Thriving on open questions, cont’d

Adam Frank makes the point that, when it comes right down to it — when you take away the special interests, the political posturing, and the calcified cultural and religious reflexes — we actually all do rely on science for answers, and we trust it to deliver. Can subatomic particles travel faster than light? Researchers claimed it was possible, but now they call on the scientific community to scrutinize the results:

Now the world is waiting for science to do its thing. We wait for more experiments; we wait for the checks, the double check and the triple checks. In the end the process will shine a brighter light on the world’s foundations just as it did when Einstein overturned centuries of Newtonian physics.

All of us are waiting together: Republicans and Democrats; Evangelical Christians and the “Spiritual but Not Religious”; Economic Doves and Social Policy Hawks. We are all waiting for science to answer the question. We are all waiting for the process of science to run its course and we all trust science to determine the right answer.

So why then are we sill arguing about Climate Change where science has already answered the question? Likewise, how can any presidential candidate still publically challenge Evolution and not be booed off the stage? The same process we all agree will get us closer to the truth for relativity lies at the root of our understanding of Climate and Evolution.

Yes, the science of oceans and atmosphere has a more complex system to deal with than relativity. But the methods, checks and balances are all the same. Ditto for evolution. Science works because over the last 500 years we have learned how to enter into an authentic discussion with nature.

But science isn’t just about answers; it’s also (or even more so) about asking the questions. As always, Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it beautifully:

Part of what we also have to train people to do is to learn to love the questions themselves. If all you want in life are answers, then science is not for you. We have things that always give you answers to things, like religion. “Here’s what’ll happen to you after death if you behave this way, this is what was going on before” […] There might be some deep profound religious questions, but everyone I know who turns to religion, it’s because they need answers.

In science, on the frontier, the answers haven’t come yet. That’s why we have people working on the frontier. And so it’s the frontier that excites a subset of the public who are perfectly content steeped in ignorance because of the prospect that they might one day resolve the problem.

My sentiments exactly. Sure, religion and science can both claim to ask questions about the nature of truth — but religion already has the answer it wants to hear, which is that every question, every investigation, every doubt-filled journey leads to God. Faith doesn’t seek to know the world as it is. Its ultimate aim is not discovery but reassurance, not knowledge but comfort: God’s in charge, and everything is going to be alright. It promises what Christopher Hitchens eloquently rejects: “the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way.”

It seems to me that science, despite its flawed human practitioners and the mistakes they make, comes by its answers more honestly — because it’s willing to ask truly open questions, driven by genuine curiosity. No guarantees of what you’ll find at the end of the rainbow. Science has the courage to say “I don’t know” — and mean it.

If science discovers God at the end of its quest, it will be a deity that’s fully demonstrable, testable, and therefore reliable and real. If it doesn’t find God — if for some reason the universe doesn’t conform to the thousand-year-old myths and moral codes of primitive tribes — then whatever it discovers will likely be even more wondrous and strange. And science will be ready to wrestle with that knowledge, revise and expand our understanding of reality, and ask ever more open questions.

(Image via Sam Kumar)

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