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.