During my sophomore year at the University of Illinois, I took a course in Sociology of Science. It was the first time that I was seriously confronted with deep questions about how science works. The biggest apple cart that my professor wanted to upset was the notion of “scientific realism”, the idea that the abstract mathematical concepts that exist in our models, such as electromagnetic fields, quarks, and spacetime curvature, correspond to the “actual things” that exist in the “real world.”
One of the things that stuck out in my head from that class is the fact that nearly all scientific discovery relies on some kind of technology. We rely on lenses and mirrors to magnify objects that are far away or very small. We build massive computers and write complex software to simulate systems that are too large or too small for us to manipulate. We construct highly sophisticated equipment, from DNA sequencers to particle accelerators, to attempt to isolate the phenomena of interest. Even our theoretical models are “technologies” of a sort, since they, too, are human creations.
In the midst of all of these activities, we must be aware of the limitations of our instruments, the governing assumptions of our models, and sources of noise and contamination. All of these factors contribute to the uncertainty we scientists have about our conclusions. Those limitations guide my religious faith, as well.
As a Christian, I believe that God is “wholly other,” and that we finite, imperfect beings cannot (in this life) have direct access to the fullness of God. Instead, the best I can do is approach God through my limitations. And as a Christian, I engage with God through the “spiritual technologies” of prayer, the reading of Scripture, and the sacraments.
This is a very important fact that even many Christians do not fully appreciate: since we are embodied creatures, God chooses to relate to us through elements of space, time, and matter — through hearing and speaking, eating and drinking. But these tools of the religious believer, by existing in the material world, necessarily provide limited access to what Christians mean by “God”, and cannot see and speak with him face-to-face.
In both my scientific life and my religious life, I must rely on something “in between” to get to what I’m really after. However, gaining knowledge and understanding in this mediated way, as opposed to having it magically dumped into me, necessarily means that I’m probably not getting the whole picture. There are things I’m missing. There are things I’m even getting wrong or misinterpreting. Everything I “know” – both religious and scientific — is to a certain degree provisional, with some error bar of uncertainty. I suppose that deeply reflecting on this is one reason why some folks’ “realism” goes wobbly.
The response to this, as all good scientists and religious believers know, is repetition. I have to keep checking and re-checking my conclusions. I have to keep looking for things I may have missed. I have to be open to making connections that I wasn’t previously able to make. Most importantly, I carry out these activities in consultation with others, to keep my own biases in check. Everything I think I know must be subject to the light of future and continuous scrutiny. The Christian Scriptures affirm this directly: “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, ESV).
Science and religion are both human activities, carried out by embodied persons in space and time that must use some kind of “technology” to reach for something otherwise inaccessible. As a result, we will always be, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, “seeing in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, ESV). But I don’t think that is cause for giving up on the search for knowledge about God or the mysteries of the universe.
I refuse to believe that we are left with the false choice of a naïve realism on the one hand and stumbling around in complete darkness on the other. Even if a complete knowledge about the inner workings of the world is not possible, we still need to approach the world with the best tools we currently have. On this at least, I think scientists and people of faith can wholeheartedly agree.
So, am I a “realist”? Most definitely. But I would hope that now my “realism” is borne out of the realization of my own limitations and the limitations of the “technologies” I use to give me information about the world. I would hope it’s more, well, “realistic”.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Fall 2014 series, “Are We Using Technology, or is Technology Using Us?“)