What is science? Here’s my definition:
Concerning the past and present, science seeks to match the most coherent, simple, and plausible theories to the existing evidence; with regard to the future, it attempts to match predictions to evidence.
Put more simply, the scientist starts with questions and ends with matches. Of the universe, she asks whether a theory and evidence, or a prediction and evidence, are compatible–whether they make a “love connection.” And she stays for the answer.
Like Oedipus, scientists try to be brave, and not pluck out their eyes at the answers the universe returns. (Just like you do when you wait for those dating website emails.)
Anyway, that’s what I think science is and what scientists are up to. Am I missing anything?
By the way, one of the great surprises for scientists over the past few centuries is the discovery of a grand “love connection.” It turns out that we are all intimately connected, as Neil de Grasse Tyson puts it, “to each other, biologically; to the Earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe, atomically.” It’s a stunning revelation.
And this brings up the issue of beauty in relation to science. Whether the scientist is religious or not, beauty is a provocation to inquiry. (Of course, ugliness may be a provocation to inquiry as well.) But this thought-provoking quote on beauty comes via Andrew Sullivan this morning:
“As the French playwright Jean Anouilh said, ‘Beauty is one of the few things in the world that do not lead to doubt about God.’ The Church intuits that immediately. When we’re in the presence of something beautiful — an act of forgiveness, a newborn baby, a sunset — beauty wounds us. It has a visceral effect on us that is delightful, that increases our humanity. Beauty also reveals to us that there is something more to the world and something more to beauty than the beautiful thing itself. It leads to contemplation. That contemplation consists of wondering at where the beauty came from. It would be impossible for a human being who has just received a bouquet of flowers to not reach into the flowers to find a card. The beauty of the flowers moves us to wonder about the sender. Then, when we know who sent them, we enjoy them all the more. Every act of beauty does the same to us. It moves us to find the author and the reason,” – Father Peter Cameron, O.P., in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor.
Or, perhaps, the author or the reason.
Of course, science can only discover material and secondary causes, not the mental/spiritual First Cause behind all causes (if there is one), and so we come to the question of God in relation to science and a problem: the final inference to God must always be absent evidence.
Imagine if physicists had a theory in which the Higgs boson (“the God particle”) existed, but they were never allowed to build the experiment to detect it and discover its exact properties. Fortunately for physicists, this was not the case, but if you’re inclined to faith, this is exactly your (unfortunate) situation in relation to God. Is the mere intuition of “something larger than ourselves” (William James’s phrase) a sufficient peg to hang God belief on, and is your intuition worthy of action (in the form of picking some religious behavior and engaging in it)?
And who is more productive–less engaged in a vanity–in the presence of the ontological mystery (the mystery of being): the scientist before her Bunsen burner or the religionist before her candle? Should we ignore the ontological mystery or gnaw on it?
Let a thousand matches bloom?