And then I wrote: As I have mentioned, in 2009 the Redemptorist Press invited me to write a series of reflections on issues of religion and science for the Sunday bulletins that are distributed in churches throughout the United Kingdom.
As it happens, the days of the week in 2009 match those of 2020 (after this year’s leap day) and the liturgical calendar also matches; thus, both in 2009 and 2020, the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time falls on 2 August. Here’s what I wrote for the that reflection:
Children are fascinated by nature. They are tireless collectors of rocks and bugs, and full of curiosity about the sky and stars. Sadly, by the time they become teenagers, much of that enthusiasm is lost. That also happens with religion, of course. Too many people stop learning anything new about their faith by the time they finish with confirmation classes. And so too often we go through life with a 12-year-old’s understanding of both our universe and our creed. We think science is just a big book of facts, and religion a big book of rules.
With every other aspect of life, as we grow older our world becomes a little more complicated, more nuanced, and frankly more interesting. But the “big book of facts” myth is hard to shake. You will find even scientists claiming to have “proved” some new fact, when in fact they’ve proved no such thing.
Science describes, it does not prove. And those descriptions are constantly open to improvement.
Say you walk into a room, flip the switch on the wall, and the light comes on. For you, that’s “proof” enough that the switch controls the light. But in point of fact…
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… it could just be a coincidence – someone else could have hit the real switch at exactly the same time. The more often your switch seems to work, the higher the confidence you have that you’ve really found the right switch; but you can never be 100% sure that it isn’t just a remarkable string of coincidences. (Or that someone isn’t just playing a joke on you.)
Scientists report their findings with statistics to show just how confident they are that their theories are really describing what they think they see. But that confidence, while it can be very high, is never perfect. Even if you’re 99.9% sure you got it right, you can expect one time out of a thousand you’ll have been fooled. Yet you never know ahead of time which case will be the exception. And with thousands and thousands of such theories and experiments, inevitably those exceptions will pop up. They are rare; but they happen. The history of science is littered with theories that were logical, well supported by experiment, but nonetheless wrong.
But notice what that means about the attitude that a good scientist has to have. First of all, you have to admit you don’t know everything; otherwise, you wouldn’t be motivated to learn anything new. Secondly, you have to be humble enough to admit that, at any point along the way to new knowledge, you could go wrong. That’s why you constantly test your ideas with experiments, and then test your experiments with better theories.
And that’s why science books keep getting updated. While scientists rightly revere Galileo or Newton, nobody actually tries to learn astronomy or physics by reading their original books. Our understanding changes (“Pluto is not a planet!”) as we make new discoveries. We find better ways of describing the things we’ve been looking at for centuries. By contrast, books of literature or philosophy – Shakespeare, or the Bible – are timeless. They are not science books.
A religious believer can learn something from this humility. No matter how close to God we think we are, we must recognize that like his Creation, God too will always be more than we can ever completely know.