Troy Van Voorhis, a chemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discussed what it is like to be both a Christian and a scientist in his talk, "Walking Through the Lab Door," on Jan. 29. The Veritas Forum, a multi-campus organization which, according to their website, aims at creating dialogue among students and faculty about life's difficult questions and Christ's relevance to life, hosted the talk.
Van Voorhis (Lovett '97), who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, is an expert in quantum chemistry.
Van Voorhis said two myths about Christian scientists that others have about them are that being Christian makes you a worse scientist and that being a scientist makes you a worse Christian.
"Doing science requires me to report and analyze my data in an objective, unbiased manner, even if doing so leads to conclusions I do not want," Van Voorhis said.
Van Voorhis said, from a scientific perspective, any form of theism is biased because one cannot scientifically demonstrate that God exists, but, likewise, any form of atheism is also biased because one cannot prove that God does not exist.
"But these biases do not prevent me from doing good science unless they also lead me to confirmation bias," Van Voorhis said. "In Christianity, namely, the existence of God is quite secure from confirmation bias. While I do have a preconceived notion that God exists, I am never going to be able to interpret my data as proving that. I also have a preconceived notion that science is never going to prove or disprove the existence of God."
Van Voorhis said both scripture and science require interpretation and that science is more than a collection of facts, although different tools are used to interpret scientific and scriptural evidence.
"Even a simple passage from Genesis chapter one requires interpretation," Van Voorhis said. "The hermeneutic by which we interpret scripture is not set in stone. While scientific evidence can certainly challenge certain interpretations of scripture, that's quite a different thing from scientific evidence challenging scripture itself."
Van Voorhis said science is incomplete work because it only gives one layer of meaning and that the promise to learn more about God motivates him to learn more about chemistry
"For me, as a Christian, Christianity offers a much more attractive motivation for studying science," Van Voorhis said. "The fascinating thing for me is that chemistry describes a world that we cannot see. It's a world of atoms and molecules. Now, I will never see a molecule. And yet knowing about these molecules that I will never see helps me to understand the world that I can see. In Christianity, we worship God, a person, who I cannot see, but who helps me to make sense of the world that I can see."
Van Voorhis said the Christian faith binds together science and ethics and that, while ethical behavior can come from other sources, such as rationalism, empiricism and naturalism, in those cases, ethics is typically working in opposition to science.
"While science guides us and tells us about the probable outcome of these actions, faith is the thing that helps us evaluate which outcome we should actually pursue," Van Voorhis said.
Van Voorhis said science gets all of the credit and none of the blame, which encourages, or at least allows, scientists to be irresponsible.
"Think of the biggest scientific debacles of the last hundred years, things like the atomic bomb [and] chlorofluorocarbons," Van Voorhis said. "[Does] anybody know the names of the scientists associated with any of those, or how those scientists were punished for the bad outcomes of their science? The problem is, they were not punished."
Van Voorhis said he believes the central problem of science is that it can never come up with truth that changes individuals, because the central tenet of science is that the truth is objective.
"[Science] possesses no power to transform people," Van Voorhis said. "And this is the place where faith becomes crucial."
Lovett College freshman Meron Teklu said she enjoyed the talk and found it a great opportunity to learn and explore.
"I wouldn't say that the talk changed the way I personally view things, but it was nevertheless a great opportunity to hear what someone who has explored Christianity and science very deeply felt about both of them and incorporated them in his life," Teklu said.