And then I wrote… In 2017 I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book called Theism and Atheism: Opposing Arguments in Philosophy (which came out finally in 2019). It was my friend Fr. Joe Koterski SJ, one of the editors of the book at a philosophy professor at Fordham, who thought to invite me. Tragically this past August he died of a heart attack while giving a retreat. The chapter is long, so I have broken it into multiple parts. This is part 2; click here for part 1. If you want to see the whole thing, why not check out the book itself?
Reason and Axioms
There is a fundamental way in which reason requires faith. Every system of reason must begin with axioms. An axiom is generally considered a point of knowledge so obvious that its truth can be perceived immediately and without proof. The role of axioms is most visible in mathematics, but, in fact, the existence of axioms, accepted on faith, is fundamental to all systems of reason.
One may consider that mathematics is a more pure sort of reasoning system than physics. We may no longer read Aristotle for his physics, but we still use Euclid’s geometry. In that sense, unlike science, mathematics never goes out of date. Euclid’s geometry, however, depends on Euclid’s axioms, and in the two thousand years that followed his work mathematicians have developed all manner of rich geometries precisely by asking what happens if one or another of those axioms are relaxed. Do parallel lines never meet? What about on the surface of a sphere?
If science is a system of logic, then it, too, must have its axioms. Three examined here are the axioms of the existence of reality, the existence of scientific laws, and the innate value of the scientific enterprise itself. What is more, I argue that these axioms are religious in nature. As evidence, I point out that these axioms are supported by only a small subset of religions; one can find religions that do not accept one or another of these axioms. If our choice of religion affects our faith in these axioms, then only certain religions are going to give the necessary conditions for science to flourish. Let us look more closely at the axioms that we must accept on faith before we can do any kind of meaningful science—axioms that depend on one’s religion.
To do science, we have to believe in reality. The universe exists; it is not just a dream. Consider the famous story of the Chinese Daoist Zhuangzi. One day he dreamed that he was a butterfly, and, as a carefree butterfly, he did not know that he was the philosopher Zhuangzi. When he woke up, he did not know whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamed that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi.
It is possible that everything is illusion. The idea of the existence of physical reality is something we have to assume, knowing full well that our ability to perceive that reality is strongly limited by the limits of our senses. Even quantum physicists have to accept that the physical manifestation of their experiments in the macroscopic world are real, even as they ponder the nature of the reality they are revealing in the subatomic universe. Otherwise, there is nothing to study, or at least what we wind up studying is no longer physics but instead metaphysics. There is more to this axiom, however, than simply believing that reality is real. There must also be the belief that the reality of the universe matters. With that comes an axiomatic faith that spending time to become intimate with this reality is time worth spending.
Ancient India was far ahead of the rest of the world when it came to mathematics; what we call Arabic numerals were an Indian invention. The Indians, however, never developed the study of the natural universe the way that the medieval universities did. For their culture, the physical world was a place of test and trial. For the ancient Chinese, the highest achievement was to be a person of culture and ethical behavior. For them, as for the Manichaeans in ancient Rome, the physical universe was the source of temptation, evil, and corruption. We find echoes of that thought even in some passages of our scripture.
The People of the Book—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have a belief that this physical universe was created by our God, who looked at it in each stage of Creation and declared that it was good. God reveals himself in the things he has created. For Christianity, in particular, we believe in a God who loved the world—not good people and not nice ideals and ethics, but The World—so much that he sent his only son not to carry us out of this world but to redeem this world.
As Saint Athanasius said in his book On the Incarnation around the year 335 CE, this physical universe has been “cleansed and quickened” and made sacred by the Resurrection (Section 17). Even the Christian belief in an afterlife is not a belief in some ethereal nonreal existence. Read carefully what Jesus says about what happens after death: he promises not a paradise elsewhere but eternal life. His Resurrection, the only example we have of what life after death is supposed to look like, was into a body more than ours but containing all that ours contains—including its scars, including an appreciation of a good fish dinner.
Thus, studying the physical universe for a Christian is an act of worship, not because the universe is God in a pantheistic way but because it is the expression, the word, of a supernatural God. Stanley Jaki argued (c.f. The Savior of Science) that this was the crucial difference between West and East, the reason why science was born in Padua and Paris, Cambridge and Berlin, and not in Bihar or Beijing.
Some religions, including the Religions of the Book, insist on realism. Atheism, on the other hand, is agnostic about it; it has no inherent reason to insist that the universe is real.
Science and Its Laws
Another axiom necessary to take on faith in order to do science is that nature follows regular laws. We have to believe in the existence of these laws before we can look for them. Again, not every religion thinks that the universe works that way. The nature gods of ancient Greece and Rome did not behave according to rigid laws external to themselves. Yet by assuming the nature gods, we can, as with the Ptolemaic system of planet motion, arrive at a complete and accurate description of how nature behaves.
Consider a scene from an ancient legend made famous in Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound. To quote from one scene, “The earth-born dweller of the Cilician caves . . . impetuous Typhon . . . withstood all the gods, hissing out terror with horrid jaws, while from his eyes lightened a hideous glare, as though he would storm by force the sovereignty of Zeus. But the unsleeping bolt of Zeus came upon him” (1926, lines 350–360). The nature gods here are Zeus, with the lightning bolts, and Typhon, the monster who lives in the caves under the mountains of Cilicia. Cilicia is an ancient kingdom in present-day Turkey, located between the Carpathian Mountains and the sea. Those mountains are the site of many active volcanoes. Think volcanoes, and listen again to the description of that monster. He is “hissing out terror with horrid jaws, while from his eyes lightened a hideous glare, as though he would storm by force the sovereignty of Zeus”—fire and smoke rising up into the sky, challenging the realm of Zeus.
Lightning strikes occur all the time in the dust of volcanic eruptions. To us, lightning follows Maxwell’s equations and Ampere’s law; it is a flow of electricity that is promoted by the presence of dust in the atmosphere. To the ancients, lightning was a battle between Typhon, the monster under the mountain, and Zeus, the god in the air who threw lightning bolts. If we think that volcanoes erupt because there is a monster under the mountain and that lightning strikes the mountain because there is a god in the air throwing bolts at the monster, then we already have an explanation for these spectacular natural events: things happen because the nature gods decide to make them happen. If we deny the existence of nature gods, then we have to come up with some other explanation for volcanoes and lightning. If we do not reject the presence of nature gods, it would never occur to us to look for that other explanation. One religion allows for science; the other has no room for it.
Who was the first person to think there might be laws to describe nature? Who was the first person who went searching for those laws? Who was the first to find laws that we still think are true today? Arguably, it was Aristotle. But it is interesting that for a thousand years after him no further progress was made in physics. The Romans were great practical engineers; I can still see their aqueducts out the train window every time I travel from my home in Castel Gandolfo to Rome. Engineering, or building for a purpose, is not the same as science, or studying simply for knowledge. The Romans made no progress at all in asking questions of how the natural universe works, much less why it works the way it does. Indeed, the one name in Roman astronomy who is remembered today, Ptolemy, was actually a Greek living in Egypt, not a Roman. He worked out the motions of the planets with all their epicycles as a mathematical trick to let him cast horoscopes, which is as close as astronomy gets to engineering.
Some religions, including the Religions of the Book, deny nature gods and insist on a universe that is rational. Once again, atheism is agnostic on the question. While it denies gods, it is also free to deny laws.
The Support of the Village
There is one final axiom that makes science possible. Science happens only when we are convinced that science itself is worth doing.
Why is this so? First, doing science comes at a cost of many resources, both physical and human. It happens only when there is a will to allow those resources to be used for science. That is not an obvious choice. Science is not engineering; it does not exist to put food on the table or make our lives more comfortable. Even if, in the long run, the knowledge that comes from science can lead to those results, it is not clear that those who benefit are the ones whose investments make it possible. Thus, there has to be some other purpose besides pragmatism to pay for the science. Furthermore, science itself is a conversation about how the universe works. That conversation by necessity requires more than one participant. Therefore, there must be a significant portion of the members of a culture interested in pursuing such a conversation.
I noted earlier how in every rational system one must rely on intuition to make crucial decisions—what to study, how to study it, when to persevere, and when to give up. Making these decisions is not all that different from making the other decisions that require choices made with inadequate data. How do we make the decisions about what to study, where to live, whom to marry? The decisions that change our lives are made not only on the basis of inadequate and often incorrect information; indeed, they are made by ignorant, stubborn, and inexperienced teenagers—us. We all were teenagers, or at best young adults, back when we made those decisions for ourselves.
In reality, we do not make these decisions in a vacuum. We rely on advice from our friends and our elders; we listen to the stories of people who have gone before us and made these decisions, trying to learn from their mistakes and their successes. We talk to our parents. We talk to people who are in a position to know more than we do—authorities—whom we trust because of how well their advice has guided our community in the past.
Notice how this is similar to the conversations we have concerning religious questions: we rely on faith in our elders, our advisers, our parents and teachers and priests. We listen to their experiences in making those decisions and, even more, their experiences of those moments when they, or those they spoke with, experienced the numinous. It is a rare moment that any of us experience God, so it is important that we pool those experiences, to compare and learn from the similarities and differences and, just as important, to sort out the real experiences from the spurious ones. That is why we have religions.
In the same way, scientists who succeed in becoming full participants in the conversation of science are those who are willing to spend the time to be taught, by authorities, about the successes and failures of the authorities in our past. They put their faith in data from the past that describe unusual events like comets or supernovas. They are willing to submit their work to referees and deal with the (always unfair!) referee reports. They are willing to sacrifice their most valuable commodity, their time, to serve as authorities and referees for others. If we do not pay our dues by learning, teaching, refereeing, and editing, then we are not full members of the scientific conversation. Instead, we are no better than those folks who send off emails full of Capitalized Words to everyone we can find, establishing that Einstein was wrong and that the gravitational constant can be proved to be equal to two-thirds.
In other words, the scientific enterprise is too large for any one person to accomplish. It requires that many people support and correct one another, many people divide the labor and build on the labor of those gone before, many people run the universities where the knowledge of the past is kept alive and the scientists of the future can be brought into the conversation. It takes a village to do science. We need a community of people willing to waste their time asking these sorts of questions about rocks and leaves and their origin and their motion. We also need a space where it is safe to ask those questions, a place where we can be free to admit we do not already have the answers. Whether it is pagan gods or the physics of Aristotle or some marvelous theorem that came in a dream, if we think we already know how nature works, we are not going to ask any further questions. Certainty is the death of science.