Book Excerpt: What do scientists of faith achieve?

In recent discussions I have been told that atheism is a potential retardation of our species on the grounds that it blocks other perspectives. There are obvious misunderstandings of what atheism is there, but that’s not the issue. The issue is the nature of those “other perspectives” ColorStorm (my accuser) is referring to: religion and faith. So, in honour of ColorStorm, here is why the nature of faith can be cut from our society without retarding our society one iota.

There are many notable and renowned scientists who have played a vital role in progressing our technology and understanding of the universe whilst being faithful to a god. As part of our short investigation into whether this progress is related to faith, we are going to look at a few of the great scientific minds and how religion affected their work.

Gregor Mendel was an Austrian monk. During his time at the monastery in Brno, Mendel carried out experiments in the cross-pollination of pea plants. Mendel closely studied the ways different traits appeared depending on the traits of the parent plants and his work, which was discovered after his death, is the foundation of inheritance and genetics. Mendel identified many specific traits in pea plants, of which we will look at three: flower colour, pea colour and pea shape. These are all binary traits; each one can be either this or that. Flower colour, for example, could be either purple or white. The peas could be either green or yellow. The shape of the peas could be round or crinkled.

As a monk, Mendel had access to two hectares of monastery land and used in the region of 29,000 pea plants in his studies. Mendel would note the characteristics of two plants and cross pollinate them, and then note the characteristics of the second generation. The first thing to note is that the traits didn’t mix: for parents where one has green peas and the other has yellow peas, the offspring did not have greeny-yellow peas; the traits don’t ‘mix’. Instead, all the peas come out yellow. All of them. The trait of being yellow completely dominated being green.

However, when the second generation of entirely yellow peas were used as parents something even stranger happened. Of all the individuals that made up the third generation, the green-pea trait came back. The yellow-pea trait still dominated, making up 75% of the third population. However, the information for the green trait was still carried through the second generation, even though not one plant in the second generation expressed it. This lead to the conclusion that there must be some capacity in the plant to carry a second trait, different to the one it expressed.

This result was repeated with the flower colour: two purple-flowered pea plants can give rise to a second generation of pea plants that are 75% purple, but 25% white. This confirmed the explanation that a trait can have two assigned bits of information, but one is dominated by the other; in this case, purple dominates white. It was clear that, even though the plants only expressed one trait, it was somehow carrying two bits of information.

The off-pattern result is that first experiment I explained: yellow and green pea parents leading to an entirely yellow-pea second generation. However, Mendel did find an answer to this using the explanation he had already discovered. If the yellow-pea parent was carrying only information for yellow peas (i.e. carrying the “yellow” information twice), and each individual in the next generation gets on bit of information from each parent (per trait), then no matter what information a plant gets from the green-pea parent, it must get the yellow pea information from the yellow-pea parent.

This is what we now call “Mendelian inheritance”, in honour of its discoverer. This information creates a mechanism by which Darwinian evolution could happen, as well as being the foundation to modern genetics and inheritance. The concept of dominant traits, as well as being able to carry information traits different to the ones expressed were discovered by the Austro-Hungarian monk, in a monastery. There is no doubt Mendel had discovered something monumental.

Mendel’s religiosity is ambiguous. Yes, he was a monk. But having repeatedly failed to become a teacher, the monastery could just have been a quiet place that would allow him the leisure time to do his study at the University of Vienna. Whether Mendel joined the monastery in good faith is speculative. For the sake of investigating whether faith was the cornerstone of Mendel’s work, we shall grant that he was indeed sincerely religious.

In a poem recited in Mendel’s biography, written by Hugo Iltis and translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, Mendel apparently wrote the lines “As the master willed, you shall dispel the gloomy power of superstition which now oppresses the world.” Iltis sees these words, which Mendel wrote as a schoolboy, as foreshadowing Mendel’s “intellectual trend” throughout adulthood: one of shunning dogmas and searching for truth regardless of its form. It is possible the monk Mendel was a religious man, but believed in the separation of science and faith thus search for truth away from his faith. This idea, that Mendel’s faith had precisely nothing to do with the scientific work we remember him for, is supported further when we note that “In none of Mendel’s writings do we find pious reflections such as were still customary in his day when clerics (and even laymen) were describing natural phenomena. Mendel, far from being a clericalist, was always careful to keep his faith and his science in separate water-tight compartments. Insofar as unprejudiced science is possible, Mendel’s science came within that category.” (Iltis, 1932)

Mendel’s work was undoubtedly more true than any other understanding we had of inheritance before hand; he discovered something which lead to progress and the very idea that genetics proceeded to be built on. Faith, it would seem, played precisely no role and no function in the discovery. Our first look at the successes of faith as a method of truth is that it plays no part.

One may argue that faith did Mendel no good―and that he discovered great things by alternative methods―because his faith wasn’t true. The sincerity of his faith is legitimately dubious. Isaac Newton’s faith is not dubious. As well as physics, Newton studied theology and alchemy. Newton does reference a deity in some of his writings. It is that reference I want to explore to see how faith affected Newton’s journey towards truth. Before we do that, let us quickly remind ourselves of what we mean by true, as quickly as we can. Newton’s laws of gravity are still true enough to send people to the moon. However, on very large scales and at very high speeds it becomes important to use Einstein’s theory of gravity (Einstein’s Theory of relativity). Even Einstein’s theory is incomplete, as at the very very  (think: quantum) small level, Einstein’s theory stops working then. If we think about right and wrong in a binary fashion, then some of Newton’s laws are wrong. If we think about it in terms of Asimov’s Relativity of Wrong and Deutsch’s good explanations, then Newton is profoundly accurate.

Newton tackled the “two body problem”, which we can pose as a question: why does the moon orbit the Earth in the way it does? Newton answered that question. To do that he invented a branch of mathematics called “differential calculus”. What calculus allowed Newton to do it figure out the angle of trajectory of the moon at any point, as if it were travelling in a straight line. From that, he could calculate the motion of the moon with greater accuracy than anyone before him. And God is nowhere to be read in those pages, because Newton understood it. But it wasn’t perfectly accurate.

Ignore the lack of perfect accuracy for a moment, and think about what Newton had achieved at this point: he invented a branch of mathematics as a side project to making the most precise predictions about the movement of the moon around the Earth―or, in fact, any orbiting object around its orbit centre―ever seen by humans. And he wasn’t done. The next step was the “multibody problem”. The problem is that no two orbiting objects exists in proper isolation; the other planets in our solar system exert a measurable pull on the moon. If Newton could answer the multibody problem, he could account for the imprecision of his work on the moon directly.

It is here that, for the first time, Newton writes about God in his work. Newton appends the second edition of his most famous work Principia Mathematica (1713) with an essay called General Scholium: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being”. Isaac Newton lived for another thirteen years, never solving the multibody problem. Why would he? Newton has delegated the very explanation to the dominion of a God. Then, one of the greatest published minds in human history simply stopped. Newton had decided the problem he couldn’t solve must be down to intelligence, and not be controlled by regular physical forces. As an argument for God, it is a familiar apologetic to people involved in the conversation. However, Newton’s failure to make a mathematical account of the multibody problem does not reflect a lack of a regular mathematical answer. God appeared in Newton’s work at what Neil deGrasse Tyson called the “perimeter of ignorance”. Tyson describes the perimeter of ignorance as when a scientist moves out of their comfort zone and it faced with the choice to either: “invoke a deity or continue the quest for knowledge”. Tyson’s essay accuses some of the greatest scientific minds of the past of surrendering their scientific curiosity as they submit explanations to the act of gods as they reach out of their own comfort zones.

Mendel’s faith was carefully compartmentalised away from his scientific work, whereas Newton’s faith stagnated his progress once he was out of his comfort zone. The last religious scientist we are going to explore is Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology. Pasteur’s work has done more for progress than either Mendel or Newton. Pasteur starting to produce the first evidence for the germ theory of disease, an insight into a world we simply couldn’t see. It’s not just the academic point in Pasteur’s work, however, that defines its progress. Pasteur’s work has saved thousands of lives through making more foods accessible and safe for humans and developing vaccinations. His work was fundamentally correct about germs, immunology and disease.

The precise nature of Pasteur’s religion is not easy to pin down. In a letter to his sister, he advised that God would be there to take her hand: “If by chance you falter on the journey, a hand will be there to support you. If that should be wanting, God, who alone would take the hand from you, would accomplish the work.” Pasteur was at least spiritual. However, like Mendel, Pasteur kept his faith far away from his science: “In each one of us there are two men, the scientist and the man of faith or of doubt. These two spheres are separate, and woe to those who want to make them encroach upon one another in the present state of our knowledge!” We can see here that Pasteur is much more explicit about that divide; it does not have to be figured out from the absence of God in his works.

Pasteur takes us further still, talking opening in 1874 at the College of Arbois: “Do you know what most of the free thinkers want? Some want the freedom not to think at all and to be fettered by ignorance; others want the freedom to think badly; and others still, the freedom to be dominated by what is suggested to them by instinct and to despise all authority and all tradition. Freedom of thought in the Cartesian sense, freedom to work hard, freedom to pursue research, the right to arrive at such truth as is accessible to evidence and to conform one’s conduct to these exigencies―oh! let us vow a cult to this freedom; for this is what has created modern society in its highest and most fruitful aspects.” (my emphases) Pasteur could not have made his image of those “fettered by ignorance” more separated from the Cartesian freethinkers who follow “evidence” and “pursue research”. Pasteur also had no place for thought unfettered by evidence in pursuit of truth; faith is not part of the reasonable game.

We had a lot of scientists we could have gone on similar journeys of. There have been a lot of scientists throughout history who were simultaneously religious. However, those two parts of them―what Pasteur calls “two men”―are separated. When they are not separated, the “man of faith” beats out the scientist and parks their mind in the perimeter of their ignorance, killing the scientist. Some of the other scientists we could have looked at, and who I did preliminarily look at, include the following: Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Planck, Heisenberg and even Barack Obama’s Director of the National Institutes of Health: Francis Collins. Some of these people may write apologetic work, they may even argue that their line of science can be used to demonstrate a god, but not one of them has rested on faith to make the scientific advancements they have made. Faith seems to have no methodological value.

17 thoughts on “Book Excerpt: What do scientists of faith achieve?”

  1. This read more like the author jumping to unwarranted and irrelevant private conclusions about the biographies of several renowned scientists. Sans Newton, I suppose, and even there it is remarkable that people who’s contribution to society is so minute should criticize such a notable individual who accomplished several times over what they in their life probably never will, like Tysson.

    To be fair, though, I find talk of the personal lives of scientists to be an inane and pathetic rubbish spoken in our time by tiny blogger minds with even tinier weaker imaginations, so I don’t generally want to engage that argument very much. Feel free to keep on banging, though, to a deaf and dumb chorus.

    What I will absolutely question is your totally erroneous idea that faith can be cut from society or that it seems to have no methodological value. No, it can’t. Not even a little. Science, without faith, for instance, could not even be done. The prime example is the uniformity of nature, which we cannot justify through inductive reasoning but which our inductive reasoning is totally reliant and dependent on. This is absolutely unequivocally faith, after a sort.

    Faith. Walks like a duck, talks like a duck, quacks like a duck. It is faith.

    1. What I will absolutely question is your totally erroneous idea that faith can be cut from society or that it seems to have no methodological value. No, it can’t.

      There exist two distinct types of faith: justified belief, and unjustified belief. Justified belief (my car starting tomorrow morning) is rational as it is based on evidenced pattern. Unjustified belief (a god exists) is based on nothing but hope and deep seated emotional needs. One type of faith can certainly be exorcised from our societies. Can you guess which one?

      1. Talk about a full frontal facepalm! Hume specifically concluded our belief in the uniformity of nature is actually…wait for it…NONRATIONAL at base. Habituation, pretty much.

        “Fail better” as Beckett said

      2. Right back at you. Is English your first language? Who’s talking about some fixed uniformity in nature? Strawman, anyone?

        “Evidence pattern” doesn’t mean eternal. It means its being repeated enough times that some outcome is to be expected. This does not mean guaranteed. Is that clear enough for you?

        You’d do yourself a favour by loosing the obtuse attitude. It doesn’t translate well.

      3. Hume’s argument is about induction, which is a feature (but not a defining one) of science. But, that science can make predictions (both forward and back in time) is demonstration of the reliability of the uniformity of nature. It could fail as a hypothesis. It just hasn’t. That is telling (and, interestingly, is inductive reasoning…)

    2. I don’t recognise any of the accusations you’re making. The conclusions are not unwarranted, the post explain the evidence throughout; they are not irrelevant, they are the answers to the very questions I wanted to address (namely: does faith have any epistemological value?); and I simply don’t know what you mean by a “private conclusion”.
      Equally, I struggle to see why (a) what I’m doing is criticism of individuals (note that I do very intentionally talk about the value of what they have contributed and how profoundly amazing it is) and (b) why, even if it were a series of criticisms, I (and anybody else) wouldn’t have the right to lay such criticisms. It is only an exploration of the roles of faith have in their investigations. The answer is ‘none, except to retard their investigations’. I publish these excerpts for the reason of getting open feedback and criticism, but I don’t think you have given meaningful feedback here.

      The uniformity of nature is demonstrable. Take radiometric dating: at overlaps between time frames different isotopes can tell us about, there is agreement; the two different radiometric methods conform to our modern understanding over thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. If the provisional acceptance of the uniformity of nature didn’t give us accurate predictions, we’d have to scrap it. But it does, so it is evidential.

  2. Newton has delegated the very explanation to the dominion of a God. Then, one of the greatest published minds in human history simply stopped.

    I do believe this sums it up perfectly. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant piece. Solid, informative, and entertaining. Here’s how I put a similar thought concerning discovery and the enquirer who wants “god” to be the answer:

    “Perhaps crippled by fear of the intolerable conclusions awaiting them if they projected their minds any further, if they dared acknowledge the poison, the journey to what these self-righteous men claimed was truth was always abandoned; the campaign left incomplete. To the frustration of sincerity, these naïve thinkers froze at the halfway mark, choosing to settle at that familiar – notorious – rest house where comforting daydreams are sold over polished countertops. Here the menu consists only of comfort foods served up by a sophisticated army of pleasant phantoms neatly dressed in well-intentioned self-deceptions; delusions that are as pleasing to the eye and as warming to the heart as any man-willed fantasy can be. A hand drawn picture of God, that benevolent architect and superhero to the duplicitous and half-accomplished adventurer, hangs over the entrance to this hillside teahouse; so carefully positioned so as to obscure – if not completely blot out – the craggy mountain behind.”

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It’s dealing, very much, with NDT’s lecture so I can’t take too much credit.
      I really like your passage. It’s colourful and atmospheric (with the right hint of cynical humour).

  3. You forgot about Georges Lemaître, the Catholic Priest who made up the Big Bang to justify creationist cosmology.

    As with evolution today, the Vatican has a long history of selectively supporting science that justifies the current state of political power.

    1. There were a great deal of scientists I could have used. Lemaitre would be an interesting one because he did not find what he was looking for. But his faith was sufficiently flexible to incorporate what he did find. In true style.

      1. Are you Catholic? I know that nowadays, the Catholic Church is citing Lemaître and Darwin as nigh-paragons of their faith, and considering itself a scientific institution.

        If you’re not Catholic, consider this: for a thousand years, the Vatican has been wrong about everything. Everything it has ever proclaimed. Now, in 2014, it’s telling people that big bang cosmology and mercantilist evolution are correct.

        What does that tell you?

        A) After a thousand years of torture, wars, cruel social engineering, and outright lies, the Vatican finally got these two particular things correct;


        B) Holy crap, I somehow got tricked into siding with the Vatican!

        Here’s a picture to reflect on whenever you find yourself advocating for the Vatican’s point of view about pop-evolution and big bang cosmology:

      2. Remember how I said you’re fraying my patiences? Well, it finally happened…
        What the fuck has this got to do with the conversation we’re having? You’re just muck-flinging. Some of it’s got to stick, right?

      3. I still don’t know what mercantile evolution is. It’s certainly not biological evolution.
        I certainly don’t know how believing evolution is a natural unguided process has anything to do with the Catholic Church’s perspective. Even if the Catholic Church did proclaim unguided evolution as true, so what? Catholics probably also believe in respiration. What is wrong with us both being right on that one issue of biological history?

      4. Mercantilist evolution is the idea that beneficial mutations are caused randomly, through accidents in genetic duplication that result in traits highly specialized for Earth environments.

        Biological evolution does occur, as all things evolve in some sense, but the evolution of biological organisms does not occur through random chance, but through an interactive process of matter rearranging itself to better effect energy transfers. You really should consider looking at my initial article on Lightform Evolution, which discusses the mathematical improbability of Ayn-Rand-style evolution, and provides an introduction to the ways that biological organisms evolve in tandem with their environments.

        What you are currently calling “biological evolution” is so correlated to capitalism because capitalists claim that their success is due to independent skill and hard work, rather than through the commonwealth provisioning them with protected markets and government subsidies. Capitalists pretend to be independent, when in truth, the actual scientists and engineers and physical laborers are producing all the value, and capitalists are merely the ones who have written social rules that result in them having the most money. Accordingly, they deny their connection to the integrated marketplace, and pretend that their success is due to their own efforts.

        Randomized, merit-based pop-evolution is similar, in that it denies the ways in which the planet coordinates the evolution of its own sub-organisms, and weaves those organisms into interdependent relationships with one another. This is something that isn’t possible if all of the organisms were, like John Galt, “rugged, independent, self-made” organisms, evolving randomly in isolation.

        Please do consider the mathematics of it all! The human body contains around fifty trillion cells, and for a mutation to happen to even one of those cells is a slight possibility. It’s impossible that prions could have developed into humans in only 4-6 billion years, with random mutations occurring in only one cell out of a trillion. There are hundreds of billions of cells in a set of human lungs, for example–how in the world could those hundreds of billions of changes occurred randomly, inside a 50 trillion cell organism that takes 13-15 years to reach reproductive capability, in only 4-6 billion years?

        It couldn’t. Biological evolution is an integrative, not randomized, process.

      5. Do you think that evolution is about mutation in cells? It’s about the DNA.
        You claim it’s impossible, and cite “maths” but there is precisely no explanation.
        Economists are conduits for money. Entirely irrelevant to discussions of natural selection and evolution.
        Bye, Highark.

      6. The DNA changes, which effects the cells that are created either upon reproduction (“birth”), and/or replaced by the organism throughout its life cycle. Cells, and their arrangement, are governed by that DNA, and in some ways, the structure of that DNA is more complicated than merely “50 trillion cells,” for the DNA also describes how the cells will be internally organized, how they will process energy, and innumerable other slight variations from cell to cell, including cells of the same type.

        You don’t need to talk about economists if you don’t want to–just focus on the biology of it all. Were you able to get through any of the mathematical essays I linked?

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