How about a Little Humility

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.

13 Replies to “How about a Little Humility”

  1. Great video…I passed it along to my home schooler friends….Patricia in St. Louis, MO.

  2. Another way of putting it is “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” There are usually good reasons for the mistakes that are made in science.

    Unfortunately, a large part of society doesn’t care that (for example) there was once a good reason to think we might be heading for a new ice age, but now there are better reasons for thinking that global temperatures are trending upward. Nope, no need to understand the reasoning involved; the fact that the two statements contradict each other show that scientists don’t know anything. Maybe pouring my used oil into the ditch is a bad idea, but I have no way of knowing that, since the scientists who tell me that it’s a bad idea have lost all credibility. I remain invincible in my ignorance!

    1. Yes, it is odd to me as well. I am not sure it means that Scientists don’t know anything but some aspects of science struggle more than others with the trends I have mentioned.

  3. I agree completely! I think especially in the Church humility is needed. And that rules out any revival of triumphalism–no cappa magnas, no bombast.

  4. The sad part about science is that all it has proven is bases on mathematical calculation that can reproduce the same results whether supporting Newton’s laws of physical mechanics, Einstein’s theories of relativity or Bohr’s quantum mechanics. What they can’t support or reproduce by way of mathematical calculations is most often left to a field that most physicist avoid at all cost, metaphysics. The Church through the centuries has taken various sides on the matter and clashed with a few scientist and mathematicians along the way. Yet, the Church has taken the humble position and accepted it’s short comings over the centuries and decades since. I can’t necessarily say science has because of it’s very basis of proof, mathematics. Frankly, mathematics was never my forte. But I still am awed by it all. I am sure many mathameticians and scientist are as humbled by God and his creation as are many of us novice followers of Christ. They just don’t get published for humility. I like to see the humor of irony in the theories quite often proposed by atheistic scientist and proven with mathematical calculations. My favorite as of late is Einstein’s proof that if one reaches the speed of light, time stops. That sounds like an eternity and God knows how many scriptures there are on light and eternity.Personally I have trouble with formulas as simple as Pi (R) squared. Everyone knows pie are round, cornbread are square.

  5. Very funny! Yes, there are rather a lot of people in this world, especially those with ‘authority’, who seem to go around with bags over their heads lest they hear or see anything which may contradict their opinions: The new pagans.

    “The human mind can only understand truth by thinking” says Neo or, er, St. Thomas A ( I can’t remember which?)

  6. Great post. And a great reminder that we are not as powerful as we think we are …

    I missed your blog very much during our camping trip to Glacier. This is why we need a little book 🙂

  7. My mom works at NIH and she said most scientists are nice, but just like with doctors, there are the ones who have the attitude of, “Well I have the MD or PhD, so everybody has to do what I say RIGHT NOW.” Thankfully pretty much all of the ER docs I work with are very pleasant and nice to work with, and most of them started out in EMS or as ER techs like me, so they know what it’s like to start out at the bottom and work their way up.

    Great post, and I’ve missed commenting and reading the blog lately because of vacation and work. Hope all is well!

  8. The true test of scientific humility seems to involve the use of peer review to have a theory become accepted by the scientific community as a whole. Basically, when the scientific researcher feels he/she has completely proven their theory they bring it to a group of scientists who are familiar with the topic and the theory. This “peer group” then does their best to disprove the theory by attacking it while the scientist who developed it tries to defend it. This sounds harsh and I’ve heard that it is but, it reminds me of a demo for one of our modern glues which I once encountered.
    Pieces of metal had been glued to a vertical pipe and a hammer of about four pound size was provided to anyone who felt they could knock the glued item loose. In spite of many attempts no one succeeded. One persistant fellow kept it up until the glued item broke from being bent up and down (or maybe down and up) until it broke off with the glued portion still attached. Peer review that fails to disprove is as profound a proof and a credit to the scientist who under goes it as the glue demo was to the quality of the glue. Honest humility (not self degrading pseudo humility) is the type of strength which sees the individual through this.
    Hard sciences which use precise data can enforce peer review but, what about those which depend on several statistical viewpoints due to a lack of hard data; such as psychology and related? Some members of the publishing community seem eager to publish books on un-reviewed theories – as if they were proved. If a book is published and presented as if proven many will believe it.
    I went to a lecture by someone who had a number of unproven ideas on addiction treatment published without peer review and; when queries were sent to him of the type which are used in peer review; he declined to answer and basically stated he had no responsability to prove anything since he was published and popular. I try not to judge but, I could see no humility and suspected potent egotism.
    The publishing industry of North America and Europe once had a good reputation for contributing to the day when the truth would make us free (John8:31-36.) Now, while there’s probably a some good publishing houses around there are many who seem willing to “prove by publishing,” not to mention that a few large distribution chains are getting an increasing control over what information is available.
    When Daniel taught one of Nebuchadnezzar’s assistants how to conduct a scientific experiment as explained in the First Book of Daniel. At the time the popular belief was that natural occurences were at the whim of supernatural beings but God presented this new outlook through Daniel very near when Thales of Miletus was passing through in search of a logical way to look at nature. Very shortly after that he (Thales) took the idea to Greece and; by jump starting the Classical Age: went down in history as the first scientific thinker.
    This was so good until books which idolized (literaly) unproven theories which conflict each other and muddy the viewpoint to truth yet; news agencies recommend them as accurate.
    When I heard the claim that predictions about the “end days” had been ongoing for over a thousand years I did a little looking and found an exception but, now it is a case of distress for pregnant and nursing women (Luke 21:23) as, not only industrial pollutents and the waste of poorly managed nuclear energy but…now there are natural pesticide and herbicide genes being grafted onto food plants – to the detriment of foetuses, pregnant women and nursing mothers/babies.
    And now the integrety of scientific data being nibbled at by those with plenty science degrees but, not so much humility.
    Sounds like time for those with respect for the strength of humility to batten down the hatches big time.

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