18 January 2009


My absolute favorite program on NPR is WNYC’s Radio Lab. I urge, encourage, implore everyone to listen to every single one of their episodes (available to download for free from WNYC.org or directly through iTunes). This week’s episode, entitled Yellow Fluff and Other Curious Encounters is about scientists and mathematicians who go looking for order, patterns, and hidden truths in the world around us. The episode begins with Cornell professor Steve Strogatz telling us about a moment of revelation he had as a middle school math student. In an exercise designed to teach the students how to use graph paper, he was given a pendulum of adjustable length and a stop watch. His task was to time how long it took the pendulum to swing back and forth 10 times. As he lengthened the pendulum, he observed (as he expected) that it took longer for the pendulum to complete the 10 back-and-forth swings. The unexpected emerged when he began to use his graph paper to make a plot with "length of pendulum" on the y-axis and "time taken for 10 swings" on the x-axis. Rather than being a straight line, the relationship was a curve, and not just any curve, but a parabola, something he had learned about before. But before it was just algebra, just numbers. This was a real thing. Here’s how he felt about it: "…this really gave me the creeps. I had this feeling of the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. It was as if this inanimate thing, this pendulum, knew algebra. How could this thing swinging back and forth know something about parabolas? How could that be built in? It was at that moment when I suddenly understood what people mean when they say there’s a law of nature". Then he began to notice that parabolas are everywhere: the shape that water makes coming out of a water fountain, the shape of empty swings on a chain swing set. As he puts it, it was as if "there was this sort of veil over reality, a hidden universe you couldn’t see unless you knew math…it’s a very intimate, personal thing, this feeling of wonder, of a sense of living in an incomprehensible and beautiful universe. Well, partly comprehensible…and that’s the beauty of it."

This sense of wonder is why I do science. Or more accurately, this sense of wonder is what makes me believe that science is a worthwhile endeavor. Even if I weren’t paid to do science, I would still be fascinated by the thrill of discovering the order underlying everything. I think a good deal of the beauty we find in the world is in its mystery, and there is no greater joy to the scientific mind than to probe that mystery in an attempt to learn its secrets.

It’s not hard to see how this can get us into trouble.

There are any number of ethical arguments we could have over the ramifications of reductionist thinking, but for the moment I want to talk about how our sense of wonder and our relationship with the mysterious impacts our relationship to God. I’ll leave the in-depth discussion of who or what God is or isn’t to theologians (such as my biologist/preist friend Lucas Mix). But I think it’s safe to say that most religious people ascribe to their spirituality and their deity some manner of mystery. If God were easily explained, I don’t think so many people would feel compelled to worship God. But if God is defined only as mystery and nothing more, then God shrinks as mystery shrinks. And mystery is shrinking all the time. Blue skies and red sunsets are the result of light scattering according to wavelength. The aurora borealis is solar-generated ions trapped in earth’s magnetic field exciting gases in the atmosphere. The variety in human faces, in animals, in plants, in all life on earth is the result of genes, natural selection, and time (we can argue about the scientific merits of natural selection later, but for now you have to admit it’s a pretty good explanation).

How does this make you feel?

Some will draw the conclusion that if so much is attributable to natural causes, if everything we observe can be explained, then there is no room for or need of God in our modern world. Our primitive ancestors must have dreamed God up to explain the unexplainable. This would have provided some level of comfort as well as control by giving us some recourse to deal with things beyond our control - praying to God for rain in drought is better than doing nothing at all and waiting to die.

Not surprisingly, the religious don’t take too kindly to the suggestion that God is an illusion of the primitive mind. Those whose God lives in the gaps of human knowledge feel the need to defend their God from the onslaught of atheist materialists. They will try to fight science on its own turf (see Intelligent Design and Creationism), trying to use the scientific method to prove that God is the best explanation for the universe and life and pendulums that know about parabolas. They often become hostile toward science and scientists, or at the very worst, simply ignore science as another of Satan’s tools. And, with less-than-charitable folks like Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Meyers using science as their weapon of choice in their crusade to abolish religion, who can blame the religious for feeling embattled?

I believe that we have made some serious errors in our estimation of what science tells us about the nature of God.

It is ludicrous to propose that humanity’s scientific efforts to date have accomplished anything more than merely scratching the surface of the underlying mechanisms of all reality. Certainly no respectable scientist would claim that we’re anywhere close to having it all figured out. We scientists should be humble in our claims of what we think we understand about the world.

It is insulting to any God worth worshipping to think that God needs humans to defend against those who try to understand the order, patterns, and hidden truths in the world around us. What is true of the physical world remains true regardless of whether we choose to believe it. The same can be said of what is true of God. We religious folks should be humble in our claims of what we think we understand about God.

When I watch a sunset or the aurora or contemplate the diversity of life on earth, I don’t feel further from God for knowing about photons and electromagnetism and DNA; rather, I feel that much more enthralled with the beauty of the world that God brought into being. A Bach concerto is no less beautiful because I know how many strings there are on the cello. My sense of wonder only grows the more I uncover about the laws of nature and the mysteries of nature. It is true that some mysteries do eventually become laws, but I take great pleasure in knowing that new mysteries will never be hard to find.

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