A Simple Lesson In Scientific Method and Human Understanding
And How It Changed Everything I Ever Thought of Before or Since
I recently had heard of the passing of my high school biology teacher. He was old school, and was teaching for almost 40 years when I got him. I was in his last “advanced biology” class before he retired in my Sr. year. As a student he worked you hard to get results. Sometimes I didn’t like him because he worked you hard. He routinely gave out 20 page papers, exhaustive experiments, and he was very exacting. But like Mr. Miyagi making Daniel LaRusso polish the car, you didn’t realize at the time how much he prepared you. It’s once you have that ‘eureka’ moment, you realize how great he really was. It also didn’t hurt that he came up with some incredibly interesting experiments. Having passion for what you teach goes a VERY long way.
One of his best lessons, and one that has stuck with me the most was his most basic: The teaching of his view of the scientific method, and the different types of human understanding. At the time I was just a basic high school student. School was a fact of life, and while it was good to learn stuff, I hated it. In many ways it felt like I was in a prison. However, he was one of the teachers I had to changed that. He also gave me an appreciation of knowledge in general, and made me seek out as much as I can over the years. This lesson had helped me process all that I knew, and by extension made my belief in God stronger. So in his honor, I present his lesson to the best I can remember. The 4 types of human understanding:
1. Scientific Fact: This is the strongest verifiable type of information that is available. It is used to test hypothesizes or assumptions as being true or false. An example of this is simple combustion. For simplicity, let’s use hydrogen. Combustion is the adding of oxygen to other atoms, and is usually accompanied by a release of energy (can be anything from a simple flame, to massive explosion). So when two hydrogen atoms (which is the most common form of loose hydrogen on planet Earth) are joined by an oxygen atom, you get a release of energy. The bi-product of this is the creation of water. This can be proven scientifically, because such a result can be repeated over and over.
2. Empirical Fact: A theory that can not be verified by the scientific method, but based on known data, you can make a reasonable and reliable prediction. An example of this is the sun rising daily. You can not scientifically prove or guarantee that the sun will rise. The earth can stop spinning or the sun can go out. However, being that the Earth is about 4 billion years old, you can safely assume that the sun will be up tomorrow as well.
3. Religion and Faith: A theory that can not be proven scientifically or empirically. In fact, there is usually no or very little physical data available to draw a conclusion from. But you as a believer take it on faith. You believe in spite of the lack of facts. An example is Noah’s ark. You can’t prove that the ark existed scientifically because there is no verifiable physical evidence. No known written records survive from the time of Noah. Also it has been said that the ark would have never floated, and that it was nowhere near as big to hold two of every terrestrial animal on earth. However, a belief in God is enough to convince you that this is possible. He is all powerful, and we as mere humans can’t even begin to conceptualize him as a being. So if he commands that the ark floats, and that it fits all animals, then it does so. No proof required. (Yes he actually used a Christian allegory in a public school [FYI, he didn't get fired]).
4. Superstition: A theory or belief that can has no basis on scientific fact, or can be scientifically dis-proven. An example of this would be carrying a rabbit’s foot. There is no proof to how that it increases luck. Not to mention luck can’t be measured.
It was the Religion and Faith that really stuck with me. It not only helped me satisfy the conflict in me between science and religion, but it also gave me an understanding as to why science exists in the first place. Centuries ago, we believed that the Earth was flat. The stars were above, and the sun rose and set. This changed conclusively for the west in the Renaissance. Suddenly there was the sun in the middle of the solar system and earth rotating around it. Our conception of the universe changed fundamentally. Later we discovered what stars were, and how far away they can be. Now our universe got larger. A less known major change in our conception of the universe came with the what the Andromeda Galaxy was: our closest major galactic neighbor. It was once considered a nebula in our galaxy. And our galaxy was all that was in the universe. Suddenly it was a galaxy and much more farther away than stars in our own galaxy. And our conception of the universe grew again.
To me, it showed that God was indeed all powerful, but that his creation is vast. Incredibly vast, so vast that we can not even begin to conceptualize it. So incredibly big that even things we know and can measure about the universe, we can not see in our mind. The universe as we understand it now is about 13 billion light years long. Can you as a human using your own senses, understand the incredible emptiness, in just the distance between Earth and Mars? Or a light year? You can not even fathom these incredible distances, and yet they are microscopic in the sense of the universe. And this is in a universe of about 200 Billion galaxies THAT WE CAN SEE!! More stars and potential worlds that we don’t have numbers named for the amount we are talking.
However just because you can’t see it in your minds eye, doesn’t mean that you can’t have an understanding of it. We know what a light year is, it can be measured, even if we can’t see it for ourselves. God for me is the same way. I don’t need to completely understand the physical nature of God to believe in him.
But what people who use ONLY the scientific method don’t get is that our desire to understand what is around us, to understand God’s creation, that drives scientific discovery. So just because there is no scientific proof that God exists, that does not make it so. Or if you do not believe in God, just because something can’t be provable in scientific terms, doesn’t mean that it does not exist. In a universe that is 13 billion light years long, I can believe that while we may not have physical proof that God exists, it can be somewhere in this universe. Or again if you don’t believe, how can you be content to limit yourself to things you can comprehend by your limited senses? My belief in God helps me to think about things that are unknown, and maybe hope that as we learn more, one day we can understand him better in this existence.
In the end, we as a species have nothing more than a passing glance of what the universe is. We have the Voyager probes in space that haven’t even reached the end of the solar system. Even with them being launched over 40 years ago. We have not even scratched the surface of what this universe is, and what is out there. If you can’t see past your own senses, you severely limit yourself as a person.
Galileo said it best I think:
Nature is relentless and unchangeable. It is indifferent to weather its hidden reasons and actions are understandable to man or not.