(published by SIGNS of the Times in Australia, Oct 1999)
T he dizzying advance of science, particularly over the past 100 years, has bewildered us both intellectually and socially. Hope that technology might yet solve earth’s problems rises on the one hand, even as faith in our ability to cope with such a rapidly changing world plummets. Although often within the context of a spirituality, contemporary culture seems to emphasize short-term gratification rather than traditional Christian values. Violence and hedonism are all too readily embraced by the generation who will governs us in the next century. Love of classical, of the traditional, and of holy things are in demise. Quo va dis ? Where are we going ? It’s a question that has tormented humankind for millennia. But now, with the world on the brink of self-destruction, it’s imperative we find the answer ! A friend of mine recently observed that any religion or church nowadays has to adapt itself to its culture and to the progress of science, or that faith collapses. In fact, such adjustment needs to be well thought through, and need not endorse every fruit from the scientific tree. For example, not every scientific development advances society. Some have led to darkness and tragedy !
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), inventor of the high explosive dynamite, and who endowed the Nobel Prizes awarded each year for achivement , including the promotion of peace , epitomises this.
Pierre Curie, joint discover of the radium, in receiving the Nobel Prize in 1903, earnestly told his peers: “I belong to the ones who follow Nobel in wishing my discovery will never be used for purposes against humanity”.
So much for that ! Atomic power burst upon the world with the dropping of the A-bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. The mushroom cloud has become symbolic of the most horrible products of humainity. Now, the world’s nuclear arsenal challenges the existence of humanity, hinting to many of the end of the world.
Thingking people has recognised this paradoxes. Indira Gandhi said, “Sometimes, science advances, but culture is going backwards”.
Albert Einstein, with his formula and brillant mind, played a major advisory role in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, but Nagasaki and Hiroshima haunted him the rest of his life. He was horrified by the rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons and often spoke out against them: “Take care not to make the intellect our god”; he warned, “it has powerful muscles, but no personality”.
Francois Rabelais put it this way: “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme” (Science without conscience is only the ruin of the spirit).
Every medal has its reverse, and every cloud its silver lining. These proverbs are true of life, including science. The greatest dangers of science and technology may not be the risks of environmental destruction, global warming, or nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry, but the way in which its achivements feed our smug self-sufficiency and arrogance, the same attitudes that built the biblical Tower of Babel.
Earlier this century a US magazine on its front cover declared “God Is Dead”, openly challenging any who would offer evidence to the contrary. And there are many who do. Writing of our times some two milliennia ago, the prophet Daniel said, “Many will go here and there to increase knowledge” (Daniel 12: 4). God had predicted the very explosion in knowledge that eventually led to the denial of Him long before it ever happened.
Science is not without its philosophical problems. But forawhile it looked simple. The 17th century rationalism of René Descartes led science to question any concept that could not be demonstrated and proved. His famous existentialist statement, “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am) , deeply influenced the thinking of scientists for centuries. And today science has invaded almost the whole of our intellectual space, forcing the retreat of metaphysics and theology. And within the past few decades the emergence of the chaos theory has made things worse.
In the biological sphere, too, all has not gone according to plan. Anthony O’Hear, a professor at the University of Bradford, claimed in his book Beyond Evolution, Human Nature and The Limits of Evolutionary Explanation that evolutionary theory has its limits. It can’t give “a satisfactory account of such distinctive facets of human life as the quest of knowledge, moral sense, and the appreciation of beauty”, he argues.
Science, to a large extent, is based on maths. In the 1870s Georg Cantor, a German mathematician, developed set theory. In it mathematicians found a common language that allowed them to describe any branch or problem of mathematics. They began to beleive it’s possible to know the whole of the discipline, the whole facts.
However, not longer after, Bertrand Russell, a mathematician and philosopher, revealed the paradoxes within set theory. Then came Kurt Godel, arguably the greatest logic mathematician of our century, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. He developed a theory that demonstrated that the “propositions on which the mathematical system is in part based are unprovable, because it’s possible, in any logical system using symbols, to construct an axiom that is neither provable nor disprovable within the system” (see New Encyclopedia, vol 11, Funk and Wagnalls). From this came the realisation that even this precise discipline was also imperfect. It had limits, as in any and all other fields of knowledge.
It was about this time the 1932 Nobel-prize winner, Werner Heisenberg, propounded the “uncertainty principle”. He taught physicists it was impossible to define the certainty, the basic absolutes of nature !
The famous French astronomer Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827) had hinted at such limitations when years before he said: “Ce que nous savons est peu de choses; ce que nous ignorons est immense” (What we know is very little, what we don’t know is immense). But long before that – some 1700 years, in fact – Jesus said “With man this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19 : 26).
In his book Impossibility (Oxford University Press, New York 1998), author John Barrow, a professor at the University of Sussex, paraphrased these words when he said “The idea of the impossible rings alarm bells in the mind of many”. He presents an argument suggesting that “the impossibility” is not only in science, but in most of the fields of human wisdom, like literature, art, politics, economics, etc. so the study of impossibility itself becomes an important study.
The main idea of Imposibility is suggested in the words of Kurt Godel, who said: “The meaning of the world is the separation of wish and fact”.
Thinking of Godel’s advice, I suggested myself:
Science directs to the wish, but it can never satisfy that wish, because the wish directs us to infinity, to eternity, to the Perfection we call God !
Godel also said that in order to prove the self-consistency of a system, some method of proof from outside the system is required. So, to prove the self-consistency of the whole of science as a system, we require methods of proof from outside of science.
About 300 years after Descartes came Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), winner of Nobel Prize in 1964 for his work in philosophy. He seems to have realised the irrational and vicious circle of scientific and logical judging when he tipped Descartes in his head, saying: “Je pense, donc je ne suis pas!” (I think, therefore I am not).
So where hides the key to the door of truth ? It may not be in science nor in logical analysis at all. Rather, it may be in the Bible – in the words of God and His Son, Jesus.
Jesus said: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned , and revealed them to the little children” (Matthew 11 ; 25).
If we become sages, it’s only because God first revealed the secrets of science to us, not because of the science itself.
US senator John Glenn, one of the first astronauts in space more than 30 years ago, stated his acceptance of God as the ultimate truth and hinted at the allusions presented by science during his second, more recent trip into space. “It is impossible”, he said, “to accept that there is no Creator of the universe”.