Before I dive into this, I feel I need to explain my own little tics on this subject. I’m generally allergic to discussions of religion from a personal perspective. I don’t think another person’s religious beliefs are any of my business, and I’m generally uncomfortable when people feel like sharing their beliefs with me.
Last week Dan Sarewitz had a column run in Nature titled “Sometimes science must give way to religion.” Thought-provoking as he often is, Sarewitz explored the recent confirmation of the Higgs Boson and how, in his words, “the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle.”
Sarewitz, who considers himself an atheist, finds this incomplete. And while the Higgs may not give him any insight into the mysteries of existence, I think it faulty to generalize his experience as necessarily typical. (And no, I don’t believe Sarewitz considers his experience typical, simply instructive.)
Unfortunately, I think this detracts (at least it does for me, see paragraph one) from Sarewitz’s stronger points. Scientific explanation has its limits. At a certain point, what science can describe about the world cannot describe everything. On a related point, not everyone is able to follow the science. Sarewitz notes “for those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.” I suppose some people have the same trouble with flying on airplanes.
While Sarewitz discusses how faith can take up the slack, let me suggest a different possibility – trust. Another big moment for science and technology this summer was when the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars. Prior to the landing there was a seven minute window where there could be no communication with the spacecraft. Combine that radio silence with the time it takes signals to travel between Mars and Earth, and there was a great deal of trust required that everything would work as designed, built and tested. Whether trust is used to beat back the irrational doubt that might creep in during those seven minutes, or to believe the landing will be successful because trust is placed in the scientists and engineers doing their jobs correctly, trust can be used in those places where the science and technology can’t be certain.
Of course, Sarewitz rightly notes that there have always been (and perhaps there should always be) challenges to how science claims and asserts authorities. But I think the comparison with religion forecloses discussions of other possible means for dealing with those aspects of human experience that resist rational explanation.
I would also suggest that science, or at least the appreciation of it, can have the kind of wonder Sarewitz found in the Angkor temples. Some scientists have even encouraged the generation of wonder, as Maria Popova has explained over at Brain Pickings. Whether talking about physicist Richard Feynman’s belief that the purpose of knowledge is to better appreciate wonders, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s argument that being able to explain anything is not the same thing as being able to explain everything (he also agreed with Feynman), or geneticist J.B.S. Haldane’s (yes, U.K. readers, that one) remarks of the paucity of our imagination next to the “queerness” of the universe.
I suspect Sarewitz and I are talking at least a little bit past each other here. But the combination of science and religion is a bit of a dog-whistle for me, so I needed to work through my thoughts, as un-formed as they may still be. Thanks for reading. As for the Higgs and wonder, this helps – at least it helps me.