And then I wrote… as I mentioned last week, this article is adapted from a piece published in Italian in Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012. But I wrote it in English andI’m not sure the original English ever ran anywhere… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts. The first part ran here last week; here’s Part II.
In order to do science, you must accept the three virtues described in St. Paul: faith, hope, and love. And these are quite frankly religious in nature. Indeed, one can argue (as Stanley Jaki has done) that they are specifically Christian. Certainly, they are articles that not all religions necessarily believe.
We start with faith. St. Anselm famously described theology as “faith seeking understanding.” But what is faith, really? And how does it relate to science?
Well, if theology means faith is seeking understanding, then clearly faith is something that is not yet understood, at least not in and of itself. And yet it is something important enough that we try to understand it. In science, that “something” is the experience – experience, again – the experience of Truth: raw, simple, direct. We know something is happening… but we don’t know what it is, do we? I am not speaking here of the truth we come to accept after a long labor; it is the truth we start with, axiomatically, the truth of the experience on which we construct the way we understand everything else we experience. In that sense, faith is an essential element of science.
If nothing else, you must have faith that there is an objective reality, and one that we can know. The world is not just illusion; I am not just a butterfly dreaming that I am a scientist. The philosophy of solipsism – that all reality is merely a projection of my own imagination – is incompatible with most science. (Maybe you can do quantum physics… as much as anyone can do quantum physics. But even if you did, if you are a solipsist, to whom would you present your results? I am reminded of the old story about the woman who came up to George Bernard Shaw after one of his lectures and insisted, “I am a solipsist; and so are most of my friends.”)
Science accepts on faith that the universe operates according to laws, laws that human reason is capable of grasping at least in part. Nowadays we accept the reality of a rational universe quite easily, because we’ve seen from experience that it works; using those laws we can predict eclipses, cure diseases, make jet planes and iPods. But where did that faith come from a thousand years ago, before we had those successes, before we knew it was going to work? Many historians of science, such as Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki, have argued that it came then from a belief in the God of Genesis, the one who created in an orderly way. They argue that’s why such a scientific worldview flourished precisely in the cultures formed by the religions, Judaism and Christianity and Islam, that accepted the God of Genesis. So it is worth looking at how those religions reconcile the existence of the laws of physics with the existence of a creator God. (Fr. Bill Stoeger, also at the Specola Vaticana, has written extensively on this topic.)
A principle common to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophical traditions is the idea that God created the universe “from nothing”—creatio ex nihilo, as the philosophers put it. There is a great difference between the “nothing” that the philosophers are talking about here, and the physicists’ idea of a vacuum. Even where there is no material substance present, as you might find in deep space far from any galaxy, this space still has “space” and “time” and the laws of physics that allow physics to operate in these places. By contrast, the philosophers are referring not to empty space, but to the very reason that space and time itself exist.
None of the laws of nature in themselves provide the ultimate source of either order or existence. Physics is incapable of doing that. It always has to start with something – a field potential, energy – and well-defined states of that “something.” These must possess some dynamical regularities or order; and then physics can describe how you get from one state of such a system to subsequent states, or what had to precede a given state – presupposing the existence of time.
Thus, physics and the other natural sciences are simply, in principle, not capable of providing the level of ultimate grounding and explanation that Creation does. What the natural sciences investigate are the “secondary causes” (everything that happens besides this creative action of the Creator); it is through these secondary causes that the universe unfolds in all its richness. The fact that existence continues to exist from moment to moment is tied up in the same mystery. And so theologians speak not only of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing), but also creatio continua: the fact that at every instant, the continued existence of the universe itself is deliberately willed by God, who in this way is continually causing the universe to remain created.
In the theological tradition, we know that the character of our description of divine creative action, and indeed of our language about God, can only be seen as a poetic analogy for the reality. God, as the reason for why everything exists, is not just another entity alongside the entities of reality – not just another law of physics. And along with this, it is essential to remember that God’s action is radically different from other actions and causes. It enables and empowers and gives existence to the rest of the actions of the universe, but it does not substitute or intervene among them. Nor does it bring about change; rather, it is what makes change possible.
And so we understand that both science and religion are concerned with creation, with the nature of reality and the origin of things, and both are involved with issues of truth. To hold them separate, in watertight boxes, is a sterile solution that smacks of dishonesty.
And yet, in a fundamental way, science and religion are very different.
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Religion starts with faith – as I have argued, with believing in the truth of the raw experience of something we accept as Truth, complete and beyond question. When God speaks, it is indeed God and not some pale substitute.
But His truth is passed to us through the medium of human beings: the authors of Scripture, the teachers of tradition. Jesus was also – by His choice – human; even if we had been there listening to Him ourselves, our concept of what He was saying would still be limited by the human language He used, and also our human limitations, our own frail human understanding. And day by day we must rely upon our all-too-fragile grasp of our own personal religious experience. Thus this Truth is at best only poorly understood. Religion starts with Truth, but only begins to approach Understanding.
On the other hand, Science consists of human-made theories to describe that Truth. Because they are human-made, we can fully test and understand and know them. But because they are human-made, they will always be limited and inadequate. Nonetheless, they can lead us toward an ineffable truth beyond science’s complete understanding. Thus Science starts with Understanding, to approach Truth.
That’s the human experience. We spend our lives on the road linking Truth and Understanding. Scientists travel in one direction, believers the other; those of us who are both, get to experience both. It is, after all, a two-way street. And Faith is both the starting point, and the goal.
But if Faith is the end point of that street, Hope is what gives us the courage to go for a walk down it.
“Hope is the certain expectation of future happiness,” said the great medieval theologian Peter Lombard, cited with approval by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. It is the center of the three virtues, and depends on them. The certainty of which he speaks is based on faith, the happiness on love; the key contribution of hope, therefore, is the sense of expectation.
The work of an astronomer is based on hope. Every astronomer goes to a telescope with the hope that the weather will cooperate, that the instruments will function correctly, that the object in the sky we’ve decided to look at will actually yield the data we’re looking for. We take these expectations for granted, so much that even if we’re faced with clouds or a crashing computer this time, we are still ready to return the next night to try again.
In addition, an astronomer at the telescope has a different kind of “expectation” as well: the anticipation of wondering what unexpected things will result from our observations. As each new image comes up from the camera, we always look on it with excitement. Could this be the one that shows us something new? When we choose to spend our lives in the study of the universe, we do so with an expectation that we’ll have some success. We live with the hope that our efforts will sooner or later bring us to some new understanding about the way the physical universe works.
Big projects – a space probe, or a new large telescope – can succeed only if they are supported by hope. For example, to send a space probe to Mars costs at the minimum half a billion dollars – not to mention the years of dedicated efforts of hundreds of people. We know from experience that half the landers we’ve tried to send to Mars so far have failed. But we continue to try, because we have hope that some of them will succeed, and that the knowledge we gain will be worth the risk.
When the Vatican Observatory chose to help build a telescope of a radically new design, it did so with the hope that the risks so taken could be overcome, and in the hope of the advances to astronomy that could result. The results of putting our faith into this design, and in all those who have worked so lovingly to bring it forward and continue to improve it, have well justified all our hopes.
Where do we get this confidence? Not just the confidence that the night’s observing will be fruitful, but indeed that there is anything to be learned from looking at the sky?
Some ancient cultures thought that whatever occurs in the universe, be it the motions of the stars, or the growth of crops, or the weather, was just the result of the arbitrary whim of the gods. Others described the universe as chaos, or worse as a physical and moral morass, something to blot out of our consciousness.
But what gives us the confidence that the world is not just chaos, that our scientific laws are more than just finding faces (or horses) in the clouds? That things do not happen merely by the whim of the gods?
The scientist insists, there’s a reason why crops grow; it is not merely the action of Ceres, the goddess of crops. There’s a reason why lightning strikes; it’s not just the anger of Zeus, the god of thunder. There’s a reason why diseases occur; it is not just the Will of God or – as the disciples tried to argue with Jesus – the result of somebody’s sin. Indeed, that’s the danger of certain kinds of religious belief: invoking God instead of Evolution runs the risk of turning God into another mere nature god.
But if God is above nature – super-natural – we human beings are most definitely not. We are creatures; we are created, in nature, from nature, of natural materials… as, to dust, we shall return.
And if human beings are a part of nature, then human life, even the human psyche, may all possibly be subject to the same manipulation of the material world that can be applied to building houses or growing crops. One cures disease, even diseases of the soul, by technique, not magic. That’s what G. K. Chesterton meant when, writing his Short History of England nearly a hundred years ago, he noted that “a mystical materialism marked Christianity from its birth; the very soul of it was a body. Among the stoical philosophies and oriental negations that were its first foes it fought fiercely and particularly for a supernatural freedom to cure concrete maladies by concrete substances.”
And so we are invited to learn about God by studying His wonderful universe. We are invited to be techies and engineers, building the things that make our life easier and better. We are invited to be doctors and psychiatrists, and cure disease. We are invited to be astronomers. It is because that invitation comes from God, that we have the certain expectation – the hope – that in the beauty of the Stars and the Laws that govern them, we will encounter Him who is the source of all law and beauty and truth.