Monday, July 17, 2006

Erasing the Fingerprint of God

I am writing from Colorado Springs where I am attending a week-long conference on methods in teaching scientific inquiry. I am feeling somewhat dismayed by the attempt of my colleagues to erase the fingerprint of God in creation. The beautiful and brilliant handiwork of God is so flippantly dishonored to an entirety of natural processes. In many ways, this erasal of divine preeminence in the purposeful creation of life seems to me one of the ultimate assaults on God. Paul writes that we perceive the invisible qualities of God through what has been made. The attempt to erase this fingerprint of God undermines an important reflection of the nature of God in this world.

In many of these discussions that take place within the scientific community there is a need for thought to be given as to epistemological hierarchy. The very definition of science itself places it in a very rigid place in the schema of knowledge. Science is as a systematic approach to inquiries concerning the cause and effect nature of the world of matter and energy. This definition is not novel. Science for All Americans states that science is built upon this same crucial presumption, “Science presumes that the things and events in the universe occur in consistent patterns that are comprehensible through careful systematic study.”[i]

In arriving at a definition, I find that it is often helpful to look outside the parameters of a definition. What is science not? Most importantly science does not begin to hold every answer to every question that humankind may ask. Few may disagree, but many will assign undue credence to science. This is especially true when considering questions that are spiritual in nature. Interestingly, Project 2061’s Benchmarks, illustrates this point with an introduction to a chapter, The Physical Setting. Here it is stated that, “Humans have never lost interest in trying to find out how the universe is put together, how it works, and where they fit in the cosmic scheme of things. The development of our understanding of the architecture of the universe is surely not complete, but we have made great progress.”[ii] The implication is that humanity has made great advances in understanding the architecture of the universe (cause and effect of matter and energy) that somehow addresses not only how the universe works, but how it was put together and how we fit into the cosmic scheme of things. Science may lend witness to our understanding of the origins of the universe and the purpose of our human existence. But to imply that science answers the questions “Why I am here?” and “How did the universe form?” in the same way that it answers “How does the world work?” is to assign undue credit to the scientific process.

Assuming that changes of matter and energy are within the defining parameters of science, we must quickly recognize that the existence of a spiritual realm cannot be offered either proof positive or proof negative by solely studying changes in matter and energy. This does not mean that the world of matter and energy bears no testimony to a spiritual realm. This also does not mean that the spiritual realm does not have a profound impact on the world of matter and energy. It simply means that by studying the changes in matter and energy we do not arrive at the end of a long equation to find that it equals “God exists” or “God does not exist.” If the scientific process and mathematical analysis proved God, there would be no need for the apostle Paul to write to the Hebrews, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.”[iii]

However, while science does not prove or disprove God, the existence of matter and energy combined with the existence of man, who while operating within the world of matter and energy is much more than matter and energy as evidenced by his personality, does clearly bear witness to God. The distinction is important – science does not prove God – but the existence of a world of matter and energy combined with the existence of man, who prides himself in being more than a mere beast, does. Here I must be careful; in saying that existence of a universe and a man prove God, I do not mean prove in the scientific sense. For that itself is the distinction. Science does not prove God because a scientific proof deals only with the cause and effect of matter and energy.

However, man may perceive the existence of God from the existence of matter and energy and a not-simply-material man. And perception does not take off its hat to proof. Proofs and perceptions are simply two different ways of knowing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it concisely, “The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality ‘that everyone calls ‘God.’”[iv]

It is this distinction between knowledge through the scientific process and knowledge through perception that adds humility to the scientific process. Science, by definition, has no way to account for that which does not relate to the cause and effect nature of matter and energy.

In fact, we can see that comparing perception to proof causes proof to come out the lesser. Perception does not need proof; proof does need perception. In other words, on an epistemological scale, scientific knowledge and proof should find themselves to be quite a humble way of knowing. Quite simply, scientific proof and study find the patterns in what already exists. To be a scientist, in the most basic sense, one need be observant, but not necessarily much else. The bird herself is a scientist, observing the cause and effect nature of matter and energy. If the bird does not beat her wings, she falls. If a bird does not eat, she dies. To be a good scientist, in the genius sense, one must be more than a keen observer of reality: one must rationalize. But if the aim of knowledge is to fully comprehend the truth that exists in every realm so as to live life perfectly, even the combination of observation and rationalization only combine to form a very basic form of knowledge. It is possible to have the mind of a scientific genius and be a despicable fool.

If it is not clear from what has already been stated that science is quite a humble way of coming to an understanding of what really is true, let us then consider the history of science. The history of science is a history of scientists proven wrong. This does not mean science is worthless. It just means that science finds meaning in continually improving upon past theory; usually this involves showing that past theory was plain wrong. The history of science portrays an experiment that proves that a tree’s mass is due primarily to water intake, it shows the observation that gnats spontaneously generate from meat, it bears the burden of proof for a geocentric universe, it experimentally determines that heavy objects do fall faster; the list could go on. In each of these instances, a variable was ignored that led the scientist to comprehend what, in fact, was not true. But science does plough along, and each of the aforementioned untruths were eventually revealed. But a scientist must look at modern scientific knowledge and understand with humility that today’s deeply held truths may be tomorrow’s unquestioned falsehoods. That is why science books become outdated. William McComas expresses this thought in an article entitled Ten Myths of Science. Myth 5 (Science and its Methods Provide Absolute Proof) explains, “[A] hallmark of scientific knowledge is that it is subject to revision when new information is presented. Tentativeness is one of the points that differentiates science from other forms of knowledge.”[v] Scientific proof must remain quite humble.

At this point a logical question arises asking, “What if, through alternative ways of knowing, one arrives at contradicting truths?” For instance this question often takes the form, “If through perception I find God and through faith believe that the world was founded by him, and if through the scientific method, proof is offered for an alternative mechanism for the existence of life, what is true?” First, it is necessary to understand that the truth is one. That immediately places the contradiction in our epistemological methods, not in the reality of the truth. Johannes Kepler was known to say, “The tongue of God and the finger of God cannot clash.”[vi] Once it is accepted that the contradiction lies within our methods of knowing, we must be honest in evaluating where the epistemological fault resides.

Yet certainly scientific proof is not the lowliest of epistemological levels. Worse than thinking that the study of the predictable within the realm of matter and energy is the fullness of knowledge is thinking that the study of the unpredictable within the realm of matter and energy is the fullness of knowledge. From the ancient wives tales, to the modern horoscope, our baser faculties associate the mysterious with the world of matter and energy and assign a superstitious meaning to a pattern of events. Simply put, the scientific method would outwit this pattern of thinking any day. Pseudoscience even ventures to leave the realm of knowledge altogether and become an arbitrary belief associated neither with reason or faith. Pseudoscience wants to believe for no reason other than to fulfill a craving for a mysterious, unexplainable anti-reality. The true scientist believes because nature proves to respond the same way over and over and over again. The scientist builds on reason and says, “This is what has always been known to happen.” The pseudoscientist builds on the emotions saying, “This could happen. Wouldn’t that be exciting?”

Succinctly, science is a specific way of gaining knowledge. When compared with many other means of gaining knowledge, it is humble and subservient. A scientist must take no claim for what she discovers; she owns no piece of her discovery, except the new connection in her mind. For what she believes she discovered, has been since the foundation of the world was laid.

[i] American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science for All Americans. Washington D.C.: AAAS, Inc., 1989.

[ii] Chapter 4: The Physical Setting. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Project 2061. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[iii] Holy Bible. King James Version. Hebrews 11:3

[iv] Article 34. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Catholic Book Publishing Co.: New York, 1994.

[v] McComas, William F. Ten Myths of Science: Reexamining What We Think We Know About the Nature of Science. School Science and Mathematics. January 1996, 96(1), 10-16.

[vi] (Qtd. in) Beginnings of modern science. Accessed May 5, 2005.