Just what is science anyway?
The basis thesis of this series is that there is nothing in the full range of the natural sciences–physical, biological, or bio-medical–that necessarily conflicts with a robust Christian theology centered on the person Jesus of Nazareth understood as being fully God and fully human, crucified and risen. The Anglican way, drawing upon the Great Tradition of living and thinking from “Mere Christianity,” helps us to appreciate this and to integrate our hearts and minds for living faithfully as followers of Jesus today.
We will look at how we come to know anything at all—the things of the world or the things of God:
- Sept. 22: Introduction.
- Sept. 29: What is science and what is it not? THIS CLASS.
- Oct. 6: What do we mean by faith?
- Oct. 13: Faithful knowing in science or faith: commitment and participation.
- Oct. 20: How can science and faith relate: some key theological words.
- Oct. 27: Seeing the hand of God in the world: liturgy-assisted living.
- Nov. 10: Creation ex nihilo: what the world is.
- Nov. 17: Summary and wrap-up.
The word “science” comes from the Latin scientia, knowledge. Scientists seek understanding of the world. What it is really like? How does it work? Nobel laureate Richard Feynman points out what is really exciting about science is “its contents, the things that have been found out. This is the yield. This is the gold. This is the excitement, the pay you get for all the disciplined thinking and hard work. The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out.”
Scientific knowledge is derived from the scientific method of observing the world as it is. Science has been enormously fruitful and successful in describing the world and transforming society.
Science is concerned with the world on scales of time and distance that extend well beyond those encountered in everyday human life.
A good resource for exploring the vast range of time accessible to science is my 2015 essay for BioLogos, entitled “Time and Eternity: a Christological Perspective,” in which this figure is discussed:
The figure shows range of time that can be studied by science. The scale is given in powers of ten familiar to scientists (just think of 1, 10, and 100 story buildings to see how much difference a factor of 10 makes; or 4, 40, and 400 miles per hour for the speed of walking, cars, and jet planes). The fastest processes involved in life take place on a time scale similar to that of an atomic clock; for example, the femtosecond atomic response to light by the retinal molecule involved in vision, whereas the response of our bodies to light requires many milliseconds, over a trillion times longer (see Slide 11 of the presentation for a picture of the fast light-induced transformation of retinal that takes place in your eye). We should be surprised and delighted in fast time scales as much as by the long slow ones of cosmological processes such as star or galaxy formation.
Much of what science discovers about the world is very counterintuitive—it surprises us. (Electrons or photons as waves or particles; when asked about the quantum world, Richard Feynman commented: “Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
Most scientists are realists—we believe we discover what the world is actually like.
Science shows that the universe has to be very special and unique in order for carbon-based life to be possible. There is a deep unity in the scientific conception of the universe, from the subatomic to the cosmic scale.
Given the laws of physics as we know them, the universe needs to be very old in order for the first generation of stars to be born, live, and die in massive explosions that expel the chemical elements needed for life into the universe to later be formed into new stars with planets. Such elements can only be made in the very hot and dense interiors of dying stars (I explain why and how this occurs in Part I of my Word and Fire essays for BioLogos).
French physicist and philosopher, Roland Omnes, says:
“How can science exist? Or: How is science possible? The obviousness of this question and the silence surrounding it echo Aristotle’s beautiful words: ‘Like night birds blinded by the glare of the sun, such is the behavior of the eyes of our mind when they stare at the most luminous facts.’ … The answer is perhaps as obvious as the question: science is possible because there is order in Reality. …The whole of science suggests such an answer, but science alone cannot establish or even formulate it … To go beyond what is known amounts to proposing a hypothesis about the unknown, to leave science and entering metaphysics.In Quantum Philosophy: Understanding and Interpreting Contemporary Science (1999)
A scientific theory gives us a basic framework for seeing and understanding the world (comprehension), for organizing and interpreting data and experience, and for asking new questions. (Greek theoria, “contemplation, speculation, a looking at, things looked at”)
Science does not tell us what is or is not ethical or how we are to live. Feynman says: “Why can’t we conquer ourselves? Because we find that even the greatest forces and abilities don’t seem to carry with them any clear instructions on how to use them. … The sciences do not directly teach good and bad.” Einstein said: “No path leads from a knowledge of that which is to that which should be.”
Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum physics, sets science in a wider context: “You may ask—you are bound to ask me now: What, then, is in your opinion the value of natural science? I answer: Its scope, aim and value is the same as that of any other branch of human knowledge. Nay, none of them alone, only the union of all of them, has any scope or value at all, and that is simply enough described: … to put it in the brief impressive, rhetoric of Plotinus: ‘And we, who are we anyhow?’ “
It is a question asked long ago by the Psalmist (Ps. 8:3-4): “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”
Albert Einstein commented: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” It is deeply significant that we can actually understand the universe so well, and, furthermore, that the scientist is passionately driven to try to grasp the truth about it.
The early Christian apologist Origen (185-250AD) said: “A desire to know the truth of things has been implanted in our souls and is natural to human beings. … When our eye sees the work of a craftsman, especially if the object is well made, at once the mind burns with desire to know what sort of thing it is, how it was made and for what purpose. Even more, indeed incomparably more, does this mind burn with desire and ineffable longing to know the design of those things which we perceive to have been made by God. This desire, this love, we believe, has been implanted in us by God. For as the eye by nature seeks light and sight and our body instinctively craves food and drink, so our mind nurtures a desire, which is natural and proper, to know the truth of God and to learn the causes of things. Moreover we have not been given this desire by God in such a way that it should not or cannot be satisfied. For if the love of truth were never able to be satisfied, it would seem to have been implanted in our mind by the creator in vain.”
Anselm (1033-1109), an early Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “Lord, I do not attempt to comprehend Your sublimity, because my intellect is not at all equal to such a task. But I yearn to understand some measure of Your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe but I believe in order to understand.”
Anselm’s wisdom provide an excellent bridge to out next topic: faith. In its ancient Greek sense, “faith” implies trust, and scientists too must place their trust in the order of the universe in order to investigate is scientifically: there is an order to be found in the cosmos by which we can render things intelligible. Understanding requires trusting the community of scientists to articulate that order in a trustworthy manner. “Faith” is not “blind,” but it does require making a judgment on who or what to trust. This is as true of scientists as it is of anyone else.