Orkney Science Festival Sermon

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Sermon given at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, on the occasion of the 2013 Orkney International Science Festival. Readings: Genesis 8:4-13 and an extract from the works of Isaac Asimov.

We’ve just heard a report of a scientific experiment read straight from the pages of the Bible. Noah is, in fact, the Bible’s first recorded research scientist!

We know Noah was a scientist because – we are told – he does three things characteristic of a research scientist.

First, he adjust the details of his experiment one step at a time. He tries sending out a raven – then a dove.

Second, he repeats his experiment. At least, he can’t repeat the raven experiment because it hasn’t come back, but he can repeat the dove. In trial 1, it returns quickly. In trial 2, it returns with an olive branch. In trial 3 it corroborates the raven experiment by failing to return. In this way, Noah knows the water is drying up.

Third, Noah uses a complicated experimental set-up to test what a non-scientist would have approached by a more crude method – for instance, looking through one of the ark’s portholes!

Seriously, it really is part of the story of Noah that he wants to find out about the state of the world around him, so he does an experiment. In this he is unlike the ancient Greek philosophers, who theorized about how the world worked without doing experiments to test their understanding. Noah’s story stands as part of a wider message in Genesis about our planet being entrusted to the care of humankind; but if we are to be good stewards, we must first understand our world and how it works. This is implicit in the charge to care for the Earth given to the first human beings in Genesis chapter 1, and it’s made explicit here in Noah’s story.

The work of science is to summarise our understanding of the way the world works using words and mathematics. We call these summaries, “theories”. And let’s be clear – “theory” is not a woolly word. There’s a theory which states that an aircraft wing will hold the weight of the aeroplane in the air as long as the angle is correct and the plane flies fast enough. I entrusted my life to that theory when I flew to Kirkwall on Thursday, and will do so again next week.

The words of Isaac Asimov which I just read out remind us that theories tend to be refined over time, becoming better and better descriptions of the way the Universe actually works. All theories are provisional – but many are good enough to allow us to build computers or aim space rockets accurately even while we are fine tuning them to the n’th decimal place. And it’s part of the nature of science that sometimes, we use theories even though we know they must contain a serious flaw.

As an example, let’s take two superb theories from the world of science. Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is an excellent description of how gravity works for exceptionally heavy objects, such as galaxies and black holes. Quantum Theory is an equally well proven description of the behaviour of the tiniest objects imaginable; without it we wouldn’t be able to design the microchips which make our 21st century technology work.

Now, one aspect of Quantum Theory, the famous Uncertainty Principle, says that we can’t pin down the location of any object to an exact pinpoint in space. But what would happen if you had something that was both massive and tiny – a mini-black hole? Relativity says that NOTHING can escape. Quantum Theory says that nothing can be confined in such a small point. They can’t both be right – yet both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are superb theories that no physicist would dream of abandoning. The correct solution must involve a small tweak to at least one theory – and perhaps both. At least one of the theories is both superb, and flawed!

Let’s step back for a moment and see what the philosophers have to say about the practice of doing science.

One of the amazing things about the Universe we live in is that, by and large, we are able to talk about it using theories which are very good descriptions of how the world actually works. This gives the philosophers headaches for lots of reasons. Specialists in how-we-know-things (or epistemology) will give us reasons to doubt that thinking beings can actually connect their thoughts with the material world. Philosophers of language will give us equally grave reasons to doubt that language can accurately represent the physical world. And specialists in mathematical philosophy can prove to us, using something called Gödel’s theorem, that any mathematical language necessarily contains statements which are self-contradictory. Further, most theories are about how causes lead to effects, but as the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, noted, we can’t use scientific reasoning to prove that causes always lead to effects, because that would be a circular argument!

Given that, according to the philosophers, we can’t prove the world exists, we can’t guarantee that language can represent it, we can’t establish that causes always give rise to effects, and mathematics always risks being inconsistent, we could be tempted to abandon the pursuit of science and go home now. Instead, I think we should all be impressed at the fact that, undaunted by all these philosophical perils, scientists, engineers, mathematicians and the medical profession do a remarkable job of uncovering new knowledge and applying it to make our world, by and large, a better place.

It’s at this point I must remember that I haven’t mentioned God, the Christian faith, or religion of any kind yet.

It so happens that I am a Christian. It so happens that I’m a Roman Catholic. My own personal journey to faith was neither positively nor negatively impacted by my childhood interest in astronomy, but began with a sense of God’s presence when I was 11 years old; an empirical testing-out of that God in a way that satisfied me that my prayers got answered often enough that Someone was listening to them; and a decision at the age of 16 that what I read in the New Testament matched enough of the teachings of the Roman Church that I would make my home there.

Yes, of course the philosophers can come up with all sorts of reasons why I should doubt the existence of God. But the philosophers haven’t yet persuaded me that putting my faith in science is pointless, so I’m not going to rush to let them to dissuade me from believing in God, either.

In St John’s Gospel, Jesus said “I am the Truth” and in another place, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. I believe that whenever we find a way to express a truth in a way which is slightly less wrong than before, we move closer to God.

It doesn’t disturb me that Quantum Theory and General Relativity are mutually incompatible theories. I have faith that as the Quest for Truth continues, some scientists will prove to be smart enough to work out what’s not quite right and to fix it.

If it should happen that something I believe as a Christian isn’t compatible with the place where the evidence leads me as a scientist, that isn’t going to disturb me unduly either. Intellectual honesty requires me not to put my head in the sand, but to say “Hmmm – something doesn’t add up here.” Something has to give. It might be my religious understanding. It might be that the science isn’t quite right. But as long as there can only be one Truth about how the universe actually works, I have nothing to fear. All of the twists, turns and cul-de-sacs on the road of improving my understanding will lead me from what I know today, to the best possible description of the Truth – Truth about God and Truth about the material universe.

One further thought. Noah is not only depicted as the first climate scientist – he is also the first biochemist. Noah was chosen to survive the Flood because he was a morally upstanding man; Genesis goes on to tell us that he was also the first person to ‘plant a vineyard’ and so deliberately ferment wine into alcohol. This is as good a reminder as any that basic research and development is morally neutral: new information and new technologies can be used for good or for ill. The story of Noah ends with God’s promise not to flood the world again. Now the power to cause mass destruction is in the hands of human beings. As we recall how the dove returned with the olive branch, let us be mindful of those world leaders who must decide how to use technology in the Middle East in these troubled times.

Whether we are here today as Christians gathered for worship or as Science Festival Supporters respectfully attending a religious ceremony, let us celebrate the Quest for Truth. Let us not be afraid of apparent contradictions but patiently work out the details. Let us not be disturbed by skeptical philosophers, who can attack the basis of scientific knowledge as effectively as they can question religious faith. But if we are people of prayer, let us pray for those who work in science as they deal with the everyday frustrations of equipment failure, budget cuts, and the supreme act of humility which every scientist must be prepared for when the evidence from their experiments begins to indicate that their personal, cherished, theory is not the way the Universe actually works. Let us pray for those who must apply scientific knowledge and manage technology so that it brings true benefits to the human race. Let us pray that the dove of peace is again seen in the Middle East. Let us be women and men of Peace and Truth in all that we do as scientists, as believers, and as human beings.

The take home message for today is this: Both within science, and on the interface between science and faith, it is perfectly respectable for one person to hold positions which seem incompatible – as long as you are honest about the reasons which led you to each position, and you remain open to developing your position in the journey towards Truth. In the best traditions of Noah, let us continue the conversation two-by-two – if not over a glass of wine, then at least with a cup of tea or coffee at the end of this service. I will leave you with a paraphrase of the English Catholic author, G. K. Chesterton: the point of having an open mind is to be able to close it on something solid!

Codicil for the web:

Personally, I believe that the opening chapters of Genesis are meant to be read as poetry about the love which God has for God’s creation. The story of Noah can teach us something about the need to explore the natural world whether or not Noah was a historical person. Those of us gathered here to worship today will hold different views about whether or not there was a world-wide flood within the last ten thousand years, and whether “world-wide” in the Bible would mean the whole globe, or merely the world known to the human scribes responsible for compiling Genesis.

I merely suggest that, with integrity, we can agree to differ on the right reading of Genesis in the same way as scientists, with complete integrity, can hold incompatible views on how Quantum Theory might be reconciled with General Relativity. The weight of scientific evidence suggests there wasn’t a planet-wide flood, relegating the story of Noah to parable rather than history.

You can also watch a Video of the Sermon.