Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Saints (and/or Others) Preserve Us!

I've mentioned before a friend who once declared herself too open-minded to read anything in The Weekly Standard, which probably suggests a different definition of open-minded than the one I use. Although I've not heard it expressed exactly the same way, I am sure I have friends more on my side of the political spectrum who would dimiss anything in The Nation just as readily. They might be correct sometimes, but not always.

This book review of Marcelo Gleiser's The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning is a fine example. Gleiser and review author Michael Saler take on what seems to be the casual definition of "science" these days, but which might more readily be considered "scientism," a belief that science alone is a path towards finding answers to all questions of human existence, and that disciplines such as philosophy -- let alone the arena of religion -- can offer no real insight into the meaning of life or existence.

Gleiser declines the dichotomy often drawn between science and the humanities and suggests that properly understood, both pursue truth and both are limited in their results. I haven't read the book yet, (it's on the Amazon wish list) but I definitely support the premise. My understanding of science as a way to try to understand what goes on in the universe doesn't really allow for it to be considered as a way to answer questions with some kind of eternal finality. The phrase "the science is settled" in reference to any subject shows a misunderstanding of what science is supposed to do. Yes, it answers questions. But it does not then close the book.

Take, for example, the concept of cosmic inflation. First proposed by physicist and cosmologist Alan Guth in the 1980s, it suggests that at some time soon after the Big Bang, the universe "inflated" from a miniscule point to something that would have been actually visible, if it had been possible to be outside it and observe it. This inflation happened so fast that it allowed the tiny homogenous universe to become much larger while remaining homogenous, which in turn explains why the universe looks like it does today. If it had simply expanded from the initial Big Bang without inflation, then it would look very different.

Later experiments offered support for inflationary theory. But as an article in the August 2014 special edition of Scientific American notes, even though almost all observed evidence connected to the formation of the universe supports the idea of inflation, there are some plain old common sense questions that make cosmologists wonder about it (the article is not yet online unless you subscribe to the magazine).

Or take something as simple as the rising and setting of the sun. Nearly everyone who's ever lived on this planet up until the time of Nicolaus Copernicus would have said that the science was settled and the sun rose in the East, traversed the sky along a different route depending on the time of the year and set in the West. Every observation ever made of the sun could prove exactly that. But Copernicus asked some different questions, and along with observations made by Galileo Galelei, Johannes Kepler and others, these questions unsettled the science until we found out we go around the sun and not vice-versa as had always been taught.

I am, as I have mentioned before, mired in traditional Christian theism. I believe the four canonical gospels form a reliable account of the important features of Jesus' life and ministry and that the Holy Spirit was at work in those who wrote the books of the Bible and those who compiled them. I believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ and in the Virgin Birth.

None of these beliefs are somehow undermined by the work of modern science as it asks questions about how the world works and tries to describe what we see. Indeed, as the truth of the universe is slowly uncovered, we find it is "queerer than we can imagine," as geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane put it. And insofar as those questioners seek the truth, the answers they find will in no way harm my following of the one I believe embodies the Truth.

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