Sago Boulevard

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Ask the Chaplan

In a previous post, I suggested that that perhaps science and religion don't clash because each is concerned, at the end of the day, with fundamentally different kinds of questions. Apparently, Richard Dawkins disagrees, calling such a solution an "appeasement policy":
I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the big bang theory to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. "Ah," he smiled, "now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand you over to our good friend, the chaplain." But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef? Of course chaplains, unlike chefs and gardeners, claim to have some insight into ultimate questions. But what reason have we ever been given for taking their claims seriously? Once again, I suspect that my friend, the professor of astronomy, was using the Einstein/Hawking trick of letting "God" stand for "That which we don't understand." It would be a harmless trick if it were not continually misunderstood by those hungry to misunderstand it. In any case, optimists among scientists, of whom I am one, will insist, "That which we don't understand" means only "That which we don't yet understand." Science is still working on the problem. We don't know where, or even whether, we ultimately shall be brought up short.

The answer to "why the chaplain" isn't because of his claim to some esoteric wisdom. If that were the case, Dawkins would be right to question the credibility of such a claim. The answer is that, unlike the scientist, the chaplan is presumably concerned with that kind of question. Interestingly, Dawkins' conversation with the astronomy professor is evidence of exactlty that point. The professor simply wasn't interested in the question.

I have no doubt that science will provide answers to questions we have yet to dream of asking. Much of what the we don't understand about the world will likely be high-school science to my grandchildren. But there are certain kinds of questions that science won't answer, not so much because it can't, but because it isn't trying to. Of course, religion may not have the answers either. But if you want to know, like Dawkins does, what "made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible", I suggest you ask somebody who's interested in the question.