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.