Science as Faith
Several years ago, my wife and I took our daughter to the Pacific Science Center's exhibit on "Lucy", the current missing link for prehistoric human evolution. One of the last rooms had a mural which encircled the room, displaying an artist's rendering of what is suspected Lucy and her contemporaries looked like. Jillie asked me why all the people looked like apes and monkeys and not so much like people, so I explained that this is what some scientists believe they looked like - that some people believe that humans evolved from the same beings as apes did, which is why we resemble each other. We talked quietly, since it was a museum, after all, but I imagine in that relatively small chamber our voices carried.
A woman we did not know crossed the room towards us and interrupted our conversation to ask me: "Excuse me, but did I just hear you tell your daughter that some people 'believe' in evolution?"
Now, before I continue this conversation, let me confess a few things. First of all, I was raised pretty strictly on a couple principles which apply here. I was raised to believe in God and the Bible, and that God created the Earth and man in a "relative" six days (the exact time frame being irrelevant, more as a metaphor for the organizational process), and that man was created in the image or likeness of God. I was also raised to be respectful of other people's faith - to claim the right to believe as I feel is proper and to allow everyone else that same respect.
It's also important to note that I put a great deal of stock in science. I think science has done an amazing job of putting the facts together in a very logical and reasonable understanding of the history of our universe - where faith often relies upon metaphor to provide us meaning and context for our place in the world, science lays out the specifics of what happened, when and how. So my answer to my daughter was to help lay out a broader understanding of belief in general - for it is permissible to say that one may have faith in facts - to imply that any fact may not be subject to interpretation and context is as foolish as to suggest that one should believe in a Supreme Being without acknowledging that there is no way to prove such a belief.
So, back to the conversation.
I told her that, yes, she was correct.
She replied, "well, don't you think that's irresponsible?"
I won't lie. I really wanted to demand she explain how she dared to walk up to a complete stranger and try to tell him how to talk to his child RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIS CHILD, but it was a public place and it was, I told myself, a good opportunity to also show my daughter how to behave oneself. So I explained that I was pointing out to my daughter that many people across the world and throughout time have held beliefs as to the nature and origins of life, and though science has given us many answers, we continue to gain understanding - and we were teaching our daughter to understand how to find and trust her own appreciation for truth. I pointed out that as she grew up she was going to be confronted by weirdos who wanted to try to tell her how she was "supposed" to believe, and that I wanted her to be able to filter out the bullcrap from the material of substance.
I think she tried to say other things at some point, but the more I spoke, the more emphatic I felt. I pointed out that one day she was going to have to stand on her own when completely stupid strangers might, say, confront her in the middle of a museum in an effort to judge or condemn her views which they in fact knew nothing about, and I'd have to trust that I had sufficiently taught her how to understand her own views on the world, but while she'd need to keep an open mind, she'd also need to know how to ground herself against the potential for being carried away by the random object of philosophical insanity.
I added a few other choice words and then suggested to the woman the single factoid which most filled my thoughts - that walking up to a person she did not know in an effort to shame him in front of his child was perhaps the most mindlessly reckless thing a person could do.
I've had a lot of time to reflect over that entire conversation. I mean, I can understand her concern. Taking just one or two sentences out of context to the conversation my daughter and I were having, perhaps she was coming to the conclusion that I equated science with nothing more than an inkling of belief - that I was putting scientific research and theory (as many people do) side by side with supposition and myth; sort of a "well, we guess so" kind of hypothesis.
But I recognize that hypothesis does not mean merely "hypothetical." I understand that though scientific theories may change with new information, it does not suggest that it's simply a guess. Theories are reasoned understandings based upon hard facts and research. Evidence. It is "knowing" in a very real sense.
And yet, to a certain degree, faith is required as well. We can see the existence of black holes and dark matter, we can verify planets which could potentially sustain life, but until we are there, witnessing them in the flesh, they do necessitate a small degree in faith that no greater scientific laws which we have yet to discover might not prove us wrong.
This does not undermine the validity of science, it simply confirms the one undeniable facet of both science and religion share: the search for truth.
So at this point - assuming you've read along this far - you may be asking, "that's all well and good, Ren, but why are you talking about this today?"
Well, if you've read my novels, you already know, but assuming you haven't (and you won't hurt my feelings, though please - - I'd really appreciate if you picked one of them up because I'm quite fond of them), this is part of what inspired me to reverse the expectations on Science in my Tales of the Dead Man series.
In the Steel Cities, Science is more than just a series of facts and theories - it is an expression of their faith. It is their religion. It is the foundation of their society. Build. Engineer. Design. Create. Let no ethereal and invisible bonds go undefined or unexplained. All reverence to the Hammer and the Wheel. It is their church, their structure, and their path. The Way of Steel and Steam. At its core, though, I wanted to explore how people believe. Faith is such an interesting human experience, both in the heart of an individual and in the congregation. I wanted to offer a metaphor of my own to describe how we approach new data; how new facts, new beliefs, challenge our cognition.
And of course, once we come face to face with new ideas... how do we move forward?
Overall, I wanted to craft this story to offer up these questions without telling people how they personally had to react - but offer the question itself and, with hope, give readers a chance to ask themselves that question and enjoy the experience in their own minds.
And I won't lie: I hope someday my museum friend will happen upon the books and find different ways to engage strangers on the subject of science. Yeah, probably not gonna happen, but I can't help but believe it's possible.