I am a year(ish) away from earning my Ph.D. in neuroscience (the study of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system). As I went through eight years of science education, many people have asked me: How do you stay close to God while being bombarded by all this science?
I think it’s important first to define what science really is. It is easy to want to avoid science if it seems like a collection of questionable “facts” assembled by scientists who are biased against God. But science is actually investigation: an organized, rigorous, and ongoing attempt to find truth. It is a process, not a corpus. Isaac Asimov, a biochemist and the author of the novel I, Robot, said: “Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. And this works, not just for the ordinary aspects of science, but for all of life.”
In addition to understanding that science is a process for discovery, I also started out with a critical belief: God’s Word is the foundation of all truth (John 17:17 John 17:17Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth.
American King James Version×). Everything that I hear, everything that I learn, I compare to what God says. Without this starting point, my journey would have veered off course a long time ago. Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
Because I understand what science really is, and because I believe God’s Word is the foundation of truth, being a scientist does not hinder my relationship with God. My scientific journey has actually helped me grow closer to God in a few distinct ways.
I have learned to love and pursue truth
There is so much information available to us today, and in many cases no one is held accountable for whether what they say is true. It’s easy to find information that matches what I already think is right. It is easy to find information that makes up in emotion, bias and curiosity what it lacks in truth. But God expects more from me: “I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37 Matthew 12:36-37 36 But I say to you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
37 For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.
American King James Version×). The scientific method has made me question whether I really love truth. Am I able to admit I was wrong when I find good evidence that refutes what I believe? Do I let my pride influence my opinions? It is very difficult to let go of a hypothesis or theory that I thought really made sense when I get results I don’t expect. But because science is a controlled process, it is a great mechanism for eliminating lies and false information. When my hypothesis is disproven, I must adjust my thinking. God takes this matter very seriously. Proverbs 19:5 Proverbs 19:5A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaks lies shall not escape.
American King James Version×says: “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who speaks lies will not escape.”
I also need to use this same attitude in my spiritual life. Paul says, “[Love] does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). I cannot try to interpret God’s Word the way that I want it to go. I must be humble enough to seek God’s truth, even when it goes against what I think should be true. And I have found that the ongoing search for truth can be a challenging, exhilarating experience. It takes more work and is a very humbling process, but in the end brings godly love and peace.
I have learned humility
One of the reasons I decided to pursue neuroscience was because there is so much still to learn. We are nowhere near understanding how the human brain works—we’re still trying to figure out how the nervous system of a worm works . This is true in every crevice of creation. God made the physical world so wonderfully complicated that we will be studying it until Christ returns.
Here’s a short example: In the brain there are neurons (the main cells that talk to each other). They communicate with each other by sending chemicals or neurotransmitters (like calcium, dopamine, GABA) across synapses, which are little spaces between neurons. The neurotransmitters are sent and received through little molecular channels. Sounds simple, right? Except that for each neurotransmitter there are many different types of channels that respond in different ways based on the environment of the cell, other surrounding chemicals, the type of cells that are involved, etc. If we just focus on calcium, there are many, many types of calcium channels, which open and close in different environments, deactivate at different times, and serve various purposes in different areas of cells. For each type of calcium channel, there are multiple subtypes of that channel. For each channel subtype, in each type of cell, scientists must isolate the channel and interrogate it (experimentally) to discover what properties it has, what its purpose is, and what happens when it doesn’t work properly. And that is all just for one tiny molecule. As I delve deeper into understanding God’s creation, it allows me to appreciate just how detailed, how organized, how beautiful God is.
With the physical world being this complicated, how much more amazing is the spirit world? We can’t even begin to comprehend it. Studying God’s physical creation helps me maintain an awe and reverence toward Him that is otherwise easy to lose. “Who is like You among the gods, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders!” (Exodus 15:11 Exodus 15:11Who is like to you, O LORD, among the gods? who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?
American King James Version×).
I have learned to deal with uncertainty
As I said before, the results we get from science experiments are far from indisputable facts. Instead, each result is a tiny piece in the puzzle that is our world. Each piece is likely, but not definitely true. That’s why we have statistics: to show how likely each result is to be true. This is the way our world works—our experiments, our measurements, even our senses aren’t perfect. There is always some amount of uncertainty—some amount of risk—that is incorporated into everything we do. As a scientist, I have come to accept this. We will never have all the answers, and we can never be completely sure of what we know. That is why God’s Word is so comforting and so critical. It is the one thing we have that we can truly be sure of. God didn’t provide us the answers to everything yet, but He gave us enough information so that we can have successful lives, so that we can grow in character, and so we can have hope for the future. “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 4:7 Philippians 4:7And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
American King James Version×).
I have learned to widen my perspective
At the end of the book of Job, God asks: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4 Job 38:4Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if you have understanding.
American King James Version×). And, “Who has put wisdom in the mind? Or who has given understanding to the heart (Job 38:36 Job 38:36Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? or who has given understanding to the heart?
American King James Version×)?” It is easy to forget what a limited perspective humans have. Science allows us to expand our perspective a few orders of magnitude. We can now see cells and molecules and atoms , as well as galaxies in the universe . Science enables us to get a small glimpse of the way God sees the universe. And I like to think about the fact that God can see all these different views at once. He sees neurotransmitters flowing across the synapses in your brain; He sees the moons orbiting Saturn; He sees you.
The fact that science allows us to expand our perspective is important because it is so easy to get absorbed in one physical perspective and forget all the others. It is so easy to automatically question God when hard things happen in my life: “Why would God allow this to happen?” “How come God won’t just give me this one thing—I know it would be good for me.” It’s easy to forget how much bigger a view God has. He knows me better than I know myself (1 Kings 8:39) and He knows how everything works together (Job 38). Many times things that seem so clear aren’t true at all. Science shows us that.
I have learned to appreciate God’s power and creativity
The more I study God’s creation, the more I appreciate how much God loves diversity and creativity. He created millions of species for us to discover, to explore, to take care of. He created a seahorse the size of your fingernail ; He created cuttlefish skin that can camouflage both color and texture ; He created insects that can take over the minds of their hosts . God is involved in every little detail; the more I learn about His creation, the more I learn about Him. He is caring and thoughtful and perfect.
Paul expressed this beautifully: ”For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 Romans 1:20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
American King James Version×).
The English chemist and Nobel Prize winner Sir Cyril Herman Hinshelwood said, “[Science is] an imaginative adventure of the mind seeking truth in a world of mystery.”
Science isn’t a scary or inherently bad thing. God made the world, and for me, becoming a scientist has allowed me to grow in knowledge, character, humility, respect and creativity.
(This Beyond Today article first appeared as a blog post on January 11, 2016).