Reflections on Faith and Science
by Peter W. Miller
Although my reading interests have shifted almost completely away from the genre, at one time I very much enjoyed fictional literature particularly those works considered by minimal contemporary standards to be "classics". From countless pages of forgettable characters and contrived circumstances, few truly memorable passages and occurrences still stand out. For reasons perhaps having more to do with my initial reaction than any inherent profundity, an obscure exchange from Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet remains among these. It is an instance in which Dr. Watson discovers that his associate, Sherlock Holmes, is not only unaware of the generally accepted theory that the Earth travels around the sun, but is even less concerned with his presumed intellectual deficiency. Holmes explains in his usual candor that given the finite capacity of the human brain, he could not afford to have useless facts competing with important ones:
"What deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."
Although it was amusing reading a personality created to represent the pinnacle of empirical intelligence quickly dismiss a basic scientific belief, it was certainly not out of character for a literary persona pragmatic to a fault. As was the case with other examples provided by the author for humor, the practical usefulness of the astronomical knowledge in question was so low, it was deemed neither worth learning nor maintaining. For Doyle's protagonist, the issue boiled down to one of priorities the desired effect on the reader was achieved because Holmes' priorities didn't match those of his surrounding culture.
Aside from the obvious parallels to the case of Galileo, the attitude of Sherlock Holmes has since struck me as something of a respectable one from a Catholic perspective, at least as it pertains to certain aspects of natural science. This is not to say science is of little use or concern, but it is, by its very nature, subject to development and revision (even revolution), and therefore occupies a distinct realm from what Catholics know to be really real and truly true the Dogmas of the Faith. Hence, the necessary priority scientific theories and understandings deserve is clear. But as with so many other aspects of a fallen world which has transposed vice and virtue, it is not hard to find Catholics today who will patiently listen with amenable (or even eagerly agreeable) ears to those who actively negate or render meaningless through revision the very doctrines of the Faith; yet rile with apoplectic rage when similar skepticism is turned toward certain tenets of natural science (which are, incidentally, presumed by most to have thrived from, and still actively welcome new such challenges).
In modern history, Catholics living in secular society have shown a strong tendency (willingly or otherwise) to adopt the priorities or prevailing ideologies of their culture predominantly as it pertains to politics and natural science. In a society that holds tenets of science with dogmatic certainty, it is very difficult for a Catholic to maintain a proper perspective as to what natural science truly is: the observation and analysis of physical phenomena; or, more succinctly, the study of aspects of God's creation. Although true physical science can never contradict or even conflict with the Faith (as it has little bearing on the supernatural), a secular pseudo-religion which treats science as the primary (if not the sole) basis of truth, and the effects of such an ideology, pose a significant danger to souls. As such, how Catholics approach matters of Faith and science is a matter of no small concern.
Science and Secular Religion
"The World is my Country, Science my Religion."
A few turbulent centuries after Protestants rejected Christ's Church, "enlightened" thinkers aided by the cult of Masonry would take the next step and deny Christ, forming a necessarily theistic but predominantly humanistic religion. Although they were unable at the time to discount the existence of a creative force which observation and right reason clearly demonstrated, they stripped the Creator of any meaningful moral code. Man was created not to honor, love and serve God in hopes of atoning for sins and obtaining eternal happiness, but to fulfill his "full potential" and freely exercise the liberties accorded to him. God became a liberating force with far fewer requirements than in any previous theistic system.
Christian morality has since given way to a form of moral relativism in which a minimum of prohibitions are outlined and "tolerance" has become the basis for virtue. Those minimum regulations (based on little more than popular prejudice and consensus) have continued to erode to the point where we now have so-called philosophers advancing the internally consistent notion that a moral system without foundations giving its consent to pornography and sodomy, cannot outlaw prostitution, bestiality, man-boy "love" and any number of other perversions that even the revolutionary founders of America would have considered entirely inconceivable.
Stripped of any meaningful significance as it pertained to the affairs of mankind under an "enlightened" worldview, God would soon find His very existence denied on an unprecedented scale. Charles Darwin's theories on the origins of life, presented to populations which had been increasingly disregarding the claims of Christ's Church for generations, would serve to remove God's last major role to "modern man" that of Creator. This previously laughable suggestion was easy to swallow for intellectuals enthralled with the magic of scientific discovery and bestowing disproportionate reverence upon recent revolutionaries who had become heroes for casting aside old political systems and theological ideas.
That Darwin's theories reflected more his personal (and virulently anti-Christian) philosophies than his scientific findings is attested to at length in his autobiography. From his own words in various letters, he made it clear that he was advancing a new philosophy regarding the origins of life, rather than (as many still attribute to him and his intellectual descendants) simply presenting objective discoveries and facts, free from bias. As he writes in one instance:
"How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service." 1
It is also no coincidence that the efforts of Communists in promoting the logical result of the Masonic revolutions institutionalized atheism in all significant cases included the deliberate and systematic promotion of the philosophy of Evolution, often dealing a convincing blow against lingering vestiges of supernatural belief. Although extreme examples of those employing such a philosophy to advance the slaughter of racial groups, political prisoners and the unborn, are recognizable by most honest men as representative of the dangers of taking such ideas to their extreme end, the more subtle and underlying acceptance of a predominantly naturalistic belief system remains widespread.
Today, a scientific belief system is held more strongly and defended more aggressively than many religious creeds ever were. This has led many a scientist attempting to advance even the slightest alteration in evolutionary conceptions, to encounter the strange phenomenon of "scientific zealotry." Mary Midgley, a committed evolutionist who advocated a "purposeless" rather than "progressive" evolutionary process, accurately lamented in her controversial book, Evolution as a Religion:
"...today, a surprising number of the elements which used to belong to traditional religion have regrouped themselves under the heading of science, mainly around the concept of evolution." 2
Science and Truth
"What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
Through my high school and college years, I was particularly infatuated with science and the pursuit of natural knowledge. I was what I'd now consider a nominal Catholic who was more accurately a secular humanist with some religious tendencies. Even such, I was never particularly compelled to believe that life sprung from inanimate matter, then evolved into all living creatures (including man) due to naturally-occurring events (random or otherwise). Although my teachers dismissed my concerns as "Protestant", my objections were always scientific rather than religious. Indeed, I had been taught throughout my years in a diocesan grade school that the Creation account in Genesis was "just a story, not to be taken seriously," and that scientific theories accurately represented "what really happened." Even to a student predisposed to such ideas and possessing an intellectual fascination with science, there seemed to be far too many assumptions and leaps being made with far too little empirical or even rational support.
I've no need to relate the list of so-called "Creationist" objections here, but problems loudly and clearly evident early on were at very least the problem that the beneficial macro-mutational changes necessary for Evolution are neither observable nor statistically possible, and the convenient internal excuse that explains away hordes of fanciful impossibilities with little more than large gaps of time (assuring the subscriber that given enough time, anything can happen as if time itself was some sort of creative mechanism). In fact, decades ago, advancements in the fields of microbiology and anthropology led a number of respectable evolutionists (most notably Gould and Eldridge) to abandon the "classical evolutionary theory" of "phyletic gradualism" toward new models employing "punctuated equilibria" or rapid, severe changes. Although this brought the beliefs of evolutionary philosophers in better accord with the discovered complexities of the cell, as well as the data from the fossil record, it failed to address and even amplified the chief problem noted above the mechanism which makes this all possible.
Although the Catholic educators at a Catholic high school assured me that "Catholics believe in Evolution" and that "Evolution is a proven fact, not just a theory," the professors paid to talk at students in state-run university honors classrooms would prove to be a little more honest. Following the lead of prominent evolutionists forced to revise their stories, they considered the problems with at least the process and timeline of the contemporary theory of Evolution to render it "far from perfect." It remained, however, the "best scientific theory currently available," and unless there was another purely naturalistic theory with which to replace it with, Evolution would remain taught and accepted as truth. Any competing theory would, of course, have to follow the "rules" of natural science: miraculous or supernatural events could not come into play or else it would cease to be "pure science." A hopelessly flawed and highly implausible Evolution theory would continue to be given more legitimacy because of its supposed scientific merits than a very simple supernatural account. Difficult as it may be to believe, due to its consistence with naturalist philosophy, even a theory of life's origin which involved alien biological experiments (i.e., a natural creator not yet discovered) would be given more scientific merit than a variation of the account in Genesis. Even harder to believe is that several previously respected and honored scientists have even advanced such ideas as reasonable alternatives to a Darwin's theories.
Although not achieving an especially impressive result, such admissions of the problems in the theory reveal a sort of positivist attitude that is somewhat refreshing but all too foreign to a modern philosophic system equating scientific theories with truth. Sir Isaac Newton is most often cited for his beliefs that the discoveries he was making were little more than the means to describe an ordered, created universe not the underlying reality or truths themselves. Although he appealed to the supernatural when needed, Newton typically emphasized observable facts, excluding metaphysical speculation about origins or ultimate causes.
But the disingenuousness of similar admissions from modern scientists provides more of an excuse to deflect legitimate criticism and skepticism than marking a return to Newton's positivism. If anything, modern scientific discoveries (particularly in the fields of quantum physics and microbiology) have led to more such exceptions and challenges, perhaps vindicating Newton's outlook on science.
The Stockholm Syndrome
"All of us who study the origin of human life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel that it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We all believe, as an article of faith, that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It's just that its complexity is so great, that it's hard for us to imagine."
Living in a secular society, it can be very difficult for a Catholic to avoid being affected by its ideas and beliefs. The need for social acceptance is very strong. Even Catholics who realize that the world at large is generally opposed to them (as Christ said it would be) can be tempted to make excuses for or qualify their views in more socially acceptable terms. This can clearly be seen in politicians (whose careers depend on social acceptability) such as John F. Kennedy who assured the world that he was first and foremost an American rather than a Catholic; or the numerous "Catholic" politicians who assure voters that their "personal beliefs" on whether a mother can kill her preborn child will not be "imposed" upon others.
This process is more subtle in other realms. Modern Catholics often jump at opportunities to demonstrate their superiority over their predecessors, adopting for themselves the same anti-Catholic views against which past popes and saints battled: the Church was oppressive, intolerant, ignorant, etc. Rather than fight such charges or explain the reality of the circumstances, they are only too eager to agree that the Church was indeed that way, but is now no longer, as it was "brought up to speed" regarding the ways of the world at Vatican II.
Morally, many Catholics have adopted the secular view that the worst offense imaginable is "intolerance" and prejudice towards particular religions or races, and have allowed that belief to shape strange opinions toward their own Church and the beliefs and actions of past Catholics.
In political science, Fr. John Courtney Murray gives an example of a Catholic, motivated by either a desire for intellectual respectability or an admiration for the virtues of the American version of democracy (or both), openly challenging Catholic social teaching and advocating a belief called "insane" by Pope Leo XIII.
Science provides another example of Catholics consciously or unconsciously adapting to the beliefs of the secular society in which we find ourselves. Those maintaining long-held beliefs are classified under semi-derogatory labels typically reserved for those advancing new theories; or compared to Protestant fundamentalists holding onto silly ideas and peasant superstitions.
That is not to say scientific beliefs are not in themselves fanciful or hard to swallow just that they are accepted by the majority, which grant them the false authority of consensus. Ironically, many scientific theories formulated in the last century are much more "far fetched" than the supposed "superstitions" of Christianity; a point touched upon by scientific philosopher Ronald C. Pine:
"The big bang theory and many current scientific beliefs are also strange, uncomfortable, and seem to violate common sense. In general, most scientific beliefs are more incredible than religious ideas. There are beliefs about black holes, where time and space disappear and the end of time occurs in an instant; the concept of 'singularity,' where, in the case of the origin of the Universe, all matter, space and time explode from a single point with no physical dimensions; quantum spaces and vacuums where nothingness consists of virtual, potential existence; the implications of relativity theory, where it is possible for a mother to take a long space voyage and become younger than her son; and perhaps the most bizarre of all, quantum objects, where the mathematical descriptions of the energy of a single electron reveals that it can be in more than one place at a time, and even 'tunnel' through space, popping in and out of existence." 3 (emphasis added)
As is the case with the liberal notion of "tolerance", which rings of noble objectivism but is, in practice, selectively employed to advance a certain ideology, the claim of impassioned skepticism touted by scientists is usually reserved for ideas not in accordance with their naturalistic and often materialistic philosophies.
Today, in what can certainly be considered a peculiar inversion of roles, many Catholics support the idea of "theistic Evolution," which holds that God utilized and guided the process of Evolution through the years to populate all life on the earth. While in actuality, a Divinely guided Evolution is the only one that approaches reasonableness, as it fills the admitted holes in a theory considered to be merely the best currently available, this quasi-religious conception serves to bolster a very shaky theory by rescuing its numerous difficulties with the strategic insertion of miracles. Some going so far as to explain the flaws of the theory of Evolution as evidence of the existence of God, theistic evolutionists make excuses for and lend Divine assistance to a theory specifically intended to explain the origins of life in the absence of the supernatural. Recall that first and foremost, Darwin's theories reflected his own personal philosophy in which a Christian God (or, more specifically, hell) could not exist. Given its nature and origins, it is no small wonder why Evolution was used as the primary tool in atheistic evangelization efforts, and why Catholics fought for years against such beliefs, which inherently shed serious doubt upon (among other truths) the doctrine of Original Sin.
At a time in which scientific findings have caused even a number of secular scientists to tilt their impressions of Evolution back towards the theoretical, a number of well-intentioned Catholics are using the same findings to redouble their support of Evolution as a means of God's Creation. In such an instance, a Catholic finds himself in almost complete agreement with his atheistic counterpart, keeping the same belief in the process of Evolution (the heart of the theory), but replacing the mechanism of random mutations evaluated by Natural Selection with Divinely directed mutations, evaluated by the same means.
Although there is certainly room for discussion as to the interaction between Faith, Scripture and scientific theories, Catholics who completely explain away supernatural events with naturalistic explanations, or lead the charge against those holding to the veracity of Scriptural accounts, seriously undermine rather than strengthen their position. Joining with those who ridicule beliefs in a Creation not involving bacteria eventually morphing into animals then humans, a world-wide cataclysmic deluge that killed all but a handful of people, the story of the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom, or any other supernatural Scriptural account, puts one in a difficult position when standing by other "far fetched" ideas such as a Virgin giving birth, or Her Son recovering from His own death.
"How foolish are they who take the greatest care of the least of things, and the least care of the greatest of things."
At the time of my university education, scientific knowledge and the skepticism it selectively engenders had pretty much shaped my entire belief system a form of naturalism in which the test of truth and reality consisted of empirical investigation. In an inversion of priorities, religious truths were resigned below scientific theories to the realm of personal beliefs someone may hold a certain supernatural belief but that would clearly occupy a level well below those scientific "truths" presumably known by all.
When this philosophy was at its peak, my attitude towards religious claims was to submit them to scientific analysis if you want me to believe it, then "prove it!" Unless something can be "proven" using scientific methods, it was not "real" or "true". As if something supernatural could be adequately demonstrated utilizing tools designed to examine the natural world, or that the only things "real" were those items immediately perceptible to my senses. For myself, a proper realization of the true nature of natural science and its inherent limitations, represented an important step in my avoidance of an insidious philosophy and rediscovery of the treasures of the Faith.
As the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes, my life is affected very little by my knowledge of certain aspects of science. Scientific theories and beliefs come and go. Every now and again, something revolutionary will be discovered or proposed (relativity, quantum physics, etc.) which seriously challenges or even refutes that which was previously "known" to be scientific reality.
The Deposit of Faith, on the other hand, does not and cannot change in such a manner. A belief cannot be later proven wrong. Although I freely entertain cordial exchanges with other Catholics on the legitimacy of some sort of "Evolutionary Creation," doctrinal elements such as the existence of a soul and the reality of Original Sin are non-debatable absolutes more so than any scientific discovery or theory will ever be. And while many a heretic has suffered from the denial of even the least of Church doctrines, the sanctity of thousands of saints was unaffected by their ignorance (or even outright rejection) of the most popular and respected scientific theories of their day.
1 C. Darwin, "Letters of Charles Darwin", p. 176; quoted in J. Howard, "Darwin", p. 81 (1982)
2 M. Midgley, "Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears", p. 82, London (1985)
3 R. C. Pine, "Science and the Human Prospect" (1999)