Faith and Science: Must They Always Be Consistent?

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Science loves consistency. You might even say that science is the study of finding consistency in the universe via physical and mathematical models. By extension, any truth seeker who wants understanding needs to find consistent facts, explanations, and principles. Truth should always agree with truth.

Spiritual truths are no different. Truths of a spiritual nature can only be true if they uphold the other truths and facts of the universe. However, in the quest for spiritual truths, it is nearly impossible to avoid seeming inconsistencies and conflicts. Examples of apparent conflicts include questions such as:

  • How does the notion that God created the world align with a scientific evolutionary model?
  • Why does a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?
  • Why do spiritual experiences of other people not always align with my experiences or the experiences of those I trust?
  • Why do spiritual writings attributed to or inspired by God (who cannot lie and who knows all) seem to conflict each other?
  • Why are there different interpretations or applications of the same truths?
  • How can there be the existence of a spiritual world with no detectable evidence in the physical sciences of such a world?

The list could go on. Like any good scientist, I have my hypotheses and explanations for many of these conflicting truths, but I can’t pretend that I have the definitive answers. And I’m not going to address any of these particular ideas in this post.

However, I have learned that it is OK to live with a certain amount of conflicting thought and inconsistency. I’ve learned to be comfortable with this, not from faith or spiritual experiences, but from my knowledge of scientific history.

Example 1: Light and relativity

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In the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell presented some well-defined laws on electromagnetism (think, light and electricity, and magnetism). One of the derivations of his laws concluded that light has a certain defined speed, namely, ~300,000 km/s.

However, Isaac Newton’s laws of physics offered a slightly different perspective on the speed of light. This conflicting viewpoint created some consternation in the scientific world. Let me paint a more detailed picture of the conflict.

Here’s how it goes in Newtonian physics. Imagine you are riding in a train going 100 miles per hour, and a professional baseball pitcher is on a stationary platform next to the train. As the train passes the pitcher, he throws a fastball going the same direction that the train is going.

When you look out the train window, you see the ball going 100 mph right next to the window of the train. Because you are viewing the ball from the frame of reference of the train going 100 mph, you will see a ball that is apparently holding still next to you in the window. Eventually the ball slows down due to air resistance and falls to the ground from gravity, but for a moment, it appears to be hovering next to your window. Both train and ball are whizzing by the surrounding scenery at 100 mph, but relative to each other they are holding still.

Now imagine a related scenario. You are now standing outside the train on the stationary platform, and the pitcher is riding on the inside of the train. He’s somewhat anxious to practice his pitch, and decides to practice his fastball on the train.

Watching from the outside you see the train going by at 100 mph. Looking through the window, you see the pitcher blast a pitch off from inside the train. From the pitcher’s perspective, he’s sent off the ball at 100 mph. From your perspective on the ground, the ball is going an amazingly fast 200 mph (100 mph from train + 100 mph from pitch). This is all Newtonian physics.

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You could then imagine a similar experiment with a light beam. You climb in a rocket ship and blast off near the speed of light. At the same time, a friend on the ground turns on a flashlight and sends out a beam of light. Based on the baseball analogy, you would expect to look out of your rocket ship window and see an apparently still, or at least slower moving, beam of light.

In the related scenario, you are outside on the ground and your friend with the flashlight is on the rocket ship. When your friend turns on the flashlight, you would expect to see the beam of light shoot off at a speed almost twice that of the speed of light (speed of rocket + speed of light from flashlight).

However, back to our contradiction, neither of these outcomes are what Maxwell’s equations would predict! The equations don’t specify the speed of light relative to a certain object. They indicate the speed of light is always the same (~300,000 km/s). But how could that be? One person is on a rocket ship going near the speed of light and sees the light going at 300,000 km/s, and another person on the stationary ground sees the same light going at 300,000 km/s. Conflict!

It turns out, this conflict ultimately led to some of the greatest revolutionary truths about space and time. Some careful experiments in the late 1800s (see, for example, the Michelson-Morley experiments) showed that the speed of light is always the same, no matter from what vantage point you’re observing or how fast the object that’s shooting out the light is already moving. So Maxwell was right, and Newton was wrong?! Or was something more complicated going on?

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Albert Einstein and others took to this contradiction and re-worked Newtonian physics for when objects are moving near the speed of light and discovered some new physics. In Einstein’s special theory of relativity, incredibly odd things start to happen near the speed of light. Depending on your vantage point, objects going near the speed of light shrink, become more massive, and time slows down.

Even stranger, things that occur simultaneously in one vantage point happen at different times in another vantage point. It turns out the misconception was that time is always constant, when the reality is that it becomes malleable when things are moving near the speed of light. Einstein’s later work in his theory of general relativity made some further extensions showing that time and space are interconnected with mass and gravity and acceleration. This theory has explained behaviors of planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, and other secrets of the cosmos with remarkable accuracy.

This is cool science, and an important discovery of the 20th century. However, it’s important to point out that while Maxwell and Newton did not paint the full scientific picture, neither is it correct to characterize one of them as “wrong” or “right”, or to say that all of physics was overturned. Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories are in full use today as they were originally formulated. Newtonian physics works well enough for NASA to direct spaceflight within the solar system. The conflict didn’t mean everything that was known in the past was wrong; it meant that there were additional truths that needed to be understood. The new truth refined the old understanding and provided a more universal model of the laws of physics.

Example 2: Quantum mechanics

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While the understanding of the physics of the cosmos was being revolutionized, another smaller revolution was going on in parallel at the atomic level. The elementary nature of light had been studied for thousands of years, and in the past few hundred years it had begun to be understood as a wave. Like ocean waves and sound waves, it could bend and diffract, interfere with itself, and it possessed an amplitude (intensity) and frequency (wavelength). Back to James Clerk Maxwell, his equations and subsequent experiments revealed that light could mathematically be described as self-propagating waves of electric and magnetic fields, giving light the new title of electromagnetic radiation.

One of the well-known properties of waves was that you could have a continuous range of frequencies and amplitudes. However, some strange things started to happen as scientists began investigating light’s interaction with atoms. It had been observed that ultraviolet light hitting a metal plate would cause ejection of electrons, also known as the photoelectric effect.

Based on the wave theory of light, the energy of the light was transferring energy to the electrons of the metal and ejecting some of the electrons off the surface. Because the energy of a wave is based on the frequency and amplitude, you should be able to use either of those levers to increase the energy of the wave and the subsequent velocity at which the electrons were ejected.

As an analogy, you can increase the energy of waves hitting a ship in the ocean by increasing the frequency with which the waves hit the ship. Or you could keep the frequency constant and instead increase the amplitude of the waves to make some giant waves that would really slam the ship. (As an interesting side read, check out the Wikipedia article on Rogue Waves).

To the dismay of scientists who thought they had things figured out, light in the photoelectric experiments didn’t work exactly like other known waves. Increasing the frequency of light would increase the energy with which individual electrons could be ejected from the metal. But turning down the frequency and increasing the amplitude did not create a similar result.

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Re-enter Albert Einstein. Einstein, building on the work of Max Planck, suggested that light was subdivided at a basic level into particle-like packets of energy called photons, and the energy of a given photon is entirely based on the frequency of light. Amplitude is simply the number of photons in a given light ray. So at the atomic level, you could have many, many low-energy photons knocking into electrons on the surface of a metal plate, but unless the frequency of the individual photons was high enough, none of those low-energy photons could eject an electron with the same velocity (i.e. energy) as a high-frequency photon. And if the frequency was low enough, the light wouldn’t be able to eject electrons at all.

This seemed to prove conclusively that light had properties of a particle, and wasn’t strictly a wave. Contradiction!

Furthermore, some later experiments showed that electrons, which were known to be discrete particles, could behave in a wave-like matter. They could be diffracted and form interference patterns and be described by amplitude and frequency. So a known particle was behaving like a wave in certain circumstances, and a known wave was behaving like a particle in certain circumstances. Double contradiction!

Other experiments and theories on these and other atomic scale quantities ultimately led to the development of quantum mechanics. If you study quantum mechanics, you’ll find it chock full of behaviors that seem to contradict known physical phenomenon.

The particle-wave duality of microscopic objects is just one of such odd behaviors. It took many experiments and hair-pulling theoretical calculations to fully develop quantum mechanics as a mature physical and mathematical theory. However, this work has paid off in the development of chemistry, optics (think lasers), semiconductors, and many other areas of science that impact our lives today.

Example 3: Quantum Mechanics and General Relativityunsolved!

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Examples 1 and 2 exhibited scientific breakthroughs that led to a revolution in understanding nature during the 20th century. General relativity opened the doors to understanding the cosmos in ways that shifted the paradigm of science. Quantum mechanics opened the doors to chemistry and physics at the small scale.

Despite these major achievements, all the mysteries of the universe are not yet resolved. When applying the gravitational laws of general relativity on the small scale of quantum mechanics, there are some equations that break down.

Unlike other forces in nature, there is no fundamental quantum mechanical understanding of how gravity works. Physicists today are working on resolving that problem experimentally and theoretically. See for example the article Relativity versus quantum mechanics: the battle for the universe.

Does this conflict distress scientists? Perhaps a bit — it would be nice if we could just understand all the basic laws of the universe and then get around to using them to our advantage. But in the spirit of learning and discovery, the conflicts indicate there is new knowledge out there waiting to be uncovered. Quoting John H. Schwarz at Caltech:

“Major advances in understanding of the physical world have been achieved during the past century by focusing on apparent contradictions between well-established theoretical structures. In each case the reconciliation required a better theory, often involving radical new concepts and striking experimental predictions.”

While we don’t know how this will all turn out, we do know that within certain defined parameters, general relativity and quantum mechanics are incredibly useful and accurate theories. And despite some conflicts, scientists have faith that there is a better theory that will reveal even more about the universe.

Conclusion: The spiritual world

I began this post addressing spiritual questions and contradictions. How do quantum mechanics and general relativity relate to spiritual things? Like the examples given above, some profound spiritual truths may appear, even to the brightest minds, to have unresolvable or untenable conflicts and contradictions. Unfortunately, it seems to be a common pattern that when individuals run into unresolvable conflicts in the spiritual world, they feel that they have to choose one idea and abandon another.

What the examples above have taught me is that you can always hold onto the truths you know and wait for further light and knowledge. In the meantime, you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You can typically accept the major tenets of the competing truths, understanding and accepting the assumptions and limitations of each side. You don’t have to choose whether God made man or whether man evolved from various hominid species.

Learn all you can from the spiritual world about God’s creative processes. Learn all you can about what scientists have learned about the evolution and origins of man. Embrace the truth and acknowledge the assumptions and limitations of knowledge from both sources. Then get excited about the conflict — you can know there is more to learn!

So the next time you run into a conflict or contradiction, remember Einstein, Maxwell, Planck, Newton, and other scientists who struggled to find new meaning with the revelation of new scientific knowledge.

Think of the quantum mechanical microelectronics in satellites whizzing around the earth using the theory of relativity to correct for distortions in time and space that allow your smart phone to give you exact GPS coordinates.

Amazing!

Embrace the uncertainty along with the certainty. As a scientist who believes in learning and progress beyond this life, I’m excited about all the things I have yet to learn while I’m alive and all the things I will have yet to learn in the world to come.

PhD Chemist, father of six kids, and local bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.