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Extraordinary, Incomplete Science

June 15, 2020


Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.
—G.K. Chesterton

Einstein and Shakespeare sitting having a beer
Einstein trying to figure out the number that adds up to bliss
Shakespeare says, “Man, it all starts with a kiss”

Einstein is scratching numbers on his napkin
Shakespeare says, “Man, it’s just one and one make three
Ah, that’s why it’s poetry”
—Bruce Springsteen, “Frankie Fell in Love”

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
—Coldplay, “The Scientist”

Science is extraordinary.

Born of our innate curiosity, we are forever wide-eyed children nestled in our mother’s lap questioning—nay, imploring, “Tell me how! Explain to me why!” We are hungry for intelligibility because God has made his creation intelligible. And so we ask. And we search. And we explore. And we gloriously find.

So enthusiastic are we about searching and finding—so intoxicated with our a-ha moments—that we have devised a system of sciences and methods by which to explore the world. The Scientific Method has become a rigorous system intent on minimizing the variables of being human that might upset our efforts to arrive at the truth of things. Control is the catchword of the scientific method. Let’s control behaviors. Let’s control bias. Let’s control confounding variables. All in an attempt to arrive at a better understanding. And this is good.

Just consider all the big achievements gained thanks to science: Satellites. Antibiotics. Computers. Telephones. Airplanes. Indoor plumbing. Air conditioning. Public water supply. Anesthesia. Washing machines. Art restoration. The internet. Gothic cathedrals. Refrigerators. Television. Chemotherapy. Electricity.

And don’t forget the “small things” like toothpaste. Insulated cups. Scotch tape. Ziploc bags. Telescopes. Books. Zippers. Wheelchairs. Roller coasters. Post-it notes. The list can go on. And it does.

Science is extraordinary.

But science is not all.

Today, there lives a breed of people who believe that science is actually Science. In their view, it is honest, definitive, apolitical, and unemotional. The scientific method, it is reasoned, is the great purifier. Those who wield it, it is argued, are beyond reproach. And so not only should medicine and geology and nuclear physics be subjected to the scientific method, but so should theology, philosophy, and literature. Just let the bright, honest, and endeavoring scientist in the lily-white coat have at whatever you want to know about, and she will bring you the unvarnished, unassailable truth. An advocate of this “Scientism” worldview, Steven Pinker, reasons, “Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty—all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” Science is infallible, so all else should simply fall in line.

What we know about this mindset, however, is that it simply is not true. Science is a wonderful tool, but an imperfect god. It forever fails when promoted to panacea. Bias is always present. Scientists are never perfect. As we daily navigate our way through life, we may gloriously (and rightly) use the wonderful products of science to assist us. But our paths are inevitably guided more by common sense, intuition, and experience than by rigorous scientific experimentation. One might reason that “the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty” has helped us out of many more pickles than Pinker’s vanguard of infallible scientists.

What is more important than this curious parlor debate, however, is the tragic loss of wonder in a world insistent on the probing, dissecting, and defining judgements of science. To be sure, we want warm houses instead of huddles around fires. And yes, we want effective medicine to cure instead of unassuaged grief over unnecessary death. But there is something wonderful about the mysterious evolution of a friendship, the ineffable process of falling in love, and the unpredictable elements in a heroic act. Wonder-full. Just because my God doesn’t thunder when you want him to, just because I can’t fully articulate my limitless love for my wife and daughters, and just because I can’t anticipate the speeches that stir my soul or the songs that lump up my throat, doesn’t mean that there is less joy in the not knowing, or the not explaining. For me, it means there is more.

My newborn daughters in my arms are not simply enfleshed products of genes and proteins—they are sheer miracles. The young lady tearing up as I asked for her hand in marriage is not simply a suitable partner for genetic propagation—she is my love affair. My God is not a theological construct—he is my Lord and my friend.

In stepping beyond science, we revel in what we know while glorying in our unknowing. We don’t fret over the missing or ill-fitting pieces of the puzzle—we wonder at them. We take the supernatural with the natural while basking in the genius of God and the oafishness of man. And that’s okay. It’s okay. It is as is should be.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman lauded the achievements of science but couldn’t quite find in it his suitable home.

Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!
Fetch stonecrop mixt with cedar and branches of lilac,
This is the lexicographer, this the chemist, this made a grammar of the old cartouches,
These mariners put the ship through dangerous unknown seas.
This is the geologist, this works with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician.

Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!
Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,
I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.

Science is not an end. It is a glorious tool aiding us as means to a larger, ineffable end. But even more poignantly, Whitman captured our malaise of modern answers in his masterpiece “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

At some point, science has to sit still at the foot of wonder. At some point, our certainty and pedantry, our completeness and cocksureness, need to wash away into the mystical moist night-air. At some point, we need to trust that the knowledge of what is certain is made meaningful by a faith in what is uncertain. And at last, when we are still and silent before God gazing at his artistry in unapologetic wonder, we will once again find ourselves. And when we do, we will be made whole again.