God and science gloved up and took separate corners of the ring this week — or that’s what some were expecting.
The Veritas Forum on Wednesday evening brought in two professors, one Christian and one atheist, to discuss one overlining question: Can science explain everything?
Veritas, meaning “truth” in Latin, has some Christian and Greco-Roman roots. It’s mentioned in John 18:38, “Quid est veritas,” translating to: “What is truth?” And it is the Roman goddess of truth.
Those in search of that truth filled the Cal Poly Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) to capacity — about 1,290 people — most of whom appeared to be students, who squished into rows, trying to find space for their backpacks before the forum began.
The speakers, Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a devout Christian, along with Dr. Paul Rinzler, a professor of music at Cal Poly and a member of the Board of Directors of Atheists United San Luis Obispo, were first given the opportunity to explain their stance on science’s relationship with religion.
Hutchinson opened the forum by explaining that the dominant Western view — that religion and science are at opposing ends — can be traced back to Andrew Dickson White’s novel, “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christianity” from 1896, and doesn’t otherwise have any solid reasoning.
“(Religion and science) do have important things to say to one another,” Hutchinson said in his opening statement. “Most people realize this, even if they don’t want to admit it.”
His belief in God, Hutchinson said, was based on personal experience and observation, and that in itself made Christianity worthy of believing.
However, Rinzler challenged that belief, stating that observation or feeling of a God is not something provable in the material world.
“I’m not aware of any tool or science that can lead to a God,” he said. “Knowledge is not a feeling … If you want to make your God a fact in the real world, you have to bring in objective fact.”
Chemistry freshman Breanna Arellano had been in Rinzler’s corner throughout the forum.
“I know (Hutchinson) was saying, ‘How much evidence is needed for (God) to be true?’ But I don’t know. It’s just that facts are facts,” she said.
However, business administration freshman Varsha Venugopal explained that in some ways, believing without seeing is sort of the point of religion in the first place.
“I think religion is about believing,” Venugopal said. “Whether or not there is evidence. And there were certain questions that even stumped Rinzler.”
From there, Hutchinson and Rinzler began to take audience questions, submitted on an open forum website. The questions, some anonymous, largely asked what empirical data there was for a God existing, and what life was about if God didn’t exist.
What could have easily turned into a viral-worthy shouting match, though, was mostly civil.
“Honestly, I was expecting a big brawl,” Arellano said. “Like, you see those political debates where they’re basically screaming at each other, and that’s what I expected. I thought it was good that (Hutchinson and Rinzler) sort of tried looking at it from the other’s perspective.”
Indeed, both speakers would often nod along to what the other was saying, listening intently and patiently. There were a few small jabs at the other, but never anything that seemed mean-spirited.
However, throughout the forum, there was a general air for some that both speakers had skirted around the main question.
“I think their answers were very — they just went on tangents,” Venugopal said. “They didn’t really directly answer the questions. So it was kind of hard to follow what they were talking about. They kind of just spoke around the question.”
The tangents got to the point that at the end, an anonymous question came in asking the two to explicitly state whether science could explain everything, which started its own short tangent.
“No,” Hutchinson answered firmly.
“Yes!” Rinlzer replied. “Well — surely, in practice, science cannot and will not explain everything…but in principle, yes.”