April 29, 2016

Does science require faith?

When physicists heard the sound of two black holes merging over a billion years ago, humanity cheered. Our response to that cosmic tug is evident everywhere, and emotional investment in scientific discovery is just one flavour. Whether deliberately or subconsciously, the human spirit reveals itself in pursuit of intangible rewards.

Ten years ago, we were informed that science textbooks had been too generous about the number of planets in our solar system. While that ruthless dethroning of Pluto is still fresh in the mind of my generation, Mike Brown (astronomer and author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming [1]) is already suggesting a new Planet Nine.

He believes in ‘the existence of a distant, eccentric perturber’ because although nobody has seen the giant itself, Brown has been carefully observing its gravitational effects on the behaviour of other celestial objects. Leading up to the public announcement of this pre-discovery, fellow astronomer Greg Laughlin describes the tension [2]:

I was having trouble focussing on the task at hand. My thoughts were being drawn to this massive, frigid object in the outer solar system that might or might not be there. I believe there’s a 68.2% chance that it’s there… It’s perfectly tuned for maximum mystery and a heightened sense of possibility.

It would appear laughably inconsistent to characterise such a confident statistic with fumbling emotive adjectives. Yet, while most of us may not be trained to quantify our uncertainties to a decimal place, aren’t we all able to identify with his nagging curiosity? I’ve woken up in the earliest of hours, just to glimpse a rare comet or eclipse. Last year, this country crowded around a live broadcast of an Englishman rocketing into space [3]; a nation held its breath. Recently, physicists heard the sound of two black holes merging over a billion years ago [4]; humanity cheered.

Our response to that cosmic tug is evident everywhere, and emotional investment in scientific discovery is just one flavour. Whether deliberately or subconsciously, the human spirit reveals itself in pursuit of intangible rewards. We engineer telescopes to see farther afield. We push our physical limits to see the summit. We write as though the next poem will be our best. We seek after love in the face of heartbreak. The universal lure of the unknown is woven right into the human condition, wherein both science and religion grow their roots.

Nevertheless, there persists the mistaken assumption that science requires stoicism and a stubborn belief in quantifiable solutions, while religion involves convenient ignorance and blinkered conviction. In reality, a physicist and a Christian should be captivated by the same element of wonder, should exercise well-informed faith, and surrender humbly to the unknown. It is counter-productive to pit science and religion against each other, and the two are clearly not mutually exclusive.

Albert Einstein himself insisted that ‘the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research’ [5]. Geniuses like Einstein and Newton defined the framework of physics with theories that were largely speculative, pushed ahead by personal intuition and passionate conviction. These days, most breakthrough scientific discoveries concern the ultra-big, the ultra-tiny, and the ultra-far away, with numbers trailing on beyond comprehension. When probing into mysteries of the universe, the involvement of faith becomes crucial and obvious rather than irrational and contradictory.

So when we acknowledge that the unknown is also the unknowable, how do we handle the inevitable meaninglessness that follows close on the heels of humility? The futility of trying to understand untouchable forces can drive one to madness and depression, as it has done many brilliant minds in history.

The Christian response should never be born of ignorance, fear, or blind subscription to dogma. Just as the most intelligent scientists wouldn’t deem themselves capable of decoding all life’s mysteries, neither would the most devoted Christians. Honest religious faith encourages an active pursuit of knowledge, not comfortable complacency. Pope John Paul II puts it like this: ‘Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself’ [6]. When truth-seeking feeds back into faith in a higher power, a relationship is forged with the orchestrator of those mysteries we will never fully grasp. The more deeply we understand God’s character, the more we are enamoured with creation and yearn to pore over its blueprints.

Nothing ever changed about poor Pluto itself, but its planetary status was founded on scientific ‘truths’ expected to be revised, uprooted, or discarded. Those foundations will shift with technology and time, but the Christian truth is unshakeable because it is anchored upon an unchangeable God.

I’ll be absolutely thrilled if the first deep-space image of Planet Nine is captured, and my excitement will be tenfold because I intimately know and celebrate its creator. It may be fascinating to learn about this faraway icy mass, but how much would the proof of its existence really change my practical living and daily relationships? Discovering God, on the other hand, changes everything — the way we relate to our job and our city, to the past and the future, to guilt and to joy, to enemies, to lovers, to stardust.

[1] Mike Brown’s memoir was published in 2010
[2] Excerpt from ‘Discovering Planet Nine’, an article by Alan Burdock appearing in The New Yorker on Jan 20, 2016
[3] Major Tim Peake went into space as Britain’s first ESA astronaut on 15 December, 2015
[4] Detected by the massive Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in September 2015
[5] First appearing in Einstein’s 1930 article for The New York Times
[6]From ‘Fides Et Ratio’ was an encyclical letter written by Pope John Paul II in 1998

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