Matt Emerson’s op ed in WSJ is actually about faith. After all, as the author of a forthcoming book entitled “Why Faith?,” Mr. Emerson ought to be keenly interested in that word, especially if faith could be shown to have a connection with science. So, when writing in Slate, the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli referred to the gravitational-wave discovery as the pursuit of a “dream based on faith in reason,” Mr. Emerson took notice.
There are two meanings attached to the word “faith” when scientists apply it to their theoretical framework, and each meaning characterizes the attitude of scientists toward science and religion. The first meaning has a religious connotation of the type advanced by the op ed. And there is a $1.6 million incentive for scientists to advertise the “unity” of science and religion. Paul Davies, the physicist mentioned in the op ed, won the Templeton Prize — which some people believe was set deliberately larger than the Nobel Prize — in 1995. The prize, according to its website, aims to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit,” whose work has relevance to “Spiritual Progress.”
Scientists, even the greatest among them, share many of the same strengths and weaknesses that the rest of us have. Outside their areas of expertise they are quite ordinary characters who can be poor judges of politics, religion, philosophical beliefs, and social affairs. Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist and the father of modern chemistry, sided with the anti-revolutionary groups, for which he lost his life at the guillotine; Marie Curie supported the Italian medium Eusapia Palladino; J. J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron believed in dowsing and the paranormal (see here for a comprehensive list of scientists who believed in the paranormal); Einstein encouraged President Roosevelt to initiate the development of atomic weapons, an act which he regretted immensely later; Heisenberg is believed to have been a Nazi sympathizer.
But these social mistakes are not made right because of the science of their makers, just as the science is not made wrong because of the social mistakes of its discoverers: It is the message that counts not the messenger. There may be similarities between scientists and theologians, but science and religion are on the opposite sides of the human intellect. There is absolutely no connection between Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” and LIGO, despite Mr. Emerson’s attempt to connect them.