The God of the Gaps and Unified Theory

I was recently listening to an interview on On Being with Marilynne Robinson (fiction writer) and Marcelo Gleiser (astrophysicist) when it occurred to me that, while we keep science and faith at opposite poles and often in great tension with one another, there are a lot of similarities.  In fact, religion could stand to learn a few things from science and visa versa.  Indeed, contrary to the beliefs of those like Dawkins and Hawking, science and religion need not be antithetically at odds with one another.

We have heard of the God of the gaps – the idea that those things which are explicable remain within the realm of science and logic while those things that we cannot explain are attributed to God.  For example, Newton realized that the Earth and the other planets in the solar system were revolving around the sun in an elliptical pattern due to a force called gravity.  This was pure science.  However, neither he nor anyone else could explain what force started the planets in motion in the first place.  This was believed to be the work of a divine being because nobody could come up with a viable reason.  Humans are on a search to find God in a way that doesn’t merely fill the gaps of the unknown, but to grasp that which is incomprehensible.

In science, there is a search for what Dr. Gleiser calls “beautiful perfection.”  That is, the way in which bodies act upon one another is a result of forces that exist between them and within those forces there is a symmetry that explains the effects of those forces upon the objects.  I’m not a scientist and I won’t pretend to be one, but the basic gist is that there is a symmetry that lies at the core of existence that wraps science up with a nice bow and “explains it all.”  This is called Unified Theory and its discovery is the quest of many scientists.

It always intrigues me, that such ideas as this within the scientific world are called “theories,” which by their very nature mean that there is significant evidence via the proof and disproof of hypotheses and null hypotheses as to their being correct, but they are not proven per se which would make them a “law.”  In religion, however, (especially Christianity) we have “absolute truth.”   Void of any data or evidence we who adhere to a particular religion believe that there is something that is absolute and true without a willingness to budge despite the lack of benefit or tangible proof.  In science, however, if a theory is disproven, there is great rejoicing amidst the scientific community because it means that advances have been made in that particular field.  The feelings of the scientist(s) (if still alive) who introduced the existing theory may be hurt temporarily, but over all they will be pleased because their goal was likely not for self-notoriety, but rather for the advancement of knowledge in their field.  In religion, it seems, we are more concerned about being right.

Believers attribute the inexplicable to a Divine being who has all the answers where our own run out.  Scientists search for a grand design to the structure of the universe all the way down to subatomic particles to make sense of how it all works.  In the end, we’re not all that different.  We’re all on a search for something that we can’t quite get our minds wrapped around.  The difference is, when believers discover something that potentially advances our relationship with the “mysterious Other,” even when it means needing to let go of old dogma, it is deemed as heresy and disallowed because it doesn’t match up against the “absolute truths that we hold to be self-evident.”  I think it would be nice if we could get over ourselves (because after all, it’s really just our own egotistical need to be right and fear of being wrong that keeps us holding on) and rejoice when we make advances in connecting with God.  Yep, we’ve got a lot to learn from each other, those scientists and us who own the truth.

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3 Responses to “The God of the Gaps and Unified Theory”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    I very much appreciated this pairing of science and religion. It reminds me of the thoughtful discussions between “Faith & Reason” hosted by Bill Moyers. Advancements in medicine also come to mind; at our country’s inception it was still conventional medical practice to “bleed” patients for various ailments. Similarly, religious measures have evolved since our awful history which saw perceived “witches” burned at the stake. Perhaps it is not too much to hope for that, as the human condition progresses, particular religious practices will one day recognize and embrace each other for their common underpinning — much in the same as this writing points out the shared yearning behind science and religion, generally.

    • You’ve got it, brother. We can learn a lot from the likes of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Jesuit priest and paleontologist) and John Polkinhorne (Anglican priest and theoretical physicist). These are examples of two people who did not see the necessity for divorcing faith and reason. Instead they saw these two realms as opposite sides of the same coin with the coin namely being humankind’s existential search for meaning. I applaud anyone who can be open-minded enough to do the same.

      • John Lovestrand Says:

        Very well put, brother. You are doing your part toward that end, and my wife and I very much appreciate your approach and ability to show us both sides of this coin in such a gracious and inviting manner.

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