Thinking Clearly: Humility and Scientific Inquiry

An Excellent Guard Against Fundamental Errors

Scientific progress can be heady stuff – exciting, invigorating, even intoxicating, in a certain fashion. Imagine realizing some fundamental insights into the beginning of cosmos, as did Fr. Georges Lemaître with the Big Bang theory? Or perhaps peering inside the invisible world within a cell, as envisioned within this fascinating and beautiful animation?

In our first consideration of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s lecture entitled “Christianity and Physical Science” we saw that both scientific and religious knowledge are legitimate and complementary, both containing truths about different aspects of reality; in the second consideration we saw that scientific investigation requires scientifically valid methods; in this third consideration we turn our attention to one particular risk inherent with divorcing scientific inquiry entirely from the world of faith and moral consequences.

The Lord of All We See?

As we begin to peer beyond the veil of current knowledge, approaching the beginning of time itself, looking into secrets of life or perhaps something as yet entirely unimagined, it’s hard not to let our excitement go beyond what is reasonable. After all, the knowledge itself is clearly profound (even if one has no faith), and for the serious Christian that same knowledge further echoes of the Creator Himself, redolent of His touch.

Yet in this very profundity lies danger – danger that in discovering profound truths, we begin to think too highly of ourselves, that we begin to take credit for that which, in truth, we are only beginning to observe, or perhaps learning how to harness somewhat.

For example in the world of particle physics there has been a long, well publicized and now fruitful search for the Higgs boson (particle). Of particular interest is the nickname in the popular press that the Higgs boson acquired: “the god particle”. The story behind the nickname is itself interesting: originally intended as provocative and profane title for a popular book detailing the Higgs boson, the publisher convinced the Nobel-prize winning author Dr. Leon Lederman (himself an atheist) to settle for a simply provocative name for the book.

The final book name – “the God particle” – is a telling sign of where problems begin. What starts out as a search for scientific knowledge begins to morph into a claim for more. We begin by looking for how things work and how things may be done, and we start to use that purely scientific knowledge to decide whether something ought be done or not.

What is so often missed is that difficult to understand knowledge does not, in and of itself, tell us anything about whether that same knowledge leads to things we ought to do, or often more importantly about what we ought avoid. Regardless of how exciting it is to discover something profound, we learn not a single bit more about the moral implications of this new area.

In other words, when we begin to appropriate the role of God we begin to think and act as if we were God; we begin to set our own rules, losing track of the question of “ought”.

Note that this is true whether or not one has faith. In both cases we begin to draw conclusions that do not logically follow from the knowledge – we draw moral and ethical conclusions from scientific knowledge, a fundamental error with profound implications.

Humility Is Essential

What then, ought we do?

First, with Bl. Newman we can remember that both scientific and theological knowledge tell us about different aspects of reality; and that each type of knowledge has distinct limitations.

Next we can learn from how Blessed Newman approached the pursuit of all forms of knowledge – with true humility. Whether reasoning on profound theological truths as in the famous “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine“, or the proper relationship between scientific and theological knowledge as in “Christianity and Physical Science”, we see both confidence and humility. Not so much in specific words, but in the very approach taken, in the very fabric of how Newman approaches each topic.

For those who do not have faith it is best to remember that no-one has all the answers; for those with faith, we can go further and emulate Newman, pursuing knowledge in all its forms with intense vigor, yet remembering that we ourselves have distinct limitations, as does each type of knowledge.

Keeping these limitations in mind, humility will help us to do the best work, gain the highest quality scientific knowledge, and live the most balanced and helpful lives with the knowledge gained.

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