Welcome to Day Six of my new blog series on “accepting the world.” To catch up on previous posts, or if you’re new to the party and have no idea what I’m talking about, check out the dedicated the page for all this series’ posts.
Congratulations to all who celebrate the Theophany on the Old Calendar today. I’m on my way to church, so today will be a quick post. Just wanted to share some thoughts about something called the “memory of water,” and how this odd phenomenon can help us begin to explore the proper relationship between faith and science.
The Memory of Water
As part of the preparation for a seminar on short-form fiction I’m attending next week, our teacher had us read The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2019. I was fascinated that the collection started with an interesting article about water, and how strange and difficult-to-quantify it is from a scientific point of view. It began by describing some experiments that seemed to actually confirm “the mystical qualities of water.”
Benveniste’s team had reported studies of one component of our cells’ immune response: the release of the chemical histamine from certain types of white blood cells when they encounter an allergen. The researchers could provoke this response using a protein molecule called an antibody that attached itself to the cells’ surface. But because the cell response sometimes seemed out of proportion to the amount of antibody present, they tried systematically diluting the antibody and seeing how the cells reacted.
What they found made no sense according to the standard principles of chemistry. As dilution steadily reduced the amount of antibody, the activity of the cells didn’t fall off but instead kept resurging. At first glance this rise and fall looked random, but Benveniste and colleagues discerned a pattern within it: an approximately regular oscillation of activity reappearing at certain intervals of dilution. What’s more, this behavior persisted up to an extremely high level of dilution: so dilute, in fact, that there should not have been a single antibody molecule left in the solution. The French team concluded that somehow the water was “remembering” the presence of the antibody long after it had been diluted to nothing.
The idea of water having memory would not be surprising to anyone who believed in the sacrament of the great blessing of waters, of course. But more on that later. And this is not the only strange quality water seems to have:
Water isn’t unique in forming hydrogen bonds, but it is the only common substance that can be joined by these gentle, frangible molecular handclasps into a three-dimensional network. Most liquids are little more than a disorderly scrum of jostling molecules. But water is delicately poised between order and disorder, constantly adopting a defective version of the framework structure that, in ice, immobilizes the water molecules into crystalline regularity.
It’s extremely hard to find the right scientific language to describe this dynamic state, and molecular scientists who study water still debate how to do that.
And that’s not nearly the end of it. The article goes on for pages, describing experiments and qualities ascribed to water that have at some points been confirmed by experiment, but at other times defy explanation entirely. What’s so interesting about this article is, finally, is that it does something unexpected. It revels in mystery:
The fact is that, when we study water, we study dreams and myths. As Bachelard discerned, we conjure up reveries of birth, of milk and blood, of change and flux, of healing and succor, but also Poe’s nightmarish maelstrom and the deathly tug of the Styx. “One drop of powerful water,” he wrote, “suffices to create a world and to dissolve the night.” No microscope or spectrometer can contain all of that; it leaks off the slide and out of the frame, and flows everywhere.
This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this interesting dance between faith and science happening. Another recent article mentioned the possibility of an extremely strong antibiotic being discovered recently thanks to “legends” about the earth at the grave of an Irish priest who was believed to be able to heal people. The scientist who was studying the soil made an interesting, and somewhat disappointing, statement:
“In the days before antibiotics, healing was a spiritual event,” he says. “Healthy people in the countryside got ill without any possibility of recovery. Any cure is miraculous, which is why it’s no coincidence that religion is interwoven with the healing arts.” He cites a priest who has dismissed the cure as paganism. “It is perhaps a bit of paradox that clergy could be on the side of the rationalists and the scientists on the side of the unknown,” he says.
However, he immediately seems to realize he may have gone too far into the realm of the a-scientific:
“People are actually seeking out the cure not because of Father McGirr’s prophecy, but because there has been some scientific investigation.”
The Dance Between Science and Faith
I don’t think it accidental that the Irish scientist studying “healing soil” mentioned that the priest was skeptical about the possibility of the supernatural, while the scientist was curious. I’ve noticed it often. The religious often seem to feel a need to explain away the miraculous, as though believing in a “fake miracle” would somehow make them credulous fools. Sometimes, highly educated Orthodox will react to the announcement of a new myrrh-streaming icon, for example, with doubt.
But here, we see that good scientists (not the kinds that worship scientism), though resistant to admit any explanation that allows for the presence of the metaphysical, are still comfortable with mystery. It’s emblematic of a larger issue, I think, among us Christians. Sometimes, we are so convinced we know the answers to everything that we miss the miracle that passes us by in the shadows. But some scientists are so honest about their true calling–to explore the unknown–that they exhibit some signs of that openness to mystery that should more properly be a natural characteristic of the Christian.
No, the realms of science and faith should not be sundered completely. Clearly, they can complement each other. But that requires humility on both sides–openness to mystery on the part of the scientist and the Christian both.