Serving Christians Seeking to Live a Holy Life

The Real Meaning of Science

Leon L. Combs, Ph.D.
April 1, 1999
________________________________________________________________________________________________ This is a lecture given on April 1, 1999 as part of the Last Lecture Series sponsored by the Catholic Student Organization at Kennesaw State University. Faculty were recruited to give a presentation on what they would like to say in what would be their last lecture. Of course, it really could be their last lecture since none of us know when we will meet our last appointment on earth. ________________________________________________________________________________________________

As you can see from my biographical information, I have discussed concepts concerning the electron many times in 32 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in chemistry and physics. The electron must be discussed in talking about the electronic structure of atoms in freshman chemistry, in molecule shape in freshman chemistry, in spectroscopy in physical chemistry, in many other topics in physical chemistry and modern physics, in a graduate course in photochemistry, in graduate courses in molecular structure dealing with applications of quantum mechanics to chemistry, in graduate courses in quantum chemistry, and in virtually every course that I have taught.

The electron is really quite a mystery. Of the many facets of the electron that we don't really understand, two are the following:

1. How does the electron move about the nucleus of an atom? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that we cannot talk about an orbit in describing the motion of an electron. In quantum mechanics we can only talk about probability distributions of the electron density about the nucleus. These plots only tell us areas about the nucleus where electrons of specific energy are most likely to be found. Some plots are shown in standard freshman chemistry texts. But we don't know precisely how it moves from region to region.

2. What is the electron doing to generate its magnetic field? Experimental evidence tells us about the magnetic field, but we don't know how it is generated. We call the phenomena electron spin because a classical spinning charged particle will generate such a magnetic field. But the duality principle tells us that the electron is a wave/particle not a particle and it certainly can't be studied by classical physics.

There is much in chemistry and physics that we don't really understand so we make models for such systems. The models have become quite sophisticated and have yielded insight into molecular structure which has led to the development of many new pharmaceuticals and other molecules of help to mankind. Our models are useful, but how close do we come to defining reality?

First let us see how reality is defined by a dictionary:

  1. The state or quality of being real.
  2. A resemblance to what is real.
  3. A real thing or fact.
  4. Philosophy. a. something that exists independently of ideas concerning it. b. Something that exists independently of all other things and from which all other things derive
The dictionary defines real as:
  1. existent or pertaining to the existent as opposed to the nonexistent.
  2. actual as opposed to possible or potential.
  3. independent of experience as opposed to phenomenal or apparent.

The second meaning is essentially that real is actual as opposed to virtual. We are beginning to have virtual reality as part of our everyday world which should make everyone a bit more concerned about what is real.

So I started looking into what scientific methods can do in defining what is real. We can study reality from two vantage points and if both methods converge upon the same definition then perhaps we have succeeded.

One method is to weave in the world views of reality in terms of three assumptions:

1. Realism which is the doctrine that regularities in observed phenomena are caused by some physical reality whose existence is independent of human observers.

2. Inductive inference which is valid mode of reasoning and can be applied freely so that legitimate conclusions can be drawn from consistent observations.

3. Einstein separability or Einstein locality which means that no influence of any kind can propagate faster than the speed of light.

We can use these realistic premises to deduce an explicit prediction for the results of a certain class of experiments in the physics of elementary particles -- details are another story.

The second method for studying reality is to use the postulates of quantum mechanics to predict real outcomes to experiments. We can then use quantum mechanics to calculate the results of these same experiments on the physics of elementary particles.

The predictions by these two methods differ!

So now what? They can't both be correct since the predictions are divergent. Which model gives the "real" predictions and thus a "real" definition of reality? Quantum mechanics is well supported by experimental data, except for relativistic effects -- a topic for another time -- which might make these predictions a bit fuzzy but not alter their basic predictions.

What about the reality premises? Can any of the three basic premises be invalid so that we can throw out its predictions? Testing of the first two keep them firm which leaves the third. Can an influence travel faster than light? Experiments are being devised to test the speed of light involving measurement of proton spin. However, the consequences of violation of separability are immense: all objects would somehow constitute an indivisible whole! This "all is one" postulate would require that influences are somehow cascaded throughout the structure virtually instantaneously -- reminds me of the "Borg" from "Startrek Voyager". We know that this is not a very "real" concept based upon our observations.

So since these two methods do not converge upon the same prediction but both seem solid, we are left still wondering "how do we define reality?" How do we determine what is reality if known methods for describing it fail to give us a consistent understanding of reality?

I determined that the answer to that question can only be found in the only true source of knowledge, the same source from which the answers to the other difficult questions of life can be found such as "Who am I?", "Why am I here?" or "What is the purpose of my life?", and "Where am I going?".

Only God can provide the answers for us, and regarding reality the answer is in 2Corinthians 4:18 which says "while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal". Based upon this writing, we now have a definition of reality: "reality is that entity which has an infinite lifetime!" This is brilliantly intuitive in retrospect and as a chemical physicist, this makes a lot of sense to me. We discuss lifetimes of radioactive elements when teaching about radioactive decay and to broaden such concepts to define reality is very comfortable.

So is the table real? This question, and other such questions, led me to develop the concepts of positional reality and functional reality. Positional reality is defined by 2Corinthians 4:18 and since the table does not have an infinite lifetime it is not real in my positional context for it is temporal. Functional reality is defined as things and events which are temporal. I have a temporal existence in this body so I indeed do recognize that tables, chairs, headaches, cancer, etc. are temporally real; that is, they do affect my temporal existence, so they are real in a functional sense. However my positional reality tells me that all pain, suffering, death, etc. are not worthy of comparison to things with an infinite lifetime. This framework give me a different perspective on temporally real entities. God tells us that one day we will all die and we will face judgment. Everyone will live after death for an infinite time period. The only question is where will we spend eternity. In comparison to the infinity of time left for us after death, the functional reality items become not so consuming.

Some other examples of the contrast between positional and functional reality are:

What then is the real meaning of science? How does science relate to the positional reality defined by God?

The true meaning of science is that it can help us get more of a glimpse of the Glory of God.

This meaning God also tells us in the Bible:

Romans 1:20-23: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures."

This tells us that God has not hidden Himself. "His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen being understood through what has been made" is a direct message to those of us who study science. We examine "what has been made" in attempting to understand the basic phenomena behind the existing objects: atoms, molecules, stars, planets, etc.

However Jesus said as quoted in Matthew 11:15 "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

So unless we look at creation from the perspective of the Creator, we do not have ears to hear, and we are not able to understand the real nature of creation. Newton was a scientist who understood what I have been saying here and look at what he accomplished for science.

However Romans 1:21 above tells us that even those who know that God must have created the universe; when they begin looking at what has been made and take God out of the picture, and begin to use futile speculations of what has been made rather than looking upon the creation as a revealing of the glory of God, the result is misinterpretation. By professing to be wise, they became fools. (A fool is someone who does not use his brain.) They worship the creation rather than the creator and hence miss the real meaning of creation.

What folly! They have interpreted the creation in terms relating to corruptible humans rather than as what it really is: a portion of the revealed glory of the incorruptible God. Stating this another way, they have interpreted creation totally from a temporal basis (functional reality) rather than from an infinite basis (positional reality). Understanding creation in a functional reality context is important (For example, we need to know where and when the hurricane will strike the coast), but the real meaning of creation cannot be properly appreciated unless the functional reality position is related to the positional reality position. Therefore we must use our functional reality skills to understand our temporal existence but based upon our firm positional reality platform.

It is important to understand that this is not compartmentalization. I use my functional reality skills always in collaboration with my positional reality platform Whenever I become dissatisfied and unhappy in my surroundings, I need to reconstitute my positional reality platform. Only then is my functional reality position in proper context, and my joy in life is restored. Such an attitude adjustment has occurred many times in my life.

What are my parting words?

Everyone who tries to understand creation without God in the model is practicing folly. If only more scientists would try to understand creation from the real perspective, what advances might we make in basic and applied science (medicine, etc.)!

Even if you live for 150 years, if you take the ratio of 150 over infinity (all of time), you see that your existence is negligible unless you can do something which impacts upon your existence in the infinity of time.

The following I have extracted from a treatise that I wrote entitled "Dealing with Death".

I am in the snack room having a needed cup of coffee when a young man walks over to where I am sitting and asks "Professor, what is the meaning of life?" Attempting to look sophisticated and nonchalant about this impromptu philosophy class, I reply "Perhaps you had better sit down." He sits and then I ask him a question "How long has your body been living?" He replies "A little over 20 years." I then ask him "How much longer do you think that your body will continue to live?" He pauses a moment and then replies "I don't really know, of course, but statistically it should continue to function for about 58 more years." I smile at that response for it is an answer which indicates that he is really listening to me -- not to imply that this is an unusual event! Now I begin to accelerate the discussion and reach for a napkin to make a drawing. "OK, your body has been living for about 20 years and it will continue to live for somewhere between one second and 60 years more -- perhaps even 70 more years. Then your body will have lived for about 80-90 years and on the time line of forever we have something like a pencil dot on the universe."

If T is the time your body is alive and t is all of time, what is the ratio of T/t as t approaches infinity?" Now the young man says "Well, the ratio is essentially zero." Now I am ready to answer his original question: "Good. So since the time that your body is alive is negligible compared to the time it is not alive, the first place to look to answer your original question about the meaning of life is to look at death -- to determine if you continue to live after death." He then says "What?"

I then say "If you knew now that you were going to spend the rest of your life in Germany, what would be some of the things that you would do?"

He says "I would learn the German language, history, geography, job market, politics, etc." Then I say "OK, so you would be preparing for the rest of your life to be spent in Germany. Is that correct?" He looks as if some insight is creeping into his mind and replies "Yes, that is correct." I then look in his eyes as insightfully as I can and say "OK, so since your body will spend most of its time not alive, isn't it reasonable to see if there is any continuation of life after death?" He looks back in an intense manner and asks "You mean to see if there is a continuation of Me after my body dies?" I nod enthusiastically and just say "Yes." He then looks very contemplatively and says "Well, that seems to make sense. If I find that there is a continuation of my life after my body dies, then the meaning of life is to prepare for that life after death." "YES", I say as I use my whole body to agree with his conclusion. (Envision a typical fan reacting to the scoring of the winning points in the last second of the game to envision my visible reaction.)

I now say to him, "Rather than waste any of the precious little time that you have in your present body, you should start your search by studying what the only religious leader who was physically raised from the dead had to say about death and the life after death. This leader did not have a near death experience. He had a death experience and returned. His name is Jesus. So what did He have to say about death?"

I would urge you all to examine what the Bible tells us about Jesus. If you truly seek the truth, the truth will set you free from an entanglement in this world and open a whole new universe for you to try to understand. But then what you will be doing is trying to understand the mind of God which is what I see as the value of science -- helping people appreciate a partial revealing of the glory of God.

The pleasure studying science gives me is the pleasure of just a little better understanding of the mind of God as He has revealed Himself in His creation. That is the true meaning of science, and what I want to tell you in this my last lecture.

May God richly reward you as you seek to understand a small portion of His revelation.

Numbers 6:24-26.


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