Friday, September 12, 2008

Sympathy for science

I've had a week of philosophising, and I've actually been left with a more sympathetic view of the scientific mindset. As a scientist, this may seem curious, but I've always struggled with the attitude of strict dogma which typifies a lot of scientific thought. A recent discussion on via positiva and via negativa brought new insight - but I get ahead of myself with the jargon...

So, for a quick and dirty summary of the philosophy:
Via Positiva: attempts to explain something by positive comparison: eg, "God is good, God is powerful."
Via Negativa: regards this approach as inadequate, because the subject of the comparison (God) is beyond a simple likeness to that which is known, so it rather attempts to explain it by negative comparison: eg, "God is not wicked, God is not weak."

As far as implementation goes, the major influence in the western evangelical Christian mindset is the via positiva, whereas the Eastern philosophies focus exclusively on the via negativa (the koan, f'rinstance). And as is usually the case where there are two strongly entrenched camps in a debate, the most useful solution is compromise: it is clearly useful to explain something by referencing things with which we are familiar, but at the same time, we must understand that when describing God, He surpasses all comparison. Yes, He resembles "goodness" as we understand it, but His goodness is nonetheless beyond our mortal comprehension.

And so to Science, which since the time of Francis Bacon (or even since Aristotle, if you like), has been adamantly pursuing the notion that we can understand it all. If you have a question about how stuff works, keep looking for the answer, and if you work hard enough and examine it in enough detail, you can fundamentally understand everything.

But for the last 150 years, Science has been increasingly beset by challenges to that notion. From Heisenberg to black holes to electrons, there is stuff that is fundamentally unknowable. And as we delve deeper, we do understand more, but we also discover that there are little pockets which we cannot ever know. It's not an issue of needing to work harder or investigate in more detail, we absolutely fundamentally cannot know it.

So we have elecricity, and we learn about electrons - and our understanding has increased. And then we learn about the electrons orbiting atomic nuclei - and our understanding has increased. And then we learn that they occupy different energy levels and stay in discrete orbits - and our understanding has increased. And then we discover that they don't actually exist anywhere, they only exist as a probability field in a particular orbit... and we have encountered an immovable obstruction to our complete understanding. And our faith in the fundamental comprehensibility of the world around us is profoundly shaken.

That's gotta be tough.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike.

There is a distinction between understanding and knowing. We can know what we don't understand just as we can understand what we don't know.

Sentinel said...

hmm... ironically, we have faith which constitutes knowledge without understanding, whereas in science we seem to have understanding without knowledge... or am I mis-reading you?

Anonymous said...


I've been reading James Fowler's 'Stages of Faith' and he's got a brilliant section on the transition of the meaning of the word faith from before the 16th century to what it means to us today.

I must send you a copy :)