The question of the relationship between science and God Faith is acquiring crucial importance for our society. For not a few intellectuals who take a stand on this topic today, the choice between two conflicting world views and destined to inevitable conflict seems to be at stake. Yet, it is necessary to reflect on the possible consequences of an incorrect understanding and communication of the positions of science on this issue. In the long run, unjustified attitudes of dogmatic closure of some scientists could provoke symmetrical reactions of rejection towards science by those strata of the population who see religious faith as a fundamental component of their cultural identity. In the considerations offered here, I preferred to disregard episodes dating back to the dawn of experimental science (see the Galileo case) since, despite having great historical interest, they are not relevant for an objective vision of the problem that concerns us here.
, We must, first of all, consider science and faith as two different forms of knowledge. It would be too long, and even not very useful, to dwell on the various ways in which their relationship has been seen over time. A historically relevant contribution to the idea that there is a conflict between them, and which can still be valid today to summarize the point of view of many, is undoubtedly that of Auguste Comte. According to the French thinker, human knowledge would go through three successive phases, the theological or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract and, finally, the scientific or positive. Religious Faith would belong to a period in which there was a tendency to introduce non-existent supernatural causes and, as such, it would be incompatible with the full scientific phase in which we are now living. To judge the validity of this conclusion, let us first begin by understanding how today’s sciences proceed and what they are about.
It hasn’t proved easy to define univocally what the scientific method consists of. For some, it would consist in advancing refutable hypotheses, for others in obtaining empirical success, for still others in researching the laws of the physical world. Experimental science, as such, applies not only to the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry or biology, but in principle also to psychology, social sciences, and to any discipline that aims to construct experimentally verifiable sentences starting from representations or models, generally of a mathematical type, used to describe some range of phenomena.
The characteristic of this scheme is that each discipline identifies itself and operates in its particular approximation to reality, of which, by definition, not all possible aspects can be taken into consideration. This simplification process, implicit in the scientific method, is generally controlled by successive approximations and has been fundamental for the advancement of knowledge in the various sectors. In a certain sense, it is as if we were filtering only specific components of reality, capturing certain aspects. In this way, we reduce the total wealth of information to be analyzed, but we can significantly refine the investigation techniques of those aspects that we are interested in describing. Precisely for this reason, however, by maintaining this way of proceeding, no science can claim to represent the whole reality in its vastness and complexity.
Having made this premise, the relationship between science and faith can be placed on a correct basis starting from the observation that there are questions to which science gives no answer but which, without a doubt, remain fundamental questions for every man. Of such items, Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of quantum physics, gives two examples, “Is there an immortal soul?” and “is there a living God?”, implying that the God he refers to is the God God and not an impersonal ruler of the world. According to some, however, it is precisely from these questions that the alleged contradiction with science could be deduced.
The question would not concern the mere existence of God and the soul, as well as metaphysical entities, for which it is evident that no kind of conflict could arise. The point is another. Starting from the relationship that can be established between these two entities, precisely God and the soul, the God faith comes to conceive the possibility of unheard-of observable effects in those phenomenal areas (physical, chemical, biological, psychic, …) that they are proper to the sciences. Then the real reason for the conflict would lie in the fact that, based on science, it is no longer possible to rationally accept, for example, those miraculous facts of which the Church speaks and which go beyond the most common human experiences. There would therefore be an internal contradiction that it would rationally require a choice between two alternative worldviews. The mere fact that great scientists like Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin, Hertz, Helmholtz or Planck were deeply religious is not in itself considered an excellent answer to this old question. This is paradoxical since the very Faith of these scientists indicates that, remaining at a level of pure logical compatibility, there is certainly no lack of arguments to be able to justify such hypothetical phenomena.
For this reason, rejecting miracles on a purely experimental basis makes little sense. An empirical answer would require endless experiments which, of course, are not possible. Therefore, the probability that there may be completely unexpected observable effects would remain non-zero. In this sense, the experimental approach to these questions appears to be inefficient since, due to the specificity of the problem, a definitive answer could take an infinitely long time. Meanwhile, the possible consequences of failing to recognize the potential effect sought are so severe that a reasonable person may seek another type of answer to the questions posed by Faith.
The filtering process of reality mentioned previously, the sciences, although logically consistent and verified within a given sphere of phenomena, could be incomplete, i.e. unable to explain all the possible facts. experimental. , we could cite an elementary example taken from physics: the reduced theory of the electromagnetic field considered by Wigner.
To understand this example, let’s remember that, in general, electromagnetic phenomena are described by Maxwell’s equations. They form a system of eight partial differential equations. Six of them have an emotional significance and link the components of the electric field to those of the magnetic field. The remaining two equations are instead separate constraints on the members of the electric field and those of the magnetic field. Now, as Wigner recalls, by applying to the six dynamic equations some appropriate “filters” that reduce their information content (the rotation differential operators), the starting Maxwell equations are reduced to three separate wave equations for the three components of the electric field and three-wave equations for the three members of the magnetic field (with the same starting constraints). This formulation of electrodynamics is logically consistent but does not allow to explain all the phenomena. Now the electric field and magnetic field are predicted to evolve separately. We could then start from a situation in which only the electric field is non-zero and, according to the reduced theory, we could never have a magnetic field. Instead, according to the complete view, we know that the presence of a variable electric field induces an appropriate magnetic field.
For this reason, if we want to correctly describe the magnetic force acting on a moving electric charge, we are forced to provide additional conditions outside the reduced scheme we are considering. Note how the magnetic point, which depends on the ratio of the speed of the charged particle to the speed of light, is relatively weak compared to the electric force for slowly moving charged particles. Within this limit, we would be led to conclude that the reduced theory with the electric field alone works well and only by having fast particles the deviations would become observable.
Countless examples could still be given of theories which had been generally accepted and which were then replaced by new ideas which, while bringing only small corrections into a specific experimental domain, implied qualitatively new effects of enormous importance. For this reason, a full application of the scientific method should prevent us from attributing any absolute and definitive character to our knowledge. It follows precisely from this type of considerations that completely unexpected phenomena (such as those that theology calls miracles) in those phenomenal areas that are proper to the sciences cannot be rationally excluded. Indeed, these hypothetical phenomena are not only logically possible but, if they were to occur, the conditions of their reproducibility would certainly not be those set by the scientific protocols of today, a bit like with the rare events of quantum physics that cannot be described in the scheme of classical physics.
One could not help but remember how, on the other hand, the contradiction between science and Faith would become irremediable if the limitations imposed by the inevitable simplification of reality adopted in the scientific method and by the finite time horizon that restricts the number and type were not clear of possible experimental tests. In a vision, where science was assumed as a dispenser of absolute truths, the miracle would represent an unacceptable deviation from inviolable rules (the old point of view summarized in the phrase of Ernest Renan “miracles do not exist for the simple reason that they cannot exist”). Naturally, the essential neutrality of science on the theoretical possibility of miracles should not be confused with the necessary rigour in ascertaining or denying every single event that might appear inexplicable, at least in the current state of knowledge.
Since it is clear that the alleged contradiction between science and God Faith does not have a rational basis, what could be said about that possible “completion” of science with Faith that the Church speaks of? For this purpose, returning to the two fundamental questions considered previously, we could report an interesting observation by Heisenberg on the meaning of the term exists when one wonders if there is a living God or if there is an immortal soul. In other contexts, does this term have an absolute meaning? For example, in mathematics can we say that there is a square root of the number -1? If we limited ourselves only to the field of real numbers, we would have to answer no. However, it was also understood that significant mathematical relations could be usefully represented by introducing the concept of the square root of -1, thus extending the field of real numbers to that of complex numbers. In this broader perspective, the answer to the question would undoubtedly become yes.
The parallel holds up to a certain point. Complex numbers are a field in which we can decide to play or not. Religion, on the other hand, concerns ourselves, life, death… and inevitably pushes us to reflect on the possible consequences, on an individual and collective level, of ignoring the most fundamental questions about the meaning of our existence. To address these questions, and to make a choice in one way or another, we must necessarily broaden the domain of rationality beyond the mere limitations of the experimental and the calculable that defines the current sphere of scientific knowledge.
It should be noted how such an enlargement, however, is already required whenever we want to address those issues, such as the relationships between science and other human activities or its limits and aims, which need an ethical perspective. That these aspects cannot be talked about in objective terms, from the scientific point of view, certainly does not mean that they are imaginary. Scientific activity, being carried out within society, must be regulated in some way (think of research on new forms of potentially devastating energy, on harmful viruses or bacteria, on the possibility of creating life forms in the laboratory that do not exist in nature, etc… ). Therefore, the conflict is not between faith and science but, if anything, between forms of regulation inspired by the contents of the God faith and ways of law inspired by other philosophical currents, including the extreme case of a total absence of rules.
Recognizing its non-conflict with science, the God faith can therefore represent a form of completion as a metaphysical perspective that explains the rationality of the cosmos and the ultimate meaning of things. There are, of course, very different opinions on the value of this perspective. Thus, while by some scientists it is seen as a remnant of the past, for others it retains its validity.
Among these, there are those, like Heisenberg. They think that “if we ask a Western man what is right and what is terrible, what makes sense to pursue and what to reject, his answers will reflect the ethical norms of God, even when not you have been frequenting the images and allegories of God for a long time. If the strength that supports this spiritual construction were to fail, humanity would experience frightening trials, even more terrifying than concentration camps and the atomic bomb “.
And there are even those who, like Louis Pasteur, go so far as to glimpse an asymptotic convergence between science and Faith for which “little science leads away from God, much science leads back to Him”. In Pasteur, there seems to be the idea that, if one day came to know the whole reality in all its vastness and complexity, this hypothetical ultimate form of knowledge would have characters similar to the for footprints of intuitive perception such as poetry, art, religion. Therefore, accepting the transcendent, without thereby contradicting the daily dimension of life, would represent a way of existing and knowing which, unlike what is commonly thought, anticipates the future, a bit like with the mathematical truths mentioned proof has not yet been found.
Immanuel Kant was wrong, or at least it was too superficial, assuming that this adjective can be used so brazenly when talking about the author of the “Critique of pure reason” and other writings that have marked the history of modern thought. The philosopher from Konigsberg who had written “the starry sky above me, the moral law within me” on the tombstone, thought that everything was roughly reducible to that vague idea of a primordial nebula, indeed sublime and mysterious, but scientifically explainable. Other than God, who remains something foreign, something else, an inexplicable and straightforward human response to what empiricism could not prove. James Holden, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts, overturns the perspective and demonstrates that it is precisely the constant and tireless scientific research that leads us to believe that God exists and is not a necessary invention of a man hungry for plausible explanations on what he is surrounded. He, he tells Il Foglio, discovered it by descending into the abyss of the oceans, up to 2,200 meters deep onboard the Alvin submarine, the glorious submarine of the United States Navy launched in 1964. It is there, in the darkness of the seabed, between one oceanographic expedition and another to study hydrothermal springs – that is, the fractures in the surface of a planet from which geothermically heated water emerges – looking at stones and sand and schools of crabs, which decided that what he saw below was a miracle that went far beyond abstruse chemical combinations and useful formulas for university textbooks: “The fact is that science has not given me satisfactory explanations about the meaning and purpose of life, nor has it told me nothing on the reasons for appreciating beauty or charity”, which is nothing but love, as the Latin word, Caritas reveals. “And then, if I have to be honest – he continues – I was left with the feeling of having to somehow behave in an untrue way; in a way that did not allow me to experience joy and satisfaction and therefore to justify my existence”.
Professor Holden today gives lectures (strictly off the cuff) in front of the students of an America less and less believing and doubtful about the advisability of continuing to show the Bible everywhere, from schools to the presidential oath every four years in the 20 genius, explaining to them why the science and religion can coexist without too many problems or exaggerated psychological disturbances. He confesses with equal tranquillity that Faith in him is not innate. Sure, “I grew up in a formally God family, but I gave up on the Church and its stories when I entered college. I was lucky to learn and experience some truly amazing things on my way to PhD, but it wasn’t enough. I did not feel satisfied: the results achieved did not satisfy me; something was missing”. So, “after my doctorate, I started looking for an alternative philosophy of life”. He uses the words philosophy, and repeats it several times, giving the idea of not knowing exactly which landing-place the uncertain navigation aboard a boat tossed here and there by the waves would lead him. A bit like Saint Paul thrown to Malta by the euro kite, that is, from the north-east wind, as reported by the Acts of the Apostles. A tortuous and exhausting road, therefore, not devoid of roughness and moments of pause, makes the microbiologist understand: “I explored the foundations of many religious traditions, but in the end, I understood that the God faith was the Faith that had something more to tell me, especially the idea of grace, love, sacrifice and the fact that what I did was inspired by an incarnate divinity, which I believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. It wasn’t easy. I have had many arguments with God along this road, and many barriers had to fall before I finally found my Faith. “
In short, at least on this point, he agrees with Kant, namely that it is too easy to close the question in the manner of Anselmo d’Aosta, for whom the proof of the existence of the perfect being was given by the simple fact that man to God he thought about it. “But since I found my way – continues Holden – I have had more peace and joy in my life, learning to look at the needs of others rather than just looking at myself, on my priorities. Someone without Faith can be a better person than me, but I believe that Faith helps us to be more positive individuals than we would be without believing in something “.
The supreme barrier to be broken down remains that of the proof of the existence of God, the distinction between those who believe and those who do not think so, between those who rely on Faith and those who base everything only on what can be experienced. There is no room for the five proofs theorized by St. Thomas or for what the Church has said or tried to communicate over the centuries. They count numbers, figures, arguments that base everything on the link between cause and effect. Holden hints at a smile, saying his opinion on the severe issue: “I don’t think it is possible to demonstrate or deny the existence of God empirically or scientifically. However, believing in God can be reasonable and rational. As a person of faith, I see signs of God everywhere around me. When I make a scientific discovery or learn something new about nature, I always say ‘Oh, then that’s how God made it’. A rarity in the post-modern world that has raised, without admitting it – perhaps out of embarrassment – unbridled rationalism to divinity, only because it is visible and explainable. Even more difficult for a man of science who spends his days in the laboratory, leaning over a microscope to observe what is on anonymous slides. “My religious experience coexists very well with my daily routine. The reason? Simple, I think God wants me to do what I usually do. My work, then, helps me to appreciate even more God and what he has done in history and my everyday life “. Holden, however, recognizes that he is a sort of exception: “I have colleagues who will always believe only in what is empirical and therefore verifiable. It is their way of knowing the truth. However, I find this philosophy limiting, since some evidence we have in life, such as love, beauty, altruism, and sacrifice cannot be verified empirically. Yet none of us doubts their existence”. Perhaps, he said last February is speaking at Commonwealth Honors College in Amherst; it would be enough to think of Faith as something that goes beyond time, space, matter, energy. Two separate domains and therefore, perfectly compatible. After all, Chesterton already said it: “The best way to understand if a coat fits a man well is not to take the measurements of one and the other, but to make him try it on”. Faith, in short, can show “a great overall picture of reality”, capable of including everything in itself.
Explaining all this to young people is more difficult, but somehow fascinating. The audience is present and participates, assures our interlocutor. Maybe someone is doubtful, and a few eyebrows are raised. At the same time, this microbiologist from liberal Massachusetts talks about God and Heaven, between a quote from Dante and descriptions of warm ocean waters. “Their reaction is mixed. Some believing students are relieved to listen to a professor who is himself a believer. They are happy to see that one can be a man of Faith and a successful scientist at the same time. Others are shaken, one hundred per cent convinced that science and Faith are separate areas. Still, others maintain their reservations because they are convinced atheists or because of certain personal political opinions. Most students, however, accept my Faith and are not too sorry to work with me even though they have a different perspective on things”.
Those who study here today are mostly tolerant of other people’s thinking and beliefs. Holden points out: “They are especially tolerant of what their peers believe. The key is to show respect for others, even if you think differently, and to strike up a civil dialogue about what we believe so that everyone has an equal opportunity to express their point of view”. And when some student fascinated by the theories of Stephen Hawking or other illustrious figures of contemporary scientific thought or faithful to the primordial nebula of Kantian memory, ask how one can believe in God and the Big Bang at the same time and in the same way? “I believe that the Big Bang, as a natural phenomenon, is how God created the universe. I don’t see the need to contradict something like the Big Bang and the existence of God “. Let’s clarify: “Faith and science cannot agree on everything, but there are areas in which the two must work together. I am thinking of poverty, end-of-life decisions, the role of technology in life, the definition of what it means to be ‘human’ in the light of artificial intelligence “. Strange harmony that is created with Karl Popper, who decades ago explained that in the end religion provides the answers to what cannot be answered on a scientific level. These are the famous “ultimate questions”, including the meaning of life or in place of man in the grand universal proscenium.
The level is also the one on which the scientist Alister McGrath, professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, also stands, who in the name of Isaac Newton disputes the atheism of many of his peers, such as the neo-Darwinist and neoatheist Richard Dawkins. Even as a boy McGrath called himself an atheist, he almost boasted of it, convinced that only the periodic table of the elements would provide the answers to the most profound questions. Then, he too understood that “the reality is too complicated to be understood through an intellectual vision of the tubular type”. Something more was needed, “a richer, deeper narrative than that offered by science alone. Indeed, compared to what anything alone can offer “, he wrote in” The big question “, recently published in Italy by Bollati Boringhieri (261 pp., 23 euros) with the translation by Sabrina Placidi. He says that what grew in him was the awareness that “compared to alternatives of atheist inspiration, the God faith offered more convincing explanations of the world I saw around me and of what I lived in my interior”. And then, “to fully appreciate the world in all its complexity and to act in it in a correct and meaningful way, it is necessary to observe it through more than one window”, observes McGrath, who has a degree in Chemistry in his pocket, one in Theology and a not inconsiderable doctorate in molecular biophysics. For heaven’s sake, he specifies: “There is nothing wrong with grasping only a part of the truth. Just be aware that it is an incomplete vision”.
The problems, in fact, “arise when we are convinced that reality is limited to what a single tradition of investigation can reveal when we refuse to listen to voices other than our own”. It is clear then that – to return to Chesterton – the coat of Faith does not always fall entirely, and this is because, McGrath observes, “no worldview can contain the totality of the human experience of the world”. As a God, adds the Oxford scientist, “I find that the existence of pain and suffering cannot adapt in every fold to the coat of faith” and “like most individuals, I am wary of too linear theories. However – he adds – I am convinced that Chesterton is right when he claims that this coat fits better than other skins. Better than atheism, for example “.
Another mystery whose existence is comfortable easily verifiable, that is, it is evident, is the mystery of self-awareness. When I say “I”, I immediately think of myself. But what am I? of course when I say, I don’t think of the body only, in fact when I say “my liver”, I say that the liver belongs to me, to that someone who is me, owner of my liver. But who am I? I’m not sure the sum of my organs, because even if I lose a limb, or my heart is transplanted, I remain myself. And something tells me that I am not even my brain, as I “use” the brain for my purposes. The ego does not even coincide with consciousness because if I lose consciousness for example because I sleep or am under anaesthesia, I remain myself, it is I who lose consciousness, or it is I who sleep. When I wake up, it is I who regain consciousness as my function. So the ego does not coincide with the brain. It is a mystery that science still cannot explain.
The list of mysteries that affect human reason could be lengthened, but there is a particularly striking one: pain. Pain can have some pathophysiological explanations, but lately, it remains a mystery, especially when it is inexplicable, a-finalist when it affects the innocent. In this universe which in many ways reveals itself to be a friend of man, to his extent, with its natural beauties and riches, there is a “seed” of destruction, of annihilation. Disorder emerges quickly in the apparent order, even to death. This can be seen both in the external physical world (environment), both in the living organism and in the relationships between men which often become conflicting and destructive. What “lies behind” this contradictory behaviour? It is a great mystery, and it is, for this reason, that science, all sciences, confront each other on the great theme of order-disorder, being able, perhaps, to touch upon some mechanisms.
There is a Mystery (with a capital M) that the religious sense of man has called God, that is, the mystery of the ultimate origin and end of things. However, there are also many mysteries in many more particular sectors of reality.
A distinctive feature of the mystery, of the real secret, is that the more you understand it, the bigger it seems, that is, you know that you will never stop understanding it. This primordial amazement in the face of things and phenomena that reveal mysterious characters is also the root of scientific activity. The scientist is moved by this fundamental question: what is it? But to ask the question, he must be struck by a particular phenomenon. A scientist is, first of all, moved by the ascertainment of the mystery and the desire that arises to understand it, to grasp it, to decipher its language. Mathematics, for example, is the language that many physical phenomena speak, so much so that physical laws are written in mathematical language.
So the mystery is at the origin of the relationship of human reason with reality, and that is why it is also at the head of scientific activity. But scientific curiosity has its specificity; it has been said that science starts from the mystery and makes its particular path of knowledge.
The scientific method
What is the specificity of scientific language?
Essentially it lies in the fact that science addresses the measurable aspect of reality. The quantifiable part is only one aspect of reality. It exists even if, for various reasons, it is not accessible to scientific investigation. There is much more in the world than what is measurable (today instead we are immersed in a mentality that tends to reduce everything to what can be measured, but by doing so the dynamics of knowledge are severely amputated).
To respond to the theme raised at the beginning, it is essential to understand that science is not the only means of investigating the mystery, it is not the only instrument of human reason. There is also intuition, art (aesthetic sense), religion, philosophy. Each approach has its dignity and its value, but none can be said to be exclusive. We can know reality in many ways, especially with direct experience, but also by hearsay (it is not sure that what we hear is wrong), or by intuition (even intuition often works), but we are not all scientists. All peoples, even in the pre-scientific era, have accumulated a great range of knowledge, some even very useful, with methods other than scientific ones (think, for example, of the peoples of the East and their medical systems which are mainly considered still valid today as they have been tested for millennia). So when and on what does science intervene? When can a “researcher” be called a “scientist”? When he follows precise rules in the way (that is, in the method) with which he wants to explain what he experiences.
If we wanted to define science briefly, we could say that it is that human activity, that tool developed by human reason and culture, which tries to explain reality as measurable.