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.

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