Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pillars of the faith -- Part 2

Let me turn briefly to another essay in Pillar, by John Cavadini, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, the gist of which is that old canard: Science (or "scientific fundamentalism") takes all the mystery out of the world.

He quotes Stephen Hawking's recent book, The Grand Design, to the effect that the true miracle is the power of the human brain to predict and describe the universe we see. In other words, says Cavadini, "once the universe has been disenchanted of illusions, the only thing left to wonder at is the theory that explained them all…[T]he wonder is transferred, as prestige, to the scientists as a cultural elite who can explain everything without ever looking beyond the doors of the College of Science."

This doesn't describe the science I spent my life studying and teaching, or the scientists I have known.

Certainly, science has disenchanted illusions. We no longer believe that comets are signs from God, or that pathogenic diseases are targeted divine scourges, or that fossils on mountaintops are the result of the Flood of Noah, etc. etc. I would hope that my students took a certain amount of pride in the power of the human brain to disenchant illusions, and that some of them carried a healthy skepticism and respect for science into their adult lives.

And mystery? I have often suggested here that the greatest discovery of modern science is the discovery of ignorance, of how little we know -- a thought, by the way, that is hardly unique to me. Scientific knowledge is like an island in an inexhaustible sea of mystery; the larger the island grows, the greater is the shoreline where we encounter mystery. I never discussed religion in my science courses, but I do hope I communicated a sense of reverence and awe in the presence of the astounding wonderfulness of nature.