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Discovering meaning in science

| Thursday, April 6, 2017

When one thinks of “theoretical biophysics,” the public debate between the notions of creationism and evolutionary biology does not immediately come to mind. However, this was the finishing idea of Dr. William Bialek, a Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar, during his lecture last Tuesday night. Dr. Bialek is a theoretical biophysicist at Princeton University, and his research largely consists of discerning the interface between fundamental physical laws and their functioning within physiological systems. If you think this sounds esoteric, I would have to agree with you.

As an undergraduate struggling with introductory level physics, many of the concepts Dr. Bialek presented were confusing. However, his main theme contended that organisms operate at the limits set by the laws of physics for many processes, including sound and sight. For example, human beings have the ability to detect a single photon of light, equivalent to sensing a conformational change in one molecule of rhodopsin (the protein responsible for initiating the phototransduction cascade which allows us to see). To put this into perspective, one photoreceptor cell has around 108 of these proteins, showing the remarkable specificity we have for vision.   

Ending his lecture, Dr. Bialek reiterated his belief that the idea of creationism has gained popularity due to the lack of metaphysical meaning within evolutionary biology. This sentiment is echoed by those who actually subscribe to the creationist movement. I know this because some of my friends in high school were open about their opposition to evolution, and I even visited the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky in order to understand the arguments behind their beliefs. While these weren’t based in any evidenced assertions, it gave spectators a sense of belonging in a world increasingly lacking in philosophical or theological substance.

As a biological sciences major myself, I do not think that the scientific arguments put forth by the creationist movement are factually correct, and I am fully supportive of evolutionary theory. However, I also recognize that there is a pervasive sense of meaninglessness within the field of evolutionary biology today. We are taught that there is an inherent randomness to our existence; that we are here because we are more suited to survival than our previous evolutionary ancestors. But this view does not allow much room for the existence of meaning that so many seek, and leads to a condescending attitude of the scientific community towards those who do not immediately recognize evolutionary theory as truth. It is no wonder that so many are disheartened by the current climate of scientific progress, and opt to instead follow a theory based on a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture to find meaning in the world around them.

At Notre Dame, we have the unique opportunity to be educated by both talented scientists and theologians; therefore, it is our responsibility not only to become proficient in the sciences and our Catholic faith, but also to derive the intrinsic meaning that can be discovered while studying the natural world. As Dr. Bialek’s research shows us, organisms already operate within the constraints set by the laws of physics. While evolution may seem like a chaotic, violent process, it is important to remember that all life is regulated by fundamental principles unchanged throughout time. Perhaps, in these laws, we can see the framework for God’s universe, and upon these building blocks life was allowed to thrive and evolve.

In addressing the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences in 1996, Pope John Paul II stated “Truth cannot contradict truth,” and we must always remember that regardless of what discoveries are uncovered by future scientific pursuits, there is always room for them to be placed within a larger understanding of humanity’s position in the universe. Because we regard both science and scripture as fundamental truths, we must strive to find the meaning in our pursuits, and must always be cognizant of those who may be turned away by the presentation of our discoveries. Just as we desire our faith to be inclusive and appealing to all, our science must not shut out those who only seek greater meaning within their lives.

Kieran Phelan


April 5

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Nofun

    Religion is way to understand the world when you have no idea what is actually going on.

    Its a placeholder for ignorance.

    • Ceh Dee

      While the above comment is clearly a placeholder for its own ignorance and need not be countenanced by any serious thinker, it might be worth noting that religious beliefs are such that their contents (objective values, meaning of life, the existence of things outside of the material universe) cannot principally be investigated by the natural sciences. Hence, the only thing they could be a placeholder for are further religious beliefs, unless one simply wants to eliminate their contents altogether. But with that would go objective values, the meaning of life, etc. Pick your baby and your bathwater.

      • Nofun

        The meaning of life is to live it …. no supernatural explanation required.

        Christian morality is a bible interpreted morality which can be interpreted anyway you like thus it is morally relative. Not to mention we have many laws against many things deemed ‘moral’ in the bible.

        Secular reality is always superior as you have to able to say rationally why something is moral and in what context.

        Things outside of the material universe = made up things with no actual evidence or reality.

        • Ceh Dee

          Just wait until he reads Nietzsche… good golly. The state of intellectual inquiry today…
          But just to humor you for a moment: have you ever once read any bit of St. Augustine, or any Christian thinker for that matter? You might be surprised to find, I don’t know, that they use rational argumentation. I mean, where do you get your information about Christianity? TLC? As for things outside the material universe, try reading some metaphysics or perhaps consider for once the underlying assumptions of any system of knowledge. Things aren’t so simple after all…

          • Nofun

            If St Augustine believed in a magical, invisible god with no evidence then his rationality was limited.

            And just to humor you for a moment: Yes, you can imagine a trillion crazy things that don’t exist….so what. The much maligned “material”universe is just another term for reality.

            Metaphysics? Really? Much like religion its a placeholder for ignorance and a endless discussion over the number of pixies that can dance on a pin head.

            You are pretending to have a personal relationship with this god being … you can’t do that with an abstract concept or a philosophical notion.

            Faith constructs, not being real, can’t love you.

            A realist only has to follow 2 rules … if it has no evidence its not real …if its not real it doesn’t matter.

            Seems things are somewhat simple after all…

          • Ceh Dee

            Nofun: my time is limited for exchanges like this, so this is the last I will have to say on the matter. However, there are two things I can infer from what you have said so far, both of which I find troubling and which I think you should find troubling too.

            First, please take a look at your own responses: do you offer reasons for the points you make? Do you supply evidence or even a faint outline of argumentation? The closest you come to being rational are a few “if… then…” statements that have no further reasons to back them up. Instead, you throw around uninspired talking points and bromides, moving from one to the next without explanation. You don’t hold yourself to the rational standards that you pretend to espouse.

            Second, and in direct connection to this point, your thinking on these incredibly complex matters of existence, reality, faith — which thinkers from manifold traditions have pondered for lifetimes in the pursuit of truth — betray a lack of intellectual sophistication. From this I can make two reasonable inferences; for one, you likely have little to no background in philosophy (hence your repudiation of metaphysics as speculation about angles dancing on a pin, yet another threadbare stereotype) and for two, many of your remarks are likely borrowed from other sources and are not the product of your own thought. This is again a blow to your alleged dedication to rationality or even the barest suggestions of free thought. As it happens, most of your remarks, borrowed or not, are decidedly hollow. “Faith constructs, not being real, can’t love you” hardly even passes for grammatically correct. “A realist only has to follow 2 rules… if it has no evidence its {sic} not real … if its {sic} not real it doesn’t matter.” This remark itself presents no evidence and hence refutes itself by its own reasoning.

            I entreat you: do some thinking for yourself. These questions deserve it at the very least.

          • Nofun

            Why make an answer to a simple question more complicated than it is.

            You say things like: “refutes itself by its own reasoning”, “betray a lack of intellectual sophistication”, “This is again a blow to your alleged dedication to rationality or even the barest suggestions of free thought” without saying HOW this might be so. This kind of suggests you aren’t as clever as you think and use a bunch of hackneyed phrases to cover it up.

            What is more stereotyped than being a Christian. I mean really. Everything anyone says is borrowed, copied etc

            Can a faith construct love you, punish you, talk to you … if so tell me how …I am all ears …but that could be the fault of my last hair cut.

            “if it has no evidence its not real” … you want evidence of that ..really?
            How about god? The main confusion there is confusing your faith, which is real as any human behavior, with the object of that faith which has no reality.

            Its hard to expand upon the basic premise “real things have evidence”

            I do agree with your first statement though “Your time is limited” so
            I entreat you: Stop wasting the only life you get pretending to be someone you are not …a christian. Time is running out.

            The number one death bed regret, as geriatric nurses such as Bronnie Ware can attest is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.

            At the end, many Christians find god and Jesus no comfort at all as they finally realize they didn’t live their lives as themselves … and now its too late … that realization is more frightening than a 1000 biblical hells.

          • Tom Z.

            “… many of your remarks are likely borrowed from other sources and are not the product of your own thought.”

            This sentence is laugh out loud funny coming from someone like you. Your whole entire belief system comes from other sources and none of your remarks are the product of your own thought.

          • Ceh Dee

            I’m totally fine with borrowing from sources when they are sourced in the Truth. Your ad hominem slights and Tweet-length jabs are, unfortunately, less than veritably rooted. Why not engage substantially with either (a) the letter to the editor above, which actually displays plentiful intellectual self-examination (b) my argumentation concerning inadequate appeals to rationality that is not followed in practice, or better yet (c) the wealth of the Christian tradition which spans thousands of years and is at the very least worthy of a few years of careful consideration?

          • Tom Z.

            Because arguing with you is pointless. You think that just because Christian tradition has spanned thousands of years makes it acceptable in modern society. We live in a world where more information is available than ever before by an order of magnitude, but you still choose to live your life as if this did not exist. Your entire worldview is based off of learning something at a young age, accepting it to be true, and then learning how to justify so that it remains true in your mind. That is not how the world works and we, as a society, are moving away from that for the obvious reasons. You should learn something and then come to a conclusion on what you have learned. What you are doing is taking a conclusion and trying to justify that conclusion based on faulty logic, non-credible sources, and emotional appeal. You try to make an easy question incredibly complex when the answer is relatively simple.

          • Ceh Dee

            I could say much more on the matter, but in brief: it will indeed be hard for you to argue with me if you do not read, truly read, and grapple with questions first. First, please stop with your silly assumptions about me and my life that are at best distractions from the topic at hand, namely, your demonstrated inability to carry out a rational discussion. Case in point: I did not bring up the millennia of Christian tradition as proof of its truth per se but rather as sufficient cause for you to actually engage with it rather than taking recourse to your bizarre straw man of “you only believe because you were raised that way.” For one, that straw man argument is clearly false: there are many people who are raised to believe and apostatize, and many who grow up outside of Christian faith and become convinced of its truth. Moreover, if you are looking for faulty logic and emotion appeal, take a look at your own thoughts first.
            And the truth, in part, is that the world is indeed incredibly complex. In the information age, as you point out, there is no excuse to remain uninformed. But of course the Internet often becomes an echo chamber of figuratively illiterate views and tone-deafness. It might be worth while, then, to take some time and read a real paper-and-ink book — preferably a classic — to spur yourself out of the deception that the answer (what answer exactly?) is relatively simple.

  • BobC

    “Perhaps, in these laws, we can see the framework for God’s universe, and upon these building blocks life was allowed to thrive and evolve.”

    The magic-god-fairy fantasy was thrown out in 1859 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Apparently you did not get the memo.