Is This Necessarily So?
The title question of this letter refers to a remark my freshman year philosophy teacher, Dr. Speliotis, was fond of writing in the margins of my papers. Perhaps she wasn’t especially fond of it, but the frequency with which my writing veered from supported philosophical claims to the murky terrain of pure speculation must have warranted the comment’s seeming ubiquity across the pages of my assignments.
As a second year PhD student, my professors are more direct: “Your prose is choking me,” and “No,” make needed revisions wincingly clear. I like the parsimony, but the process can be painful, especially when those sentences needing reconsideration (read: elimination) are the ones I have spent the longest crafting or which I believed were the most well-composed. While I like to think that as I grow older, my inner critic helps separate the wheat from the chaff with more fluency, sometimes it’s just impossible to know what’s good until I get feedback from experienced colleagues or advisors.
In some ways the corrective efforts of our teachers and professional supervisors, even when unexpected or abrasive, can be comforting in that there’s someone acting as a buffer between what we think we are doing and what we’ve actually achieved. Such thoughts cause me to wonder what the creative process is like for those scholars who have crossed the divide from student or amateur to expert authority in their field. The top of the ivory tower compels, but in many ways such a high position seems immanently lonely and precarious.
The fraught relationship between knowing and expertise is a central theme in this edition of God & Nature magazine, where two largely unconnected fields of science, quantum physics and epigenetics, are brought together to explore their alternatingly analogous and distinct theological and philosophical significances. Both the quantum and the epigenetic are enigmatic concepts in science which have caused considerable consternation for their parent fields of physics and biology. Although over the past century the now-mature discipline of quantum physics has settled many of its natal disputes, scientists have yet to determine what impact, if any, epigenetic insights will have for current theories in developmental biology, evolutionary theory, and of course, medicine.
As a writer and editor by trade and as a student of rhetoric in the sciences, I have long wondered how, when a novel or renegade concept in science or theology is as hard to parse as the reigning theory in that field, we so-called members of the “lay public” can make any sense of it? If the concept conflicts with our pre-existing notions of the true and the good, how should we go about articulating relevant questions or doing the work of integration that makes it consummate with our worldview?
While in the sciences practitioners must abstain from declaring the supremacy of their ideas until observation and repeated testing can verify them to some degree, theologians have never had the luxury of experimental apparatus to help confirm or deny their views. Thus, when faced with the anxieties attendant wherever former “givens” are questioned, theologians and other religious scholars may be more versed in the practices of patience and serene bewilderment that can be advantageous to navigators of great uncertainty.
With the unique binary of quantum physics and epigenetics in mind, authors for this issue of G&N help show that change and even conflict in science need not be a source of anxiety—rather, our deeply contingent command of the universe can offer an inspirational corollary to how we both know and un-know God in our spiritual lives. That is, if the stories we tell ourselves about natural phenomena using language and symbol can only be incomplete approximations of reality, imagine how much farther we have always been from understanding that which refuses to make itself available to any kind of empirical scrutiny. God appears to be the supreme “known unknown,” where the latter term comprises “unknown unknowns” down to the very last turtle.
But is this necessarily so?
I love when, in church or over coffee, I listen to fellow people of faith state with confidence that they know God is near them and working in their lives; the intimate and unavailable nature of such understanding speaks volumes about what faith is to begin with. Within the pages of this edition of God & Nature, I hope readers will find something of the sublime, perhaps nerve-wracking, perhaps even beautiful in each author’s characterization of conflict and uncertainty in science, in theology, or in their personal walks of faith.
 “must” = “probably should”
Emily Ruppel is a PhD student in communication at the University of Pittsburgh, with focus areas in rhetoric of science, bioethics, STS, feminist theory, and oral history.
Prior to her doctoral work, Emily studied poetry at Bellarmine University in Louisville (B.A. '08) and science writing at MIT (M.S. '11). She has spent many years working as a professional writer and editor for academic and popular outlets; among them, God & Nature magazine is a favorite project.