to be shattered, but you go ahead anyway; what else can you do?
These expectations based on faith occur in science all the time. When I choose what field of science to enter, I’m assuming that it’s going to be interesting down the line; if I knew what I was going to discover, I wouldn’t have to do the science. When I see an interesting problem to chew on, I have to guess what approach is going to be the most fruitful. How do I make that decision? Of all the different approaches that are possible I only have time to try one or two; how do I choose? It’s a blind step into the unknown.
Science is not a big book of facts. Science is not about “proving” anything. Science describes, but the descriptions are incomplete; we keep hoping that they get better. For that very reason you can’t use science prove the existence of God (or no-God). But can science encourage us in our belief?
One trait of God I find is that He always gives us “plausible deniability.” Every time you see His action in the universe, you can always come up with some way to explain it away if you want. It could just be coincidence, or an illusion. You can never know for sure; that, of course, is why we need faith.
But the universe has...
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