Why We Should Admire Scientists—Part 1 of a Series

One of the disasters of our times is the split between Christians and scientists. Evolution is the issue causing the disharmony, but that only defines the battle lines. Underneath are a deep lack of respect on the part of believers for scientists, and a deep lack of respect on the part of scientists for believers. And underneath that is a narrowness of view—an inability on both sides to see how wonderfully significant the other side is.

In my reading, two people have the kind of breadth of mind to bridge this gap and bring understanding—Michael Polanyi and John Polkinghorne. Unfortunately neither one is an easy read. Polanyi’s epic Personal Knowledge is as long as War and Peace, while Polkinghorne’s many books are very short, but it makes no difference. Most people won’t read them. They are the sorts of books that require concentration on each paragraph, and sometimes on each sentence.

This series of posts intends to bring Polkinghorne’s insights down to a lower shelf, and possibly tempt some of you to actually read him.

I like Polkinghorne because every page betrays a love of science.  Until he was 50 years old he was a working physicist at Cambridge University on a first-name basis with many of the greats of the post-war era—Paul Dirac, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking, among others. He participated in one of science’s most exciting eras, during which Newton’s physics were overturned, quantum mechanics became law and the quark was discovered at the heart of matter. When Polkinghorne writes about this, his pride and pleasure are unmistakable.

We all ought to feel such emotions. Of all the forms of discovery that humans have learned, none has produced such results. Science discovers truth that everyone can agree on, and that has proven itself productive in the world. We fly planes and broadcast football games because of what scientists learn about the world.

But scientists don’t do their work in order to make products. They work in order to understand. Polkinghorne makes this point through a wonderful mental experiment. Suppose, he says, a black box was discovered that could perfectly predict the weather two weeks hence. Into slot A you put information about current conditions; out of slot B came a slip of paper with infallible descriptions of the future.

“Do you think [the meteorologists would all go home?” Polkinghorne asks. “Not a bit of it! They would take that box to pieces to find out how it modeled the great heat engine of the earth’s seas and atmosphere so accurately. As scientists they know that prediction, however perfect, is not enough. They want to understand the nature of weather systems.” [p. 13, Beyond Science.]

Science is arguably the human endeavor of which we can most take pride, as members of the human race. Not only has it been astonishingly effective in advancing genuine, universally acknowledged understanding of an opaque and mute universe, but it has done it (by and large) in an admirable way. Scientists do not generally become rich, they do not gain fame. On the whole they are cooperative and generous with each other. They rarely lie, cheat or steal. Christians of all people should admire people who devote their lives with such care and perseverance to understanding a universe that we believe God made.

Polkinghorne, though, is no scientific chauvinist. While beaming with family pride when he considers science, he also sees its limits. As he points out, science cannot even explain science. There are no experiments to be done on scientists as they do their work that can discover how they do it. When Polkinghorne writes about his own scientific career he often mentions the search for beautiful equations, and the thrill and wonder of discovery. Science has nothing to say about beauty or wonder. They are inextricably part of science, but we need something more than science to explain and explore them. “Science should be part of everyone’s world view,” Polkinghorne writes. [p. 20, Beyond Science.] “Science should monopolize no one’s world view.”

I’ll take up the limits of science, as Polkinghorne sees them, in my next post.

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8 Responses to “Why We Should Admire Scientists—Part 1 of a Series”

  1. steve martin Says:

    They are the sorts of books that require concentration on each paragraph, and sometimes on each sentence.
    Concentration? No kidding. I often need to concentrate hard as I reread a paragraph two or three times.

    Really looking forward to this series.

  2. FollowerOfHim Says:

    I’ve long admired Polkinhorne, and found his interview back in 2005(?) on “Speaking of Faith” on NPR to be a wonderful exposition of how science and faith can, and should, interact. His “Faith of a Physicist” is a fascinating walk through the Creed, and knowing that there are such people as P. makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning. All the best scientists — and Polkinghorne is certainly one of them — understand the limits of science better than many popularizers of science do. (Along the same lines, contrarian economist Nassim Taleb remarks that he seldom disagrees with professional statisticians themselves; his personal war is with those in finance who know just enough statistics to be dangerous.) I look forward to your further posts on the topic.

  3. jdwalt Says:

    nice work here Tim. we are doing an interesting conference along these lines at our seminary this spring called Q3– bringing in scientists and theologians and friends to mix it up a bit. should be fun. join us if you can. see more here: http://www.asburyseminary.edu/q3/

  4. dopderbeck Says:

    Great post — I love Polanyi. For those truly interested, check out the Polanyi Society: http://www.missouriwestern.edu/orgs/polanyi/

  5. The Divine Conspiracy Blog » Blog Archive » The Split Says:

    […] far Part 1 here, and Part 2 […]

  6. In Praise of Science « As the Deer Says:

    […] series so far:  Why we should admire scientists and What science can’t do. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Philosophy of […]

  7. Why We Should Admire Scientists « Spirit Led America Says:

    […] We Should Admire Scientists (Part 1) December 19th, 2009 | Tags: Science | Category: […]

  8. Why We Should Admire Scientists « Spirit Led Tech Says:

    […] We Should Admire Scientists (Part 1) December 19th, 2009 | Tags: Science | Category: […]

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