Coming to Belief: Physics and Faith

 In the continuing conversation about coming to spiritual belief, examining how we come to scientific belief makes for interesting, and perhaps surprising, comparisons.  We arrive at our beliefs about all kinds of things—the character of friends and coworkers, social systems like workplace culture, and the natural world—via a process akin to the scientific method.  We posit an assumption, make observations, and adjust assumptions as the evidence comes in.  Recent posts reveal I also think this is how many people come to belief in God

The scientific method is not always conclusive, though, not even in science.  Theoretical physicists working on string theory have a knack for formulating hard to test hypotheses that elude scientific evidence.   Some physicists have devoted decades, their whole careers, to developing string theory, which has yet to produce scientific evidence.  

Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert in an essay titled “The Vagaries of Religious Experience” states, “The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence—things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure,” and he uses that test of evidence to invalidate religious belief.  That logic has several flaws.  

First, it misrepresents the nature of scientific evidence.  None of the evidence quantum physicists work with is human sensory perceptible via sight touch, taste, etc.   Quantum physics amply illustrates that some truths are beyond the ability of the human five senses to perceive and are at the edge of the human capacity to comprehend.  Second, some people are more perceptive than others.  CalTech Professor of Physics Richard Feynman was exceptionally perceptive.  He perceived truths that were out of reach for most of his esteemed peers.  Similarly, individuals with a robust spirituality perceive the evidence of God’s action in their lives in ways the less perceptive among us miss.  The perceptive ones are able to detect evidence not obvious to everyone.  No one claimed Richard Fynman’s perceptions were invalid because others couldn’t replicate them, yet spiritual perception does come under this attack.  A third flaw is this view doesn’t appreciate how much scientific work happens before the proof point.  

Mathematician and philosopher Reuben Hersh in What is Mathematics, Really? draws an apt analogy that applies here.  He describes the day-to-day work of mathematicians like the operation of a restaurant, where there is a front, a dining room that is quiet, neat and orderly, and a back, the kitchen where things are not always neat and orderly.  Hersh says the front of mathematics is formal and precise with axioms and rigorous proofs, while “math in back is fragmentary, informal, intuitive, tentative.  We try this or that.  We say ‘maybe’ or ‘it looks like.’” 

The idea that everything in science is proven, or provable, is a front room perception.  That’s not how science really works.  Physicists working on string theory are doing science in back.  They know that operating with tentative beliefs for which there is not conclusive scientific evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

So it is with spirituality.  Faith in front appears tidy.  Believers don’t question or doubt or grow.  Those actively engaged in spiritual growth, however, experience faith in back.  Like theoretical physicists, they know that operating with hypotheses for which there may not be conclusive evidence is the only way to perceive some truths.  

Join the conversation.  What’s your experience of the search for truth in physics or in faith? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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3 thoughts on “Coming to Belief: Physics and Faith

  1. I agree that the supposition that scientific knowledge is founded on empirical, i.e. sensory, evidence is partly mistaken. Scientific knowledge is based on verifiable experience, experience that is consistent from one observer to the next. Quantum field theory is developed on the basis of mathematics. Mathematics appears to the aesthetic and rational qualities of the mind, not the sensory experiences. Hypotheses based on quantum field theory are made and then tested in the phenomenal world by using equipment such as the immense particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland. These hypotheses take the form: “This theory predicts that given these conditions of this field we should observe this wave fluctuation, this particle, with these characteristics.” The conditions are then created in the particle accelerator and the observations are recorded.
    Empirical methods are used to test hypotheses, not to develop them.

    This same methodology has been used in the Vedic tradition to verify spiritual knowledge for at least 5000 years. In that tradition knowledge of the universe is directly cognized, that is directly experienced by a seer, and then verified by others who have developed themselves sufficiently to do so. In some Vedic literature, notably the Yoga Sutras, the integration of the spiritual levels of the universe with the phenomenal levels is demonstrated by the sutras that are used to produce effects in the phenomenal world. Sutra 42 in the chapter called Vibhuti-Pada of the Yoga Sutras, the sutra for yogic flying is an example of this.

    • Well said, Allen, and thank you for adding your insight to the discussion. I get frustrated with scientists who employ the scientific method to refute religious belief not because they misrepresent religion (they do, but they don’t claim to be experts) but because they misrepresent the actual experience of scientists. You are absolutely right that evidence needs to be reproducible, not the perception involved in formulating a testable hypothesis. Now, we could have a longer discussion about what role perception (hearing, seeing, tasting, Vedic “seeing”) plays in establishing evidence! Gilbert would argue that “others sufficiently developed to do so” are not “anyone” and therefore that evidence would be disqualified. I would argue that “anyone” wouldn’t be able to decipher CERN results, but I would not refute the conclusions on that basis.

      • Thank you for your kind words, Stephanie. Instead of saying “others sufficiently developed to do so” I might just as well have said, “skilled in the required technology.” Vedic science includes extensive technology. It’s just not sensory or physical technology. The Yoga Sutras is essentially a technical manual describing how to operate the human nervous system in such a way that the fundamental structure of the universe is directly and clearly observed. It is necessary to have personal instruction in order to properly use this technical manual, but it doesn’t require any special attitude, belief, or predisposition to do so. The only prerequisite is the ability to think a thought and an instructor who knows how to teach you to allow your attention to experience that thought at finer and finer levels of the mind. Built in features of the human nervous system take over from there. It’s a simple, natural technology.

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