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God, Science, and the Red Pill

The Wachowskis and Mr. Feynman on the Christian faith

By Stephen G. Mackereth

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”—The Matrix

I hope I would take the red pill.

The red pill means the spirit of adventure, the exploration of the unknown, freedom. The blue pill means parochial, timid adherence to the same old thing, a slave in the “prison for your mind”—and the story ends.

The red pill means danger, a rabbit hole who knows how deep, and many a sleepless night before you get to the bottom of it. The blue pill means safety, or at least whatever safety and control the familiar structures of this familiar world have to offer. It means the comfort of your own feather pillow.

The red pill means the truth. “Remember, all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more,” remarks Morpheus.

The scientific method is a red pill. Christian belief, let's be honest, is often presented as a blue pill.

The scientific method involves questioning everything, gathering hard data, and making inferences from evidence to conclusions only in strict obedience to the p-values, however disheartening that may prove to be. The ideal scientist is passionate enough to devote her life to the pursuit of a truth unknown; cautious enough to remain at the mercy of her data; and stoical enough to shelve her own ego and say “hypotheses non fingo” whenever she doesn’t understand something.

Richard Feynman epitomizes this vision of the scientist hero, someone who was never content with easy answers or superficial explanations, who was willing to hold many things in doubt, out of respect for the mysteriousness of the universe.

Christian belief, on the other hand, is commonly perceived as requiring a voluntary narrowing of the mind that only very uninquisitive people could enjoy. The imposition of a particular creed appears to be an arbitrary restriction on the possibilities of exploration and the full knowledge of the reality of the universe.

It seems to me that this perception is what’s really responsible for the “problem of science and faith.”

Of course Christians can be scientists and do worthwhile scientific research and hold ordinary scientific beliefs. The Catholic Catechism §159 rightly points out that the truths of Christian faith should never contradict truths established by natural reason. (I should like to studiously ignore Darwin-gate.) The question is whether two particular worldviews, which I call the “scientific-reductionist worldview” and the Christian worldview, are logically compatible.

The scientific-reductionist worldview is not the same thing as scientific method. The use of scientific method is no problem at all for faith. Scientific method can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the Christian God. God, the creator and continual sustainer of all physical reality, the source upon which spacetime and matter and the physical laws all depend for their existence, is not an object of scientific study. God cannot be discovered by looking down some very powerful telescope, nor can the possibility of His existence be excluded by any double-blind trials.

The problems all arise from the additional assumptions of the “scientific-reductionist worldview”: That scientific knowledge is the only credible kind of knowledge, that the objects of scientific study are the only kind of objects there are, that the universe as a whole is necessarily a closed system, one great big laboratory bench, with all its variables accounted for and with no forces acting on it from the “outside.”

Theological knowledge does not have any place in a world like that. Scientific and theological methodology are different. Christian belief is not established by scientific method.

Of course, our beliefs about mathematics, ethics, or the Battle of Waterloo, or other persons like Brian, are not established by scientific method either. Even our beliefs that other conscious minds exist at all or that the principle of induction is sound are not scientific beliefs any more than my belief that things are made out of atoms is a religious belief.

Scientific reductionism is rather, well, reductionist.

Let's now reconsider the question: Is Christian belief the blue pill to scientific method's red pill?

True science and true faith spring from the same source: Our primitive wonder at the mysteries of being and knowing.

This world is a remarkable gift. It is wonderfully strange that anything exists at all, and that what does exist is beautiful, and that it obeys elegant laws, and that humans have minds capable of understanding those laws. It is with this spirit of wonder that the psalmist looks up at the wheeling Keplerian orbits overhead and writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). This is no “God of the gaps,” but a God whose artistry is found in the regular workings of this miraculous universe.

Christianity is a wholehearted attempt to give expression to the wonder at the bottom of everything, both things known and unknown. There is room enough for a world full of wonder in a humble, personal, existential commitment to the creed.

Scientific beliefs like “ordinary things are made up of atoms” have been put to the test in some of the most creative and rigorous ways that human minds have ever devised, and that ought to be respected.

Christian belief is also put to the test: Not in the scientific way, but in historical, philosophical, textual-critical ways—and, like any personal relationship, in “a lifetime's death in love.”

There is a deep commonality between science and faith. True scientists are scientists because they are committed to taking the red pill. True Christians are Christians for the same reason.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Stephen G. Mackereth '15 is a joint mathematics and philosophy concentrator in Mather House.

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