What I Wish My Pastor Knew About… The Life of a Scientist, Part 1
Note: This is the first in a three part series, republished with permission from The Ministry Theorem. This post originally appeared on our site on February 2, 2012.
I am married to a scientist — to be specific, an experimental physicist (which I’d like to think is the very best kind). For more than 15 years now I’ve accompanied Catherine through a life in physics, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress that began in the Slough of Graduate School, continued through the Testing Fields of the Job Search and the harrowing of the Vale of Tenure, and is now wending its way through the Elysian Fields of Mid-Career Teaching, Research, and Administration. Along the way, just like Christian in Bunyan’s classic, she has encountered plenty of both helpful and dangerous characters, some reassuringly metaphorical and others all too literal. And I, like Christian’s friend Hopeful, have tried to be a faithful companion, though often I’ve been able to do little more than cheer or wince at the twists and turns of a life in science.
There’s a serious point in my playful invocation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Like many of the most complex human endeavors — parenting, farming, becoming a Christian — the life of a scientist is not just an “occupation,” something that occupies us for a while and might then be followed by something entirely different. Being a scientist is as much about being as doing, as much about a particular way of being formed as a person as it is a set of activities or even skills. Training in science is induction not so much into a particular worldview (though it includes absorbing plenty of the kind of cognitive presuppositions that that word suggests) as it is a kind of posture or stance toward the world, toward one’s work, and toward one’s fellow human beings, both scientists and non-scientists. And the life of a scientist is a journey, one freighted with ultimate concerns and laden with values. It is a journey into a set of virtues, the habits and dispositions that make one a person of a particular kind of character.
When we talk about faith and science, we tend to focus on the cognitive content of both endeavors, the truth claims and worldviews that animate these two crucial dimensions of modern human life. These are important matters, and I don’t at all mean to diminish them. At the same time, there are inevitable limits to what any pastor can do to constructively integrate the knowledge content of science — so vast and rapidly expanding that even scientists cannot pretend to be expert in anything but a tiny portion — with the content of Christian faith. But there is another way to approach faith and science which I believe might well be more within reach of most pastors, and more essential to their job description than being deeply literate in the latest scientific discoveries and theories — and that is simply to attend to, and prayerfully support and encourage, the scientific life itself as a vocation that can reflect the image of God and be a place for working out one’s own salvation.
So here is what I wish our pastors — and fellow Christians — knew about the life of a working scientist.
Delight and Wonder
If there is one personality characteristic of the vast majority of scientists I have met, it is delight. There is something about science that attracts people who are fascinated and thrilled by the world. To be sure, any given scientist is delighted by things that you and I may find odd or indeed incomprehensible — the intricacies of protein folding, the strata of Antarctic ice cores, or the properties of Lebesgue spaces (and no, I have no idea what that last phrase really means). But the specificity of their delights is one of delight’s secrets: like love, delight is always most potent when it is particular. It is certainly possible to find lawyers who are delighted by law (I have one friend who can go on at great length, with enthusiasm, about corporate bankruptcies), dairy farmers who are delighted by cows, or lumberjacks who are delighted by trees — but I dare say your chances are much better that when you meet a scientist you will find that they are delighted with the tiny part of the world they study day to day. (At least when they are not frustrated with it — which we’ll examine below.)
In many scientists, delight is matched by wonder — a sense of astonishment at the beautiful, ingenious complexity to be found in the world. This is not the “wonder” that comes from ignorance — “I wonder how a light bulb really works?” — but a wonder that comes from understanding. Indeed, as we progress further into humanity’s scientific era we have been able to disabuse ourselves of a mistaken early-modern notion: that the more the world became comprehensible, the less it would be wonderful. That turns out not to be true at all — ask a scientist. Wonder grows as understanding grows. Indeed, wonder only grows if understanding grows. If we replace our childhood awe of lightning with an explanation like, “It’s nothing but a transfer of voltage across a highly resistive material” (an example of what G. K. Chesterton wittily called “nothing-buttery”) perhaps the world will seem like a less wonderful place. But those who actually pursue knowledge of lightning — of electromagnetism or cloud formation or weather systems or climate — end up being more in awe of the world than they were as children. This is surely one of the remarkable features of our cosmos: the more we understand about it, the more we are in awe of its beautiful elegance and simplicity, and at the same time its humbling complexity.
To be sure, many if not most scientists do not see this wonderful world in the way that most Christians would hope for. For us, wonder is a stepping-stone to worship — ascribing our awe for the world to a Creator whose worth it reveals. For many scientists, wonder is less a stepping-stone than a substitute for worship. Yet they stop and wonder all the same.
I doubt that humility is among the first traits most people think of when they think of scientists. And indeed, some scientists (like some academics and intellectuals generally) exhibit a combination of confidence in their own intellect and limitations in their social skills that makes them seem abrasive if not arrogant. A few have made a public career of intellectual overreaching, not least in matters of science and faith. But in my experience (and certainly, let me stress, in the case of my own wife!) this is much more the exception than the rule. If intellectual humility is essentially a willingness to admit what you do not and cannot know, science cultivates humility like few other pursuits can — because in few other pursuits do you so often find out that you were wrong.
Even though we tell the story of science through its high points — the discoveries and confirmed theories that won Nobel Prizes and launched new eras in technology — the actual practice of science, for nearly every working scientist, involves far more failure than success. This is especially true for experimental science, the kind that requires the most direct interaction with recalcitrant reality. On most days, in most labs, the data do not add up, Matlab has an untraceable bug, the laser is on the fritz, and all the cultures have been contaminated when the undergraduate research assistant sneezed. And while each of these everyday setbacks requires immense amounts of patience and persistence to overcome, they are only the quotidian version of the perplexity that begins early in the study of science. Every scientist, in the process of their training, has had to repeatedly discover that their intuitions about the world are simply wrong, or at least incomplete. Even great scientists have come up against the sheer oddity and unpredictability of the world — Albert Einstein, for example, never fully accepted the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics, something that is now universally accepted by physicists.
This regular confrontation with the limits of one’s own knowledge and skill is not to be taken for granted. The other divisions of the academy, the social sciences and the humanities, deal with matters of such variability and complexity that it is often difficult to say conclusively that anyone, or any theory, is entirely wrong. Marx’s and Freud’s grand theories may not seem nearly as plausible as they once were, but there are thousands of people following their lines of thought without losing the respect of their intellectual peers. But Ptolemaic cosmology or Lamarckian evolution now have, simply, no followers. They have been proved wrong beyond a reasonable doubt (although Lamarck’s ideas, interestingly, turn out to have a grain of truth in a way very different from what he expected). Who is likely to be more intellectually humble — someone who early in her training, and daily in her work, learns that her assumptions have been wrong, or someone who can always argue his way out of any intellectual predicament? It is perhaps no accident that “grade inflation,” in which undergraduates’ grades ratchet ever upwards in a nod to the consumer realities of the modern university, is much less pervasive in the sciences, where you can’t cajole your way into an A. The honest, and humbling, truth is that there is likely more intellectual humility in the average physics laboratory than in the average theology classroom.
For more from the "What I Wish My Pastor Knew" series, visit The Ministry Theorem.