Both religion and science often tend to present themselves as “knowing everything.” Yet in both realms, there is an enormous amount we don’t know, and we tend not to appreciate the value of doubt, uncertainty, ignorance and failure. Indeed, knowledge and uncertainty, and belief and doubt, are often two sides of the same coin, and it’s the dynamic relationship between the two that drives us forward.
So on Wednesday, March 26, Sinai and Synapses held its second seminar for a small group of clergy, scientists and journalists focusing on the topic “Belief and Knowledge, Doubt and Uncertainty.” (Incidentally, you can also view the presentations from the first seminar in December on “How Science Has Changed Religion.”)
The morning began with presentations from two experts. First was Professor Karl Giberson, who teaches and writes on the field of religion and science, is a member of the Sinai and Synapses’ Advisory Board, and is the author of several books, including The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions.
Following him was Professor Stuart Firestein, former chair of the Columbia University Department of Biological Science, and author of the book Ignorance: How It Drives Science,which became a TED talk in 2013.
They each explored the question, “How do we create the right relationship between knowledge and uncertainty, and belief and doubt?” Below are their formal presentations that sparked many new thoughts and ideas for the people in the room, and helped everyone grapple with what we know, what we don’t know, and just how important each side of that coin is.
Professor Karl Giberson:Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: So welcome everyone as we come back together for the second of the Sinai and Synapses seminars, as we are talking about belief and knowledge, doubt and uncertainty. I will start by introducing Dr. Karl Giberson, who I was able to find – he had written a piece in The Huffington Post a couple of years ago that I read and I loved, and I had sent him an e-mail, and we had started talking, and we had a wonderful conversation a couple years ago for about an hour, an hour and a half. And Karl is on the advisory board of Sinai and Synapses, so I’m so thrilled that you’re here with us this morning. So this is actually a slightly abbreviated version of Karl’s bio, because there is a lot he’s done.
Dr. Karl Giberson holds a PhD in Physics from Rice University and has lectured on science and religion at the Vatican, Oxford University, and prestigious universities, including MIT, Brigham Young and Xavier University. He’s published more than 200 reviews and essays, both technical and popular, in outlets that include the New York Times, Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, USA Today, Salon.com and TheEdge.org. He has written or coauthored nine books and contributed to many edited volumes. And two of his books here that I have read that I highly recommend – one is called “The Language of Science and Faith,” which he co-wrote with Francis Collins, and “Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.” Very, very thought-provoking books.
Karl is also a regular contributor to the public dialogue on science and faith. He’s appeared as a guest of NPR’s Morning Edition and “Talk of the Nation.” He was a founding editor of Science and Theology News, editor- in chief of science and spirit magazine, and was the vice president of the BioLogos foundation. He currently teaches writing in science and religion in the cornerstone program at Stonehill College. He lectures at universities, churches and other venues across the country. He is also working on his 10th book, which is due for publication in 2014. So please join with me in welcoming Dr Karl Giberson.
Karl Giberson: I want to start by making a – and I think this is just something I want to put on the table for discussion today, so we can interrogate it a bit later. But I want to make a kind of apologetic for the scientific way of knowing, lest we get too caught up in celebrating the virtues of ignorance.
So here is the simple story that you get, kind of, from the survey of our Western conversation about knowing. That we look back to the ancient Greeks and […] belief is 500 B.C. and so on. As an initial thinker, and we find Plato and Aristotle making sweeping statements about the nature of reality – with enormous confidence, speaking in Plato’s case, of a world of forms that he was certain was more real than this world here, and stating that with great certainty, Aristotle speaking of the perfection of the heavens, and even the composition of the heavens, as if these were simple certainties. The developing Christian tradition spoke with great confidence in its new truths, of the divinity of Jesus, the reality of original sin, the biblical miracles and so on. It’s as if finding out great truths was somehow very very simple.
By the 17th century, these confident assertions were being examined with some skepticism. It had become clear that both the Catholic theological tradition – think Luther – and the Aristotelian scientific tradition – think Galileo – were both under assault. So the confidence that one could make sweeping statements about ultimate reality began to erode, and philosophy began to think harder about “well, how is it that we know things?”. Descartes and Spinoza, as we all know, pursued a rationalist track, Francis Bacon pursued an empirical track, and then Immanuel Kant provided a sort of a wide, solid resolution by combining these in a particular way.
But Kant’s resolution of this tension got nibbled away by skeptical termites, with the result that by the 20th century philosophers had essentially given up on finding out how we might actually come to know anything. They contented themselves with trying to figure out what statements meant, rather than if they contained any truth about the world. Where Plato, Augustine and Spinoza were untroubled by specific claims about the exact nature of God, 20th century philosophers were content to ask “what do we mean when we say ‘I believe in God,’” without regard to whether the noun God actually refers to anything at all.
The scientific community missed out on this discouraging philosophical conversation, with its shriveling ambitions. Starting with Galileo, Kepler and Newton, new sciences were steadily born – astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, biology, cosmology. Each new science provided profound new insights into the world. Some of those insights – like “energy is always conserved in every interaction,” or “the universe originated in a Big Bang 14 billion years ago” – had the same sort of sweeping scope as the pronouncements of Plato and Augustine. And that should be tossed, I suppose, on the ash heap, with Plato’s Forms and Augustine’s original sin, and yet they are not. Millions of people are tuning in, even now, to the new Cosmos series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and they will accept much of what he says about the world, even in such grand statements.
So how has science escaped the philosophical inquisition? How has it climbed up the slippery slope of certainty, unnoticed by philosophy sliding down that slope? This is one of the central mysteries of postmodernity, although no scientists are even aware of it, since postmodernity is not a conversation taking place in this scientific community.
So before pursuing this question, I want us to think for a moment about one particular branch of science that’s probably most important to us, and that’s medicine. And we have medical experts in this room. Every day, thoughtful, educated, highly skeptical people, even postmodernists, some of them trained in philosophy, place their lives on the altar of medical science. We invite our doctors to put us under, which makes us almost dead, cut us open, do stuff inside our bodies, and then bring us back. And in this practical way, we acknowledge the reliability of scientific claims. In less dramatic ways, our iPhones do the same thing. Every time you get a text on your iPhone, most of the laws of physics discovered in the last century are validated.
The point I want to make here is that science is not an end run around philosophy. It has figured out how to acquire knowledge of the world without explaining how it has managed to accomplish this feat. So this leads to what I think needs to be the starting point for contemporary discussions of how we know anything. We start with the recognition that science has discovered true things about the world, and although we may not be able to justify those conclusions to the satisfaction of critics, we don’t need to. The end results speak for themselves. To use a common metaphor, the proof of science is in the pudding. It matters not that the greatest chefs cannot understand the recipe, the pudding is making its own argument.
This, then, leads to the important insight that history and philosophy of science are appropriate vehicles for understanding the process of knowledge acquisition. Since we know that the uncertain historical scientific path has led to the certain scientific present, the detours and byways, assumptions and insights, of that path are somehow validated. I’m convinced that this insight, rarely made implicit, is why the history of science has become such a booming interdisciplinary field. A recent survey at Harvard University showed more students studying history of science than traditional history.
So I take this point because I think the history of science provides insights into how knowledge acquisition works in general, even apart from science. The most salient features of these insights are the following:
#1, Science often moves rapidly forward with incomplete knowledge. When Newton, famous for discovering gravity, was asked what gravity was, he famously replied “hypotheses non fingo” – “I frame no hypotheses.” The science of mechanics, both celestial and terrestrial, proceeded dramatically forward for centuries with no notion of the nature of a central feature – gravity. Quantum mechanics today is similarly puzzling. The quest for knowledge is thus compatible with the persistent existence of deep mystery.
#2, Science regularly confronts anomalies. History is filled with countless observations that, in principle, refuted important scientific ideas. The orbits of both Mercury and Saturn refuted Newton’s theory of gravity. They were profoundly inconsistent with Newton’s equation for the force. But the overall success of Newton’s theory convinced people to ignore the inconsistencies. The quest for knowledge is thus compatible with the existence of inconsistencies.
#3, Healthy scientific tradition embraces anomalies and uses them to move forward to find out new things. The odd behavior of Saturn was analyzed in terms of a possible undiscovered planet. Where would such a planet have to be to produce this anomaly? When Herschel pointed his telescope at the location where the new planet would need to be to explain Saturn, he found Uranus. The quest for knowledge should be associated with progress. Such progress is the mark of a healthy knowledge tradition. If investigation shows no progress it should be abandoned.
4th, science is communal. Scientific truths are not presented to the world at the conclusion of experiments and observations. Scientific truths are announced at the end of conversations. Observations do not interpret themselves, and virtually every scientific paper has a high-level conversation about its contents long before they are presented to the world in the form of a peer-reviewed article. The participants in such conversations often have very different types of expertise, all of which are needed to bring the truth most clearly into focus. Knowledge is thus best understood as residing in communities and not in individuals.
There are many other things we can learn from this history of science, but I want to stop there, so let me conclude by noting that the features of knowledge that I’ve listed here are broadly relevant – in particular, are relevant to religious truth.
Against religious apologists, I want to push back and say that mystery is acceptable in the world. We should not require that our faith have a certain Euclidean type of axiomatic rigor.
I want Biblical fundamentalists (the problem with the tradition of Protestantism) to let the Bible be riddled with inconsistencies, as we know that it is.
I want to tell the creationists and the intelligent design folk that their projects are not leading to new knowledge and thus should be abandoned.
And finally, I want the critics of science to know that a scientific consensus is not an indicator of groupthink, but rather a conclusion shared by experts who arrive at it along different paths.
And likewise, I want religious Lone Rangers to pay more attention to the collective wisdom of their traditions.
Professor Stuart Firestein:Read Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: So, welcome, as we continue with our discussion of Belief and Knowledge, Doubt and Uncertainty, and a pleasure to welcome Dr Stuart Firestein. And I found Stuart because I’d read his book he mentioned, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” and I saw this book and first of all, it didn’t – it looked very accessible, which is very good. A lot of science books are very hard to get through, this one looked like “this is really interesting.” So I read it, and I decided I was going to use it as the inspiration for a Yom Kippur Sermon based on a text from the Torah that says “teach your tongue to say I don’t know.” And so I read it, I loved it, I sent Stuart an email and I said “I love your book, I’m using it for my Yom Kippur sermon.” We had lunch a couple of years ago, and he is here just for a few days, he’s coming back from England, and is taking his time to be able to be with us.
So Dr Stuart Firestein is the former chair of the Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences, where he and his colleagues study the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on the face of the planet. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question, “how do I smell?” so I hope everyone showered this morning. (laughter)
Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Stuart serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program for the Public Understanding of Science. Recently he was awarded the 2011 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Teaching. His book on the workings of science for a general audience, called “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” was released by Oxford University Press in 2012, and actually became the inspiration for a TED talk in 2013. And as of yesterday it had, I think, 1.2 million views. So please join with me in welcoming Dr Stuart Firestein.
Stuart Firestein: I don’t even have that many friends and family, so I don’t know where that comes from. It’s more miles than I have. I’d rather have miles so I could trade them in for miles. (Laughter)
I have less well prepared remarks because I want this to be a discussion, but I’m going to bring up a couple of points that I’d like to see us discuss at this sort of crossroads, the science-and-religious-thinking-crossroads. So I’ll just start with four words, I guess, which I think are crucial: ignorance, doubt, uncertainty, failure. And the key thing is that in science, and I think in religion, we do all four of those things, and the result is not despair. Which is what one might think should be the result of worrying about ignorance, doubt, uncertainty and failure.
And so I’m interested in how come it isn’t that this leads to despair – what it is we do differently that lets us go down that road, which is a far more interesting road than the road of certainty and pure knowledge, or thinking you know something, or any of those other kinds of things, and worrying about – over-worrying about success and not taking enough account of failure as a good? So how do we see those things as well as goods rather than as evils, if you will, or “bads,” in science, and I think to a large extent in religion? So I think that’s one of the more places where there’s more commonality than that we might have expected.
What I find is that – so I’ll talk about it in science for a moment first. What I find in science is that we currently, to the credit of many scientists, and many whom I work with [in] the Sloan Foundation, there’s an interest in making science more accessible to the public. The Cosmos series, for example, the kind of work that Heather does, and all the rest of that. So I’m all for of these things – Brian Greene’s World Science University and many of these things. But I also think they leave something fundamental out, which is what I’m trying to be concerned with.
So in the end, I think you can only make science so accessible to people who are not well trained as scientists. I mean, I’m a biologist and I’m only going to understand a certain amount of quantum mechanics if I’m lucky and work really hard at it, and most of it will be in the form of metaphor, not the actual equations. Most of it will be in the form of narrative, not the actual experiments, and so forth and so on. So in the end, it will always be a bit watered down. That’s not awful, I mean it’s a fascinating story, there are really interesting things to think about with it, and I do think having access to it is kind of nice, and I appreciate scientists who are willing to do that. But I don’t think, fundamentally, that’s what we want to teach the public about science.
And in a way, I think that this is where religion can help science do this. I think the problem is that the ideas of ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and failure belong to the elite professional scientist, and are so implicit in everything we do that we forget to make it explicit, giving off instead a sense of “we know what we’re talking about, we know what we’re doing, we have the answers,” sometimes even though we know we don’t, but we feel forced to do so, sometimes with hubris, do so when we don’t anyway, and aren’t being forced to do so, but do it. But I think– so what I see, of course, is in the educational system, and in the end this all comes back to the educational system, I suppose, but what I see in the educational system is that we have. Put it all the kids in second grade, the girls and the boys, love science. They want to do experiments, they want to playing in the dirt, they want to look at things with a microscope, talk about insects, and see what goes on with the lives of the go to science museums, they run around, they love science, they’re curious.
By the 11th grade, fewer than 5% of the students want anything to do with science, let alone a career of science, which doesn’t worry me so much (laughter). There is this side issue of “well, we’re not producing enough scientists” – the so-called STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and math (I always forget engineering. My colleagues would love that, with your article as well).
So I’m actually not worried about whether we’re producing an off site facility, just to get that rant out of the way. I think we could produce plenty of very fine scientists, we always have, there’s a very simple solution if you think we don’t have enough scientists, and that’s an economic and market solution – pay them what they’re worth, put some grant money out there for them to do their work, and people will flock to science. You don’t do that, they’ll go into something else that they can make a living at. So that’s just the way that goes. The current age at which, the average age at which a person gets their NSF grant is, today, 42 years old. That’s ludicrous – you can’t have a family. You make that decision at 20 years old, you have to say, “I’m not going to have a family, I’m going into science,” because you want to have a position.
So why am I more worried, in a way, about the other people who are not going to be scientists, about those the 95% of those 11th graders who have now become completely disengaged? You know, we clearly have this educational system that’s maximally efficient at disengaging the largest number of people possible. (laughter) Scientific enterprise that really is one of the more characteristic features of our culture. So this can’t be what we want, but it’s what we have somehow. That is to say, you always get what you select for. And that’s a warning, that’s meant to be a warning. So clearly we’re selecting for it, in some way, we’re selecting for, I think at least in part by what I call a bulimic model of education, which would take a pile of the facts and jam it down the kids’ throat and then they go over here puke it up on some exams, and then they move on to the next unit, with no appreciable gain whatsoever or any need to remember any of it.
So this is clearly a kind of a problem, it seems to me, it’s problem that can be – so we take everybody all the way up through, in fact, college, undergraduate with this kind of a method. And then those few kids who go on to become scientists, who go into science, they get into graduate school, and from the moment they get into graduate school, everything changes. What you know is not important what you don’t know is what’s important. How you how you frame a question is what’s important. How you discover what what you do and this idea of discovering, this word “discover,” to remove a cover from something that’s there reveals something so all of these things are important understanding uncertainty, understanding doubt, understanding failure, God knows, most of what you do as a graduate student is fail, and fail again.
And that’s the idea. Science, I think, can be believed to the extent that it can be believed because its failure rate is so high. So it’s important to maintain this extremely high failure rate – that’s what gives science its integrity. So – but this is precisely the moment, this point at which some kids go off and do graduate school in science and become scientists, this is precisely the moment we need everybody else in the world behind, with a view of science that is essentially that of a gigantic textbook. A huge accumulation of facts that is generally impregnable without a tremendous amount of work.
And I think nothing could in fact be further from the truth. You ca get into the game of science, you can enjoy science, you can take great pleasure in that by understanding how unsettled science is not unsound science – what Karl said earlier, that science progresses by being unsettled, in fact. And to make that category mistake that unsettled is unsound is one of the biggest, I think, problems for science today. And I’m talking about science because I’m a scientist, but I hope you understand that I believe that this is all true in the religious world as well, everything I’m saying, and in the world of the arts as well.
So let me point out two quick examples. One is – I’m going to use the cell phone thing. I’m actually going to use your GPS device. Your GPS device is actually quite interesting, because it exists simultaneously, unknown to most people, in three completely different regimes of science. So the GPS device, because it uses a satellite, which is floating around up there in low gravity, requires Einstein’s relativistic physics in order to readjust its clocks, otherwise it would be off by 50 or so meters, because clocks run slower in a lower-gravity field, OK – so they run slower in low gravity.
So they run slower in low gravity, and so you have to use Einstein’s relativistic physics quations in order to correct the clocks on the satellite so that your GPS device works. In order to launch those satellites into orbit, you use Newtonian physics, so that’s how you get the satellite up there. And then we use them in basically a flat-earth kind of – (laughter) So, you can be in the flat earth world, you can be in Newton’s world, you can be in Einstein’s world, all at once using your GPS device. And it’s important to note that that’s how science kind of works. It can take from all three of those regimes what works in them – (phone rings) see, it knows. “Oh I have to take this, do you mind?” (laughter)
Let me finish with a story about I.I. Rabi, he’s a famous physicist in the 1960’s, yes, you know this story? So Rabi won a Nobel Prize for the development of NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance, and understanding the structure of molecules and so forth. He was a Columbia professor, Columbia physics professor, and famously liked to tell a story of his – when he was a child, an immigrant growing up in the Lower East Side, and he would come home from school, and all the other kids’ mothers would ask them, ask their sons and daughters, “So what did you learn in school today?”. So Rabi’s mother would say “so Isidore, did you ask any good questions today?”. Isidore won the Nobel Prize. So that’s what I think we need to do today is ask some good questions. Thanks.