Truth is strongest

Carlo Beenakker

Lecture at the Phoenix Institute Symposium on "Responsibility in decision making" (Brugge, Belgium, 2000).

Some 2500 years ago, the three guardsmen of the Persian king Darius held a contest as to what was the strongest thing in the world. The first wrote, "wine is the strongest". The second wrote, "the king is strongest". The third wrote, "women are strong, but above all things, truth is strongest" (1 Esdras 3:10-12). What message could a scientist have, at this gathering of young professionals, focused on "responsibility in decision making"? I have one message: Truth is strongest.

As probably all of you know, there has been a tremendous accident in the Dutch city of Enschede this month. A fireworks factory in a residential area exploded, destroying an entire neighborhood, killing some 20 people, and wounding several hundreds. We are now amazed at how this bomb could be allowed to exist in the middle of homes and schools, yet, the city council had issued all the required permits. Just a few years ago, a permit was granted to store the gunpowder in steel containers. The alternative was a concrete bunker, but that is a hundred times more expensive. The fireworks company had demanded compensation from the city council if they would be forced to leave the area, and that was something the council was not willing to do. So they argued that gunpowder could be safely stored in steel containers, that the risk was minimal, and gave the permit. One resident filed a complaint, but he was overruled on the grounds that issues of "urbanism" were not applicable. A technicality, convenient and politically correct. But nature cannot be fooled by arguments, no matter how convincing. All what matters is the truth. And the truth in this case was that a steel container, unlike a bunker, can not release the pressure that might build up inside in the event of a fire. And so the containers became ticking bombs, waiting to go off with catastrophic consequences.

The decision to issue the permit for storing fireworks in steel containers was taken by responsible people. The ground for the decision was clear, the financial motives were valid, and yet the consequences were catastrophic because truth is strongest. Decision making frequently involves compromises. Financial, political, social motives... you can't please them all. But truth is in a class of its own. It cannot be compromised.

This is not self-evident. Remember that Roman in Jerusalem, Pilate was his name, who asked, "what is truth", when the prisoner brought before him had told him that He came into the world to "bear witness unto the truth" (John 18:38). What is truth? To seek out the truth is the mission of the scientist. We are not so good at politics or public relations. But we are professionals when it comes to the truth. The search for the truth of the scientist is based on two premises.

First premise: The truth is the same for every one. It is not relative, not bound to a certain culture or ideology. There is only one truth, not a scientific truth on the one hand, and a religious or political truth on the other hand. That the sun circles the earth is not true, even though it fits in nicely into a certain view point that places the earth and mankind at the center of creation.

Second premise: The human mind is capable of discovering the truth. In theology one speaks of the human mind as being "capax Dei", capable of God. One could equally well say that the human mind is "capax naturae". A Jew with a Greek culture wrote down these words in the first century BC (now attributed to Solomon): "He hath given me certain knowledge of the things that are, namely, to know how the world was made, and the operation of the elements" (Wisdom of Solomon, 7:17-21). The method that mankind uses to attain this "certain knowledge" is the empirical method, the method of experience and observation. "Experience is the mother of science". The scientist knows that the earth is 5 billion years old, and not 5 thousand years as one thought in the Middle Ages. Why? Not because of some trend in society that values old over new, but because there is overwhelming geological evidence for an ancient earth.

Last year the state of Kansas passed a law prohibiting the examination of the theory of evolution in high school. Evolution of higher life forms, notably mankind itself, from lower life forms was regarded as incompatible with religion and the creative act of God. A very honorable ground and motive for this decision. But the consequences can only be negative, because the truth is different. By denying evolution an entire century of research in biology is denied to a new generation of students. Whatever sympathy one may have for the motives of these responsible legislators, their work is doomed to fail, because truth is strongest.

I have so far spoken to you of the search for the truth as a scientist. I would now like to speak to you as a Christian. Science and religion both seek the truth. The two premises I just mentioned are common to both, to science and religion: That the truth is the same for everyone, and that the human mind is capable of discovering the truth. The empirical method that is used in science to discover the truth works also in religion. The religious person knows that there is a God through the experience of the acts of God in his or her life. You know as well as I do that a certain familiarity with religion can be acquired as part of our culture, from our parents, from school. But religion as a conviction cannot be transmitted from one generation to the next without a personal experience. Religion is not an inherited trait like an accent or like good manners.

Science and religion: both in search of the truth, both based on experience. Are they then two parallel roads, doesn't it make a difference which road you take? It does, because the questions each can answer are quite different.

Central in science is the question of the "how". How did the universe come into existence? How did life develop? How did man evolve out of more primitive life forms? Central in religion is the question of the "why". Why the universe? Why life? Why man? You might object that science too could answer questions of why, for example when it comes to the purpose of a certain organ. Why does the foot have toes? Because they increase the stability. Why is a male physically attracted to a female? Because procreation ensures the survival of a species. But none of these questions applies to the individual, to a single event. Why have I fallen in love with this particular girl? Don't expect an answer from science! What is the purpose of my life? Scientifically speaking, none whatsoever. It is as senseless as asking a scientist for the purpose of the moon.

Closely related to this is the question as to the difference between right and wrong. Scientifically speaking there is no fundamental difference. There exists a difference between behavior that helps the survival of a species (like collaboration, care for offspring, care for a partner) and behavior that does not. When someone risks his life to save a stranger, then we say that he did the right thing - but such a judgment has no scientific basis. The English writer C.S. Lewis was an atheist until he discovered in himself a force that compelled him to do the right thing and drove him away from doing what felt wrong. He recognized this force as something that did not originate in his own mind, but as something that was greater than both right and wrong, and so he came to experience God in his life. It is an example of the experience that I mentioned as the means to religious conviction.

I would omit an important difference between science and religion if I would leave it at this. That is the role of what we call revelation. Revelation plays no role whatsoever in science. No one can appeal to a revelation when announcing a scientific discovery; he will have to provide experimental evidence. Revelation does play a role in the Christian religion, together with experience, because the Christian religion is a faith in a personal God. A God whom we call our Father. I find it difficult to elaborate on this, because the relationship with God our Father is such a personal experience. How do you explain in words what it means to fall in love, if you have never experienced that feeling?

This is what I would like to say this morning. This afternoon in the workshop, with those of you who are interested, I would like to discuss and compare the two roads towards the truth: the road of science and the road of religion. As a provocative remark I could cite one of our Dutch Nobel laureates: "One has to be schizophrenic as a scientist to believe in God." What do you think?