Recently, in relation to a question about educational impact, someone made the claim that everything is measurable. In response, I said that while educational goals are good and important, I didn’t believe the really important ones were measurable. Instead, I said, you just got to have faith.
What in the world does a professed atheist mean by such a statement? Isn’t faith the enemy of reason? Well, maybe. If the scientific endeavor teaches us anything, I think it teaches us humility in the face of a universe that is a complex, glorious, beautiful mess.
In 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered that photographic film left near uranium salts was exposed by those salts. Marie and Pierre Curie, Ernest Rutherford, and others went to work to find out what was happening and why. They discovered something amazing. The uranium atoms were exploding, shooting off pieces of themselves and in the process changing into something else.
Marie Curie named the process radioactivity. Rutherford found that he could predict, with great accuracy, exactly how many explosions would happen in a given period of time, and found that the activity of a sample went down over time, and more and more radioactive atoms transformed themselves into stable atoms.
But the fundamental question remained. Consider a single uranium atom. Sit it on a table and watch it. It might explode in a second. It might explode in a year. It might explode in a billion years or more. Why? No one knows. Every uranium atom (of the same isotope, that is) is exactly like every other uranium atom. Why should one explode now and another not for billions of years? No one knows. Not only that, but through rigorous study and logic, the next generation of scientists discovered that there is no possibility of an answer. The probabilities are as deep as the reality goes, as far as we can tell. Yet somehow this atom explodes and that one doesn’t.
In the face of this sort of mystery, I choose humility. There’s so much we don’t know, so much mystery left to explore. When I say I am an atheist, does that mean I’m certain what I say is correct? Not even close.
The universe is hard. I’m still learning. In the process, I have faith, faith that the direction I’ve chosen, sight unseen, will get me somewhere interesting.