Faith, Science and the Priest who discovered the Big Bang

Faith, Philosophy and Science… Why combined them in one blog?  Isn’t Faith out of fashion? And isn’t Philosophy irrelevant in this age of Science? This blog is about discovering and growing in truth, whether it is religious truth, philosophical truth or scientific truth.  I don’t compartmentalize between them or feel that any truth is stronger than the others. The difference is, we don’t arrive at these truths by the same path. For example, one should not use science to understand religious truth nor rely solely on philosophical reasoning to validate scientific facts and theories.

People today will talk about “my truth” or “your truth” or how “truth is within us.” Reflecting on that, I’m not sure how such an introspective ownership of truth can be valuable to us beyond making us feel comfortable and self-assured.  It would seem if something is true it should be transcendent from individual human experience and universally verifiable. Truth is not owned, but acknowledged.

Prominent scientists like physicist Stephen Hawkins and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins assure us that scientific knowledge is supreme and that all human knowledge is dependent on the application of sound scientific methods. On the other side, some biblical literalists claim that the book of Genesis is scientifically true and that the Earth is only a few thousands of years old. Saint Augustine, writing in the early 5th century, had some harsh words for those who would use the Holy Scripture as a science text book:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. It is a disgraceful and a dangerous thing for an unbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. Many non-Christians are well-versed in Natural knowledge, so they can detect vast ignorance in such a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The danger is obvious– the failure to conform interpretation to demonstrated [“Natural,” or scientific] knowledge opens the interpreter, and by extension, Christianity as a whole, to ridicule for being unlearned.

But is science supreme as the source of human knowledge? At first glance, it seems like a reasonable assumption.  After all, since we acquire scientific knowledge through our five senses as well as the scientific instruments that extend their capabilities shouldn’t we have the highest confidence that science will lead us to truth?

But on what philosophical foundations does the supremacy of science rest on? Consider…

–          No one has proven that science is both complete and consistent. If science cannot offer that assurance of its completeness, then how do we know that there isn’t truth outside the capabilities of science to discern it without going outside the realm of science? If science cannot prove its own consistency, then how do we know that it the future we will not have contradictions? For example suppose it turns out that it is not possible to reconcile the Theory of Quantum Mechanics with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity within the realm of science?

–          It would seem to be a remarkable coincidence that by series of random mutations the human brain would evolve to just the right level of intellect to fully and completely comprehend the universe. On the other hand, if we don’t assume that this is true then we would have to believe that there is knowledge and truth beyond the capabilities of human science.

Faith has its challenges too. For example, as a Catholic I believe that during the Mass the bread and wine on the altar become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, true man and true God.  As I kneel down, I truly believe this is true, and not just true for me but objectively true. But as I kneel, my five senses fail me utterly and no microscope, MRI or other tool of science will ever be able collaborate or disprove the truth I see before me. Not only that, any philosophical argument offered by the most brilliant minds will also come up short trying to prove what I know to be true by faith.  Faith is hard, and no matter how close we may think that philosophy or science can take us there will always be a final yawning chasm for us to leap over.

I truly believe, that to live Aristotle’s maxim (The unexamined life is not worth living) that Faith, Science and Philosophy must all work together. I want to share with you one vignette to ponder over:Fr George

Back in the late 1920’s, physicist, mathematician and Catholic Priest Father Georges Lemaître developed the “Big Bang Theory.” Up until then most physicists, including Einstein, believed that the universe was static and had always existed in a steady state.  Strong evidence that Father Lemaître was on to something came in 1930 when Edwin Hubble’s observations of far off galaxies seemed to confirm that they were in fact moving further away. The final proof came in 1964 with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, the echo of the Big Bang.

In 1951, in a moment of enthusiasm, Pope Pius XII declared that Father Lemaître’s theory provided a scientific validation for Creationism and Catholicism. Father Lemaître, however, wisely pointed out that it was a mistake to tie religious belief to scientific proof. As a devoted Catholic, Father Lemaitre knew that the journey to faith is not dependent on the progress of science. Most importantly, he understood that if the Catholic Faith needed scientific proof it would inevitably face a crisis if yet a better scientific theory superseded the old one.  Pope Pius XII wisely conceded that Father Lemaître was right. As prominent scientist and catholic priest, Father Lemaître lived the ideal that faith and science are not mortal enemies struggling for the hearts and minds of men but rather companions that together, walking hand in hand, enrich the human experience.

UPDATE: As I was writing this blog this headline caught my attention: Who was ‘Adam’? Genetic ‘man’-hunt catches eye of Vatican scientists. 

http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/01/30/who-was-adam-scientists-vatican-seek-first-man/

The article discusses scientific efforts to identity the most distant common human male answer through genetic research of the origin of the “y” or male chromosome.  Current research suggests that genetically modern human’s most distant male common ancestor may go back at least 200,000 years.  Does this mean we have found “Adam” as some suggest? However Vatican scientist Werner Arber of the Pontifical Academy of Science (PAS) wouldn’t take the bait:

Scientific investigations have no means to identify Adam and Eve and to sequence their genomes, therefore, identification of Adam and Eve remains a matter of religious belief.”

Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the PAS, in the spirit of Father Lemaître, clarified even further,

“Contemporary scientific language is not the language of the Bible. Therefore, although the Bible adopted an early scientific language, it cannot be read in the light of today’s scientific language…This was clarified during the scientific revolution of Galileo (the founder of our Academy) when Cardinal Cesare Baronio rightly pointed out that the Bible tells us how to reach Heaven but not what Heaven is.”

Did you even know that the Vatican employed scientists? Or that the Pontifical Academy of Science was founded by none other than Galileo?

Pictured: Georges Lemaître and Einstein  from http://georgeslemaitre.blogspot.com/

Post Script: So what’s on your bookshelf? Right now I am reading:

–          The City of God by Saint Augustine

–          The Philosophy of Aristotle

–          The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

–          A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jeffery Brotton

–          Elliptical Curves by Avner Ash and Robert Gross

(Elliptical curves are of the form:  Elliptical Curves and were key to Andrew Wiles’ 1994 general proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem)

My grandfather, Roland Savoie inspired in me a lifetime love of reading and learning. Like many of his generation, he did not have the opportunity to finish his formal education. It left him perpetually feeling behind and in order to catch up he became an avid and eclectic reader of many topics to include history, science, technology and geography. Despite his lack of formal education, Roland Savoie became quite knowledgeable and always enjoyed sharing what he learned with his grandchildren.

One last hint, if you’re not already doing so keep a diary of the books you read and take a few notes to refer back to later.

That’s all for now. Keep reading and I look forward to your comments!

Joe Bolton

8 thoughts on “Faith, Science and the Priest who discovered the Big Bang”

  1. I love the quote from Augustine. I believe the Catholic Church has a long history of such reasoned and balanced thinking from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas through the priests that you quoted. This is true in spite of better-known stories such as that of Galileo. This balance between scientific reasoning and theology is what I picked up in Catholic schools. It seems to me this “battle” between science and religion that we see today in American life is largely due to a Protestant influence over the last century or two focusing on scriptural literalism.
    Regarding “truth”: I can accept on faith that truth is absolute and determinate in someway, but I also have to say that I think we human beings will never know it in that way. Truth to me is living, Not a preposition nor phrase or algorithm or equation but being itself. When we say truth, whether it is scientific spiritual or philosophical, to me these are best seen as tools, Reflecting our human nature, our culture, our language and our current level of knowledge. They are tools, I think, to help us grasp that living truth. In a way that is useful for us today.

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  2. I think you have made an interesting observation on the origins of the current science vs faith debate in the Unites States (Protestant literal ism).
    I think you are absolutely right when you say, “I can accept on faith that truth is absolute and determinate in someway, but I also have to say that I think we human beings will never know it in that way.”
    Philosophy, the examples of others and their teachings can only take us so far. Ultimately we have to make that final leap on our own and those who seek 100% certainty in the matters of faith may only find frustration and disappointment.

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  3. Hi Joe,

    I just made my way to your blog today (2/12/14), and I find it very interesting. As a philosophy major during our time at WP (as well as a Christian), I often faced the faith/science questions. I find it unfortunate that many people choose to live exclusively in one camp or the other. I think they miss out on so much. You bring up many very good points in your posts, and I enjoyed reading them. I do hope you’ll indulge a few of my small comments.

    I will first confess to not being an expert on Catholic history. But I’m confused when you said Galileo founded the PAS. Wasn’t he convicted of heresy by the Church, forced to recant his views on the Copernican/heliocentric nature of the universe, and had his books banned? How could he found the PAS if he was an official heretic for his scientific beliefs?

    My second comment is a suggestion not to paint all Protestants with the same broad brush regarding biblical literalism (from your comments section, not the blog post). There are certainly many Evangelicals who are literalists, including the belief that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. However, many other Protestants reject this kind of literal interpretation. And finally, remember that Catholic doctrine also contains literalism, namely regarding Adam & Eve. You will find many Protestants who believe there was no actual Adam & Eve, believe in polygenism, and do not believe in the Catholic concept of Original Sin.

    Thanks for the blog, and for jumping in to this very deep pool of ultimate questions. I look forward to your next posts!

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    1. Hi Bill,
      Great to hear from you and I appreciate your comments. I did some research on Galileo. You are technically correct but as you would guess the real story is more complicated then the simplistic modern narrative, ie, Man of Science vs big bad Church of Superstition and Enemy of Reason.

      The short version of the story is that Galileo situation was partly political payback from his fellow scientists, in this case the Jesuits, who he humiliated in debates about the nature of comets and his baffling and most likely inadvertent, insult of his most powerful admirer: Cardinal Maffeo Barberini who later became Pope Urban VIII. The debate over heliocentrism was a real one in the Church and Galileo. was right in the center of it. The debate was a convenient tool for his enemies to use against him and so they did. Interestingly enough, Galileo.used Augustine’s quote above as justification on why the Heliocentric model did not conflict with scripture.

      As for the Pontifical Academy of Science this too is a bit more complicated. Here is what the PAS says of its history:

      “The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has its roots in the Academy of the Lynxes (Accademia dei Lincei) which was founded in Rome in 1603 as the first exclusively scientific academy in the world. The Accademia dei Lincei achieved international recognition, and appointed Galileo Galilei as a member on 25 August 1610, but did not survive the death of its founder, Federico Cesi. In 1847 Pope Pius IX reestablished the Academy as the Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes. Pope Pius XI renewed and reconstituted the Academy in 1936, and gave it its present name. Since 1936 the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has grown increasingly international in character. While continuing to further the work of the separate sciences, it stresses the growing importance of interdisciplinary cooperation. Today the Academy’s activities range from a traditional interest in pure research to a concern with the ethical and environmental responsibility of the scientific community.”

      If you are curious, here’s their website: http://www.casinapioiv.va/content/accademia/en.html

      The second point about “Protestant Biblical literalism” is valid. Protestant is too large and diverse of a group. However, I do think that Biblical literalism, as a small group, gets far too much attention in the media for its size. Why? Because for some Biblical literalism is an easy straw man for those Science and Reason vs Religion and Superstition debates. One only has to see the recent debate between the Bill Nye the Science Guy vs Biblical creationist Ken Ham to see what I mean.

      One can imagine St Augustine doing the face-palm.

      Oh yes Adam and Eve. It is true that Catholic doctrine does teach as a matter of faith that all people are descended from two human beings known as Adam and Eve. The Church is silent though on details like where and when they lived.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments and keep reading.

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      1. Joe,

        The blog looks great, and I really appreciate your premise that faith, science and philosophy are not inherently in opposition to each other.

        I do think that you have too easily rejected biblical literalism as it relates to the origins of the universe and evolutionary theory. In brief, because we are dealing with past events, the capacity of science to determine what happened is limited. At best, science can offer only possible explanations. Even there, certain things must be assumed to support various explanations.

        Further, depending on the assumptions one makes, what we presently can observe is not inconsistent with a literal reading of Genesis 1. In short, all sides of the evolution/creation debate are looking at the same evidence but making different assumptions and interpretations relating to that evidence.

        Here, I think, is where your other post relating to the idea that we cannot come up with a theory of everything because we are incapable of stepping outside of nature is important. Since we are trapped within the present, we cannot ultimately know what occurred in the past.

        Finally, what I think we safely can say is that what natural laws we do accept suggest that a universe that either was not eternal or did not have a first cause, that given sufficient time and chance life can arise from non-life, or that again given sufficient time and random chance the diversity of life could have descended from a single ancestor is unlikely. We thus are left with questions that, if we are to answer them, must be answered with a reliance on faith – either a faith in natural and undirected processes or in a sovereign God and Creator.

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  4. Joe,

    Found you blog, have it bookmarked, and looking forward to your future posts. St. Augustine also one of my favorite philosophers. Read and re-read his short work on Grace and Freewill while in Afghanistan.

    Also find the intersections of science (particualrly physics), logic and faith fascinating. Your post on Godel caused me to add another subject to by book bucket list.

    Bill,
    Good to see my old roomie still in the reaches of cyber space and philosophy.

    WSTL,
    Martin Ryan

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