The three sciences

In The Creed in Slow Motion I refer to the three great sciences of Mathematics, Physics and Theology. To some people this is such an obvious division that it needs no explaining; but to others it sounds provoking and deeply suspicious. So it is worth taking some time to explain what I mean by it.

What the sciences have in common

A science is a discipline which seeks the truth. It has rules and methods and a community of practitioners. 

As there are different kinds of truth, so there are different kinds of science. The three great sciences are mathematics, physics and theology. Everything else is built on these three. For instance: chemistry comes from the physics of electron clouds, biology from the chemistry of big molecules. Once the truths of any given science are established, they can be applied. So accountancy can be seen as a kind of applied mathematics; engineering a kind of applied physics; religion a kind of applied theology. 

Each science seeks the truth and, having found it, seeks to hold on to it. So the first two ingredients of every science are reason and authority: reason to find and understand truths and authority to preserve them when found, from one generation to the next. There is a constant interplay between reason and authority: we can’t work everything out for ourselves every time, so authority is needed; but nothing is true because authority says so, so authority must always be ready to be prodded and challenged by reason. The dialogue between reason and authority – sometimes a conflict – is part of what gives each science its character; but the existence of such a dialogue is a feature that all sciences share.

The place of faith in science

There is a third ingredient to every science, and that is faith. Faith is not unreason. It is reason transposed into a different key.

Faith steadies a science. It helps us to keep believing the truths the science has reasonably and rationally told us, even at a time when they temporarily feel unbelievable. Faith is also a foundation of the science itself: it lays down the rules of the game and tells us which game we are playing. 

Here is an example. When a chemist in Italy found that a certain manufacturing process did not work properly on Wednesdays, it was by faith that he rejected the obvious conclusion that the “Wednesdayness” of Wednesdays was responsible. He turned instead to other things that might be happening every week at that time, and there he eventually found the cause of the trouble. That days of the week do not matter in the physical sciences, times of day do not matter, the location of the experiment does not matter and neither does the name of the experimenter – these are fundamental articles of physical faith. Everyone believes them; they cannot be proved physically; and yet although they cannot be proved by reason, belief in them is not irrational.

Another example: we all hope that mathematics is a science which will never contradict itself – that it will never happen that some clever person, using the tools of mathematics in a new way, will one day prove that two and two make three. That is a good hope to have: but it is a hope and not a certainty. Nobody will ever be able to prove that mathematics is non-self-contradictory in this sense. It is rational to believe in mathematics but at bottom it is faith, not reason, that keeps us believing in it. 

Theologians have a nice simple way of expressing it. Reason leads you into belief; faith keeps you there even at times when you aren’t certain of your footing.

The place of myth in science

There is one more ingredient the sciences have in common which sounds even more disreputable than faith. It is myth. 

Superior people like to say that myth is nonsense, fantasy, untruth. It is not. It is truth conveyed in a different way. 

The creation myths in Genesis are there to make a particular statement – that the world is contingent, intended, structured and above all very, very good – all without using the words I have just used, because abstract words change their meaning over the centuries. 

Physics has its myths as well: for instance, that an atom is a central nucleus with a lot of electrons orbiting round it. This is as literally untrue as compressing the origins of everything into six twenty-four-hour days. Electrons do not orbit. And yet beyond the falsity of the surface meaning, a valid truth is being taught – a truth which could only be literally expressed by the complex equations of quantum mechanics, which nobody would understand.

The sciences share defects as well as ingredients: perhaps because all sciences are conducted by fallen human beings. The worst of them is prostitution. A fallen science sells its authority to the powers of the world so that they can make use of it. In return its practitioners receive rewards of power and wealth. But the rewards have their price. The integrity of scientific enquiry is challenged on all sides by “what the sponsors want”, and the methods of enquiry native to the science are obscured by the methods of the world: politics, bribery, coercion and the criminal law. Looking at stringism, climatism and racial hygiene shows the process in action. So (looking further back) does looking at the question of the dual nature of Christ, which so quickly tangled itself up with power, influence and ecclesiastical revenues.

The prostitution of any given science is an embarrassment; but looking at the phenomenon across the sciences two consolations appear. First, you are not the only sufferer because other sciences are affected too. Second, despite all the perversity and corruption, somehow the truth does in the end get found and recognised.

The three sciences

I have named three great sciences. Why three? Because the sciences can be categorised according to how they deal with existence. 

Physics studies the existent world. For it, the existence of everything is a given. Existence itself is not a physical attribute the way (say) temperature or density are. There is no such thing as an ontometer to measure it. Physics does not study existence but presupposes it. 

Theology, by contrast, studies existence itself. Does anything exist? Does it (must it?) have a cause? What, if anything, can we say about that cause? How, if at all, can we relate to it? It will be seen that none of these questions presuppose God. “There is no God” is a perfectly valid statement in the language of the science of theology. Valid, yes: but is it as true as the valid mathematical statement “2+2=3”, or as the valid mathematical statement “2+2=4”? That is a theological question, and the methods to be used on it are the methods of theology. 

Meanwhile, mathematics doesn’t care about existence at all. It ignores it. You could say that mathematics is the study of “what would be left if nothing existed”. For if nothing at all existed, six sixes would still make thirty-six. This is, ultimately, the reason for the overwhelming authority of mathematics. It is why everyone believes in it. And yet even mathematics is not self-sufficient. It depends ultimately on truth, and it cannot itself define truth. Like every other science, it must remain dependent on something outside itself. Properly viewed, that is not a failure but a liberation.