Sunday, December 20, 2009

science.... and God

I am a scientist, an organic chemist. I believe in God. There is a popular belief, in the scientific community and outside it, that a good scientist cannot be a god fearing one, that a scientist and a theist are mutually exclusive sets in the Venn diagram. I have listened to many a lively debate on this issue. I subscribe to the view that science subscribes to ideas and methods that are akin to man's relation to his creator. I am a very non-confrontational person and usually stay away from debates of this sort. But a recent post on my Mom's blog inspired me to finally put to words something I've wanted to write about for quite some time. These are merely my views, the way I link my the two worlds that are rather important to me... Any views or opinions trampled upon are completely unintentional.

In graduate school at Texas A&M, I was friends with an ex-IITian who also happened to be atheist. Atheist interest me. I think they are the most extreme manifestation of the human ego. In any event, he was talking about a 'science and God' public event he had been to – About how this atheist scientist had taken apart and decimated all the arguments the 'poor god-fearing scientist' had to make. From his version of events it did seem like the atheists had won the intellectual battle. In my mind I could picture the whole drama - not a pretty picture I imagined. But according to me there should be no arguments, in fact there really is no dispute. At this point, let me pause and make two points very clear – I do not plan to ramble on and completely miss the point I am trying to make, because that’s what usually happens in these debates, all I want to do is explain why I think science and God both involve some very similar ideas. Secondly, I am not talking about religion, which in many cases, distorts God beyond recognition and therefore deserves a completely different discussion (which I will never get into).

When cornered by this very smart IITian, I tried to come up with an explanation for my belief in God that he could understand and identify with. In any scientific experiment, a scientist starts with a theory. He designs an experiment to test his theory. If the experiment works and gives him the results he expected, then his theory is validated. Now if the results are not convincing enough, he still likes to believe that his theory was correct and he probably needs to design a better experiment. Sometimes, however his experiment fails. The inference he draws at this point is that his experiment was unreasonable and shouldn’t have tried it in the first place. But notice that he still doesn’t discard his theory. One final situation – he tries the experiment and his results lead him to a serendipitous discovery, something he never had expected. At this point, the scientist proudly tells the story of how his theory led to the experiment which then led to this wonderful discovery. Notice again that he never ridicules or belittles his original theory; rather he gives it credit for his new discovery.

Does this sound all too familiar? If not let me run through the God analogy really quick. God is the theory. You believe in the theory. You want the theory to work. You want to know that you believe in something that exists. So when faced with a problem, you pray. Prayer is the experiment, to see if God really exists (though that’s not the reason people usually pray, but let us play along for a bit). Now if the prayer is answered, it is like the successful experiment. If the answer to the prayer was not as clear as the person expected, he decides he needs to pray harder. This renewed attempt at prayer is the ‘better experiment’. If the prayer is ignored (or seemingly ignored), he likes to first believe that his expectations from the prayer were unreasonable rather than lose faith in God. And how many times in our life have our prayers not been answered but at a later time we have said “whatever happened, happened for the best; See how everything turned out..”. This is the serendipitous discovery. At this point the person praises God and gives Him credit for his unexpected good fortune.

My friend laughed at my analogy. He said I was a blind fool. But I knew I had planted that seed of doubt in his mind. His final shot at me – when your prayers are answered how do you know it was God? – but as soon as he asked me this question, he was kicking himself. I could tell that he KNEW what my answer would be. The history of science is littered with examples where the scientific interpretation of an experiment has often proven to be WRONG. This however does not discredit the scientist. In fact people give him credit for having thought of the experiment and for having had faith in the theory. Did I say faith? Well, that’s what my final answer to him was. Faith my friend, is the basis of our belief in God and (believe it or not) of science. Given your resources and abilities you do the best you can and as long as you have faith that you have been honest to yourself, you will still be righteous in the eyes of God and by analogy in the eyes of scientific community! The bottom line is just like you’ll never know whether your scientific theory is correct you will never know by means of physical evidence that God exists. Both require a certain degree of faith. Having gained that faith many many facts begin to add up and make a lot of sense.