Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What is Faith?

Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a science essay. But I assure you it does fit in with science. I want to share a story that I heard on Krista Tippett’s On Being, an NPR show, on September 24 of this year. I retell this story from memory, since I do not have time to listen to the whole podcast over again, but you can hear it at this link.

Dr. Guy Consolmagno is the current Vatican Astronomer, at the Vatican Observatory, and Dr. George Coyne is the recently retired astronomer. Now, whoa. You may not have known there even was a Vatican Observatory. Wasn’t this the church that condemned Galileo for believing the Earth was not the center of the universe, and burned Giordano Bruno at the stake? Well, it took a while for the Vatican to catch up with science, but in 1891 Pope Leo XIII founded the Vatican Observatory. (Now you know what the URL suffix “.va” stands for.) Instead of resisting science, the Catholic church decided to pursue it.

Dr. Coyne told a story of speaking at a convention of astronomers one time. He was wearing his priestly vestments. Then someone in the audience asked him, “Father,” not Dr. Coyne or George, “What does it feel like to go to work each day with the realization that you already know all of the answers?” Coyne’s response was swift and sure. He tore off his robe (I assume he was clothed underneath, and not in Mormon magical undergarments) and let everyone know that faith is not about knowing the answers, but about the assurance that the universe can be, as each day and year passes, better and better understood: our efforts at research will be rewarded. Even if we never understand it fully.

That is a way of describing the fundamental faith that all scientists have. And it is a leap of faith: there is no logical reason to believe that our brains, which evolved to maximize the fitness of genes and individuals, should have any way of understanding the universe. We evolved intelligence because it gave us a better ability to survive and to form associations with or to dominate other human beings. It evolved as a tool for evolutionary success, in the pursuit of which rationalization was just as good as reason. What our minds tell us need not be true, except in the matter of telling us where the edge of the cliff, or the next meal, is; it can be total fantasy, and natural selection favors it, so long as it allows us to form associations and to dominate others. I consider it an astonishing thing that our brains just happen to be suited for understanding the universe also. Even though very few people can actually understand dark energy or superstrings, at least we can understand the reasoning.

Keep the faith, brethren. We can understand the world, despite the political and religious and economic forces of hatred and unreason that try to keep us from doing so.

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