Faith and the practising scientist

Professor Richard Thompson,
Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London

Professor Richard Thompson

Professor Richard Thompson

Thank you for the invitation to take part in this symposium today.First of all let me say something about me.  My first degree is in Physics and I stayed on at University after my degree to do a PhD studying the light emitted by atoms.  I went on to work in Germany for a year in a government laboratory and came back to the UK to work at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.  Then when a lecturer job came up at Imperial College in London I moved there and have been there ever since.  I’m now a professor and run a small experimental research group with a handful of PhD students studying individual trapped atoms and their interaction with laser light, which I will come back to a bit later. I also teach and have also been involved in the management of degree programmes and with promotions and recruitment.

My mother was a Quaker so we went to the Friends’ meeting house for many years; later I went to various Baptist Churches but eventually became an Anglican.  Although I live in Southwark diocese, I am the organist at St Mary’s Chessington which is just in Guildford diocese, and have been there for about 5 years.

I’m not talking to you as any sort of an expert on the issues of science and Christianity but rather as a normal practising Christian who happens to be a scientist.  Because I was unsure of what to say here I decided to talk to a number of colleagues, all physicists,  who I knew were active in different sorts of Churches:  one is an Anglo-Catholic who is actually very well informed on Science and theology; one is a Catholic, one a middle-of-the-road Anglican (like me) and one an Evangelical. It was actually a very interesting set of conversations.

I think that the first thing I would like to say is that in my view science is an attitude, a way of approaching things; not just a collection of facts and theories.   Scientists are looking to make sense of a set of observations – to look for patterns, to formulate relationships between facts, and to make predictions that can be tested, and then hopefully to find applications.

So I think a scientist would expect to be questioning in their professional life, to look for evidence rather than to accept things on trust, and not to be dogmatic:  to have an open mind to new ideas.  Inevitably they are likely to take a similar approach to other aspects of their life including faith.

You might ask whether I think that is a good thing.  I think that on the whole it is a good thing.  Surely it can’t be healthy to accept everything you are told unquestioningly.   But on the other hand, there are perhaps times when one needs to stand back from needing everything to be justified.  Scientists are used to double checking everything and only moving forward very cautiously and perhaps sometimes you do need to take a leap of faith.

What I have said of course doesn’t just apply to scientists.  Many other professionals (lawyers, for example) would take a similar attitude, especially in looking for evidence to support their beliefs.  But perhaps scientists are the strongest examples of that evidence-based approach.

Let me make some general points about my approach to my faith as a scientist, also I hope fairly representative of the colleagues I have discussed this with.

First, I see no conflict between my faith and my profession as a scientist.  There are some Christians who might expect that to be the case, but I certainly don’t feel that I have to turn off my science credentials when I walk into the Church.  There are probably more of my fellow scientists who might see a potential conflict and might say that a religious faith is not compatible with the scientific view of the world.  One of my colleagues said that all the people he works with think he is mad because he has a Christian faith.

Secondly, I do not have any problem reconciling a scientific view of the universe with creation as described in Genesis.  I do not think of Genesis as a scientific text book, so I see the creation story as talking about different and maybe more important things than the literal description of how and when the earth came into being.  On the other hand a textbook on cosmology will not tell me anything about our responsibilities as stewards of the Earth.  They are talking about different types of truth.

In the same way I would not look at a book about musical appreciation to find out how to mend my piano, and nor would I regard a text book about the physics of musical instruments as a good guide for how to appreciate music.  They are talking about different aspects of music.

Thirdly, what about miracles?  I do think this is a difficult question and I don’t pretend to have a simple answer.  Maybe sometimes there is an alternative explanation for an event that seems to be miraculous.  That may well not affect the message or insights that may be drawn from it, so it may not be a question that is worth worrying about.  Fretting over what actually happened may be a distraction from getting something out of the story.

But I would draw the line at the Resurrection, and that was a common theme in my discussions with colleagues.  It is clear that something very special happened at Easter, and I don’t think that you are going to find a satisfactory explanation of that in conventional scientific language.

I want to add two thoughts here.  One is that it is clear that there is a lot more going on in the world than science is currently able to explain.  And this is an area where I believe scientists can be too closed to ideas that don’t fit conventional scientific understanding.  I know people who have experiences that do not appear to have a rational explanation.  Scientists tend to reject such experiences as being not true because they are inexplicable, but I think that science still has to find out about a lot of things.  Perhaps this is relevant to the occurrence of miracles:  I don’t know, but I think that scientists should not be dogmatic about things that they do not yet understand.

I also want to say that in fact there are many areas of science that are still deeply mysterious and where scientists do not have a full understanding.  For example, Brian Cox will tell you all about the predictions made many years ago about the existence of the Higgs boson and about its recent discovery at CERN.  By the way, one of the 5 physicists who made those predictions in the seventies is a retired academic from my department and a member of his local URC Church. The image presented is one of a complete understanding of the subatomic world.  In fact physicists know that there must be something else to discover beyond the Higgs boson, but they do not have any idea what it is.  Our understanding of the basic constituents of matter is not complete.

Similarly, the whole structure of the universe is not fully understood.  It appears that there has to be stuff called “dark matter” in the universe, but we have no idea what it is; similarly “dark energy” which is different but also unknown.

And of course there are many things in biology that are not understood.

Here I want to discuss an aspect of my own research to illustrate another area where our understanding is incomplete.

Atoms are very small and Schrödinger didn’t believe that in principle it would ever be possible to observe a single atom:

“… we never experiment with just one  electron or atom or (small) molecule.  In thought experiments we sometimes assume that we do:  this invariably entails ridiculous consequences.”

However, this is something that is now routinely carried out in many laboratories, including my own.

Science moves on in unpredictable ways and it is very unwise to think that something will never be possible.   Future developments may well now seem to be miraculous.

Quantum mechanics is the theory that describes the behaviour of atoms and is also deeply mysterious.  At its heart is a fundamental uncertainty about the result of any experiment, for instance measuring the position of an atom.  Even if you have complete knowledge of a system, there are measurements whose results are impossible to predict.  Our own experiments include examples demonstrating this fundamental unpredictability.  Einstein never accepted this and believed that quantum mechanics was incomplete, but all experiments to date indicate that this uncertainty is absolutely fundamental and inescapable.  It is very easy to say that maybe other things can be explained by quantum mechanical effects, for instance miracles or consciousness, which is another unsolved mystery.  But one of my colleagues warns against assuming that just because two things are both weird, they are somehow related.  And it would be unwise to assume that something like consciousness will never be understood.

Quantum mechanics is “easy” to use as a practical tool to make reliable predictions about atoms and their behaviour.  For most scientists (including me) that’s fine.  But at a fundamental level no-one understands how it actually works.  It is I think very interesting to note that if you ask theoretical physicists what they believe about quantum mechanics, you will be asked to accept ideas that are much more fanciful, counter-intuitive and incredible than many theological ideas.  When you ask the most fundamental questions, science requires just as much of a leap of faith as does Christianity.

When I talked to my colleagues at work I asked them two questions.  The first one was “Does being a Christian affect your work as a scientist?”

The simple answer to this is “no”, because in principle your beliefs do not affect the way that you set out to observe, describe and explain the systems you are studying, whether they are atoms or rocks or whatever.  In principle you beliefs are irrelevant to your scientific activities.

However, I do think that a religious belief provides a general motivation to find out about the world you live in.  It also gives me a confidence that there is order there to be discovered, and that everything is not random.  There is beauty in creation and it is a thrill to find it, whether it is beauty in understanding the various manifestations of light or, if you will forgive me, beauty in equations, especially when they encapsulate progress in science.  An example of this is Maxwell’s equations, which elegantly unified the fields of magnetism and electricity and also describe radiation such as light and microwaves.

More broadly, I think that having a Christian faith does affect the way that I and my colleagues go about our work in general rather than our science in particular.  I think education is a worthy calling and it is a good and honourable thing to be involved in the education of the next generation of scientists.

In our department there are people who are involved in what you might call “good citizen” activities, that is, taking on extra roles beyond their own research and teaching.  This is roles like being student advisors, organising degree programmes, being wardens of student halls, getting involved in staff and student welfare and so on.  And it is interesting to note that many of the people who volunteer for these jobs are the ones who are Christians.  This is of course nothing to do with being a scientist, but I believe their faith leads them to take an interest in these wider roles that are not so much in their self-interest.  Many scientists are ruthless in their pursuit of their research goals.

The other way that there can be a direct influence on research is because of ethical issues.  One of my colleagues declined an offer of funding of his research because it came from a military source.  This is a very personal issue and one that I have not had to deal with, but he was clear that this was directly as a consequence of his Christian principles.  Someone else pointed out that integrity and honesty in research as well as fairness and respect in dealing with other researchers are also important moral issues influenced by faith.

My choice of research area was not influenced by any issues of faith.  However, I have often thought that if I had my time again I would probably choose a different research area: in the light of recent developments I would probably choose to work in an area that links with the causes or effects of climate change and that would in part be driven by my faith.

The other question I asked my colleagues was “Does being a scientist affect the way you approach your faith?”

The simple answer to this one was “yes”.  Being a scientist, as I said earlier, is in a sense a way of life and it colours how you approach all aspects of your life.  A healthy questioning approach to matters of faith can be very positive so long as it does not become a reason to hold back from making any commitment.

Sometimes I genuinely find it a problem that it’s difficult to take something on trust, and it can lead to an unhealthy reluctance to let go and allow feelings and emotions to take their rightful place.  Sometimes you have go for something even without having all the facts.

My wife will also attest to the disadvantages of me always wanting everything to be justified before accepting it.

One of my colleagues is a theoretical physicist, interested in the foundations of quantum mechanics and cosmology.  In fact he would say that what he does is not really science because it does not make testable predictions:  it is just to do with achieving a deeper understanding.  In his case he says that his science and his faith both follow from and are driven by his philosophical beliefs.  Indeed he came to faith as an adult through his philosophy.  He made an interesting point that theology should and does benefit from scientific insights, but science does not need insights from theology:  in this sense it is an amoral activity that neither depends on nor excludes faith.

In finishing I want to stress again that I am not an expert and I have simply offered my own thoughts on this important topic of the relation between science and faith.

The main points I would like to leave you with are the following:  first that I see no conflict between science and faith; second that we should not forget that there are still many mysteries in science and that scientists need to be open to new ideas; and finally that the questioning attitude of a scientist can be a very positive way to approach matters of faith but needs not to be allowed to get in the way of mind and emotion.

Richard Thompson