Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Need for a New Synthesis

St. Thomas Aquinas is responsible for the last, greatest synthesis of theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologica. Its importance to Christianity during the previous millennium cannot be understated, since even well into the 19th century the Church prescribed the study of St. Thomas and the body of scholasticism as the bread and butter of Catholic theology, and especially as an antidote as what was called the Modernist heresy.

That synthesis is now nearly eight hundred years old. It was written prior to the most revolutionary five hundred years in the history of humanity, an era when man learned how to hone and focus his observational powers, when he learned that the truths handed down to him do not always stand the test of honest scrutiny, when, in short, he learned the weakness of arguments from authority. Such insights can easily appear dangerous to an institution founded upon principles of faith. While it is a fabrication to say that the Church and science have always and everywhere been mortal enemies, it is only a matter of history that the Church has not always been friendly to science; it is only a couple of decades since the Church, in the person of Pope John Paul II, apologized for its treatment of Galileo, and even the progressive views of that Pope contain numerous admonitions to science, warnings about its limitations, and hints (and outright declarations) of the inherit superiority of theology and the faith. I do not mean to disparage that beloved Pope, who certainly did much to change the Church's public stance on modern science from the curmudgeony condemnations of earlier pontiffs. I simply mean to say that, in general, the Church's policy towards science has been one of - at best - a sense of motherly guidance (if not to say, overbearing interference), and at worst a sense of annoyance, irritation, and fear towards a discipline that offers the possibility of discovering reality through one's own senses rather than through submission to received wisdom.

This somewhat dour picture of antithesis is not without its flaws. For one, modern science grew out of a Catholic culture (even if it was sometimes oppressed by that culture). Many early scientists saw their work (or, at least, went through the trouble of pretending to see their work) as consonant with faith, with belief in a God who orders the universe. And to return once again to the figure of John Paul II, there may very well be a way that the Church has recognized the need for a new synthesis, even if the hierarchy has not yet come to the realization of the full implications of such a synthesis. As late as sixty or seventy years ago, the Church's leadership continued to pronounce its skepticism of evolution, its concerns over the growing pluralism of western society, a fear of the relativism that might result from certain sorts of ecumenical or inter-faith dialogue and interactions, and perhaps above all of the continuing secularization of society that chipped away slowly the last vestiges of the Vatican's then-already-absent secular power. Then came Pope John Paul II. Then came an acknowledgement of the soundness of evolutionary theory (and, indeed, of the validity and importance of broader attempts at a fully scientific cosmology), an acknowledgement that the Church had mishandled its relationship with science, an acknowledgement - if not of the full truth - at least of the dignity and importance of other religions, of a need to dialogue and even cooperate. In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, the Pope offered the image of faith and reason in full cooperation, even as co-equals, the two wings of a dove.

Yet it is clear that despite whatever good intentions coincided with the late pontiff's hinting at a new synthesis, no full-bodied attempt at reconciling the faith with science has emerged. There are two responses that appear often, but which far from representing synthesis rather represent deformation either of faith or science. On the one hand are those who, so jealous of Theology maintaining her crown, put her in a position of ultimate authority over all the other sciences - despite how ignorant she has often proved on matters of physical sciences, they follow her lead, place all questions under her final judgment, and when the other sciences clamor about such trivialities as evidence, observation, and so forth, Theology's eager servants scoff at what they consider the unbounded pride of the little, sinful creature called man. On the other, the elite enlightened, who view faith and the institutions of religions as (perhaps dignified, perhaps decrepit) relics of a bygone age, who armed with telescopes and computers and particle colliders have come to believe themselves the possessors of the truth - that either God doesn't exist, or even if He does we do not have any evidence (as though God were to appear to them if only they slam protons together hard enough). Lady Theology is for them either that ranting old lady that one smiles sadly at as one walks by, or perhaps a madwoman who needs to be locked away - for the good of humanity. These two images are, of course, caricatures (though it is certainly true that both sides have members for whom these would be perfect portraits), and perhaps the larger portion, both of scientists and the faithful (and, of course, faithful scientists) somehow manage to accept the validity of both disciplines - or manage not to think about the subject at all.

In any case, a synthesis has not emerged. Perhaps it is because the implications of such a synthesis would be so dangerous to the more radical members of both camps. For one, the recognition of the true validity of modern science and the postmodern sciences would mean the Church must reevaluate Her own position vis-a-vis truth. She makes claims of two different types: claims that can falsified empirically and claims that cannot be falsified empirically. But the falsification of the former would imply the potential falsehood of the latter: that is, if the Church's claims about anything observable turn out to be false, this would imply the real possibility that Her claims about the unobservable realities might also be false. This matter is of some relevance to the Galileo case: the Church (or, at least, Her ministers) really did claim that it was a matter of faith that the earth was the immobile center of the universe, and however Her apologists might try to distance themselves from that claim or modify that claim into something more acceptable to modern ears it is clear that this was mistaken - even the Pope has, finally, admitted it! Of course, the Church can maintain the infallibility of its doctrine by retroactively excising from Her teaching anything that has been falsified, but this cannot help but appear to be a semantic game, a post hoc "correcting" of the past to fit the needs of the present. But such a synthesis would cut two ways: scientists already recognize, for the most part (there are exceptions, one being the notable popular scientist Stephen Hawking) that there are limits to scientific methodology. But there nevertheless remains what I would call a truly scientific prejudice: that unless a claim is subject to verification through scientific methodology, it should be viewed, if not as false, at least as a suspicious and perhaps entirely trivial claim. Yet, as another odd piece of this prejudice, it is rarely directed at anything other than specifically religious claims: that is, few individuals of this mindset have complained about our belief in the reign of a king called Nebuchadnezzar, though a few might complain about our belief in a man named Jesus; history is not subject to suspicion, as long as it remains tame. But if the history contains a miracle, this is taken as reason enough to discount it! This prejudice is, of course, utterly unscientific in its origins: a history claiming that a miraculous event took place must be judged on its historical, rather than scientific, validity. This is not to say that there is no reason to not investigate such claims; only that there is no reason to discount the supernatural simply because it is supernatural.

In short, the synthesis would require a great deal of true humility on the part both of those who prize the faith and those who prize science (and, perhaps most of all, from those admirable individuals who truly prize both, and whose leadership in such a synthesis would be essential). Yet I fear that such a synthesis will never appear, because the cost to both sides would be so great - that is, the cost in terms of prestige and social power. Yet, to be honest, such a synthesis would likely be far more costly to the Church than to the institutions of science. Science has on its side the fact that it is a truly democratic process, while the Church remains, for good or for ill, a hierarchy - in fact, it is quite arguable that as science has grown more democratic, the Church has grown more and more a hierarchy.

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