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
The 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.