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.

Coming to Belief in God

Are you ever asked what you believe and why?  Do you ask yourself?  Most of what we believe is based on evidence.  Belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on the evidence of experience.  Belief that a friend will keep her word might be based on the evidence of experience with the friend specifically or with people in general.  If I think of faith as belief without evidence, I could say I have faith that my friend will keep her word despite evidence to the contrary.  Furthermore, we all believe some things we can’t prove.  

Some people come to belief in God through a dramatic or miraculous experience.  I once worked with a man who described being an agnostic and hopeless drug addict for many years before Jesus appeared to him and cured his addiction in a single encounter.  It was a memorable testimony of healing and life change.  Many people, especially young people struggling with their faith, yearn for a dramatic sign.  They want decisive evidence on which to predicate belief in God.  Some get it.  Most of us don’t. 

Most of us come to belief in God through a process akin to the scientific method.  The body of modern scientific knowledge has been built using a method of assuming hypotheses, testing them, gathering evidence and concluding whether the evidence supports the hypotheses.  If contrary or inconsistent evidence is observed, then a hypothesis needs adjustment.  We can find God this way, too.  

If a leap of faith isn’t within reach, formulate a hypothesis and make observations.  If you are beginning to explore spirituality, assume God exists and is good.  If you have a robust spiritual life already, focus on some question of faith burning inside you at present.  For example, you might assume God has laid down an abundance of grace that is enough to heal you completely for all time if only you reach out and lay a hand upon it.  Or you might assume that there is meaning in suffering and although it pains God, who is infinitely vulnerable to us, he uses all the loose and frayed ends in our lives even when the meaning of our suffering lies beyond our human ability to perceive or to comprehend.  Treat this hypothesis as a tentative or provisional belief.  Live your life and observe evidence that supports or contradicts the assumption.  

When something in life trips you up, as is inevitable for us all, examine your choices and actions within the framework of your belief.  Do the actions and reactions make sense?  Can you understand the forces at work?  If it doesn’t add up, reevaluate what you believe in light of new experience.  In the absence of inconsistencies or contrary evidence, you might get comfortable with the hypothesis and assume yet another building on it.  Here, your state of belief might be partially evidence-based (a long run of experience without contrary evidence) and partially faith-based (you may desire more evidence).  Don’t conceptualize God’s nature based on what you want to be true.  Rather, develop your powers of observation.  If you seek spiritual growth, give God your provisional trust and give the experiment time to yield evidence. 

Join the conversation.  What do you believe that you can’t prove?

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