Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Science & Faith: Different Ways of Knowing

An interesting discussion broke out over the weekend on a somewhat older post linking to a John Farrell post regarding his book on physicist Fr. Lemaitre. It touches on an interesting and important principle, though I wanted to bring it up and add my $0.02.

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.

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.
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.

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.
And many more...

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.

14 comments:

John Farrell said...

This, I think, is where it's important to keep our scientific and faith knowledge separate.

With the one quibble that I think the word 'distinct' is better here than 'separate', I agree completely.

Darwin said...

Yeah, that's a good quibble. Distinct in that they talk about things at different levels, united in that they describe the one reality.

Thanks.

jnewl said...

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.

Oops. Now you're making me doubt my own memory. I'll have to check this out when I get home tonight. I will say I've never understood him to be saying this. My understanding is that he's only denying that the origin (or non-origin) of the world can be scientifically demonstrated. In other words, the whole question lies beyond the competence of science (whether philosophical or physical) to decide. I've never understood him to be saying that, as a matter of fact, the world could be eternal. The Catholic Faith teaches that God created the world from nothing. There was nothing in existence besides God Himself at the moment of Creation. Hence, there was no pre-existing matter of any kind (in the form of energy, "fields," or anything else you might care to posit) for God to make the universe with...which is why we say he created it instead.

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.

Yes, they absolutely are. They are also, like so many of the pronouncements of modern science, made from a position of profound ignorance. Modern scientists are the worst philosophers around, and that's really saying something. There's a very simple question that can be asked that, once the implications are spelled out, proves the existence of the immaterial soul. That question is: how do we know universals? How are we able to grasp "dogness," for example, when no such creature exists? Individual dogs exist, to be sure, but the universal dog, stripped of all its accidental qualities down to its core essence, is nowhere to be found. How, then, do our minds come by it? It can never have made an impression on our senses--indeed, only individuals (i.e. particulars) can exist in matter, as Aristotle says. So, if our "minds" are simply material; if all we have are brains--these blobs of matter containing electrons rushing along neural pathways and whatnot--how are we to explain the existence of universals?

Answer: the existence of universals can't be adequately explained by material causes alone. What's the modern scientist's solution to this problem? He sticks his fingers in his ears and yells really loudly so he doesn't have to hear it. (Well, honestly, most scientists are too poorly educated to even know there's such a question, if truth be told.) Then he turns 'round and claims that we are able to explain all things solely in terms of material causes, or that we someday will. Which is all, as I said, complete and total b.s. The modern scientist, insofar as he follows this common pattern, is a liar.

Anyway, sorry, I kind of slipped off the subject there. The question was about free will. Yet, the reason there's a question about free will is that the modern neuroscientist wants to assert his materialist dogma. He wants to be able to plausibly claim, such that ignorant schoolboys will eat up his poison without question, that everything can be explained in terms of material causes. That's the point I was addressing. He can't, in fact, show any such thing. So the possibility (indeed, the very high probability) of free will existing remains intact. There is simply no reason logically why, instead of the brain being the cause of the activity the neuroscientist sees on his meters, the activity of the soul is not causing movements in the brain which the neuroscientist is detecting. It is only prejudice and his a priori desire for the world to conform to his 'druthers that drive him to make the claims he does.

Darwin said...

The Catholic Faith teaches that God created the world from nothing. There was nothing in existence besides God Himself at the moment of Creation. Hence, there was no pre-existing matter of any kind (in the form of energy, "fields," or anything else you might care to posit) for God to make the universe with...which is why we say he created it instead.

Agreed.

I'm hesitant to say this too firmly because it's been long enough that I'd have to do some poking around to even see where to look it up, but I thought I remembered Aquinas arguing (hope I'm not doing someing embarassing like remembering an objection) that the universe could have been created by God from nothing even if he had eternally been creating it, and thus it appeared eternal.

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.

I should perhaps clarify that I meant I'm not an expert in neuroscience, so I could be misrepresenting some of it. I have no qualms in asserting that anything that denies free will as a human faculty is contrary to the faith, that I know.

John Farrell said...

For what it's worth, here's what I dusted off (rather hastily) from my Copleston:
"Whereas some of his contemporaries, notably St. Bonaventure, thought that the notion of creation from eternity was self-contradictory, Aquinas considered that the idea of creation is independent of the idea of a temporal beginning. Aquinas: 'It belongs to the idea of eternity to have no beginning of duration; but it does not belong to the idea of creation to have a beginning of duration, but only a principle of origin -- unless we understand 'creation' as it is understood by faith" (De Potentia, 3,14, 8, ad 8) He says elsewhere: "There is no contradiction in affirming that a thing was created and also that it was never non-existent" (De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes).

Rob F. said...

Jnewl: "Modern scientists are the worst philosophers around".

As a modern scientist, I have to protest. Do not make the mistake of thinking that simplistic loud-mouths like Dawkins speak for science. Practically all scientists understand that atheistic materialism is neither prooved nor supported by science. In my experience, scientists I know are more likely to think deeply about philosophical issues than the non-scientists I know. They are also more likely to be familiar with and respect the thought of the ancients than just about anyone in any coffeehouse.

Darwin said...

They are also more likely to be familiar with and respect the thought of the ancients than just about anyone in any coffeehouse.

A fair point. And since this scientist speaking has retained a better grasp of Latin than I have, I certainly won't argue with him. :-)

A Philosopher said...

A contrast between science and faith as sources of knowledge looks to me like a category mistake to begin with. Science is an epistemic method, whereas your faith is not an epistemic method, but rather (inter alia) a body of information. Intracategory contrasts would then be either (e.g.) quantum field theory vs. Catholic theology, or (e.g.) science vs. philosophy or revelation.

Just for fun, a few dogmatic philosophical pronouncements:
-The Big Bang theory does not entail that the universe has a temporal beginning.
-Ex nihilo creation does not entail a temporal beginning.
-Neuroscience has nothing useful to say about free will.
-Determinism does not entail an absence of free will.
-Knowledge of universals is not a problem for a physicalist understanding of the mental.
-Nominalism is enough of a live position that you can't defeat materialism just by adverting to universals.

Darwin said...

I'd agree with your other dogmatic statements, but I'm curious about this one:

Determinism does not entail an absence of free will.

Is there any way to expand on that briefly? It seems to me that determinism would seem to contract free will, in that (if I understand determinism correctly) it would suggest that all "decisions" are the inevitable result of prior circumstance and thus theoretically (given sufficient knowledge) rigorously predictable.

A Philosopher said...

That dogmatic pronouncement reflects my preference for compatibilist approaches to free will.

John Farrell said...

In my experience, scientists I know are more likely to think deeply about philosophical issues than the non-scientists I know. They are also more likely to be familiar with and respect the thought of the ancients than just about anyone in any coffeehouse.

Rob F., well said. That's my experience too, at least among the scientists I've often corresponded with.

Mike A. said...

I'll second that... or third that?

My studies in modern physics have actually helped me deepen a lot of theological understanding. I always tell my non-scientific colleagues who wonder why I'm so religious given my scientific framework that scientific realities have never been and never will contradict my beliefs - even if the media would have us belief otherwise.

Rob F. said...

Thanks for your support, Mike, John, and Darwin. It's gratifying that my assertion was not met with the same incredulity that it sometimes is when I say as much in some church circles. People should not judge science by what the media says it is, but by what scientists say it is. I admit that this is hard to do if you do not know any scientists.

My experience at the University of Pittsburgh, backed up by informal polls, is that about half of all physicist go to church every Sunday, roughly the same as for the population at large. Of those who do not, few are Christians. This is remarkably different from the general population; in the US, most church non-goers are self-identified Christians. The relative paucity of Christians in the physicist population (about 50%) compared to the general population (about 90%) is partly due to the relatively large fraction of physicists who are Asian or Jewish, but mostly it is due to the relatively large fraction who are agnostic or atheist (nearly half). Most of those agnostics and atheists tend to materialism by default.

But in all my 14 years in the physics department, I only heard one physicist ever bias his research by a theological argument, or anti-theological argument in this case. A visitor from the Soviet Union (tellingly) was giving a talk on cosmology, where he said that all physicists "had to believe" in an inflationary universe despite the complete lack of scientific measurements to support it, since the only alternative was to believe in "creation". This prompted much eye-rolling and scoffing among the seated audience, even among the materialists, and quite a few people walked out. You just can't tell an American physicist he has to believe in an unproven theory just because you cling to some particular metaphysical model and expect him to take you seriously. Even if he believes in your metaphysical outlook, he will still insist on seeing evidence.

When I was taking General Relativity under Professor Ezra Newman, he was explaining to us about open and closed universes, and the observational evidence favoring an open universe with a definite beginning and no end. But he talked about the other models, including the cyclic model, which he says some people believe in "for theological reasons", by which, of course, he meant anti-theological reasons. His comments created chuckles from the class. He did not name names, but presumably there were other biased physicists beyond this one Soviet, but I never ran into any of them.

My conclusion is that most physicists, even the materialists, are more philosophically sophisticated than Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.

zippy said...

...whereas your faith is not an epistemic method, but rather (inter alia) a body of information.

Faith is not a body of knowledge. It is trust of God, who reason tells us exists; and therefore trust of God's self-revelation.