A science museum near Atlanta is set-up for school children, but apparently not for their grand sense of awe. After my son’s recent trip, he wondered why a question from a classmate was ignored. Their guide had been explaining the origin of the solar system, saying, “…then the sun made itself into a firey ball of gas.” One boy raised his hand and asked, “How did the sun make itself?” The guide dropped the rule about “No bad questions” and politely indicated they weren’t going there.
At this point in the story, I’m picturing this host as Willy Wonka on his tour of the Chocolate Factory. Wonka, annoyed by the kids’ curiosity says, “I’m a trifle deaf in this ear. Speak a little louder next time.” [Cue the Oompa Loompas.]
This boy’s wonder was deemed unfit for a scientific field of view. The non-response boggles the mind. Of course the subject strays into mystery. Yes it’s beyond measurement. I get how it crosses into private commitments. But the question is obvious and important. Are we really so skittish that we can’t at least list a range of possibilities in public? Even if kids miss the tension of these moments, I’m sure they sense something missing behind all the information. I’ll bet they can tell when narrative is missing. The story is missing.
The gap in our coherence
But is it really missing? Look closer. The awkward subject change tells a story of an unspoken agreement to divide subjects into boxes which don’t touch. Supposedly, science may not overlap with philosophy, theology, and human history. Yet it does, even in this situation–a ton of human history shows up in this brief exchange. It’s a story about a polarized culture, and about some assumptions which never face the formal scrutiny the scientific method places upon everything else.
Academic science communities not only have a method but also a narrative and a doctrine.
Can young children tell when an adult ducks a question? I’ll bet they can feel when wonder is put on ice. In this instance, making God-questions a public taboo creates a gap between kids and the narrative which has inspired centuries of awe, exploration, and discovery.
Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. – Albert Einstein
What’s your story?
Cliff Foreman says
I don’t have any problem with limiting science to questions that involve natural causation. But that would mean that the question of origins gets “bracketed” and left alone in the science classroom. The problem is that many scientists don’t obey their own strictures. And since we have no religion classes or philosophy classes in primary or secondary education, science comes in by default and becomes a religion and philosophy, a role for which it is inadequate. The sort of outmoded naive empiricism that science suggests never gets questioned.
Tim Filston says
Thanks Cliff. Agreed. It’s not the limiting of science to the five senses (empirical) I find objectionable. It’s the lack of clarity and honesty about how the set of assumptions in the lab affects the larger conversation about what is plausible and real. Everyone knows on a personal level that not everything real to us is measurable. Yet, we seem to be allowing the assumptions of the science classroom to guide how faith and public life intersect overall.
Joani Jack says
You know I can’t resist this one.
The simple — and true — answer the scientist should have given is this: “Everything you see described in your textbooks about the sun simply describes what has occurred after it came to exist. We are able to describe things that we can observe or measure. We CANNOT describe things that cannot be observed or measured. Therefore, science cannot tell you how the sun, or the earth, or humans first came to BE. That occurred without human witnesses, has never occurred since, cannot be measured or predicted or extrapolated, and is beyond the ability of science to determine.”
Many, if not most scientists understand this well. We are observing and measuring things that are occurring on this round ball… while we are actually living on the round ball ourselves! Therefore, objectivity about earth and about humans is impossible.
The problem is that the deeper you go into science, the more obvious our limitations become. To those unthreatened by anything bigger than science or ourselves, it is awe-inspiring and exhilarating. But, if science is your ‘god’, and is supposed to answer every question of life, you have a big problem. It cannot… and so that leads to all manner of mental gymnastics to make things fit.
Sometimes, the mental gymnastics are too hard, and so you just ignore a child’s honest answer!!
It requires a great deal of ‘blind faith’ to believe in science for the ULTIMATE questions.
Cliff Foreman says
Amen to both yous guys (Yankee for ya’all).