In science or in any field of study, things are not always tidy. Roughly a century ago, as some scientists were feeling that the laws of physics were well understood and tidy, along came quantum mechanics with the complex and initially disturbing model of particles having dual natures, sometimes like waves and other times like particles, further compounded by numerous puzzling characteristics, apparent contradictions, and even mathematical absurdities. While the smallest aspects of matter began throwing science for a loop, larger-scale aspects were doing the same as relativity came into play with its conundrums and puzzles.
Today it’s all the crazier as science has determined (tentatively, anyway) that the matter and energy we can detect and analyze must be only a small fraction of what actually controls the motion of the cosmos, for there must be large quantities of mysterious “dark matter” adding gravitational mass and also there must be vast amounts of “dark energy” counteracting the gravitational pull of the galaxies, driving the universe apart when science expected it that it should be pulling itself together due to gravity. Our best estimate now is that 96% of the matter-energy of the cosmos is taken up by dark matter and dark energy – by things we can’t see or understand, yet whose influence apparently must be there. 96%.
Science is not necessarily clear, straightforward, and based on observations made with our reliable senses. Just as it becomes comfortable with how well everything is understood, whole new paradigms arise and that which was once simple is seen to be vastly more complex than ever, governed by strange new laws across unimaginable dimensions and pervaded with mystery upon mystery–and something tells me we’ve only just begun the journey into marvelous mystery. I suspect that some of our petulant complaints about God not telling us the full story are because we don’t have the tools to even begin to make sense of the answer.
All the work that has gone into understanding the laws of matter and energy that govern the universe turn our to describe just 4% of the cosmos, at best. But if you tried to explain that to someone twenty years ago, it would sound ridiculous beyond words, unimaginably unscientific, just as germ theory or quantum mechanics or nuclear fusion would have sounded to Aristotle, as brilliant as he was. Science is forever tentative, and tells us only a few things with certainty, which may need complete revision next week. The healthy approach, both for science and religion, is to always recognize that what we understand and think we know may be incomplete, and not to fly to pieces when more knowledge shakes things up in the future. Popular human knowledge or even state-if-the-art knowledge is not always a reliable authority. Likewise, some of our own religious views, especially those things that are extrapolations of revelation, may be based upon popular assumptions that are incomplete or untested, and may need revision as we learn more. I think the safe way in science and religion is to never assume that we have somehow approached omniscience or even perfect understanding in any single area. If we leave that to God, we’ll all be better off.
Update: The title refers to the generic concept of popular science, not the magazine.
Update, Feb. 9: Religion has its limits and human science has its limits. They are tested in various ways, leading to revisions and progress or painful paradigm shifts. Neither has a monopoly on truth.
The fun thing about loving science and the LDS religion is that our religion expressly teaches that all truth can be brought together in one great whole. As religious and scientific knowledge advance, they will eventually be in harmony. Along the way, we will have to discard or revise many naive assumptions, many misinterpretations of data and scripture, and many artifacts of tradition (LDS or otherwise), sloppy thinking and poorly considered experiments (not to mention Climategates of various kinds). But with time and faith, we’ll get over it and become wiser one day, if we remember we don’t know it all now.