Ignorance: Does It Drive Both Science and Theology? (RJS)

Stuart Firestein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University has recently published a book with the provocative title Ignorance: How It Drives Science. This book derives from a popular class that Dr. Firestein teaches at Columbia. Ignorance is essential to science, it is what we don’t know that leads to progress, not what we do know. According to a write-up about the book and course on the Columbia website:

“I’m not talking about stupidity or callow indifference to facts,” he said. “It comes out of this notion that the one mistake that we make in teaching science—especially to undergraduates—is that we just teach them a lot of facts, and that if you memorize them you’ll be fine.”

That’s not what science is about, he said. Indeed, what isn’t known is far greater than what is. “When I go to a meeting or hang out in a lab or meet up with a scientist pal, we never talk about what we know,” Firestein said. “We talk about what we don’t know.”

You can also listen to Ira Flatow  interview Dr. Firestein on NPR: Why Ignorance Trumps Knowledge In Scientific Pursuit.

Books and Culture has put up a four part web only series looking at some of the issues raised by Dr. Firestein’s book. You can find links to the whole series through the fourth installment by John Wilson. This series is part of an ongoing Science in Focus series at Books and Culture.

Jennifer Gruenke introduces Ignorance in part 1:

Scientists have something of a reputation for being know-it-alls. The more complex the field, the higher the pedestal on which the scientists are placed—or climb. The pedestal may then become a soapbox from which to proclaim what the scientist knows, or thinks he knows.

Real scientists, Firestein argues, are motivated by what they don’t know, and good science uncovers more questions than it answers. Science is a never-ending task and often a frustratingly difficult one. Or, as Firestein puts it, “it is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room—especially when there is no cat.” Scientists may think they have found the cat, and then years later, someone does another crucial experiment that puts us right back in the dark room, looking for a cat that may or may not be there.

She continues with an interesting example of ignorance taken from Firestein’s book.

Myles Werntz’s essay in part 3 of the series raises the most interesting question of the four.

To theologians, Firestein’s book offers an intriguing point of entry into the conversation between theology and the sciences, namely, the limits of human knowledge. However one conceives of the relation between our language about God (theology) and our language about the creation of God (the world), Christians cannot say that a) these discourses have nothing to do with one another, but neither can they say b) that they are describing precisely the same things. Theologians are not interested in using science to prove or disprove the existence of God; for biologists, the existence or nature of God makes little material difference in the descriptive tasks of the laboratory. But on the other hand, theology and the sciences are both seeking to make claims about the telos and ordering of the world in which all people of all faiths live. In other words, while theology and science are not interchangeable languages, neither can theologians do without the language of those describing the processes of the world.

The emphasis which Firestein places on the central role of ignorance as the engine of inquiry draws these disciplines together. For the theologian, describing the God of Christianity begins and ends in mystery, recognizing that all we have has been given to us from beyond us.

I know that science is driven by ignorance – and an insatiable desire to understand whatever is currently mystery. The superior scientist is not the one who has mastered the largest number of facts, but the one who has learned to pose the best questions and device the best methods for investigating them. Yes knowledge is important, facts are important, but they are only the beginning. To an extent this is true of theology as well, and I would have to say that it characterizes at least part of my approach to my faith.

What do you think of Werntz’s observation?

Does the pursuit of knowledge begin and end with a recognition of what we do not know?

How might this work out in religious faith?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    “If we teach them alot of facts, and if they memorize them, they will be fine.” This sounds the same like Christian education in many a church as it does about science. The consequences is even worse for the church.

    I find Werntz observations even more profound in light of reading Meister Eckhart’s sermons this week which says similar things. Epistemological humility should not just govern our science, it should also govern our faith. God has a way of lifting up the humble and casting down the proud whether that be scientist or theologian!

  • Scot Miller

    This is actually quite an old idea that can be traced back to Socrates, who argued in the Apology that wisdom begins in ignorance. Socrates could prove he was the wisest man in Athens because he was the only one who knew he knew nothing. Everyone else who claimed to know something actually didn’t. Indeed, the Socratic method intends to lead someone to a point of aporia or perplexity, of recognizing one’s own ignorance. If you think you already know something, you will never seek knowledge. Admitting one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thanks for the tip on this. Should be a good read.

    A long time ago someone said, regarding a good university education, “If you graduate with the overwhelming feeling that you still have a great deal to learn,  with an undiminished desire to learn much more and with the confidence that you have tools that are up to the task, you have been to a good place.”

    Then, unfortunately both in science and in theology, we can become so wedded to an idea, a point of view or even a world view that we allow ourselves to become willfully ignorant. This is a very great sin.

  • There’s more on this on my own blog, check the comments as well as the article.

  • RJS,
    When I was in seminary, we were told that “theology is the queen of the sciences.” But if ignorance prompts significant scientific discovery, then theology is not a science in the way I was taught. If theology was a science, it was more like geology or paleontology –studying fossilized ideas and petrified doctrines. Sad.

  • EricW

    @ 5 John W Frye:


  • DRT

    As the saying goes, ignorance is temporary, but stupid is forever.

  • RJS


    In a sense I think that theology is the queen of the sciences – our understanding of God informs everything else. But … a recitation of fossilized facts and petrified doctrines does not produce a growth of understanding in theology any more than it does in science. (I love your wording and the image it produces for me.)

    Understanding requires that we wrestle with ideas and test them out, not that we regurgitate them. Humans will never understand God perfectly, not in the past, the present, or the future.

    There is no perfect analogy here, but much worth some serious consideration.

  • “Does the pursuit of knowledge begin and end with a recognition of what we do not know?”

    Sort of.

    I would say that the pursuit of Knowledge begins with a recognition of what we don’t know, continues through “unknowing” what we think we do know, and ends in finally believing that we are known and loved regardless of what we know.

    1 John 4:7-8
    7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

    How do we know when we know that we don’t know but believe we are known? When we want nothing more than to fully embrace the world in active, self-giving love.

    1 John 4:16-17
    So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.