What do we know about “the earth”?
Well, if you had asked that question to people in the 1400’s, they would have told you that they “knew” that the earth was the center of the universe. If you had asked Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientific minds of the 19th century, he would have told you that he “knew” that the earth was between 20 and 400 million years old. And if you had asked that question to most geologists in the early 20th century, they would have told you that they “knew” that the earth’s continents were fixed in place.
And of course, we now realize that what all these people “knew” about the earth was completely wrong.
On one level, the earth has been whatever the earth has been over its billions of years of history. But what has changed over just centuries is our understanding of what the earth is. In other words, the earth as an actual object in reality is different from the earth as we know it at any given moment.
Indeed, everything scientific — such as the earth, the sun, atoms, genes, the universe, or humanity — lives in these same two worlds: what it is in reality and what we understand about it right now.
Professor Steven Goldman highlights this dichotomy in his outstanding course for the Teaching Company entitled “Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It.” On the one hand, science is an attempt to give us clearer, better and more accurate descriptions of the universe — a striving for a Platonic ideal. On the other hand, science is historical and temporal. New data, new instruments, new analysis and new interpretations can and will change how we understand everything around us.
To help resolve that conflict, Goldman suggests that we view things like the earth, the sun or atoms as “scientific objects.” As he explains:
It is much less controversial and difficult for us to grasp that “scientific objects” are redefined as we improve, as we get more experience, as we accumulate new data, we make new experiments. We have to redefine [these objects] — we sharpen the definition or throw it out and start with a new definition. That’s different from changing Reality [sic], because our intuition is that what we mean by “Reality” is something changeless…
[S]eeing scientific knowledge as about actualities [“scientific objects”] is a potentially useful way of eliminating much of the controversy from trying to understand the status of scientific knowledge and truth claims. At a minimum, scientific objects are justifiable instrumentally. What the implications of this instrumental success are vis-a-vis Reality is a separate issue.
As Goldman argues, this idea of a “scientific object” is tremendously valuable. It helps us realize that we have to hold our beliefs about the world lightly, and at the same time, even as we know that these beliefs are imperfect, they form the lens through which way we look at and live in the world.
And that’s why I’m growing to like the metaphor of God as a “scientific object.”
Now, I am not suggesting God can be studied scientifically, or that if we find enough evidence we can prove (or disprove) God’s existence, or that anything we don’t understand yet is the result of God’s handiwork. But those claims are not what this metaphor implies.
Rather, I am saying that in the same way that we shouldn’t focus on the earth in Reality (because we will never understand the earth in that way) and instead focus on the earth as we understand it right now, which can change based on new knowledge, similarly, we shouldn’t focus on God in Reality (because we will never understand God in that way), and instead focus on God as we understand the Divine right now, which can change and grow based on new knowledge.
We hold certain beliefs, including beliefs about God — in particular, who or what God is (or is not) and how God acts (or doesn’t act) in the world. But what doesn’t happen often enough — whether someone is a fundamentalist, an atheist, or anything in between — is a willingness to rethink what we believe about God based on new ideas and new experiences.
I have a friend who is a self-described atheist, and we have regular lunches to discuss science and religion. As he says, the two of us are generally in “violent agreement” on how we look at the world, but he often pushes that in our conversations, we need to have a clear definition of “God.” “Otherwise,” he argues, “we don’t know what we’re talking about.”
I disagree. I think what we need is “working definition of ‘God,'” a theology that can change and adapt based on new data and new experiences. Rather than saying either, “This is what God is, and I know that I am right,” or “There is no God because I don’t believe that there is an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omnibenevolent Being that created the universe and directly impacts the world today,” we can instead say, “Given what I know and I believe at this moment, this is what I believe God is and how God acts in this world. But when new data or new experiences arise, I might need to change my outlook.”
In other words, we can think of and talk about “God” in the same way scientists have thought of and talked about the scientific objects throughout human history.
After all, just as we have been willing and able to change what we “know” about the earth, about atoms and about the universe, we have to be willing and able to change what we “know” about God, as well.