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Can Religion and Science Live Together in Peace?
The article below is not meant to promote or discourage belief in any religion, or in religion in general; it also does not take any position regarding the existence of God. It is purely a discussion of an issue that seems to be of concern to an increasing number of people.
From time to time, some religious authorities have considered a scientific conclusion, or even certain scientific research, to be so threatening to their beliefs that they tried to suppress it.
Yet some of the greatest scientists known to us believe in God. Among them was Albert Einstein.
One analogy to the question of theology versus science, is what happened in the field of Physics early in the twentieth century: For many years, it was believed and in fact had been proven, that light is made up of waves. But certain phenomena could not be explained by that view (no pun intended), and late in the nineteenth century it was found that light also behaves sometimes as if it were made up of particles.
Early in the twentieth century an obscure patent clerk published a technical paper that turned a major area of Physics on its head: The paper set forth the Theory of Relativity (later to be known as the Special Theory of Relativity – see below), and the obscure patent clerk was Albert Einstein.
The Theory of Relativity states, in part, that different observers can reach conflicting conclusions based on their observations of the same event, and both can be right. The details are beyond the scope of this article.
In a later paper on Relativity (the General Theory of Relativity), Einstein asserted that space is bendable and also that time passes at different rates depending on how someone or something is moving. Those assertions were later corroborated through observation and experiment by others.
And shortly after publishing the first Relativity paper, Einstein published a paper that turned the rest of Physics on its head: That paper set forth the “Quantum Theory”, which states that certain phenomena, including light, behave in a way that is explicable only if they are composed of irreducible components, which he called “quanta”.
But we told you earlier that it had been proven that light is a wave! How can one thing, light, act like waves and also like particles? The beginning of the answer lies in the world of things that are so small that they are tiny even compared to atoms. Things that size don’t seem to obey the laws of nature that we observe in everyday life.
It has since been shown that the same natural laws apparently apply on all levels, but that some consequences of those laws are not evident in the everyday conditions under which we live. For instance, relativistic effects only become apparent near the speed of light, which is many orders of magnitude faster than any human can travel at present. Similarly, quantum phenomena only become apparent at the subatomic level.
In the case of light, the behavior can be either that of waves or that of particles, depending on its function: When light travels through lenses, its wave nature is evident but when it strikes a photoelectric cell, its particle nature becomes obvious. No present-day Physicist finds this dual nature troubling, because exhaustive experimentation since Einstein’s disturbing papers were published, have verified his theories. For instance, he claimed that light is bent by gravity. It is, but the effect only becomes apparent in observations of stars, and even then only in special conditions.
In a way, the dual nature of light is analogous to the question of a supervising God versus an evolving universe, even an uncertain one. According to the best current scientific theory, there is indeed a fundamental uncertainly beyond which we cannot at least determine “reality”: The Uncertainty Principle in Physics states, in summary, that the very act of observing an event influences that event. As with quantum phenomena, this principle becomes evident only at the subatomic level. When we take a measurement of some characteristic of a subatomic particle, our result applies only to the condition of the particle when we made the observation, and since the observation itself changed that condition, we are now ignorant of the new value of what we measured. In fact, our measurement has often affected other characteristics of the particle as well.
Einstein never accepted the Uncertainty Principle. He said: “God does not play dice with the universe”. But one line of religious thinking maintains that God does figuratively play dice with the universe. The contention is that in order to make things more interesting, God created a universe that has a certain amount of “wiggle-room” in its operation. Ask yourself whether free will could exist in a universe governed by rigid, clockwork rules, or whether free will requires that some things be fundamentally unpredictable.
There is a related, developing line of religious thought proclaiming that God created the universe but then set evolution in motion. One might even think of the sudden evolutionary jumps that are caused by genetic mutation, as due to occasional divine intervention.
Perhaps religious faith and a belief in science need not be mutually exclusive.
W. A. Shapiro
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