Scientific Imagination

Atheists who value reason and experience over blind faith are often accused of being rigid or unwilling to open themselves up to taking a leap of faith. On the contrary, imaginative leaps are an important part of the scientific process. The difference is that a leaping scientist who doesn't land on solid ground will back up and leap again (and again) until finding more stable footing.

A scientist (mathematician, physicist, etc.) is primarily focused in finding the "truth." This truth is found in our natural world. It can be verified and repeated through controlled experiments. As Bertrand Russell shows in his well-known china teapot analogy, investigating theories that, by definition, cannot be proved or disproved is futile when it comes to scientific discovery. But this does not mean that scientific discoveries do not begin with imaginative theories.

Even elementary school science projects begin with a hypothesis. This is a guess about the way something works in the natural world. A hypothesis is generally an educated guess, not a complete shot in the dark. However, some of the greatest scientific discoveries began with ideas that were considered wildly imaginative and highly unlikely (given our limited perception and experiences).

Without their rich imaginations and their willingness to explore ideas that seemed counterintuitive, our greatest scientists would never have made the important discoveries which have led to our advances in practical fields such as medicine or engineering. Guesses are at the heart of science--but only when those guesses are backed up through scientific experimentation.

During his lecture series, The Character of Physical Law, at Cornell University in 1964, physicist Richard Feynman gave an excellent description of the "key to science":



Scientific theories begin with a guess. That guess is then computed to see where it would lead if it were true. This forms the hypothesis: if the guess is true, this computation's results will occur. Now it is time to experiment in the real world. If the hypothesis is true, the real world experiments will share the same result. If the experiments do not match, then the hypothesis is wrong.

To paraphrase Feynman: It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, or how smart you are; if your theory disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.

This does not mean that scientists should shy away from taking guesses or using their imaginations. In fact, it says the exact opposite. Successful scientists are always open to new ideas--even when they may modify or disprove a previously held theory.

Atheists who value reason and experience over blind faith are not incapable of imagining things they cannot see. They are not incapable of thinking outside of what they have learned in science class. They simply need to see that proposed theories match up to real life experiments before they will consider them to be true.

4 comments:

  1. Great article. +1 for the Feynman video, he's by far my favorite physicist.

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  2. Thanks, Jon. I love this clip! Further proof that my favorite physicists know how to be lighthearted about science and put the concepts into terms that anyone can understand. (Like Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom I adore!)

    Here's another quick Feynman clip I like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Na-KzVwu6es&feature=player_profilepage

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  3. The Feynman clip is great. My calculus professor in college used to talk about Feynman a lot, but I've never seen him speak before.

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  4. Very much agreed. It does seem to be a common misconception that atheists aren't creative or imaginative. I think that atheists are more likely to "think outside the box" because they don't have someone else doing all the thinking for them!

    By the way, I'm enjoying your blog very much! I hope you don't mind that I'm going back and commenting on so many old posts. Consider me your newest "devotee" :)

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