Faith & Science: Journeys of Discovery and Understanding
by Bob Kraus
Editor’s note: This essay is based on a presentation to a group of thirty or so university students, faculty, and friends at a Lutheran/Episcopal Campus Ministry event at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque earlier this year. This essay is a synopsis of that presentation and a lively Q&A session that followed.
Much has been written about science and matters of faith that focus on their differences (such as science addresses the ‘how’ questions and faith addresses the ‘who’ or ‘why’ questions). This is a perfect launching pad to explore commonalities and suggest the limits of those commonalities from the perspective of a research scientist and person of faith. At times, I use “theology” as a surrogate for faith because it may be less ambiguous to compare two disciplines rather than a discipline (science) and belief (faith).
Science and theology both quest for knowledge, and even more so, understanding; the former in the physical realm, and the latter of God. These two disciplines have also established and follow formal processes of investigation. Science is often characterized by the “Scientific Method” consisting of five recursive steps: observation, formulation of hypothesis, prediction, test of hypothesis (observe), and finally refining the hypothesis. While rarely quite so simplistic, science typically advances along paths that largely parallel the scientific method. Similarly, theology uses formal approaches and methods in eschatology, exegesis, hermeneutics, etc.
Quantitative measurement of physical phenomena is a fundamental component of science. A significant fraction of science funding is devoted to designing and building instruments to measure new physical phenomena or measuring old ones more accurately.
But how do we observe or “measure” matters of faith and theology… about God? Might searching for archeological evidence of biblical events (Noah’s arc, Solomon’s temple, Jesus’ shroud, etc.) constitute such observations and measurements? What are the implications if they are found – or not found? Furthermore, is it possible to repeat measurements that test hypotheses about God as science relies on repetition and verification of measurements? While science and theology both use formal methods in the pursuit of understanding, it seems clear that theology is rarely advanced through quantitative measurements of phenomena.
Another key component of science is reproducibility, where the inability to reproduce experiments and observables typically results in disproving a hypothesis. A curious aspect of science is when an observation has been sufficiently repeated, it becomes a “Law” (e.g. gravity), though how this occurs is a mystery. In contrast, Karl Popper asserts that science is not in the business of proving theories, rather disproving them1 I ascribe to this philosophy, maintaining that there are few “laws” or “facts” but innumerable well-founded theories upon which we cannot largely depend and act. For example, some of my own research assumes the voracity of the theory that neurons generate currents in response to stimuli. The thousands of papers published by my research team and others that assume the validity and accuracy of this theory would be of little value if the theory were invalidated, yet a substantial body of researchers have acted upon the assumption that the theory is sound. The same can be said for the theory of evolution, but that may be opening Pandora’s box.
Lest I forget, science and theology both allow for exceedingly rare events. In science such observations are often discounted as “spurious” data, but may occasionally be reported as “rare events” that are predicted by some theory to be so rare as to be realistically unrepeatable. In theology these events may be called “miracles” that are sometimes cited as definitive evidence of God’s acting in the world.
This begs the question: how do we differentiate miracles from rare physical phenomena? For example, imagine that ET’s cousins (you know, the little extra terrestrial in the 1982 Spielberg movie) placed all manner of instruments in the Red Sea when Moses and the Israelites crossed. Let us imagine that the sea parted as described in Exodus 14, and data collected by ET’s instruments verified that event. Would it be ascribed to a rare physical phenomenon, a miracle, or just spurious data? What would such data tell us of God?
As an experimental scientist, I admit to being a “measurement junky.” Throughout my career, I have built many instruments and made countless measurements. But, as every good scientist knows, every measurement must be carefully examined and questioned lest one be led astray by subtle mistakes, instrument glitches, noise, and of course the occasional spurious data. We use our intellect to examine measurements and decide whether they make sense and are consistent with dependable theories and our understanding of the physical realm. If not, we endeavor to understand why. Was it the instrument? Our understanding of the phenomena? Spurious data? Or, could it be, we have somehow observed one of those “rare events?”
What instruments do we have or could we develop to measure matters of faith? Indeed we already possess such an instrument: our conscience/hearts with which we routinely measure such qualities as love, right and wrong, and justice to name a few. And just as with any scientific instrument, and this point is key, we cannot blindly accept the results of this “heart instrument” but must scrutinize the results with our intellect. We humans have an extraordinary knack for letting our egos masquerade as our hearts (i.e. rationalization vs. conscience). Only when intellect and heart work together can we hope to glimpse truth and advance our understanding and knowledge of God. Virtually all measurements, scientific and theological, are related to some reference. In the physical realm one relates temperature to frozen water or absolute zero.
Measurements of the heart, such as love, are also related to some standard. For example we often say this person loves “too much” or “too little.” Just as a scientist must be aware of the limitations and vulnerabilities of physical instruments, we must be aware that our hearts are susceptible to huge error bars arising from ‘systematic errors’ of our ego. God has endowed us with hearts and intellect to use together to test, analyze, measure and reassess in a faith-based version of the scientific method.
Faith and science both seek the truth, a common truth. The church in Medieval Europe had the right idea in a “grand unified” truth but prematurely forced it upon the people for the wrong reasons and with too little knowledge and understanding. It ultimately failed because of serious contradictions raised by an awakening understanding of the physical realm, and since then, science and theology have often been viewed as fields in opposition. Before this grand truth is unified, we must have sufficient knowledge and understanding to explain current disparities. One path toward that eventual unification may be to pursue the study of science and theology somewhat independently, just as different physical forces have been pursued independently. Analogous with recent developments in physics, we can pursue science and theology with an eye toward identifying dichotomies and work toward resolution and understanding.
While on this path, those who seek the grand unified truth would do well to remember that when dichotomies and conflicts arise between the realms of faith and science, it is less likely that one is right and the other wrong, rather our understanding of one or both is incomplete.
In both science and theology, new knowledge is built upon some set of existing knowledge. A problem arises when one considers that innumerable “facts” have, over the course of history, been proven false, and the house of our understanding (or at least a wing thereof) comes tumbling down like the tower of Babel. In contrast, “theory” in modern usage often implies that something is “erroneous” (e.g., the ‘theory of evolution’ in some popular press). One definition of theory is “a proposal based on information that is derived from observations to explain those observations” and, in the scientific method is used to explain other phenomena. Gravity is a theory, albeit well demonstrated, but a theory nonetheless that predicts many phenomena that are only now within technological reach of being tested. Why has this word inherited such negative connotations?
Innumerable “scientific facts” have through the course of history been proven wrong … for example: the earth is flat; or the earth is the center of the cosmos; or everything is made up of four elements: earth, air/wind, fire, and water; or the indivisible building block of the universe is the “corpuscle” (or atom); and on and on.
Even during my own lifetime, scientific knowledge and understanding has evolved. For example, the “fact” that all we are as individuals is encoded in the amino acid sequence of DNA is now thought to be far more complex than anyone imagined four decades ago. Similarly, supposed “religious facts” have been largely “debunked” in history … for example: indulgences can prevent a stay in purgatory (there is a purgatory?); common people cannot interpret/understand the Bible; and so on. My own knowledge, understanding and uncertainty of God have also evolved. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, “when I was younger, I thought like a child … and God was simpler. But now, I am older (and maybe wiser), and my God is more complex, my questions and concerns about God are more complex and I realize how little I know.”
Scientists and people of faith, both, must be discerning and flexible. Discerning to know when new knowledge supplants old and flexible to incorporate new knowledge into our world view. Our knowledge and understanding are inherently imperfect and we must be open, with sufficient evidence, to modify our understanding of Creation. Those who are too “secure in knowledge” risk becoming dogmatists who can become unthinking automata living by sets of fixed laws that define all action and remove choice. From a scientist’s perspective, this is the person who has a rigid idea of how things are and cannot integrate new data – or worse yet, will massage data to fit their fixed concepts.
Daniel J. Boorstin2 noted: “The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” In the realm of faith, a person certain in their knowledge may, when faced with irreconcilable evidence to the contrary, find their entire faith fortress crumbling like the walls of Jericho.
In the pursuit of knowledge, we must constantly seek the proper balance between humility (recognizing we don’t know it all) and having the confidence in our knowledge that enables us to act. Both psychology and knowledge theory teach that the ability to act is predicated on some basic set of knowledge. Said a different way, we humans need a sense that our knowledge is sound (being “secure in knowledge”) in order to act. Without security in some foundational knowledge, people are often unable to act. This is at the heart of Martin Luther’s oft-quoted admonition to “Sin Boldly,” and a central theme in several of Christ’s parables: based on our best knowledge and understanding of God, we are called to act.
At the core of science and faith alike, is a search for understanding and truth. My assertion is that as both a scientist and person of faith, one must pursue such understanding with a healthy measure of humility and recognition that we will never succeed in this life.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
But, really, the goal is not important, it is the journey.
Dr. Bob Kraus recently retired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory after 25 years as a research scientist and deputy director of the internal laboratory research program. He now works for Samitaur Medical Technologies.
Kraus received his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry working with the group of Nobel Laureate Dr. Glenn Seaborg at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. At Los Alamos his curiosity led him to work in a broad range of fields from nuclear physics where he co-discovered seven new isotopes of light elements, led the Accelerator Optics team that designed and built particle accelerator optics and magnets, and finally built and led a team that developed a variety of novel medical imaging methods, most notably “Ultra Low Field Magnetic Resonance Imaging.”
In addition to his technical work, Kraus has actively worked with and lectured at Lutheran campus ministries from Oregon and New Mexico to Northern Michigan. He served on the ELCA Campus Ministry board and the ELCA Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology where he co-organized the second Sunday Scientist Symposium committee.
1 Popper, K. R. (1994). "Zwei Bedeutungen von Falsifizierbarkeit [Two meanings of falsifiability]". In Seiffert, H.; Radnitzky, G.. Handlexikon der Wissenschaftstheorie. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.
2 The Discoverers (1985), p. 86.
Covalence, July/August 2012