The Confines of Science; The Cosmos of Faith by Archpriest Nicholas Karipoff


Let me begin with a confession to you. I like science and technology. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of electronic sounds and the smell of hot solder flux, shelves of my father’s books on radio technology, chemistry, metallurgy, electro mechanics and other technical subjects. I used to read them diligently: TV didn’t exist.

In 1972 I studied history and philosophy of science for a year. I have retained an interest in science and technology to this day. Simultaneously, since becoming an adult, I have become aware of the dangers of the abuse of science and technology. Whatever gives power (even religion), can always corrupt. For example, the Italian Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his Copernican views that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

In the last 200-300 years however, the attack was more likely to come from those who used their position of authority in the world of science to mock those alleged simpletons who still believed in God. As a result, science has now replaced religion as the voice of authority in society. It is precise, it uses mathematics; it must always be right. Theology, on the other hand, is seen as being based entirely on faith, a belief system devoid of fact. Hence the two are not compatible. When there is apparent conflict, science, by definition, wins, at least in the popular mind.

We believe Christ: faith will not be defeated. Yet science and technology will not go away either and thus will continue to present challenges to faith. As Christians we need to discern that there is no intrinsic contradiction between faith and science. Despite intense propaganda, to this day roughly half of the world’s scientists believe in the spiritual realm ruled by a personal God. (“Where Darwin meets the Bible”, Larry A. Witham, reporter and senior writer of the Washington Times).

The confines of science

There is much confusion about what is science and technology. Demagogues (in both socialist and capitalist worlds) have often exploited people’s ignorance to promote their anti-religious propaganda.

Let me give you a simple picture of science and technology. All of technology is just an extension of the human body. Just think of how you feel when you are parking a car. Even simpler: technology is the rock you can use to crack a coconut shell. The process of cracking the shell and looking inside is science.

Some shells can never be cracked. More honest agnostics (or “atheists” as many call themselves) admit that it is impossible to prove that there is no God. Even Richard Dawkins (author of “The God delusion” best seller) says that on a scale of 1-7 his confidence in “no God” is 6.5.

How reliable is scientific knowledge? Professor Alexei I.Osipov (“The search for Truth on the path of Reason”, 2009) lets some great scientists speak for themselves. This is what Albert Einstein writes in “The Evolution of Physics” (1938) – a textbook he co-authored with Leopold Infeld (p.30 in Russian trans. Moscow, 1966, quoted in Osipov, p.103):

“In our striving to understand reality, we are like a man who wants to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the numbers and the moving arms, he even hears the ticking, but he does not have the means to open it. If he is clever he can draw a picture of a mechanism which would correspond to all his observations, but he can never be completely sure that his drawing is the only one that could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the actual mechanism, and he cannot even imagine the opportunity or sense of such a comparison.”

The great 20th century American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), also a populariser of physics writes in his book “The Character of Physical Law”:

This is why science is unreliable. As soon as you say something from the realm of experience, something with which you have not made direct contact, you immediately lose your certainty. But we must definitely speak of those realms which we have never seen; otherwise there will be no point to science…. Therefore, if we want some kind of use out of science, we must construct guesses. So that science does not become only simple protocols of conducted experiments, we must advance laws that reach into unknown realms. There is nothing wrong with this – only that science turns out to be unreliable because of it; and if you think that science is reliable, you are mistaken.” (Quoted in Osipov, op.cit, pp 103-104).

In the heady days of 19th century positivism some people thought that science was coming close to finding the underlying essence of matter and natural phenomena such as light, electricity, gravity and others. While nowadays the main thrust of physics is to construct the so called “Theory of Everything” that will unite all the forces of nature, even this is seen as a model. Scientists today tend to construct theoretical models that help to understand the behaviour of natural phenomena, rather than trying to find the answer to the question “what is it?”. Robert Oppenheimer (Head of Manhattan Project, father of the atomic bomb) writes:

“I had the opportunity to consult with forty theoretical physicists…. Despite their differences of opinion, my colleagues support at least one conviction. All admit that we do not understand the nature of matter, the laws which govern it, or the language by which it can be described.”(Quoted in Osipov, op.cit., p.104)

The problem with natural phenomena is that the perception of reality by our five senses which is analysed, then synthesised by our brain is never complete. The established pattern of the scientific method is for the observer (the subject) to separate, alienate himself from the observed object. Only that way is the scientist able to analyse, make deductions and proceed to a synthesis – a conclusion. This is the way of scientific knowledge. In addition to the five senses amplified by the ever growing technological means which probe and measure natural phenomena, the scientist uses a mode of thinking called discursive reason or deductive reasoning. The latter can be reinforced with mathematics and computers. While all of this works fine in the macro-world of traditional Newtonian physics something else happens in the world of sub-atomic particles. There is no longer any direct sense perception, no direct contact with nature as is, but a transformation caused by the experimental set-ups and the presence of an observer. Such is the conclusion of modern quantum mechanics. This is as mysterious as the Japanese saying, that if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear – there is no sound.

Finally, (for this section of the lecture) we look at the importance of faith in science itself. I am talking here of axioms or postulates which are accepted as “obvious” but are not provable. Each of the natural sciences (as well as mathematics) has its own specific axioms but they are all founded on two basic postulates:

1. The acceptance of the reality of the world’s existence. The 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell used to say to his students that he did not think that he was having a dream about giving a lecture, but he could not prove it;

2. The second postulate of science is the belief that there is regularity in the world’s design. This makes it possible to research and make conclusions which are confirmed with regularity by observation.

Science is built not only on observation aided by technology but also on hypotheses and theories which attempt to join the dots formed by observable facts. Criteria have to be introduced to weigh up theories. None of these criteria guarantee an absolutely definitive outcome in evaluating theories.

Scientists use two levels of criteria. The first is called empirical criteria which resemble observable patterns of human behaviour in detective work. Unfortunately, experimental scientists, just like detectives can make wrong conclusions on the basis of given observed facts. Then there are secondary criteria, which are even less dependable than practice or experience in evaluating the truth of theories as pictures of the actual objective reality. Here are some secondary criteria:

1. Criteria of economy and simplicity;

2. Criteria of beauty (or “elegance”);

3. Criteria of common sense;

4. Criteria of “madness”, as any serious discovery has to contradict “common sense” (no wonder the Inquisition thought that Galileo was a dangerous lunatic!);

5. Criteria of predictability – the ability of a given theory to predict new facts and phenomena. The list continues… In this context Einstein said: “Any theory is hypothetical, never completely reaches a conclusion, is always subject to doubt, and leads to new questions.” (Quoted in Osipov, p.108).

Now, to sum up this section. I have presented all of this material not as negative, destructive criticism. We may love science and understand that it is a human activity, and as such, has limitations. We, humanity, are not the infinite, omnipotent God. The temptation to become gods at the tree of knowledge persists. (Look, for instance at the “Apple” logo!). Myths abound about science and technology. Many people believe in the infallibility of science and its capability, at least eventually, to answer all of mankind’s questions about everything. Other people see science and technology as products of demonic activity bound to lead to the eventual destruction of nature and mankind. These fears are not helped by the behaviour of some high-profile individuals who present themselves as high priests of the New Age of science and viciously attack those people who hold “obscurantist” religious views.

The cosmos of faith

In the late 60’s, rock culture power surges were electrifying the youth. I was a teenager. At that time my father introduced me to Christian apologetics and the great Christian writer, Dostoyevsky. My spiritual father (Fr Rostislav Gan, +1975) made me aware of a spiritual reality that is not perceived by the world. I say this to introduce the subject of faith. The first level of faith is “faith from hearing”. We believe those people for whom we have respect.

No form of teaching in any discipline is possible without trust. We have seen that that level of faith is also important in spiritual life. What many people don’t understand is that spiritual life does not consist entirely of following figures of authority from the past. People who think that science is only about tangible facts are sceptical about spiritual life and believe that faith always remains “blind”. They are wrong. The Gospel tells us that when Phillip told his friend Nathaniel about finding the Christ, Nathaniel clearly wished to believe but showed caution. Phillip then said: “Come and see.” (Jn 1:46). The Samaritan woman invites her townsfolk to come and see if He is the Christ. (Jn 4:29). The Lord invites doubting Thomas not only to see but to touch as well (Jn 20:27). The Gospel teaches that finding the faith that is beyond the level of “faith from hearing” involves seeing and touching. In other words, faith is an experiential, empirical phenomenon.

We have seen that science takes a subject – alienated object stance as a way of knowledge. The ecclesial and biblical way of knowledge on the contrary, is through an interaction, a relationship best expressed by the word “communion”. God is a personal Being and so we can know Him only this way. Of course, we can learn a great deal about God from other experienced people either through listening or reading. That reinforces faith from hearing. However, no amount of briefing can substitute getting to know someone personally. Someone with this personal knowledge of God is called, in patristic literature, a “theologian”. Evagrius, in Philokalia writes, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly and if you pray truly, you are a theologian” (Philokalia, Vol.I, p.62). The true theologians are not scientists in religion, says Archim. Sophrony (Sakharov). They are the saints, who have purified their hearts and are able to “see God”, as Christ promises. (St. Maximus, St Gregory Palamas and others).

The saints teach us that the organ that “sees” God and is called the “eye” by the Lord Himself (Matt. 6:22) is the “nous”, also called the spirit – the mind/eye of the soul. Fr Michael Pomazansky in teaching seminarians dogmatic theology used the analogy of brain-body to talk about the spirit (nous in Greek, ”oum” in Slav.) as the “brain” (or mind) of the soul. The nous is the organ of communication with, and ultimately, vision of God. In English translation it is possible to see “nous” translated as “mind” or “intellect”, thus: “Prayer is communion of the intellect with God.” (Evagrius, Op.cit., p. 57)

The light of God which sanctifies every man who comes into the world (from the Ambo prayer) enables us, according to the level of our repentance, to see ourselves, our life and things around us very differently to the way the world sees things. We begin to see the hand of God in our life and are filled with feelings of gratitude and our unworthiness. The Gospel story of the blind man (Jn. 9:1-38) shows us that those who endure things patiently and are obedient are given the opportunity to gain spiritual sight. Spitting on the ground and anointing the blind man’s eyes with dirt the Lord teaches us what makes us blind to the realities of the spiritual dimension. It is because the earth – our material attachments, cloud our vision. Obedience to God and effort (walking to Siloam) turns our baptismal washing into a restoration of our ability to see with the eyes of faith, the mind of the soul – “nous”. This is the beginning of the resurrection, a foretaste of infinitely greater things in the age to come.

Those whom we venerate as saints were blessed for their efforts of repentance with many and varied gifts of spiritual vision. This enabled them not only to heal themselves (with God’s grace), but to become spiritual physicians for many who sought help from them. The 20th century Greek ascetic, elder Porphyrios in addition to seeing people’s souls was gifted with the amazing ability to see things deep in the ground, eg, artesian water. The life within the grace of the Holy Spirit restored in the saints the abilities that were God-given from the beginning. The archetypal story of Adam shows that before the Fall mankind had the capacity to see the inner essences, or God’s intentions in the creatures and the whole of the creation. St Maximus the Confessor (7th century) calls these intentions the “logoi” of God. Adam named the animals by seeing their logoi; his names expressed God’s intention about each of the animals.

The restoration of our relationship with God in Christ opens the door to real life. The ancient Greek philosophers sought to understand “Being”. Christ revealed that “Being” is not impersonal. He, the Son of God, said to Moses at the burning bush: “I Am Being” (“I Am Who I Am.” Exodus 3:14). Connection first has to be restored with God through Christ, Who is the “Connector”, as the God-man (Theanthropos, Bogochelovek). Only then can we fully participate in Being, or real life. A person who is truly alive is literally “on fire”, like the burning bush, with God’s energy of life. That is why we read about the Holy Spirit at Pentecost descending as tongues of fire. A Melbourne parishioner, Elizabeth Donetskaya recently reminisced how her mother told her to get a blessing from Fr John Maximovich. He visited their home near Belgrade in the early 1930’s. Elizabeth, about 11 years old at the time, saw the priest sitting in an arm chair, with flames coming out from his whole body. She was so shocked, that after receiving St John’s blessing, she ran away and was unable to tell anyone about it for many years. Elder Ambrose of Optina had a long conversation with one woman about the faith. Unexpectedly he got up from his couch and stood in the middle of the room with his arms raised upwards. The ceiling disappeared and she saw him as a giant smiling at her with the background of the starry heavens above him. Then the vision disappeared. Looking his usual self he said to her: “This is what repentance can do”. Truly faith opens to us an infinite cosmos of God’s love, life, beauty and, yes, knowledge.

Conclusion – Is a dialogue between science and faith possible?

For Church pastors and educated laity this question cannot be only academic. We see enough examples of young people who are not able to cope with the challenges that modern education poses to them. They assume that faith cannot give them the answers to their questions. They gradually begin to ignore the Church as nice, but quaint: something like Santa Claus. Yes, the Church is not of this world, but it is in the world and thus cannot turn away from its calling to be “the light of the world” (Matt.5:14). We cannot be indifferent to those who are not aware of that light, the ability to see the whole world of our humanity differently. The Church can only have relevance to our young people if it makes an effort to give them knowledge to cope with modern life. For a thousand years, say from 500 AD to 1500 AD, the Church was much more up to date than we are in its response to the challenges of philosophy, science and technology. We cannot assume everything has already been said by the holy fathers and that we only need to find the right quote. We need to read the Scriptures and patristic literature, but even more importantly, we need to acquire “the mind of the fathers”, as the best modern theologians point out (Met. Anthony Khrapovitsky, Fr Georges Florovsky and others).

Anyhow, can science and faith find common ground for a dialogue? The French philosopher and Nobel Prize laureate Henri Bergson (1859-1941) developed the view that intuition is more important than rationalism or science in understanding reality. It was said earlier in this lecture that one of the criteria science uses is that of “madness”. Deductive reasoning rarely produces scientific discoveries. They are the fruit of intuition when the scientist, inventor but also musician or writer suddenly “sees” something. That is the ten percent called inspiration to which the ninety percent of “perspiration” need to be added. Deductive reasoning is part of the “perspiration”. I think that could be the first topic in the dialogue between science and religious philosophy, i.e. what is intuition?

Contemplation of the discoveries of quantum mechanics make it easier today to understand that science is affected by who we are as human beings. That is, science cannot be divorced from anthropology. Scientific knowledge does not exist independently as an objective reality without us – human beings. The observer cannot fully alienate himself from the observed object. Recent discoveries in the function of the brain and physiology point to a view of humanity that is moving away from the model of the body as an electro-mechanical machine. The American scientist Dr Candace Pert, who has spent many years studying peptide receptors in cells, says: “Our bodies are more like flickering flames than a hunk of meat” (Pert, Candace, 2005 “Your body is your subconscious mind”, CD Recording, Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Inc.). To me, a statement like that from a scientist gives hope that a new period in the dialogue between science and faith may be dawning.

I believe that further discoveries in neurology, physiology, psychology and psychiatry will confirm the discoveries about human nature made by the enlightened desert dwellers who have left a vast library of writings with their observations. We may be able to translate some of their words into the language of modern scientific disciplines.

Coming as they did in the wake of destructive wars and revolutions it is understandable that many Christian writers, including Russian and Greek religious thinkers, were not optimistic about the future of humanity ruled by science and technology. They feared the dehumanisation of mankind (see for instance, the book by C.S Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”) and desacralisation of nature. Clearly, modern humanity cannot survive without a “change of mind” (i.e. metanoia, which is the literal meaning of the Greek word for repentance). Humanity needs to regain its “mindsight”* (title of the book by the American psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, 2009). Humanity needs to regain its humanity and science by itself cannot help us with that.** This is why some Orthodox writers (such as Alexei Nesteruk***) are beginning to contemplate what Fr Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) calls “a neo-patristic synthesis”, a creative adaptation of modern science and technology in the context of a theological world view.

Archpriest Nicholas Karipoff

Lecture presented at Cabramatta, NSW, Sunday 27th May 2012

*I have taken the liberty to use this word “mindsight” in the sense of spiritual, noetic (from nous) vision, theoria or oumozrenie (Russ. lit. “mindsight” – contemplation). Siegel writes about our ability to see, analyse and direct our own thought processes.

**There is a patristic opinion that God, Who created only good things, intended eventually to open the access to the Tree of Knowledge. Man, in his immaturity, was impatient and thought he could gain knowledge (Lat. Sciential, hence science) without God.

***Dr Alexei Nesteruk (a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church) is a senior lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Portsmouth, UK. He has written – “Light from the East: Theology, Science and the Eastern Orthodox Tradition (Fortress Press, 2003) and “The Universe as Communion: Towards a neo-patristic synthesis of theology and science.” (Continuum Books, 2008). These books are not easy reading but they present a wealth of information on the subject of the science – faith relationship. The competence of the author in both theology and philosophy of science make his books a valuable offering.