I believe that the best way to know the physical world is through science.  The only problem I see rereading that last sentence is that it is necessary to use the world “believe”.  It seems to me that knowledge is what we achieve through science.  Belief on the other hand applies to the non-physical, spiritual world (as opposed to the non-physical, non-spiritual world).  I hear a lot of people these days who speak of what they “know in their heart” to be true.  This seems to me to be at minimum a confusion of concepts and at worst sloppy thinking.  What they are speaking of is a non-empirical, unverifiable and unsharable feeling that should more properly be called a belief.  Unfortunately through a poverty of language we do not have a word to name this “knowing” unless we can use a neologism like “faithing”.  Knowing is the realm of science and logic (which includes mathematics) and not the heart.

    Science of course suffers from the same impoverishment of language in the reverse direction.  Hence my beginning statement about what I believe the scope of science to be.  This is not really a belief but a know-ledge.  Unfortunately we also expect certainty in knowing.  But there is no absolute in science only the tentative and the hypothetical (in the sense of a hypothesis and not in the sense of an imaginary event).  Knowledge without certainty is a hard concept to grasp for most people but that is what science is all about.  Faith typically is framed with certain knowledge especially in the authoritative and absolute sense.  We often hear faith spoken of as being the belief in unseen and unchanging truths.  But in fact the truths of faith are in a sense more solid than those of science which deals with the physical as opposed to the non-physical world.  How can this be?

    One of the problems in understanding science these days is that almost no one without a good science education understands what science is much less what it says is physical reality.  Science unlike faith is not a list of rules or facts.  It is instead a process by which we come to know about the physical world.  And the only domain of thought that science claims to apply to is the physical world.  There have been from time to time misguided attempt to “scientifically prove” the existence of God or the power of prayer.  But this is not real science and real scientists usually just scratch their heads when they hear of such things and walk away.  (Unfortunately this reaction which is the proper reaction to someone talking nonsense usually opens scientists to charges of not being open and not taking these things seriously.)

    The Scientific process includes the following principles:

    1. There is no special position of reference.  Anyone in any time or place should be able to observe the same physical phenomenon and laws.
    2. The process is empirical.  We observe not just phenomenon and catalog them but we observe the consistencies that connect them.
    3. The process is verifiable.  Anything discovered in science is subject to repeated verification until all doubt of any kind is removed.
    4. The world is law-full. We extrapolate from individual observations of consistency to universal laws of repeatability.

    The other confusion about science is what it says about the nature of the physical world.  Most people’s understanding of this is securely rooted in the 19th century where our “modern” educational system has left its students!  As a result their picture of science belongs in history books and courses and not in the minds of people who want to know what science says today, unless it is to instruct in how we got to this point.  Since the early 20th century science has been on a program of replacing 19th century classical physics.  The result is a modern science that is strange indeed.  For instance most people think of physics in terms of Newtonian mechanics where if the positions and motions of every particle in the universe could be known at any moment one could predict the future with absolute certainty.  This is the classical notion of causality which most people take for granted.  But the modern physics -- Quantum Mechanics (QM) – actually says that the position and motion of any particle (not to mention all particles) can NOT be known absolutely and therefore not precisely enough to carry out the Newtonian program.  QM also allows for uncaused events.

    This is just one of the peculiar things we know about the physical world through science.  Think about what this means for a second.  If the Newtonian view of reality were true not only could we predict all future physical events.  Assuming that what you think is a function of your brain and how its particles move and also that what you think can and does control your actions, your every future act would also be certainly predictable.  Freedom of action would be an illusion and predestination not just a curious Presbyterian theological doctrine.  On the other hand in the QM picture of the world it is possible with the same set of assumptions that not just your actions but your thoughts as well might come unbidden out of physical reality.  Certainly there are a lot of assumptions in this little thought experiment which in themselves would make entertaining discussion but don’t look at those – just consider the vast difference between these two pictures of the world!

    Another example of the revolutionary nature and impact of modern science on our understanding of the physical world is to think about evolution and causality.  If the Newtonian picture of causation were correct it would be true that given any instant in their prehistory there would be no doubt that human beings would evolve to the dominant species.  This could be called the “movie” theory of evolution.  Just as the story of a movie is fixed on the film and it matters not how many times you replay the film or where you start it the outcome is always the same so too is the history of life.  This is evolution under Newtonian causality.  This is not the case in the real world, as we understand it with QM because some evolutionary changes come about because of ionizing radiation altering DNA and the production of ionizing radiation is an uncaused event in QM.  This means that the first time the movie plays radiation and alternation of DNA might occur in one scene but the next time the movie plays it might not.  The history of evolution as we know it including the existence of our selves is not a certain thing but deeply random.  There are still more astonishing implications in modern science of which the average citizen is blissfully unaware.

    One practical reason for believing that science is the best way to learn about the physical world is it’s tremendous success.  Technology which is the practical embodiment of scientific discoveries mediated by engineering is everywhere and has worked to make all of our lives easier.  And if that is not enough to convince you think just for a moment about this -- science does not require of us that we accept anything just because someone else says it is so.  The basic principles of science say that you can go and look and see for your self.  There is no private knowledge or privileged position of any sort in science.  It is possible at least in principle if not in fact to discover all that is known yourself or to verify the whole.  It is a supremely democratic and free adventure open to all.

    I believe (there’s that word again) that there is a fundamental reason why science “works” and it is rooted in evolution.  To survive requires certain skills and those without them don’t.  The skill to discern the safety of uncertain terrain or encounters with other creatures arises though extrapolating from experience – i.e., empirical reasoning.  Our minds are therefore empirical reasoning engines evolved to allow us to survive.  The rules of science are implemented in our brains.  When we first apply these brains to the physical world we find the familiar world of Newtonian cause and effect.  How could it not be otherwise in evolved creatures?  If we did not realize the danger in the steady gaze of the lion or the security in warm comfort of the fire how would we survive?

    But this same mind can be made to pay closer attention to the details of the world and find that all is not what it seems.  All the regularities we see in large where we live and survive dissolve into arbitrary rules and statistical distributions below the surface.  This should be no small wonder to us.  It is a problem often discussed around the edges of QM but most scientists don’t worry why a seemingly logical macro world rides atop the bizarre quantum world and how the former arises out of the later.  One of the classical answers goes that observation by a mind does the trick (as it is described by John vonNeumann who invented it it really is a trick and magic at that) and this may not be far from the truth.  Observation by minds that are evolved to survive will certainly see one type of world and may be able to adapt to see below that into what really is.  At least that is my guess.

    Spirituality has seen a resurgence in recent years.  You’d think that this would be a development to rejoice for all religious people.  The joy however is I think to be tempered by the realization that there are people on both sides of the science and faith divide that are intolerant, disrespectful or at least ignorant of the other side.  That I can even speak of such a divide is amazing to me and seems only to demonstrate the lengths to which we will go to be intolerant of each other.  Is there really only one right way to look at the world and to which all others must conform (or at least if not conform be laughed at or pitied)?  This does not seem likely to me.  Rather more likely is that all systems of science and faith are human inventions which may capture part of the truth about the way things are but never the whole truth.  The whole truth is always something so much grander that it is always beyond the reach of our small capacities.

    Many people imagine that there is a conflict or at least a tension between science and faith.  It is sometimes a surprise to others that a person can be a scientist and have a faith, participate in a religion or be spiritual in any way.  I think this occurs because they assume that religion and faith make certain claims about the physical world that are at best difficult to reconcile with science.  For instance that God intervenes in history in favor of certain people as in the history of the Jewish people or in Jesus Christ or for individuals as in prayer.  In fact religious people have a certain reverse problem if they view prayer as being effective in bringing about results in the world.  If it does so does it also do so when “bad” people pray?  Clearly a simple model of how prayer and even God works immediately runs into problems.  Faith is often not as simple as it seems.

    It is not sufficient either to find those places in the world where science has not yet probed and claim that God is there.  We may not understand how “life” works today for instance but molecular biology is closing in on and surrounding this current mystery and it is not inconceivable that one day we will not only know how life works but even be able to form creatures from scratch.  Clearly a “God of the gaps” is only a temporary god for this time and place.  Not that humans have not believed in gods of specific times and places before but that the highest concept of God that can be formed in a monotheistic religious culture is of a mysterious, ineffable, wholly other that might in fact be unknowable in principle if it were not also imminent or incarnate.  Theology is such fun stuff because you get to put so many contradictory concepts together in the same sentence and still claim that you know what you’re talking about.  In fact we may not know what we are talking about.

    Science is not unlimited in what it can discover.  Current science says that the cosmos began 12-15 billion years ago in an incredibly and unimaginable hot and dense state.  It says this because we observe the distant galaxies rushing away from us.  Since all this matter is rushing away it must have been closer in the past and even at some time all together at the same point (in this case meaning a geometrical point of no dimension).  Science never says this because it cannot describe states of infinite temperature and density so it only says that that once it was “incredibly and unimaginable hot and dense”.  Logically it must have also been infinite at one time.  And before that what?

    This is an interesting question and some cosmologists like Stephen Hawking think they know.  They say that such a point is just like a Quantum Vacuum fluctuation.  And so it must be a fluctuation in yet another quantum vacuum.  There is only one problem with this argument and it is this:  the universe (or cosmos) is by definition everything that is.  Physics is really only a description of this universe and its physical law applies only within this universe -- the only physical reality we can know.  To extend it beyond the bounds of space and time (also part of this universe) is really just fantastic thinking.  In reality it is not inconsistent with all we know through science to say anything we want about what is beyond (or "before") space and time.  This includes God and all his angels if you prefer.  This is not to say that science proves God exists but only to say that science is powerless to answer the question “And before that what?”

    Sam Keen the Professor of Philosophy at Louisville Seminary when I was there used to say that the ultimate question (which I have since discovered to be attributed to philosopher Martin Heidigger) was “Why is there not nothing?”  It is a powerful question and it is one that science cannot answer.  But it is not a stupid or meaningless question because of that.  In fact it can be very meaning-full.  It is the ultimate spiritual question and has its corollaries in these questions:  “Who am I?” “What is the meaning of my life?” “What am I supposed to do?”  Ultimately these are questions that all reflective people must answer.  And the answer is not to be found in science because the questions are not about physical reality but about reality of another sort.

    Faith and religion are to me a natural human response to what we cannot know (I am here assuming we once and for all accept that we only know what we can discover with our reason) and what we cannot explain.  It is the realm and the language of the ineffable, the wonderful, the graceful, the awful, the holy, and the wholly other.  We are all ultimately spiritual beings in this sense though it may be something that some of us think little about.  We might not want to do so if we are comfortable with more concrete thinking or it may be that we fear to do so for one reason or another.  But to not do so seems to me to be less than human.

    Created April 25, 2001, 
    © 2001, Thomas A. Jonard