Friday, 12 July 2013

Thinking about Science and Faith - with apologies (or gratitude!) to Kant.

When I was working in science I had a colleague who was an atheist.  We would debate long and hard but usually in a friendly manner.  We had little common ground and never reached any kind of agreement, but it was quite fun.  However, over the last decade we have watched the rise of a more militant atheism, a sort of scientific super-rationalism, which believes religion to be completely irrational and as something that should be abolished.  Now it comes with a certain degree of relief that recently we have begun to see a slightly less hard-edged debate taking place as Dawkins et al have become marginalised by their own camp and are becoming more widely recognised as having little understanding of religion and spirituality, preferring instead to point at a Christian ‘Aunt-Sally’ that few genuine believers would recognise as anything more than a crude caricature of their faith.  Nevertheless many of us, from time to time, will find ourselves sat over the dinner table from someone who may be quite aggressive in their atheism.  It’s very difficult to know how to respond to someone who won’t listen to reasoned debate, but maybe it’s worth pointing out a few home truths about the limits of science and atheism.

The most fundamental point about science is this: Science cannot ever prove something to be correct.  I have had long arguments with people about this, but having trained and worked as a scientist this is one area where I think I do know what I’m talking about, so let me repeat it since modern media commentators often seem oblivious of this.  Science cannot ever prove something to be correct. Science can only ever prove that a theory is wrong, it can never prove that it is right.  The best science can do is to say that the results of a particular experiment are consistent with the theory which is being tested.  When commenting on results in the laboratory we would always respond with, ‘The results are consistent with...’  It therefore follows that if anyone tells you that science has proven that religion is nonsense or that God does not exist, that person has shown themselves to have a poor understanding of what science can actually do.  You can ask them to tell you of one thing that science has actually proven.  In fact in the real world it’s surprisingly hard to prove the reality of anything.  Why?  Let me see if I can explain...

Your understanding of the world around you is based entirely on the senses that you have.  We have the main five senses, sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, and somewhere between four and sixteen other senses, depending on who you talk to.  All of them are geared up to providing you with information about the physical world around you that evolution selected for humanity in order to survive.  So your picture is based entirely on the world according to your senses.  But what if the world has other things within it that evolution didn’t select a detection mechanism for because interactions are less predictable?  Then we would be largely oblivious to them.  You might remember the old VW advert with angels sitting on all the cars.  Whilst I’m not suggesting that’s the truth, if the presence of angels, for example, falls outside our sensing detection mechanisms then none of us have any way whatsoever of knowing they are there.  We simply cannot prove their existence or non-existence.  So what, then, about science and scientific instruments?  Well the same arguments apply.  We have the most incredibly sensitive instrumentation now, with telescopes like the sadly now defunct Kepler able to determine the slightest wobble in a star’s position or the tiniest dip in its light, therefore enabling the detection of planets on stars that would take us many thousands of years to reach because of their distance.  But the flaw is that all of our scientific instruments are geared up to detect things that we are already aware of through our senses.  We’re using light to detect planets around distant stars, but our instruments are just extensions of our eyes.  However, we wouldn’t know how to design a machine capable of detecting something whose existence falls beyond human perception because we would have no idea what to look for.  Even within science there is a growing awareness of this.  For example we now believe that the greater proportion of the universe is made up of Dark Matter and Dark Energy with the visible world accounting for just 5% of all that exists.  The only reason we believe in Dark Matter is because our galaxy couldn’t exist without flying apart if it wasn’t there because of the extra gravitation pull it imparts.  So we can infer its reality from what our human senses enhanced by technology tell us.  But we don’t know what it’s made of and have very little idea how to detect it or measure it.  Science is struggling with this one.  I expect eventually we’ll figure it out, but it gives us pause for thought: If science is having a hard time measuring something that we can’t see and know is different from normal matter and can only infer its existence because of the way normal matter moves, how on earth can science be so arrogant as to say, ‘If we can’t see it or measure it then it isn’t real.’  Science only works with that which can be measured.  Everything beyond that is theory.

So the next time someone tells you that science has shown that God doesn’t exist, ask them to prove it.  You could even ask them to prove that you exist, which again is not as easy as you might imagine because our senses can be easily fooled.  Ultimately atheism is a position of faith, just like Christianity.  For me, speaking using scientific language, I would have to say that my spiritual experiences are consistent with the existence of a loving God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that’s why I believe.  I cannot prove God’s existence, but I also know that it also cannot be proven otherwise.

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