At Veritas Forum, Academics Talk Spirituality

Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?
Dr. Robert A. Lue and Prof. Ian H. Hutchinson discuss questions about the reality of belief, meaning and personal identity at the Harvard Veritas Forum Wednesday night.
Students flocked to Science Center Hall B Wednesday for this year’s Veritas Forum, a discussion on the compatibility of modern scientific knowledge and religious faith.

Biology professor Robert A. Lue, and MIT professor and nuclear scientist Ian Hutchinson, led the discussion, which focused on whether scientists can believe in miracles and a higher power.

Several campus groups, including Harvard College Faith and Action, the Premedical Society, and the Catholic Student Association sponsored the event, which was moderated by History of Science professor Anne Harrington.

Hutchinson, who is a Christian, kicked off the panel with a straightforward, though joking, answer to the event’s central question.

“Can scientists believe in miracles? We can answer that question pretty easily—I’m a scientist, and I believe in miracles. So the answer is yes,” Hutchinson said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

He went on to talk about the questions humans have always faced despite scientific progress.

“There are fundamental aspects of the universe that deterministic laws do not, and as far as we know, cannot accurately describe,” Hutchinson said. “Science has labored mightily for centuries to understand the world in a deterministic way, only to find that the universe resists complete description.”

He added: “Yes, we know more today than people did long ago, but what we know today makes the universe seem, if anything, even more open."

Lue, a self-described agnostic, spoke about his experience volunteering with a Jesuit group in Jamaica as instrumental in the formation of his spiritual philosophy.

“Arguably, I saw humanity, perhaps at its low point,” Lue said. “Repeatedly, I would come across individuals who nevertheless went beyond themselves for others.”

“I feel that the miracles I saw [in Jamaica] don’t require a God,” he added.

Hutchinson described the decision not to believe in miracles a kind of faith in itself.

“If you adopt the firm opinion that miracles just don’t happen, then you’re doing so not as a matter of science, but as a matter of faith,” he said.

Although the forum billed the event as as a discussion between two speakers with divergent beliefs, Lue and Hutchinson found that they shared significant common ground.

“No, science is not the only path to knowledge. Now, here’s the alarming thing—that Ian and I might actually end up agreeing. I mean, you guys came here for a cage fight, right?” Lue said to laughter. “No, I don’t think there is a Great Wall of Science.”

Harrington also pointed out the apparent agreement between the two professors.

“One of the things I’ve been struck by in your comments is the degree to which both of you take a certain kind of modesty in the way you approach the question,” Harrington said. “It isn’t the kind of hegemonic one side over the over. You carry your scientific identity alongside your religious identity.”

“I don’t see a conflict between science and religion,” Lue said at the end of the conversation.

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