By Josh Edgren
A common mistake in the modern cultural imagination is to draw a stark divide between the subjects that fit under the heading “humanities” and those that fit under the heading “STEM”. Many regrettable consequences follow from this error. For when we separate the humanities and the sciences, we not only run the risk of neglecting the humanities proper, but we also forget that science is an inherently human endeavor.
Science means that we look at the world and we try to discern its meaning by building models and theories, but this “understanding” is akin to the wisdom that philosophy seeks after. In fact up until about 50 years ago, what we call physics, chemistry, biology, etc. was referred to as Natural Philosophy: the love of wisdom by means of observing nature.
The goal then is not to neglect the humanities in favor of the sciences or to neglect the sciences in favor of the humanities, but to reunite the two, to bring harmony, to restore the soul and telos to scientific inquiry without scorning the wisdom and beauty it grants us access to.
Asking The Right Questions
Every year I get to walk with 7th and 8th graders through the history of the physical sciences from ancient Sumer to modern quantum electrodynamics (which, admittedly, we only give a cursory look), and we use the questions that mankind has asked throughout history to shape our investigation. We ask questions like “What is earth’s place in the cosmos?” and “What is light and how does it work?”, and we look at what men and women have proposed throughout history, often dwelling longer on the “wrong” answers than on the “right” ones because often the “wrong” answers better illustrate the means and methods by which man has tried to make sense of the world.
For instance, teaching students that atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons is well and good, but if you teach them first the “Plum Pudding” model of the atom which suggested that atoms were blobs of positively charged “pudding” with negatively charged electron “plums” floating in it, that forces them to consider whether such a model is reasonable based on the knowledge available at the time and what questions that model provokes and what experiments would be necessary to test them.
If we can approach scientific inquiry as a story, tracing the characters and conflicts through time, asking the same questions that mankind has asked, and feeling the tension when different theories collide, then we will be in a better position to view the natural world with wonder and curiosity.
But wonder and curiosity are not ends in themselves. Wonder must inevitably give way to worship. It always does, but it matters very much what you end up worshiping. The quest to “emancipate” science from religion is futile; rather you will simply choose between the true religion and false ones. All scientists are religious, often deeply so. They approach the natural world with faith that it will yield meaning and with the desire to glorify either man or nature itself. Science doesn’t need to be separated from religion; rather it must be subjected to true religion.
The Beginning of Knowledge
Romans 1:19-20 states that the truth about God is revealed in nature for all to see, but verse 21 and following describe those who suppress that truth, seek to understand the world without honoring God, and refuse to give thanks to Him. According to these verses, they become futile in their thinking and though they claim to be wise, they become fools.
In order to understand even the natural world rightly, we must begin and end in subjection to God and be rich in thanksgiving.
Perhaps this sounds like a quaint sentiment. “Come, come, Edgren,” you say, “be realistic. Nice words, but such a pie-in-the-sky notion as this has no place in serious scientific study.”
And here is where I must beg to differ: I submit that it was just such a belief that founded the scientific age. Such was the understanding, to one degree or another, of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Euler, Lavoisier, Volta, Dalton, Ampere, Faraday, Maxwell, Joule, Hertz, Kelvin, Thomson, Eddington, Compton, and Heisenberg. A beautiful example of this belief is found in the prayer of Johannes Kepler at the end of his great work Harmonies of the World.
“O Thou Who dost by the light of nature promote in us the desire for the light of grace, that by its means Thou mayest transport us into the light of glory, I give thanks to Thee, O Lord Creator, Who hast delighted me with Thy makings and in the works of Thy hands have I exulted… Deign graciously to effect that these demonstrations give way to Thy glory and the salvation of souls and nowhere be an obstacle to that…Great is our Lord and great His virtue and of His wisdom there is no number: praise Him, ye heavens, praise Him, ye sun, moon, and planets, use every sense for perceiving, every tongue for declaring your Creator.”
It is my hope that such would be our prayer at the Augustine School and that our scientific inquiry would ever lead to right worship of Jesus Christ.