Science and religion can be compatible

Picture: Ian Georgeson
Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Not everything can be explained – so sometimes the best policy is to just let the mystery be, says Peter Kearney

One perennial feature of the debate over faith and education is the charge that religion and science are incompatible.

Conventional wisdom has it that faith and reason can never meet. In fact, they are complementary.

Last year, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Professor Emeritus Peter Higgs, of the University of Edinburgh, “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles…”

The “discovery” of this particle, quickly christened the “God Particle”, brought him worldwide recognition. Despite its seemingly spiritual title, the “God particle” or “Higgs-Boson” does not conclusively prove the existence of God. Rather it conclusively proves the existence of the inexplicable. It is, in effect, a proof of doubt. Though lauded by science, and by many atheists, all too eager to use scientific discoveries or developments as nails to be hammered into the coffin of religion, it does in fact present a problem for science.

It seems Professor Higgs and his colleagues proposed this particle as a way to explain the existence of mass, since without it, science can neither explain why matter has mass, nor why it sometimes behaves as it does.

By postulating that this particle exists, that problem is solved by presuming the existence of another, heretofore unseen or unknown entity. This isn’t the first time that science in general and cosmology in particular has had to come up with a “workaround” to explain the inexplicable. Among them; Guth’s Theory of Inflation which attempts to explain the absence of temperature disparities across the universe; the theory of “Dark Matter”, which is defined as something which can’t be perceived or measured in any way but whose presumed existence helpfully papers over a large number of theoretical cracks in our knowledge; and “Dark Energy”, an invention designed to explain why far from slowing down from the moment of the “Big Bang”, the expansion of the universe actually appears, counter intuitively, to be speeding up. They are all far from satisfactory “fixes”.

The so-called “scientific” explanation for the beginnings of the universe is very far from the neat and mathematically exact calculation, which many assume it to be. We’re told rigorous scientific method is the universal panacea to all our doubts and questions, a dependable calculus which always and everywhere explains the particulars of our origins and existence.

The fact that it doesn’t comes as a bit of a shock.

The proliferation of gap-filling theories is an acknowledgement of the unknowable and the unprovable.

In short, we don’t know everything. Reasonably, science accepts that things which can’t be seen or detected can have their existence proved by the measured reactions of other bodies affected by them – a rather spiritual formulation!

Such messy realities deal a significant blow to atheists and humanists who have invested so much of their energy in the primacy of what might be called “scientism”, the false creed which asserts that everything can be fully explained, leaving no need or place for a creator or deity. With the “discovery” of Higgs-Boson the jury is now in, and the verdict is clear; it can’t deliver it.

The unknowable and inexplicable is terrain on which the Church speaks with vast experience. The area of doubt or mystery, understood as that which is beyond human understanding, is very often where humanity finds itself. Grappling with mysteries, inaccessible to reason alone. That reality of course should no more deprive us of faith than our inability to fully explain the beginnings of the universe should undermine our belief in its present existence.

Too often, however, we hear that doubt does not exist in the measurable and empirical world of science. It does. It always has. Faith and science in their own ways are driven by it as they seek truth. The “Big Bang Theory” is simply a theory, an effort to explain how something might have come from nothing.

It is a wonderful and inventive theory and it attests to the spectacular inquisitiveness of the human mind, but it begs as many questions as it answers.

Professor Higgs’ Nobel citation praises him for the “theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding”. In the end he may not have discovered anything other than a neat way of papering over our ignorance of sub-atomic particles.

If so, his brilliant theorising on the temporal world still deserves our praise. As does the theorising of countless generations of theologians who have tried to do the same with the spiritual.

• Peter Kearney is director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office.


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