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Dear Chemistry Students

August 22, AD 2014 1 Comment

Water on Water

Dear Chemistry Student,

Once upon a time, at the ripe old age of 21, I was a high school chemistry teacher, not much older than you. I know people often have a bad reaction to studying chemistry. It seems difficult, abstract, and useless. Indeed, you don’t need to know that water molecules have a distorted tetrahedral arrangement in which the H—O—H angle is 104.5° to be able to get on with life each day. I get that. But I loved it when a struggling student’s mental eyes popped open, and for the first time, as if she’d just put on her first pair of glasses, her insight into her world grew sharper.

I loved chemistry so much, I went back to university and became a research chemist. I had the privilege of working at DuPont, a global chemical company, the one that started the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry.” But I’ll tell you something I could never admit back then. I didn’t really believe in God; I mean I didn’t say I didn’t so maybe I still did a little, but I mostly didn’t think about God except for in those quiet moments I tried to avoid by staying super-busy. Know what? I knew there was more to life, but to me, perhaps like chemistry seems to you, faith seemed too difficult, too abstract, too useless. So I did what scientists do—shut up and calculate. That worked for a while.

However, as time went by, I realized my children needed me, that being a wife and a mother is my top priority. Why? Because the more I tried to do the right thing, the more all those questions about meaning and purpose started to come into focus. I left my career. I became Catholic a few years later. I am so happy now.

I’ve come full circle. Next week, I will again be a chemistry teacher, your chemistry teacher, this time using technology online where I can still be home to tend my priorities and you can still be at home under your parents’ love and guidance. Kolbe Academy, our institution, is a Catholic school named after St. Maximilian Kolbe, the saint who offered his life for that of a young father’s. Their method is Ignatian, a classical education in a contemporary world. I’ll say!

If you ask me why you need to know the bond angles of water, I’ll tell you because that little perfection is a key to understanding how our bodies and nature function. If you struggle with computation, I’ll tell you to keep trying because knowing the mathematical details of chemistry allows you to glimpse the language of the handiwork of God. You see, science can be a form of worship owed to the Creator. Science can also be a way to evangelize, for science unites us. All humanity together can appreciate the marvels of nature.

We will begin each class with a prayer. My prayer for you is that by knowing God better through the study of His creation, you will love God more so you can serve Him more and be happy with Him in Heaven forever. Amen.

Your Teacher,
Mrs. Trasancos

Let There Be Ice Cream In Cones: On Determinism and Miracles

August 18, AD 2014 4 Comments

Ice Cream Miracle2
Compliments of Elizabeth Pack Photography

Last week I wrote that determinism is not a new idea for physicists, and I wrote that Christian apologists do not accept the deterministic conclusion that everything has a fundamental microphysical underpinning. This bears explaining. The key word is “everything.”

As far as physics goes, the material world does seem determined.* Scientists expect matter to follow laws of physics, otherwise, they would not be able to form hypotheses to do experiments and gather data to make predictions. Here the atheist and believer alike can agree as thorough materialists.**

I also explained last week that an atheist usually has an axiomatic assumption that the physical realm is all that exists, hence “everything” is assumed to be determined by physical laws. The believer goes beyond the atheist though. “Everything” to the believer axiomatically includes the physical and the spiritual realm.

“I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.”

Enter miracles. People often ask, “Does God contradict Himself by violating His own laws of physics?” I think of it like this.

Imagine there’s a father who loves his family immensely. He provides for them and guides them, and as the head of household, he establishes rules for the family. To the children’s chagrin, one of these rules happens to involve ice cream—no ice cream in cones because it’s too messy—and this steadfast rule is considered as firm as the Law of Universal Gravitation.

However, one evening, the father decides to override that rule because he wants to show his children his love in a special way, a personal love that goes beyond merely providing for them, guiding them, and being the Lawmaker of the Home. What does he do? He decides to take them out for ice cream and by-golly he orders them ice cream in cones, just this once. Why? Because he delights in seeing his children delight. Sure there are rules, but there’s more to life than rules.

This is like the miracle. The usual course of things is uniquely interrupted, but the miracle does not violate or change the rule. Rather, the gift is a revelation, a glimpse, of a greater truth. To quote C.S. Lewis, “By definition, miracles must of course interrupt the usual course of Nature; but if they are real they must, in the very act of so doing, assert all the more the unity and self-consistency of total reality at some deeper level.” Children need there to be order in the home, but that order is not all there is. Science needs there to be order in the universe, but that order is not all there is either. To understand this greater Truth, however, one has to accept this greater Love, rather than axiomatically decide this reality is impossible.

References and Further Reading

*As evidenced by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that occupied most of the twentieth century, this is debatable.
**This is why I think science is ripe grounds for ecumenism.

  • C.S. LewisMiracles: A Preliminary Study (United Kingdom: Harper Collings eBooks, 2009; original 1947), Chapter 8 “Miracles and the Laws of Nature.”
  • Christopher T. BaglowFaith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (Mobile, AL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2011), Concluding Chapter “Miracles: Signs and Wonders at the Crossroads of Faith and Science.” Baglow quotes Lewis’ above essay in this chapter.

Photo Credit: This photo was taken for the essay by the superb photographer, Beth Pack. You can see more of her work on her Facebook page, Elizabeth Pack Photography. Beth has an inspired gift; she captures the spirit of childhood. Please say a prayer for the boy in yellow, Leo, who had surgery last week.

 Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

Is Free Will Scientifically Dead?

August 11, AD 2014 14 Comments

November 2013 040

Brian Greene, an American theoretical physicist at Colombia University and possibly the most well-known string theorist, was recently quoted by LiveScience, “I think free will bit the dust long before multiverse theory.” He said scientific equations can describe the particles that make up all matter, including humans, because everything has a “fundamental microphysical underpinning.” Determinism is not a new idea for physicists.

Of course, Christian apologists do not accept this conclusion about free will or determinism. Free will is a spiritual power endowed to humans by God. It seems a contradiction of the wildest sort for a scientist to conclude that free will is deader than multiverse theory. Science cannot prove or disprove spiritual truths. (Multiverse theory is another story.*)

However—and I understand having been a non-religious scientist myself once—Brian Greene is saying exactly what a non-believing physicist would logically conclude. The reasoning begins with an axiomatic disbelief in God, and follows. If there is no faith in God, there is no faith that anything spiritual exists. If there is nothing spiritual, free will only lives if it is explainable in physical terms.

A physical scientist must hold another axiomatic belief about the world. He must expect the world to be ordered and symmetrical, otherwise there is no basis to expect the predictive power of experiments or the correspondence of mathematics to the real world. To put the two axioms together, Greene’s conclusion is logical. If only matter exists and if matter obeys laws of physics, then humans are objects obeying determined laws of physics. Free will is akin to a sensation, real only because we feel it.

The problem is—and I knew this before I admitted it—those two axioms fail to explain why the world is ordered. I found the answer “it just is” unsatisfying, and that flatness aided my assent to supernatural faith. It was a most reasonable assent of the will, an assent beyond science.

I say that to highlight where, I think, the argument for free will ought to remain for apologists and physicists alike. It should remain in the a priori axiomatic reasoning before anyone gets to physics. Greene is doing that. Is free will scientifically dead as far as science can say? Well, yes. Free will was never scientifically alive.

For Catholics, one of the axioms is different and they both fit beautifully together. The Christian worldview expects to find order in the world too because it is created by God, the origin of rationality. It is de fide dogma that humans have a rational soul with the powers of intellect and free will. The soul is the form of the material body. As St. Anthony of Padua said, “The life of the body is the soul; the life of the soul is God.”

God grants free will to the human person just as He grants predictability to physical laws. Free will does not need a scientific space. To begin to understand free will you have to be open to faith, “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” Physics points to faith, but physics can’t explain what lives beyond physics.


References and Further Reading

  • Like I said before, I recommend Live Science. The writers do not reflect Catholic teaching (that’s not their purpose), but they provide good journalistic coverage of the latest science news.
  • I love this 2005 TED talk given by physicist Brian Greene. With engaging enthusiasm, he explains superstring theory, the idea that miniscule strands of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions create every particle and force in the universe.
  • The de fide dogma that man consists of two essential parts, a material body and a spiritual soul, were taught by the 4th Lateran Council and the Vatican Council. See Denzinger 428 and 1783. The de fide dogma that the rational soul is per se the essential form of the body was taught by the Council of Vienne. See Denzinger 481. The de fide dogma that every human being possesses an individual soul was taught by the Fifth General Lateran Council. See Denzinger 738.
  • These are summarized in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Chapter 2, The Doctrine of the Revelation regarding Man or “Christian Anthropology,” I. The Nature of Man, § 14. The Essential Constituent Parts of Human Nature, Sections 1-3.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas on “faith,” Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 4, art. 1.

*I am not opposed to physicists studying multiverse theory, for a number of reasons, the main one being I am not a theoretical physicist and I think they should be the ones to decide. Secondarily, I realize strange sounding theories decorate the history of physics and such mathematical exploration was necessary. Would love to hear your thoughts, perhaps for a future essay. Email me.

Originally published at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

The Paradoxical Feeling of Letting Children Go

August 5, AD 2014 9 Comments

Grace Bunji Jumping

When I saw my baby—my baby—flying through the air attached to bungee cords at the county fair, I couldn’t breathe and my arms suddenly ached to hold her and keep her safe. She was so high, so far away. Sure, she’s nine, but still . . . the sight evoked an all too familiar feeling, the same one I had when she took her first step, rode her first bike, or giggled through her first sleep-over without me. Someday she’ll leave home, perhaps get married, and that same feeling will be there, the happy but sad paradox of letting her go.

I had that same feeling when I miscarried babies too, all five of them. I couldn’t breathe and my arms ached, a sadness pervaded my surface, but deep down I accepted that this is what mommies do. We learn to let go. We learn to find joy even in the pain of separation because we know separation doesn’t change the fact that we are mothers, nor does it sever a spiritual bond.

If we were nothing but matter, I wouldn’t be able to make sense of these feelings. The exhilaration of bungee cords would be a mere exercise in physics and elastics. Mothering would be nothing more than instinct. The pain of loss would be without faith, hope, and love. Believers, though, we are not just open to biological life; we are open to the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Our earthly life can be heavy, as heavy as the stone memorials that mark our graves. I remember when life was particularly difficult because I was alone raising six kids while my husband worked in another state for an extended period of time. He was home one weekend, but so burdened was I that I started a fight the next morning. I piled the kids in the truck, sped away, and parked in front of a foggy graveyard so I could have a good cry. Soon, however, the kids were asking questions about death, which led to a talk about the Creed. I later looked it up in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma and learned that the Scholastics described the resurrected and re-modeled body of the just as free of suffering, sorrow, sickness, and death, a spiritualized nature in which the body obeys the soul with the greatest of ease and freedom of movement. We will be agile, they said, not burdened by the laws of gravity. We will be light, filled with beauty and radiance.

Like bungee jumping.

I realize now that the burdens of life don’t go away, but through grace we are restored, lightened, and thus better able to navigate. Grace is often in the simple things too. You know, seeing my daughter (whose name is Grace) soar on bungee cords was kind of how I think of our lost babies. I let them go, but they are bound to me still, and I hope and pray for their salvation just as I do for all my children.

References and Further Reading:

I highly recommend Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma for parents. It is recognized as one of the best summaries of Catholic dogma. What the Church teaches, and how that teaching was developed, is given on specific topics in the Creed, along with the level of certainty from de fide (most certain) dogma to varieties of legitimately held theological opinions. It’s excellent for answering the probing questions of children.

Originally posted at The Integrated Catholic Life™.

The Stillbirth of Science in China

August 1, AD 2014 27 Comments

Ancient China

There is so much written about China’s rich and illustrious past that no case could ever be made—from the Shang Dynasty (1523–1028 B.C.) to the Ch’ing Dynasty (A.D. 1644–1912)—that there was no progress in civilization, art, or literature. Likewise, volumes have been written on the question of the history of science and Chinese civilization. In Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe and The Savior of Science (pages 46 and 35 respectively), Jaki referred to the extensive research of British biochemist Joseph Needham. In seven volumes comprised of twenty-seven books, Needham and his team of international collaborators reviewed the history of science and technology in China. The massive work was eventually published by the Cambridge University Press under the title Science and Civilisation in China; and the project, which began in 1954, continues to the present day.

A brief overview of the content of these volumes will demonstrate the extent of cultural development in China and the futility of ignoring such a rich history. Needham’s first volume (1954) is an introduction to the rest of the work. Volume Two (1956) covers the history of scientific thought in China, including the organic naturalism of the great Taoist school, the scientific philosophy of the Mohists and Logicians, and the quantitative materialism of the Legalists. Volume Three and the three-part Volume Four (1959–1971) addresses mathematics and the sciences of the heavens and earth, physics, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and nautics. Volume Five (1985–1999) has thirteen parts: the first on paper and printing; the second through the fifth on spagyrical discovery and inventions including gold and immortality, cinnabar elixirs, synthetic insulin, apparatus, and physiological alchemy; the sixth and seventh on military technology from missiles and sieges to the “gunpowder epic;” the ninth on the textile industry while the eighth and tenth are still works in progress; the eleventh on ferrous metallurgy; the twelfth on ceramic technology; and the thirteenth on mining. Volume Six (1986–2000) deals with botany, agriculture, agroindustry, and forestry in the first three parts and fermentations, food science, and medicine in the fifth and sixth parts, while the fourth part of Volume Six is still in progress. Finally, Volume Seven (1998–2004) covers language and logic, and then gives the general conclusions and reflections. (See full list here.) The purpose of listing these volumes published over a span of six decades is to demonstrate that intensive work has been devoted to the history of science in China, and Jaki was aware of this. He acknowledged it in the development of the “stillbirths” argument.

In Science and Creation (pages 30-32) Jaki discussed how around 350 B.C., the astronomer Shih Shen drew up a catalogue of around 800 stars and how the manuscripts were stored in the Imperial Library. The ability to catalogue and store documents displayed great sophistication. Technological improvements were made in water works and the extension of the Great Wall, a massive achievement. During the three and a half centuries known as the age of the Warring States (480–220 B.C.), cultural growth continued. The Chinese invented the waterwheel, the wheelbarrow, and other devices that demonstrated continued technological development. Around the middle of the fourth century, Hu Hsi made observations that led him to discover the precession of equinoxes, although the Greek scholar Hipparchus is credited with discovering it centuries earlier.

The peak periods of Chinese culture spanned the Han, Sung, Thang, Yuan, and Ming periods (collectively 202 B.C.– A.D. 1644) and represented a length of time when scientific endeavor could have “received a decisive spark.” There were technological feats in which the Chinese were the “sole inventors” for a number of centuries. They invented the effective use of horses, the foot-stirrup and breast-strap harness. They discovered magnetic ore. They invented the revolutionary skill of paper-making, which led to the production of printed books. They invented the process of making gunpowder, the production of porcelain, and the development of water-driven mechanical clocks. They used magnets for travel and moveable clay types for printing.

The Chinese also, Jaki noted, developed algebra at a level compatible with the best in Europe around A.D. 1250. According to Francis Bacon, printing, gunpowder, and magnets were the factors that ushered in the age of science more than anything, but Jaki challenged Bacon’s assertion by noting that even with these developments the Chinese “remained hopelessly removed from the stage of sustained, systematic scientific research.”

The Chinese had rockets for centuries but did not investigate trajectories or free fall. Their ability to print books did not lead to a “major intellectual ferment.” Magnets were installed on their ships and they were the best navy in the world for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but they never circumnavigated the globe.

Historians have also noted that the “Industrial Revolution” did not originate in China, and that is of great significance for Jaki’s argument that science was “stillborn” in Chinese culture. Jaki cited a 1922 article in The International Journal of Ethics entitled “Why China Has No Science: An Interpretation of the History and Consequences of Chinese Philosophy.” The author, Yu-Lan Fung, who contributed to Needham’s volumes, noted that the history of Europe and the history of China before the Renaissance are “on the same level,” by which he meant that they both progressed at about the same pace, albeit in different ways. After that time the pace differed: “China is still old while the Western countries are already new.” Fung asked, “What keeps China back?” He answered that it is because “she has no science . . . because according to her own standard of value she does not need any . . . China has not discovered the scientific method, because Chinese thought started from mind, and from one’s own mind.” If truth and knowledge are in the mind, separated from the external world, there is no need for scientific investigation beyond practical skill.

Fung contrasted the three major powers which competed to conquer the entire empire of China from 570 B.C. to about 275 B.C–Taoism, Moism, and Confucianism. Taoism taught a “return to nature” with nature being the natural state of all things, including the natural tendency of man toward vice. According to Taoism, “every kind of human virtue and social regulation is to them against nature.” Knowledge was considered to be of no use because the Tao is inside man, as the god of the pantheistic philosophy. Taoism did not require any questioning of a beginning and an end, about final purposes and goals, or about the controlling of the forces and patterns in the workings of the Yin and Yang. The cosmological passage from the Chuang Tzu demonstrated this mindset:

“Men who study the Tao do not follow on when these operations [properties belonging to things] end, nor try to search out how they began: – with this all discussion of them stops.” Texts of Taoism, translated by J. Legge (New York: Julian Press, 1959), Book XXV, par. 11, 568-69; quoted in Jaki, Science and Creation, 30.

The key to success in Taoism was to merge into the rhythm of cosmic cycles.

The fundamental idea of Moism was “utility,” and virtue was seen as useful. Universal love was taught as a doctrine for the benefit of the country and people, and progress was the ideal of mutual help; anything that was incompatible with the increase of wealth and population was to be fought against. Confucius stood between the two, emphasizing discrimination in different situations. He taught that human nature is essentially good although men are not born perfect. To become perfect, the innate reason must be developed and lower desires “wholly taken away.” His concerns were ethical, not metaphysical. Therefore, Confucius taught that the individual should seek what is in himself and leave external things to their natural destiny.

In these competing theories of existence, the power that governs the universe is the omnipotent Tao for Taoism, the personified self-god in Moism, and Heavenly Reason according to Confucianism. Moism did have a notion of Heaven as personal and caring for humans, a monotheism of sorts, but its ethics were severed from this idea. As these powers competed over time, to put it far too concisely to do the history enough justice, they actually merged and philosophical investigation of “things” gave rise to two forms of Neo-Confucianism, one school that sought “things” externally and another that sought “things” as phenomena in the mind. In Medieval Europe the same ideas about “things” more or less existed too, but from there on, China and Europe diverged:

“In other words, Medieval Europe under Christianity tried to know God and prayed for His help; Greece tried, and Modern Europe is trying to know nature and to conquer, to control it; but China tried to know what is within ourselves, and to find there perpetual peace.” (Fung, “Why China Has No Science“)

So China did not have use for the scientific method because the religions sought what is in the mind separate from the external world. Fung concluded his paper with a call for mankind to become wiser and to find peace and happiness by turning attention to Chinese wisdom so that the “mind energy of the Chinese people of four thousand years will yet not have been spent in vain.” Even if modern science was not born in China, there were other aspects of the culture that were worthy of admiration.

In concluding this consideration of China’s history, it needs to be noted that other scholars concurred with Fung. In 1995, Justin Yifu Lin of Peking University published an essay titled “The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China.” Lin noted from evidence documented in Needham’s work that “except for the past two or three centuries, China had a considerable lead over the Western world in most of the major areas of science and technology.” From an economic and social perspective, he considers why, despite early advances in science, technology, and institutions, China did not take the next step in the seventeenth century as Western Europe did.

Ultimately that answer depends on how the Chinese viewed the external world and whether it was created by God or was God itself. In believing that the world was God and was eternal, there was no need to question a beginning and an end or how everything came to be. Needham also acknowledged that it is a theological orientation of Chinese thought that can be singled out as the decisive factor that blocked the attitude conducive to developing a systematic, scientific investigation. (Science and Civilisation in China, 580-582) “There, according to Needham’s admission, all the early cultivators of science drew courage for their pioneering efforts from a belief in a personal and rational Creator.” (Jaki, Science and Creation, 40.)

For the purposes of Jaki’s argument, the similarity of the Egyptian and Chinese cultures bears emphasizing. Both were pantheistic, with some degree of monotheism but still a monotheism that held that the world was God, which is basically pantheism. Neither had a loving Creator who “ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight,” who made man in His image with intellect and free will, or who became Incarnate to redeem mankind. “In a universe without the voice of God there remains no persistent and compelling reason for man to search within nature for distinct voices of law and truth.” (Jaki, Science and Creation, 41.)


  • Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, Ltd, 1986).
  • Stanley L. Jaki, The Savior of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).
  • Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 2, History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1956).
  • Yu-Lan Fung, “Why China Has No Science: An Interpretation of the History and Consequences of Chinese Philosophy,” The International Journal of Ethics, 32 (1922), 237-263.
  • Texts of Taoism, translated by J. Legge (New York: Julian Press, 1959).
  • Justin Yifu Lin, “The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China,” Economic Development and Cultural Change (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 269-292.

Series: This series is being published at Brandon Vogt’s atheist-Catholic dialogue site, Strange Notions. All articles at that site are collected here. This series is taken from my book, Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.