Category Archives: science
The scientific method has had enormous influence on human life. Since its inception in modern form about 400 years ago, the scientific method has become ever more dominant in our culture. Not least it has brought us science itself, which has led to enormous advances in technology and human longevity. It is not surprising that some seem to worship The Method in their lives.
How and when do you use The Method? When should you get along without it? The Method is a proven way to gain knowledge of our physical world. The cycle of hypothesis (educated guessing), testing the hypothesis (experiments), and thus confirming or rejecting it (interpreting and thinking), is forever etched in our minds and hearts. The Method works so well because Nature invariably works in logical ways. The Method is well suited to learning about Nature because of the way Nature behaves.
Yet you can live your whole life without ever using or thinking about The Method. Perhaps you are one of these “non-users” who scoff at the seemingly cold logic embedded in The Method. Using the scientific method is practical, yes, but might not contribute much to your immediate happiness or success.
Understanding and applying The Method will bring you power. Apply it to your own life. Form a hypothesis about what you will do tomorrow, or where you will be in your life one year from now. Form hypotheses about those around you, colleagues and friends. How will they act or react to something you might do? Wait a little while and compare your hypotheses with experiment.
Understanding the limitations of The Method will bring you wisdom. The Method applies to the physical world. What about the spiritual world?
Don’t get me wrong: I love The Method. It is part of my professional life as a scientist. I make a living with it. Yet, my intimacy with The Method has led me to become familiar with its limitations. I can pose certain questions that I cannot answer using The Method. These hard-to-answer questions are not “meaningless”, any more than Love and Dignity are meaningless.
If you don’t use The Method at all, I recommend you try it. Let in a little logic to your life, and connect more directly with the awesome forces of Nature. Yet, if you believe The Method “rules all”, it’s time for a little introspection about what you truly value in life.
You will live out your destiny, no matter what.
Science would seem to be the most logical and unemotional activity that a person could engage in. We calmly and dispassionately set up our experiments, analyze our data, and reach our conclusions that either confirm or refute our hypothesis. We also do many things, like develop tools and instruments, that do not directly address a hypothesis.
How could something so logical be tied to emotion and passion? But consider this: if you know a successful scientist, you might find that he or she works long hours and thinks a great deal about what he or she is doing. One might say that scientists are consumed by what they do. They might even appear to be passionate. Passion about something logical? What gives?
Passion is a driving force in science. For many scientists, the passion arises from the connection we make to the physical world. The connection feels strong and profound. Logic is the common language that unites us with the world we study. Logic is something humans understand deeply. It pervades the fabric of our thoughts, from the most mundane to the most exalted. The thrill of science comes from seeing how logic does its magic in the world. The language of logic that nature speaks creates amazing structure and beauty in the natural world.
A scientist may be sitting alone, ruminating on ideas and concepts about a particular thing such as the aurora borealis or a thunderstorm. There is something exhilarating about knowing that thinking can reveal new truths about the world around us. The reason this can happen is logic. By thinking I can learn a great deal about something I have never experienced. I can even learn about something that has never existed. By thinking, I can create something new in the world that is not at all obvious that it could be made. The reason this can happen is logic itself: by understanding logic, and starting with a few assumptions, new things come to be.
Connecting to such a powerful thing as our physical world feels amazing. It feels miraculous. It instills passion. So the long days and nights, and feelings of despair and exhilaration continue.
Science is conducted using the scientific method. Does the scientific method teach us about the nature of reality? Is the scientific method taking over our lives and leading us astray?
In modern times, for many people their mantra is: “if I can’t verify it, I won’t believe it.” This mantra has come from belief in the scientific method. The scientific method is based on obtaining experimental evidence for one’s hypothesis or “guess” about a natural phenomenon. Absent this evidence, a scientist will not believe the hypothesis. Is the scientific method being applied too broadly in people’s lives?
Let’s work through a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. I see a bright shimmering light in the sky, and I wish to learn more about it. As a scientist, I build an instrument, launch it on a rocket, and send it into the light. The instruments on the rocket collect data, and the radio on the rocket sends the data back to me, providing lots of details about this beautiful light. I begin to form a hypothesis about what causes the light. I plan a new rocket launch with new experiments to test my hypothesis.
However, I notice there are gaps in the data. I come to realize that about half the light I am seeing is emanating from the places where there are data gaps. I am not sure why the gaps are there. I try to fix the problem by building and trying new equipment that is stronger and more robust. However, try as I might, after several more launches, the data gaps remain and I can never obtain data from these mysterious gap regions. Yet, much of what I see emanates from there.
It’s clear that because of the data gaps, I will never fully understand or describe what causes the beautiful light I am seeing. What am I to do?
My faith in the natural world tells me there is some natural explanation for the light, but I cannot figure out what it is. I can come up with many guesses, but I cannot obtain evidence to confirm those guesses. The scientific method can only take me so far but no farther. I am left with gaps in understanding what is happening to produce those lights.
This concrete example demonstrates that, as a method, science is limited in what it can reveal about “fundamental reality”. Thinking more broadly, we can understand that this particular example reveals a deeper truth. Science is not about discovering “fundamental reality”. It is about reasoning from the evidence we can obtain. When evidence is not available, science does not help us.
There are many important parts of your life for which science cannot provide evidence. The question you must answer is: do you care about these parts of your life? As a scientist, you wanted to know more about the light in the sky and understanding that light, yet the scientific method did not provide the understanding you needed. Do you ignore the phenomenon, or do you still care about it?
Science is a method that tells us certain things, but not other things. Can you really ignore all the things for which science cannot provide the answer?
My book “Embrace The Infinite” is largely about how science and religion inform each other. Consider the following.
You come upon a wall that appears to be pulsating. Bulges in the wall appear at irregular intervals, like little domes the grow and recede. This is something you’ve never seen before.
Then you study the growing and shrinking of the bulges and notice there might be a pattern to it. You put on your scientist hat and start to jot down when and where the bulges form. After doing this for some time, you look at the data you’ve written down and you guess a simple formula that describes when and where the bulges form. You return to the wall, armed with your formula, and find that it holds up. It explains where the bulges will appear and predicts where the next bulge will form, etc. You are excited at having explained the bulges, but also puzzled as to what is causing them.
You notice a small door to the right of the wall. You crouch and slowly open it to find something that startles you: there is a man behind the wall, with a large pole pushing the the wall to create the bulges. He does so in such a way to create the pattern or formula that you discovered. He does it repeatedly, like clockwork, never failing or tiring.
Your reactions are mixed: awe at his perseverance, sympathy for his plight (why is he compelled to do this?), strangely a fear that he will stop.
What has this do with science?
As scientists, we are on the front side of the wall, watching nature behave, noting the patterns and, if we are lucky, figuring out the rules that govern how nature behaves. In the real world, there is no little door we can go behind to figure out why nature behaves as it does. We figure it out, but we don’t know why it is that way.
Nature behaves in such a way that we can figure it out. That is what gets many people excited about science, and about the truths science reveals. However, there are many things that science does not reveal, not because science is deficient, but because science is a method of reasoning that gives us some insights, but not everything.
Why does nature behave as it does? Sometimes there is a simplicity to nature’s behavior that is pleasing, so pleasing we think of that simplicity as a sufficient “explanation.” But really this is not so. There is no explanation. Our imaginations and our desires seem to seek out a deeper purpose to this world, but science is limited in what it can show us.
Many scientists and atheists don’t want to ask why, or attempt to venture behind the wall. But is it so wrong to consider such a venture? We have active minds with imaginations and a seeking nature to learn more. We can ask why, but the answer is not easy to find. Are we wrong to try? How can we be so sure it is wrong to try?
Jesus was the son of a carpenter. Would he have been a scientist had he been alive today?
Imagine a time before science existed, before the idea of “natural law” was contemplated. What would a thoughtful man or woman think about the world around them?
They would see a regularity to nature, as if there was a power behind the movement of the Sun through the sky. This and other major natural forces in our lives appear to be directed, appear to have a purpose.
Early spiritual ideas did imbue the natural world with human characteristics. Before religions based on monotheism – one God – there were religions that put human traits on natural things. Trees had personalities, as did rocks and stars.
It may seem silly now, but let’s step back a moment. There is a unity to things. We seem to have a sense of purpose to our lives. Is that so different than the sense of purpose early humans assigned to the Sun’s passage through the sky?
What science teaches us now is that in fact these are quite related. Human purpose comes from the mind, the mind consisting of the brain, which follows natural laws. Science does suggest that our sense of purpose is derived from the same forces that move the Sun through the sky. That is, the forces of nature (gravity for the Sun’s motion, electrical forces for our brains).
That unity is something that might have been sensed by spiritual thinkers before the beginning of scientific thinking. After all, when a body dies, it returns to dust. Perhaps we all come from dust. This is what science teaches us, and perhaps it was understood long ago.
What I write in the book is that the scientific viewpoint that finds a unity to all things can lead to spiritual insights.
Jesus endowed this world with deep insights, well before science was known. Maybe Jesus knew what the future would bring, even without doing a single scientific experiment.