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Faith in Science
No human capability is more remarkable than that of unraveling the mysteries of our existence, including our capabilities themselves. The question is how far these capabilities will extend.
The urge to understand has been encouraged by an amazing success in doing so. As others have observed, no human capability is more remarkable than that of unraveling the mysteries of our existence, including our capabilities themselves. The question is how far these capabilities will extend. Already our explanations have gone beyond simple reason. Cosmology, chemistry, biology can only be understood in terms of abstract ideas. These are the great abstractions of energy, of scale, and of time. The behavior of matter at high energy is treated in terms of relativity. The nature of matter on the atomic scale is described in term of quantum mechanics. And the evolution of the species is a reflection of geologic time.I can best illustrate the nature of these great abstractions with an example of evolution from my own research. I have studied genetic information. As you know, genes perform a dual role: they are a repository of information, passed from parents to offspring, and they are at the same time a source of information for use by every generation. The first step in the use of the information is reading it, which is accomplished by a giant protein. My colleagues and I at Stanford have obtained an image of this protein in the very act of reading genetic information. The image reveals the process in detail, at the level of the 30,000 individual atoms involved.What we observe is a minute machine, with moving parts, such as clamp, jaws, rudder, lid, trigger, and so forth. It is a marvel of natural engineering. Its intricacy and efficiency present a problem for understanding in terms of evolution. And yet, it did arise by evolution, over a period of time we can scarcely imagine.It may be thought that understanding fundamental processes in this way, and grasping the power of geologic time, may somehow diminish the wonders of nature. On the contrary, we are awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of it all. This sense of awe can evoke a spiritual response. Einstein once wrote:
What we observe is a minute machine, with moving parts, such as clamp, jaws, rudder, lid, trigger, and so forth. It is a marvel of natural engineering.
"The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is a s good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a religious man."The same sense of awe can engender a belief in the power of reason. Many of us engaged in work such as I have described share the conviction that all mysteries of nature will ultimately succumb to explanation in chemical and physical terms. Of course we cannot know this is so. It is rather an article of faith, which will continue to be tested for as long as we endure.