Monday, 18 March 2013

Not my “Faith on Sunday”

See no evil

Yes, you guessed it - another Sunday, another rant against the “Faith and Reason” column of the “Our Faith on Sunday” newsletter.1 This time the topic being butchered is the relationship between science and faith - a topic close to my heart, brain and mind.

To make matters worse, the column actually starts with an encouraging statement (“Could this be the first one that’s not utterly muddled?,” I ask myself while reading the opening lines.):
“[R]eason and faith can never truly be in opposition[, and] neither can science and religion[, since] the truths they seek are, once discovered, perfectly reconcilable.”
But then the column’s unidentified author returns to form and veers off into the morasses of confusion:
“[I]t cannot be too often repeated that the truths each seeks are in different orders of knowledge.”
Actually, it ought never to be repeated again! What a heretically dualist worldview lurks behind this sentence! As a Christian I believe in one Truth - God. The Truth that expresses the workings of the universe as much as it does the inner life of the Trinity. All truth, regardless of its object, is a manifestation of the Truth and, as such, is of equal standing. To suggest that truths pertaining to events accessible via the scientific method, reason, faith or religion are of different natures or orders is to place one’s world view alongside Gnostic dualism - a world view that divorces nature from God, joy from charity, beauty from experience and truth from reason.
“It is altogether outside the scope of natural science to enquire into the origin of the universe, because its origin is super-natural.”
This is neither self-evident (why couldn’t the universe have existed ab æterno?) nor does it follow from the scientific method’s principles and constraints (empirical data being pursuable, repeatability being a meaningful goal and evidence-theory consistency being seekable). Science is perfectly capable of enquiring into the origins of the universe and I would like to argue that it’s findings enrich me as a Christian in spelling out the workings of the existence that I believe God created. By this I don’t mean to suggest that science has fully explained the origins of the universe (what happened before the big bang, or even during the Planck epoch at its very beginning? where did the laws governing the quantum states of matter and the expansion following the initial singularity come from?), or even that I believe that it will. To go from there to asserting that “it is altogether outside the scope of natural science to enquire into the origin of the universe” is a fallacious leap and one that I categorically decline.
“Science treats of natural phenomena, i.e. things that fall under the purview of human sense perception (with or without the aid of scientific instruments). But the origin of the universe is a question about the origin of natural phenomena in general.
Let me pick up here on two misconceptions that bubble under the surface of the above two quotes. First, that somehow science is more dependent on sensory perception than religion is. How is it that I first learned about God, Jesus, the life of the Saints, the teachings of the Church, the love shown to me by my family, friends, strangers? How is it that St. Peter came to be a follower of Jesus or St. Francis develop his love for the poor? Did this take place in some supernatural, a-sensory world of ideas, or was it by sight, hearing and touch that the Gospel first reached me and continues to affect me? To deny the necessity (without saying sufficiency!) of sensory perception for the development of faith is to deny the Bible’s insistence on God seeing “that it was good” throughout the process of creation (cf. Genesis 1:10). Second, the above also suggests a very narrow, naïve view of science - a science that is constrained by sensory perception (albeit aided by "scientific instruments"). To my mind this is at best a mediaeval view, conjuring up images of astronomers looking through telescopes. Contemporary science is certainly reliant on evidence, but to claim that this is only on the basis of human sensory perception with or without the aid of instrumentation is somewhat naïve. What human sensory perception is being aided in the case of measurements of the universe’s background radiation?
“Now it is only in transcending the order of phenomena by human reasoning that we can hope to give a satisfactory answer to the question.”
What is the column’s author referring to here? Theoretical physics? He might as well be (although I don’t think that was their intention). Isn’t it a “transcending of phenomena by human reasoning” that is the bread and butter of theoretical physics? How are M-theory or the initial postulating of the Higgs Boson bound by phenomena? They are open to verification and potential consistency or inconsistency with empirical data, but no one would deny their scientific nature even during the very long stretches of time when no evidence is available either in agreement or contradiction with them.

Not to be just destructive, let me propose my alternative to the above science-religion positioning (while keeping its first sentence) and open myself too to criticism. For the sake of greater specificity, let me attempt to do so from a Christian, rather than a generic religious perspective:
“Reason and faith can never truly be in opposition, and neither can science and religion, since the truths they seek are, once discovered, perfectly reconcilable. Here science seeks to predict the events of the material world by striving for consistency between theory and empirical data. Such theories often start in unstructured, intuitive ways, before being developed with formal rigor and confronted with data gathered using means of measurement that both aid repeatability and extend far beyond what is within the reach of human senses. Christianity supplements the scientific view with the truths revealed in the person of Jesus - the God who became man - and by those revealed to the people of Israel before him. While some of these are extra-empirical, others are not, and their understanding is furthered by the application of the same reason that is also applied to science.”

1 The previous ones having protested against the abuse of “cf.,” the perversion of philosophy and a plagiaristic ignorance of infinity.