Peter Kearney: Science is not the rock some say it is

Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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PARADIGM shifts suggest there’s more than enough room for God in the mix, writes Peter Kearney

Reading a recent magazine article on the celebration of Christmas, I wasn’t surprised to find that the author had a pretty jaundiced view of the Nativity story and felt it was really just a fairy tale used to mislead children. I was, however, surprised by one assertion. He claimed: “Historical truth and scientific method are the rocks on which human reason must be based.”

I was surprised because, contrary to the preconceptions of the author, and most secular-minded media commentators, this formulation is utterly compatible with religion and belief.

For many in the media and politics, not to mention most other spheres of public life, religion is for those who somehow reject “historical truth and scientific method”. In reality, it isn’t, faith is compatible with science and reason. Whether science is quite the solid “rock” some secularists seem to pine for is another question. Recent research suggests that good science tends to throw up far more questions than it can answer.

Light travels at 299,792,458 metres a second. For generations, students of physics have been taught that the speed of light was what’s known as a universal physical constant. It didn’t change, because it couldn’t change; it was always and everywhere the same. In equations and calculations other parts could change but the figure for light speed always stayed the same. Or at least it did until last year.

In 2015, a team of Scottish scientists from the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance at Glasgow and Heriot-Watt universities made light travel slower than the speed of light. They sent photons – individual particles of light – through a special mask. It changed the photons’ shape – and slowed them to less than light speed. Scientists have long known that light slows down when passing through materials like water or glass but it always goes back to its higher speed as soon as it comes out on the other side. Incredibly, in the Glasgow experiment the photons continued to travel at the lower speed even when they returned to free space. To call this work ground-breaking probably doesn’t do it justice, it was a stunning finding and will likely alter forever how science looks at light.

Last month a cosmologist at Arizona State University claimed he had heard from a colleague working on a major project into gravity, that gravitational waves may have been discovered.

Gravitational waves are unpredictable ripples in space-time fabric thought to be created by areas of extreme energy generated by violent occurrences like black holes. If proved, this too would be a staggering discovery showing that gravity could no longer be explained solely by the general physical law put forward by Newton 300 years ago.

Although he never actually observed them, Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his General Theory of Relativity over 100 years ago. More than 70 years after Einstein’s death the gravitational wave discovery could turn out to be what one science writer has described as: “one of the most astonishing and significant breakthroughs in the history of physics.”

Why do these discoveries matter? Simply because they utterly demolish the false assertions constantly made by atheists and humanists that through science, we can measure and know everything in the universe and thanks to science it can all be neatly and fully explained, leaving no need or place for a creator or deity. In other words, science is a solid rock upon which you can base your philosophy of life or belief system.

This creed or belief system, let’s call it “scientism”, has been dealt some serious blows by recent discoveries. Such research, carried out by scientists, who see scientific method as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, leaves a significant minority of our fellow citizens – who have spent years saying things like “I don’t believe in religion; I believe in science” – looking, frankly, very foolish.

The cosy simplicity of a fairy-tale theory which says humans can observe, explain and account for everything is, of course, superficially attractive, but in reality it is an opiate for the unthinking.

What is emerging increasingly from some fascinating and challenging new research in the world of science is the extent to which the “known world” is in fact unknown to us on many levels. In truth, science in all its marvellous wonder, is not a solid rock upon which you can base a philosophy of life or belief system upon. Belief in God on the other hand, is.

• Peter Kearney is director of the Catholic Media Office.