Shared from the 2017-07-08 Chattanooga eEdition

Voices of Faith

When faith is lost to science

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Regis Nicoll

Her loss of faith is a famil- iar story. As writer Margaret Wheeler Johnson explains it, the personal integrity that religion instilled in her “made it impossible to maintain faith” in religion. A while back, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla made a similar disclosure; namely, the truth that led him to faith was the very thing that led him “out of faith.”

What Johnson and Lilla don’t realize is that they don’t lose their faith; they merely shift it from one object to another. For many folks like them, that object is science.

No doubt, scientific discovery has led to breathtaking technological achievements over the last century. However, our technological successes have given us the false impression that we know more than we do. Science, for all of its utility in our manipulation of nature, has not resulted in a commensurate understanding of nature. We are like a car owner who believes he knows how cars work, because when he turns the ignition key and presses the gas pedal, his car moves. And while the physics of auto mechanics could be learned, a comprehensive understanding of nature is unlikely, if not impossible.

That’s because only 4 percent of the universe is made up of things that we can see, probe and measure. The rest consists of dark matter and dark energy that remain hidden from our investigative tools. What’s more, what we know about that accessible “4 percent” is precious little.

For example, we “know” that matter is made up of atoms consisting of elementary particles which are (take your pick): localized excitations in the quantum field or Planck-sized “strings” or “membranes” whose “vibration patterns” produce the qualities of mass. Either way, the inescapable conclusion is that there is no “there” there — at least, any “there” we could recognize as such.

In short, the sum total of our knowledge is infinitesimal in comparison to our ignorance, making faith an indispensable part of human existence. So the question is not whether we base our convictions and actions on faith but on what faith we base them.

Johnson expresses a faith that is every bit as religious as the one she left behind:

“I could no longer honestly claim that the marvels I had always named as proof of the existence of a benevolent, omniscient creator — the human body, spring — are examples of anything but the order into which, marvelously indeed but following to no master plan, evolution channels entropy.” (My emphasis.)

Her proposition, “evolution channels entropy,” requires faith that everything known about functionally complex systems must be discarded for a process that has been shown to exceed the creative resources of the entire universe.

On the other hand, accepting that the informationally rich structures of life derive from intelligence is to stand upon what is known to be possible. It is following the evidence wherever it leads, considering all explanations and accepting the one that best fits the facts.

For the materialist, the machine-like features of nature are beneficial but bereft of any intended purpose. Dysfunctional parts (vestigial organs and junk DNA) are evidence that the “machine” is the end product of an unguided process.

Yet, with each passing year, the pile of defective parts has been dwindling. For example, “junk” DNA is increasingly being found essential, either as a chemical “switch” or as a “punctuation mark” in a molecular command string.

In 2012, a five-year study involving 30 peer-reviewed papers concluded that 80 percent of the human genome has a biological function. Just nine years earlier, the Human Genome Project put that number at 2 percent. Given the machine-like architecture of nature, there is no reason to doubt that trend to continue.

Johnson says that her former life was one of “magical thinking” but describes the life committed to reason as a “wasteland in comparison, a frolic in the land of false idols.” She admits to a gnawing emptiness that she “can’t name and can’t begin to fill” and confesses, “When I’m at my wit’s end, I find myself sending up a plea for help. And afterwards, in the face of all reason, I sometimes feel relief.”

Margaret Wheeler Johnson has not lost faith. She is just tottering between two faith extremes: one pulling her further into the wasteland, and the other nudging her gently out. One, her autonomous reason; the other, reason’s Source.

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center, who writes commentary on faith and culture. His book, “Why There Is a God and Why It Matters,” is available from Amazon.

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