Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beauty, Culture, and Science

Modern science is an artifact of history and culture, and the importance, meaning, and application of its findings must be interpreted in light of culture. More specifically, science is a specific and highly methodological art of incomplete storytelling. It is very good at telling very precise (and, hopefully, increasingly accurate) stories about physical and material interactions, and it tells these stories in very specific sets of vocabularies. Nevertheless, it remains storytelling, and when I say that it is incomplete storytelling I mean that it stands in need of a larger context. This context would provide not only the ethical boundaries for the practice of science, but also grant meaning to its typically amoral conclusions.

There are two particular examples of what I would consider science run amok: the nuclear testing which began in the 1940’s and which continues today in various parts of the world, as well as the various human experiments undertaken by Nazi scientists during the Third Reich. I choose especially the latter precisely because it is a caricature of science operating without the limitations of a morally responsible narrative. In fact, it is precisely because the culture of Nazi Germany operated with a particularly corrupt social narrative which condemned certain demographics, especially the Jewish people, that these scientists felt free to conduct heinous acts of torture under the justification of “scientific inquiry.” The case of nuclear testing is a far more subtle case of a similarly corrupt narrative which saw the unstoppable, inevitable march of scientific progress (along with the military might to be obtained through its triumph) as the justification for atmospheric tests which both directly or indirectly have contributed to the involuntary deaths and suffering of human beings.

Since the quality of a culture’s narrative has such a profound impact upon how science will proceed, what questions it will “answer,” and how those “answers” will be interpreted, the question might rightfully be asked: “what is the basis for accepting a narrative? How do we judge narratives? Can one culture’s story or stories really be superior to another’s?” One answer, which I believe has been thoroughly discredited, is the idea that it is possible to somehow dig “below the surface” or alternatively search for a vantage point above the plethora of narratives in order to either find a foundation or a perspective by which to judge all narratives. This is the answer of a particularly Enlightenment metaphysics, a project which (ironically) is itself the womb for modern scientific theory and which can often be found tainting the work of science even today. It is the search for a meta-narrative, a “view from nowhere” that somehow can escape the particularity of time and culture in order to find a measure against which these narratives might be judged.

It has been tempting for some to see science as precisely this sort of impartial eye, a bright light that dispels the ancient and medieval darkness of superstition and pierces the ignorant falsehoods of stories and fables, replacing them with the immanent certainty of its methodology and conclusions, and while this may be a hyperbolic portrait it nevertheless points to an attitude embedded in the scientific method in its inception. It is often labeled today as “scientism,” a particularly ironic narrative in which science dispels the myths of narratives and replaces them with, in vulgar terms, “the cold, hard facts,” those unimpeachable, irreproachable, and insidiously meaningless statements about some or another physical interaction in the cosmos.

But if a meta-narrative that serves as an unbounded view beyond all narratives is at the very least doomed to self-destruction in a fit of irony and at worst a self-deceiving dogma that blinds its followers to its own particularity and origin in time and space, what can be left besides the endless variety of narratives? How can any judgment not fall prey to its own particular source and be, in the end, any more than the merely specious and hypocritical judgment of one particular cultural narrative against another?

An answer can be found in the currently disregarded topic of beauty. I suspect that somebody just gave a derisive snicker. This is completely understandable given that the term “beauty” now commonly means the pretty, the pleasing, and is now governed by the arbitrary whims of taste. But as many of you know, the term once stood for something ontologically foundational, something substantial enough to be considered convertible with the term “truth.”

In order to understand how it might be possible to judge among narratives without reference to some unattainable, outside meta narrative it is necessary to rekindle this older concept of beauty and come to an understanding of the beauty of storytelling and its connection to truth. I will not pretend to define beauty. I will claim, however, that in its classical sense, beauty denotes a deep desire between a perceiver and what he or she perceives that is founded in some sort of holistic harmony existing between them. It is a sort of attraction or magnetism based not on capricious or superficial judgments but rather upon a genuine correspondence between man and the world. This aesthetic harmony is ultimately ontological in nature and consists of at least two factors which stand in fruitful tension with each other: first, the recognition of some similarity in being which piques man’s mimetic desire and which hints at the possibility of unity; second, the recognition of some irreducible difference which provides the grounds for attraction and, possibly, genuine charity.

As I have already mentioned, beauty classically held a close relationship with truth. The beautiful, in this conception, holds its attractive (one might say, persuasive) power precisely because of its truthfulness or its true correspondence with reality. One of course immediately sees that this relationship means an immediate rejection of the notion of beauty as mere aesthetic pleasure, if by aesthetic pleasure we means the whims of what appears pretty, quaint, precious, or even alluring, since these are subject to change with the latest fashions (are big sunglasses in now?). Instead, beauty is a much larger sort of desire which unifies both affective and intellectual apprehension into a single act of desire.

The apprehension of beauty occurs within time and space and is particular in nature. Yet in its apprehension of the correspondence or unity between perceived and perceiver it hints at an underlying (or, perhaps, transcendent) reality. This is, I believe, why the apprehension of beauty serves as an important starting point in the neo-platonic tradition vis-à-vis Plotinus. However, while the Platonic tradition attempts to trace this origin of this similarity to an abstract nowhere realm of ideas, it does provide us with an excellent starting place: beauty is consonance, and because this consonance is not an abstract “view from nowhere” it is precisely this consonance which can lead one to accept or reject a narrative.

This sort of beauty comes from an internal persuasive quality of the beautiful thing, not from some pretended "objective" standard; it is, I would argue, an ultimately peaceable persuasion that offers peace because of its harmony with man. The above sketch of beauty as persuasive is my own, but it is highly influenced by David Bentley Hart, whom I insist that you read if you want a much better understanding of the possible connection between beauty and truth.

Beauty then critiques science as it critiques all narratives: we are participants in narratives, and as participants we cannot help but be drawn in a fundamental way towards the beautiful and repulsed from the ugly. With a refined understanding of beauty, these holistic reactions can be understood as tools of truly peaceful persuasion; they really can draw us towards the truth. There are other questions to be answered; is our sense of beauty always and everywhere wholly integral, for instance.

This "answer" (which is, of course, merely a suggestion of where to start questing for an answer) will not be satisfying to anyone who is seeking a closed, complete, or foundationally-grounded system. Closed systems and "complete answers" are simplifications of reality that cut out the difficult bits and ease the strain of thought. I am not pretending that a critique of the narrative of modern science based on beauty is anything other than a cultural and historical undertaking. As a Christian, however, there is all the advantage of Christian narrative and the union of the transcendent with the imminent. The person of Christ offers the central point or crux of beauty as the gospel provides the narrative of peace. However, this advantage holds the infinite burden of the inexhuastability and mystery of Christ's beauty, a beauty which can be pointed to but never circumscribed. The Christian narrative both ennobles and humbles the projects of science, just as it both ennobles and humbles man: the search for knowledge is transformed under the purposes of charity. More specifically, the purposes of charity offers both meaning and limitation to science and demands that we "do unto others." It demands that the operations of science be exercised with caution and reverence which respects the human person as something more than the sum of his anatomical parts. It demands a respect of the cosmos as a world to be tended and cared for rather than a laboratory for exploitation and curiosity. As I have said before, I have no doubt that the world is filled with scientists who labor with precisely this respect, and who would chose to remain ignorant about something if the discovery would require splitting a live human being in half. Nevertheless, the lure of exploitation is a cultural, not merely scientific, temptation; beauty must be a guide not only within science, but within culture at large.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Disjunction of Faith and Reason

No discussion of the intersection of religion and science can begin without a discussion of faith and reason. While Pope John Paul II wrote that "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth," we nevertheless encounter a great deal of tension between the two in the world today. This tension manifests itself in a number of apparent dichotomies or disjunctions: between the world of secular liberal politics and the private practice of religion; between the the claims of the faith regarding man's origins and the increasingly thorough account provided by modern science; between our instincts as beings who, in the words of sociologist Christian Smith, "continue to be animals who make stories but also animals who are made by stories" and our modernist impulses to demythologize ourselves and our universe. While Fides et Ratio continues to be a primary source for a new Catholic synthesis (one that draws on all the best of the old, medieval synthesis), there remains a degree to which this tension has become firmly entrenched in both our public and academic culture.

The conflict can be summarized by a story told by Stephen Hawking. According to the story, Professor Hawking was at a scientific conference in Rome, and was present for an address to the conference attendees given by Pope John Paul II. During the plenary address, Hawking reported that the Pope informed conference attendees that they should study the beginning of the universe up to a point, and no further, since the beginning itself was the work of God. Now, it is interesting to compare his report of the incident, which you can watch in a lecture he gives in this video:

His recounting of the events, which begins at about 1:45, is interesting to me as an embodiment of the disjunction. To a great degree, it has become difficult for the authorities of religion and the researchers of science to communicate. For example, one can actually read the text of the plenary address to which Professor Hawking was referring. Below is the portion of the speech most relevant to Hawking's account:

"Any scientific hypothesis on the origin of the world, such as the hypothesis of a primitive atom from which derived the whole of the physical universe, leaves open the problem concerning the universe's beginning. Science cannot of itself solve this question: there is needed that human knowledge that rises above physics and astrophysics and which is called metaphysics; there is needed above all the knowledge that comes from God's revelation."

First, there is a difference between the Pope's exhortation and the scientist's recollection, a difference that points to one important failure of communication: not only do the authorities of religion often fail to present their proclamations on science in relevant scientific terms, but science often consistently misrepresents these proclamations.

But secondly, Pope John Paul II's actual words brings to light the full gravity of the current breach between faith and science, which is primarily a battle over meaning. Professor Hawking undoubtedly understood the Pope's message to be: don't tread on the territory of faith, i.e., the beginning of the universe. But the fact that he misunderstood is not so much an error on his part as a now unavoidable disjunction between the realms of religion and science. The Pope did not really forbid hypotheses about the beginning of the universe, even the moment of its beginning; he merely drew attention to the incomplete nature of a purely scientific hypothesis. And this, in many ways, epitomizes this battle over meaning.

For certain sorts of materialist scientist, a complete knowledge of the entire scope of existence is theoretically within the competency of science. There are, he will admit, a number of hindrances which make this not practically the case. The scope of the project may very well exceed the lifetime of the human race, or any future rational species derivative our own. There is a cosmological horizon, a boundary beyond which precious information is literally forever beyond our reach, and this horizon daily tears more potential discoveries away. There are cultural, political, and personal interferences that make the scientific project inefficient, distort its findings, misappropriate its research, and so forth. But our knowledge is not limited by the object of our studies: given the right conditions, we could continue to build a more and more accurate model of the universe. Science is the study of material efficient causality through a methodology of observation and controlled experiment; a strictly material universe, assuming of course that it has uniform physical laws, has no secrets that such a methodology cannot eventually discover. Even if such a scientist admitted the possibility that non-material entities exist, he would note that any propositions regarding them are speculative at best.

This is, of course, not the case of all scientists, or even of all materialist scientist. I have constructed a radical example. But even a more moderate scientist, one who recognizes other sources of meaning besides science, may very well hold a modified version of this view: namely, that in the end science provides the best explanations for the phenomena around us, and that in view of this it is the best, even if not only, standard by which to judge explanations of the world.

The Pope's insight is to question the initial assumption that the only or the most valuable narratives are those of science. The more radical materialist scientist I mentioned above more readily demonstrates that such a view always begins with an initial, extra-scientific, materialist assumption. In other words, science cuts out a large variety of explanations, narratives, and meanings because of its methodology: whatever is not falsifiable through observation and experimentation, for example, cannot count as a scientific hypothesis. It is precisely through this methodology that modern natural science arrives at such highly certain conclusions, but it is also through this methodology that it must remain blind to other possibilities. It is powerful the same way a laser is powerful: by focusing on a particular area. For the extreme materialist, the only response that can be made is that the world really is that small: that whatever other apparently non-material phenomena, beliefs, and narratives have ever existed are all ultimately reducible to material states of affairs.

But even as he has this insight, he verges on trampling on the autonomy of science. I cannot speak on what the Pope meant to say, but what he said could very easily be taken as a warning to science. The trouble is that in many ways science should be left alone to do its job. History is full of examples of the faith proclaiming what did and did not count as legitimate scientific fields of inquiries or conclusions, often to the embarrassment of the Church. If science is in danger of not understanding the limitations of its own methodology, faith is in danger of not recognizing the power which science has in explaining natural phenomena.

This, then, is the heart of the disjunction: reason, here methodological scientific reason, has very strict requirements for what counts as a valid scientific hypothesis. Its findings are truly not subject to the censure or approval of faith: this is, in many ways, its value over previous natural philosophies. But at the same time, science has no ability to truly critique most of the content of faith, because the realities of faith are beyond its competencies. They are not, for that reason, unreal. Every miracle is always a temporary suspension of natural processes, an unrepeatable event whose validity lies not in the laboratory but in the liturgy and the memory of the Church. As both sides scramble to protect its claims from what it perceives as encroachment and usurpation by the other, a middle road is often difficult to find.

I do not believe this middle road lies, however, in the most easy conclusion one might make from this disjunction: that faith and science exist on parallel paths which never meet. This is because, though their methodologies might theoretically never meet, their practices overlap in space and time, and more importantly they overlap in the human person. It is impossible, short of a mental disorder, to separate our minds, habits, thoughts, and affections so thoroughly down the middle that no element of our faith should ever become commingled with an element of our rational pursuits. Nor do we really ever want this to be the case. For there was another insight which John Paul II had: faith and reason are ultimately complementary, even if separate. Science, limited in its scope by its methodology, must rely on extra-scientific sources for its inspiration, its ethical bounds, and the final meaning of its descriptions and explanations of the universe.

Monday, August 29, 2011


After inputting some information into an online joke generator a while back, I received back the following joke:

"What is Peter Abelard's favorite film?"

"It's a Sic et Nonderful Life."

At the time, I only chuckled mildly. Only later did I spot a hidden profundity in this mindless spawn of the Internet. The world is full of complication. While faith and science both proclaim the veracity or accuracy of their sometimes competing methodologies and conclusions, my existential position as an embodied and limited reasoner renders difficult the answers to seemingly simple questions. In the midst of attempting to embrace both the teachings of Catholicism and the findings of modern science, I am often placed at a crossroads with no signpost: questions of legitimacy, meaning, authority, and empiricism. I seem forced to respond to many of these questions, in the manner of Abelard himself: "sic et non." Yes and no.

Why does the world need yet another Catholic blogger who deals with issues of religion and science? And what qualifications could an engineering student with a background in philosophy, theology, and literature possibly bring to bear on a debate filled with the voices of Popes, Nobel Prize winners, Ph. D.'s, and a host of far more educated authorities from both sides of the perennial dispute over whence comes our most important understanding of ourselves and our world?

I can only hope I find an answer to these questions. The most important thing I can offer are two guiding principles to the discussion, principles I have often found missing from the blogs and web pages of Catholic and atheist alike: charity and true engagement.

Charity. The most immediate temptations in any discussion over meaningful issues are partisanship and willful disregard or manipulation of others' ideas and arguments. I feel obliged to find the strongest and most compelling reasons in anyone's argument, and even strengthen it if I can. Many, though not all, blogs, even Catholic blogs, are tainted to greater or lesser degrees with a lack of charity. Dissenters amongst commentators are often ridiculed, proclaimed "troublemakers," while their arguments, questions, doubts, and concerns are either wholly ignored or given only the most superfluous treatment.

Which leads to a lack of true engagement. Any question of sufficient complexity will have numerous apparent answers, not all of which are complementary and some of which will even appear contradictory. Even though I know a stick remains straight when I place it halfway into water, it still appears bent. There is a great deal of refusal to deal with contradictory appearances, and although in the case of the stick and the water it is a simple matter of a lesson in refraction in more complicated matters the different and sometimes contradictory appearances are cause not for the easy and insular retreat of dogmatism or the hazy and indistinct intellectual cowardice of hard relativism but for the long and arduous task of dialectic.

To some extent, a blog seems hardly the place to do this. Meaningful debate requires time, reiteration, revision, and focus; blogging is a genre which favors brevity. But on the other hand, the virtual medium, with its open forum for comment and counter comment, is ideal for discourse.

I invite anyone, then, to read and comment on the issues I will be presenting. Most of the posts will focus on issues of religion and science, although I reserve the right to post on just about anything I want. A few ground rules:

1) No unnecessary profanity or obscenity. I will be the final judge of what counts as "unnecessary profanity or obscenity."

2) No taking the Lord's name in vain.

3) Excessive ad hominem will be deleted.

Beyond that, most everything is fair game. In the end, if I accomplish nothing else, I hope that my commentators will help guide me toward more definitive answers, and, what's more important, more definitive questions. I hope at least that any readers bold and interested enough to go on this intellectual journey will agree with me that, to the thoughtful person, there is a degree to which it really is "a Sic et Nonderful Life."