October 13, 2016
Dr. Jennifer C van Velkinburgh
I was recently interviewed by Lisa Garibay, recipient of a 2016 Think Write Publish Fellowship in Science and Religion. The questions she asked were compelling and, for me, as a scientist, intriguing in their insight into the world’s curiosities about what goes on in the ‘scientist’ mind. The scientist, after all, pursues life as a quest to define the unknown through empirical evidence, with each step guided by a deep-rooted skepticism. Yet, these very characteristics seem to contradict everything about religion and faith — belief in something that is essentially unprovable.
Lisa was mainly curious about my thoughts, as a scientist, on how science and religion can actually work together harmoniously versus the greater perception that they are always and forever at odds.
I was thrilled to be asked about this, since this topic was often reasonably discussed among my classmates at Vanderbilt University, both in the medical school and the science Interdisciplinary Graduate Program for PhD. I, personally, have never considered religion and science to be mutually exclusive. To me, the more knowledge you gain and the more you learn to question (i.e. thinking with a scientific mind), the more you know that anything is possible and, likely, but just beyond the realm of our understanding… like God, and this is what underlies faith.
Lisa delved deeper into my explanation, asking the following questions, which I will present here:
LG: Why do you think that a reconciliation (so to speak) between science and religion is so important? What life experiences have you had proving so?
JvV: Because I have never seen the two (religion and science) as mutually exclusive, I’ve actually never consciously considered such a reconciliation. The old adage of, ‘the more you learn, the less you know,’ comes to mind. When you get a lot of education on one topic, you start to realize how much more there is out there that is still ‘unknown.’ Let’s consider science, specifically biology, from this perspective. In the past century, we have gone from understanding that an organism is made up of single cells to discovering the molecular signaling pathways that underlie the functions of those cells, both in isolation and in interconnected networks that underlie the physiological system of that organism. When we expanded our knowledge in this way, we also uncovered a new lacuna in our understanding of the kinetic and physical properties that must mediate the interactions of these ‘molecules.’ What this cyclical process of learning > uncovering new mysteries > learning > uncovering new mysteries highlights is that the space in which we exist (our physical world, the heavens (i.e. space), consciousness) cannot be fully explained by all of the knowledge we have collected to date. So, just like DNA was unknown in the 1800s, but most certainly existed, God (or spiritual emotions) may be unknown but that does not preclude its existence.
LG: Do you feel like the two are at odds as much as someone may think or is that an outmoded presumption?
JvV: The idea of religion and science being at odds is really not an issue within the scientific community; it is more an issue of outsiders or novices in science. Spirited debates about the two being contradictory are mostly made in high school or undergraduate lecture halls, or in the general media. Most bona fide scientists understand the power of the unknown, and while they may not believe in the hypothesis of God they would not presume to claim it is absolutely (proven) untrue without proof (i.e. without evidence no one can either prove or disprove a hypothesis). Note, this leaves open the ability of someone to rationalize a theory that supports either their belief that the hypothesis may or may not be true.
LG: Are there one or two ways you’ve witnessed science and religion cooperate and feed one another successfully which you’d like to share?
JvV: The acknowledgements page of my thesis includes the following at the very bottom of the page: Psalms 40:1. This verse is, ‘I cried out to God and He heard my cry.’ The PhD program (in any field) and a career in science is one of the most personally challenging situations you can find yourself in; both, tend to tear you down rather than build you up. (Tearing down is necessary in scientific research, as you need to have your theories and evidence questioned to the point of being destroyed in order to make sure they are valid and complete and that your results are interpreted within the scope of your actual findings (i.e. data) and subject to as few biases as possible.) The only way to survive this type of barrage on your work and your psyche is to have faith — faith in yourself, faith in your motivations, faith in your goals. And, faith inherently underlies a belief in God. Just like no man accomplishes any feat in life without the help of others, even to a small degree — think of mountaineers, who rely on sherpas and cooks during their ascent, or of Nobel prize winning scientists who rely on technicians for running assays and colleagues for intellectual stimulation during hallway bitch sessions about an experiment failing, or authors who rely on editors to catch any overlooked inconsistency in their text — there may be an unknown force (i.e. God, our religious faith) that guides us towards our successes.