I like living in Colorado Springs because we take ideas seriously. What should people dedicate their lives to? What is government for? How should children be educated? Our city wrestles with these and other Big Questions every day. Living in a town with such natural beauty and so many communities of faith, it’s hard not to.
I thought about the Big Questions when I looked at the pictures from NASA’s Cassini probe. Titan, Saturn’s moon, is a wondrous thing to behold. The universe is wondrous for having such things in it, more wondrous still for having creatures that can reach toward it across millions of miles.
As a scientist by training and a Jew by birth and practice, I know there’s no real conflict between science and religion. And yet I get drawn into such conflicts from time to time.
Like I said, this is a town where Big Questions matter.
Colorado Springs has faith healers, a Shroud of Turin Center, New Age Festivals, pet psychics and all sorts of others who claim scientific support for their views. As Cassini gives us our first flyby of a world like Earth billions of years ago, it’s important to remember what science can and can’t do.
Discussions about science and religion often generate more heat than light. That’s because they use the same words to mean different things. When a scientist says she “knows” something, she means that’s the best explanation she has right now. She’ll change her mind if the evidence says she should.
But when a religious believer “knows” that his faith is true, it means he’s had a deeply personal experience that is beyond testing by experiment. We may learn two ideas are so different that we shouldn’t be using the same word to describe them. No wonder dialog is so difficult.
Or take a word like “belief”. Science advances by knocking down established beliefs in the face of new evidence. Failure to abandon a cherished belief is considered a moral failing.
But in religion, embracing a belief under trying circumstances (like a difficult life situation or even the threat of death) is considered noble. Neither view is better than the other, they’re just different.
Similar confusion comes from words like “truth”, “theory”, “proof”, and even “real”. Much of the conflict between science and religion is a battle over who gets to define those words. It’s a battle that will continue for quite some time.
If there’s a way to make peace, it lies by recognizing science and religion as equally human activities with different purposes.
Science is the best way humanity has found to learn what is true and what is false about the natural world. In that realm, science reigns supreme. Religion is concerned with questions beyond the natural world. On those questions, science must be silent.
So if you’re religious, don’t say that science shows supernatural events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t try to use science to show that Nostradamus could predict the future, or that the Book of Mormon is correct, or that faith healing is real, or that the Koran is the True Word of God. You may be right, but science can’t help you.
On the other hand, if you’re critical of religious belief, don’t say that science “proves” there is no God. Don’t say that science shows no purpose to the universe, no point to life on earth, or that miracles are impossible. Again, you may be right, but science isn’t in your corner. Of such matters, science can say nothing.
The Cassini probe will give us data about outer space for years to come. I like to think, though, that it will also tell us something about inner space. Cassini is sending us bits of data on a billion-mile journey, to be reassembled by computer into artificially colored pictures tailored for human eyes.
If we humans can add a sense of wonder and awe to the palette of Cassini’s colors, we may learn more about the relationship between our two most important and uniquely human activities. We may learn to argue less about them, and perhaps even to argue less with one another. That would be just as valuable as any new scientific knowledge.