Tag Archives: Anthony Rizzi

Book Review: Particles of Faith

Particles of Faith, by Stacy Trasancos, is a must-read for Catholics (and others of good faith) who are weary of the vitriol in the faith-science dialogue. What follows is my review of this book. Disclaimer: I have received no compensation for the following review, save only for an advance copy of the book.

Yes, scientism is one of the 13 “isms” discussed in this book too.

As in all times, there are a variety of ideologies which oppose themselves to Christ and His Church. It is perhaps easy to blame this on the various “bad Christians” who exist, though we are all to some extent bad Christians. Nor is the admonition that to follow Him, we must each take up our cross daily an especially convenient, easy, or enjoyable task to pursue. Whatever the human cause or causes, the ideologies which and ideologues who place themselves against the Church, her teachings, and her Head are legion.

Many of these are more or less casual ideologies, though widely followed. I am thinking especially of hedonism, utilitarianism, and post-modernism. Some people may believe in these philosophies of life, or may even use them to convince themselves to stay away from religion in general and Christian religion in particular. However, these are philosophies often embraced after a decision against religion has already been made. Other ideologies may be embraced by a smaller and more fanatical cross-section of society to convince their ideologues to stay away from the Church. Some examples include feminism [1], Marxism and communism [2], or environmentalism [3].

Scientism caricatured. Image source.

There is at least one ideology [4] which in our present time has both the broad appeal and the seemingly solid intellectual claims to undermine the faith of many a believer. This ideology is in many ways the successor to rationalism, and even to modernism: it is scientism, the belief that all knowledge must be scientifically derived or scientifically verifiable. While this assertion alone seldom undermines the faith of the average Catholic, it comes with a variety of smaller claims which are more insidious. One such claim is that there is a conflict between science and religion, in particular that the Church undermines or even outright prevents scientific progress from taking place. Another such claim is that as science progresses, the realm to which belief–in God or in miracles or in the supernatural—is relegated must steadily shrink until it vanishes. Scientism underlies the question, “How can you reconcile being a religious believer with being a rational scientist?” It is in this assumption that a conflict between science and Christianity lies. Scientism asks, perhaps cynically: How do you reconcile faith with reason, belief with data, myth with facts [5]?

We are called to give an accounting of the hope which lives within us, and a part of that accounting is to address the questions and to meet challenges posed by scientism. This is especially true in our present milieu, where scientism is particularly pervasive. In discussing these questions, Dr. Stacy Trasancos poses a separate set of questions to those of us who are Catholics:

What is the first thing you would say if someone asked you about the relationship between faith and science?

Would your first reaction be to point out that faithful people can also be people who love science? To assert that many Catholics were scientists as evidence that even Catholics can do science? To point to this or that conclusion in science as evidence that science supports faith?

This is largely the gamut of common Catholic (or broadly orthodox Christian) responses [6]. Dr. Trasancos questions each of these reactions in turn:

If so, stop and examine those reactions. Why does a person of faith need to his or her ability to love science or to be reasonable? Why single out that Catholics can be scientists? Of course we can be reasonable, and of course we can be scientists! Why point to any particular scientific conclusion as if it could prove the existence of God? We hold religious truths in faith and certainty because they are revealed by God, not because scientists give them the nod.

Nicene-CreedThis last point is one of the key themes of Dr. Trasancos’ book: that our religious beliefs cannot be undermined (or proved) by scientific discoveries because it is by revelation that we know them and faith we hold them. This is to say that no human endeavor, whether scientific discovery or reasoned inquiry, can ultimately disprove or prove that special knowledge revealed to us in faith by God about Himself, ourselves, and the relationship between us and Him. In his essay Our Awesome Creed: The Faith Is No Excuse for Bigotry, the philosopher Charles de Koninck states:

“If we truly appreciated the mysteriousness of the truths that faith enables us to accept, and how inscrutable is this power to accept them, we could never show anything but understanding towards those who cannot join us, a humble gratitude for the light in which they do not share and which we ourselves have in no way deserved….

“The things which we Christians embrace by divine faith, and which are not to be received except by that faith, are humanly incredible. They are incredible for two reasons, two reasons paradoxically opposed: first, because they are so far above us, because they make it so plain that God is remote, infinite, and mysterious beyond all imagining; second, because they bring that inaccessible Begin so close, involve the two of us in each other, show us how much we mean to Him who is above all, how each of us is the preoccupation of Wisdom Itself, as if God has no other one to care for.” [7]

Reason can help to flesh out the meaning of revelation. Reason can help us make sense of a given dogma and can shed light on revealed mystery, but unaided reason will seldom reach so high as the mysteries of our Faith. Dogmas are conclusions, but they are not the end of thinking. Rather, as Chesterton has noted, they are like firm foundations on which we can build with the materials provided by reason, scientific discovery, or rational discourse (etc.).

Dogmas give us the truth, and then science gives us some of the facts which can surround that truth or help us to make sense of it. Faith gives us the words, and reason helps us to understand their meanings.

Similar imagery is used in the book itself at one point. Image source.

There are in this book three other themes of importance, and all are related to this first theme. The first of these three is that science and the truths we hold by faith are never at war with each other, but that science and the Catholic religion can be (and should be) in dialogue: conversation, not conflict, is the state which should exist between science and the Faith. The second is that while science can enlighten the Faith, the Faith ultimately also sheds light on science. The third is that if a scientific discovery causes a person to question his faith, then he may be looking at it in the wrong way, and conversely, if a person’s faith is preventing him from accepting as valid a new scientific discovery, then it is likely that he misunderstand what the Faith teaches or what the discovery means. Likewise (and tying back into the first theme), if science if being used to attack the Faith, then either the Faith is being misconstrued or the science is being misrepresented, or both. In Dr. Trasancos’ own words, “Faith and science are to different manifestations of the same reality. When they seem to have conflicting conclusions, it is because our knowledge is not complete.”

This last statement is a sort of crux for understanding (and navigating) any hypothetical or imagined conflict between science and the Catholic Faith. Indeed, it is the key to understanding and resolving many hypothetical or imagined conflicts between dogmas which we hold by faith and conclusions which we reach via reason. The Thomistic philosopher Dr. Edward Feser suggests this in his discussion of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, which is a long (for a book review or book discussion) but helpful exercise in understanding how to navigate supposed conflicts between faith and reason. He notes that:

“Something could be unintelligible in itself, or unintelligible only for us. What is unintelligible in the first sense has no coherent content; what is unintelligible in the second sense has a coherent content, but one which, given our limited cognitive limitations, we are incapable of grasping. Trinitarianism [or any other dogmatic ‘mystery’] would be falsifiable only if it were shown to be unintelligible in the first sense, but not if it is unintelligible only in the second. Indeed, that it is ‘unintelligible’ in the second sense is exactly what Trinitarian theologians mean when they say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a ‘mystery.’ They do NOT mean that it contains a self-contradiction, or that it is unintelligible in itself, or even that we cannot have any understanding of it at all. They mean instead that the limitations of our minds are such that, though [the mystery] is perfectly consistent and intelligible in itself, we cannot adequately grasp it.”

limits-of-a-limitless-scienceIndeed, as the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki points out, science itself has a fundamental limit in it knowledge. Physics is generally acknowledged as the most fundamental of the sciences, with the other hard building on its (and each other’s) principles and discoveries. Physics, in turn, is a very mathematical science, so much so that math may be said to be the language of physics; and the principles of physics can generally be expressed as equations, often very simple (in appearance, at least) ones of the sort that may be easily printed on a t-shirt or coffee mug.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of physics, that it can make the natural world a more knowable place (at least with practice—these equations can be very difficult to master in practice). But it sets a limit to physics in particular, which extends ultimately to the other sciences in general: these govern only the realm of the quantitative. And, being a quantitative,”emperiometric” [8] science, physics is ultimately limited in s second way—it can never have a complete theory of all things, even all quantitative things, which can be proven to the the complete theory of all things [9]. This is a consequence of Godel’s incompleteness theorems, which are a sort of proof that no non-trivial system can contain he proof of its own correctness.

What, then, should we do when the conclusions of Faith and the findings of science are in apparent contradiction? Dr. Trasancos gives us a way to navigate would-be conflicts between the Faith and science. She does this in three steps:

1. Find out what the Church teaches. (pp. 48-52)
2. Begin to learn the science. (pp. 52-55)
3. Sort out the “system of wills.” (pp. 55-60)

All three steps are important, and if the first two seem self-explanatory, the third needs a bit of explanation. In short—for this is already a very long book review—the system of wills refers to the fact that there is a hierarchy to nature. The supreme authority is God, Who holds all things in existence and who wills the laws of nature into being. But between God and these (rather deterministic) laws, there is a whole hierarchy of wills, from angel to human to animal, which are largely free to act and thus to affect the course of nature.

A scientist, when formulating his theories or studying nature via experiment, will attempt to work within an isolated (and controllable) system as best he can. Indeed, he will often attempt to isolate merely physical effects from the system, for ease of calculation and prediction (consider that free-fall motion is much easier to analyze than motion with fluid resistance, for example). Such an isolated system must discount, among other things, the presence and action of the will, both his and others’. Yet, the very act of conducting an experience is itself an act of free will, for which neither physics nor any other emperiological science can account.

“There is no mathematical accounting for free will in the isolated systems of chemistry and physics…The isolation of physical systems needs to be appreciated in the faith and science dialogue. For physical scientists trained to think this acutely, this mechanical mindset is hard to escape. Remember this when you consider the theories of scientists. They speak in terms of isolated physical systems….

God created physical matter, and God created free agents, so together these form the whole systematic universe. The laws of physics may cover the whole of time and space, but as [C.S.] Lewis puts it, ‘what they leave out is precisely the whole real universe—the incessant torrent of actual events which make up true history.’

…What is a miracle then? St. Thomas calls a miracle something God does outside the order of nature ‘which we know.’ To us, it may seem like breaking laws of physics, but miracles do not break the supreme law. In addition, if God wills to move particles, it cannot be modeled or predicted with human calculation, which is why physics cannot study miracles.”

Because this is limited, we therefore conclude that ontology is null and void. Image source.

While not precisely a theme of the book, this process of sorting through potential faith-science conflicts reappears throughout later chapters. It is also reminiscent of the physicist and self-trained Thomistic philosopher Anthony Rizzi’s observation concerning quantum mechanics and some of its interpretations and their implications. In his book The Science Before Science, Dr. Rizzi writes,

“The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that objects have no properties of themselves, but claims that properties exist only in conjunction with measuring devices and not until measured (observed). One may now quickly realize this as another example of taking an emperiometric theory as giving the real directly [e.g. it is an example of taking an isolated system—albeit a big one—and calling that system the whole of reality]. In particular, one notes the implicit belief that measurements, which are readings taken from a sensor and processed to appear as digits on a computer screen (which are, in turn, interpreted by an interconnected web of emperiometric theory) are the arbiter of what is real. Stanley Jaki has been in the forefront in trying to rally physicists and others to see that the inability to make exact measurements does not equate to the inability for something to exist in a definite state or change in a definite way….

You may note that Bell’s theorem is parallel to Godel’s theorem in the following way. If one thinks al he knows are his ideas, not things (by ideas), he can via Godel’s theorem come to doubt all truth. Similarly, if one thinks all he knows is the emperiometric (and thereby forgets the basis for the emperiometric), he ca, via Bell’s theorem, doubt being itself, and hence the whole arena of things which he proposes to study.”

Particles of Faith is organized in three parts. The first part sets up these themes, interspersed with autobiographical anecdotes. It ends with this three-step process to navigating questions of potential conflict between faith and science. The second and third parts are to apply the principles and develop the themes established in the first part. Thus, Part II is about the relationship between the Faith and the physical sciences, and Part III is about the relationship between the Faith and the biological sciences.

In Part II, Dr. Trasancos discusses the doctrine of creation in time ex nihilo in the light of the Big Bang—and also the Big Bang in the light of the doctrine of creation. She then considers the atomic realm of matter—and the sub-atomic realm (quarks and electrons, photons, etc.). Throughout all of this, she considers the wonderful order and symmetry which underlies nature, in the light of the Scriptural verse that God has “ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wisdom 11:21). Finally, she discusses the apparently indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics and considers where (or not) this offers “proof” (or, alternatively, “disproof”) of the concept of free will. Much of the focus in this is what we can know through science and what we can know through revelation, that is, what we know by faith and what we know by reason. Suffice it to say that there is no contradiction between the two, and that each actually complements the other.

While this discussion is quite exhilarating, there are some omissions from this section which make it feel incomplete. In particular, there might have been a fourth chapter to discuss matter and form and the body-soul relationship, which fits somewhere between the discussion of the atomic word and of quantum mechanics. Likewise, and though it has been addressed by other thinkers (Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine in particular), I was somewhat surprised to not see a discussion of the resurrection in light of the world of atoms. For not a hair from our heads is to be forgotten, and our bodies are to be restore to us in the resurrection—this would have been a very interesting discussion in the light of atomic theory, for our bodies are made of atoms, and indeed of shared atoms and even decaying atoms.

In Part III, Dr. Trasancos is primarily concerned wth the theory of evolution, and whether it is guided by random chance or by fate or by Providence. She also considers two inadequate answers to evolution—Creationism and Intelligent Design—before asking whether a Christian can in good conscience accept the theory of evolution (she argues that the answer is yes). Finally, she turns to bioethics to address one of the hot-button culture-war issues, that of when human life begins.

As Michael Flynn captioned it, “Mitochondrial Eve, which is the night prior to the Feast of Mitochondrial.”

Again, there is considerable discussion of what we know by faith and what we know by reason. Science, for example, can trace back humanity to a common set of ancestors, for example a mitochondrial Eve and a y-chromosmal Adam, which existed many thousands of years in the past (the approximate date of both is 200 000 years ago, though originated in separate populations of approximately 10 000 people each). We should be able to marvel at that feat of science, without demanding greater precision over such a long period of time—and recognize that this neither proves nor disproves what we hold be faith, namely, that all of humanity has a common set of ancestors leading back to the first man and woman [10], that we are all endowed with powers of intellect and will, that we are all created by direct action of God (Who alone can create a soul), or that we all come into this world with the stain of Original Sin in our souls.

The organization of the book is in general simple and easy to follow. Each chapter builds on previous chapters (for the most part—though Parts II and III could be read out of order). I do, however, have two criticisms of the organization, both relatively minor. The first is that the book would benefit from including the different sections within a given chapter in the table of contents. The second is that some chapters end with a summary of the main points of the chapter, and others rather end with a conclusion.

This book is neither quite a polemic work nor exactly a autobiography, though it is a sort of scientific memoir. Dr. Trasancos states in her introduction that the book is largely her attempt to bring a missing element into the science and religion discussion: that is, the human element.

I could have made these points in a more aseptic style, but it would not reflect either the way I think or the way I communicate with my friends and family on the Internet or around my kitchen table. I notice something missing in the faith and science dialogue, and that something is the human person. Science involves people. Faith involves people. Whatever challenges and controversies arise, they arise because of people. Therefore, I seek to show how a Catholic person works through these questions of faith and science.

With Particle of Faith, Stacy Trasancos as largely succeeded in putting the human element back into the science and religion dialogue.


[1] N.B. I am not claiming that only a small number of people will claim to be feminists. I am claiming that only a small number of particularly radical feminists will recognize their feminism as a reason to not be Christian.

[2] There are again some people who believe that Marxism and Christianity can be reconciled, though Christian socialism is a much more popular position than outright Marxism, and communism is practically a joke anymore.

[3] Again, there are Christian environmentalists, and ecological conservation does indeed fall under the pervie of Christian (and earlier, Jewish) thought. One of the first tasks given to mankind was to be good stewards of creation. I am again referring to hte radical element, the Gaia-worshippers and the earth-firsters who would see civilization burn and humanity eradicated (or at least sharply curtailed) for the sake of flora and fauna.

[4] I can think of others (progressivism, for example), but this review is not the place to discuss them

[5] It rather pointedly avoids the misstatement of demanding a reconciliation between “theology and theory,” and only very tenuously considers asking for their to be a reconciliation between truth and facts (the two being intertwined in most peoples’ minds) by replacing “truth” with “myth.”

[6] A fourth reaction might be to turn to the “separate magisteria” defense and to treat the two as entirely unconnected spheres of knowledge.

[7] Charles de Koninck, “Our Awesome Creed: The Faith Is No Excuse for Bigotry,” Saint Joseph Magazine (Oregon), Vol. 5 (1964), No. 10, pp. 16-19. Later in this same essay, Charles de Koninck writes that

“Our Faith is assuredly no easy matter and can move us to protest. Not only because it tells of mysteries that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived; but also because it penetrates every corner of life, because it will leave no part of our day untouched. That this is indeed a great reason for the difficulty of the Faith was proved by the reaction of so many good Catholics to the prospect of the solemn definition of the Assumption. When Pius XII proclaimed this truth, there were murmurs. Why? Oh, of course, because of the unnecessary stumbling-block again set in the way of the nonCatholic…. Nothing could be more natural than such feelings. We all hold the instinctive attitude that there ought to be some limit to what we are asked to take n faith, some acceptable frontier. But where are such bound to be set? Shall we confine our assent to the Incarnation, for example, with no reference to the Child’s mother or foster father? If we could manage these matters ourselves, we would all feel inclined to suppress such facts as that God was hungry, tired, thirsty, that He perspired, that He rode on a donkey, that He died.

“Yes, let divine truth be as lofty as you please; let it be glorious, sublime, awful, but let it not become human, pedestrian, ordinary, just me and my dull little life, for then it shocks the intellect.”

[8] Jacques Maritain, I think, coined the term “emperiological” to describe modern sciences, with the life sciences being “emperioschematic” and the physical sciences being “emperiometric.”

[9] Theory of all things is not to be confused with the common phrase “theory of everything,” which is basicaly only a theory which would unify gravity with the other fundamental forces and reconcile quantum mechanics with relativity.

[10] This belief in a single man and a single woman, Adam and Eve, as the common ancestors of all humankind is binding but not dogmatic.

Hawking and the Heavens

Chesterton once observed that men generally have two attitudes towards dogma: some consciously recognize their reliance upon it, and others attempt to deny that reliance. He concluded that, ironically, it is the latter who are ultimately the more dogmatic.

I was reminded of this observation a few weeks ago [1], when I saw the latest interview with a well-known—and in this case eminent—scientist speaking on matters which fall outside of his professional competence. I am referring to the interview given to El Mundo by Stephen Hawking. In this interview, Prof. Hawking repeated his firm conviction that there is no God, and hence no heaven, no miracles.

That he holds this conviction is unfortunate, but not of primary interest for this article. What caught my interest is the justification of Dr. Hawking”s beliefs [2].

Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation.” So many errors, so little time.

For one thing, the first sentence of this statement — and its intended implications — is just silly[3]. At best, it makes the (presumed) observation that in more scientific, “advanced” cultures, there are fewer believers and then concludes that scientific advancement causes a loss of believe.

Perhaps it does, and perhaps it does not, but the reasoning here looks to me more like a post hoc, ergo proper hoc fallacy, a confusion between a correlation and a cause.

As for the second sentence, can science offer a “more convincing explanation” of the how and what and why of the universe”s creation? Errors often come in pairs (at the least!), and this is no exception.

The more obvious error is to say that SCIENCE!TM has both the last and ultimately the only word on this topic. That is scientism plain and simple [4]. The opposite error is to assert that science tells us nothing of value here.

Concerning the former error, science itself runs into one of its fundamental limits when discussing “the beginning” of the universe. There are, after all, multiple meanings to the word “begin,” reflected in its various forms. A thing may begin at its initial time, the first instant of its existence; or it may begin at its bottom, its starting point; or it may begin in the moment at which is is conceived; or again it may begin when it is set in motion. A beginning my be temporal, it may be spatial [5], or it may be ontological.

Now, Dr. Hawking has previously taken issue with the first of these meanings, arguing that in its early stages the universe was small enough to be governed by quantum effects, which blur its beginning such that it has no literal first instant [6]. “We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe” as opposed to being created by God.

Not only is this a false dichotomy (God could, after all, use a quantum fluctuation to “begin” the universe), it also misses the primary point of creation. As physicist and Anglican cleric Dr. John Polkinghorne notes [7]:

Much confusion exists in the minds of many because of a false association of creation with the beginning [n.b. first moment in time] of things. The doctrine of creation is not concerned with temporal origin but with ontological origin. It is proposed as the answer to the question of why anything exists at all, and not to the question of how it all began. God is as much the [active] Creator today as at the instant of the Big Bang, fifteen billion years ago. Therefore, if Hawking is right in supposing that quantum effects in the early universe so fuzzed out what was happening that there was not a literal first instant, that is scientifically interesting but theologically negligible.”

In other words, the notion of God as Creator, or of the universe as a part of creation, does not rest on the idea that the universe has a beginning in time. Indeed, philosophers who have actually studied and understood the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (for example) will note that he does not assume such a beginning in time in his Five Ways.

There is an important variation of the cosmological argument (kalām cosmological argument) which does claim (though not assume) that the universe has a beginning in time, but then St. Thomas actually rejects this argument on the basis that he did not think that it could be proven that the universe actually does begin to exist. The Rev. Polkinghorne continues his train of thought by further clarifying that

The thought of the Creator”s sustaining the world has traditionally been expressed in Christian theology by the phrase creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. It does not mean that God used some peculiar sort of stuff called nihil from which to make the universe, but that at all times the universe is being held in being, rescued from the abyss of nothingness, by the divine will alone. When quantum cosmologists gaily characterize their notion of the universe as an inflated vacuum fluctuation…as being the scientific equivalent of creat o ex nihilo, they entirely miss the point. A quantum vacuum is not nihil, for it is structured by the laws of quantum mechanics and the equations of the quantum fields involved, all of which the theist will see as existing solely because decrees that this should be so. There is no area in which the interaction of science and theology is more bedevilled by theological ignorance on the part of scientists than in the discussion of the doctrine of creation.”

The quantum vacuum is not nothing, nor are the laws of physics nothing. Nothing is, quite simply put, no thing, a lack of anything, a lack of existence, a lack of being. This brings me to the other possible error—one which Dr. Hawking is not guilty of, but which the reactionary might be, the error of going too far in the other way.

Physics cannot ultimately answer the question of how (to say nothing of why) creation itself occurs, because creation is an ontological and not merely a physical event. It is logically prior to any number of assumptions which physics must make to function, assumptions such as the existence of a universe (at the least), or that the universe must obey the mathematical models we make of it, that is, that it must be governed in a logical and coherent manner by our theories and laws and axioms.

The second error is to state that since these things are logically prior to physics, therefore physics is not online casino competent to say anything about the beginnings of the universe. It is to reject physics (and, ultimately, much of scientific reasoning) as giving us no information whatsoever. This is just fideism in another form, and fideism is indeed the “opposite error” to scientism.

There is a balance to be struck between faith and reason, between the knowledge we gain from science and the knowledge we gain from revelation (to say nothing about the balances between science and philosophy and theology) [8]. For example, Dom. James A. Wiseman, O.S.B., notes that there is a difference between “making” and “creating”:

The Hebrew verb bara”, translated above as “create,” is regularly used in the Bible when only God is the subject, whereas the verb “asah (“make”) is used with either God or human beings as subject. “Making” is thus analogous to human “manufacture,” by which an object is fashioned so as to receive its particular character, whereas creating is not comparable to what humans can do. God alone could “create” heaven and earth, whatever this activity might mean more exactly” [9].

In light of this, it should be clear that there is no fundamental incompatibility between the idea of God”s “creating” the universe—giving it being—and His “making” it (giving it its form or character, or indeed its material makeup) by use of quantum vacuum fluctuations during the big bang.

As for the dogma of the scientistic worldview, it begins with the dogma that there is nothing beyond science, and ends with denying any plain fact which does not fit this theory. We see odd claims of creation from nothing—though only once on a large scale—so long as we are allowed to begin with a little something, a sort of brute fact such as quantum foam and vacuum field fluctuations. And then, in a similar breath, we hear claims that there are no other miracles, claims which are made on the patently dogmatic grounds that nature cannot alter her course [10]. We are given the absolute dogmas that there is no God, no heaven, and no miracles—as if science could ever actually prove a negative.

[1] While there has been a change in publishing deadlines for Ignitum Today, I”ve never been one to try to blog about the latest headline.

[2] The denial of God”s existence is a sort of act of faith.

[3] It is not, perhaps, quite as silly as his speculation about what God was doing prior to creating the universe: “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?” Saint Augustine argued that such speculations of “what did God do before the beginning of time” are meaningless, since without time there is no “before.” One can only anticipate the strange spectacle of a man who argues against the significance of man in the universe become so suddenly anthropomorphic in his speculations about what God did or did not do before the arrival of men.

[4] Speaking of scientism:

As Hawking advances in years, God is clearly very central in his mind. As the L.A. Times observed, Hawking was asked what, besides his wheelchair, he would like to control.

“What I would really like to control is not machines, but people,” he said. Which, some might observe, sounds God-like — in a remarkably ungodly way.”

This quote is almost assuredly meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek, of course, a comment about wanting to control his own body. One the other hand, it”s not phrased in such a way as to imply that that is the ultimate extent of this “control.” How little we have learned since The Abolition of Man

[5] I will not here quibble with any who attempt to argue that space and time are interrelated.

[6] This argument he makes in A Brief History of Time. On the other hand, Fr. Stanley L. Jaki has noted that

It was largely overlooked that Heisenberg”s principle states only the inevitable imprecision of measurements on the atomic level. From that principle one can proceed only by an elementary disregard of logic to the inference that an interaction that cannot be measured exactly, cannot take place exactly” (Miracles and Physics, pp. 47).

Heisenburg”s uncertainty principle provides the actual underpinning of Dr. Hawking”s assertion that the universe has no actual beginning in time.

[7] Quoted from Science and Theology pp. 79-80. This might be compared to Robert J. Russell”s comment that

Though highly speculative, the Hawking/Hartle model of the “quantum creation of the universe” is an example of the kind of challenge presented by quantum cosmology to the relation between theology and cosmology. If there is not “t=0” in the Hawking/Hartle model, does this “disprove” the theological claim that the universe is created? Actually the interaction method produces a more nuanced result than this. Recall that, according the Hawking, the universe has a finite past but no past singularity at “t=0;” the universe is temporally past finite but unbounded. If we had too narrowly reduced the theological meaning of creation to the occurrence of “t=0” in standard cosmology we might well have a problem here!…

But the interaction model provides a surprising new result: The move from the Big Bang to Hawking”s model changes the empirical meaning of the philosophical category of finitude; it does not render it meaningless. With Hawking/Hartle the universe is still temporally finite (in the past) but it does not have an initial singularity. Hence the shift in models changes the form of consonance between theology and science from one of bounded temporal past finitude (found with the Big Bang model) to one of unbounded temporal past finitude (found in the Hawking proposal). Thus, as we theologize about creatio ex nihilo we should separate out the element of past temporal finitude from the additional issue of the boundedness of the past. What the Hawking proposal teaches us is that in principle one need not have a bounded finite past to have a finite past. This result stands whether or not Hawking”s proposal lasts scientifically.”

[8] We can learn something from the science, as Dr. Anthony Rizzi notes in The Science Before Science pp. 230, 232:

If we make this assumption [that general relativity is still valid near the singularity during the big bang], the emperiometric theory, on the face of it, forces us to conclude that this is the beginning of the universe. Why? A singularity is a place where all mathematics breaks down. Since mathematics is our mode of explanation in the emperiometric method, one”s ability to explain is cut off. Hence, if we think that the emperiometric theory is “what is,” then we will conclude that from the fact that explanation comes to a beginning at this instant, so does the universe. Indeed, at this point, the emperiometric theory appears to predict that time and space begin.Of course, we know that real being, not the beings of reason of an emperiometric theory, is the final object of our thought. We will thus not be forced to that conclusion…

We should take predictions of emperiological science with some seriousness (balanced by ontological sobriety). The big bang theory indicates (not proves) that something special is happening near the point of the infinitely dense fireball (the singularity).”

[9] Quoted in Theology and Modern Science: Quest for Coherence, pp. 38.

[10] cf. Staney L. Jaki”s “Miracles and Physics, pp. 82.

Scientistic Dogma and the Soul

Concerning dogma there are, as Chesterton observed, two kinds of people: those who recognize that they rely on it, and those who don’t. It is the latter who are often the more dogmatic in the sense that is so often decried. Such is most certainly true of the scientistic set, and especially of those who would be physical materialists [1]. Foremost among their dogma is that only that which can be found through the five senses is real—or perhaps more broadly, only that which can be measured and quantified exists.

They have attempted to describe all reality, all existence, in emperiological [2] terms, forgetting all the while that such things as “existence,” “being,” and “reality” are not themselves purely emperiological. One result of this is the occasional “forgetting” of things which we know as people qua people, that is, of things which might be classed as knowledge—or at the very least that form of opinion which is so well grounded as to be nearly identical with knowledge [3]. I am referring to our so-called “common knowledge,” “common sense,” or “common experiences” [4]. In his book The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century, Dr Anthony Rizzi makes a distinction between “proper” and “improper” knowledge [5]:

“In common usage, knowledge can mean anything we take as relatively certain for whatever reason. We can call this knowledge in the improper sense. I have knowledge proper only when I come to conclusions based on facts and principles that I have personally ‘seen’ and, if required, based on a chain of reasoning that I have walked through myself. Belief in the generic sense means having a level of probable, but not certain, conviction that is usually largely based on the word of another.”

He then proceeds to make the case that much of (modern) science is based on improper knowledge. Some of it is even based on belief. Indeed, much of scientific progress relies in the short term (and often the long term as well) on the “belief” that the scientific community has in the data (and results, conclusions) reported by some set of scientists who conduct the experiment in question [6], though in the case of science there is more involved than merely trusting the “testimony”of the scientist who report the results of their experiments [7]. In his Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, Professor Edward Feser states that

“a serious problem with the idea that science is merely in the business of establishing regularities on the basis of observation is that the sorts of regularities that the hard science tend to uncover are rarely observed, and in fact are in ordinary circumstances impossible to observe. Beginning students of physics quickly become acquainted with idealizations like the notion of a frictionless surface, and with the fact that laws like Newton’s law of gravitation strictly speaking describes the behavior of bodies only in the circumstance where no interfering forces are acting on them, a circumstance which never actually holds. Moreover, physicists do not in fact embrace a regularity as a law of nature only after many trials, after the fashion of popular presentations in inductive reasoning. Rather, they draw their conclusions from a few highly specialized experiments conducted under artificial conditions.”

Add to this the expense of building many scientific experiments (I am thinking not only of the multi-billion dollar machines like the LHC or the ITER device, but also of the multi-million dollar price tag of many modern research labs on a small scale), and suddenly the testimony of witnesses becomes very important to the scientific enterprise. So how do we verify whether or not a witness’s testimony is worthy of belief? In his The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy, Mortimer J Adler first gives a brief definition of truth (it is the correspondence of the mind with reality), and then suggests four possible tests of truth:

  1. Whether a judgment (or prediction) turns out to be right
  2. Whether a negative example can be found concerning a generalization
  3. Whether the principle has inner coherence (and unity)
  4. Whether the theory is simple and elegant yet clear and comprehensive.

So where does that leave us concerning science, dogma, and scientistic dogma? Let’s return to the chief scientistic dogma: only that which can be measured and quantified exists. I mentioned before that this is rather dogmatic, and so it is. But is it true? Answering this question would require a short book to do thoroughly, but in brief can be done by asking whether this dogma satisfies the second test of truth. Is there something which is unmeasurable, unquantifiable, and yet which exists?

Does anyone believe that our identity is sucked away with the atoms we lose due to wear-and-tear? Yet this would be the logical consequence of the contention that we are just a collection of atoms.

No scientific experiment has ever measured such things as the human soul that is the thing which makes me myself and you yourself and which is the principle of life. There have been some attempts—as by Prof. Bertrand Russell—to do away with the soul as unmeasured, unmeasurable (the soul is a form and therefore is by definition immaterial), and therefore non-existent. The result is the claim that each of us is merely a collection of random particles. It is a claim which is false-to facts, as we do not say that our identities change if we gain or lose a few such particles from the collection; as the eminent British physicist and Anglican clergyman Dr John Polkinghorne notes in his Science and Theology: An Introduction, “The atoms in each of us are being continually changed by eating and drinking, wear and tear. They cannot be the source of our experience of a continuing self.”

Indeed, since some of the atoms which are currently a part of me may in the future be a part of you, it is clear that these atoms cannot contain within themselves the principle of our identity [8]. For that matter, we know that the mere collection of atoms which are in our bodies does not give us our identity, either: there is, for example, some period of time after I eat an apple and yet before it has been digested, yet none would claim that the undigested apple has yet become a part of my identity [9]! It is a part of our “common knowledge” or “common experience” that we know that we are not an apple, or that the apple is not a substantial (as opposed to accidental) part of us as we eat it.

Likewise, we know, as a matter of common sense and common experience, that we are not just the atoms of which we are composed, that though our body (as a whole) is a part of us [10], we are not only the body. In his Three Approaches to Abortion, Professor Peter Kreeft makes a 15-step case against abortion which begins with knowing what an apple is. The fourth of these steps is that we know what human beings are:

“Our fourth principle is that we know that we are, that we know what human beings are. If we know what an apple is, surely we know what a human being is. For we are not apples. We do not live as apples. We do not feel what apples feel, if they feel anything. We do not experience the existence or growth or life of apples. Yet we know what an apple is…All the more, then, we know what we are; for we have ‘inside information,’ privileged information, more and better data here.”

Granted, there is plenty that we do not know about ourselves, speaking either singularly (myself, yourself) or collectively (humanity)–a point which Dr Kreeft himself acknowledges; but there is still much more we know about humans and humanity than we know about apples and “appleness.” We know what it is to be a human being, but we only know about apples: we have more of both the common and special knowledge concerning humanity than we ever could have about apples. And what we do know suggests that we are more than a collection of atoms. This is very nearly self-evident, as even our language attests: for I can claim it as my language, and you can claim it as yours, all while speaking in the singular, and using the singular pronoun. I am a unity of body and soul, which is to say that I am one and not many, not even merely a collective. Body and soul are two sides of the same coin, then, as form and matter are both necessary for any material object; indeed, the soul is the form of the body. Saint Thomas Aquinas instructs us of this when he writes that

Aquinas gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I knew because a little bird told me…”

“A second division is according as substance is divided into matter and form and composite. Matter indeed is that which in itself is not a definite thing (hoc aliquid). Form is that thanks to which the thing is now actual. The composed substance is a definite thing. That is called a definite thing (hoc aliquid) which can be pointed out as complete in being and kind and, among material things, this is true only of the composed substance…The difference between matter and form is this: that matter is potential being, and form is entelechy, that is the act whereby the matter comes to be actually, such that the composite being actually is” (Commentary on De Anima, Book 2, lesson 1, quoted in Prof Ralph McInerny’s A first Glance at St Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists).

Professor McInerny, for his part, notes that our “soul is that whereby we primarily live, perceive, and think,” and that “knowledge of it emerges from an analysis of change.” That is to say, we know that we have a soul because though my body may change (e.g. by losing a few atoms to “wear and tear,” and then replenishing these by eating), I do not, that is, my identity remains the same.

Scientists pride themselves on their study of “actual beings.” This much is certain. But note that an actual being is a composite of form and matter (matter without form would be “prime matter,” and form without matter would be an angel or God), so that scientists must be studying mostly matter-form composites; we might quibble over how to define the beings of reason—mathematical entities—used by scientists, but the point of modern physics is the study of the material universe. So science presupposes form, even if it thereafter attempts to ignore it.

So the existence of the soul is not contrary to science, any more than the existence of any form is. In fact, form is presupposed by modern science, and so modern science cannot disprove its existence. A corollary of this is that modern science cannot disprove the existence of the soul. Taking this a step further, the enterprise of science relies on the trusting of eyewitness reports of observed data, largely in the case of special experiences. These experiences may not be so specialized as those described by Dr Feser, yet they are still “special,” in that the scientists involved must conduct some experiment to gather data, whether the experiment is simple (e.g. dropping a ball and timing its fall) or complex (e.g. searching for the infamous and enigmatic Higgs Boson).

But if the scientist is to trust eyewitness reporting of specialized experiments—that is, of “special experience”—then he cannot retain consistency when he becomes suspicious of “common experiences” attested to by the whole of mankind. He cannot trust in the reliability of specialized observations if he does not irst trust in the reliability of generalized observations. The dogmatic conclusion of scientism that there is no soul because the souls is not measurable by science is a conclusion which begins with principles which undermine science itself. It denies the common experience of mankind that there is something more to being human than merely being a collection of atoms—that is, it ultimately denies the self [11]. Scientism thus fails at the very least Adler’s third test of truth—that of inner coherence—by causing science to deny one of its own prerequisites. As for the scientistic dogma that there exists nothing which cannot be measured, it likewise fails (at least) the second test of truth: for the existence of substantial forms in general and the soul in particular provide an example of something existing which is unmeasurable. Those of the scientistic mindset would therefore be well-advised to heed the assertion which Charles de Koninck makes in his The Hollow Universe:

“In plain English, what are we asserting? That the physicist need not know what a man is any more than the shipping agent weighing trunks need be aware of what is in them. Far less, in fact. To the physicist, Mr. Smith is part and parcel of the shadowy world of symbols; and how else can a physicist treat Mr Smith? Indeed, it would mean a much closer approach to what Mr. Smith is to state that he can be turned into a good soap—which is a demonstrable fact. So all we ask is that the mathematical physicist realize what his science presupposes: that if he wishes to deal with men he cannot permit himself the use of words. It is precisely the improper use of words which makes [Bertrand] Russell’s statement concerning Mr Smith [that he is no more than a collection of atoms] so delightfully comic.”

Or, in the words of the late Fr Stanley L Jaki, he must beware the limits of his limitless science.



[1] Or “physicalists,” to distinguish them from (for example) the Marxist/economic materialists.

[2] In his The Science Before Science, physicist Anthony Rizzi—a man who is worthy also of the title philosopher—gives the following definition for empiriological knowledge:

“That tool of a broader science, e.g. Physica, that makes heavy use of being of reaon to bring sensorial data under certain organizational principles, especially in such a way as to maximally predict outcomes. It both reflects and hides in varying degrees the underlying real being which is the ultimate cause of the relations and properties seen. It usually considers the average featres of many things, ratehr than the essential features of a given thing. The emperiological method contrasts with ontological methodology, for the latter has the aim of understanding the essence of things; what things are. The result of emperiological science is usually a puzzle waiting to be understood ontologically.”

Doctor Rizzi further divides emperiological knowledge (or the emperiological approach to knowledge) into two subcategories: the emperiometric (the primary mode of operation of modern physics) and the emperioschematic (an approach applied sometimes/often in biology, in which empirically obtained information is organized into schemas).

[3] And here there is a distinction to be mad between what the Greeks called “episteme” (idealized knowledge) and “doxa” (knowledge which retains some shadow of doubt). In his The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy (pages 31-32), Mortimer J Adler notes that

“The judgment that all swans are white is falsified by one negative instance—the perceptual experience of one black swan. Generalizations that time and time again are exposed to the possibility of falsification by contrary perceptual experience and escape such falsification are correctly judged by us to be true knowledge with an increasing degree of probability but they never attain certitude. They always remain in the sphere of doubt. They are never beyond the shadow of doubt.”

In the footnotes to this passage, Dr Adler writes that there are a small number of self-evident truths which the Greeks would consider episteme, and much of the rest of what we “know” is what they would call doxa. In the epilogue to that book, he writes that true philosophy should be more concerned with doxa than episteme, and that one of the great philosophical mistakes was the attempt to turn doxa into episteme, which was done widely during the “modern era” of philosophy (beginning with Descartes, etc.). He discusses this in more depth in his Ten Philosophical Mistakes, and Professor Ralph McInenry also has some discussion of this in his A First Glance at St. Thomas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists, as for that matter does the previously mentioned Dr Rizzi.

[4] We might class or possible sources of data as “common experience” and “special experience.” This is done frequently by Thomistic philosophers (though I am sorry to say that I haven’t read the original work of St Thomas or, as is likely, of Aristotle in which this distinction is made). Most scientific experiments (in the modern sense) would fall under the category of “special experience,” since they are generally carried out under specialized and controlled conditions, e.g. in a laboratory to which most men do not have access. Common experience is more common to all man-kind, and in fact must be made use of in order to lay the foundation of science.

[5] See footnote [3] above; proper vs improper knowledge seems to me to be equivalent to doxa as opposed to episteme.

[6] The late Fr Stanley L Jaki, physicist ad theologian, explains this in his Miracles and Physics when he wrote that

Immediate and direct observation of things and the certainty of that observation (or at least the certainty with which it can be corrected or improved) is the rock bottom basis of not only philosophy but also of science as well….if it is impossible to start a march with the second step, concern about the laws of nature should give second place to concern man’s ability to register things and events with certainty….

Courts of all levels, governments of all jurisdiction, depend on witnesses and their plain witnessing, and so do laboratories. In none of these forums can a discrimination against plain witnessing of unusual facts be condoned or else the most important cases may be prejudged and the only avenues for progress be blocked. Had Oersted refused to believe his eyes when they noted that the magnetic needle which he placed under a live wire turned in a direction which he believed to be impossible, the discoveries of Faraday and Maxwell might not have followed as they did. The discovery of the world of atoms depended on Roentgen’s chance witnessing of the formation, that was not expected to happen, of the negative image of a key on a photographic plate. Far more importantly, would Newtonian science have happened at all if Kepler had not unconditionally trusted in Tycho Brahe’s eyes in making countless naked-eye observations about the position of the planet Mars?

[7] In his essay “The Pimacy of Common Sense,” Pierre Duhem writes:

When a sincere witness, sufficiently sober so as not to take the whims of his imagination for observation and familiar enough with the language to express his thought clearly, affirms to have registered a fact, the fact is certain. If I declare to you that on such a day, at such an hour, I saw a white horse, you must believe, unless you have reason to consider me a liar or a victim of hallucination that on that day, at that hour, in that street, there was a white horse….But…what the physicist states as the result of an experiment is not a recital of facts registered by him. It is rather an interpretation of these facts, it is their transposition into the abstract, symbolic world of theories which he considers to be well established.

Therefore, after the physicist’s testimony has been submitted to the rules which establish the degree of confidence due to the account of a witness, you have accomplished only a part, and the easier part, of the critique of his experiment.

Thus, establishing that some level of trust—some amount of belief—in the data reported by the scientist conducting the experiment is a necessary though not a sufficient step in the process of advancing science. The next step is to ensure that the scientist’s interpretation of his data as his results is sound, and from there that his conclusions actually do follow. A similar process is employed in good philosophy (or history, literary criticism, theology, etc.), allowing of course for the differences between science and philosophy (etc.) regarding how each gathers its data, the form of the data, the methods each uses in interpreting and analyzing its data, etc.

[8] Both St Augustine (City of God) and St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles) address a similar point in their discussions of the resurrection. They did not know of atoms in the same sense that we do now, but they were quite familiar with matter, and with the fact that matter must be ingested to replenish lost matter, and with for example, the existence of cannibals whose diet included the bodies of other people.

[9] At least, none would until they realized that in so doing they undermine the position of the pro-abortion movement, which by-and-large hinges on the assumption that the unborn child is somehow still a part of his mother. But this reversal of position is based less on an attempt to make the mind conform with reality than an attempt to redefine reality for the sake of convenience.

[10] Nor are we just our souls, for we are a dynamic relationship of mind, body, and spirit, or of body and soul. Take away the soul but leave the body, and the body is a corpse; take away the body and leave the soul, and we have what we call a ghost.

[11] Sometime scientistic philosophers attempt to get around this by making a dualistic assumption in which the self is like the software and the body the hardware: Cartesian mind-body dualism reborn! I will not attempt to refute this today, other than to say that it again ignores that science studies matter-form composites, and so cannot assume that such composites are non-existent, or non-composite, or separable for its purposes.