Why do so many people have the impression that one cannot be a scientist and still profess faith? What exactly does it mean to do science? When Dr. Hones’ students are learning Newton’s three laws of motion, are they doing science? Not really. Science is rarely, if ever, done in a classroom setting. What, then, is science? Most people think of science and think of white lab coats and test tubes and rather uninteresting people that always seem to be doing work. Is that what science is? Nope. Science is an endeavor. It is an endless journey to use our imperfect tools to generate imperfect data to be analyzed with our imperfect minds.
The Villanova University Mendel Medal is an award presented to outstanding scientists, aware of the limitations of science, seeking to bridge the gap between science and religion. In the Mendel Medal Lecture given by the 2013 Medal recipient Dr. Sylvester “Jim” Gates, Dr. Gates emphasized the uncertainty inherent to science and how this uncertainty means that we will forever be unable to truthfully define reality.
Truthfully defining something is not the same as accurately defining something. For a long time, science has been able to accurately define things in the natural world for the desired application. Consider pi. If you wish to use pi in an equation, a value of 3.14 will generally suffice. This is an accurate representation of pi. However, this is not the true value of pi. I could fill this entire issue of the Times and every paper that exists with digits of pi and it would still not be true, despite being incredibly accurate. Consequently, it is science’s ultimate inability to reflect complete and utterly certain truth that is what will always allow religion to coexist with and even to complement science.
We sometimes take for granted the knowledge gained through the so-called scientific method as though it is certain. Think about it. Were you ever taught to question your science textbook? Was there ever any question that the structure of DNA that was described by your high school teacher was anything but a double-helix? Of course not.
The textbook is right because it is a textbook and therefore the science is right because some scientists discovered these facts and wrote them in a textbook. That seems to be the mentality that takes over whenever we read science textbooks. I argue that this way of thinking cannot be further from the truth when it comes to science. When you read the textbook, you are presented with only that final consensus in the field of study. Prior to publishing any textbook, dozens of articles – often with conflicting conclusions – are published by many groups of scientists all providing snippets of knowledge. Before Watson and Crick published their proposed structure of DNA, there were many other proposed theories for the structure of DNA that had compelling evidence and were backed by extremely prominent scientists. (Famed scientist Linus Pauling published an incorrect structure of DNA likely in an attempt to finish the structure before Watson and Crick). Scientists do not have perfect data to work with and, even if they did, it would never be able to show the entire picture. That means that theories need to be modified according to new data that is presented and even so theories can never be completely certain. This uncertainty brings us back to my initial definition of science, an essentially imperfect endeavor. If we can never find the completely true answer, what then is the point of studying science? I agree with Dr. Gates in his assertion that the point in studying science is to distance ourselves from ignorance and come as close as we possibly can to ideal truth. We can justify this effort either practically (Dr. Gates reasoned that the dinosaurs went extinct because there were no “dinosaur scientists” to protect them from the asteroid that led to their extinction) or through the more idealistic good that is the pursuit of knowledge.
If we can accept this, that the pursuit of science, despite its imperfections, is a worthy study, we can begin to realize how there exists no way for science and religion to conflict. Religion, and faith itself, are ultimately a search for truths. Who/What is God? Is there an afterlife? What existed before our universe? Did God create our universe? These are religious questions that science cannot possibly answer through measuring imperfect values or examining imperfect data sets. The scientist who claims he or she has discovered something that ultimately disproves the existence of a God, this scientist has made the grievous error of misunderstanding the nature of his or her work and its inherent uncertainty.
With further understanding of science and its inherent uncertainty, we can begin to establish a dialogue between science and religion even in areas where fierce radicals on both sides stubbornly persist. Dr. Gates not only presents us with the reasoning for this position, he actively embraces this idea in his scientific research and public outreach. His winning of the Mendel Medal represents that, in embracing this position, we can continue to do science and answer critical questions within the purview of science while maintaining a dialogue of respect towards those who seek to answer questions using a religious framework.
By Nick Ader ’15