Sunday was a wonderful day! I participated in an interfaith conference designed and led by and for high school kids. At a rough guess around 100 teenagers attended to have intimate discussions in small groups with 15+ faith leaders (self included). It was a wonderful gathering of love and compassion and hope. I’ll be writing about this in more detail elsewhere (I am excited to have been asked to be a guest blogger for Compassionate Atlanta and to help coordinate that blog platform – coming very soon!) but want to use this experience in a very different way for today’s post.
I have recently been studying up on dark matter and dark energy and surprised myself greatly. By way of background, I have a strong scientific background, with an applied math (aka theoretical physics) degree from Oxford University, so for much of my life I lived and breathed a scientific worldview. But for many years I have been drifting away to the extent that I have talked disparagingly about cosmology’s need for “dark matter” and “dark energy” as a sign science simply doesn’t know.
Out of my recent studies I have concluded three things:
(1) Science does know. Dark matter and dark energy are not just “made up.” I have examined five or six completely independent methods of indirect verification that vast amounts of undetected matter exist in our galaxies and learned much about its nature (in particular it is cold and weakly interacting). I have also learned a little about several viable candidates. Science is on less solid ground with dark energy, but even there the evidence seems clear. And fundamentally, when I bring myself back to what science is – a framework that describes observed behavior and makes predictions for subsequent validation – I have to accept dark matter and dark energy as existent.
(2) I am humbled to see the extent to which I was manifesting my own prejudice and ignorance in my rejection of this theoretical physics. I had not realized the extent to which my worldview reflected a backlash against my scientific education towards the more mystical and subjective – a profound but unacknowledged prejudice. Despite some superficial contact with the evidence for dark matter and dark energy, I was largely ignorant of it. More, in my reaction to “fundamentalist science” (I think here of the likes of Richard Dawkins who express disdain not just for religion) I had pulled so far from mainstream science that I had forgotten what science really is.
(3) Cosmology is so complicated that it is very hard to hold the middle ground, and yet it is incredibly important to do so. By that I mean that it is very hard to gain enough knowledge of mind-bending topics to understand the evidence and scientific explanations, while at the same time retaining the objectivity – or perhaps the subjectivity – to not get caught up in the science as “the truth.” It is hard to recognize that this is just one worldview – albeit a really useful one that has given us context nuclear energy, lasers and economic gains. But it is really important that we not come to believe that science actually IS the way the world is. It is important that we hold on to a world of music and love and passion in which we enjoy a sunny day and our children can come together in humanity, compassion and understanding as they did at Northside Methodist Church on Sunday.
But it is hard to hold this middle ground.
I have found, even during my recent studies of dark matter and energy, that I catch the thrill of the chase, the excitement of understanding something new, and that in doing so I want to give a reality, a solidity to this new insight. This is doubly difficult in our achievement-oriented world.
But holding the middle ground has never been so important as it is today. We live in a world in which on the one hand evolution and climate change are dismissed by perhaps the majority of Americans as “just theories,” and on the other a meaningful portion of the balance of the population holds on to them in opposition as “truth.” Both views are mistaken, and the result is polarizing, poisonous divisiveness.
Holding the middle ground requires returning to what science really is, and keeping it there. A good scientific paper presents the evidence of observations and offers possible models to describe and predict just that evidence. It is important we all put aside our prejudices and other matters – such as our faith and our culture – and focus on this. It is important to actually examine the observations of scientists, consider their models on their merits as explanations, and consider their utility as tools to predict. If we could do this we could use science to improve the world and at the same time hold on to our own personal religious views and all leave room for the wonderful experiences of art and culture and the teenage kids who assembled on Sunday wanting to change themselves for the better.
Evolution and Climate Change have become politicized and divisive, but at their heart, their science is like theories of dark matter. It captures observations and tries to develop “stories” to explain them. These stories are tested rigorously not just for their ability to explain, but also for their ability to predict the as-yet unknown, and if they don’t work they are thrown away. Anything beyond this is no longer science. Evolutionary theory has unraveled diseases and led to much medical development which has advanced our quality of life; it has informed hybridizing crops and livestock and done much to enhance crop yields; and it has led to the genetically modified crops whose has ethical issues are as yet unresolved. All of this work is based on solid observations and has nothing to do with philosophical or religious speculation. Similarly observations of changes in the constituent gases in the atmosphere and their radiation absorption spectra are just that: observations. Theories of consequences are also just that: theories. But they are testable, both historically and predictively, and for example helped us understand and deal on a global basis with the ozone hole. Again, this is not a religious or moral statement: it is tied up with and no less ordinary than everyday weather reports. When the theories work both to explain and predict they become very useful. Like current cosmological theories, these are simply useful tools that offer just one way to look at the world, albeit a very useful way that offers the ability to predict future behaviors.
The limitations of science are illustrated by Oppenheimer’s words on seeing the first atomic explosions, “Now I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds.” Our expanding scientific knowledge and predictive capabilities bring with them profound moral responsibilities, and scientists certainly do not have any moral superiority. In fact I believe it would be a mistake to leave the morals of science to the self-interest of scientists: it is important for faith leaders to engage in conversation with science. In doing so, faith leaders can take the lead on humanitarian, compassionate, and spiritual topics, and remind us all of what science is not. An approach of divisiveness serves neither the scientifically-inclined nor the spiritual and moral person.
While religion would be right to reject any hypothesis proffered by scientists, whether masked as evolution, climate change, or cosmology, that denies the existence of God, it would be wrong to reject the empirical evidence that science describes (such as atmospheric gas concentrations and genetic knowledge), or the predictions that science has and can successfully make. As the Dalai Lamna has said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” Conversely science would be wrong to assert that it holds the moral or ethical high-ground or to hypothesize that it is “the way, the truth and the light;” quoting Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Such as the love of one hundred teenagers and our collective hope for their future.