Faith and Proof

I’ve always loved science. I became a scientist, and I did a lot scientific research in genetics, toxicology, and molecular biology. While I never became a great scientist, I did make a living at it. And I have always read and thought a lot about the philosophy and history of science.

I have been asked how can I reconcile my Christian faith with my love of science. I find this to be an odd question, because having been raised as a militant atheist, it was science that brought me to God. The entire notion that science and faith are in opposition is the most insidious big lie of our time. I feel that a true understanding of the scientific worldview leads directly to a belief in God. I know this goes against everything most people have heard, so I will explain a little.

Evolution is a beautiful mechanism for the generation of millions of species, of living creatures of every conceivable kind. As we learn more and more – as one discovery after the next surprises us, makes us wonder, forces us to think and work harder – we must grow closer to the God from whom all of this beauty comes. There is nothing “mere” about our world, and there is nothing ordinary about any of us; everything we do is an experimental confirmation of the great scientific finding that God made the world, and that we are loved by Him.

Many years ago, a post-doctoral fellow working in my laboratory came into my office to show me something he had found. What he showed me was a plastic film on which there were rows of black bands forming a pattern. To us the pattern had a meaning. It told us about the structure of a particular human gene. And what my post-doc showed me was that the pattern on this particular film was something new. It had never been seen before, either by us, or by anyone else.

At that point I believed that we had discovered a new form of this gene. But I wasn’t sure. We needed to prove it. So we repeated the experiment and got the same result. Then we did it again. Then we checked the sequence of the section of DNA that the gene was in and found exactly the mutation that would explain the new pattern. And we did that three times, and got the same result. For each experiment we also did the same thing to a normal sample, and got the expected normal pattern.

We looked at families, and found that the new genetic variant was inherited in exactly the way it should, following the known laws of Mendelian genetics.

At that point we had proven that we had found a new genetic variant, thanks to the evidence from several different approaches. I no longer simply believed in this genetic variant, I knew it was true. We published this result, and several other labs did the same experiments and found the same thing. No one who tried found anything different. The existence of this variant was now a fact, much like the existence of a heart, or of tectonic plates.

I believe in God. I have some evidence for the existence and grandeur of God. But it is not proof, and it could be wrong. All of my evidence is subjective, related to highly uncertain methods, like how I feel when I pray. There are coincidences that I believe are God’s way of  communicating with me but they could just as easily be simply coincidences. Much of the evidence I have is purely emotional and nonverifiable by another observer. I do have some opinions about the origin of the universe, life and the human soul, but those are opinions, and could well be wrong. So to sum it all up, it is a belief, hardly even a hypothesis, and far from proof.

So, the next step should be to try to go from these very tenuous bits of evidence to find proof that my belief is correct, as I did with the new genetic variant, right? Actually, no, wrong. I have no interest in doing that. I don’t care or even want to get to the point where I can publish the definitive proof that God exists. I am sure to do so is impossible, and even if it were possible, it is not of any interest to me.

So, how can I say this? It seems to go against my scientific training and my absolute certainty that scientific inquiry is the best way to get to know the nature of reality.

The answer to this apparent conundrum is found in something that is not part of and not subject to scientific methodology. Much like many other human attributes, faith is not understandable or even definable. We don’t know much about artistic genius or creativity or even appreciation, but we don’t doubt its existence. I find wonderful beauty and joy in music, but not everyone does. Many people get the same lift from watching ballet. I don’t. But I believe them when I see their eyes shining and their mood brighten after a great performance.

We have certainly tried to understand the many aspects of human consciousness, or the human soul. These attempts have not been at all successful in my opinion. I don’t think it is impossible to do so – I just think we haven’t figured out how to do it. The same is true of faith. Faith is like musical talent, or an appreciation and understanding of architecture, or even whatever it is that gives us great ideas in physics and helps us solve mathematical theorems. It comes from within us; it is powerful, mysterious and grand.

Faith is what takes the place of the experiments that we might think of doing to prove the existence of God. And what faith tells us is that we do not need such proof, in fact that proof is irrelevant, because we are free to choose to believe or not. It is this choice that makes faith so precious. If there were proof, then faith would become irrelevant. If God were proven beyond doubt to be real and all powerful, if He showed up in the body of Morgan Freeman or George Burns, we wouldn’t believe in Him. One does not believe in a fact. One simply acknowledges it. I don’t “believe” in my computer. I know it’s here, and there isn’t much else to say about it, except that I find it useful. Usually.

So proof of God would result in loss of faith and loss of belief, and God would just be another fact of the universe like Black Holes and supernovae. Our freedom to choose to believe would be gone. This is why I do not care about proving the existence of God in a way that would satisfy atheists or skeptics. It would add nothing of value to my life, and would take away something quite precious.

If we use faith to fill in the gap left by a lack of demonstrable scientific evidence for the existence and majesty of God, we gain an understanding that is as powerful as any feeling of discovery, for it is in fact the same thing.

I have to admit that when my associate first showed me the new gene pattern on the X-ray film, I felt a chill run down my spine. I wasn’t sure, but I did believe we had made a discovery. Every time I go to Church, I feel the same thrill of understanding, and of a strong belief that I have made a discovery of something true and beautiful. And I am sure of it.

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