An uncertain reality

In scientific work, creative thinking demands seeing things not seen previously, or in ways not previously imagined; and this necessitates jumping off from “normal” positions, and taking risks by departing from reality. The difference between the thinking of the paranoid patient and the scientist comes from the latter’s ability and willingness to test out his fantasies or grandiose conceptualizations through the systems of checks and balances science has established — and to give up those schemes that are shown not to be valid on the basis of these scientific checks. — Scientists: Their Psychological World, Bernice T Eiduson

photonsThe great scientific project at the dawn of the twentieth century was to expose the hidden mysteries of the atom. Almost overnight the science of physics changed from a stodgy, musty discipline where, apparently, everything of significance had already been discovered, to the Studio 54 of scientific pursuits, the place where the youngest and brightest lined up around the block for a chance to get inside.

Einstein was in the queue early on, of course, admitted because of his foundation-shaking papers about special relativity (on the nature of space and time) and light’s quantum properties. But unlocking the invisible structures of the universe would require the collaborative efforts of a great many other gifted men and women — Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, Pierre and Marie Curie, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer and others — each contributing key insights, theories and experimental results.

What made this investigation remarkable, and maddening, was the inaccessibility of the systems they were trying to understand. Using only the crudest experimental devices combined with ingenious thought experiments and audacious hunches, these young scientists tested theories and conducted their research in the blind. To make matters worse, Werner Heisenberg theorized that the nature of atomic particles was such that they could never be measured or probed by any traditional methods, because the very act of observing them would change them in unpredictable ways.

His insight was roundly dismissed at first, but grudgingly came to be accepted and formalized as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Quoting Bernice Eiduson again: “Creative thinking demands seeing things not seen previously… and taking risks by departing from reality.”

Faced with an unknown and uncertain reality at the sub-atomic level, these scientists dared to depart from accepted conventions and imagined a world that broke the known rules, something the scientific establishment of the day did not quickly accept.

As I’ve been thinking about this remarkable scientific era, I have noticed similarities between the challenges and creative demands required to uncover the secrets of the atom, and the creative leaps and risks inherent in belief in the invisible and eternal God.

The visible structures that have grown out of the Christian faith — the church, the Holy Scriptures, the traditions and practices of corporate worship, the testimonies of the believers, the good and compassionate work that is lived out in response to the commands of God — all of these tangible things are built upon an invisible and eternal reality that is by its nature inaccessible, untouchable, and is therefore cloaked in uncertainty and mystery.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “We live by believing and not by seeing.” (2 Corinthians 5:7, NLT)

Earlier in that same letter, he characterized the life of faith this way:

…we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. — 2 Corinthians 4:18, ESV

In a similar fashion, this twentieth-century revolution in physics began with the grudging acknowledgment that all that we can see and touch and smell has created an erroneous impression about reality. Light appears instantaneous, but in fact moves at a finite (albeit very high) velocity. It acts like a continuous wave, but actually consists of a stream of discrete particles.

Dissimilar material things such as water, air and steel are all constructed at the sub-atomic level from the same repertoire of elementary particles: neutrons, protons and electrons.

And though the material objects formed by these particles are routinely created and destroyed by human industry, the particles themselves are never destroyed — they are in fact the very same particles that have always existed since the formation of the universe.

Making a mental leap to faith in an eternal and invisible God is not so very different a thing from the mental leap required to accommodate a world of unseen, indestructible particles, particles benign enough to form the sturdy keys on my laptop computer, yet so energetic that they are the force behind the most horrific weapons ever conceived.

The realities of the atom ran counter to everything science knew up to the beginning of the twentieth century. To find the truth, science had to depart from conventional wisdom and embrace some wholly unexpected, even disturbing new ideas.

So too with faith. God invites us not to abandon reason, but to give up our iron grip on what we think we know, what we think must be true. The Christian faith invites us to open our minds to the possibility of a different reality than we have ever imagined.

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  1. Hey, Charlie…you’re spot on with this line of thinking…

    I’ve been going down some similar avenues recently, thinking about the reality that knowledge is essentially relational, rather than rational—a facet of reality that echoes what you are writing about here.

    That lead me to thinking about the Hidden God! The God who is able to utterly hide himself from those who seek (or seek to deny) him in their own strength.

    He is not measurable, observable or calculable! The cosmonaut who went into orbit and said: I’ve looked and he’s not here… was never going to see God (perhaps, in truth, because he didn’t want to find him). And in spite of his extraordinary glory and power, he is actually capable of hiding himself entirely. Amazing.

    And all the more awe-inspiring that we can yet know him. We can relate to him. And know (of) him in this way, since knowledge is relational. But if we insist on trying to account for his presence or absence in purely rational terms, he cannot be found. The proud he knows from afar…yet the humble he draws near.

    Newbigin writes really well on this whole line of thinking in his text: Proper Confidence—Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. I believe he identifies Polanyi as breaking out this realisation that all knowledge is essentially relational, not absolutely rational.

  2. Actually, whatever we may believe about the nature of reality, if we really commit ourselves to it, we must necessarily make a leap of faith. It is becoming increasingly clear that that the world as we perceive it cannot be uncritically assumed to be the world as it is. Nor can existence itself. I recommend a review of Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17: God made the world, he gave us life and places to live, in the hope that we “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” And he has provided proof of his presence and power through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who will one day hold us accountable for our adherence to our ignorance.

    On that day, we will be left without excuse. The choice of insisting that the reality that we perceive around us is self-generated and fundamental and that therefore we have no moral responsibility whatever, will be seen as the empty rationalization that it is. The more truly-rational choice of recognizing a greater reality behind the one that we perceive will become painfully and embarrassingly obvious. It will turn out to be better for us to have made the more rational choice now, while we may still have opportunity to act in accordance with it.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Hi Charlie,

    What an excellent and fascinating essay! As usual, you make the connections that a non-believing scientist might want to ignore or even shun (because of purposeful disbelief in God), and turn it into a better explanation of reality because of your skill as a scientist utilizing your faith in the God of the universe, Jesus Christ!

    What you have written triggered some thoughts I recently contemplated.

    My 86 year old mom has often stated how wonderful the “discoverers” of prescription drugs are in sustaining and prolonging the lives of people who might have suffered more, and/or died at younger ages without the use of such drugs.

    We know that many drugs can be used for good (and helpful) purposes – as well as for evil (and addictive) purposes.

    I was thinking the other day that since we are always only “catching up to God” in the scientific realm of this life on earth, how awesome it might be to one day discover (in eternity) that we probably had the “tools” here on earth all along to cure any and every physical, mental, and emotional ailment? Yet, because of our fallen, sinful nature such discoveries had been made by scientists in a gradual and incomplete way? Hope those last two sentences made some sense!

    One example. A relative of mine succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and her mind deteriorated at such a rapid pace back in the 80’s because no drugs were yet created to halt the progression of that devastating disease. Today, there are drugs that considerably slow down the progression of the disease and patients often get to live close to normal lives for many, many more years than previously ever imagined. That’s not a small or insignificant miracle!

    Your entire essay displays the “wonders of the Lord” and I love your final paragraph:

    So too with faith. God invites us not to abandon reason, but to give up our iron grip on what we think we know, what we think must be true. The Christian faith invites us to open our minds to the possibility of a different reality than we have ever imagined.


    God bless,


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