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"A World Existing Independently From Us": On the Pope and the Scientific Method | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | November 29, 2010

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"For her part, the Church is convinced that scientific activity ultimately benefits from the recognition of man's spiritual dimension and his quest for ultimate answers that allow for the acknowledgement of a world existing independently from us, which we do not fully understand and which we can only comprehend in so far as we grasp its inherent logic."
Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 28, 2010 (L'Osservatore Romano, English, November 3, 2010).


The great worry of the culture of disbelief and death that we call the modern world is over the fact that Catholicism and science are quite compatible and necessary to each other. It is a quietly obvious fact that the principal promoter of reason in its fullest sense in the modern world is the papacy, but not necessarily "Catholic" academia. This view that they are compatible is well spelled out by Robert Spitzer, S.J., in his remarkably clear book, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010).

In some basic sense, the modern world was built on the assumption of such incompatibility. Science and religion, it was claimed, were opponents to each other. One had to get rid of one if the other was to reign. Hostility, not dialogue, was the norm. We thus wanted a world in which we were guided by "scientific reason," not (supposedly) blind faith. Science was assumed to make belief in a transcendent God impossible or absurd. After all, no telescope or astronaut ever encountered God out there in space and time. Where else could He be?

Other things closer to home were also at work. If we could rid ourselves of any "First Cause," or especially any "Intelligent Cause," we would be left a world that could provide no standards of what it is to be human. The human being would not be already human on the basis of something that he did not himself create. His moral life would not be seen against a background of natural law or natural ends. Minus these inconvenient limitations, as he saw it, modern man could do what he wanted. The only exceptions were the ecologists who did not like the fact that man did much of anything with the earth. Freedom, in any case, would not mean conforming oneself to intelligible standards designed for man's own good, but making what he wanted to do to accomplish his self-given law.

Spitzer has the advantage of being able to range with authority over metaphysical, theological, scientific, and historical questions. He can, and does, cite Augustine and Einstein in the same breath. He knows that the father of the Big Bang theory was himself a priest. He knows too the history of modern science and technology. Spitzer's appearance on the Larry King show with Stephen Hawking was a remarkable demonstration of a mind that is not bothered by scientists who do not themselves understand the implications of their own logic. Hawking's initial proposition that everything could be explained by science so therefore we had no need of God or religion had one minor flaw, as Spitzer quietly reminded him.

The human mind could discover the laws, or some of them, of the universe. That capacity indicated the potential power of the human mind, though it did not create itself to be mind. But if these laws in nature were valid, as they seemed to be, where did they come from? They did not explain their own presence in things nor their own grounding in truth. Hawking forgot to ask one further question. Having arrived at the validity of certain scientific propositions, he decided that he could stop there. Not so. Either Hawking made these laws up out of his own mind, which would make us wonder why our minds have to bend to his truth, or there is something in things that is already there.

The universe does not step aside and explain where it found its own constants. Why should the explanations of science that we discover work in the things already there for billions of years? The universe is governed by principles that it did not make for itself? Once we have shown that there are scientific laws, we must wonder where such laws came from since they apparently were there from the moment of the big bang itself. Surely since they are intelligible, they have an intelligible source which in logic must be from without the universe.


In his Regensburg Lecture, Benedict XVI addressed a similar question. In that lecture, the Pope was concerned with showing that the scientific method was legitimate for what science was valid for, namely, physical beings in the universe. Science depends on mathematics and mathematics depends on quantity, on beings with matter. But no reason can be found to suppose, on the basis of the fact that there are material things in the universe, that beings not composed of matter do not exist.

The scientific method is valid only for beings in which matter is part of their whole. It is quite possible that non-material beings also exist. But we need other kind of evidence in the same non-material order to demonstrate its existence. Indeed, the human mind itself seems to be non-material. Though connected with a body, it does not only know particular things. It can understand things universally. It can reflect on itself once it begins to know almost anything that is not itself.

In his annual talk to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, the Holy Father gave a remarkable reflection on the limits and nature of science as we know it. We have a pope who can talk of these things in his own right. Scientists or academics cannot approach this pope as if he did not know what they are talking about and the grounds of their arguments. The pope does not profess to be a nuclear physicist, of course, but he is familiar with the great names of this discipline, men who were often German themselves. Moreover, the Pope does not address science as if it is some alien or esoteric fact that a man of God has no business concerning himself with. Quite the opposite!

Two images of what science is have been projected. One is that science will be able to solve every human problem. Others fear science. The inventions of science can be lethal for the human race. Instead of a "panacea," it is more like a monster.

Naturally, these extremes are not the best views. Science is a "patient yet passionate search for the truth about the cosmos, about nature and about the constitution of the human being." Leo Strauss had once remarked that what a human being was, his dignity, was once looked on as a defining limit to science. Modern science, he thought, was aggressive. Instead of understanding man's own peculiar nature as given, science made it subject to science itself, as if it were merely another inert being.

Many scientific theories, some famous, had to be discarded in the light of scientific development itself. For a scientist to give up his favorite theory because evidence does not support it is a very difficult thing. Benedict tells us that the advance of science "has led to a greatly improved awareness of the place that man and this planet occupy in the universe." Often the tendency is to argue that we are in an out-of-the-way place circling an insignificant sun, nowhere near the center of things. The fact that intelligence exists among us changes the picture. Is there any place else in the universe where people look out and understand it? It does not understand itself.

Man may not understand God or himself better, but he certainly understands the world better. Benedict thinks that a certain humility has set in among the scientists. "Scientists themselves appreciate more and more the need to be open to philosophy." The foundations of their disciplines include logic and epistemology. The world does exist independently of our own minds, not—as much modern thought from Kant thought—from within man himself. In a striking declaration, Benedict says: "Scientists do not create the world; they learn about it and attempt to imitate it, following the laws and intelligibility that nature manifests to us." The first principle of all reality is that it is already there in its own form. Laws are already operative within it according to the form of each thing that exists.

Science is one thing, but the human being who is a scientist is another. "The scientist's experience as a human being is therefore that of perceiving a constant, a law, a logos that he has not created but that he has instead observed: in fact, it leads us to admit the existence of an all-powerful Reason, which is other than that of man, and which sustains the world." That is a remarkable sentence. The scientist, if he is perceptive, cannot avoid wondering where the scientific laws come from, since they are there operative in the universe and the universe does not itself comprehend them.

Man meets nature by understanding its laws. He also indirectly meets the cause of these laws that are already there. They cannot be caused by the universe itself. We still need to "deepen" our understanding of nature. The pope also thinks that the common understanding of science should make men more cooperative, kinder to one another. Scientific development should be used for the "true good of man."

Again the assumption is that man is already a certain kind of being, better made, as it were, than any alternative that he can concoct by himself. This is why it is more profitable for man to discover what he is as a being from God than as a being from himself. He is more likely to be what he wants and ought to be if he recognizes his true origin and destiny comes from God and not from himself. Such, one might add, is a scientific conclusion.

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Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

Excerpts from Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
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
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker | Carl E. Olson
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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