Science in the Bluegrass — Something beyond the material universe

Chris Graney

John Adams, the second president of the United States, surely was no fan of Advent. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in January of 1825, he complained of people who “believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe … came down to this little ball (Earth).” He added that, “until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.”

Some people today feel the same way, rejecting not just the Incarnation, but God as well.

These modern Scrooges have been sold the idea that science says we humans are nothing more than a finite number of atoms in motion, with no soul, and that the world is merely an uncreated result of random happenstance. They reject belief in anything that can’t be measured and verified through experiment. And so, there is no God, no Advent, no Christmas. Bah humbug!

Let us think rationally, like a scientist, about this Scrooge-iness.

Science works through reproducibility — the same experiment repeated the same way yielding the same result. But getting the same, verifiable result from the same repeated experiment requires that the world have an order, a structure. Otherwise experiments would generate only disordered, useless results.

Moreover, some things in science cannot be experimentally verified. Consider ‘pi,’ a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter. Call up pi on your scientific calculator app and you will see “3.1415926535897932384626433832795… .” Only the first few of those digits of pi are testable by measurement; the later digits cannot be verified by any conceivable measurement. Yet pi has been calculated to “bazillions” of digits. Indeed, mathematicians have shown it to have infinite digits. Thus, somewhere in the infinity of pi is every winning lottery ticket number ever (and losing ones, too). Shakespeare’s plays are in there (with the alphabet encoded into numbers). So are the lyrics to all your favorite songs. We can study the infinity that is pi, learn more and more, and yet what we know will always be nothing compared to what is there.

Now consider: What is the source of the order that allows science to work? How could people who are mere finite collections of atoms in motion ever conceive of, and then explore, an infinity like pi? A rational answer to these questions is that there is something beyond the material universe — a creator, an unlimited being that shares of itself with us.

And consider scientists like Blaise Pascal. His ideas are studied in science classes everywhere. He was no Scrooge. God either exists or not, Pascal said, and we either believe in God or not. If we believe, and God does in fact exist, then we gain infinitely, because we gain a relationship with the infinite. If we believe, and God does not exist, then we lose nothing — because if there is no God and we are just atoms in motion, then we are nothing and what we do matters not. And so, he said, because we stand to gain everything by belief in God, yet risk nothing of value, reason demands belief.

If you know Scrooges who think that science opposes the idea that there is a God who came down to Earth for us, ignore their “Bah humbug!” attitudes. Wish them Happy Holidays, share some Christmas cheer with them and pray that they may learn better how to think rationally regarding these things.

Chris Graney is on the staff of the Specola Vaticana, the Vatican’s astronomical observatory. He is a parishioner of St. Louis Bertrand Church.

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