Reality

© Ruth Bancewicz

The early scientists described in ‘The Faith of Scientists’, are all remarkable characters, but it was in the company of Blaise Pascal that I felt most at home. He had his eccentricities, and I certainly don’t agree with everything he said, but in the extended extracts of his writing presented in Frankenberry’s book I recognised many of my own thoughts and beliefs.

Pascal was fascinated by the immensity of the universe.

When I consider the brief span of my life, absorbed into the eternity before and after, the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me? … The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.

Pascal, Pensées, Fragment 230

Humility in scholarship was also important to him – the recognition that there’s much we don’t know. There is even one part of the Pensees that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so true, where Pascal describes how as our experience and influence increase our friends are less likely to tell us the truth about ourselves, so we end up doing more and more stupid things.

There is much discussion on faith and reason in Pascal’s writing. He discusses the personalities of different people – those who come to believe in God through faith (or perhaps what could be described as more intuitive means) alone, those some for whom reasoned argument is more important. His discussion of the famous wager shows that he gave rational arguments for God a good deal of thought, though he came to the conclusion that ‘reason is to faith as moral effort is to salvation – necessary, but not sufficient without God’s grace’ (Frankenberry)

So Pascal was not at all against rationalism, but saw a place for faith in the grand scheme of things.

Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.

I could take that statement further. If faith is in something real, then even if that reality includes something beyond what we can detect with our senses, our faith should at least help to make sense of what we can see and touch.

God’s Works

© Ruth Bancewicz

I have been reading Nancy Frankenberry’s book ‘The Faith of Scientists’. The first four scientists covered – Galileo, Kepler, Francis Bacon and Pascal – were all Christians, and then the definition of faith gets somewhat broader. Einstein, Dyson, Dawkins and others are included, some of whom are vigorously against any kind of faith… I want to focus here on Francis Bacon, well known for his contribution to the development of experimental science, and whose understanding of science and Christianity is fascinating. His faith informed his thinking and writing in a very overt way, though he was largely in favour of keeping science separate from theology. (Bacon would have been shocked by Kepler, ten years his junior, whose science was so obviously driven by his theology.) In his writing Bacon highlighted the importance of some things that are now taken for granted, and contribute to the pursuit and transparency of science.

1.     The need to ‘ask the right questions’ in approaching new fields of study

2.     Appending methods to scientific papers

3.     Publishing errata

Bacon saw science as an act of Christian service, and took truth-telling very seriously. He was keenly aware of our ability to deceive even ourselves.

May God never allow us to publish a dream of our imagination as a model of the world, but rather graciously grant us the power to describe the true appearance and revelation of the prints and traces of the Creator in his creatures.

Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration, 1620

if in anything I have been either too credulous or too little awake and attentive, or if I have fallen off by the way and left the inquiry incomplete, nevertheless I so present these things naked and open, that my errors can be marked and set aside before the mass of knowledge be further infected by them; and it will be easy also for others to continue and carry on my labours.

Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620

Finally, I want to share this prayer, taken from Bacon’s ‘New Organon’. This is a great attitude for work of any sort, let alone science, which can feel so fruitless at times.

And therefore, Father, you who have given visible light as the first fruits of creation and, at the summit of your works, have breathed intellectual light into the face of man, protect and govern this work, which began in your goodness and returns to your glory. After you had turned to view the works which your hands had made, you saw that all things were very good, and you rested. But man, turning to the works which his hands have made, saw that all things were vanity and vexation of spirit, and has had no rest. Wherefore if we labour in your works, you will make us to share in your vision and in your Sabbath. We humbly beseech that this mind may remain in us; and that you may be pleased to bless the human family with new mercies, through our hands and the hands of those others to whom you will give the same mind.

Francis Bacon, the New Organon, 1620 (my paragraph divisions)