Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Cosmology and science

Let me offer two examples of the confusion of science and cosmology.

The Berenstein bears

Although I was never a fan of the Berenstein Bears, we did have at least one or two books in the house, and I remember coming across quite an odd little piece. The young bears were going on a nature walk or something, and one of them asked the fundamental question: what is nature? The answer was something like: “Nature is everything that is, or was, or ever will be.”

That’s not science, not natural science; it’s cosmology. Neither nature walks nor the natural sciences cover everything; specifically, they don’t cover the manner in which we come to make statements about all of existence throughout all of time like Papa Bear. We not only make such statements, but we believe that they are meaningful and true; again, these beliefs do not come from the realm of the natural sciences, for they cannot be verified in the quantitative, observational manner that is the hallmark of the natural sciences. Rather, they are rightly discussed from the combined perspective of common sense on the one hand and logic on the other. This combination is the leading edge of philosophy. These questions can, that is, be approached by reason, and by reasoning from evidence to conclusions, but the whole discussion is not part of the natural sciences.

In philosophy, the rules of evidence include things that cannot be measured. Philosophy works on things that are clear to us in our intellectual lives, but they cannot always be observed in the outward sense. Saying that “nature,” as in, “what you study on a nature walk,” is everything that is or was or will be is a sly reference to the prayer that praises God who is, who was in the beginning, and who ever shall be. Papa Bear is hereby suggesting that a good scientist is either a pantheist (thinking the whole cosmology is God) or an atheist who thinks there is no God, since nature is everything.

We can call him Papa Sagan, for he is taking this line from that old (20th century) pagan.

Call him what you may, this is not a correct definition of nature as the topic of the natural sciences. It is a statement of cosmology masquerading as a definition of science.

Giordano Bruno

You will have heard of Copernicus, and that he wrote a book explaining his reasons for thinking that the sun must be at the center of the cosmos. At the time he wrote it, the Church was trying to figure out the motions of the heavens so as to be able to calculate the actual date of the first day of spring and thereby plan her Easter celebration in relation to that day. Copernicus studied and wrote at the request of one pope, and his model of the universe (submitted 40 years later to a different pope) was of no concern at that time and he was not particularly criticized except in Lutheran circles where the literal reading of the Bible was a demand of doctrine.

For scientists of the day, the hardest thing about the Copernican model was the recognition that if Copernicus was right, the universe must be enormously much larger than they had thought. Saturn, for example, must be 700,000 miles away. It was simply unbelievable! (Actually, it’s more like 700 million miles away, but never mind that.)

Well, there was an Italian, named Jordano Bruno, who read Copernicus and became quite excited about the new map of the heavens. He understood the enlargement and quickly got comfortable with it. He understood and accepted the idea that the sun might be a star like other stars. So far, so good. Also, he had a prodigious memory, and he went around showing off his memory and teaching his memory tricks. Teaching the tricks was both interesting and important because some people thought he must be practicing sorcery to remember so much. Sharing his tricks helped prevent that story from becoming too dangerous.

Nevertheless, Bruno was definitely a smarty pants, deeply persuaded that his superior intelligence could not fail him. He reasoned, therefore, with no hesitation, that all the innumerable stars were other suns:

  1. in an infinite series,
  2. each with other earths,
  3. each earth with other peoples,
  4. each people with its own redeemer son of God, its own Christ
  5. and therefore the intelligent man should give up not only the celestial centrality of the sun, but also the cosmic uniqueness and centrality of Jesus Christ.

It was natural that such a string of reasoning should occur to someone, but none of the five listed steps was a necessary conclusion from the evidence, and in fact each step was erroneous, the first three being now demonstrably erroneous, and the others therefore having no reason to follow, either then or now.

What happens with a man like Bruno is that some people take his part because, in certain ways, he’s the smartest man around – or seems to be; of course you want to bet on the smart guy. Other people back away and mumble that “smarts isn’t everything,” whereupon they are considered stupid; maybe they are, maybe not; maybe they feel, correctly but without being able to express it, that he is thinking a little too fast for the size of his thoughts. There are only relatively few men who clearly see that not one of these five steps is actually demanded by logic or reason; only a few can explain why some of them must fall by the wayside.

In fact, reasons to reject Bruno’s conclusions quickly surfaced, not only in theology but in other fields of thought.

But my point is that this was a confusion of science and cosmology.

Now, just to close this topic: it is fairly well-known that Bruno was burned at stake for his opinions. His modern-day advocates claim that he was burned for being a Copernican, and he might have said so himself, but as you can see, the truth is a little larger. He was a heretic, as Copernicus was not.

Many people also know that Cardinal Robert Bellarmine stayed up with Bruno the entire night before the burning trying to dissuade Bruno from his opinions, for Bellarmine was deeply troubled about the whole business. Bruno boasted that Bellarmine was more upset about his burning than he was. In that, Bruno may have been right. It is a fact that, for the next quarter-century and not because he had nothing else to do, Bellarmine personally made sure the Galileo was protected. Galileo was not brought before the inquisition until after Bellamine died, and even at that point, the measures Bellarmine had taken probably saved Galileo’s life.

That said, let us return to the question: how much credence should we give to science? Perhaps we are asking: how much credence should we give to what some scientists call the inevitable cosmological consequences of science?

And the answer to that is: maybe some, but maybe none at all. The information we find in the natural sciences does have a cosmological echo and sometimes also consequence. But scientists are not always qualified to recognize those consequences. Sometimes they are not sufficiently restrained about drawing conclusions in a field they really don’t know.



Read Full Post »

If the task of the natural scientist is to notice the universe, it will make sense to consider some of the things that prevent us from noticing. Here is a list of four sources of error, “the four chief hindrances to the understanding of truth,”  and I challenge you to guess the name and date behind the list:

  1. Submission to unworthy authority
  2. The influence of custom
  3. Popular prejudice
  4. The concealment of one’s own ignorance accompanied by an ostentatious display of knowledge.

The list is so delightfully complete:

  1. When we submit to an authority whose vision doesn’t really reach as far as what he is assumed to know, we close our eyes to what is directly in front of us. This is true in politics, but also in science where, for example, the influence of Darwin has long prevented men from taking hold of the most obvious consequence of the discovery of chromosomes. Clearly, when species within a genus have different chromosome counts, it follows that the new species could not have evolved gene by gene, for a new chromosome always involves many genes.
  2. You may think that science, dominated as it presently is by experiment, must be free of the influence of custom. But in fact, there was a whole generation after Einstein when his calculation of the speed of light was corroborated by one experimenter after another because they could not bring themselves to admit that they had found a different answer from the greatest physicist (as they thought) of the twentieth century. When someone finally printed his actual observations, a chorus of voices admitted their self-suppressed accord.
  3. The deep assumptions of our time in history are hard to question. The evidence for a finite universe was obvious and under discussion for hundreds of years, but simply did not “take” in most men’s minds, because there was too strong an image of eternity in the stars and too strong an academic prejudice against a finite universe. LeMaitre was despised and scorned for his challenge to this prejudice, but it’s over now. The universe is finite in time. Oh, there are hold-outs, including Stephen Hawking; but the stranglehold of a prejudice against an eternal universe is broken.
  4. Ahhh, humility! How many times, and in how many fields, do we noisily cover our vast ignorance with our little knowledge.

This list comes from Roger Bacon, 1214-1294, a medieval philosopher approximately contemporary with St. Thomas Aquinas, though a little longer-lived and born a little earlier.


For the sake of those who may faintly remember the name Francis Bacon, a little disambiguation is in order:

Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were both:

  • English philosophers
  • Who emphasized the importance of observation
  • And who therefore have each been considered the father of scientific method

Nevertheless, they differed profoundly:

  • Roger Bacon was a Franciscan monk who lived in the 13th century, a contemporary of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Grossteste, and a famous and much-admired teacher at the University of Oxford and then the University of Paris. He wrote a treatise on magnetism that was the best work in the field for 300 years, until William Gilbert, a younger contemporary of Francis Bacon, took up the topic again.
  • Francis Bacon, quite a worldly man, lived in the 16th century, a contemporary of Shakespeare, Galileo, and Queen Elizabeth I. He retained royal favor during a period when Catholics were strongly persecuted, and his remarks about religion are consistent with that position. He is considered a believer because he wrote things like: “They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts in his body; and, if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.”

Pathetic. If the main thrust of your argument for the existence of God is your own nobility, I can’t think of anything polite to say.

And despite whatever Francis Bacon said about experimental science, he never actually did any.

Read Full Post »

Recently, I have been reading Paul Badde’s The Face of God. It’s a fascinating introduction to the Veil of Manoppello, an image of Jesus which seems to have a miraculous origin; in fact, it comes from the same source as the Shroud of Turin. You can read the book for yourself, but I wish to mention just one thing, which Badde quotes, about miracles, and which is precisely the most fundamental issue.

On page 307, we find an exchange between Harnack and Schlatter. Harnack, all full of the nicey-nice of the unbeliever says that they are really in agreement about everything except the small matter of miracles. Schlatter takes fire:

“No, we are divided on the question of God, for what is at stake in the question of miracles is in fact whether God is God or merely a part of the realm of subjectivity.”

That is exactly the point of miracles: that God has a personal initiative in the world and is not just the niceness at the core of (some) things. He is not just our best ideas, our highest ideals, our final hope. He isn’t just within us, though religious people do take their interior life seriously. God is always more than our interior life, much more. When the psychologists get through with saying that our whole interior life is just a construct, the religious people are not even fazed: what elements go into the weaving of the interior life is of no more significance than that our exterior life is partly made of jelly beans. God is still out there with initiatives, and we are still ourselves within, sharing his personal life through our own initiatives. We have an interior life that is real, and God comes to meet us as a real person – even with a face!

How gentle!

But also, going on to distinguish miracles from magic, notice how gentle the miracles are. Here is this face in Manoppello, as simple a face as ever there was, and it’s printed on a pretty amazing piece of cloth, but you don’t see right away that the fabric is amazing; you have to talk to a byssus-weaver to get it. So how many of us hang around chatting with byssus weavers?

None of us, that’s how many. There’s only one such artist left in all the wide world, diving in the sea to harvest anchor silk from the mussels and then taking it home to clean, treat, and weave it, a few grams at a time.

When you have magicians, all the energy is disorderly; it’s about power and display and selfishness. Disney has it. But miracles are about mercy, and if they disrupt anything at all, the scale is so small it cannot be measured.

In Cana, for example, 120 gallons of wine. OK, that’s a lot, but were there fireworks? No, and most of wine is water anyway. He did it without being noticed, and we know that because the steward didn’t even know where the wine was from.

The Church has a very careful way of looking at miracles as personal words of God. Nobody gets canonized just for a miracle, but when all the best judgments have been made about a person’s holiness and courage, the last word is with God: a miracle is requested as a sign of his initiative in desiring that we honor this person as his representative. And the miracle requested is not lightning and thunder; mostly it’s just a healing of somebody no one ever heard of, so they can go on with a life that most people will never notice.

But God notices, and so do their friends, and the friends also notice that God is our Father and friend. That’s the point.

And in Manopello, the miracle is the gentle miracle of an apparently simple face somehow imprinted in an incredibly fine sample of byssus silk. You can pass it by — or you can be captivated by it.

This image is the true image or "vera icon" of Jesus from his tomb, at the moment of the resurrection.

Read Full Post »

I have defined miracles, [Jan 9, 2011] but now I would like to talk about them, not as events in themselves, but from the perspective of the believer. In particular, let us think about what belief is required of the hearer compared to the belief required of the observer or of the messenger who tells us about a miracle. For example, let us consider one of the miracles from the life of Jesus, such as His making of the wine of Cana, and compare that with the miracles that the creationist has in mind for, say, the Third Day of Creation. This is the day when, says Genesis, God made the dry (actually the moist) earth and all the grasses and herbs and flowering trees that naturally grow on land.

In the case of the wine of Cana, we and St. John are on the same page and bring the same experience to the story: wine is mostly water, but water is not wine, and good wine is not made quickly even from the best of grapes. Our experience is the same as St. John’s and what he is proposing for our belief is something he must have found hard to believe, or at least most astonishing, himself. He was there, so that helped him, but he did know the unlikelihood of it, which was the precisely the same for him and for us.

But for the Third Day of Creation, the situation is quite different. What we and the author of Genesis bring to this verse of the Bible are very different. Creation itself is astonishing; in that we are the same. But, on a creationist interpretation, what are we to think of grass that must be green without the sun? You may answer that there was light on the first day, but what sort of light was that when there were no stars? Was it electromagnetic radiation like the light we know now? If so, something had to radiate it; what? If not, then was it a spiritual light, not really what we mean by light, but something analogous? And if so then how did it support the activity of chlorophyll in the leaves?

One might imagine that the grass was there but was white until the fourth day when the sun turned up. But that is not so easy, because grass cannot even grow or stand up straight without the energy that is packed up by chlorophyll in the sunshine. You could reply that God could have kept the grass in a mature state, either white or green, whichever he chose, until he made the sun. God can do anything.

Yes, God can do anything, but the question I ask the creationist is: what is being proposed for our belief? That all the green herbs and flowering plants were created in mature but bleached form and then waited for the sun of the fourth day? Or that all were created only as seeds, waiting for the fourth day to sprout? Or that they were created mature and green, but static, only reaching active stature on the fourth day?

Not that it matters, but the point is, what are we talking about? What is it that we are asked to believe? None of the problems I have listed were within the consciousness of the sacred writer. It took him no extra leap of faith to deal these logical consequences of the Genesis sequence, because he was not aware of them. God made the land and its plants: fine. In that case, what he understood himself to be proposing for our act of faith is not the same as what a creationist asks us to believe a few thousand years later. In the case of the wine, it is the same. Even in the case of the Resurrection is it the same, for the deadness of dead bodies is not a new idea; modern medicine does not change it. But for the creationist interpretation of Genesis, it is not clear what is proposed for our belief, and whatever it is, the Genesis author was not conscious of it.

Of course being able to distinguish two types of miracles does not mean one kind did not happen. God can do anything.

But the issue remains: if you cannot tell me what I am supposed to believe, then you cannot fault me for not believing it. I believe that God designed everything with infinite wisdom, and that He is fully aware of every detail of the outworking of even the most law-bound processes. Within Catholic doctrine, that suffices for the Third Day. Whether it took place over a few hundred million years, and whether a good number of animals (such as bees) were actually also created at the same time as the plants they pollinated is of no consequence.

In that interpretation, what is proposed for our belief – that our Father did it all, right to the last apple blossom – is the same for us and for the author of Genesis. Seems only fair.


Read Full Post »

Starlight old or new

Here is another piece from Jeannie Fulbright’s Astronomy text in the Apologia series:

“Some people claim that since some stars are billions of light years away, the universe (and therefore the earth) must be billions of years old. After all, they think that the light from those stars had to travel from the star to the earth, and since the light is hitting the earth, it must have had billions of years to travel. They do not understand that God is so wise that He could create things to be exactly as He wants them to be… He could create stars and their light to be fully grown and fully developed … He could create an earth with starlight that was already upon the earth, even starlight from billions of light years away. After all, nothing is impossible for God.

Many believers who accept the Resurrection of Jesus still think the universe is old. I do. I am sure that God has the power and wisdom to create things exactly the way he wants them, but I doubt that he wants them to be deceptive. It’s a matter of honesty, and it is an implicit matter of fatherhood. We are made in his image so we can perceive what he is doing and rejoice in it as sons and daughters admire their fathers.

What is the meaning of astronomy if the things we measure are wrong because God made them to look like something they are not? Why would God make stars far away with a beam of light strung across the whole of space, so that this light appears to travel from that star to our earth, day by day and night by night, when in fact this light was never part of the star at all? Why would God bother to string it out like that instead of just making the universe and letting the stringing take place according to the laws he built into the universe? Was the eternal God in a rush to create an appearance that would turn up by nature’s laws if He just waited? Is He not outside the press of time?

In the end, there are a few things that even God cannot do. He cannot make a beam of light that is both from a star and not from a star in the same sense of “from a star.”  If a beam of light shining upon the earth was never the product of the burning of a star, then it is not starlight no matter how God strings it about.

Read Full Post »

Creationist astronomy

Please note: The Astronomy text of the Apologia series was written by Jeannie Fulbright, not by Jay Wile as I had assumed. According to her website, he remains the editor, but not the author. I apologize for this mistake.

The Apologia science series consists of several very accessible science texts, and many home educators use them with pleasure. There are places in this text, however, where the author gets a little preachy and what she says is not helpful for integrating your Catholic faith and your scientific cosmology. Here is an example (brought to my attention by a friend) from page 33-34 of the astronomy text.

“Amazingly, parts of Mercury have no craters. The fact that parts of Mercury are craterless is difficult to understand for those who believe that the solar system is millions or billions of years old. You see, over millions or billions of years, every part of the planet would have gotten hit many, many times by falling asteroids. Scientists know that the chances of some parts of Mercury never getting craters over billions of years is next to impossible. The best explanation for why Mercury has sections with no craters is that the solar system is not millions or billions of years old. However, scientists who want to believe that the solar system is that old have come up with another explanation. They say that the craterless sections are the “new” parts of Mercury.  According to these scientists, the “new” parts of Mercury were formed recently by volcanic eruptions. Since these sections are not very old, they have not had time to be struck by asteroids yet, so they have no craters. Of course, we know that God created the whole planet of Mercury instantly, with only a Word. I also believe that the whole planet is not nearly that old, because I think the Bible tells us that God spoke it into existence only a few thousand years ago.”

In this section, the text proposes a problem, the craterless sections of the planet Mercury. We learn how this is related to the age of Mercury: after billions of years of bombardment by asteroids, Mercury should be cratered all over. Then Fulbright offers the scientific solution — volcanic eruptions, but she offers this as if it were a mere alibi, rather than a conclusion based on the likelihood of volcanism. What do the creationists think that volcanoes will do to the impact craters? Do they have a reason do doubt that there is volcanism on Mercury?

The next line tells us the answer: the creationist has no need to consider the likelihood or the effect of volcanism on Mercury, because the Bible tells us what we need to know, namely that Mercury was created in an instant, “only a few thousand years ago. Presumably that means that it was created with craters printed on its surface, because 6,000 years is not long enough for the bombardment to make them all. And presumably there is no volcanic activity on Mercury, so its effect need not be considered, though neither the spiritual value nor the scientific status of such an opinion is not clear.

Let’s talk about enthymemes.

An enthymeme is an argument which presumes the form of a syllogism such as the famous one:

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Socrates is mortal.

However, in the enthymeme, one of the first two sentences is missing. So you might just say: Socrates is a man, so Socrates is mortal. You are presuming that everyone knows that all men are mortal, and it’s enough to say that Socrates is a man to know he must be mortal. Alternatively, you might say: All men are mortal, so Socrates is mortal. In this enthymeme, you presume that everyone knows Socrates is a man, a reasonable presumption.

Enthymemes are a natural way of speaking. Good heavens! if we had to spell out everything we wanted to say all the time, we’d never get anywhere. But when you are constructing a careful argument, enthymemes must be checked. Fulbright writes:

  • I believe that the Bible says that God spoke [the planet Mercury] into existence only a few thousand years ago.
  • Therefore Mercury is not billions of years old.

If you take out the brown part, it’s very simple. Obviously what is only a few thousand years old cannot be a few billion years old. However, tucked into the first proposition are two further implied claims: that the Bible says something about Mercury and that what Fulbright believes the Bible says really is what it says. Now it goes like this:

  • That Mercury is a few thousand years old is what I believe the Bible says.
  • (…)
  • That Mercury is a few thousand years old is what the Bible really means.

Here is the missing proposition:

  • What I (Fulbright) believe the Bible says is what the Bible really means.

Here are the problems with this

  1. Fulbright’s opinion is just an opinion. She can have it, but what is her opinion doing posing as an argument in a science text? I do give her credit for admitting (on this occasion, and reluctantly) that it is an opinion.
  2. Many serious believers would argue against his opinion. Certainly it is not the only believing opinion.
  3. The Bible does not mention Mercury, so whatever it says applies only indirectly to Mercury and does not take into account what scientists see. Of course the Bible cannot list everything, but that is precisely why it is a mistake to view it as a science text. A scientist sees what he sees; shall a theologian tell him to shut his eyes?
  4. Why should Fulbright’s opinion be accepted as “the best explanation?” Is she an astronomer, a planetologist, or a simply homeschooling mother with various opinions? I have opinions too, and some are counter-academia, so I understand that; but it’s pretty cheeky to call my opinions “the best,” after dismissing others’ without any scientific explanation.
  5. How insulting is it to say that scientists come up with other explanations for what they “want to believe?” Scientists have many good reasons for thinking the solar system is old. What they “want to believe” (for so Christianity once taught them) is that the universe is comprehensible and that, in the end, all the evidence will fit into a consistent interpretation. Otherwise there is no point trying to do science.

Any author who defends a young universe on such terms I call a creationist.

Read Full Post »

Evolution defined

Well, I said was going to go on to discuss Wile, and suddenly I realized that I have not defined evolution. I have given this definition so many times, I forgot that I had not done it here. Sorry. Very important.

What is evolution?

Evolution, like creationism, is a word that has gone through a lot of changes, and its many definitions are being used equivocally all the time, which makes for a hopeless situation if you want a conversation to progress.

[To use a word equivocally is to switch from one definition to another without paying attention, so that what you say seems to make sense but is actually trivial or even false. Here’s a famous equivocation:

  • A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
  • Nothing is better than heaven.
  • Therefore a ham sandwich is better than heaven.

The word “nothing” is used in two senses as if they were one.]

So let’s talk about the definitions of evolution and let’s be careful about which one we are using from now on:

  1. Evolution means change over time. Hardly anyone objects to such a concept of evolution because we see changes over time all through our lives and the lives of our gardens, apple trees, dogs, and cities.
  2. Evolution means vast change over vast amounts of time, including mountain-building and even star formation and even the formation of the universe. This pulls us right off the simple scheme of Genesis 1, and young-earth creationists are not happy.
  3. Evolution most often means change in the biological kingdom such that one species (or family, or even phylum) gives birth to another. This does not take place now, but the theory of evolution is the theory that it did happen in the past. This is a definition I accept, and it is the form of evolution that I believe took place. I sometimes call it “single family tree of life.” I say, “I believe in a single family tree of life” and I sidestep the word evolution.
  4. A few people believe that evolution proceeds by law and by design, not by accident. I believe that this is so. There is a fascinating little book called Nomogenesis, by Robert Broom, offering the evidence for lawful evolution. John Davison led me to it.
  5. A very few of the people who believe that evolution took place believe it is over. I am one; Davison is one; I have good reasons for my position. It is the one position that is so rare that I takes me outside all boxes and everyone has a reason to take a potshot at me; or alternatively, everyone has reason to love me. I wrote a little about it January 31, 2011.
  6. For Darwin, the theory of evolution had several other elements:
    • He thought it ongoing in the present, which I do not believe is the case. Young-earth creationists are fierce (rightly and sometimes usefully) about the lack of evidence for genuine contemporary evolution.
    • Darwin thought evolution to be accidental, which I do not believe, and for which there is not and cannot be evidence since it is a philosophical point.
    • He though it due to miniscule mutations (gene mutations for the neo-Darwinists, updating in view of DNA and the genome). This also I believe to be a mistaken idea. See my post last January 22, 2011.
    • Darwin thought Progress was held in place by survival of the fittest, which is either dubious or irrelevant, being either flatly false or a tautology. Creationists are very good at pointing out the tautology.

Darwinism, with its commitment to accidents and brutality (that’s what survival of the fittest means) as the engines of Progress, is very anti-catechetical. How could a good God make a fundamentally brutal world? This element of Darwin’s thought has always been irreligious in philosophy and in effect, and was certainly the philosophy behind Nazism.

But evolution in my sense is not opposed to our catechism, and it has a charm of its own. Sometimes in speaking of it, I tell an origami story, in which the signature objects in the  story turn up as origami formations, with each form then being folded to the next. Two of the final folds present a golden steeple and a pink rose. The first time I did it, everyone was so surprised by the rose that they burst out clapping. They had not seen it coming; it was fun.

It was fun because it was so clever. Origami is always sort of magical, but an origami story is better magic  — just one piece of paper going through all those changes. As I see it, Creation by the technique of evolution is clever in that way. You just don’t think it’s possible to get from here to there without “changing papers,” without starting over — but it works if the origamist plans it right.

So those are some ideas of evolution, and really the first thing you have to do is find out exactly what your conversation partner has in mind and don’t be slipping from one definition to the next without noticing.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »