At the intersection of science and faith


[Rough notes from a public lecture give July 12, 2012 at The Franklin Institute]

Credo in unum Deum. I believe in God. I also believe in evolution, quantum mechanics, particle physics, anthropogenic climate change, the Big Bang Theory, and perhaps even the Higgs boson.

I am a scientist and a practicing Roman Catholic. I am a contemplative, who regularly extricates myself from the ‘interwebs’ and takes up temporary residence in silent monastic enclaves. I am a quantum mechanic, who has used some of the most powerful computers in the world to dig into the interiors of molecules to see what makes them tick.


We suppose scientists to be concerned with the real, the tangible, using methods that are objective and that don’t admit of the personal. We suppose that contemplatives sit at the opposite pole, considering the transcendent and the mystical — God — taking approaches that are intensely personal.

But “contemplative scientist” is not as much an oxymoron as you might think — just ask Gregor Mendel, Augustinian monk and the father of modern genetics. One definition of contemplation is “a long, loving look at the real” — which is not a bad description of science either.

I don't see these stances as incompatible, perhaps because I'm a quantum mechanic, which requires me to keep multiple realities in mind. Photons behave as discrete particles and as waves. So do electrons, and even things as large as helium nuclei. God created human beings. Human beings are primates, and evolved from older primate species....

I'm not a melange. I don't believe some strange mix of quantum mechanics and religion - a quantum theology (the name of my blog notwithstanding). But I don't compartmentalize the two either. I don't leave my faith at the door of the lab, nor do I suspend my critical faculties at the door of the church.

Yet here is where the tension lies for me. I am not quick to identify myself as someone who is “religious” to my scientific colleagues, likewise I don’t wave my scientific credentials around at church. It’s not modesty, and it’s not because of what I personally think about the consonance and tensions between science and faith, but I’ll admit to a nagging worry about what other people will think.

[Chris’ friend: “people who believe in God are stupid” Chris: “My mother believes in God, and she’s not stupid.” Anyone who is raising or has raised a 16 year old, or remembers being 16, might consider this attribution of wisdom to a parent a miracle, unequivocal proof of the existence of God.]

This is the sticking point: If my science colleagues discover I believe in God, that I pray, will they lose respect for my work? More precisely, will they worry that I am unable to be objective, that I will pursue the truth with less vigor, accepting as miracles what is in truth yet to be discovered science?

As far as I’m concerned, God is not a “God of the gaps,” a way for a scientist to wiggle out of a difficulty. The evidence — as a scientist — is overwhelming that the universe operates under a set of rules that while I believe God can violate, does not choose to do so on any regular basis (Christopher’s conversation notwithstanding).

Science deals in the tangible, the physical. There is a point at which any further why’s or what’s take you from the physical to the metaphysical, from the realm of physics into philosophy and theology.

Faith cannot overrule science, and the popular view of Galileo’s difficulties notwithstanding, the Roman Catholic Church has not taught otherwise.

"The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false." (St. Thomas Aquinas)

Simply because the book of Genesis says that God told Noah to bring pairs of each animal, male and female, does not mean that each species necessarily has two sexes: male and female (worms...creatures that crawl on the ground...do not)...

This can make for an uncomfortable tension at time with others of faith, “not gifted with the necessary scientific learning.” Catholic pundits regularly ridicule any support for anthropogenic climate change, global warming, as “earth worship.” My stance on anthropogenic climate change has nothing to do with paganism and earth worship, and everything to do with an understanding of the intimate molecular workings of carbon dioxide and the interplay between historical data and large scale modeling of the atmosphere. [Contemplative stance of looking at the real (graph, going up or down? if this were a stock, should you have invested? it’s global temps for last 150 years. Going up or down?)]

Page from Scroll with Isaiah 40 
The book of Isaiah, copies of which are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, reveal a God we can know, but who is more than we can describe. “ Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? ... To whom can you liken God?” (Is 40: 12a, 18a)

Not everything about even the physical universe is knowable, or at least quantifiable. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that knowing the exact position and exact velocity of an electron is not possible. Building a better measuring device will not help, it’s just not knowable. Psychologist William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, takes a similar tack in the realm of the metaphysical. One marker of mystical experiences, which might include experiences of God, is that they are ineffable, indescribable.

I can’t prove the existence of God in the same way I can prove the existence of my notes, but like much of science, direct observation is neither always possible nor necessary. I have never seen an electron and I cannot prove it’s existence in the same way I can prove the existence of my notes, but I am convinced of their existence, I can see their traces. No one has held a Higgs boson in their hand, but its tracks convince us it (might) exist. I believe in God, I have seen God’s tracks. Several years ago I spent 30 days in silence, very methodically looking for God’s traces in my life, and in the life of the world, making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Chemist and sometime philosopher Michael Polyani, summed it up well: “We know more than we can say.” About both science and God.

Religion should not fear science. The universe is sometimes called God’s other book of revelation. St. Anthony the Great, a 4th century monk living isolated in the desert, did not bemoan his lack of books, even the Bible, saying “My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand.” Sixteen centuries later, the universe is still God’s other book, there for us to read. It’s just that nowadays it can be helpful to know some calculus if you want to get all the details of the plot straight.

Both approach the universe as a mysterious and wonderful place, and with an interest in using well and wisely what is revealed. Historian of science Gerard Holton notes that developments in science depend on an “unforced pace of work” — skills that contemplatives bring to the table.

From my perspective, religion is not a big book of rules, nor is science a big book of facts. Neither are reducible to just the sum of a series of mechanical actions. (The Stepford Wives model..) Making the sign of the cross or being able to recite the ten commandments does not make me religious; memorizing the periodic table does not make me more or less of a chemist. For that matter, I don’t love my children or spouse because they clean up the kitchen after dinner. Arguably. It is how we wield the facts, let the rules frame our practices, that make me a person of faith, that make me a scientist. I love my husband and children, my science — and my God — in ways I could not possibly say.