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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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