The Surprising Compatibility of Science and Faith – DNyuz

The Surprising Compatibility of Science and Faith

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. He gathers timely conversations from the community and asks readers to respond to one question on Wednesdays. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I quoted the late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan on humanity’s place in the cosmos, and asked readers for their thoughts on outer space.

Deb is awestruck:

If I am standing on an orb that spins 1,000 mph while hurtling through space, that is so crazily magical that anything is possible. It’s all so phenomenal and, by extension, so is our existence.

Robert, a graduate student in philosophy, harkened back to the ancients:

Like Aristotle, when I was very young, I thought the planets and stars in the sky were something like gods. This is a misconception that I no longer believe. Nevertheless, they are in some sense above and beyond us, endowed with a sort of beauty we ourselves are incapable of manufacturing. It is hard to believe that someone can look at images such as those from the James Webb Space Telescope without thinking otherwise. Even without technology, there is something marvelous about gazing into the sky and noticing just how much is out there. Thousands of stars, five planets, and even our own galaxy are visible from Earth with the naked eye. This has been distorted by light pollution. Even if you only see a handful of stars or planets, it is still enough to appreciate the immenseness of this universe.

Still, despite the enormous powers of these celestial spheres, they cannot appreciate their own beauty. Humans alone are known to be capable of appreciating the universe in this way. I have always held this belief and attributed special status to human beings. This is not a contradiction to the vastness of all of this, but merely a consequence of it. If we aren’t here anymore, the all the beauty in the universe won’t mean anything to anyone. This would mean that something with immense value will be lost.

I worry that for all of the scientific advances that have been made in our understanding of space, we are starting to view the universe more as a collection big rocks and gas balls. The planets and stars, especially Mars and Mars, seem to be more of an escape than wonder.

This mistake is made by even those who believe space colonization may be the future for humanity. It is impossible to capture the beauty and utility of the universe by giving detailed descriptions of its mechanics. This is anthropocentrism. It’s not about appreciating outer space’s extraordinary beauty. For as long as humans have been alive, the beauty and majesty that is heaven has inspired wonder and joy in our minds. So, I figure, why not let myself think, along with Aristotle, that, even if not literally, the first people were right in thinking that the planets “are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature”?

Rob’s life has coincided with the rise and fall of the space program:

Outer space pervaded the national consciousness–especially if you were young. It seemed that everyone followed NASA takeoffs and felt nothing but pride and awe. There has been much debate about the cost and tradeoffs involved in these endeavors over time. It is important to remember that many problems are back on Earth and that these funds are needed.

Space exploration, at its finest and most fundamental, is an homage to human curiosity. It’s a testament to the mind’s insatiable hunger for knowledge. It is impossible to look up at the sky without wondering what it contains. We should also not forget that the universe surrounds us naturally.

Our consciousness is ineluctably drawn deeper and deeper toward solving the riddles of our existence. On Star Trek, Captain Kirk was tapping into this collective consciousness when he famously said: “To explore strange new worlds. To search for new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” As humans, we can’t help ourselves. To some extent, we won’t be able to not continue to explore “up there.” If our sight and the human quest were to remain solely limited to this rock of ours, we would no longer be human. “Thrusters ahead, Mr. Sulu. Take us out.” Onward.

Joseph remarks on the fragility of life:

Having just passed my 77th year of breathing, I can truthfully say that the awesomeness of our universe’s extent continues to astound me almost daily. I am blessed to have been given a firmer understanding than many of where it actually is that we dwell. However, I am also aware of the brutal nature of the universe’s storm, in which we are able to live if it so happens.

It is unnerving to me that so few people realize how fragile life can be, much less life with the capacity to comprehend and react to reality. Thus, counterbalancing the awe is the abject sense of dread that we stand so very close to losing all of the ground we’ve gained, not just as rational beings but as the life force itself. I find myself praying to the merest myth of a Supreme Being that somehow, in spite of the odds, we successfully make it off of our beautiful blue dot, spreading in a diaspora far, far out into the nearly unfathomable depths that surround us.

Kara found the physics of space to be beyond her grasp, but not its significance:

I’ve always been fascinated by space, but was discouraged by my efforts to study it as a secondary-school science student, unable to grasp the complex physics involved in astronomy. But as a history and research teacher, I can see through Galileo’s telescope, sit in Albert Einstein’s clerk office, be as a pebble upon the shore with Isaac Newton, and marvel at the night sky with hunter-gatherers, forming entire cosmologies based around the sky. From that perspective, I have learned to be constantly awed by what we know of the universe, how we know it, and to follow closely our potential connections with it. Carl Sgan’s immense influence has helped me to appreciate the universe and taken me on many planetary adventures through space and time that I could not have imagined as a child.

The most recent space-related joy of my life was taking my 3-year-old son to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for the first time, in January, and seeing his wonder and curiosity as he looked at the models of the planets and “flew on a spaceship” in the planetarium. Jupiter is his current favorite, and we will continue talking about the planets and space for as long as he can put up with my enthusiasm. He will be introduced to Star Trek by me.

Ben, a man of faith and science, reflects on the biggest and smallest questions:

To explain how I feel about outer space and how it shapes my worldview, I have to start with one of my favorite Bible verses: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that thou visitsest him. For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:3-5, KJV).

Although I’m a graduate student in theoretical particle physics, not astronomy, both give me a similar feeling: that we human beings are set among a seemingly unfathomable universe, one that I believe is divinely created for us, and despite our tiny size among the cosmos, we can begin to comprehend it. Our God-given reason, one of my beliefs that makes us “in God’s image”, allows us to model and measure black-hole collisions as well as the aftermath of the Big Bang.

Understanding physics and astronomy is the closest I believe any human can come to doing magic, and taking something that seems impossible to know, like measuring the speed of distant stars and galaxies, yet making sense of it, is an incredible feeling. This is why I think understanding the laws of the universe and its behavior are the best way to see God’s work. Indeed, looking up at the night sky, I see that humanity is “crowned with glory and honour.”

Despite sharing Carl Sagan’s sense of awe, I strongly disagree with significant parts of his prescription for how we should be humbled by our tiny place in the universe. No one claimed humanity is special because of its size. We human beings are tiny, but the things that make us uniquely human–our curiosity, reason, and understanding–stretch across the limits of the physically observable universe. Because I believe the universe was intentionally created for us, I also believe its physical laws were made by God for us to discover. So, as a theoretical physicist in training, I intend to take God up on his offer.

But there are still things in science that make me humbled about humanity’s place in the universe; they’re just in quantum mechanics, not astronomy. For all that astronomy gives me pride in when it comes to what humans have been able to understand, quantum mechanics throws “understanding” back in my face and, like God speaking to Job out of the storm in Job 38, tells me that there was never any promise that the universe was made so a human mind would be able to comprehend all of it.

What I value most in humanity isn’t our size but our minds. When physics shows me that we have seemingly impossible limits to our understanding, it is that I am humbled at our place in this universe. Outer space gives me pride in humanity’s scientific power and understanding; it gives me something visible that I can begin to wrap my head around and beautiful images that let me soak in the glory of creation. I am inspired by the realm of small and tiny because it inspires me to fear God’s works and my human limitations.

Elena recalls a month-long trip to Crete when she was young:

We had a nightly ritual: We unrolled orange paisley sleeping bags at the edge of a sandy beach. We waited impatiently for the dusk to turn the blue sea to charcoal grey and cover the sky with a dropcloth of disarray. My mother read chapters out of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals to my siblings and me under a canopy of brilliant stars that reached far into the dusty nebulas and galaxies that shot across the hot August skies. As I was listening to phrases and sentences, Cassiopeia and Cassiopeia mingled with me, and they made their way through the Great Bears and Little Bears. Sirius, steady and as comfortable as a starlight, imprinted on my mind. I was able to see the billions of stars as a backdrop, which helped me prepare for my story listening. Then, it became too tempting to resist the temptation of an astronomy lesson, so the science lecture. I finally closed my eyes, tired from my journey across the universe. But the protection of the dome protected me and gave me a warm blanket.

Omar is a city dweller who yearns for a better view of the heavens:

Turn your gaze in any direction and you’ll find yourself surrounded by mammoth buildings and skyscrapers. At night, the light that emanates from these towering steel structures creates a kind of muted haze, a veil separating us from any clear vantage of our solar system. The city can be suffocating and claustrophobic even without our realizing that this unnatural buffer exists between us and the cosmos. Only when the stars are hidden from my view, do I start to see the effects of this absence. The city with its glowing beacons and radiant aura is nothing but a desperate effort to maintain human egotism at all costs to our relationships to the natural world and to the stars.

Can you imagine if we had access to the stars? The cosmos in its incalculable vastness is indeed a source of wonder and inspiration, but it is also a humbling endeavor to witness. This is a reminder of how our personal concerns, fears, aspirations and biases, along with those of others, are insignificant in comparison to the vastness and grandeur that surrounds us all. Even though a city is dense and diverse, it can still be incredibly lonely. But the night sky would be there to remind us that there is something bigger connecting us all together.

Having grown up in New York City, it’s difficult to imagine having any kind of relationship with the cosmos. If we could all have a relationship with the cosmos, it would be a great benefit.

Chadd recommends buying a telescope:

Nine years ago I got a small $75 telescope as a gift for a young family friend. It was amazing to see the moon first-hand, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to set up. It was so beautiful and crisp through the lens that I couldn’t believe it. It was at first that I believed the light pollution in this area meant I wouldn’t see very much. But I was wrong. After I discovered how to locate Jupiter I was able to see its moons, the Great Red Spot and Saturn. The rings were also visible. It was a life-changing experience.

When the friend lost interest, I ventured on. What started as a $75 cheapie telescope turned into a couple-thousand-dollar hobby that my girlfriend at the time called my “other girlfriend.” I was out there every night for months, then sporadically, during times of cool celestial sightings, back out there until 4 a.m.

I slowly amassed a six-inch reflector telescope on a computerized mount that tracks the Earth’s rotation and can find objects through a GPS unit. By that point, I’d learned to easily find and photograph the planets. One of the last and best cosmic events I got to witness was the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction a few years ago. A once-in-nearly-800- years event, it was biblical in a sense, and I got a picture of it! Tiny Jupiter, tiny Saturn and its rings. Breathtaking. Truly! It was truly amazing! My whole family went to it, and I was proud to share the experience with them.

Mind you, I eventually maxed out what I was able to see, so I slowed my roll. At this point, the maybe $6,000 it will cost me to upgrade to better gear is too high, so the telescope rarely comes out. But I was going through some tough stuff during my amateur astrophotography hobby, and it was a beautiful distraction. I didn’t truly comprehend the size of the universe until I was staring at it through a tube. You are amazed at the things you can see from your yard. The feeling of seeing it through your eyes is unreal.

Glenn was a pastor in Houston near NASA’s Johnson Space Center:

About 75 percent of our church worked in the aerospace industry. The experience of leading three-redundancy NASA engineers was fascinating. I was able to show up at a Saturday service project with some members of my church. We were going to reroof an elderly lady’s home. Before I climbed on the roof, I was met with a long, complex spreadsheet explaining in great detail what every person would be doing in 15-minute increments throughout the day. NASA has a way of nailing shingles.

A group of engineers’ wives jokingly approached me at church the following day. “Have you ever watched The Big Bang Theory?” they asked with a bemused grin. No, I had not. “Well, you should,” was their advice, “because that’s who we married and who you are now, pastor.” That was not exactly correct, but most comedy is an exaggeration of stereotypes.

We have been told that science and faith are incompatible. NASA is home to a strong faith community that does the science. A few weeks following his return to the International Space Station, I had lunch with an astronaut. “You know, I looked out into the void of space,” he said, “and it was black, white, cold, and lonely. Then I saw Earth, which was warm, welcoming, and fascinating. It had bright green and blue, with white swirls. I decided if I could choose to be any place in the universe, it would be right there on Earth.”

Barbara hopes for alien contact:

The one thing that would bring all people on our planet together relatively quickly would be to begin communicating with sentient life from other galaxies. I feel grateful to be of a sentient race and would welcome meeting other sentients from across the universe. I hope that humanity develops the character, mind and size to be able to communicate with all life forms, before our planet is destroyed. It would be an injustice to both our species and those we haven’t met yet to stop space exploration.

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