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The significance of John Paul II’s 1988 message to George Coyne on Science and Theology



I find the message of John Paul II both eloquent and to the point. It will encourage and be welcomed by many scientists. Science and theology represent two great efforts to understand our universe and ourselves, each with its own perspective. The insights of each can help increase the depth of our understanding, and we need a broad spectrum of individuals who can consider both science and religious ideas with some sophistication. Thus, this statement is pertinent, clarifying, and timely.

My own impression is that the fields of science and theology are actually much more similar and closely parallel than our culture generally allows. This is, in part, because of a natural overlap in their broad goals; science might be described briefly as a search for understanding in terms of order in our universe, religion perhaps as a search for understanding in terms of meaning. Both take an all-encompassing view, seek connections between all parts of our universe, and hence if successful must ultimately overlap in major ways and be one. There must also be an inherent similarity between our understanding of science and of religion because human characteristics mold both of them; by utilizing all our human abilities they call on and are blessed by similar human capabilities and also have somewhat similar limitations.

Consider Faith

It is usually not overtly noticed that science is built on faith; by contrast, for religion, faith is right out front. But faith is necessary for scientists to even begin their work; scientists, too, must believe so that they may know. They must deeply believe that there is order in the universe, a kind of order the human mind can eventually grasp. Without such faith, we would be in a capricious world not to be comprehended by logic or repeatable experiments. This is why, I believe, science has particularly flourished in a Judaeo-Christian setting with its background of a real world somewhat external to the individual mind, and obeying the consistent laws of a reliable God. We cannot by logic rule out Bishop Berkeley’s world, created only out of our own mind and thus with a rather arbitrary existence; only the scientist’s faith can do that. Sometimes it takes the faith of Job to persevere on a scientific problem which continually eludes us and makes no sense on the basis of our best logical constructs. Even what we consider logical proofs are, we now understand, based on faith — a faith that certain starting assumptions are adequately self-consistent. Normally, mathematical proof is carefully deduced from a set of assumptions which, if correct, allow proof of a set of propositions according to recognized rules of logic. But the mathematician Gödel showed that no set of assumptions can be proven self-consistent without a still more general frame of assumptions being called upon, a framework which then itself cannot be proven consistent.

Thus in a very fundamental way, faith is a necessary basis of science even though we are rarely conscious of it. In another culture, one based on a pantheon of gods who on occasion countermand each other, the faith in reliable laws necessary for science to flourish might be difficult; for us it is omnipresent and therefore overlooked.

Consider Experimental Tests

Our almost unquestioning faith in science comes from repeated successful experiences or laboratory tests which others can reproduce. We do not question whether gravity and momentum will bring the sunrise again in the morning; we have experienced the reliability of the sunrise too many times. Science makes more complex and esoteric predictions; these can be tested and frequently they are correct, but if not then scientific ideas are appropriately modified without much damage to our faith in science as a whole. In some cases, scientists cannot experiment under controlled conditions, and must only experience and observe. We cannot experiment with a distant galaxy, and have no hope of doing so even in the distant future of space travel. We can only observe, experience, and from this draw conclusions. In some phenomena closer to us, such as details of the weather, we experience ever changing and unpredictable phenomena over which again we have no real control but about which we try to draw conclusions. And here, too, our scientific faith is generally confirmed.

In the religious framework, human experience, our own innermost thoughts and emotions, the experience of friends and forebears, the experiences we learn about from history or the scriptures seem to me essentially parallel to scientific observations. It is with them and our judgment about them that we test our religious ideas and faith. Clearly, religious experience is generally more complex to reproduce or verify than are the simple laboratory experiments of science. In some cases an attempt to reproduce religious experience — or seeking a “sign” — may fundamentally negate the conditions necessary for its occurrence. Yet clearly our observations in the form of life experiences or knowledge of the experience of others must form the basis of our religious understanding or the validity of our faith, just as experiments and observations by ourselves or others form the basis of our science.

Consider Limits To Our Knowledge

The remarkable build up of science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced enormous confidence in its success and generality, and a conviction on the part of many that in time science would explain everything. The power and precision of scientific law had changed the idea of determinism, i.e. the idea that our future is already determined to the most minute detail by the past and by inescapable laws of science, from a speculative argument to one which seemed inescapable to most scientists. The honest scientist Pasteur could only reply, when asked how he could be both a scientist and a religious person, that his laboratory was one realm but his home and religion a completely different one.

The coming of quantum mechanics of course completely changed our views on determinism. As science entered the realm of the very small, i.e. the behavior of atoms, electrons or photons, completely unexpected phenomena occurred which radically changed the laws of physics and the scientific outlook while at the same time affirming most of our past experience on a macroscopic scale. Similarly, examination of new realms of high velocities and of strong or large-scale gravitational fields required the development of special and general relativity with other basic changes in physical laws. These again generally affirmed experience of the past but completely reoriented a number of basic ideas.

Quantum mechanics was especially surprising. It not only destroyed determinism but also required objects to simultaneously possess properties of both waves and particles and behave in ways at variance with our well-developed intuitions about the physical world. The future is not completely determined by the past, but has a certain chance behavior which, though most obvious on an atomic scale, is quite capable of strongly affecting the course of our macroscopic world. To many scientists, this was so contrary to their beliefs that they struggled hard against such conclusions. To others this contradiction of determinism seemed like a welcome opportunity for intervention of a deity. However, the equations of science still can make no allowance for a deity nor any other hidden or otherworldly forces. In fact, recently there has been much additional research on whether the unpredictable aspects of quantum physics are possibly controlled by hidden forces. This research has been coupled with attempts to disprove the strongly counterintuitive quantum mechanical conclusion that matter, or even people, can coexist simultaneously in two different states or manifestations. But experiments seem to give a clear answer that these strange and conceptually difficult aspects of quantum mechanics are correct.

While science still finds no place for a deity to influence ongoing phenomena, and no place for the free will we almost all assume for ourselves, it has clearly demonstrated that apparently well-established scientific ideas can be wrong in the most basic of ways, and that some of our well-tested and useful ideas can mislead us. Scientists today are much more humble and cautious about the completeness of their understanding than they were before these jolting scientific revolutions. And there are still other changes, such as what appears to be a rather conclusive demonstration of a unique time in history — the Big Bang — which is quite contrary to how many scientists previously felt our universe must be. We now search for missing matter, a majority of the matter in the universe which measurements show must fill our galaxy, and yet so far this matter is of a completely unknown nature. What new surprise does this missing matter have in store? And are there basic new principles involved in the existence of life which are sill hidden from us?

Science is extremely powerful and broad in its application, yet clearly we have grossly misunderstood the nature of our universe in the past. How well do we really understand it now? Is it surprising that religious ideas sometimes seem counter-intuitive or inconsistent to us? Must we not also be extraordinarily humble about our understanding in the religious realm, and be ready for the possibility of profound changes in this understanding? In either science or religion, we see only in part, or through a glass darkly.

Consider Moral Behavior

It has been often said, and with much conviction, that science is amoral, directly involving neither ethical values nor judgement. I am not convinced of this. It is recognized, I believe, that some of the religious rules of the Old Testament were primarily instructions for a healthy life, and moral perhaps primarily in the sense of enabling individuals to fully use their God-given human body and powers. Today science provides some of these instructions for a healthy life.

But more thought-provoking from the point of view of ethics is the discipline of truth which science teaches and to a certain extent also enforces. A necessary dedication to reason, tested by reproducible experiments, tends to hold scientists to high standards of truth and objectivity. False reasoning or false experiments tend to be quickly challenged and tested by other scientists, and this produces real punishment either for purposeful deception or for self-delusion. Science progresses when scientists are open, sharing and carefully objective rather then self-deluding. Not that scientists must always be right; when a scientist makes an honest mistake, which is not infrequent in the process of groping for new ideas, the discipline of truth and association with other scientists generally makes a ready admission of the mistake straightforward and acceptable. To what extent this discipline of truth is essentially adherence to ethical behavior can be debated, but in any case it produces strong similarities to ethical behavior. It enforces values which are demanding, are not self-centered, and are in most cases beneficial to humanity. It represents a standard of behavior which most of the scientific community recognizes as essential for progress, and which has blessed the scientific enterprise.

Consider Progress

The extraordinary progress of science in the last few centuries, and the more-or-less steady acceleration of progress during this time, comes from several sources. These include a strong faith in science, an interacting community of scientists which tends to enforce standards of truth, to increase the excitement of discovery, and to encourage a sharing of knowledge so that each new piece of information and each new understanding can be used as a step towards further progress. There is at least some analogy to members of a religious congregation each of whom helps, enlightens, and inspires the religious growth of others. One can hope that thoughtful, open interaction between scientists and theologians within the right framework of standards can also catalyze a growth in understanding for both groups.

In the case of science, our collective growth has been remarkable and the accumulating power of science astounding. More than ever, humanity through science is becoming a co-creator with God. This has its rewards for us, but it also makes demands.

Conclusion: A Mandate for Learning

I have argued that science and religion are closely parallel and must somehow merge when understood fully. However, they are still somewhat separate areas, and at times quite isolated from each other. Considerate and open dialogue between the two can be expected to enlighten each and to find much commonality.

It appears almost inevitable that humanity will understand the logic and order in our universe ever more deeply and will be able to use it ever more powerfully. This magnifies the urgency for us to also understand the purpose and meaning of this universe, the focus of religious concerns. How important it is for those of us with some scientific or technical skills to understand and participate in God’s purposes! And how important it is for religious leaders to deeply understand the context of science, to be prepared for revolutions in thought and possibilities, and to help give perspective to humanity’s tremendous intellectual potential!

C.H. Townes, Response to the message of John Paul II, in John Paul II on Science and Religion. Reflections on the new view from Rome, ed. by R.J. Russell, W.R. Stoeger and G.V. Coyne (Vatican City: The University of Notre Dame Press - Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1990), pp. 113-117.