Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Contemplating the Savior of Science

Have you ever stopped to think about why modern science first arrived on the scene in Europe around the middle of the last millennium with scientists like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal? Why not from other great cultures of the past? This question is explored with piercing detail in a book called “The Savior of Science” by Fr. Stanley Jaki. It was recommended to me by writer and scientist, Stacy Trasancos. It’s not the easiest read in the world if one is not familiar with certain scientists throughout history and their theories, but some parts of the book are easy to follow.

It’s very understandable as to why some cultures would not be so concerned with the great “whys” of the physical universe if they were constantly struggling for food, water and shelter or continually fending off attacks from their neighbors. Who cares how the sun goes up and down every day if I’m just trying to stay alive every day, but what about the peoples of cultures like ancient China, Japan, India, Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome? They all lived in organized societies with infrastructure; they had long periods of peace and talented citizens. They were also not greatly influenced by one another, as if we could say the superstitions about nature spread from one culture to all the rest like a virus. Of course, they had their achievements, like gun powder, papermaking and fixed-type engraved printing coming from China. How about the great architectural achievements of ancient Egypt, or the logic of the Greeks, but modern science never took root in any of these places. Why?

 Like any good problem solving, one should compare the place of interest (like Europe) and the characteristic of interest (like the birth of modern science) to other places that lack that characteristic. From here we can look for distinctions. By their fruits you shall know them, provided that scientific fruit or fruitlessness is looked for.

 The great non-Judeo-Christian cultures of the past had their premises about nature, existence and the universe. Perhaps it was the belief in eternal cycles that left a hopeless feeling when at the bottom, or a sense of complacency when on top (learn about Fortuna). How about the view of the universe as a kind of huge wild animal whose dangerous irrationalities needed to be appeased by some kind of human ritual? Others kept a wall of division between celestial and terrestrial matter that could never be penetrated. Given these kinds of worldviews, it’s easy to see why modern science could never take root. There also was no confidence in the abilities of a limited human mind to grasp the laws of nature, because nature was not subject to any rational mind or lawgiver that transcended it. King Brihadratha, the last ruler of the Mauryan dynasty, sums it up well for his culture as well as many others when he said “In the cycle of existence, I’m like a frog in a waterless well.” These kinds of mind sets seem to cry out for salvation.

So what was different about Europe? Fr. Jaki suggests that it was Christ that saved science from yet another “stillbirth” in Europe. The culture which grew out of Christendom was the distinction that provided the premises by which man could finally have a rational worldview, and the premises came from Catholic doctrine.
Now this is a hard teaching; who could accept it? Didn’t S.J. Gould get it right when he said, “Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”  Isn’t the scientific progress that we still build onto today the result of the European enlightenment? Isn’t this when men shook-off their pious little fairy tales about god or gods? This finally freed men to use logic & reason for the very first time to explain the world around them, right?

Well, the Greeks and other cultures were known for their logic, but science was stillborn in those places. Additionally, the famous forefathers of modern science like Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes and Pascal were all Christian. So if atheism or just raw logic does not explain the birth of modern science, what might explain it?

Fr. Jaki argues that salvation finally came for science because Christ and His Church built a Christian worldview with the following types of convictions….
  • God is a rational being that is orderly and reliable; therefore, his creation is also rational, orderly and reliable.
  • All matter, celestial & terrestrial, can be placed on the same basic level, since it was all created out of nothing (ex nilhilo). A pebble is no different than the earth, the sun, the moon, or a cow in terms of being a created thing that can be studied and dissected.
  • Man is made in the image and likeness of God, therefore we can have confidence in human rationality to understand creation because our intellect was fashioned by God in his own image.
  • Man can have full trust in a rational creator. This fosters the intellectual courage that can drive us to learn more about creation.

Regrettably, this intellectual courage also leads men to the sin of pride. In the book, Fr. Jaki cleverly compares the sin of Eve in the book of Genesis to the sin of atheistic scientists today who view the world as only material. After being tempted by the serpent, Eve became “scientific”, looking at the tree of life in a materialistic way. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it…” (Gen 3:6). The illicitness of the fruit and the tree was forgotten along with the Creator.

Many of today’s scientists seem to have flipped one of the Catholic based premises on its head. The science of the past may have said “We know the creator is intelligent, so we can go forward assuming the universe is intelligible.” Today it’s more like “We know the universe is intelligible, so we can go forward assuming there is no intelligence behind it.” It’s like saying we can see sunlight, but we should assume that there is no sun. This kind of dimming down of the intellect was expressed well using a paradox, “we are smarter than we are”.

“We are smarter than we are” is meant to express the notion that our minds have evolved much faster than our bodies. The human brain appeared on the scene in a geological instant and it seems to be evolutionary “overkill” in terms of only needing to survive and reproduce. S.J Gould was also quoted in the book as saying, “It does reinforce an ego that we do well to deflate.”

The statement is not about the Christian virtue of humility; it’s more about convincing you not to look any deeper than the material surface; we should forcibly deflate that natural part us that looks for spiritual truth. Paradoxes are normally meant to awaken the mind; in this case it is meant to suppress the mind. The mind’s eye is meant to see further and deeper than the physical eye, but we are told to deflate the part of us that cries out “There must be more!”  Should we deflate ourselves or should we continue to search for that which is more than we are?
Which will you choose?

Monday, March 10, 2014

The De-Evolution of Thinking with Stanford Nutting

The last post on this blog included the photo below. I had also posted it on Google+ with a simple caption that read, “Although a lot could be said about this, I think the photo says it all.”
Kevin O'Brien as Stanford Nutting

I was surprised at some of the comments it received. Here were some thoughts from myself and a couple of acquaintances from Google+.
The Sweater
Perhaps a throwback to what a 1970’s CCD teacher might wear, or perhaps it stands for the square of truth you decide to take while choosing not to believe the other truths. Pick a color! Of course, we must be inclusive and accept every version of truth, so that all the colors of our world can come together like one giant ugly sweater. The sweater seems unified, but note the black chasm between each color.

1. What is “Truth”?
This is about questioning absolute Truth. It could be asked sarcastically, but many will sincerely contemplate this, really seeking what is true in terms of things like morality, justice, goodness, love, etc. Or perhaps seeking to answer what the nature of Truth is, rather than a particular truth of a particular matter. In this context, one can understand Pontius Pilate's identical question in the gospel of John 18:38, and of course the answer is a concrete one, Jesus Christ, the man standing before him.
2. What is?
Could this be a “fill in the blank” or just the beginning of whole new level of bewilderment? This question seems to no longer be asking about truth at all, but asking about existence. What IS? What exists? What is anything? But, if we go by the suggestion of the conclusion of the first question, we might say it more properly as "Who is?", and then we end up with God, the one whose name is "I AM", the one who “IS”, existence itself.
3. What?
One is confused or maybe surprised, but perhaps still searching coherently to some extent. The question is simply "What?" This is a common way of expressing concern, astonishment or mishearing, an attempt to confirm what has already been said. It is clear that something of significance has been mentioned in the two questions above, but comprehension has not been reached, so it needs repeating or perhaps just leaves one in shock

4. Wha?
One is now deep into the muddle. The question is no longer coherent; it remains unfinished. Imagine you walk into a room and say “Wha?” You realize something strange is going on in the room and say “never mind, I don't want to get involved".  Upon further examination of the previous questions, the answers are too large or out of reach, and one is left feeling both confused and maybe slightly stupid or in a state of extreme disbelief.

5. ?
Now there are no words at all, which means there is no more dialogue. If there is no more dialogue, we end up with the dictatorship of relativism. If you have your truth and I have mine, there is no point in even discussing any of the above. In this scenario, might makes right; you will agree or be punished. The purpose of life and the nature of man are lost in a fog, but there might be two paths forward…seek or despair.

One can desperately and blindly continue into the fog, or perhaps “?” can trigger a humble state. One is at a loss for words, a state of unknowing, not even knowing what to ask. One has encountered something so foreign that it is impossible to even guess at anything that would shed light on it. As if a stranger started speaking in a foreign language, you have no clue as to what is going on. This could trigger a proper state in which to receive God’s grace. There are no further questions, but one is open to the answers or instructions that may come. Assumptions are dropped, and one waits for whatever is given. Perhaps the awe of the Lord as a gift of the Holy Spirit is soon to follow this kind of “?”.

These are just some ideas as to the meaning of each question. What do you think? We know you’re out there.