When I was a little kid the science books said that the universe was in a steady state and had existed forever. There were some theories about the universe actually expanding but these were not accepted by most who declared the steady state universe to be a matter of “settled” science. Though evidence had been building through the 20th Century for an expanding universe (red shift etc.) and the “Big Bang” that started everything, many ridiculed the Big Bang Theory with slogans like “Big Bust” and “Big Boom.” Discoveries in the mid sixties (e.g. background microwave radiation) shifted the debate and the Big Bang Theory won the day. But the fact is, in my own lifetime cosmology (How we understand the universe) has undergone a seismic shift. The science was not so settled after all.
When I was in High School the scientific world was all abuzz with climate change. But in the 1970s “climate change” referred to the fact that a new ice age was coming. It was held that man made pollution would so block the sun’s rays, that by the year 2000 the ice caps would be advancing and winters in the north would become increasingly frigid and summers shorter. The usual calamities were predicted: widespread hunger since growing seasons would shorten, extinctions etc. By the dreaded year, 2000, many the same climatologists were predicting global warming and the same catastrophic consequences but now postponed to 2050 or beyond. These climatologists demand that we accept that their conclusions are “settled science.” Another seismic shift in my own lifetime and pardon me if I am a bit less certain than is demanded of me.
Science has brought us many blessings, but it would seem humility is not among those blessings. We do well to rediscover words like theory, possibility, assumption, premise, thesis, supposition and the like.
I am not attacking science here. True science is comfortable with the fact that, as evidence changes, so do theories. Likewise, our capacity to measure changes and generally gets better. This brings forth new data and shifts theories, sometimes in significant ways. This is part of the scientific method wherein data and evidence are accepted and interpreted in an on-going way so that theories grow and sometimes change.
But we are living in a world increasingly dominated by advocacy science. The “cause” too often eclipses the science. Funding too has become a pernicious influence and whole scientific disciplines start to follow the money more than the data. “Popular” and politically savvy theories get funded, unpopular less politically correct ones do not. Popular media also influences science more than it should. Some scientists get the interview, others do not and thus pop science often eclipses the truer and careful laboratory science.
Through it all, there are still wonderful scientists and great things happening in science. And the best of it is restoring a lot of humility to the equation. Quantum theory is bewildering to be sure but it is showing the limits of our current understanding. Physics is bumping up against metaphysics, science is rubbing shoulders with philosophy, the material world seems to be pointing beyond itself.
This is not an essay in radical skepticism. There ARE many things we do know. But there are so many more that we do not know. We are not even sure how something as basic as gravity works. What we know amounts to a period at the end of a sentence in one book in the Library of Congress. And there are a LOT of books in the Library of Congress. Scripture says of the created world, Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of Gods’ works have we seen. (Sirach 43:34). It is humility that is necessary in the great pursuit of science.
In theology too humility is essential. Here, as in science, there are many things we know by faith and are certain about, things which God himself has revealed. But many other things are mysterious to us and we dare not ever think we have God or even the mystery of our own life fully figured out. God is “Other” and cannot be reduced to our thoughts or words. And thus we speak with clarity about what has certainly been revealed. But we also reverence the mystery of what is beyond our understanding with humility. To hand on what has been revealed intact and to insist upon it is not the arrogance that some claim. Rather it is the humility of accepting what God has revealed intact without selectively choosing what merely appeals to us. But even as we speak of what we surely know by God’s revelation, we are always humbly aware of what we do not know.
In the Book of Proverbs there is an important reminder: Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Prov 26:12)
By the way, double click on the picture above and you’ll get a better look at how beautiful it really is. It also illustrates how the huge mountains on this planet are tiny compared to the vast universe. So too our knowledge compared to what can be known.
Here is a good video that shows a consistent lack of humility in the many prognosticators of our day. It is a very cleverly done video.