Theology measures nothing, while “exact science” deals only with numbers and measurements of material change. This sentence summarizes the core thesis of much of Fr. Stanley Jaki’s approach to faith and science. Arguing that the proper relationship between faith and science is that each discipline should strictly adhere to their own principles, Fr. Jaki strongly emphasized that the unique focus science has upon the material world makes it impossible to create a “theology-science” or “philosophy-science.” When reading and listening to Fr. Jaki’s brilliant reflections, it becomes clear that his detailed critique of matters of faith and science point to the fundamental distinction that science deals with the “how” aspect of creation while philosophy and theology deal with the “why” aspect of creation.
To demonstrate this distinction between faith and science, Fr. Jaki would often share an old story about explaining the properties of electricity. The story is of a young scientist who gave a factory tour to Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), arguably one of the greatest scientists of his time. The factory created equipment that measured the effects of electricity and was built by Lord Kelvin himself. Unfortunately, the young man giving the tour was not aware of this fact. After the young man spoke in great detail of all the equipment the factory made and how these gadgets measured electricity, Lord Kelvin complemented him on the tour, but wanted to ask one last question to his tour guide, “What is electricity?” When the young man was unable to answer this question, Lord Kelvin consoled him by explaining that both he and Lord Kelvin were equally ignorant of the answer to this question. The moral of the story is that it is one thing to measure how electricity behaves, but it’s a completely different thing to understand what electricity actually is at its essence. Fr. Jaki would use this story to argue that science and theology should not be combined, but rather they should stay within the parameters that each naturally adhere to.
Fr. Jaki was born on August 17, 1924 in Hungary. In addition to joining the Benedictine Order, Fr. Jaki’s academic background is quite impressive. He received doctorates from the Pontifical Institute of Sant’Anselmo in theology and from Fordham University in physics under the tutelage of Victor Hess. Fr. Jaki also completed post-doctoral research in the area of the philosophy of science at Stanford, Berkley, and Princeton. His accolades are countless, receiving many awards and numerous honorary positions such as being an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Science and receiving the Templeton Prize in 1987. Before his death in 2009 of a heartatack, Fr. Jaki was a Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seaton Hall University.
In regard to his contribution to science, Fr. Jaki is best known for his affirmation of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in light of modern physic’s search for a “Theory of Everything” (TOE). The theorem is rather complex to explain, but the main thrust is that it affirms that no mathematical theory can be completely self-sufficient and there will always be parts of a mathematical system that are either self-contradictory or unable to be verified. The significance of this to Fr. Jaki was that it promised a disappointing road ahead for scientists looking for a TOE that would be able to explain a world that is self-sufficient, meaning that its existence has no need of contingency upon a Creator. Fr. Jaki observed that, in light of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a complete TOE is impossible. Here is Fr. Jaki in his own words, talking about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.
Ideology seems to have played an important role in the resistance by prominent physicists to perhaps the greatest discovery in the history of mathematical logic, or Kurt Gödel’s formulation, in November 1930, of the theorem that any non-trivial set of arithmetic propositions has a built-in incompleteness. The incompleteness consists in the fact no such set can have its proof of consistency within itself. The bearing of that incompleteness on physical theory, which has to be heavily mathematical, should seem obvious. (Stanley Jaki, On a Study About Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem)
Some mistakenly see this theorem as the “death of modern physics.” Rather, for Fr. Jaki, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is somewhat of a beginning, promising that science will never come to an end of exploration, but will always have new discoveries and advancements to explore. Stephen Hawking affirmed this sentiment in a presentation he gave on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem entitled, Gödel and the End of Physics.
Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery. Without it, we would stagnate. Godel’s theorem ensured there would always be a job for mathematicians. I think M theory will do the same for physicists. I’m sure Dirac would have approved. (Final Paragraph of Gödel and the End of Physics.)
This brief reflection on the thought of Fr. Jaki doesn’t even scratch the surface of this great priest and scientist. However, these reflections remind me that an honest assessment of our limitations doesn’t bring us to an end of our understanding of God and the world, but it opens us up to new possibilities, promising an endless well of truth to draw water from. Whether our interests are in faith, science, or both, may we constantly be open to explore truth in our lives, embracing the never-ending pilgrimage that leads us to the God who is the source of all truth.
Below is a list of links to some of Fr. Jaki’s writing and a video presentation he gave entitled, “The Mind and Its Now.” Enjoy this brilliant Priest/scientist’s writings and may it enrich your understanding of the relationship between faith and science.
Articles by Fr. Stanley Jaki.