(If it is not already apparent from the short history of posts here, I expect to be content to alternate with little gear-shifting between probing philosophical questions and recreational mathematics. I hope your reading mood is fickle.)
Are science and faith compatible? Can a scientist pursue truth, be comfortable with doubt, and at the same time believe in God? I think these are interesting, important, and personal questions. Because they are personal, I don’t think my answers to them should be particularly important to you. But hopefully the discussion will at least be interesting.
Before discussing these questions directly, though, I want to take what may at first seem like a rather abrupt detour. Please be patient: this detour is at least mildly interesting in its own right, but does also have direct bearing on the main question.
Is mathematics discovered or invented? (Remember, be patient.) That is, when a mathematician describes some new theorem, or new algorithm, or new connection between previously unrelated areas of mathematics, has he or she invented something new “out of thin air,” or discovered something that was “there” all along and simply had yet to be found?
I tend toward the Platonist idea of discovery. This seems particularly apparent when considering the many historical examples of two or more people, often greatly separated geographically, arriving nearly simultaneously at the same or similar results.
(I focus on mathematics here only briefly, mainly because I am a mathematician, and I think in that particular field the question is actually a bit more interesting, since mathematical truth is frequently so abstract. But I think the discussion follows through at least as well in other scientific fields, particularly physics.)
To provide a visual analogy to this idea of discovery of pre-existing truths and connections between them, imagine that our world, be it mathematical, physical, or whatever, is one large, very dark room. In that room is a great engine, consisting of countless parts, gears, rods, etc., all of which move together with humming smoothness. Each part of the engine corresponds to some mathematical truth or physical law governing how our universe works, and those parts are connected and interact with each other in fascinating ways.
It is a wonderful machine… but the room is completely dark, and we can’t see how it works. However, each of us is equipped with a flashlight. Most of those flashlights, mine included, are relatively dim, and a very few others are extremely bright. Sometimes we know where to shine our lights from what others have learned, and other times we simply get lucky and look in the right place.
(I do not recall when or how this particular description of this idea occurred to me. But I certainly see in it at least hints of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and Newton’s “smoother pebbles” and “shinier shells” on the shore of the “undiscovered great ocean of truth,” images that I remember being fascinated with when I first read them.)
So, to work my way back to my main point… my motivation for this whole discussion is to relate the “exploring a dark room” analogy to the issue of compatibility between science and faith. As I see it, science is our ongoing attempt to understand how that great engine works. We currently have a very limited view; some parts of the engine seem relatively easy to see, other parts we have pretty good ideas about how they work and how they are connected… and other parts are in near total darkness.
To me, faith is an expression of belief about that part of the world that we cannot yet see or understand clearly. Faith is to science what conjecture is to theorems. More precisely, faith deals with those ideas about which we cannot yet make useful testable predictions. In this respect, I see science and faith as perfectly compatible… but somewhat vacuously so, since their domains are mutually exclusive. And as long as those domains remain disjoint, I think we are free to believe whatever we like.
But every once in a while, someone shines a light so bright that we are able to significantly expand the frontier between what is lit and what is dark. Or perhaps someone illuminates an area that we thought we understood pretty well, but by viewing it from a direction not previously considered, we see it more clearly for what it is. Historical examples abound, from Ptolemy to Galileo to Newton to Einstein.
This latter situation is critical, since to me it lies at the heart of a scientific view of the world. We can today make statements of varying degrees of confidence about how the world works… but about none of those statements can we be 100% certain. We must always qualify our understanding as being possibly wrong (!), and be prepared to revise that understanding should someone shine a brighter light from a more illuminating direction.