When the facts seem to prove the faith wrong

Monday, June 03, 2019 - Updated: 3:31 pm

By David Mills

“Nature doesn’t give up its secrets cheaply,” said an English astrophysicist named Carlos Frenk. We have to work at figuring out what’s what in the universe. Often that work includes trying to explain something we know must be true when everything we know at the moment says it isn’t. This tells us something about the way we think as Christians.

Last time, I talked about the scientist Marcelo Gleiser, who wants scientists to be more humble. He calls science “a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know.”

One way scientists exercise humility is knowing what to do with what they see but can’t explain. An English magazine called Prospect just published an article on the search for “dark matter.” Scientists can’t yet find any evidence for it, but they are pretty sure it’s there.

Their science writer Philip Ball explains how the gravitational pull of the things we can see can’t keep the spinning galaxies together. Once scientists thought it could, until better instruments showed that it couldn’t. They figured out that something we couldn’t see provided the gravity. In fact, the universe needs a lot more of it than it has of the stuff we can see. You’ll want to read his article for the full explanation. (See link at the end.)

After many decades of trying to figure it out, scientists still have no real idea what it is. “Since the late 1980s,” Ball explains, “most physicists have instead accepted that dark matter is likely to be made up of fundamental particles that are currently unknown to physics.” Well-designed experiments haven’t given us any evidence for it. The best theories keep getting shot down.

Ball asks what scientists do about this. “Science isn’t about sticking only to rigorously confirmed facts,” he writes. “Supposing things to be true and standing by that supposition in the face of ignorance and the absence of evidence, maybe even for a lifetime, is not only useful but sometimes essential.”

The discovery of the famous particle called the Higgs boson is an example. Scientists had reason to believe it existed, but had to wait until the creation of the Hadron Collider to find it.

As I say, this tells us something about the way we think as Christians. We have mysteries even more mysterious than the universe’s. The Incarnation. The Trinity. The goodness of God. The nature of creation. The host that looks like bread but is really the body of Christ. The unity of the Catholic Church through history. What do we do with them?

Basically, we hold to the things we know, even if they seem impossible or contradictory, and keep looking for ways to make sense of them.

Here’s one thing to keep in mind as we think about this. When we say we believe the faith, we’re saying we know it’s true. When we sing “Jesus Christ is risen today,” we don’t mean we feel he’s risen or hope he’s risen. We mean the dead man rose as a matter of historical fact.

And we can make strong rational arguments for holding all these things as facts. We’re not just insisting on what we want to think. We can’t give them up because they seem to contradict something else we know.

So: We know that dead is dead and that Jesus lives. We know both that a piece of bread stays a piece of bread and that the host we receive at Mass is the creator and savior of the universe. What to do about this? We do what scientists do.

Here’s an example. It’s what’s called “the problem of evil.” If God is so good and so powerful, why do such horrible things happen all the time? I could be wrong, but I don’t find any of the answers Christians have given very convincing.

I can see the evil right in front of me. I have very good reason to believe in the goodness and the power of God. As far as I can explain it, both can’t be true. But I know they are. So I leave this problem for now and for better, wiser minds than mine to figure out.

At the end of his article, Ball quotes the famous physicist Erwin Schrödinger. “In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period,” he explained. “The steadfastness in standing up to (this requirement), nay in appreciating it as a stimulus and a signpost to further quest, is a natural and indispensable disposition in the mind of a scientist.” And of the Christian.

Mills is writing a book on Catholic death and dying for Sophia Press. Ball’s article can be found at tiny.cc/ball-darkmatter.

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