On Making Sense of the Universe: Thoughts On Fr. Robert Spitzer's "New
Proofs for the Existence of God" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | December 9, 2010
On Making Sense of the Universe: Thoughts On Fr. Robert Spitzer's New
Proofs for the Existence of God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | December 9, 2010
"Science, unlike philosophy and metaphysics, cannot deductively prove a creation or God. Science is an empirical and
inductive discipline, meaning that it cannot be certain that it has considered
all possible data that would be relevant to a complete explanation of
particular physical phenomena or the universe itself. Nevertheless, it is
reasonable and responsible to attribute qualified truth value to long-standing,
rigorously established theories until such time as new data requires them to be
changed. This is what enables science to 1) identify, aggregate, and synthesize
evidence indicating the finitude of past time in the universe and 2) to
identify the exceedingly high improbability of the random occurrence of
conditions necessary to sustain life in the universe."
-- Robert Spitzer, S.J., New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and
Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2010), 73.
In the first book I wrote, Redeeming the Time (1968), one chapter was entitled "The Cosmos and
Christianity." Even then, I was concerned with the question of whether, as many
then assumed, science had somehow made faith—or the particular version of
it known as Christianity—to be impossible. But was there not evidence for
another relationship? That is, Christianity and science were rather closely
related. Both sought objective truth. Both were concerned with the origin and
meaning of the whole physical cosmos. Both presupposed or needed the other for
their respective completions. They were not intrinsically contradictory to each
other. Neither could definitively exclude the other, however much they might
Thus, the subtitle of the chapter was: "The World Is for Man." These
were the days before Stanley Jaki's The Road of Science and the Ways to God (1979) or William Wallace's Modeling of
Nature (1996), which made the compatible
relationship between science and revelation more plausible. The cosmos, in
other words, was not just sitting out there with God, as it were, even though
He created it, looking on wondering what in blazes to do with it. An inner
order or plan was there from the beginning, one that did not satisfy itself by
knowing what were the principles of nature, however important these were. The
cosmos itself was related to something within it which pointed, in its turn, to
what transcended it.
Fr. Jaki, in fact, argued that the possibility of science itself
depended on certain theological propositions without which science does not
appear in any culture. Science depends on the notion that a real world exists.
It is not an illusion. It has within it stable secondary causes open to
investigation by human intelligence and techniques. We can learn something from
it because something is there to be learned. Scientific principles do not just
explain themselves, even when known. They are already operative within the
cosmos before any finite mind ever thought to articulate what they meant.
Theories of divine or cosmic voluntarism, moreover, in which the
opposite of any fact could be at the same time possible or true, make science
impossible. If the world depends on an arbitrarily changeable will, nothing can
really be known. Both the existence and the explanation of the world rather
depended on principles that seemed anything but arbitrary. In the beginning it
was not clear whether the world and its principles always existed or whether it
came into existence at some definite point in the past, however long. The
history of modern cosmology has reached a solid consensus on this issue. The
cosmos did have a beginning, approximately 13.7 billion years ago. Time itself
began with that beginning.
In any case, I had somehow read enough in Heisenberg, Koyr, Bondi, and
others to suspect that the cosmic or scientific case against Christianity was
not as strong as it might at first have appeared. The jumpiness over Galileo or
evolution might be understandable, but it was not conclusive. The argument for
the compatibility of science and Christianity seemed rather more persuasive
than the view that they could not stand together. One did not have to be false
because the other was true. Both were true in their own orders. We needed
rather to see how they addressed each other in such a way that what one knew
supplied what was lacking in the other.
I was particularly stuck by Chesterton's remark that we should not
confuse size with spirit. It might well be, and in fact seems to be the case,
that the mysteries connected with a single human person are quite as
complicated as the complexity of the universe itself. I believe Einstein
himself also said this of politics. It did not necessarily take mystics to make
us aware of this free will-based complexity that stands over and above the
universe itself. The free creatures within the cosmos weave a complexity that
is not automatic, but it is real.
In this light, I was particularly pleased to read Father Robert
Spitzer's new book on the proofs for the existence of God. As I have known and
admired Father Spitzer for some time, I had been awaiting this book to be
finally published. Spitzer is an extraordinarily learned man in many areas. He
taught here at Georgetown for some three years over a decade ago before he was
mandated to go to Gonzaga University in Spokane to become its President. He is
what I can only call a "Pied Piper," his teaching and lecturing can be
mesmerizing. His eyesight has long been a problem; for all that, he does not
seem to miss a thing even with the thickest of glasses. Himself very widely
read, he has studied many areas from business to science, theology, and
philosophy. His earlier book Healing the Culture sets up a basic agenda for confronting the aberrations of our time.
As I did my early studies at Gonzaga also, we have several much admired
professors in common, notably Father Clifford Kossel, S. J., whose work on
metaphysical relations is seminal in any understanding of the Trinity, and Fr.
John H. Wright, S. J. whose 1958 essay in the Gregorianum, "The Consummation of the Universe in Christ," I
cite in my chapter and is directly related to the overall scope of Spitzer's
own thought. Fr. Spitzer studied at the Gregorian University in Rome. He did
his doctoral degree at the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of
America, the very best place. His mentor was the famous Professor Paul Weiss.
The subject matter, which comes up importantly in this book, concerned the
nature and reality of time, no doubt the most abstruse of all metaphysical
Of late, Fr. Spitzer was on the Larry King TV show with Stephen Hawking
and others discussing Hawking's dubious claim that everything could be
explained about the universe without God. Spitzer made it quite clear that, on
scientific grounds themselves, this was not true. It is always amusing to
realize that philosophy remains the primary grounds on which the possibility of
Christianity must be defended. This was something both C. S. Lewis and
Chesterton understood. So here we saw Fr. Spitzer in Roman collar arguing with
a scientist, himself very physically impaired, about science. While we might
hold that the universe was created by God from reading Genesis, we might also
believe it because, when sorted out, the evidence points this way, whether we
give a hang about Genesis or not.
In the end, it seemed quite clear on that particular television show,
that, on this core issue, the cleric knew more about science than the scientist.
If one is a Catholic, he has no problem with holding that this grounding is the
way it should be. We do not bring in revelation until we first face the issue
as it exists in reason. Hawking was right that science could explain many
principles that demonstrated the workings of the universe. But once we have
arrived at these principles, as Spitzer indicated, we cannot just leave them
there. The principles do not explain themselves—they do not, as it were,
create themselves. What indeed is the origin of the truth of the principles
already found operative and constitutive of the cosmos?
Since leaving Gonzaga, Fr. Spitzer has formed the Magis Institute, a
think-tank, if you will, in which he devotes full time to basic theoretical
issues, something often less possible in politically correct universities.
Though a perfectly normal and engaging man, I am not sure if any "small"
thought has ever entered into Fr. Spitzer's head. He intends to make all the
big thoughts as widely known as possible. He may even suspect that a university
might just be an impediment in this project. The web site of his Magis
Institute is worth a look in this regard.
The present book is tightly organized and carefully argued. Spitzer
makes all the proper distinctions between philosophy and science, between
theology and philosophy. Indeed, strictly speaking, nothing "Christian" comes
up in this book. Reading the book, one is reminded of the philosophic
discussions of Aquinas about God and what exists outside of God. We find in the
Spitzer book no mention of Incarnation or Trinity. The word "Creator" does
appear, but not from Genesis. It appears solely as the conclusion of a strict
philosophical argument about finite existence or about the beginning of time,
or about the peculiar configuration of the cosmos. And even here the notion of
creator is different if we are talking about what we know from science and what
we know from metaphysics, neither are revelational sources or arguments.
This book is about science and philosophy. It recognizes and
demonstrates the legitimacy of both but also their inter-dependence. In that
sense, we speak of first principles and proof, the latter structured in the
form of an argument, a syllogism. One step builds on the next. The reader of
Spitzer has to read him carefully. This book is not a novel. It requires active
thinking through a series of observations, premises, and intermediate
conclusions to the end. The book has an engaging clarity. It knows that
definitions and arguments need repeating. Spitzer writes as if he knows that a
live audience is out there, some of whom are not quite used to the rigors of
intellectual discourse. But they are willing and anxious to understand the
argument being proposed.
We have here, in short, several "proofs" for the existence of God.
Every principle or idea is defined clearly and repeated again and again. When
earlier discussions or proofs come up, the text refers us back to them. The
book is a pedagogical masterpiece. Scientific theories are explained. Numbers,
equations, and estimates are identified and labeled. Their sources are
indicated. Spitzer has carefully read the scientists that he deals with. He
explains how he understands them, what he judges about the validity of their
experiments or conclusions. He allows us, challenges us to check his sources or
his arguments. He is concerned with the truth of the issue.
Spitzer proceeds in three steps. First he examines the question of
whether science can prove the existence of God. The word "prove" is a technical
word. It means a consistent, logical argument from first principles either of
induction or deduction. First principles, however, have no "proof." That is why
they are called "first." Such a first principle means that, once the terms of
the proposition are understood, nothing is clearer. Their very denial involves
their affirmation of the principle. The human mind understands some basic first
principles. Otherwise it could not be a mind; it could not begin.
Suppose, for example, I say that something can be true and false at the
same time, in the same way. The statement itself is either true or false. If it
is true, then it must be false. If it is false, it must be true. Once we
understand their premises, we cannot find something more clear. They are
"immediately" known, that is, without the medium of a minor premise. The
principle of contradiction—a thing cannot be and not be at the same time,
in the same way—governs both reality and our argument. Basically, Spitzer
holds that science can, in its own terms, reasonably show that God exists. But
science does not prove it conclusively in the sense that new evidence may come
up that would challenge the present scientific basis of the proofs. The book,
therefore, shows both what the best thinking in science holds and what a
metaphysical argument shows. Basically, it shows that they support each other,
but after the manner of their own disciplines.
Secondly, Spitzer asks the question of whether metaphysics, the science
of being as being, contrasted to science, which deals with empirical data, can
prove the existence of God. The validity of scientific principles themselves
depends on metaphysics. He explains why this is so. Thirdly, he asks, in
effect: "What does this God look like (how are we to understand Him) if in fact
He does exist?" The latter part of the book is extremely interesting in dealing
with simplicity or unity, truth, beauty, love, and the good. These latter
discussions, as Spitzer points out, do not have the strict probative power of
the proofs themselves that he presents. But they do follow from them in a
consistent fashion. When all three sections are taken as a whole, we are left
with a coherent, systematic, and well-reasoned argument about the existence and
nature of God based on both science and reason.
It can be said, and Spitzer intimates this understanding, that human
intelligence, at its best, exists precisely to understand the existence of God
and its relation to what is. If we can
put it this way, the cosmos does not ultimately exist for itself. In principle,
the cosmos cannot understand itself, even though, in investigating it, we find
that constants, relations, and consistencies are found that hold firm. The
human mind can comprehend them.
The activity of understanding, that is, the scientific and metaphysical
enterprises, has been a corporate endeavor of men almost from the beginning of
human existence on this earth. This speculation becomes even more interesting
when we calculate how old the earth is, how old the cosmos is, how long human
life has existed, and how long since we began to reduce our thinking to
consistent order. It begins to look like Plato was quite right in supposing
that the universe is not complete unless within it is found some finite being
that can understand it. The glory of science consists in its own wonder about
It turns out that this being, which can understand the universe, may or
may not exist only on one planet within the cosmos, the one we are on. No
evidence of life elsewhere really exists, only speculation. Spitzer will note
the probabilities of rational races in other planets. But the primary question
is not whether other rational beings exist, but how odd it is that any rational
beings such as we know them in ourselves exist. A striking theme in this book,
one following on the question of the provability of God's existence from cause,
time, or order, or consciousness, is the utter unlikelihood that the cosmos
could have ever been designed such that human life could exist anywhere within
it. But it does. Here at home.
This unlikely probability constitutes what is known as the "anthropic"
principle, that a great number of wholly unlikely moments and principles had to
exist in coordination with each before men or any rational beings could exist.
All of this had to happen before any actual man appeared. Indeed, they had to
be in place when the universe was first formed. Thus, it seems that in the
structure of the universe from its utterly singular beginning, we can posit a
transcendent, completely self-sufficient intelligent principle capable of
ordering such a sequence so that men would finally exist.
The question of why this "God" might want such beings to exist does not
come up in this book except briefly in the discussion of love as a
transcendental. The revelational answer to this question is not considered
though it is fully compatible with the arguments that Spitzer spells out. The
very openness of the question leaves us with the wonderment of whether we have
heard everything from this source when we have engaged in philosophic and
science discourse. That is, could the originating source or cause reveal
Himself in other ways, in later times.
The arguments for the existence of God in this book do not directly
relate to the widely discussed "intrinsic design" theses which are mostly
rooted in biology and the requirements of living organisms. Spitzer bases his
argument rather on the questions of conditioned and unconditioned reality. In
any case, New Proofs for the Existence of God is a must read. Even though it is a clear and well presented book, it
demands careful reading and thinking. It deals with the highest things. What is
presented here will never be found as well formulated or argued elsewhere. It
is not, I think, a "Catholic" book, but one designed to any mind willing to
think the issue through. The Catholic mind is simply one that wants to think
these same issues. It is often the only mind willing to do so.
The implications of the Spitzer book are vast. This book will no doubt
frighten many simply because of what it concludes. The fright, as I think, is
due to the suspicion that, after all, the existence of God does make sense. One
cannot really pretend otherwise. Science does not "prove" or even imply that
perhaps He does not. The supposed underpinnings of a good deal of modern
culture are simply gone. The existence of God is a conclusion of carefully
argued reason about which any serious person can see the evidence. Spitzer
presents the evidence clearly and intelligently. Little more can be asked. Even
though the book is a demanding read, the book is a delight of reason. Spitzer,
as it were, lights up the universe in a way that enables us to see it. This is
what, ultimately, intelligence is about.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Happiness and the Heart | Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. |
From Healing the Culture: A Commonsense
Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom and the Life issues
Introduction to Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life | Fr.
Robert J. Spitzer, S.J.
Excerpts from Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution,
and a Rational Faith | Christoph Cardinal Schnborn
The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview
with physicist Dr. Stephen Barr | Mark Brumley
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin
Wiker, co-author of A Meaningful World | Carl E. Olson
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!