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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
"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
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
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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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!
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