Although I took a philosophy of science class as an undergraduate, my first real exposure to the history and philosophy of science occurred several years later when I was in the army and stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. With my evenings free I signed up for a graduate course on the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus to Newton) taught by I.B. Cohen at Harvard University. After the first class period I was hooked, and over the next two years I took several more history of science courses. I also began applying to full-time graduate programs, and when Indiana University offered me a scholarship to study in its History and Philosophy of Science Program, I jumped at the chance. The scholarship was much appreciated. My wife Janet and I had five children at the time and our sixth and last child was born while I was still in graduate school.
Although I had been a mediocre student in my younger years, science had always fascinated me. My first brush with scholarship occurred when I was about nine years old and I began to read the science-related “Wonder Questions” in The Book of Knowledge, a set of encyclopedias in our home. I told myself at the time that I would be a scientist when I grew up. That didn’t happen, but my study at Harvard University and Indiana University allowed me to learn about science in a different but very interesting way. My first surprise came as I studied the founders of early modern science. Contrary to my expectation, none were atheists! Indeed most were, as Johannes Kepler expressed it while describing his own quest, “trying to re-think the thoughts of God at the creation of the world.” Having long been told that science militated against religious faith, I was surprised that the foundation for this supposedly atheistic enterprise had been laid by deeply religious men. The greatest of them all—Isaac Newton—lived with an “overbearing sense of a divine presence,” according to John Hedley Brooke.
Eventually I learned that, after the Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment thinkers managed to evacuate God from scientific thought. To follow Peter Gay, they “gave us Newton’s physics without Newton’s God.” This, however, was not altogether a bad development. To function properly, science must leave God out of the explanatory picture, or, as Steven Weinberg says, “the only way that any sort of science can proceed is to assume that there is no divine intervention and to see how far one can get with this assumption.” Since scientists vary in their belief and definition of God, to bring God into scientific theory would be to turn science into a metaphysical free-for-all. But this is just a tacit admission that science cannot pronounce for or against God and that it works best when it sticks to that aspect of existence all people, regardless of ethnicity or culture, have in common—material reality.
Philosophers call this stance “methodological materialism.” The methodology of science is geared to the material world that engages our physical senses. Confusion occurs, however, when methodological materialism is mistaken for metaphysical materialism, the extra-scientific stance that nothing exists but lifeless physical matter. This stance, as the word “extra-scientific” suggests, involves a metaphysical leap of faith.
This was the second surprise in my study of science—that science, like religion, entails leaps of faith. Such leaps are egregious and misinformed when people naively insist that science proves or disproves God’s existence—as if science had the wherewithal to do that. But they also occur in a perfectly natural way at the foundational stages of theory construction. As science—particularly quantum mechanics—has taught us so well, we are not magisterial spectators of nature. By the time we get around to theory construction, our observations have long been theory-laden, and since no map or model of reality can be as rich as reality itself, we invariably fudge the gaps and simplify the complexity by inventing unseen entities and processes. A case in point is the electron. It was “discovered” or posited in 1895 and hence has been around for well over a hundred years. Many would say that its longevity is evidence of its reality, but today it is a very different entity than it was in 1895, and it continues to resist whatever conceptual box we try to stuff it in. Because we still do not know quite what it is, we are yet required to imagine it one way rather than another, and now we say that it is neither just a particle nor just a wave but an entity that can behave as either under different circumstances. It has become more complex over the decades, and the prevailing theory (the Copenhagen Interpretation) indicates that it is, to some extent, constitutionally impervious to human understanding. Hence, science, like religion, is not propped up by perfect knowledge but proceeds according to human faith and imagination.
Upon learning that I am a philosopher of science, a few scientists have told me that they eschew philosophy altogether while sticking to known facts and the scientific method, which they evidently regard as a sure-fire algorithm for the generation of scientific truth. In my judgment, this is scientific positivism at its best (or its worst), and most scientists—and certainly Einstein, Darwin, and other scientific luminaries—realize that their theories are philosophically grounded and therefore, to some extent, beyond the reach of empirical verification. As E.W. Burtt famously insisted while arguing against logical positivism, “there is no escape from metaphysics.” This puts all of us—scientist, religionist, believer, and non-believer alike—at precisely the same starting point: we all must make a leap of faith one way or another. No one knows exactly what reality is like, and so we find ourselves in a situation where we are all obliged to leap into the unknown according to our best judgment. Science may aid in the deliberative process, but it is does not exempt us from choosing to believe—from performing what the prophet Alma called “an experiment of faith.” Faith of some sort informs all human endeavor, but faith in Jesus Christ alone brings salvation.
My faith persuades me that there is a bigger story unfolding than that described by the metaphysical materialists who insist—rather incoherently, it turns out—on the non-existence of God. In the same breath they argue that life does not continue after physical death, and then point out that no scientific evidence exists for resurrection. For me this is like Venus—the morning star—trying to outshine the rising sun. Life after death cannot be any more wondrous than life here and now, and since life is what I know firsthand, its self-luminosity far eclipses secondhand arguments to the contrary, all of which, like Venus, borrow their light from the transcendent reality they seek to deny.
David Grandy teaches history and philosophy of science at Brigham Young University. He holds Ph.D. and M.A degrees in history and philosophy of science from Indiana University. His most recent books are Everyday Quantum Reality (2010) and The Speed of Light: Constancy and Cosmos (2009), both published by Indiana University Press.
Posted January 2011