Science and the Mystery of it All

Science and the Mystery of it All

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The new sciences—like quantum physics—describe a universe so strange and unknowable it’s tempting to find god in the equations. A theologian and historian of science tells why we need to watch out.

Of all the visual expressions of “The Big Mystery” that we’ve seen, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey still comes the closest to capturing the unknowable.

“I believe that we will gradually come to appreciate that the things cannot be known, that cannot be done, and cannot be seen define our universe more clearly, more completely, and more sharply than those which can.”

“Things that cannot be known … and cannot be seen.” These sound like the words of a mystic, don’t they? Actually they are from the preface of scientist John D. Barrow’s new book, Impossibility: The limits of Science and the science of the limits (Oxford, 1998). Barrow is professor of Astronomy at Sussex University and a highly respected popularizer of contemporary physical sciences. Like many scientist, he has begun to write and talk about the “unknowable,” the inscrutable,” the “impossible.”

Strange, isn’t it? We have come to expect scientists to boast about the capacity of science to discover all there is to know about the universe. Now, however, they are becoming much more circumspect. Instead of writing books about “Theories of Everything,” they are penning treatises about “The Limits of Scientific knowledge.” As Barrow suggests, what we cannot know may define the nature of reality more fundamentally than what we can know.

Why this significant reversal? It’s a complicated subject, but worth the risk of a simplified explanation. Increasingly during the twentieth century, scientists have come face to face with the complexity of the universe and the limitations of our intellectual tools: mathematics and logic. More and more of them are beginning to recognize that there may be fundamental features of the universe that are unfathomable.

For those who have put all their faith in science’s capacity to explain everything, that’s a disturbing prospect. Their worldview is threatened and they are eager to reclaim science’s former prowess. For others it is merely confirmation of the sublimity of creation for which they have nothing but the utmost awe. Those two groups will likely debate their differences ad infinitum. The real danger, I fear, lies in a third type of reaction.

For some, acknowledging the limits of science may be an irresistible excuse to mindlessly invoke the mysterious nature of reality—in short, to claim any unexplained phenomenon as proof of God. We need to avoid this temptation.

Mystery is an integral part of our spiritual lives. For many, the spiritual journey begins with that very first feeling that there is a vast unknowable reality transcending and infusing the whole creation; a presence so unmistakable, and yet incomprehensible, that we are left without words. Whatever form that kind of mountaintop experience may take in our individual journeys, there is no question that such an experience of mystery is fundamental in the life of the spirit.

But we must be careful when we speak about mystery. Like other religious terms that enjoy renewed fashion these days (angels, for example), it is easy for the public and the press to misappropriate words that have very precise theological meaning. And while quibbling over definitions may seem like an academic exercise, this kind of mistake can have disastrous consequences in the real world. As we shall see, even someone as learned as Isaac Newton fell into the trap, and the unfortunate aftermath still dogs us today.

Generally speaking, mystery is the word we employ when we don’t understand the cause of something: the outbreak of a strange new disease, a surprising reversal in the stock market, the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang, the origin of life, the existence of evil, the will of God, etc. But all mysteries are not created equal. Some mysteries are transitory. For instance, we expect a murder mystery to be solved and the case to be closed. Likewise, in science and medicine, there are enigmas that persist for decades, even centuries; but eventually an explanation appears On the other hand, there are some mysteries it seems we will never fully fathom, like the origin of the universe or the ineffable nature of God. Distinguishing between these kinds of mystery is critical to the success of the contemporary dialogue between science and religion.

In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton was confounded by a transitory mystery, He had discovered the laws of gravity and applied them to the motions of the planets with remarkable success. It seemed, then, that he should be able to predict the orbital motion of all the known planets in our solar system with absolute precision. But, alas, the naughty planets strayed from their predicted paths. In fact, they seemed to be losing their momentum and running down like a faulty clock, a total violation of the mechanical paradigm. Newton called these deviations “planetary perturbations.” He had no scientific explanation for such unexpected behavior. So confronted with a puzzling mystery, he made a tragic mistake: He invoked God. In fact, he came to the ironic conclusion that God was responsible for the imperfection in the mechanism. The proverbial Clockmaker had manufactured a “lemon,” a planetary system that would down. This deviation from the mechanical norm provided an explanation for “planetary perturbations,” but it also put God in the embarrassing position of having to step in periodically to rewind the mechanism. Otherwise the whole creation would end with a mechanical whimper.

One hundred years later, the sophistication of mathematics had vastly improved. The French mathematician, Laplace, was able to take into account the complicated gravitational effect of the known planets upon one another with far more accuracy than Newton. He was able, therefore, to demonstrate that the planets actually didn’t run down, but were a self-regulating gravitational system with far more mathematical consistency and mechanical integrity than Newton had ever dreamed. In Laplace’s eyes the universe was a perfect self-correcting, self-sustaining system. Newton’s mystery had evaporated. And, unfortunately, Laplace concluded that he “no longer had any need for the God Hypothesis.” In fact, he argued that since the whole universe was totally predetermined and mathematically predictable, science could theoretically explain everything.

Boosted by Laplace’s extraordinary hubris, the scientific community soon began to believe that there was no mystery it couldn’t solve; and thus began the conceited era that is now coming to an end. Newton’s tragic commingling of science and divinity backfired. His God came to be known derisively as “the God of the gaps.” Anyone who dared to suggest that a mysterious vacuum in scientific knowledge might be filled by God became the laughingstock of the academy. In the long run the credibility of theology was badly damaged.

Newton’s mistake was simple. He assumed that wherever there is the smoke of mystery, there must also be the fire of God. But that’s not necessarily so. He confused something we didn’t understand yet with something we could never fully fathom. In his classic treatise, The Idea of the Holy (1942), Rudolf Otto argues that solutions like Newton’s to scientific puzzles such as planetary perturbations don’t even qualify as mysteries. They’re miraculous. The alleged “mystery” has a “rational,” albeit miraculous, explanation: God operates the machinery. A real mystery, on the other hand, is something truly beyond explanation, beyond thought, beyond words, totally inexplicable, something like the ineffable presence of God, or to use Otto’s phrase, the “mysterium tremendum,” nothing less.

What we can now celebrate is the fact that scientists themselves are beginning to talk about mysteries of this latter kind, about the ineffable, the inexplicable, the impossible. Mystery in its primary theological meaning is back in scientific vogue. We can rejoice and be glad in it. But to leap to theological conclusions based upon quantum mystery or medical miracle could still be a tragic mistake of historic proportions. We must always remain cautious about invoking God as a natural explanation. Instead, we should practice the awe and wonder of an alternative “m & m:” the majesterium and mysterium of the whole incredible ball of wax.

the mystery of space

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