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Beauty and Nature

December 13, AD 2011 7 Comments

It is almost inevitably the first question I am asked in any gathering with more than four of my relatives: “So, what is it that you are working on these day?” The second question is often, “So what is this research good for?”, and the third (and most important), is “And when will you finish?” [1] Why do we study science? That may seem an odd question to pose in an essay written for a Catholic website, but it is the question which I am posing today.

Notice, though, that there is an assumption underlying the questions as posed to me by my relatives–and the same assumption is in society as a whole–regarding not only scientific research, but any number of other endeavors of human civilization, from art to music to literature to philosophy. The assumption is that it is only worth doing as a society if it is “useful” somehow.

Music is “useful” because it helps us to relax at the end of a long day so that we can be more productive tomorrow; or because it can–in its “classical” form–stimulate the brain, thus strengthening memory (for example). Art is “useful” because it can help us to visualize something which is not present–as in a police sketch, and architectural rendering, or for that matter a billboard advertisement. And science is “useful” because, well, it “works” [2].

This last attitude concerning science–it works! and that is why it is good!–can be traced back to the early stages of the scientific revolution [3]. In his essay about scientism, published in Disorientation: How to Go to College without Losing Your Mind, Dr John Keck writes that

  Science is a human institution, and so it should be no surprise to realize that the scientific project is as much political as it is intellectual. Francis Bacon was above all a politician, contributing not as much to scientific methods as to science’s self-conception. He aimed to throw off traditional or received wisdom such as Greek philosophy–which he dismissed as having ‘the characteristic property of boys: it can talk, but it cannot generate; for it is fruitful of controversies but barren of works.’ What sort of ‘works’ does Bacon mean? Later he says that the ‘true ends of knowledge’ are ‘the benefit and use of life’ and that his intention is to ‘lay the foundation…of human utility and power.’ Elsewhere, Bacon promises the reader that he is ‘come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children, to bind her to your service and make her your slave.’

Descartes likewise rejected scholastic philosophy, arguing that Aristotle’s principles could be dismissed because ‘no progress has been attained by their means in all the centuries in which they have been followed.’ In other words, it is only a philosophy’s consequences that justify it. And the central consequence of concern is power. Descartes wrote that the overpowering purpose of all science is to ‘render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.’

The men we might call the ‘scientific revolutionaries’ thus denigrated knowledge sought for its own sake. Knowledge that ‘merely’ gave man a better idea of his place in the universe was useless and hence worthless. Bacon’s assertion that ‘knowledge is power’ has become cliché. For Scientism, power is the ultimate purpose.

Pierre Duhem: Catholic, Scientist, and good at both.

This utilitarian conception of science thus tells us that science is only worth “doing” if it can grant us control over nature–which, as C.S. Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man ultimately leads to not only man’s control over nature, but also the control of some men over others with nature as their instrument.

There is a second problem with the scientistic conception of science, which is nicely summarized by Pierre Duhem when he writes [4]:

  The field where the battle is already on, where, without a doubt, it will become ever more violent, is the incompatibility of the scientific mind and the religious spirit.

I am not speaking of the incompatibility of a specific scientific discovery with specific religious doctrine. Much polemics was made about these particular antagonisms in the 19th century. The it was fashionable for example to oppose a theory in geology to a verse in the Bible. But these were isolated skirmishes which prepared the great engagement. This is of far greater amplitude and the target it aims at threatens to be much more radical. It amounts to denying, in the name of science as such, to all religion the very right to exist. They pretend to have established that no man can exist, at the same time, the value of science and also believe in the dogmas of religion. And since the value of science asserts itself every day by thousands of marvelously useful inventions, a fact which only the blind mind can call into doubt, the religious faith is taken for a goner.

Why then, ought we study the sciences, not just as human beings but specifically as Catholics? It would be tempting to say that we should do this only to refute our accusers, who claim that science and religion are utterly incompatible. While refutations to such arguments are a benefit to our studying the sciences–in much the same reason that the technologies which come from the sciences are a benefit to studying them–neither technology nor polemics is the principal reason for studying science.

Saint Francis recognized God’s thumbprints in nature

Rather, we ought to spend time learning science, studying it, pondering it because it is part of God’s design in creation. Sure, we might gain technology which can improve our quality of life, and certainly we can see that the understanding of nature does not lead us away from God. But what is greater than either of these reasons is the insights we can gain to Nature herself–insights which ultimately must point back to the Creator of Nature and the Author of her laws. There are not ultimately two separate laws, “The Laws of Nature” [5] and “Divine Law”: if the two have the same ineffable Source, and that Source is very Truth, they cannot contradict; rather, the former is a subset of the latter.

Science, then, becomes another sort of window into heaven, inasmuch as God can be encountered and contemplated through His creation. It is a window which gives us glimpses of truth and goodness, to be sure: after all, science does “work” when allowed to operate within its proper context–by making accurate predictions, for example, and studying material and efficient causes in nature [6]–and there is certainly some goodness to be found not only in the technologies developed through science (again, when used correctly), but also through the simple increase in our understanding of the world. However, it is beauty which is especially to be found in science–a point to which most scientists in my own field will attest. There is beauty in the order which comes from nature, beauty in the laws and theories (and in the formulations which describe those laws and theories), to say nothing of the beauty found in contemplating a “simple” sunset, a phenomenon which might be described as ever ancient and yet ever new. As Fr Stanley L Jaki has written in his essay Science for Catholics,

  “[Duhem] was the one who first called the attention of Catholics to the fact that science was for Catholics in the sense that science had a Catholic cradle. The implication of this is both simple and monumental. If science is historically the child of the Catholic Church, it can never turn, or be turned convincingly into an entity essentially alien to that Church. A child may forget his birthplace, a child may grow so powerful and prominent as to disdain his parents-for all that, a child remains flesh of his mother’s flesh, bone of her bones. Conversely, a parent may mistreat a child, may oppose his career, and become suspicious of him-for all that, the parent does not cease to be the true origin of that child. If science is indeed for Catholic, Catholics are for science just as a parent is for the child. They should think, feel, act, and speak as the true originators of science….

Through science we may before long have a demonstration of the truth of the Book of Wisdom…in which supreme praise is rendered to God who disposes everything according to measure, number, and weight (Wis 11:20). Each measure, each number, and each weight is therefore a God-ordered note in the praise which the universe renders to God through its being strictly limited to one overall measure, number, and weight. These three are the only, though enormously rich, objects of science. They are also an integral part of the praise which man owes his Maker” (Catholic Essays).

Good science, then, like good philosophy and good theology is not only a window through which we may catch a fleeting glimpse of heaven, but is also the rooftop from which we might render to God the praise which is His due.




[0] Feature image is from the Naturography website.

[1] After which I inevitably get sucked into a discussion about why 8 years (excluding undergraduate education) is a normal length of time for earning a PhD in experimental physics in general and my particular subfield in particular.

[2a] Unless, of course, it is in a controlled laboratory setting, as for example in a first year physics class. Then, it invariably doesn’t work. As the joke goes, “If it’s slimy it’s biology, if it stinks it’s chemistry, if it’s dirty it’s geology, and if it doesn’t work it’s physics.”

[2b] It is also worth noting here that this attitude that we do something because “it’s useful” is actually an inversion of Aristotle’s assertion that the highest things in life are those things which we do for their own sakes; they are good in themselves, that is, they are or would be good even if they had no other uses. Science, Art, and Music may fit into this category. “It’s useful” (or “it’s necessary”) is a good reason to do an activity, but one things which sets us apart from all other species is that we do things for reasons other than survival.

[3] The groundwork for this revolution was laid in the high middle ages, as scholars such as Fr Stanly Jaki and Dr Pierre Duhem have shown.

[4] Quoted from Stanley L Jaki’s Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem, which contains several letters and essays by Duhem. This was from a letter titled “Two New Chairs at Catholic Universities.” In the letter, Duhem goes on to describe the development of science from the time of the Greeks–whose science was “impregnated by theology, but with a pagan theology.” He describes the doctrines of those pagans as “fetters,” and then goes on to explain in no uncertain terms that it was the scholastics–Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and other Parisian scholastics–who had first “broken these fetters.”

[5] By “The Laws of Nature” I mean “the laws of nature” entailing physics, astronomy, biology, geology, chemistry, etc. and not necessarily “Natural Law,” the branch of moral philosophy. On the other hand, a good study of “The Laws of Nature” might lead us to “Natural Law,” and I also believe that much of ‘Natural Law” is grounded in the “Laws of Nature.” Again, same Author, so I would expect not only complementarity but also some actual overlap.

[6] Of course, if we look closely enough, we might find that all four of Aristotle’s causes appear in some form (ahem!) or other in science.


About the Author:

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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  • You make such an important point about the fundamental attitude toward science. We have to make sure that teachers in Catholic schools communicate this to their students.

    You might appreciate this article from our newsletter, written with similar things in mind:

  • You are right on target. There is a lot of derision from atheist scientists aimed at religion for “not working” when the very foundations of science are theistic; science works because of theological foundations. Not to mention the motivation to find the beauty of God’s creation. Good article. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

  • Kris

    Why would one expect Science to be exempt from the utilitarian expectations of all modern education, though I agree that few other subjects have been so utterly reduced. Science has its advocated for basic research, but when even that is being supplanted for revenue-producing endeavors then we have little hope to rekindle the desire for Science as a way to a greater Truth.

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