Ignorance: Does It Drive Both Science and Theology?

Stuart Firestein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University has recently published a book with the provocative title Ignorance: How It Drives Science. This book derives from a popular class that Dr. Firestein teaches at Columbia. Ignorance is essential to science, it is what we don’t know that leads to progress, not what we do know. According to a write-up about the book and course on the Columbia website:

“I’m not talking about stupidity or callow indifference to facts,” he said. “It comes out of this notion that the one mistake that we make in teaching science—especially to undergraduates—is that we just teach them a lot of facts, and that if you memorize them you’ll be fine.”

That’s not what science is about, he said. Indeed, what isn’t known is far greater than what is. “When I go to a meeting or hang out in a lab or meet up with a scientist pal, we never talk about what we know,” Firestein said. “We talk about what we don’t know.”

You can also listen to Ira Flatow  interview Dr. Firestein on NPR: Why Ignorance Trumps Knowledge In Scientific Pursuit.

Books and Culture has put up a four part web only series looking at some of the issues raised by Dr. Firestein’s book. You can find links to the whole series through the fourth installment by John Wilson. This series is part of an ongoing Science in Focus series at Books and Culture.

Jennifer Gruenke introduces Ignorance in part 1:

Scientists have something of a reputation for being know-it-alls. The more complex the field, the higher the pedestal on which the scientists are placed—or climb. The pedestal may then become a soapbox from which to proclaim what the scientist knows, or thinks he knows.

Real scientists, Firestein argues, are motivated by what they don’t know, and good science uncovers more questions than it answers. Science is a never-ending task and often a frustratingly difficult one. Or, as Firestein puts it, “it is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room—especially when there is no cat.” Scientists may think they have found the cat, and then years later, someone does another crucial experiment that puts us right back in the dark room, looking for a cat that may or may not be there.

She continues with an interesting example of ignorance taken from Firestein’s book.

Myles Werntz’s essay in part 3 of the series raises the most interesting question of the four.

To theologians, Firestein’s book offers an intriguing point of entry into the conversation between theology and the sciences, namely, the limits of human knowledge. However one conceives of the relation between our language about God (theology) and our language about the creation of God (the world), Christians cannot say that a) these discourses have nothing to do with one another, but neither can they say b) that they are describing precisely the same things. Theologians are not interested in using science to prove or disprove the existence of God; for biologists, the existence or nature of God makes little material difference in the descriptive tasks of the laboratory. But on the other hand, theology and the sciences are both seeking to make claims about the telos and ordering of the world in which all people of all faiths live. In other words, while theology and science are not interchangeable languages, neither can theologians do without the language of those describing the processes of the world.

The emphasis which Firestein places on the central role of ignorance as the engine of inquiry draws these disciplines together. For the theologian, describing the God of Christianity begins and ends in mystery, recognizing that all we have has been given to us from beyond us.

I know that science is driven by ignorance – and an insatiable desire to understand whatever is currently mystery. The superior scientist is not the one who has mastered the largest number of facts, but the one who has learned to pose the best questions and device the best methods for investigating them. Yes knowledge is important, facts are important, but they are only the beginning. To an extent this is true of theology as well, and I would have to say that it characterizes at least part of my approach to my faith.

What do you think of Werntz’s observation?

Does the pursuit of knowledge begin and end with a recognition of what we do not know?

How might this work out in religious faith?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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