What's the Difference Between Belief in Dark Matter and Belief in God?

What's the Difference Between Belief in Dark Matter and Belief in God?
AP Photo/Illustris Collaboration
What's the Difference Between Belief in Dark Matter and Belief in God?
AP Photo/Illustris Collaboration
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What does it really mean for something to be "scientific", and why is that label so powerful? Should we be equally confident in all scientific claims?

In his recent book, What Science Is and How It Really Works, University of Virginia Professor of Pathology James C. Zimring, aspired to answer those vital questions. He correctly recognizes that the process of science is woefully misunderstood by the general public and even by many scientists. Anchored with a keen grasp of philosophy, logic, and reason, Zimring attempted to resolve a variety of misconstructions.

A particularly thought-provoking passage came early in the book. Zimring notes that it is common for scientists to posit auxiliary hypotheses to explain phenomena that cannot be accounted for under accepted, evidentially entrenched theories. For example, when measurements of stars' velocities at the outskirts of spiral galaxies didn't jive with firmly established ideas of galactic motion, scientists argued that the universe must be full of unobservable matter that does not emit light or energy: dark matter.

That's quite a claim! Today, armed with lots of indirect observations, cosmologists estimate that dark matter constitutes 85% of the mass of, well, everything.

So here is Zimring's question:

"Why is it okay to rescue Newtonian mechanics from its failure to predict celestial motion by positing dark matter (that has no additional deducible consequences that we can currently observe), and it is not okay to rescue the theory of God by explaining horrible things happen to good people as 'God works in mysterious ways'?"

It's a tricky question. After all, God's "mysterious ways" and dark matter are both presently unobservable. But there is an answer, Zimring writes, one that clearly distinguishes the scientific nature of dark matter versus the religious essence of God.

"There are consequences that are testable if our technology becomes advanced enough. It is not inconceivable that we could someday send a probe to an area of space hypothesized to contain dark matter."

The same can't be said for God.

"No outcome of the natural world can ever rule out that God works in mysterious ways," Zimring argues. "No outcome of the natural world can ever rule out that God is testing us. While it is reasonable to conceive that we may eventually develop technology to directly probe dark matter, it is not reasonably conceivable that we will create a technology that allows us to test the mind of God."

This scenario illustrates that – like dark matter – the difference between science and non-science is not always easy to see. 

"On the surface it appears that scientists, theologians, and spiritualists all do the same basic thing. They observe what occurs in nature, they claim the existence of causes to explain such effects, and then they go out and experience more of the natural world under the belief constructs they have embraced," Zimring writes.

But dark matter – and science – allow us to make testable predictions. They may not always be immediately testable, but they are testable. God's inherently unexplainable "mysterious ways" cannot be forecasted. Strictly speaking, they are useless in helping us comprehend with any certainty the world around us.


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