Sermon: Three Ways of Searching

Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

David Mix Barrington

22 August 2004

I'm a professor of computer science. We computer scientists form a relatively young academic disclipline, and naturally we spend a certain amount of time trying to figure out what we are. Our professional association, the ACM, as part of its document spelling out the recommended curriculum for undergraduates, talks about computer science as an amalgam of three older disciplines: mathematics, science, and engineering. In the passage I read, the committee points out that computer scientists prove things like mathematicians, experiment like scientists, and design things like engineers.

What I want to do today is to take the three worldviews, of the mathematician, the scientist, and the engineer, and apply them to religious questions. What characterizes each worldview, in my opinion, is the goal of its particular activity. I claim that mathematicians search for beauty, that scientists search for truth, and that engineers search for value. "Value" might not be the best word -- Robert Pirsig called it Quality, and you might also say efficiency or function or usefulness. We'll get to engineers later.

By training, I myself am a mathematician. We mathematicians have always had a hard time explaining to the general public what it is that we do and why we do it. One of the most famous attempts to answer these questions is the Mathematician's Apology, by the Oxford and Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy, which I read from earlier. He talks not about the utility of mathematics but of its beauty, and offers not school problems but chess problems as his example for the layperson.

When you've figured out the only possible way White can mate in three moves, and say "that's cute", you are seeing a little bit of what the mathematician sees in a beautiful solution to a problem. The rules of the game create an appealing, interesting pattern even as they decide exactly what is legal and what is not. Some of the greatest achievements of mathematics come when a simple set of rules, like the axioms for group theory, allow a wide array of possible patterns.

Mathematicians also like to change the rules, as composer Easley Blackwood does with the music we heard at the start of the service. Is there a good reason to divide the octave into twelve equal parts instead of nineteen or some other number? Changing the rules changes the game and changes the range of possible patterns. Whether the result is interesting enough to study is fundamentally an aesthetic, subjective judgement as to whether the patterns are beautiful enough.

Mathematics is useful, of course, but it's not why we study it. Let be illustrate this with a story I heard in graduate school in England. An elderly business tycoon, having given millions of pounds to Cambridge University over his lifetime, becomes obsessed with the idea of developing the perfect racehorse and wants to know whether the faculty can help him. He goes to the genetics department about a breeding program: "We have some good ideas, we might have results in ten to twenty years." He goes to the medical school about building the horse from existing parts: "Ten to twenty years." Every other department says "ten to twenty years". Finally he comes to applied mathematics, or "applied maths" as they call it there. "Interesting problem. Come back tomorrow." He can barely wait til the next day and comes back to hear "I've solved the problem. For a spherical horse."

This is a joke about the uselessness of mathematicians, of course, but it's also a joke that pure mathematications tell about applied mathematicians. The latter claim to be restricting themselves to problems that are interesting in the real world, but they wind up proving things about spherical horses that aren't really applicable and aren't really interesting as mathematics. As Einstein said, "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

I don't have much personal claim to be a scientist, I'm afraid. Real scientists are fond of saying that if you have to put "science" in the name of your field, like "political science" or "Christian science", it's because it isn't one. No one talks about "physics science" or "chemistry science". Though I studied physics as an undergraduate, my principle exposure to real science these days comes mostly from my service on my college's personnel committee, where we review requests for tenure and promotion. There are some amazing scientists at UMass, from a man who manages five-year-long experiments on particle accelerators to explore the fundamental nature of matter to a woman who's one of the world's leading experts on fruit-bats.

Science begins as a method for finding the truth, an attitude toward the truth that's exemplified by the Quackwatch website I read from. Trust only the facts. Formulate the question you want to answer and frame an experiment to answer it. Use experimental controls to isolate the cause of the effect you observe. Accept a negative result if that's what the facts give you, and be ready to change your mind.

But in observing real scientists I find science to be not only an attitude toward the truth but an attitude toward the universe, a kind of ecstasy of observation. One aspect of love is the desire to know one's beloved as intimately as possible. Scientists devote their lives to knowing the world in some intimate way -- measuring some fundamental quantity to six decimal places or tracing the evolutionary history of the fruit-bat from its teeth. And whatever Star Trek's Mr. Spock might say to the contrary, they're deeply emotional about it.

I read from an interview with the planetary scientist Dr. Carolyn Porco, where she described how her passion for science came out of her religious impulses. The reason I looked Dr. Porco up on the web is that I was overwhelmed by the emotion I heard in her voice on NPR, when she was looking at the first pictures of Saturn's rings to come back from the Cassini probe. "We're seeing something here, and I literally don't have a clue what it is." She must have already known as much as anyone in the world about Saturn's rings, but here were new facts, new pictures, answers to old questions and hundreds of new questions, the questions she'll no doubt spend the next several years of her life trying to answer.

I don't know whether the poet Mary Oliver was ever a scientist, but for me the way she looks at nature perfectly captures this ecstatic relationship with the world (from The Summer Day):

   Who made the grasshopper?
   This grasshopper, I mean --
   The one who has flung herself out of the grass,
   The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
   Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
   Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

I mentioned how the abstract structures of mathematics have to be separate from the real world. As much as science loves the world, it has to be detached from it in a way as well. The world is unimaginably complicated and interrelated, and science is a tool for answering single questions. To design a controlled experiment you must separate out one aspect of reality to study, so that you know that that aspect and no other provides your answer. (This is why medical science is so difficult, I think.) Single answers are inherently unsatisfying, but they're the only way science offers us to get at the whole truth.

Finally I turn to engineering. I'm not an engineer, but I'm the son of an engineer and most of my departmental colleagues are engineers more than they are mathematicians or scientists. For me, another old joke captures best what engineers are like. A banker, a lawyer, and an engineer are captured by revolutionaries in French Guiana, who decide to execute them with an antique guillotine. They lay the banker's head on the block, pull the rope, and the blade comes down a foot and then stops. "A miracle! You shall be spared!" They lay the lawyer's head on the block, pull the rope, the blade stops. "A miracle! You shall be spared!" They lay the engineer's head on the block, he looks up, he says "I think I see your problem..."

Engineers want to build things that work, and that work well. They want to change the real world, working under the constraints that the real world imposes on them. They will use the structures created by mathematics and the knowledge obtained by science to do their job the best they can. And since human beings are part of the real world, the engineers must deal with them as well, "unreliable components" though they might be.

Tim Berners-Lee is the man responsible for the greatest engineering achievement of our time in computing. Trained as a physicist, he wanted a system where he and his fellow physicists could exchange the words and numbers and pictures of their trade, since as scientists they were all committed to making their information freely available in the service of truth. Thinking like an engineer, he designed his new system to be as flexible and universal as possible, and it became the World Wide Web. It changed the Internet from a research tool to a part of daily life.

Engineering deals with the real world not necessarily as it is but as it can be. A civil engineer doesn't design a bridge to be built out of just anything -- she uses materials that have been studied and tested so that she can be confident her bridge will stay up. As with the guillotine, controlling and changing reality can be good or bad depending on the purpose it is used for. But with Plato and with Robert Pirsig, we can recognize a kind of virtue in what works and in what works well, whatever its purpose.

I think that in our religious life we are sometimes mathematicians, sometimes scientists, and sometimes engineers. Like mathematicians, we search for patterns of enduring beauty. We give our imagination free rein to create, and then temper those creations with rigorous judgment. The patterns of enduring beauty in religion are the stories, the traditions, the rituals, the examplary lives. We look at these and appreciate their beauty, how they hold together in their own terms.

Like scientists, we search for the truth about the world as it is, to love the world by knowing it better. To find the truth we must be rigorous and skeptical, we must be positivists and accept as true only what is justified by evidence. That is the way to know the world as it is. Some religious questions, I think, are best approached with the attitude of a scientist. I'll believe in life after death, for example, when there's evidence for it and not before, and I'll apply the full weight of my skepticism to the alleged evidence. When it is a question of what the world is like, science is still the best way to find the truth. When it's a question of how to feel about the world, science isn't the only way. But what I've called the scientist's ecstatic relationship with the world has a lot to offer and has a lot in common with the attitude of many of the non-scientists we look to.

Finally, like engineers we search for ways to make things work and ways to change the world for the better. To build congregations that work, to help build communities that work and a nation that works and a world that works, we must use all the knowledge and experience we have. There are principles of human relations tested by experience, like doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and using the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

Tim Berners-Lee speaks of common design principles between the World Wide Web and Unitarian Universalism. Each is a structure that allows for input from and interaction among as many sources as possible. And each is a tool that helps us search for what is beautiful, what is true, and what is valuable.

Last modified 2 September 2004