National Catholic Register

Commentary

Faith in Science

BY Mark Shea

October 19-25, 2008 Issue | Posted 10/14/08 at 11:00 AM

 

Christianity in general, and the Catholic faith in particular, has no problem with the sciences. But many people without faith love to talk about “science vs. faith.”

They fancy the former is about what they “know” and the latter consists of bowing in blind obeisance to Authority. But, in fact, as a practical matter, what we are really talking about, for the vast majority of people, is not “knowledge” vs. faith, but two faith systems.

Take global warming. What interests me is that the ordinary people do not argue by having a data-filled discussion of glacier ice core samples, punching up the latest statistics on polar bear population density, performing a statistical analysis of mid-Pacific temperature fluctuations over the past century, or by doing a scientific evaluation of climate conditions in the past two centuries compared with global climate fluctuation estimates in carbon-dated fossil samples since the Pleistocene.

Why don’t ordinary people do that? Because we can’t. We don’t know how. We Ordinaries — you might even call us “we laity” — are wholly dependent on saying things like, “The consensus among scientists is … ,” and then referring to our favorite rabbinic school in the scientific community to read the Holy Book of Nature, comment on it, and tell us what it means.

This holds true across the board for all the sciences when it comes to most of us. The vast majority of people who confidently hold forth on, say, the existence of gluons, or the expansion of the universe, or the various evidences for evolution, or the proposition that light is both a wave and a particle are entirely reciting hearsay they picked up from some Authority on the Discovery Channel or Popular Science.

In other words, they are behaving exactly like adherents of a religious system.

They have a certain group of people whose word they trust, and they repeat what those trusted people in white lab coats tell them.

They don’t spend their days looking through a telescope or microscope and would not know what they were seeing if they did, or how to interpret what they were seeing in order to derive meaning from it.

They couldn’t actually describe the physics equations necessary to derive E=MC2, nor, if you press them, could they very clearly tell you what that formula means. If you ask them, “How do you multiply mass times the square of the speed of light?,” the conversation quickly breaks down because they don’t know. They don’t know how sperm and egg combine; they’ve just seen some pictures and know that it happens — somehow.

The last actual experiment they performed with their own two hands involved a bean seed and a Styrofoam cup filled with potting soil in first grade. They don’t know what a “quark” actually is and have only the crudest mental picture of one, based on a show they once saw on Discovery.

Now, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that believers in whatever Popular Science says this month believe Popular Science. As a general rule, I think listening to what “the authorities” say about their field of expertise is just the way human beings function: We trust each other and rely on group consensus and specialized experts to navigate a lot of our problems.

So when the physicist who knows the math tells me some weird thing like, “Special relativity guarantees that travel to Alpha Centauri and back at light speed would entail the passage of eight years for the interstellar pilot and several decades for the people he leaves behind on Earth,” I believe him, though I don’t really understand him. He’s done the math, and I haven’t.

Even though I’ve never actually seen DNA, I still trust that a geneticist is not simply practicing high priestly mumbo jumbo when he discusses gene therapy.

In short, I think faith in Authorities Who Know What They Are Talking About has worked pretty well over the millennia, with some hiccups. The main difference between me and the people who imagine they “trust science, not religion” is that I extend precisely the same courtesy to apostles who saw Christ rise from the dead and who paid for their proclamation of this truth with years of toil, suffering, persecution, and ultimately, martyrdom.

Moreover, I’ve found the Christ they proclaim to make claims every bit as testable as those of the sciences. For he says, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man’s will is to do God’s will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17-18).

That’s the science of the saints, who wear white garments instead of white lab coats, and whose lives are themselves the evidence that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Mark Shea is the content editor

of CatholicExchange.com