November 1, 2001
Physicist Is Third Calvin Lecturer
Science is no savior says Calvin professor David Van Baak. And the physicist is planning to take that message to audiences across North American and beyond during the 2001-2002 school year.
Van Baak is this year's Calvin Lecturer, a post that is co-sponsored by Calvin and the Christian Reformed Church's Campus Ministries effort. As the Calvin Lecturer, Van Baak will visit four to six North American campuses (with at least one in Canada) that have a CRC Campus Minister.
There he will deliver one public lecture with broad appeal, meet with smaller groups of students and faculty and lead a seminar for Campus Ministry staff. And during Interim (in January) Van Baak will speak at L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and at various European universities in cooperation with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.
The message that Van Baak will deliver will vary some depending on the audience, but its basic theme will remain the same: we err as a society when we look to science for the answers to life's important questions. It's a theme Van Baak says needs to be sounded.
"Science cannot answer questions of value," he says, "yet those tend to be society's most significant questions. And we have too often tried to make science answer those questions. Science has a higher claim to authority in our culture because of the advancements it has made possible. People have been willing to treat science as the answer to all of life's questions. I want to pull people back and get them thinking about the many questions science cannot answer."
Van Baak, a Harvard-trained physicist, has received grants from Research Corporation and the National Science Foundation to work with students in diverse studies ranging from spectroscopy of hydrogen atoms to tests of Newton's law of gravity. In summers of 1993 and 1995 he hosted NSF-sponsored workshops for college and university faculty from around the country on the use of state-of-the-art diode lasers in undergraduate laboratories.
He spent 1993-94 on sabbatical at the National Institute for Science and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, and spent 1998-99 on a Fulbright Fellowship at University College Cork, a campus of the National University of Ireland in Cork, Republic of Ireland. In other words he has the academic and scientific credentials to be given an audience, something he thinks is critical to his efforts.
"I have credibility as a scientist," he says, "and I think that's important when I visit other colleges and universities and begin to talk about what science cannot do."
Indeed, Van Baak hopes to use his credibility to grab people's attention. And then he hopes to open their eyes to what he says is an injustice perpetrated by science.
"Too often scientists have asserted that science has all the answers," he says. "And people who had questions that science couldn't answer were simply told their questions weren't important. Science has had an arrogance to it that has not served it well. What I claim is that science doesn't need to be the source of all of the answers. I want to enlarge people's view of what science can and cannot do."
The bespectacled Van Baak says his identity as a Christian changes how he looks at his identity as a scientist.
"Religious belief," he says, "doesn't need scientific proof. Most people are sympathetic to the claim that science is the only source of knowledge. As a Christian I dispute that. I don't depend on science for justifying my deepest convictions. For me religion is not a compartment of science. To pretend that all questions have a scientific answer is to give away the ballgame at the beginning."
Admitting that science cannot answer all questions and solve all arguments was something that Van Baak found "somewhat disillusioning" early in his scientific career. But, now almost three decades into his work as a physicist, he no longer feels that disappointment. Rather he remains transfixed by the wonder of science that first captivated him as a Calvin undergrad, what he calls science's "gee-whiz" factor, saying that science is still "a wonderful window through which to see amazing features of God's world." And he draws personal comfort now that he has let go of the need for science to have more authority than he believes it is capable of.
Those two messages are what he hopes get heard during his year as Calvin Lecturer.
"I'm just hoping to open people's eyes a little," he says. "I'd simply like for people to consider that perhaps science doesn't have all the answers, nor does it need to."