Saturday, September 24, 2011

Treasures Neu and Old: What Faith Might Learn from Neutrinos

Reading various accounts of the OPERA and CERN presentations about neutrinos possibly traveling faster than light, I can't help but marvel at the humility and willingness to be proven wrong that the scientific community embraces. They welcome others who might be able to disprove what they've discovered. They re-tried and re-tried their experiments to ensure that no external issues affected their findings. They still aren't quite ready to jump to conclusions or forecast enormous changes as a result of their finding. It's an amazing exercise in disciplined learning.

Compare that to politicians, whose topics are invariably cluttered with all kinds of external factors: People's reactions to economic policies; Motives behind immigration; Whether one's sexuality is chosen or given; What brings 'security' and what does not; Etc. By nature, political hot topics are filled with variables, resistant to proof, and unable to rise to the level of proven certainty. Nonetheless, politicians are considered leadership material the more adamant and intolerant of critics they are. How weird is that?

Aristotle made 2 fundamental distinctions when categorizing 'sciences.' One branch, he called 'Physics' (we might call them the 'hard sciences.') He describe 'physics' as that type of science where 'things cannot be otherwise.' That's why the burden of proof is to negate the 'otherwise,' and why nothing is 'scientifically proven' until the 'otherwise' has been negated. That is also why scientists embrace the word 'theory.' To say that an idea is a 'theory' does not mean that it is some untested whack job. It is an act of humility that leaves open the possibility that there may be an 'otherwise' out there that one has not yet ruled out.

The second branch of Aristotelian science he called 'Ethics' (we might call them the 'humanities.') Aristotle described 'ethics' as that type of science where 'things could be otherwise.' Politics - a science that was important to and largely influenced by Aristotle - was a perfect example of this kind of science. Nothing is ever really 'proven' in politics. Some ideas gather strength and others don't, but the issue is not 'proof'; the issue ends up being 'popularity' or 'effectiveness' or something that may not be measurable, like 'charisma.' Because 'politics' is about that which might be otherwise, polite company does not raise political topics at the dinner table and the language of politics should be considerably humbler than 'proof' language might suggest.

None of this stops politicians from being adamant, from being intolerant, from calling their opponents 'stupid' or 'evil' or some such. None of this even stops politicians from ranting about how 'wrong' science is, and acting as though the language of 'theory' means 'untested and mere opinion.' None of this stops politicians from claiming that they and their ideas are 'right.' And if Carl von Clausewitz was correct by calling 'war' "politics by another means," none of this stops politicians from valuing their ideas over human life.

Oh, and before we get too far, we ought to remember that 'religion' would also fall into the category of 'Ethics,' the science where things might be otherwise. And, of course, everything that I've just said about politicians is too often true of religious zealots, who exchange the language of 'belief' and 'trust' for 'know' and 'certainty.' It's a shame.

What if we Christian believers switched language for a while? What if we were willing to say - as the OPERA and CERN scientists are willing to say - "We believe this to be true, but if you can show us where it is not, please do." And what if we meant it. Wouldn't that require an extraordinary amount of faith in God, and enable us to be humbler people?

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