Commenter Jnewl says:
...[O]ne thing that does stick out like a sore thumb to me (presuming I'm not misunderstanding it) is when Farrell quotes St. Thomas in support, evidently, of the notion that scientists can take no position on questions that find an answer in theology. This is preposterous.John clarifies his and Lemaitre's position a bit in the subsequent comments, which I won't quote here. What I wanted to address was the question of what we know about the world via science versus what we know about the world via faith.
While St. Thomas certainly denies the possibility of demonstrating that the world had a beginning, it does not follow from this that he thought it could not be known. It can be known--indeed, more certainly known--according to the light of that higher science known as theology, which derives its principles from Scripture, which is inerrant. From the little bit he says here, it seems as if Farrell considers Faith to be something more akin to a tentative hypothesis than a firm and unwavering belief in things not seen. If so, this is very far from what St. Thomas himself believes.
The quote from Lemaitre that Farrell provides immediately following this seems to validate my interpretation, as Lemaitre there seems to be saying that it is illegitimate for a scientist to hold an opinion about a matter from Faith that he also investigates as a scientist. But this is, again, preposterous. If he has faith, then he doesn't just opine that the world had a beginning. He KNOWS it.
The example of St. Thomas Aquinas and his understanding of the universe's creation is an interesting place to start off. The best science of Aquinas' time (Aristotelian physics and natural philosophy) suggested that the world had always existed in the same form that it did then. Obviously, this presented a problem for Christian theologians and philosophers who believed that, In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. St. Thomas of course held that the results of faith and reason could not be different, and so (and if remembering back to medieval philosophy reading ten years ago is fuzzy, please correct me) he concluded that even if in a temporal sense the physical universe had always existed, God (who is himself eternal) was still its final cause to willed it constantly into being, and so in an ontological sense the world was created by God "in the beginning" even if one could not find a temporal beginning to the universe. The universe was no less created by God for all that he had always created it rather than having created it at some fixed point in time as we understand it.
What is, I think, important in all this is to understand what it is that we learn from our faith, versus what we learn from science. Christianity tells us, though the Bible and through the teachings of the Church, certain things about the universe, ourselves, and the history of salvation in the world:
- The world was created by God.
- We are made in the likeness of God and thus have rational minds, free will, and immortal souls which are capable of happiness forever in union with God or of rejecting God and receiving final damnation.
- Christ came into the world to suffer and die for the remission of sins.
Science can tell us what sorts or results normally take place in certain kinds of repeatable situations involving materials objects and/or forces:
- Light behaves both like a particle and like a wave and travels at 299,792,458 m/s.
- Gravity acts on two objects with a force proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
- Once the human brain "dies" it generally doesn't "revive" and the rest of the person appears mentally inert
And so on...
Now clearly, sometimes the claims of science and our faith may come into conflict. They are not describing two hermetically sealed areas of knowledge. I am not an expert, but it seems to me that those strands of neuroscience which deny the existence of free will are explicitly in conflict with the tenets of our faith. But then, I'm fairly confident that those scientists who claim to be proving complete determinism in regards to our minds are not going to be successful in the end.
But there are a number of areas in which the two do not necessarily touch as much as some might imagine.
Our faith includes the knowledge (I think Jnewl is quite correct in saying that faith does involve knowledge) that God created the universe. However, it does not tell us when (other than "in the beginning") or how or what the universe looked like then or now. Science has provided us with a number of answers over the millenia as to when the universe began and what it looks like. In each age, there have certainly been those who have built the current scientific understanding of when the world was created too much into their religious beliefs, and also those who have attempted to simply use the bible as a science text book, but on due consideration I think the two fields provide us with fairly separate pieces of information.
Certainly, since the Big Bang is our current understanding of the physical origins of the universe, and since it has a certain "in principio" dramatic flair to it, we Christians tend to strongly identify the moment of creation with the Big Bang. However, if in another few decades some compelling piece of evidence were to come along for an oscillating universe or for some completely other cosmological model, I don't think one would be right in any way to say that the Christian understanding has been "disproved". While faith and science both provide us with knowledge about the origins on the universe, they provide us with very different kinds of knowledge.
This, I think, is where it's important to keep our scientific and faith knowledge separate. Not because there are two realities, one of faith and one of science, but rather because faith and science are generally telling us rather different things about our one reality. At the cosmic level (as opposed to questions of morals and salvation history) our faith tells us about what things are, about their natures. Science, on the other hand, tells us about how things work and about their history in a strictly physical sense.
To the human experience, I think that in most ways what faith tells us is actually rather more important in this respect than what science tells us. And in that sense, it's important not to overly shackle our faith to our current understanding of science.