I’ve always wondered why evangelicals obsess over evolution and not quantum physics. If their intent is to undermine materialist science, the surreal conclusions of modern physicists – multiple universes, 11 stringy dimensions, the invisible weight of dark matter – strike me as far more vulnerable to religious interpretation than natural selection. After all, physicists cheerfully admit that their theories have a big gaping hole in the center.
Well, it seems that evangelicals have finally started to read Stephen Hawking:
“When you get to the subatomic level, everything we know about the basic makeup of the universe falls apart,” he [Pastor Rob Bell] told the audience. “They use phrases like ‘we don’t know.’ So high-end quantum physicists are starting to sound like ancient Jewish poets.”
Is it bad when ministers and reverends and rabbis engage with the genuine mysteries of science? Not at all. In fact, I think we need more sermons on Schroedinger’s Cat and the ineffability of qualia and fewer on natural selection, which isn’t mysterious at all. And while many on Scienceblogs may not like it, for the vast majority of people – most of whom practice their faith quitely and apolitcally – religion provides important insights into how to live with mystery. God, after all, is best defined as that which we might never know.
So is God just an index of our ignorance? Does he dwell in the gaps of our science? I think so, and I certainly wish more believers did too. My modest claim is that this sort of tenuous faith doesn’t undermine religion or imperil science. After all, one of the ironies of modern science is that some of its most profound discoveries – like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, or the emergent nature of consciousness – are actually about the limits of science. As Vladimir Nabakov, the novelist and lepidopterist, once put it, “The greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” As long as genuine mysteries remain – and it’s hard to imagine mystery becoming obsolete anytime soon – faith will be an unfortunate necessity. As scientists and science writers, it’s important to celebrate what we don’t know (and might never know), for this allows the religious to focus their faith on genuine unknowables, and not pseudo-problems like prokaryotic flagella or non-existent gaps in the fossil record. Of course, fundamentalists will always remain, but I think both sides in our sad culture war can work harder to prevent fools like this from becoming best-sellers.