phil-mella

Last week we explored the peculiar world of particle physics the apparent limits of human knowledge, and their relationship to faith. This week we’ll consider the idea that although faith implies different empirical demands in religion than in science, they are both rooted in the same limits of human knowledge.

We begin with the example of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar who later became a priest. During WWII, he provided a safe haven for refugees from Poland, including more than 2,000 Jews. In 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Auschwitz. Ten men were selected to be starved to death, and when one of them became distraught, Kolbe volunteered to take his place. In a state of advanced emaciation and dehydration, he was selected for death and was administered an injection of carbolic acid.

It’s instructive to imagine the kind of faith required to volunteer to die in place of a perfect stranger. Indeed, in a time which sees little value in sacrifice, and less in suffering, and which features a morbid preoccupation with pain avoidance, Kolbe’s brazen faith seems at once remote and misguided.

A quote from the novelist, Vladimir Nabokov provides a necessary focus: “What humans fear most is a maze without a center.” It’s abundantly evident that we crave certainty, that because of the uniquely unhelpful secularism of contemporary culture, we instinctively yearn for a blueprint to guide us through this mortal maze.

Not unlike our evolving understanding of particle physics, Christianity is a revealed religion, and it is faith that can provide the transition to certainty. When confronted with the absence of certainty, whether in science or religion, we look for ways to complete the prepopulated sequence of our understanding.

An apt example is the Pre-Cambrian explosion, the sudden and apparently inexplicable advent of complex, multicellular life that began some 570 million years ago. Although a historical asterisk today, Dr. Charles Walcott was a seminal American geologist who confronted this enigma. His approximate contemporary was the far better-known Charles Darwin who, in his epic work, “On the Origin of Species,” commented on the Pre-Cambrian problem, noting that “the case must at present remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.”

In the absence of a fossil record that bridged the pre-Cambrian to the advanced record in the Cambrian era, Walcott suggested the notion of the “artifact theory.” He argued that the ancestral line did exist, but that the fossil record hasn’t preserved it. It was a reasonable, if wholly mistaken theory, and he was keenly aware of its shortcomings.

Walcott even assigned a name to his theory — the “Lipalian interval.” This creates the kind of link necessary to cross from the world of science into that of religion, by providing a justification for the instinct to fill in the blanks of our uncertainty.

Indeed, acknowledging the shared nature of faith in science and religion begins with the recognition that they are predicated on an act of volition informed by reason. As the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote, errors such as Walcott’s are less a matter of factual misrepresentation than of the inherently flawed process of human discovery: “Yet the nonexistent Lipalian was not a fool’s rationalization, as usually presented in our textbooks, but a credible synthesis of geological evidence in the context of a vexatious dilemma.”

That dilemma takes us to the third and final column in this series, which will explore whether the progressive complexity of scientific discovery may yield a stronger certainty concerning a higher power, or God.

Philip Mella serves on the 4th Judicial District Nominating Commission and is a health care administrator with a passion for history, politics and the written word. He also served on the Woodland Park City Council for seven years. Email Philip at roadnottaken@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

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