The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, "hmm.... that's funny...." Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Science, God, and Truth: Does Every Scientist Believe in God Without Realizing It?


Every so often I read an essay by a scientist trying to explain why belief in God is incompatible with science, about how advances in knowledge gained by science have so whittled away at the notion of a higher being that nothing remains except foolish superstition.  Invariably, it seems to me, these essays make the same fundamental error.   The error is as old as argument; it’s the straw man fallacy.  To deny the existence of God, one must first define God.  If we define God as a large old man with a white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere above the clouds, who listens to every prayer, it’s easy enough to demonstrate that there’s no evidence that He exists.  God as depicted in ancient texts like the Bible is not much less simplistic.  Agreeing that such descriptions of God encompass the entirety of God is to buy into the straw man fallacy.  All the arguments by atheists I’ve ever seen set up a straw man God, and then proceed to demolish it.  But if the straw man isn’t an accurate depiction of God, then demolishing it proves nothing.
Virtually everyone trying to gain knowledge by using science, however, believes that such a thing as Truth exists.  Why else would one want to do science?  We do science because we believe it’s a method – not necessarily the only method, but a useful one – to get closer to the Truth. 
And what is Truth?  It’s hard, perhaps impossible to define.  But when something has the ring of truth, we tend to hear it.  Indeed, new knowledge tends to undermine old notions of what is true.  But new knowledge doesn’t undermine the notion that there is a true nature of things that can eventually be learned.  To believe that Truth exists is to believe there’s a basic, fundamental essence, a pattern that permeates reality.  Is that any different from believing that God exists?  I don’t think so. 

What about that pattern?  I think we catch ever clearer glimpses of it the deeper we look at the universe.  The methodical methods of science extend our senses, sharpen our observations, and permit those deeper looks.  But sometimes an abrupt, fresh look at something provides a deeper look too.  The other day, on a beach by the Gulf of Mexico, I found a sand dollar shell.  It stood out from the many living sand dollars lightly buried in the sand by the surf.  That shell is pictured above.  See the intricate design on the shell.  Evolution is a fact, and Darwin's theory explains well how it works.  But the presence of that pattern on the shell is a puzzle.  It’s hard to see how the evolution of that pattern would have helped sand dollars survive, since, as far as we can tell, they can’t see the pattern on their shells or those of other sand dollars.  The pattern probably has something to do with the flow of energy, the structure of molecules, the fractal patterns of the universe, the music of the spheres.  
It looks to me like there's more going on than just natural selection. There must be additional processes operating that leave traces in patterns we can sometimes see.  And who knows to what lengths, depths, and dimensions these patterns extend?  I’m not ready to throw out the idea that a fervent wish, a prayer if you like, might not reverberate with, influence, or be influenced by larger patterns.   Nor am I ready to dismiss the possibility that some aspect of the pattern that I call my life might be larger in temporal scope than the pattern I call my body.  Is there life after death?  It’s impossible to answer that question without defining life.  And here we have the straw man problem again. 

It would be refreshing if scientists stopped indulging in religion-bashing by setting up straw men and demolishing them, and if religious people stopped feeling threatened by science.  Instead of adversaries, religion, which seeks to bring us closer to God, and science, which seeks to bring us closer to Truth, may be long-lost, estranged, but fundamentally related twins.

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