A 10-Point Primer on Faith and Science

June 28, AD 2016 1 Comment
This primer on faith and science was published at the National Catholic Register.

On one hand, there are marvelous discourses in institutions of higher learning about the ways theology illuminates scientific ideas and, likewise, how science deepens faith. Theologians, philosophers, and scientists come together and talk, even if everyone does not agree. On the other hand, the public presentation of faith and science, mostly on the internet, is a tale of incessant conflict. Anyone can pose as an expert on religion or science, despite being nonreligious and never having done any serious work as a scientist.

So, there is a gap, and people who just want to learn more about the faith and science dialogue are left wondering where to start—such as catechists, teachers, parents, students, professors, writers, or believers interested in science who have asked these questions. Is there a conflict? Is there unity? Can someone please just lay out the basics?

Count the following ten imperatives as so many points to bridge this rift between the pessimism in the media and the optimism among scholars. In fact, if you grasp the following, you are well on your way to understanding why Christians are needed around the table to illuminate and guide modern science.

(1) Profess the Creed in confidence. If you pray “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” then your faith comes first. For you, Christianity is not a hypothesis or a theory; it is everything, a pervasive worldview. As Catholics, we do not call some things intelligently designed and declare other things mere random chances of nature, as if nature were not the handiwork of God, but we see everything as a consistently interacting totality, a Creation, including every last particle and force governed by the laws of physics.

Science cannot dictate the tenets of faith, because that is backwards thinking. Consider the way we bless our meals. We do not examine the pepperoni pizza to decide whether it is a gift from God before we cross ourselves and pray. Rather, in faith we see every meal with a confident acceptance that “these Thy gifts” come from God.

(2) Know your faith, and let it guide your reasoning. “Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 89). You cannot navigate science in the light of faith if you do not have the lights on, so to speak. There are a number of sources for finding Church teaching. Besides the Catechism, Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma and Heinrich Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma are trusted resources for the historical development of doctrine.

When you are sorting out challenging questions posed by scientific theory, be aware of the hierarchy of truths (CCC 90). Distinguish between infallible dogmas and theological opinions that may be explored. We can never accept a conclusion that the soul does not exist or that God did not create the world with a beginning in time. Most of the discussion happens where theological opinions are proposed and science can increase comprehension. How do we talk about the emergence and evolution of life? How do we describe the unity of body and mind? How do we think about the human person compared to other creatures?

(3) Respect the experts. We are all encouraged to learn about the development of doctrine, but do not to play armchair theologian and promote your novel opinions as accepted teaching. Forego speculation, as that causes confusion. Instead, read the writings of theologians and communicate their work because the modern dialogue needs communicators.

Likewise, respect the scientists. I know; many scientists today are not people of faith, but if you have not designed experiments, agonized over the data, and placed your reputation behind conclusions, it is hard to appreciate what it takes to add new knowledge to scientific fields. Be confident in your faith and read scientific papers, so you will be able to figure out what to accept or reject for yourself. Strive to become an expert and lead others.

(4) Do not be anxious until you find the one final answer. Think of the process of navigating science in the light of faith as a dive into complementary mysteries. Faith and science are two different manifestations of the same reality. When they seem to have conflicting conclusions, it is because our knowledge is not complete. There are many questions that will not have clear answers, which is why they are debated. How much were Neanderthals like humans? In what ways can brain chemistry influence our behavior? What do we make of quantum entanglement?

Just like doctrinal understanding develops, scientific models are provisional. A “provision” is something that supplies a temporary commodity. Scientific theories and models supply explanations until better ones are discovered with more research. As you enter the story of ongoing research, try to understand a variety of opinions. Do not articulate an opinion until you are ready. It is okay to say: “I don’t know. Could you explain what you think?”

(5) Clarify the kind of proof science provides. Inductive proofs widen from details to broad conclusions; they affirm. Scientific evidence can only provide inductive proofs of faith. For example, the Big Bang affirms a beginning in time; it does not absolutely prove the ultimate t=0. On the contrary, deductive proofs narrow from broad statements to conclusions; that is, they confirm. These are, in general, the proofs provided by philosophy and theology. One may argue metaphysically that past time is either finite or infinite. If it can be reasoned that infinite time is highly unlikely, then by default finite time is highly likely.

Therefore, do not invoke science as any kind of absolute proof of a theological conclusion. The Big Bang, fine-tuning in nature, design in living things, and order in the periodic table are all inductive proofs of the opening lines of the Christian Creed, but only in the same way rainbows, sunsets, and yellow Labrador puppies are proofs of God. Science should inspire awe and wonder because we see it as the study of Creation.

(6) Ponder Mars. St. Thomas Aquinas explains in the Summa Theologiæ that there is an order in nature of causes and effects (ST I.105.6). God creates everything and holds all things visible and invisible in existence; He is the first cause, the Creator, not subject to secondary causes such as change and motion in the physical realm. God’s law is the “supreme law.” If there were no other created being with any kind of will and intellect, then the material realm would follow, to the elementary unit, the laws of physics as God designed them—like on Mars.

Physical scientists think within this strictly physical realm. It is not a foreign concept though. Just as bakers try to figure out how much oil to put in dough, chemists and physicists define isolated systems to the best of their abilities and control the variables, very rigorously.

In his 1947 book Miracles, C.S. Lewis refers to nature as a “hostess” (94). If a tomato sauce is invaded with basil, for example, nature rushes to accommodate the newcomer. If the sauce is stirred, heated, or spread on a crust and topped with cheese, physical laws follow suit, and these physical laws are the same throughout the universe, all other things being the same. (All other things are not the same, which is why we cannot fly to Mars and make pizza.)

If you (like me) prefer not to think of nature as a female serving up munchies, think of matter and energy as the physical medium in which we live. This medium, nature, accommodates the actions of our free will, which is why human life on this planet has rendered Earth vastly different than it would have been left to its own devices.

(7) Assert that humans are body and soul. Beyond the realm of physical matter is the realm of beings with wills, such as angels, humans, and possibly other animals. These beings are movers too. God can move particles, and if it is outside the order of nature known to us, we call it a miracle (ST I.105.7).

Then there are angels. In his treatise on the angels in the Summa Theologiæ, St. Thomas Aquinas, referencing (Pseudo-) Dionysius, says that angels are purely intellectual beings or “heavenly minds” (ST I.58.3). Intellect for angels is perfect at once “from their very nature” in that they instantly know all they are created to know. The good angels choose to will good, so they always do God’s will (ST I.59.2). They can move matter too, possibly in ways we do not understand.

And there is us. We are body and soul. With our free will, we can move matter in limited ways. For instance, we can kick rocks, control anger, create symphonies, and build smart phones, but we cannot turn paper into gold, flap our arms and fly, live without food, or ungrow children. We pursue knowledge by “discursive intellectual operation” by advancing from one thing to another rationally, as we do using the scientific method (ST I.58.3). Actually, the scientific method is a perfect example of how body and soul unite. We take in data with our senses. We process it abstractly with our intellects. We desire to learn more, so we design experiments for further observation.

(8) Be assured that physics cannot explain free will. Determinism is a philosophical idea that all events are determined by strict laws of nature, such that every motion of every particle is preset by an initial state of matter. If you scratch your arm, so the argument goes, you did it because that was the next event your matter and energy were destined to do. If there were nothing except the created physical realm, like on Mars, strict physical determinism would apply. But as Christians we understand that the total system of reality includes both the natural and the supernatural.

So while atheists are stuck with the problem of free will and how it would break the laws of physics to declare that they think they freely proclaim there is no free will, Christians have accepted the existence of the soul and moved on with life. We understand that free will is a spiritual power, and we use our intellects to grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance so that we may strive to reach our fullest potential as human persons. Calling ourselves “stewards” of the planet is meaningless if we deny free will.

(9) Fear not evolution. In fact, go further. Catholics should not frown when people say humans evolved from atoms and primates. We should add that we evolved from the beginning. Atoms constitute the matter that makes us up, and every atom in our bodies came from the Earth, whose particles seem to have come from supernovas, whose matter and energy probably came from the earliest moments after the Big Bang. Did you ever wonder what path the ever-fluctuating particles of your body traversed in the last 4.5 billion years on Earth and the 13.8 billion years in the universe? Did you ever wonder how many other bodies all the uncountable particles in your body have occupied? (Never mind. That can be gross.)

Biologically, we see a single evolutionary step every time we see a baby. Evolution is the progression of a series of events by which living organisms accumulate changes over successive generations due to genetic inheritance and adaptive variation. Every child is genetically like its parents but also genetically unique as an individual. As such, every child responds to his or her environment in unique ways, however slight the differences may be. Environments change over time, further affecting genetic expression. These are facts.

But evolutionary science cannot identify a first man, first woman, or original sin committed in a moment, because evolution deals with populations over thousands and millions of years. Expecting evolution to find our first parents is like expecting a bulldozer to find the first two grains of sand on a beach. Not only is it the wrong tool, it is the wrong scientific concept. We do not think of beaches forming one grain of sand at a time. So if Adam and Eve began to live, literally, as a fully grown man and woman through a miraculous act of God, or if they came to exist some other way, science can only shrug and keep on digging. A Catholic can both explore what evolutionary science has to reveal and, simultaneously, believe in the reality of Adam and Eve. What a Catholic, or anyone else, cannot do is expect evolutionary science to find them any more than chemistry or physics can find the exact location of two electrons on your nose.

(10) Realize that science was born of Christianity. This is not a claim for bravado; it is meant to inspire a bigger view. The belief that the universe was created by God with an absolute beginning in time and a faithful order is an ancient Judeo-Christian belief forming an unbroken thread all the way back to Genesis. The Old Testament people held a belief in Creation in time. The early Christians defended that belief against the pantheistic ideas of ancient Greek philosophy, even to martyrdom. Today, we need to be absolutely clear about the limits of science. Nothing a scientist says should shake our faith. If a scientist claims we are nothing but atoms, have no free will, or the world is eternally cycling (as all the other ancient cultures did), then we simply do not agree. What we can do is hear those people out, and if (only if) they are amenable to a leap of faith, lead them to the fuller truth.

If the biblical cultures and early Christianity are taken as the womb that nurtured and protected this fundamental belief about Creation, then the Christian West can be taken as the culture that gave birth to science—upon the works of scholars such as Adelard of Bath, Thierry of Chartres, Robert Grosseteste, William of Auvergne, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Siger of Brabant, Étienne Tempier, and Fr. Jean Buridan who postulated the impetus theory, which was the precursor to Newtonian mechanics. Since that time in the 11th – 14th centuries, physics has grown exponentially with new insights, understandings, capabilities, and realms of observation and measurement at unimaginable scales of minuteness and grandeur. Science today, as brawny, mature, and independent as it has become, is like the prodigal son in need of its, well…its mother.

The Holy Mother Church guards truth and is there to guide her children. The revelation of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ taught us the reality of the nature of God and the divinity of Christ. No other religion has ever come close to such a Trinitarian and Incarnational worldview. God is one God and three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son who became man. Christ is the Word, the Logos, the reason. And science relies on order. Without faith in Christ, science does not make sense. It is a fact that modern science emerged in a Christian culture, and one can certainly maintain, as did Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, that this was not happenstance. “There had to come a birth, the birth of the only begotten Son of the Father as a man, to allow science to have its first viable birth” (A Late Awakening 60). The beginning of St. John’s gospel has a striking scientific significance:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness… (John 1:1-5)

Just stick with that if you forget the rest.

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Inspired by Fr. Stanley L. Jaki’s 2004 booklet “Science and Religion: A Primer.”

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  • Melanie Juneau

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