The world is a certain way. In fact, the world is a certain way even if I may not understand the way the world is. I have recently been taking a class on mathematical and scientific reasoning, and it always intrigues me that we are pretty confident that we have figured out the way the world works. We thought that we understood physics perfectly because of the brilliant work of Isaac Newton, but now we have the theory of relativity that seems to challenge everything that Newton’s work was built upon. We have fundamental elements of uncertainty built into our scientific understanding. We think we know the way the world is, but because we are limited people and are simply not perfect all the time in our scientific exploration, we just sometimes get things wrong.
Part of that is the charm of any scientific endeavor. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t pretend to be one, but if I was, I think part of what I would like most about it is going to find something that no one has ever discovered before. Even though we have learned a lot about the way the world is, we don’t know everything by any means. I have heard it said somewhere that the more you learn, the more you realize that you really don’t know all that much to begin with. Once you start delving into the mysteries of something as incredibly immense and complex as the world around us, let alone the entire known creation, I’m sure it is overwhelming but also exciting to find all of the wonderful adventures you can go on as you try to pursue knowledge.
Implicit in the fact that there is always something new to learn is the disturbing fact that probably indicates we have something wrong. We have ideas about certain things, but when we discover something new that overturns our previous understanding, that means that someone was wrong in the first place. It is just something that we have to recognize. The entire premise of the scientific method is that we discover truth through experimentation. As we discover truth, the inevitable reality is that we are going to find out that some things we thought we knew about the world are simply wrong.
Notice that I very specifically said that we would have a wrong understanding about the world. The world is the way it is. There is an objective reality. This is entirely consistent with the Christian worldview, but it also makes a great deal of scientific sense. The world out there exists no matter how I understand it. If I understand it wrongly, then my views do not correspond to reality. However, if I find something that corresponds to reality, then I have discovered truth. It is an objective concept. If I discover that a hydrogen atom has one proton in its normal state, then it really does not matter how many I feel like it has, and it is not open to alternative perspectives. Obviously people can check my work to make sure I did it right and made a discovery that actually corresponds to reality, but there is no degree of self defined reality here. Rather, I am looking at the world around me and discovering parts of it. Those parts are revealed to me through my own senses as well as the powers of reasoning that I have been endowed with as a member of the human race.
I found an element that has one proton. Therefore, I might find other atoms that have one proton, and I will responsibly conclude, using the powers of logic, that I have found more of the same element. I have found more hydrogen.
The trick, of course, is that sometimes what I think is an objective fact may not be accurate. I can be wrong about things that I am pretty confident about. This really does not seem to be the case, but let’s say that I was evaluating a water molecule, and I thought I observed one oxygen atom, one hydrogen atom and one helium atom. I know this would be a problem chemically, and I know this is a far from perfect example, but let’s hypothetically say that I discovered something I thought was right but was entirely wrong. It was the best information I had at the time based on my best efforts as I was trying to explore the world around me, but it turns out that water actually is one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms.
The thing is that reality did not change. That’s the vital thing that we have to keep in mind here. The external world did not change. I was mistaken. I did not accurately understand the world around me, but water was still water. It is just that my understanding of water changed.
Or, let me give you an example that is a little bit more applicable to most about who are not scientists. It is almost income tax time. I am pretty sure that I am going get a refund this year. I’m pretty sure that is true because, largely, I have spent a lot of money on tuition in the past year. Over the past few years, that tax credit has been enough to give me a refund which I am pretty happy about.
Objective reality might turn out to be different when I hit the tax code. My numbers might get put in the system, and it may simply be the case that something has changed and I do not get money back this year. I hope I get money back, but my perception of what I think I will get is based on the best information I have right now. I think I will get money because I have the past few years. When matched up with the objective reality of the income tax formula, we will find out. I might understand reality accurately right now. I hope I do. I hope I get the money back that I think will be coming my way.
If I am wrong though, I will have to change my understanding of the world. The tax code does not change based on what I think it should be or what I expect it to be based on prior experience. I have to change my understanding based on the way it actually turns out to be.
I can’t help but think as I keep reading these scientific texts that are far beyond my comfort level that we have to come back to the baseline truth that science is often done under philosophical assumptions. We assume certain things. For me, you can tell I am obviously assuming that the external world is real and exists beyond my perception of it. For some people, they might deny the existence of the external world altogether or at least deny that we can make in the objective judgments about this world around us.
The thing is that science follows me at least to this point. Science has to make certain philosophical assumptions, or it is unable to function. The scientific method largely relies on the fact that the universe is, to a large degree, predictable. As I understand it, and I am a definite amateur, there is actually a little bit of debate on the quantum level that things are as regular as they appear. I mentioned that earlier, and I don’t really understand all of it, but hopefully some smart person will fill me in. In general though, the scientific method relies on the assumption that things are not random. The whole point of repeating experiments as part of the method is that if we see a consistent result enough of the time, we can draw a conclusion about an objective fact about our world. It is always possible for something to be disproven, but that is an inherent shortcoming of our limited human perspective and our misapplied logic to come to what we believe is a certain conclusion.
I am not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be one. However, I do find it fascinating, and I find it fascinating because it is an endeavor to discover things about our world. Information is a good thing, and discovery is also a good thing. The more that we learn about the world around us, the more we can be amazed by it. However, the fact that I am amazed about things beyond me is because they are out there. They are not just part of my perception or interpretation. They are parts of creation that were made alongside me and around me. That is just about as remarkable as it gets.