The Grateful Astronomer, Part 2

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?

Science and religion meet! It was at my Jesuit high school, U of Detroit High, where I first saw Erlinmeyer flasks being used as cruets at the Mass. These are at the Jesuit community chapel at Boston College.

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.” 

In 1971 a goofy teenager decided that I should transfer to MIT. Of course, that ignorant teenager was me. (I’m the one here without the beard, at my graduation.) How could I know how it would turn out?

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…

[In order to read the rest of this post, you have to be a paid-up member of Sacred Space, and logged in as such!]

some traits that are hard to explain away. I don’t mean the God of the Gaps, using God to explain the bits that science hasn’t gotten to, yet. When the Gaps get closed eventually you wind up not needing God at all, and you wind up being an atheist. That kind of God is a god who is just one more force in the universe. That’s not the God of scripture, not the God of love, not the God who is super-natural.

What I mean, instead, is that postulating a “God” helps us deal with certain classic mysteries. For example, Leibniz once famously asked, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” This of course is not the same as “why is there a beginning to the universe?” Steven Hawking has famously claimed that he can explain the Big Bang in terms of a quantum fluctuation of gravity. But even he must know that “God” is something more than the entity responsible for setting off the blue touch paper; otherwise, he would be insisting that we worship gravity. (Of course, this might explain why Catholics celebrate Mass!)

But the “nothing” of “creation from nothing” is more than the absence of matter; it is the absence of space, time, and the laws of physics themselves. Why is there a universe? The universe itself cannot explain itself. Either it has no explanation, which is certainly possible; or else there is a reason for its existence, outside of itself, and we’ll identify that reason with a super-natural God.

The cover to my 2008 book about techies, which went into more detail on all these topics…

And if there is a super-natural God, maybe that can also explain why I wake up at three in the morning wondering what I am supposed to be doing with my life; I can use God to give a framework against which to measure where I am, how fast I’m moving, and where I ought to be going. There are lots of practical reasons to postulate this idea of “God”. It doesn’t prove God exists; but it explains why the hypothesis is so attractive… just as similar unprovable hypotheses in physics are so widely accepted, because their utility in helping us make sense of the universe is obvious to us.

But at this level, there’s another question. Why does science work? If you examine the so-called “scientific method” you realize that it is philosophically absurd. Just because an experiment gives me a result that I expect, doesn’t mean my hypothesis was correct. And yet science, for all of its faults, seems to work. We have a much better understanding of how the universe than we had five hundred years ago, or five years, or five days ago. What is it about the universe that allows us to understand it?

Maybe we’re just lucky.

Another thing about the universe that boggles my mind is that it is beautiful. I have seen hundreds of Hubble images of space, and I’ve never seen an ugly one. But even more than that, the science behind those images is also beautiful. Maxwell’s Equations are breathtaking. Wow!

The fact that one can use one’s taste of “this one seems the most elegant way to proceed” works more often than not, is not something that pure reason alone could explain. Of course, maybe I am just imagining this; maybe I am just finding faces in the clouds. But my experience has been that elegance works. You can count on the universe to behave beautifully; it usually does.

There’s one final way that being an astronomer and a person of faith interact, personally within me. And to explain that, let me tell one final story.

I recall more than one rainy summer afternoon when I was a child; when I couldn’t go outside to play, my mother would bring out a deck of cards and deal out a hand. Now, she’s a grown-up, I’m a kid; there’s no question she can win the game any time she wants to. But the point of this game is not to win. The point of this game is for her to tell me she loves me. She can’t say it out loud; no ten year old boy would stand for that. But she can show it, by spending time with me, by sharing the enjoyment of the game.

When I do science, God is playing a game with me. He sets the puzzles, I play out the puzzles; and like all puzzles, it’s not the answers that matter, it’s activity of finding the answers. The answers only count if they can then set up the next puzzle. 

Science is where I get to spend time with the Creator. When God invites me to encounter him in the things that have been made, as St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, God is setting up a game we get to play together. It’s a game that, on top of everything else, tells me He loves me. 

And for that, I am grateful to be an astronomer.