Tag Archives: Charles de Koninck

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.”

tape-measure
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.

 

—-Footnotes—-
[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.

Science and the Evidence for God

Still from the movie "Father Brown the Detective," based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.
Still from the movie “Father Brown the Detective,” based on the stories by G.K. Chesterton and starring Alec Guinness as the titular character.

One of the more memorable G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories is The Resurrection of Father Brown. In this short story the titular character is “murdered” and then appears to return to life at his own funeral, shocking the mourners present. And though he is somewhat dazed in the aftermath of being attacked and then finding himself suddenly awakening and arising from his coffin, he keeps about him the presence of mind to declare to anyone who will listen that no miracle has transpired. His first move is in fact to telegraph the bishop to warn him against the fraud which has been perpetrated—for he was only drugged, and not actually dead.

I have recalled this story, because I have seen that a recent article is making the rounds: it claims that a well-known scientist has discovered “definitive proof that God exists.” When I read headlines of this sort, I usually regard them with at least some suspicion. A part of this suspicion can be summarized by a brief reaction from one of my friendly acquaintances, philosophy professor Rob Koons, whose initial response to this article was to write that “I always get nervous when physicists try to do metaphysics without bothering to get grounded in the literature.” To be fair, my suspicions are equal-opportunity: these articles are sometimes posted by people with some grounding in philosophy and none in science.

bigthink-michio-kaku-brain-net-futureBCI-brain-computerinterfaces
Michio Kaku. Image source.

In reading the actual article I see that the well-known scientist is string-theorist and CUNY professor Michio Kaku, who is indeed a reasonably well-known scientist [1]. Setting aside the exotic and never-before observed particles and untested conjectures which are the cornerstone of String Theory, what Prof. Kaku has allegedly done is to hypothesize that we live in a sort of “Matrix”, a non-base reality of sorts. The article quotes Dr. Kaku as saying that

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence… Believe me, everything that we call chance today won’t make sense anymore.”

“To me it is clear that we exist in a plan which is governed by rules that were created, shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance.”

Unfortunately, neither version of the article which is making these rounds gives any link or other reference to original source material. Indeed, Dr. Kaku’s website and twitter feed make no mention which I have found of this supposed discovery of a Matrix-like reality, or the intelligence behind it. Assuming, however, for the sake of argument that this news is real and not the next round of Snopes-fodder for the internet [2], what then?

The_Matrix_Poster
A Gnostic’s fairytale.

The first thing that I notice is that the headline of the article is somewhat misleading with respect to what is actually being claimed—this is, I suppose, to be expected. Indeed, what Dr. Kaku is actually quoted as claiming is that we inhabit a “Matrix” reality which is “shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance,” which certainly does sound like there is a God behind the scenes.

However, theory is always under-determined. Thus, there is more than one possible interpretation (e.g theory) which can explain a given set of data (e.g., “evidence”). Christians and other theists could point to this discovery as possible evidence for the existence of God, just as some of us have pointed to other findings in the past; yet, we should not be surprised when the skeptics, the atheists and the agnostics, remain unconvinced. Even assuming that Dr. Kaku’s quoted interpretation does make sense of the data—or at least of the existing theory [3]—this interpretation is subject to modification. Barring that, the interpretation itself may be further interpreted to include God, gods, other intelligences, or additional realities.

Parallel Universes: great for "Star Trek," but not as experimentally verifiable science.
Not exactly what we mean by “multiverse” or the more explicit yet oxymoronic phrase “multiple universes”

This is in fact what has happened, to some extent, with other theories which have been pronounced “proof (or evidence) of God’s existence.” The Big Bang theory of Fr. Georges Lemaitre was at first rejected by the overwhelming majority of “steady-state” theorists (often though not always on religious, that is unreligious, grounds), then grudgingly accepted. But by the time it had been accepted, additional interpretations of the theory had sprung into existence, most of which denied the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, or at least of its beginning in time. A theist might point to the fine-tuning of the physical laws of the universe, yet an atheist will happily posit the existence of an infinite number of universes (e.g. a multiverse), each with its own laws, as a possible alternative to the existence of one God of infinite power [4].

Indeed, even at the time of the early scientific revolution—indeed, before then—the evidence of nature appears to point one way for the theist, and another for the atheist. The very orderliness of the universe is for the Christian more evidence of Providence, and for the skeptic it is the “proof” that we need no God, on account of the universe’s working fine on its own [5].

We should never take the latest physical theory—or worse, conjecture—to be the last word in proving (or disproving) the existence of God. For one thing, this can lead us into the trap of clinging to a wrong (or outdated and since supplanted) theory long after it has ceased to hold sway. Such was the sin of some—though by no stretch all—of the actors in the drama which was the Galileo Affair. Similarly, if we attach our faith too strongly to one or another scientific theory, we may be too slow in accepting a better (more accurate, more complete) theory when it is developed.

Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built.
Caesarea Philippi, the former temple of Pan, and the site at which Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which the Church would be built. Image source.

Worse still, we may fall into the tap of losing faith altogether if the right theory should be proven wrong, or if the wrong theory should be demonstrated as more reasonably right [6]. Our faith should be grounded on the Rock of Christ, and the smaller rock of St. Peter, rather than the shifting sands of natural science. Conversely, the study of the sciences should not be for the purpose of finding evidence of God—we often find that whenever and wherever we sincerely look for it, and seldom otherwise—but rather for the sake of appreciating and understanding His creation.

Faith, for its part, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, something which we merit only by supernatural grace. In his essay “Our Awesome Creed,” the philosopher Charles de Koninck states that

“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—ever mindful that this gift does not confirm us in the good…. The utter impenetrability of mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the authority of the Church, the primacy of Peter and of his successors, is so great that the gap between them and man’s ordinary powers may be truly called infinite.”

There is, to some extent, a leap of faith involved in looking at the evidence, seeing that it points to a Creator, and then concluding that God exists and that the other tenets of our religion are also true. Later in that same essay, de Koninck states that

The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas, Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).
The Angelic Doctor. “The Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas,” Diego Velazquez, (1631-32).

“It should help us to realize how unreasonable we are if we appreciate that everything we are saying for the entire Creed holds good, to a considerable extent, for mere belief in God, a thing which need not be taken on faith alone, but which actually can be proved… St. Thomas teaches that even though he existence of a Deity can be demonstrated, the task of doing so is extremely difficult: so difficult as actually to serve as one reason why it was right that God should make even His very existence the substance of a special revelation. What the Angelic Doctor is maintaining, then, is that, if God had not told man of His own existence, only a very few human beings could have come to know Him, and these only after a long time, and at the conclusion of researches and reasonings which would be sure to be mingled with many mistakes.”

In other words, there may exist some proofs and demonstrations of God’s existence, but these are likely to be really understood only by those who dedicate time and expertise to studying and understanding them. Said proofs will also be recognized and accepted as such only by those who are at least somewhat inclined to seek them out. “We see as through a glass, darkly,” writes St. Paul of this life. This admonishment is as true of making sense of natural evidence when it points to supernatural conclusions as it is of supernatural revelations themselves.

Upon arising from his drugged sleep—and appearing to rise from the dead—Fr. Brown says in response the reactions of the crowds:

“‘Oh you silly people,’ he said in a high and quavering voice; ‘Oh you silly, silly people…No; of course it’s not a miracle. Why should there be a miracle? Miracles are not so cheap as all that… Bless you, bless you,’ said Father Brown hastily, ‘God bless you all and give you more sense.'”

Indeed, a miracle is rarely so “cheap” as this—and neither should we expect the miracle of faith to come so cheaply as the latest conjecture by a well-known scientist.

 

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman (Image source: Richard Hartt/Caltech Archives)

—-Footnotes—-
[1] Then again, so is Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is a scientist with some accomplishments who is much more well-known for being a popularizer of science than for his actual contributions to science. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, and of course a person can be both (Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman are two examples of this).

[2] Catholic Online is also carrying this story, and gives slightly more details (though none of substance). Intellectual Takeout also caries the story, and claims that the source is a Big Think video–but they embed the same Big Think video as all the other sites, which makes no such claim. Thus, I can’t shake the suspicion that this is akin to Father Brown’s “Resurrection.” The original sites both look like a hoax-news sites akin the World News Daily tabloid, complete with fatuous and fanciful articles about UFOs and man-beast hybrids. As for the embedded video, I think it is best left as grist for another day.

[3] This latest conjecture is based on String Theory, which perhaps is the most untested theory as such in all the sciences. For all of the work done by String Theorists, there is not one single “String Experiment” that I am aware of, and indeed not one new prediction made by String Theory which we can test at this time.

[4] I am here simplifying both sides arguments due to time constraints. I also do not wish to imply that the only reason to hold a theory of a multiverse is for religious (that is, nonreligious) reasons—it may well be the right theory! Conversely, we should not hold to one or another scientific theory only for religious reasons, because it may well be the wrong theory.

[5] Saint Thomas specifically addresses this very argument, I think satisfactorily but apparently to others unconvincingly.

[6] Theories are by their nature difficult or even impossible to actually “prove” as being right, but they can often be shown to be wrong, or inadequate, on the one hand, and good at making accurate predictions on the other.

Faith and Mystery

“The things which we Christians embrace by divine faith, and which are not to be received except by divine 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 plain that God is remote, infinite, and mysterious beyond all imagining; second, because they bring that inaccessible Being 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 much as if God had no other one to car for” [].

These words were penned by Dr. Charles De Koninck in an article about the importance of mystery to the Faith and about the dangers of taking the mysteries of our faith for granted. Familiarity may at times breed contempt, but a possible danger facing those of us who were raised in Christian home or general and Catholic homes in particular is that of complacency.

There are any number of mysteries to which we must give assent, but for those who have heard these mysteries repeated and explained as a matter of course since youth can easily forget that these are first and foremost matters of faith and not merely of understanding.

This is not to say that faith precludes all understanding, or that any amount of understanding precludes faith. Rather, it it is to acknowledge that there are some contents to our faith which are beyond understanding—these are mysteries, and they do preclude complete understanding.

A mystery is that which we cannot fully understand, or fully grasp, and yet there are some mysteries which we believe to be revealed to us by divine revelation, and as such they demand the assent of the faithful. They may seem at a glance to be contradictory, but closer examination and greater understanding reveals that are not self-contradicting.

The philosopher Edward Feser explains this respect to the mystery of the Trinity:

1. The Father is God.
2. The Son is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.
4. The Father is not the Son.
5. The Father is not the Holy Spirit.
6. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
7. There is exactly one God.

…The Trinitarian theologian maintains that the Trinitarian propositions (1) – (7) listed above are perfectly consistent when rightly understood, so that if any reading of them seems self-contradictory, then that reading is mistaken, and does not accurately convey what the doctrine says. Hence if the doctrine “appears contradictory” to you, you have by that very fact misunderstood it and are not really entertaining it at all. At the same time, if you give these propositions an alternate reading on which their consistency is entirely transparent, you have no doubt fallen into some heresy or other.

What Dr. Feser is getting at is that the Trinity is ultimately mysterious, that is, beyond our total comprehension, yet at the same time it is not a doctrine which is completely unbelievable. The doctrine cannot be proved, can not even be shown and thus known in the same sense as, say, the existence of God per St. Thomas’ Five Ways []. As the bishops note in one of their catechisms [], “The mystery of God is not a puzzle to be solved. It is a truth to be reverenced. It is a reality too rich to be fully grasped by our minds, so that while it continues to unfold, it always remains mostly beyond our comprehension.”

That is to say, the Trinity is a mystery which belongs to the deposit of our faith, and this doctrine (dogma, in fact) must be believed by all Catholics, yet we cannot understand it fully. Nevertheless, we can contemplate it, and we can come to understand the doctrine more fully []—for example, by learning what it does not entail, as is so often the case [].

This very mysterious doctrine may be called the center of our religion as Catholics, indeed as Christians. Nor can we deny that other central mystery, which is the the Incarnation. These mysteries may be rightly called, as one of them is called by St. Paul, a “stumbling block”, a “folly,” or even a “scandal” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Herein lies the very dilemma of the Faith. We are bound to believe all that is revealed to us, and must accept it on faith and on authority. We lose sight of the difficulty in accepting the truly mysterious, precisely because it is familiar. On the other hand, too many abandon these mysteries, precisely because they cannot be fully grasped (to say nothing of proved).

We all want a sense of certitude where none is granted, and we all want to place a limit on what we must accept without proof. As Dr. De Koninck notes elsewhere in his essay:

“Our Faith is assuredly no easy matter and can move us to protest. Not only because it tells of mysteries which 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.

We all hold the instinctive attitude that there ought to be some blessed limit to what we are asked to take on faith, some acceptable frontier.

But where are such bounds 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 to suit ourselves, we would all feel inclined to suppress facts such as that God was hungry, tired, thirsty, that He perspired, that He rode on a donkey, that He died.

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

Of course, that knife of limitations cuts both ways. There are plenty who will believe that Jesus lived and died as a Man—that is, that He did all of these things which make up the equivalent of each of our own “dull little life”—and who conclude for that very reason that He was nothing more than a Man. They note that the Incarnation of God as a Man is impossible simply because that Man did so many things that ordinary men do.

We might well be shocked that He did—yet what more evidence could we ask for concerning His humanity? You can’t win them all.

—Footnotes—

[] Charles De Koninck, “Our Awesome Creed: The Faith is no excuse for bigotry,” Saint Joseph Magazine, Vol. 65, no. 10, pp. 16-19 (1964).

[] Summa Theologica I.Q2.A2-3. Note that although St. Thomas’ demonstrations are often translated as proofs, they are only meant to show as far as human reasoning can go that God exists. There is a limit to human reasoning, and the Five Ways are often misunderstood above and beyond this. The proofs are discussed in more detail on, for example, Dr. Feser’s blog, and Mike Flynn is currently in the process of

[] US Catholic Catechism for Adults, pp. 51.

[] An analogy can be made here between our faith in the eternal mysteries revealed to us, and (of all unexpected thing) of science. Both have their beginning points—in the Faith, it is a revealed truth which is the starting point, in science a few assumptions such as the reliability of observation and method; both then have a nearly limitless exploration which can be undertaken, and neither can ultimately lead to complete understanding of the thing contemplated. We have our mysteries, and we have Godel’s theorem.

[] For example, we can learn what the Church teaches against such heresies as modalist-Sabellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism, etc. These various heresies make one or another oversimplification concerning one or more of the Persons of the Trinity, or about the Trinity as a whole. See also Summa Theologica I.Q2.A2-O2.

The Hollow Worlds of Scientism and Cynicism

It is frightening to think of the extent to which people are now being encouraged to banish from the minds of their children great questions as devoid of all meaning; to dispel the wonder that is a young mind’s birthright; to confine their spirit to petty problems that can be answered once and for all to the satisfaction of reasoners incapable of raising a question to begin with. We now have a philosophy to show that there are no problems but those which it has shown to be no problem; and to decree that there is no philosophy other than one that is a denial of philosophy. Under the twinkle of a fading star, Hollow Men rejoice at a hollow world of their own making.

So warned Dr Charles de Koninck in his “The Hollow Universe.” And indeed, it is alarming to see how widespread is this general philosophy against philosophies. On the one hand we have the modern cynics who claim that there is no such thing as truth, goodness, or beauty, and that besides this the traditional approaches to these things are especially wrong. On the other hand, we have the scientistic insistence on the absolute truth of empirical and observational science–especially the former–to the exclusion of any other knowable truths.

The cynical nihilist need not ally himself with the scientisically inclined one. There is, after all, a sense in which the two are opposites. The cynic finds himself opposed to all wonder, since for him there is no Truth to seek, no Beauty to contemplate, and no Goodness to strive for or attain to. For him the world of science is as meaningless as the world of art, or of philosophy; though none is so appalling as theology. He never permits himself to pause and ask how the traditional approach to Truth can be especially wrong if there isn’t such a thing as especially right, nor how traditional morality can be exceptionally bad if there is no such thing as an absolute good, nor how it is possible that there can be a worse ugliness in traditional art if there is no ultimate beauty. He lacks wonder or curiosity, and hence asks questions to mock and not to gain enlightenment.

The scientistic-fellow, on the other hand, may live in a world of wonder. He is sometimes, though not always, an actual man of science, and so he does accept that there is some truth, beauty, and goodness. But these are to be found mostly in nature, and seldom elsewhere. He has perhaps the greatest sense of wonder, but it is directed only towards the accidents of nature. It is as if a connoisseur of art was fixated only upon in the ingredients of the oil-paints or the size and smoothness of the canvas. The picture itself scarcely catches his attention for all the elements which go into making it, and he most certainly is not interested in any reality to which it points. He is the man who has found so much wonder around him in nature–and I will grant that the wonder is there for the finding–that he fails to ever look up and see that there exists greater and more wonderful things still, a reality which is more awe-filled than the merely physical one which we naturally inhabit.

The two should not be natural allies, and indeed I suspect that they are not. There is something to Tolkien’s observation–via Frodo Baggins–that there is little harmony between the forces which oppose the Church; but that they will quickly drop their quarrels whenever they spot an opportunity to attack her instead. They may harbor no love for each other, but at the end of the day, they have made God and His Church their common enemies, and both they detest.

In this they are certainly allied, if inadvertently: that both the cynic and the scientistic materialist have made the universe “hollow.” Both have deprived it of any deeper meaning so that there is but what is on the surface, which is nature. That one takes a very keen interest in this surface and the other has merely resigned himself to living on it is of small comfort to us, we who have been the denizens and victims of a society which increasing embraces one or the other of these two ideologies.

We are thus left with a universe in which science progresses beyond ethics, so that all manner of troubling experiments are carried out whilst the debate as to their morality rages. The scientistic and the cynical nihilists alike do not mind this. The latter relishes any chance to stick his finger in the eye of traditional morality, and if that finger comes in the form of human cloning or human-animal hybrids, so be it. The former meanwhile has decided that there is no higher morality than scientific investigation, and if this investigation must make use of human subjects in a way that they are stripped of their dignity, so be it.

Both the cynical and the scientistic men recognize that from science springs technology, and from technology springs power–power over Nature. Alas, neither technology nor power can grant happiness, and indeed both can be used for bad ends as well as good. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis calls attention to just this. In the third chapter of that short though prophetic work, he writes:

“In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three examples:  the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive…What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers of the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or the subject as the possessor, since he is the target for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose or prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

If this thought does not send chills up and down your spine, then you should take a moment to check your pulse.Yet it is precisely the world of propaganda and eugenic contraceptives (and worse) in which we now found ourselves. There is a great part of society which refuses to believe in the existence of moral problems, and more still who think that these moral problems can be solved by mere technical know-how. These are the cynical and scientistic ideologues, respectively.

The universe has been hollowed and made skin-deep only, as the metaphysical has been discarded needlessly in favor of the physical, and the moral for the biological. I say “needlessly,” because we need not place science and philosophy as a dichotomy–nor science, philosophy, and religion as a trichotomy–among which only one can be chosen. Contra both the religious fundamentalists and the atheist ones, there is no inherent contradiction between religion and science, nor between science and philosophy, nor between religion and philosophy. When we do force the three two work against each other, we are left with a hollow universe, and a false, nasty and brutish one at that, however much our scientific knowledge and technical skills may improve.