This topic has been a subject of study, debate and analysis since antiquity. My interest is NOT to examine if there is a positive merit to faith and religion. That is a vast and very contentious subject and can be deferred to another day. My specific interest is to understand whether Faith exposes the limits of Scientific Inquiry and if there is in fact an opportunity for coexistence in the scientific forum.
We are all painfully aware of the numerous struggles scientists had to go through, during the Middle Ages to be able to overcome religious dogmas and present conclusions about the universe that shattered religious world views. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an interesting article about Sir Issac Newton called The Perimeter of Ignorance.
Sir Issac Newton discovers, gravitation, optics, light spectrum, the laws of motion and on a “dare” invents Differential and Integral Calculus just so that he could explain the nature of planetary orbits. However, Newton cannot explain how adding objects to this gravitational law still keeps the solar system stable.
He is able to explain Moon and Earth, Sun and Earth all the two body gravitational models. However he is not able to account how the system is still stable with multiple bodies (Earth and Sun pulling but also Saturn pulling Earth, Mars pulling Earth and so on).
So Newton invokes Faith since he has reached his limit. From Neil Degrasse Tyson’s article, “A century later, the French Astrologer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronts Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declares it a scientific challenge and solves the issue using Perturbation Theory
Dr. Tyson provides a few more interesting examples of illustrious scientists who reach their limits and invoke faith only to have someone solve the issue later.
Let’s review the recent past where there have been a few specific cases where famous scientists such as Dr. Francis Collins (who let the decoding of the Human Genome Project) has been vocal about his faith, having written books and articles on this faith. By the way he is also the chair of the National Institute of Health. For a detailed analysis of Dr. Collins’ positions, Sam Harris’ article makes for good reading.
Harris asks a very germane question: Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).
What we have understood about ourselves and the universe around us in the last 100 years has been more than the previous 50,000 years combined. Science has debunked, defeated and demonstrated so many cherished myths, superstitions and beliefs which is all due to the “scientific inquiry”. Science continues to attack the “God of the Gaps” theory.
That isn’t to say there is no room for spirituality and faith. There has been numerous cases of sages and saints who have experienced great revelations via meditation, self inflection and contemplation. People use faith to cope with adversity, tragedy and loss.
That is however very very different from when posed with a limit of sceintific inquiry the answer is to outsource the explaination to a divine creator.
There is an alarming groundswell in this country where faith is now starting to be used to question the scientific process. This is going to have long term repercussions in our ability to continue to be a world leader in innovation.
Here is an example: If there is an argument on the quality of evidence regarding Evolution that is a worthy debate to have. If one comes to the stage with a book written a few thousand years ago about a world view from even far back it is not even worth having a conversation. It is like howling at the moon.
I am hoping that we will be able to improve the discourse where a sense of inquiry and reason guides our evaluation and not a reliance on bronze age literature and practices.