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:
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.
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: 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!