At Its Heart, Science is Faith-Based Too

From 1.3 billion light years away, the universe has spoken. On Feb. 11, a team of scientists led by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they had detected gravitational waves from a collision in deep space. The news, confirming a 1915 theory of Albert Einstein about the ripple effect of space-time, generated tributes to the achievements of human reason.

Commenting in Science News, Tom Siegfried wrote that the breakthrough on gravitational waves demonstrates “the power of the human mind to discern deeply hidden features of physical reality.” Writing in Slate, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli called it a “vivid indication of the power of scientific reason.”

But courtesy of Mr. Rovelli, there’s also another word that has entered the conversation: faith The scientists who made the gravitational-wave discovery, he wrote, were pursuing a “dream based on faith in reason: that the logical deductions of Einstein and his mathematics would be reliable.”

Mr. Rovelli was not referring to religious faith. And scientists generally deem even faith scrubbed of theological meaning to be something un- related to their endeavors. Yet the relationship between faith and science is far closer than many assume, and Mr. Rovelli is not alone in drawing attention to this important connection.

Arizona State University physicist Paul Davies has noted that the work of science depends upon beliefs-that the hidden architecture of the universe, all the constants and laws of nature that sustain the scientific enterprise, will hold. As he wrote in his book “The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World”: “Just because the sun has risen every day of your life, there is no guarantee that it will therefore rise tomorrow. The belief that it will – that there are indeed dependable regularities of nature – is an act of faith, but one which is indispensable to the progress of science.”

Recognizing the existence of this kind of faith is an important step in bridging the artificial divide between science and religion, a divide that is taken for granted in schools, the media and in the culture. People often assume that science is the realm of certainty and verifiability, while religion is the place of reasonless belief. But the work of Messrs. Davies and Rovelli and others, including Pope John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” demonstrates that religion and science sit within a similar intellectual framework.

The fundamental choice is not whether humans will have faith, but rather what the objects of their faith will be, and how far and into what dimensions this faith will extend. When the scientists searching for gravitational waves set up the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, to detect the waves, they did so believing that Einstein’s mathematics would be reliable and that deep space would respond as waves from deep space their calculations had forecast. And they kept up this faith even when by 2010 and a decade into the experiment, they still saw no confirmation. Such persistence nicely invokes the spirit of the biblical epistle to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

But just as faith is indispensable to science, so is reason essential to religion. Many find themselves relating to God in a way analogous to the scientists searching for gravitational waves. These seekers of religious truth are persuaded by preliminary evidence and compelled by the testimony of those who have previously studied the matter; they are striving for a personal encounter with the realities so often talked about, yet so mysterious.

In such a context, it isn’t blind belief that fuels the search, any more than scientists blindly pursued the implications of Einstein’s theory. Rather, it’s belief informed by credible reasons, nurtured by patient trust, open to revision. When I profess my belief in God, for example, I rely upon not only the help of the Holy Spirit. I also rely upon the Einsteins of theology, thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, whose use of reason to express and synthesize theological truths remains one of the great achievements in Western civilization. Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” is a LIGO for the Christian faith.

To be sure, religion and science are different. But many religious believers, like scientists, continue to search for confirmation, continue to fine tune their lives and expand their knowledge to experience a reality that is elusive, but which, when met, changes life forever. And if the combination of faith and reason can deliver the sound of two black holes colliding over a billion light years away, ‘ confirming a theory first expressed in 1915-— what is so unthinkable about the possibility that this same combination could yield the in- sight that God became man?

Matt Emerson,  Author of “Why Faith? A Journey of Discovery” (Paulist Press, 2016).

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