Archive for the 'Science' Category

More Faith and Reason

This time courtesy of Paul Tillich. From his 1957 work, Dynamics of Faith:

Science can conflict only with science, and faith only with faith, which remains faith. This is true also of other spheres of scientific research, such as biology and psychology. The famous struggle between the theory of evolution and the theology of some Christian groups was not a struggle between science and faith, but between a science whose faith deprived man of his humanity and a faith whose expression was distorted by Biblical literalism. It is obvious that a theology which interprets the Biblical story of creation as a scientific description of an event which happened once upon a time interferes with the methodologically controlled scientific work; and that a theory of evolution which interprets man’s descendance from older forms of life in a way that removes the infinite, qualitative difference between man and animal is faith and not science.

Against a Mechanistic View of the Universe

Randall Paine has written a wonderful book on the philosophy of G. K. Chesterton titled The Universe and Mr. Chesterton (Sherwood Sugden & Company 1999). While Chesterton was not a “professional” philosopher, he had a comprehensive view of the world that makes him more of a proper philosopher than many “professional” ones today. Chesterton’s gift of wonder has been previously noted on this blog. He saw the world through the eyes of a child. It’s not without coincidence that our Lord says unless we become like children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3). Here is an excerpt by Paine contrasting Chesterton’s view of the world versus the commonplace mechanistic view of the world:

… Poetry begins with delight, but it ends in wonder.

It is philosophy that begins in wonder. But this is no longer the merely curious wonder at an observed phenomenon whose behavioral laws one seeks to describe. This concern with the “how” is interesting and at times imperative, but its answers are such that they lay wonder to rest. One may admire the order and regularity of the Newtonian cosmos, but you really have no warrant to further wonder, so long at least as you stay within the framework of the mechanist’s questions. If you begin instead of asking questions like, “But what is gravity anyway?”, or, “Whence does this cosmic order come?”, or quite simply, “What does it all mean?”, you will find yourself settling down into a chair and beginning a long and maybe never-ending meditation. Bacon will be furious, because you have taken up the “sterile” business of traditional philosophizing. You will probably have little time left over to make steam engines or plan lunar expeditions. Should plans for embarking upon such projects steal into your mind, one of your philosophical questions will promptly take the wind out of their sails: “Why?”

Few people in the ancient and few in the medieval world made machines. There seem to have been a few medieval Muslims who tinkered with mechanical technology, but their only purpose, we note with a smile, was to make toys for entertainment (much like the traditional Chinese use of gunpowder only for fireworks, and not for guns.) This is a complex topic, and I am not (nor was Chesterton) advocating a Luddite solution to technological excess. I should like, however, to defend pre-modern simplicity in the area of technology as not always deriving from mere stupidity, or from an atavistic inability to make gears and burn petroleum. There could be another reason why they did not become industrialized: it could really be that they chose not to. True wonder can make a man at least hesitate before reaching out to manipulate a universe.

This reminds me of the question, “why is the sky blue?” There are two motives for asking this very legitimate question. One is strictly a materialistic/scientific motive. What quantitative data causes the sky to be blue in color? The other motive is philosophic in nature. Why is the sky blue? Not what makes it blue, but why is it blue? Why shouldn’t it be green or white? Who decided it should be blue?

The first motive is exhaustive. Once the answer is found, the wonder is vanquished. The second motive is open ended. The answer is not concrete. It stirs the imagination, and elevates our heart and mind toward the Logos of the Universe.


So why is the sky blue? Here’s the scientific answer. Exhilirating, isn’t it? Now try asking the same question philosophically. Sure, sure. I know what makes the sky blue. But why blue? This is not to play science against philosophy. Rather, we should not only ask the one question (what makes the sky blue?) but the other as well (why blue?).

Love Thy Neighbor

A humorous little piece by Fr. Neuhaus from the “While We’re At It” section of the June/July edition of FIRST THINGS:

  • Of course we are to love everybody, but, as we have all too many occasions to remember, that does not mean that we have to like them. Take Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist and poster boy of pop-­science writing, for instance. If you haven’t read them, you’ve undoubtedly seen references to his books. There is The Stuff of Thought: Language Is a Window into Human Nature, and The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker is like the brightest little boy in fourth grade who polished apples for Miss Woodward because she agreed with him that he is a genius. I admit it: Steven Pinker gets to me. But then, a lot of people get to me. It’s something else to get to Leon Kass. Kass, who for years headed up the President’s Council on Bioethics, is a man of moral gravity and admirably tranquil disposition. As a master teacher, he has spent a lifetime patiently eliciting from preening fools a recognition, or at least a suspicion, of the abysmal depths of their ignorance. But, with respect to Steven Pinker, he has clearly had enough. In a Commentary essay a while back, Kass wrote about the limits of scientific explanations of human experience. Pinker wrote a blistering letter in response, to which Kass had this to say: “While esteeming the findings of these exciting new fields in science, I argued that the knowledge they provide must always be incomplete, owing to ­science’s chosen conceptual limitations. No science of life can do justice to its subject if it does not even inquire into the nature, character, and meaning of our ‘aliveness,’ with its special inwardness, awareness, purposiveness, attachments, and activities of thought, while believing that it has ‘explained’ these richnesses of soul by reducing them to electrochemical events of the brain. Because of these limitations, and because, as I argued, the biblical account of our humanity can be affirmed even in the age of science, I suggested, against the zealots on both sides, that biblical religion has nothing to fear from science, and that, conversely, scientists still in touch with their humanity have nothing to fear from scriptural religion. . . . In the course of my critique of reductionism, I accused Steven Pinker of arrogance and shallowness. I am tempted to say that his letter provides further evidence for the charge, especially as it progresses quickly from science (about which he knows a lot) to philosophy (about which he knows a dangerous little) to the Bible and religion (about which he knows less than the village atheist).” One detects a certain impatience with Steven Pinker.
  • Pinker had written: “The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.” To which Kass responds: “One can hardly be blamed for thinking the man a simple materialist. Someone who boasts, even for rhetorical effect, that ‘the supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife’ simply does not see that thought and awareness, like all powers and activities of living things, are immaterial in their essence and therefore cannot be carved. This is not because they are the work of ‘ghosts in the machine’ or because materials are not involved, but because the empowering organization of materials (the vital form), the powers and activities it makes possible, and the ‘information’ it manifests and appreciates are not themselves material.”
  • Kass concludes with this: “Leaving aside the simplemindedness of his moral views, I would remind Mr. Pinker that ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is a ­central teaching of biblical morality, promulgated centuries before his tepid and banal scientistic translation. It did not require the discovery of the human genome, because that ‘Iron Age tribal document’ already understood and proclaimed our common humanity, based on the recognition of our equal god-likeness. Moreover, the Bible, unlike Mr. Pinker, understood that such a teaching had to be commanded, because it went against the grain of native human selfishness. In this respect, as in so many others, the Bible understands human nature in ways much richer than a ­science that sees man only through his genetic homologies and brain events. And it teaches us more wisely than homilies drawn from DNA analysis, embellished by naïve and wishful thinking.” Steven Pinker, drop that knife.

Science vs. Religion

It’s almost become a cliche’ in the Catholic world – faith and reason, fides et ratio. The two are not in conflict. To the contrary, it is often said, faith and reason must go together. For faith without reason leads to tyranny of religion, and reason without faith leads to nihilism. This is most certainly true, and is something that we should never tire of saying. Although finding new and refreshing ways to say it is always beneficial.

Being one who is often late to the conversation, I just read the much discussed 2005 New York Times article by Cardinal Schönborn (pictured above), and the subsequent exchange that took place in FIRST THINGS between the good Cardinal and Stephen Barr. The argument of Cardinal Schönborn can be summed up by fides et ratio. All he seems to be saying is that science has it limits (i.e. it can’t hypothesize about a first cause) and that science can never (or will never) contradict faith. His New York Times article is, by his own admission, a bit inadequate. The Cardinal’s argument is from a philosophical viewpoint, but you don’t get that in the first reading of the article. In his rebuttal in FIRST THINGS, Cardinal Schönborn makes it clear that his argument is not theological or scientific as Barr supposes. You can read the exchange for yourself, but in the end I don’t think the two are in disagreement.

The New York Times article, here.

Stephen Barr’s response in FIRST THINGS, here.

Cardinal Schönborn’s rebuttal to Stephen Barr, here.

Stephen Barr’s opinion column in FIRST THINGS, acting as a further rebuttal to Cardinal Schönborn, here.

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