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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