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 try.
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, Koyré, 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 questions.
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 this search.
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 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
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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