Although it may appear so to the casual observer, I don’t believe a gang of angels is responsible for lifting my or any airplane gently off the earth and into the atmosphere. I attribute that near-miraculous feat primarily to the difference in air pressure that occurs above and below the wing due to its shape, although I do reserve the belief that someday, as knowledge of physics widens, angels might be found to eventually have something to do with it. For some reason, I imagine that angels giggle profusely, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the future the practitioners of physics discover that indeed, in that realm just beyond the reach of human senses, fulsomely winged messengers are having a joyous time watching humans wrestle their tin crafts off the ground and clumsily bringing them down again. Well, maybe I would be surprised after all, but I would also feel thrilled and redeemed.
My dad was a professed atheist, and he would probably scoff at my belief in angels from wherever he is or isn’t right now. We argued about it on several occasions, his dismissal of the existence of any sort of Higher Power resting principally on the view that no Higher Power worth worshipping would permit something like the Holocaust. I found his views on the agency of God unpersuasive, but I certainly respected the angst-tinged lens through which he came to view the world. He saw considerably more misery in his one wild and precious life than have I, privileged as I was primarily as a result of his determination.
For many reasonable folks, believing in science precludes a belief in angels. But, along with Francis Collins – the noted geneticist, former NIH director, rock musician, motorcyclist and self-proclaimed born-again Christian, I see no conflict between the two. In “The Language of God,” Collins persuasively argues for the compatibility of science and religion. In public interviews he has famously derided agnosticism as a “cop-out,” although he makes exceptions for those agnostics who have deeply considered the evidence and still have come to no conclusion.
Science elucidates a lot, and I am both a fan and a practitioner of its methods. But science fails miserably in its attempt to explain those things that its methods are simply incapable of explaining. Science does well explaining the “what” of things, but is inept at explaining the “why.” It can tell us how to get places, but not where we should be going. Its inability to answer questions does not, as some casual agnostics would prefer, make the questions less significant.
I grieve a little when I see what has become of the profession in which I have spent my entire adult life. The word psychology itself derives from the Greek roots meaning study of the psyche, the psyche being “breath, spirit, or soul.” The earliest reference to the word in English, according to the venerable OED, was in 1694 in Dutch physician Steven Blankaart’s “Physical Dictionary,” in which he refers to “Anatomy, which treats the Body, and Psychology, which treats of the Soul.” Yet these days the study of the soul has transmogrified into the study of the brain. I am sorry, but no collection of electrons firing through synapses soaked with gamma-aminobutyric acid will explain the feeling I get when I watch my daughter dance, hear Frankie Valli shift into falsetto, or lift off the ground in my airplane.
I am not intending here to support notions of Intelligent Design, although even the prolific astronomer and atheist Sir Fred Hoyle admitted that “Life arising through random chemical reactions is as likely as the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junkyard.” Or, as noted physicist R. Piccioni stated, “Randomly replicating the DNA of the simplest known life is about as likely as drawing the ace of spades (randomly from a deck of cards) 119,000 times in a row.” While I don’t own enough hubris to even hypothesize how life as we know it came to be, I will assert my view that knowing how it came to be is not something likely to be uncovered by the tools of science.
No one said it better than the astrophysicist Robert Jastrow, who concluded his book “God and the Astronomers” with this pearl: “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”