Tag Archives: Proofs

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.