From the Archives: What I Wish My Pastor Knew About…The Life of a Scientist, Part 1 | The BioLogos Forum


(system) #1

Note: This is the first in a three part series, republished with permission from The Ministry Theorem. This post originally appeared on our site on February 2, 2012.

I am married to a scientist — to be specific, an experimental physicist (which I’d like to think is the very best kind). For more than 15 years now I’ve accompanied Catherine through a life in physics, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress that began in the Slough of Graduate School, continued through the Testing Fields of the Job Search and the harrowing of the Vale of Tenure, and is now wending its way through the Elysian Fields of Mid-Career Teaching, Research, and Administration. Along the way, just like Christian in Bunyan’s classic, she has encountered plenty of both helpful and dangerous characters, some reassuringly metaphorical and others all too literal. And I, like Christian’s friend Hopeful, have tried to be a faithful companion, though often I’ve been able to do little more than cheer or wince at the twists and turns of a life in science.

There’s a serious point in my playful invocation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Like many of the most complex human endeavors — parenting, farming, becoming a Christian — the life of a scientist is not just an “occupation,” something that occupies us for a while and might then be followed by something entirely different. Being a scientist is as much about being as doing, as much about a particular way of being formed as a person as it is a set of activities or even skills. Training in science is induction not so much into a particular worldview (though it includes absorbing plenty of the kind of cognitive presuppositions that that word suggests) as it is a kind of posture or stance toward the world, toward one’s work, and toward one’s fellow human beings, both scientists and non-scientists. And the life of a scientist is a journey, one freighted with ultimate concerns and laden with values. It is a journey into a set of virtues, the habits and dispositions that make one a person of a particular kind of character.

When we talk about faith and science, we tend to focus on the cognitive content of both endeavors, the truth claims and worldviews that animate these two crucial dimensions of modern human life. These are important matters, and I don’t at all mean to diminish them. At the same time, there are inevitable limits to what any pastor can do to constructively integrate the knowledge content of science — so vast and rapidly expanding that even scientists cannot pretend to be expert in anything but a tiny portion — with the content of Christian faith. But there is another way to approach faith and science which I believe might well be more within reach of most pastors, and more essential to their job description than being deeply literate in the latest scientific discoveries and theories — and that is simply to attend to, and prayerfully support and encourage, the scientific life itself as a vocation that can reflect the image of God and be a place for working out one’s own salvation.

So here is what I wish our pastors — and fellow Christians — knew about the life of a working scientist.

Delight and Wonder

If there is one personality characteristic of the vast majority of scientists I have met, it is delight. There is something about science that attracts people who are fascinated and thrilled by the world. To be sure, any given scientist is delighted by things that you and I may find odd or indeed incomprehensible — the intricacies of protein folding, the strata of Antarctic ice cores, or the properties of Lebesgue spaces (and no, I have no idea what that last phrase really means). But the specificity of their delights is one of delight’s secrets: like love, delight is always most potent when it is particular. It is certainly possible to find lawyers who are delighted by law (I have one friend who can go on at great length, with enthusiasm, about corporate bankruptcies), dairy farmers who are delighted by cows, or lumberjacks who are delighted by trees — but I dare say your chances are much better that when you meet a scientist you will find that they are delighted with the tiny part of the world they study day to day. (At least when they are not frustrated with it — which we’ll examine below.)

In many scientists, delight is matched by wonder — a sense of astonishment at the beautiful, ingenious complexity to be found in the world. This is not the “wonder” that comes from ignorance — “I wonder how a light bulb really works?” — but a wonder that comes from understanding. Indeed, as we progress further into humanity’s scientific era we have been able to disabuse ourselves of a mistaken early-modern notion: that the more the world became comprehensible, the less it would be wonderful. That turns out not to be true at all — ask a scientist. Wonder grows as understanding grows. Indeed, wonder only grows if understanding grows. If we replace our childhood awe of lightning with an explanation like, “It’s nothing but a transfer of voltage across a highly resistive material” (an example of what G. K. Chesterton wittily called “nothing-buttery”) perhaps the world will seem like a less wonderful place. But those who actually pursue knowledge of lightning — of electromagnetism or cloud formation or weather systems or climate — end up being more in awe of the world than they were as children. This is surely one of the remarkable features of our cosmos: the more we understand about it, the more we are in awe of its beautiful elegance and simplicity, and at the same time its humbling complexity.

To be sure, many if not most scientists do not see this wonderful world in the way that most Christians would hope for. For us, wonder is a stepping-stone to worship — ascribing our awe for the world to a Creator whose worth it reveals. For many scientists, wonder is less a stepping-stone than a substitute for worship. Yet they stop and wonder all the same.

Intellectual humility

I doubt that humility is among the first traits most people think of when they think of scientists. And indeed, some scientists (like some academics and intellectuals generally) exhibit a combination of confidence in their own intellect and limitations in their social skills that makes them seem abrasive if not arrogant. A few have made a public career of intellectual overreaching, not least in matters of science and faith. But in my experience (and certainly, let me stress, in the case of my own wife!) this is much more the exception than the rule. If intellectual humility is essentially a willingness to admit what you do not and cannot know, science cultivates humility like few other pursuits can — because in few other pursuits do you so often find out that you were wrong.

Even though we tell the story of science through its high points — the discoveries and confirmed theories that won Nobel Prizes and launched new eras in technology — the actual practice of science, for nearly every working scientist, involves far more failure than success. This is especially true for experimental science, the kind that requires the most direct interaction with recalcitrant reality. On most days, in most labs, the data do not add up, Matlab has an untraceable bug, the laser is on the fritz, and all the cultures have been contaminated when the undergraduate research assistant sneezed. And while each of these everyday setbacks requires immense amounts of patience and persistence to overcome, they are only the quotidian version of the perplexity that begins early in the study of science. Every scientist, in the process of their training, has had to repeatedly discover that their intuitions about the world are simply wrong, or at least incomplete. Even great scientists have come up against the sheer oddity and unpredictability of the world — Albert Einstein, for example, never fully accepted the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics, something that is now universally accepted by physicists.

This regular confrontation with the limits of one’s own knowledge and skill is not to be taken for granted. The other divisions of the academy, the social sciences and the humanities, deal with matters of such variability and complexity that it is often difficult to say conclusively that anyone, or any theory, is entirely wrong. Marx’s and Freud’s grand theories may not seem nearly as plausible as they once were, but there are thousands of people following their lines of thought without losing the respect of their intellectual peers. But Ptolemaic cosmology or Lamarckian evolution now have, simply, no followers. They have been proved wrong beyond a reasonable doubt (although Lamarck’s ideas, interestingly, turn out to have a grain of truth in a way very different from what he expected). Who is likely to be more intellectually humble — someone who early in her training, and daily in her work, learns that her assumptions have been wrong, or someone who can always argue his way out of any intellectual predicament? It is perhaps no accident that “grade inflation,” in which undergraduates’ grades ratchet ever upwards in a nod to the consumer realities of the modern university, is much less pervasive in the sciences, where you can’t cajole your way into an A. The honest, and humbling, truth is that there is likely more intellectual humility in the average physics laboratory than in the average theology classroom.

For more from the "What I Wish My Pastor Knew" series, visit The Ministry Theorem.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/from-the-archives-what-i-wish-my-pastor-knew-about...the-life-of-a-scientis

(Brad Kramer) #2

The author is not available for comment, but you are free to discuss this post.


(Jim Lock) #3

Two sentences struck me that I think should provoke a discussion about ‘Truth.’

I took a History class once that posed the question, 'If History is ultimately unknown, then is it worth studying?" Basically, any historical person or event will never be perfectly understood. Documents are missing, stated motivations are suspect, and bias is rampant. Even something as recent and simple as the beginning of WWII leaves you with multiple theories and lines of argument. It strikes me that the author is calling for more ambiguity in theology. However, this could raise some hackles as ambiguity seems to call for a turn away from absolute truth. So, here is my question for the community. How do we define and approach Truth? Especially given the wide range of doctrines and theologies present within the Christian church.

My answer is much the same as the one I gave in that History seminar-a mountain that is perpetually cloudy. You can catch glimpses as the clouds shift. Thus, as we discuss and capture what we see we can gradually put together a map of the mountain. We will never get it perfectly, but we can get an increasingly accurate picture. Thoughts?


#5

Almost all significant differences arise because of interpretation and interpolation. Even history can be quite accurate,ie. when was the treaty signed? when did Spanish explorers arive in North America? When did Hitler invade Poland? But did the second world war begin as soon as the first world war ended, or did it begin during the depression, or did it begin when the german army first left germany - this is interpretation.

In science, we also need to distinguish between what we observe, and what we claim to be the understanding or interpretation of what we observe.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

@jlock, you wrote:

…“this could raise some hackles as ambiguity seems to call for a turn away from absolute truth.”

Acknowledging ambiguity or incompleteness or uncertainty does not necessarily need to mean we are denying absolute truth —only denying that the description “absolute” should apply to our knowledge or understanding of what we regard as absolute truth instead of applying the term where it correctly belongs: to that objective reality (your mountain) that we have faith exists.

But I know what you mean by “raised hackles” as we will all struggle at times to see any difference between “what I think I know” and what actually is real and true.


(Jim Lock) #7

@Mervin_Bitikofer

I completely agree. In Sunday School we watched Skip Ingram’s ‘Culture Shock’ series. He introduced the series discussing various parts of Western philosophy and tearing down the notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Unfortunately he failed to elaborate any further on the concept of truth. Only that it exists and as Christians we have access to it. This, to me, creates the very real danger of a viewer feeling affirmed that she/he has a handle on absolute truth and thus the ‘competing’ denomination across town is absolutely flawed. I would argue, and I think you would agree, that the author’s call for “…more intellectual humility…in the average theology classroom” should begin with acknowledging ambiguity in our understanding of the Truth in the Bible.

Thank you for humoring my attempt at a discussion starter. :smile:

Jim


(Jim Lock) #8

@johnZ I think I understand, and agree, if you are saying that we oftentimes confuse Truth with what we perceive to be Truth. For example, I’m currently reading N.T. Wrights ‘How God Became King.’ He makes a compelling argument leaves me wondering just how to apply that argument to much of world history since the Crucifixion. In other words, what he is arguing is Truth, is more accurately an interpretation of Truth. Am I understanding you correctly?

I know its not very relevant to these boards, but I am going to quibble a bit with your assertion that:

There is always some haziness given any particular event or person, not related to interpretation. For example, Columbus’ log book is lost. The closest source we have to nailing down the date is an abstract written by las Casas about 40 years after the fact. He may have gotten the date correct. However, even though our calendar wasn’t adopted until later. All of that to say, there is considerable room for doubt and ambiguity in my discipline.

Thank you for humoring my attempt at a discussion starter! :smile:

Jim


(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Thanks for your thoughts, Jim. Truth and my relationship to it are on my mind right now, and here are a couple more thoughts.

I’m introducing my high school students to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle tomorrow, and as I was reviewing that equation and have it on my mind at the moment, it struck me that a similar relationship could be drawn between two other inversely related quantities: precise limitation (or ‘narrowness’ of tolerance) on doctrinal matters vs. breadth of engagement or diversity of fellowship that a person embraces. How often we hear comments like … “yeah, we really enjoyed [insert activity] with that church but then we found out they believe [insert any of a legion of ‘deal-breaker’ doctrinal differences here], and we won’t go back there now.” …Which provokes this thought for me. Just imagine Jesus whipping out his checklist and making sure that any sinner he encountered had all their doctrinal ducks in a row before he would agree to associate with them. The passages describing Jesus doing this are … exactly zero. (But we do seem to have the Pharisees role modeling it for us --and we know how Jesus got on with them — maybe their doctrine wasn’t quite straight, but it didn’t stop him from enjoying meals with them either.) So … big on doctrinal precision goes with correspondingly restricted outreach. Huge on outreach may go with nearly nonexistent doctrinal policing (or reduced attention to truth as some critics would charge).

Real and healthy evangelical would have to strike the balance it seems to me, but not necessarily in the middle I don’t think. Outreach, fellowship, mercy, and love seem to be the golden rule if one wishes to follow Jesus’ example. Not that he wasn’t above a good argument or corrective teaching moments. But when it came to tax collectors, prostitutes, or thieves hanging on crosses, Jesus seems scandalously uninterested in doctrinal instruction, and lavishly gives his welcome to them instead, teaching them to do the same. Is it presumptuous of us to think we should be modeling Jesus on this instead of the Pharisees?

Hopefully all this has something to do with evangelical humility. But that’s my rant or ramble (rantle?) for the moment.


#10

Jim, there is a difference between truth and accuracy, sometimes. In other words, it is true that Columbus “discovered” America at a particular time, which can be narrowed down to a particular year or five year period. It is not entirely accurate, because america had already been discovered by Indians, and by the Vikings previously. And also, the accuracy of a particular date might be in question in his case. On the other hand, the accuracy of the date of signing of the armistice is not really in question, nor is the date of the crowning of many english and dutch queens and kings. The interpretation usually relates to the significance of the event. How did the discovery of america change the world? Does the crowning of a regent really matter? What was the effect of the USA reparations policy after WW2? The lessons of history are usually more important than the actual facts, and yet the lessons are part of the interpretation, and thus are subject to great errors in discernment sometimes.

I have previously argued that nature can be deceiving… and of course this is related to our perception. Our perceptions are real, but might be inaccurate in their implication, ie: a mirage on the highway, the sun going around the earth, a straight stick looking bent in the water. Much of the world perceives that it doesn’t matter much whether they worship the true God or not, or whether they abide by his commands or whether they trust in his grace. I believe they are being deceived by what they see, and that eventually when the “bent” stick is pulled from the water, they will see that it is straight after all.


(Jim Lock) #11

@johnZ

I completely agree. This is essentially the argument I started this discussion with. Truth exists. However, an accurate rendering of Truth has proven challenging. I’m a little surprised that thus far the conversation has essentially revolved around variations of the same theme. I was expecting more variety given the loaded nature of ‘absolute truth.’ I should also note that I think it is vital to the broader conversation that we can find common ground.

Now, on to the rest of your post. You appear to be drawing a very strong line between interpretation and a given list of facts. I would strongly caution you against separating those two tools. Any of the interpretations you offer as examples will eventually have to rely on something hard and concrete. At least in history, (and this is fundamentally the point I started trying to make) those facts are surprisingly elusive to nail down. If we take the generic crowning of a regent. Sure, we know exactly when it happened and we have a pretty good idea about who was there (assuming we trust the source…). However, any discussion of significance will quickly run into fog. Why did the neighboring monarch declare war? It is likely that historians can only guess. In other words, historians have to interpret the significance of an event given an incomplete set of facts. Errors can be a product of poor discernment. However, that almost inevitably is a result of something unknown. Meaning that we should all approach Truth with a fair degree of intellectual humility.

“You, me, them…everybody!”

Respectfully,
Jim


#12

You could argue that every statement is an interpretation of truth. But some truths are taken to be observations, while other truths are understood to be interpretations. We assume that the time of sunrise is an observation, and that the rules around determining that time have been established. So we can argue whether the time of sunrise is when we see the first part of the sun, or 50% of it, or all of it. But we know that whatever rule we establish for it is merely a consensus for the mere purpose of establishing a consensus so that we can be uniform in approach. Same for establishing a date for signing an armistice… we would assume the date and time is at the location where the signing took place, and not Greenwich time or Washington time.

Interpretation of an event assumes the event took place, and then answers the significance of the event, or the reason for the event. Yes, the accuracy of the interpretation is related to the truth of the event, but it seems to me, that in general, the truth of an event, and the understanding of an event are at two different scales. Even so, I agree that at times there is a bit of blurring between interpretation and facts, but usually this is related to the immediacy of the interpretation.

So there might be two interpretations for avoiding the war that actually happened. One was that if reparations had not been so severe, and that if the victor had been more beneficient, perhaps motive for a repeat war would have been lost. This is a general interpretation, not defined by exact dates, actions, but rather by a general policy shift. But a second interpretation might be that a large war could be avoided if force is met with force within days of illegitimate aggressive force being displayed, ie. as soon as such a country leaves its border in an uninvited aggressive way. The second interpretation is more immediate, and depends on accuracy of dates, times and actions. Anyway, in both of these cases, what we learn from history so that history does not repeat itself, is different than merely learning what happened. It is the application of the interpretation that provides the significance.


(system) #13

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