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Peering down a microscope can bring us closer to God

Science can lead to wonder in the way it reveals the beauty and harmony of creation

By on Friday, 1 June 2012

A sample about to be loaded on to a helium ion microscope in Dublin (one of only ten in the world) (Photo: PA)

A sample about to be loaded on to a helium ion microscope in Dublin (one of only ten in the world) (Photo: PA)

I have just been reading Fr Aidan Nichols’s book, Lost in Wonder: Essays on Liturgy and the Arts. It is an erudite reflection on the need for beauty in liturgy and church architecture, among other things. The phrase “lost in wonder” is meant to suggest the sense of awe a person would feel intuitively when in the presence of the numinous or transcendental, ie in the presence of God.

I am not trying to arouse debate on banal modern liturgies or churches that, as Fr Nichols describes them, look like “hotel foyers”. What interests me here is his conclusion, which he calls “By way of an ending: Religion, Science, Art”. Science and art are two different strands of human endeavour. They both reflect the beauty and harmony of creation. Nor does scientific knowledge have to be in an antagonistic relationship to a religious understanding of the universe made by God. The secularist mindset today thinks that science can “prove” everything, including why and where the quaint impulse to religious belief is located in the brain. But what if, as Fr Nichols asks, “Symmetry, balance, rhythmic sequence [are] disclosed through cinematographic enlargements of the microscopic… By analysing the size, surface and volume relationships of a wide variety of living forms, it can be shown how there is a degree of mathematical orderliness in virtually every realm of organic nature.”

This was the experience of the scientist Francis Collins, director of the genome project, when he looked through a microscope; it led him to “awe” and belief in God. Naturally, not all scientists respond in the same way. Fr Nichols remarks, “As the name of Richard Dawkins reminds us, some scientists remain at the mercy of a 19th-century ideology of materialism, for which organisms are merely very complex machines, their organisation determined by physical and chemical laws, rather than functional wholes purposively organised, each more than the sum of its parts.”

Fr Nichols is optimistic that the Dawkins-type mindset is changing. He writes: “When science and art come together again, we can see that the universe itself is the ultimate work of art, exhibiting to an astonishing degree the integration of parts within the whole – which was… St Augustine’s definition of beauty.” My own scientific knowledge is pitiful. But I understand enough of what Fr Nichols is saying to know that science is a more beautiful, because awe-inspiring, pursuit than its atheist purveyors would have us think.

Incidentally, biographer Peter Ackroyd, interviewed last Sunday on Desert Island Discs, remarked that there were two ways of looking at the world: a “spiritual” way and a “secularist” way. He identifies himself with the former outlook, adding: “I am convinced there are forces and powers in the Universe of which we have no inkling.” He is not yet “lost in wonder” – but getting closer.

  • theroadmaster

    I never stated that God was “undetectable” but rather that he was not amenable to being described in a statistical format or analysed in a test-tube. If you want to get to know God the Creator(if you are a believer), the best source would be the gospels, where you will find testimonies regarding the life of His only-begotten son, Jesus Christ.
    Other glimpses which reveal His character, can be found in the beauty,symmetry and order of our Cosmos and in the natural world which surrounds us on Earth.  We could say that truth and beauty characterizes the mindset of Our Creator.

  • theroadmaster

    Prayer is not like putting money in a slot to get answers out of an automatic answering machine.  God’s answers can sometimes not be the ones that we were expecting.  As in the biblical exodus story of the Jews from Egyptian captivity, when they had to spend 40 years in the wilderness of a desert.  They beseeched God to take them out of enslavement, but their eventual escape proved to be anything but straightforward.
    Regarding your false depiction of my position vis-a-vis God’s effect on our world,over 2000 years ago, God dramatically intervened ,when He sent His only-begotten Son to redeem us by His death and resurrection.  The after-effects of that unprecedented event, are still very much with us.  At other times, His intervention is not so overt but still as effective in terms of it’s overall effect e.g the spiritual influence of the late, great Blessed Pope, John Paul 11 which was a key factor in unleashing peaceful forces to tear down the communist ideology which has blight eastern Europe for for 4 decades.

  • Acleron

    You introduced Targ as proof that prayer has an effect, why did you do that except to prove that something about the supernatural affects the real world?

    As for any other effect, you still have no evidence. Just ascribing events that you like to a deity doesn’t take into account all the events you don’t like, what caused those?

    All the effects of religion remote from direct interference are explainable by natural causes. The effects of evangelising and charismatic personalities are well known. Just look at the other cults that have risen just recently. The Church of Unification, Mormons, Scientology all follow the same prescription as the early christians. They have followers who are as willing as yourself to swear that their god has real effects etc. 

    And Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev had considerably more effect on the collapse of communism than the catholics.

  • JByrne24

    I think it a mistake to look at science as a means of gaining (or supporting) religious insight and knowledge of God.
    Religious apologists, and sometimes even more senior members of the Church, make use of the arguments of NOMA (non-overlapping Magisteria) to separate religious teaching from scientific knowledge. In the late 1960s, or early 1970s, I recall Jesuit astronomers and theologians commenting on the dawning scientific belief that the Hoyle “Steady-State” theory of the universe had been (or was being) replaced by an evolutionary one – meaning (probably) that the universe had a beginning, something that the Church had always said. 
    In more recent times the “fine-tuning” of the physical constants of the universe has been seen, by some, to be the obvious work of God. The “fine-tuning” seems indeed to be extremely fine, and it seems that without it the universe could not support our life (short-lived stars etc).

    Recently though doubts have been raised about the reality of this tuning.
    Scientific knowledge grows with time and becomes more complete. What it will “throw up” in, even the near, future is simply unknowable and unpredictable. The surface has only, as yet, been scratched – vast surprises await us.

    The layers and layers of structure and complexity that science reveals in Nature are truly breath-taking and leave us staring in wonder and amazement. But our little brains came into being (probably) to deal with much simpler matters – so the amazement is not all that surprising in one sense.

    We should also keep in mind ideas such as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics;See  which could ( and probably does) underpin all observations – the basic idea being that our observations determine, at a very basic level, the structure and detail that we “see”.

    If religion is to been considered timeless in respect of its basic, essential teachings, it must not hitch its wagon too firmly to any science.

  • Acleron

    A lot of sense in what you say. However, it does leave open the question of what does any deity actually do?

    Our brains were evolved for metre scale interactions with the environment, the very large, very small very fast and even the very slow are not easy to comprehend. The Copenhagen interpretation was an attempt to understand the quantum world on such a metre scale. I prefer Feynman’s point of view. If that is the way things are, then that’s the way they are. 
    I’d like to correct one small thing though. It’s commonly said that the decoherence occurs at the point of observation, but really it is on the point of measurement. In ‘The Quark and the Jaguar’ Murray Gell-Mann points out that an ant walking the length of a superposition would be sufficient.

  • Jonathan West

    (Reply to various of theroadmaster’s comments)

    You suggest at one point that God is “not amenable to being described in a statistical format or analysed in a test-tube”, but in a different comment you say that “The Jury is still out and the positive effects of Intercessory prayer have never been fully disproved.  More studies need to be done in this area to come up with a fuller picture.” which rather suggests you do believe that God is amenable to being so described.

    You give the impression of not quite knowing your own position, and arguing in whatever way is necessary to keep God against the issues presented to you, rather than simply looking for the truth of the matter.In terms of the way you suggest for knowing God, you state that “the recorded life of Christ is the supreme way of knowing the unseen Creator of our universe”. But it seems to me that in order to accept this I must first take a number points of faith, such as

    - that Christ’s life has been accurately recorded in the Gospels
    - the claims made concerning Christ’s relationship with God are accurate (even though they are contradictory, different claims being made in different gospels)

    It seems that there is some circular reasoning here. I need to accept the truth of the biblical account in order to know God, and that the reason i need to accept the truth of the Biblical account is because the Bible says so.

    And when you quote Aquinas in saying “Aquinas-To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible”, that is simply a take-it-or-leave it shrug of the shoulders. It is not directed at unbelievers in the hope of getting them to know God, it is intended to keep believers where they are. 

    As for Lourdes, I have no doubts that “the people who directly experienced these recoveries are real and their claims were minutely examined over the years by an independent panel of doctors”. I just don’t see any reason for thinking that the cures are miraculous, just very unlikely. But very unlikely things do happen from time to time – after all, somebody wins the lottery almost every week, and that is a 1 in 49 million chance!

    If a sufficiently wide survey were to be made, I suspect that broadly comparable range of cures could be found among patients who have never been to Lourdes, and aren’t Catholic or even religious. Would such cures be thought miraculous by the Catholic authorities? If not, what are they?

  • Jonathan West

    (Reply to Acleron)
    Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev had considerably more effect on the collapse of communism than the catholics.

    Actually even they didn’t have much effect. The simple fact behind the fall of communism is that the USSR ran out of foreign currency to pay for the grain needed to feed the population, and that was a direct result of the collectivisation of its agriculture, which turned it from a leading exporter of grain to a leading importer.

    The collapse of the USSR followed from and was a direct result in the collapse of the oil price in the mid 1980′s from the dizzy heights it reached in the oil shocks of the 1970s. The USSR had become dependent on the foreign currency revenues it had from oil exports, and when these revenues collapsed it essentially bankrupted the USSR.

    The USSR turned to the west for credits of $100 billion, and this was arranged, but in essence the price was that the threat or use of military force should no longer be made to maintain the communist governments in Eastern Europe. Within a few months they were gone. When Gorbachov tried to re-establish central rule over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, he was told by the Americans that this was an internal matter to the USSR and that Gorbachov could take whatever measure he wished – but that if force was used, he could kiss goodbye to the $100 billion credit line.

    The coup against Yeltsin failed because the generals had no more idea how to feed the population without the western credits than anybody else did.

    Don’t take my word for this. Read all about it in the words of Yegor Gaidar. Between 1991 and 1994, he was acting prime minister of Russia, minister of economy, and first deputy prime minister. In other words, he was there at the centre of power when the USSR collapsed, and should be in a position to know why it happened.

  • Acleron

    That’s a good inside source, thanks.