Science and Religion… and Doubt

By James Camparo

Some who profess to be scientifically minded, including some scientists, will rail against the irrationality of the religious.  Science, they will argue, through systematic and unbiased organization and interpretation of facts, shows that Nature can be understood without the biased trappings of religious or spiritual explanation. “And when I say facts,” they will continue, “I don’t mean your ‘a pretty day is proof of God,’ or ‘a baby’s smile is proof of God’ nonsense; I mean hard, objective, repeatable facts.” “I mean facts like the sun came up yesterday, the sun came up today, the sun will come up tomorrow.”  “And if you can’t give me facts like that, pointing to the reality of God, then all your religious talk and spiritual musings are simply delusions.”  “There is no old man with a long white beard sitting on the clouds surveying our every action.”

An old man in sandals balancing on the clouds?. . . Quite likely not.  But is there a presence of the Divine in Nature? . . . I don’t know.

I don’t know, by the way – is a perfectly valid scientific answer to a question.  Starting with Bacon in the 16th century, our species has come to realize that we can divorce our knowledge about the world from biased dogma, so long as we base our conclusions solely on what is demonstrably repeatable in the world around us; if we base our conclusions about Nature on facts.  If I have no facts, then I can draw no conclusions, and the rigorous logic of science compels me to state, “I don’t know.”  “I don’t know” how to explain the complete biochemistry of disease, and “I don’t know” how to explain the acceleration of galaxies away from one another on the largest scales.  This is not to say that I need to resort to Creationism or Intelligent Design for an explanation of life or cosmological structure.  It’s simply an acknowledgement that I don’t have all the relevant facts to construct a viable scientific explanation.

But what facts can I gather, or ever gather, of the Divine?  Can I know the size, weight, and personality of a carpenter by studying in detail the chair he makes for my table?  Why then should I expect facts of the Creator to show up in the creation?  And what of inductive logic and scientific “proof”?  We know the sun came up yesterday, and it came up today.  We have faith that it will come up tomorrow, but we have no deductive proof.  That faith – aka inductive logic – is certainly reasonable, and I would definitely take a bet in Vegas that the sun will come up tomorrow at incredibly disadvantageous odds. . . but nonetheless it cannot be guaranteed beyond any doubt.

And perhaps that is the key; perhaps we’re not supposed to have proof of the Divine.  With proof there is certainty, with doubt there is free will.  In this Universe, in this Creation, we have the free will to cheat on tests, steal cars, or not.  We have the free will to treat our neighbors as brothers, no matter how oddly they may think and believe, or we can strap suicide vests to our bodies to send them to perdition.  And though we will never “know” if the Creator exists, or whether or not He takes any notice of our personal lives, our free will nonetheless leaves us with a responsibility: we can either treat Nature like our personal toilet, or respect it as a presence of the Divine in our lives.

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About the Author

Dr. Camparo has a BA in physics from Columbia College (1977) and a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics from Columbia University (1981). He is presently an adjunct professor of Physics at Whittier College in Southern California, where his interests include research and development of the laser-pumped atomic clock, the study of atomic timekeeping onboard spacecraft, and experiments investigating atomic interactions with microwaves and light. Additionally, Dr. Camparo collaborates with members of the Psychology Department at Whittier College developing new statistical procedures for the behavioral sciences. Dr. Camparo is the author or co-author of over 100 scientific papers, and was the recipient of the 2012 IEEE International Frequency Control Symposium I.I. Rabi award for his research in the area of atomic clocks.