Tag Archives: Faith and Reason

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.

Science vs. Religion, Why the Battle?

creationThe other night I was watching a TV documentary on the ‘debate’ between intelligent design and evolution. The program captured the turmoil in 2005 that tore apart the community of Dover, Pennsylvania in a battle over teaching evolution in public schools. A pointless debate if ever I heard one.

The debate around creation and evolution did not begin in Dover, Pennsylvania. In part, we could trace it back to Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher who is famous for his phrase “I think therefore I am”.

Descartes posited that all we could really know was in the mind and his legacy was a split between the physical world and the spiritual world. Prior to this type of thinking, people understood the supernatural to be more real than the physical space they inhabited.

The other split that began just before Descartes was the Protestant Reformation. The reformers who objected to the doctrines and structure of the Catholic Church held as their foundation principle that of sola scriptura – Bible alone. No longer would all of Christianity believe that the bible should be interpreted by the Church (which actually compiled the book) but rather it would become something that could allegedly be perfectly interpreted by anyone who wanted to read it.

This individualistic reading of the bible divorced from Sacred Tradition led to a literal fundamentalism among some of the Protestant denominations (and this is where the good people of Dover fit in).

These splits in the world of philosophy and religion contributed to the 18th century ‘Age of Enlightenment’ where the world was to finally cast off the infantile belief in God and see in a new era based on science and intellectual interchange. “God is dead” is a widely quoted statement that came out of that same period. (Never mind that some of the most foundational scientific discoveries were made by Catholic clergy!)

The end result has been that many, if not most, people in the modern world see a split between body and soul, faith and reason, scripture and tradition, science and God. These splits have seeped into the consciousness of many Catholics even though the Catholic Church has proclaimed over and over the unity of all these aspects.

Too many people now think that all Christianity is Protestant Fundamentalism. Too many Catholics disregard their faith because they think that they have to choose between science and religion.

The reality is, though, that science and faith are two sides of the one coin; they are both looking to discover the truth.

Science can do a great many things. Science is able able to clone sheep and grow embryos in petri dishes. What science is unable to do is consider whether or not these things should be done. Science does not consider the morality of its actions.

Similarly, faith can do a great many things. Faith is able to lead a person to understand their deepest desires and emotions for love and truth. Whereas science tells us what we are, faith tells us who we are. One cannot exist without the other.

When science tries to play God it oversteps its boundaries. When faith tries to play science it oversteps its boundaries.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the point well,

“There can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth. Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God” (Paragraph 159).

Ahh, the joy of Catholicism: faith and reason! So if science tells me that the world is 3.7 billion years old, who am I to argue with that?! Even Pope John Paul II publicly stated that there was no in principle conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith, and he was not the first Pope to do that. Those who believe that the bible is a geology text book have gravely misunderstood the bible.

Someone needed to tell the folk of Dover that scientific evolution does not do away with the need for God. They would have done the school children a much better service to not set one against the other. I fear all they achieved was another generation that will reject religion because of a false dichotomy.

Is the Internet Real?

Second question: If so, can we save it?

To the first, I think the question is rather odd. However, it is odd because it is assumed implicitly in the question we more commonly ask and the one that does not feel odd, or namely:

“Am I spending too much time online?”

This is a good question. This is an easy question. But, it is a question with an interesting implication and often not so directly but more so in how we think about it generally. I will propose to you that it is in our common sense thinking about it generally that we make the mistake. And, we can correct this mistake by using the same common sense thinking about our experience.

When we ruminate about our online experiences, we come to realize that we often contrast on-line experiences with their off-line counterparts. It is due to our natural inclination to antinomies (hot/cold, fast/slow, in/out). This dualistic way of thinking about on-versus-off line experience forms a strong paradigm that becomes a filter for how we think about either experience. In one way, this should immediately provide our intellect with a defeater for our mistake (keep reading, I’ll get there). Yet, in another way, the sharp contrast we make provides a “sort function” by which we allow ourselves to distinguish to the point of a false dichotomy. It is at the moment of the false dichotomy, the false antinomy, that the flaw of our common sense thinking is revealed.

What then in our experiences — both on-and-off-line — will provide the proper perspective to resist the false dichotomy? For starters and finishers, all of these experiences happen in reality! And, it is for that reason that I put forward to you that THE INTERNET IS REAL.


Your REAL blog post provider

Seriously folks, I am typing this blog post sitting in a real chair, looking at a real computer, watching real characters pour onto a real screen at approximately 80wpm. You are also reading this in a state that should be obvious to you that is real. If the Internet is not real, if our experiences there do not constitute reality, if “virtual” really provides something sub-real, then I say that coloring a coloring page is not real. For if any of the aforementioned are not real, then when I sit down with a package of crayolas and disappear into the lines and counters of Tickle me Elmo armed with the color red, I am no longer living in the here and now. I have entered into that place where reality and fantasy are no longer distinguishable.

That’s dumb.

And yet I imagine that none of this post comes as a shock to you. You knew the Internet was real, but decided to read this because you thought the question was interesting. However, I’m not convinced that we think about the real-ness of the Internet quite like we should. To illustrate this point, let me describe to you what the world, off-line, might look like if it were lived like we act on-line:

  • 12% of all businesses would be strip clubs (% of websites that are porn sites)
  • 25% of every question someone would ask would be about sex (% of online searches for pornography in relationship to total searches)
  • 42.7% of people would ask to watch you or someone you know have sex with someone else (% of Internet users who watch pornography)
  • People would randomly mention “pedophile priest” in almost any conversation (go to any combox for evidence — I recently saw this in an ESPN article about football)
  • We would expect to see sexual predators lurking and openly soliciting children at almost any place young people congregate. (14% of children are solicited online)
  • A spy would be living in 50% of every home trying to steal important information from the homeowner or trying to cause harm to the home (% of computers infected with malware)

Let me submit to you a conclusion from this data: We don’t think the Internet is real so we pretend that we can do whatever we want to do without consequence. If we lived in the real world like we do “online”, the world would be a miserable place. But notice what I just did. I set up the false dichotomy!

In reality, the Internet is a part of our “real world”, and it is a fairly miserable place to live — the real world that is. You know the one with the Internet, not the one without the Internet. That was like so 1981.

So, can we save it?


The Internet.

Answer: No

(for review, the first question’s answer is “yes”, the second’s is “no”)

Instead, we should think about it another way. We should realize that we are in need of saving, and we now find “us” more unregenerate than ever living in a place we call “online”. But, online isn’t a place. The desk that I’m sitting at and writing this post is a place. Topeka, Kansas is a place. People in places need saving.

Christ didn’t die for the Internet. He died for you and me even while we pretend — online — that what we do there does not in fact harm our eternal souls. However, there is no virtual heaven and hell. Only the off-line version.

So let’s use the Internet to keep people out of hell.

Hey, that might save the Internet after all.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Brent-A.-Stubbs-e1313148902233.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Brent A. Stubbs is a father of four (+ 1 in heaven and 1 in the oven), husband of one, convert, and a generally interested person. He has a BA in Theology, studied graduate philosophy, has an MBA, is a writer (or so he tells himself) and prefers his coffee black. His website is Almost Not Catholic.[/author_info] [/author]

Acts of Faith in the Sciences

The idea that we have faith in everyday matters is not new. This secular faith is practiced by, well, everybody, since we rely on a sort of faith that our senses do not deceive us in perceiving the world around us. This sense of secular faith is no less apparent (and certainly no less important!) in the sciences. Indeed, we have some amount or other of faith in each step of the “process” for a given experiment, which we exercise quite unconsciously.


Faith in Theory

It’s been said before that a scientific theory is a sort of story which we tell ourselves to makes sense of some set of (presumably repeatable) data. Well and good. But what reason do we have to believe that our “story” describes reality—and especially, that it holds true anytime, anywhere? What reason do we have to believe that it really describes the natural world as it is?

It is worth noting here that a great many theories—at least in physics—begin with any number of assumptions. There is a joke that physics never works in real life because most objects aren’t spheres and very few of us actually live in a vacuum. We often, moreover, ignore any number of “small” interactions when deriving our formulas [1], which interactions may not actually be ignorable, and may play a large or a small part in any given interaction; these interactions may or may not be separable from the particular interaction or effect in which our theory takes some interest.

Lest we argue that these theories are validated by observation, it’s worth considering an observation of a different kind. In his Aquinas; A Beginner’s Guide, Professor Edward Feser notes 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 sort 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 describe 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 of inductive reasoning. Rather, they draw their conclusions from a few highly specialized experiments conducted under artificial conditions. None of this is consistent with the idea that science is concerned with cataloging observed regularities.”

I might include here a note about simulations—the other side of theory work—which are often used to help in the design of an experiment (on the one hand) and to “test” a theory (or, for that matter, to develop it). Simulations very often do a good job of predicting how an experiment will work out—that’s why we use them, of course—and allow us to test our theories in the “idealized” environments for which they are written.

Ti:Sapphire laser gain simulation

On the other hand, the simulation [2] may or may not perform in the same way as reality. For one, we are left to assume that the algorithms used by the simulation actually are correct. Ok, there are ways of testing some of that assumption, but then we also are responsible for including any relevant interactions—some of which may be outside of the theory, and hence not included in the simulation, either. And of course, there is the simulation result; presumably, the simulation is being used to compute a number of parameters whose value we do not know; there is thus no way for us to be certain that the simulation results are correct save to actually conduct the experiment under the same conditions as in the simulation.


Faith in Experiment

This brings me to the experiment itself. Physics, at least, and the other sciences are supposed to follow a cycle which begins with observation, then builds a theory, which it then tests and modified and re-tests and modifies some more. The observation, and especially the “testing” is done via experiment. Of course, if this process is to begin at all—let alone be successfully continued—it must begin with some amount of faith in the ability of an observer to make good observations. As the late Fr Jaki notes in his Miracles and Physics,

A panorama view of the UT^3 laser system.

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. And since without that ability nothing can be known about the laws of nature, the chief intellectual concern should be not so much the possible violations of the laws of nature as about the actual violation, if not plain rape, of man’s mind whose natural function is to know reality with immediate certitude.

That is to say, without faith that our plain observations are actually correct, the whole project of “scientific investigation,” the whole foundation for science, comes undone. The French physicist Pierre Duhem explains this another way in his essay The Primacy of Common Sense:

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.

In other words, in the sciences—and especially in the increasingly collaborative projects of modern science—we must often trust not only in our own observations, but in those of others; and moreover, since often we have only the interpretations of those observations to go by [3], we have to trust that these interpretations are correct; granted, we can offer some critique, or we can compare them with the theory—but if the whole point of the experiment is to test the current theory, then it would be begging the question in favor of said theory to reject our experimental findings solely because they conflicted with the theory.

Even when the data is our own, the task of interpretation is never an easy one. Theories often predict smooth curves (for a graph, that is) where data is jagged and discontinuous; there are frequent statistical fluctuations, and the conditions of two data runs (or, for that matter, two shots from a laser) are seldom if ever really identical. There are indeed some rather famous experiments whose outcome has come down to a judgment call on the part of the investigators.

(Above) THe mode as seen by the human eye (or a simple handheld camera), and (below) the central part of the mode as seen on a lab ccd camera.

All of which becomes a great illustration of G.K.Chesterton’s observation in Orthodoxy that

It is idle to talks always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

Reason itself is, after all, based at least in part on our ability to take what we know [4] and apply it to a given situation or question. Thus, if we cannot have so much faith as to even believe in our senses, our interpretations of the information which we collect through those senses, or for that matter to believe the plain testimony of other eyewitnesses who collect the information firsthand, then we leave reason (to say nothing of science!) without a meaningful leg to stand upon. Granted, we can spend time (and money) in the lab verifying every finding which we make–we usually do this to some extent–and in turn every finding which our colleagues and competitors make (again, we sometimes do this), but more often than not, we place some amount of faith in our results: enough, that is, that we cannot claim to be skeptics. Indeed, a great many discoveries rely on our trusting that our senses do not deceive us at every turn, whatever our predictions say ought to have happened: scientific advances ultimately rely on so many “small” acts of scientific faith.



[1] So for example, any field which uses perturbation theory relies on the assumption that we can make a Taylor series expansion of one variable, which expansion requires that this variable be small if the expansion is to be useful. Among others, the field of nonlinear optics is especially reliant on this particular approach.

[2] Understand, of course, the simulation can be “checked” by calculating something easy first, that is it can be run against some standard theory or experiment the results of which are well-known. On the other hand, these results are “well-known” only because some previous experiment was conducted to get those results. Not to mention that it is a bit of a leap of faith to assume that when a simulation gets the physics right for a simple scenario, it will therefore get the physics right every time in a more difficult and complex scenario.

[3] Consider that there is a joke, which is not too far from the truth, that anything in a presentation or paper labelled “typical data” really means “the best set of data I have from all the thousands of trials I ran, the only shot which shows exactly what I wanted all this data to show.”

[4] Knowledge does, after all, come to us through the senses—and I don’t think we have to take St Thomas’ word for it.


Faith and Knowledge

Is faith a type of knowledge? This question gets asked often in modern time, and has quite probably been asked time and again since time immemorial. There is a variation of this question which was asked (and fielded) by Monsignor Charles Pope over the weekend, concerning whether theology counts as a “science.”

On his “popular” television show The Great Ideas (the transcript of which is published in a book “How to Think About the Great Ideas“), the Philosopher Mortimer J Adler discussed the ideas of Truth, Knowledge, and Opinion. At some point during the discussion of Opinion and Knowledge, his co-host, Mr Lloyd Luckman, asks him whether faith ought to be counted as knowledge or as opinion. Professor Adler answers him by quoting Saint Thomas’ Aquinas’ The Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity:

“Aquinas says, ‘The intellect assents to a thing in two ways: first, through being moved to assent by its very object which is known either by itself as in the case of first principles or axioms or through something else already known as in the case of demonstrating conclusions…In either case…you have knowledge, not opinion.’ [All of this is the first way in which the intellect is moved to assent. The second way is] ‘the intellect assents to something not through being sufficiently moved to assent by its proper object, but through an act of choice, whereby it voluntarily turns to one side rather than the other.’  If this is accompanied by doubt and by far of the opposite, then you’ll have opinion. While there will be certainty and no fear of the opposite, then there will be faith [which]…’results from the fact that it is supernatural.’ It is the gift of God, for he says, ‘Since man, by assenting to matter of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him for some supernatural principle, moving him inwardly, and this is God. Therefor faith, as regards assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God, moving man inwardly by grace.’ That is why Aquinas says that faith is neither knowledge nor opinion, but something intermediate between them, like them both in respects….

faith is like opinion in that it is an act of the will rather than an act based upon the thing in its own terms. That is why Saint Paul defines faith as the evidence of things unseen, not seen directly through their own terms. On the other hand, faith is like knowledge because of the certitude it has, a certitude that is even greater than the certitude of ordinary knowledge, because it rests on the supernatural gift of grace.”

So much is Dr Adler’s interpretation of Saint Thomas Aquinas. There is, as always a bit of a wrinkle, which is that, as Chesterton observed, even the things to which our intellect gives assent in the first sense requires a sort of act of the will, thus a kind of faith, albeit one which is less supernatural in nature. After all, we must give assent that such dogmatic things as “axioms” and “definitions” are actually true when left unproven. We must believe that our first principles are true, albeit often we are convinced of this only after seeing them demonstrated.

But even then, we must place some amount of trust in the senses by which we observe the world, that is, that our observations of reality are really true observations. The act of inductive reasoning by which we have made so must scientific progress rests upon the assumption that just because a phenomenon has so far occurred in some particular manner under some set of conditions means that it will continue to happen in such a “predictable” manner under the same controlled conditions.

I can drop a rock and observe that it falls, and I may likewise observe its acceleration and plot its motion as it falls. I may repeat this and get the same result, and repeat it several times and observe the same thing each time [1]. After say n trials of doing this without much variation, I will grow to expect that the (n+1)th trial will also yield the same result, simply because of the correlation I have observed so far (drop -> fall, acceleration <~10 m/s^2, fall time determined by h = 1/2 a t^2 + v_i t, etc) I expect to be repeated in the future.

But what reason can I have for asserting that my past experiences (or observations) have the slightest bearing on my future experiences (or observations)? I must take it on faith that the universe is a reasonable, consistent place, even if that faith is a merely natural faith based on my past experiences. It is testable and observable, but there is still an element of faith involved. Chesterton takes this a step further in his Orthodoxy when he writes that

 It is idle to talk always about the alternative of reason and faith.

Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young sceptic says, “I have the right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed.

Monsignor Charles Pope says much the same thing when he writes that

In terms of theology, Faith is a way of knowing. I come to know certain things because God reveals them. Faith is a way of knowing based on a trust that God exists, and is both truthful and accurate in what he says. But the natural sciences also put a kind of faith in the reliability of the senses and what they reveal. By accepting the revelation that comes from God, I come to know many things.

Thus, there is a sense in which faith is knowledge, and another sense in which it is opinion. But there is yet another sense in which faith is beyond knowledge, because it underlies knowledge. We must have a supernatural faith in God, but we must also have a natural faith in our senses, and in our mind’s ability to make sense out of our observations, and in nature’s continued consistency. And like any other merely natural phenomenon, this natural faith is only a shadow of the supernatural faith.



[1] Of course, I will probably see some variations in practice, but the motion should be fairly consistently described by h = 1/2 a t^2 + v_i t + h_i, with an acceleration a of ~9.81 m/s^2 at sea level and so on.  However, I may measure slightly different times, acceleration, etc  depending on my apparatus and so on and so forth.

Photo comes from “The Great Ideas from the Great Books” (linked above)