Monday, April 29, 2013

Guy Consolmagno on science and faith.

The British Jesuits' online journal Thinking Faith recently published the text of a talk given last month by Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer who works at the Vatican Observatory. (Guy has appeared on this blog a number of times before, notably here and here.) Speaking before an audience at the Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London, Brother Consolmagno had this to say about the place of belief (broadly considered) in scientific inquiry:
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 do not 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 were a solipsist, then being a scientist would be just wasting your time studying a figment of your imagination.

The second thing to believe is that the universe operates by regular laws. How can you go searching for the physical laws of the universe if you do not 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 the 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?

. . .

And here is 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 will be afraid to be too involved in it; you will want to meditate yourself to a higher level, perhaps. If you believe that, you are 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 is 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 is going to be a time when the two systems conflict.

But that is not what science is at all, and not what religion is at all.
Later in the talk, Brother Consolmagno has some good things to say about the nature of faith:
Faith is not accepting a bunch of facts in the absence of evidence. It is making choices in the absence of all the facts… whether it is 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 am assuming that it is going to be interesting down the line; if I knew what I was going to discover, I would not 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 is 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 cannot use science to 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 to. It could just be coincidence, or an illusion. You can never know for sure; that, of course, is why we need faith.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.


At 4/29/2013 7:50 PM, Blogger Lynda said...

Outstanding. Thanks very much for sharing this.


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