Making friends with scientists

Friday, May 17, 2019 - Updated: 1:09 pm

By David Mills

“We should take a much humbler approach to knowledge,” the world famous physicist told Scientific American magazine. The “we” in that sentence is Marcelo Gleiser’s fellow scientists. He calls himself an agnostic and seems to think many of his fellow scientists aren’t agnostic enough. Or humble enough, for that matter.

Gleiser teaches physics and astronomy at one of America’s elite universities and writes a lot about science for laymen. His latest book is “The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected,” about what he’s learned about life and nature through fishing.

“Science is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits,” he says. “We have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know.”

Of course, we’re always learning. But the reality for scientists is that the more we learn, the more we see that we need to find out. New answers lead to new questions.

Gleiser compares our knowledge to an island that always gets bigger, in a sea of what we don’t know. As we learn more, the island “expands and the boundary between the known and the unknown changes, you inevitably start to ask questions that you couldn’t even ask before.”

Not surprisingly, he gets upset at scientists who claim they have found or will find the final answer. He mentions the famous Stephen Hawking, who claimed that we know how the universe began. (He said that the universe began from nothing, meaning we don’t need a God to explain it. As many people pointed out, his theory didn’t really begin with a nothing, but with a something, quantum mechanics.)

Gleiser objects. “This whole notion of finality and final ideas is, to me, just an attempt to turn science into a religious system, which is something I disagree with profoundly.” Science, he says, “is not about the final answer, it’s about the process of discovery. It’s what you find along the way that matters, and it is curiosity that moves the human spirit forward.”

That’s one reason he insists that scientists can’t be atheists. He calls atheism “a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief.” And that, he says, the scientific method doesn’t allow.

Science, he explains, doesn’t “really do” that kind of categorical statement. Scientists offer a hypothesis, what we would call a highly educated guess, and look for evidence for and against it. Gleiser thinks that they can’t really do that with the question of whether God exists. They may believe they don’t have any evidence for God, but they must also admit that they have “no right to make a final statement about something he or she doesn’t know about.”

That’s why he asks his fellow scientists to work with humility. Gleiser uses the old line, “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” You may not see something, but you can’t say it doesn’t exist somewhere that you can’t see. Also, you may not see that the evidence is evidence because you’re blind to it for all sorts of reasons. You can only find out what you can’t see by looking at the world with real humility.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us the same thing. Science, it says, has “splendidly enriched” our knowledge of the origins of the universe and of mankind. Its discoveries make us thank God for the universe he has given us. It also pushes us to thank him for the insights he gives scientists.

Of course, Christianity asks the deeper questions: Not how and when the universe and man appeared, but what it means. Christianity answers the questions most important to our lives: Are we here by accident and chance or did a God create us? What’s that God like? If he’s good, what about evil? Can we escape it?

Marcelo Gleiser says, basically, “This is really cool. Let’s keep looking!” And three cheers for him. Christianity will ask the deeper questions, but it also says to the Gleisers of the world, “Wow, it is really cool! Thank you for looking so carefully and showing us what you’ve seen.” To put it another way: Scientists like Gleiser, they’re your friends.


Mills is working on a book about Catholic dying and death for Sophia Press.

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