Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Purifying science from idolatry and false absolutes

(Formerly titled: The Catholic Faith is the fixed point on which we move the world )

An essay in which I argue that scientists make for poor moralists and that the only institution in the world able to call these scientists to account is the Roman Catholic Church, because only within her the fusion of faith and reason has come to full fruition..

Brethren, Peace be with you! I hope and pray you’ve been set afire by the Holy Spirit as we made his bestowing present once again the liturgy last Sunday.
Today, I wish to knit a “tapestry” of considerations about the relationship between empirical science and morality. Each consideration stands by itself but it is related to the next one. The last consideration will consist of a conclusion which, I hope, will bring all the treads together.

1. Last Sunday I watched the last episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odissey, ably hosted by renowned astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. As many of you might know, this show was a follow-up to Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, first broadcasted in 1980, conceived and hosted by the late planetary astronomer Carl Sagan. In the final episode, Dr. Tyson finished with a paean to empirical science as perhaps the only quest for truth that matters, leaving us with the primary, four-point scientific toolkit as his best legacy:
• “challenge authority” (including his own)
•"follow the evidence wherever it leads,"
• "question everything," and
• “put things to the test”.
Can science sin? – Dr. Tyson asked his audience while in the background, a thermonuclear mushroom cloud arose.  The answer is “yes” – he concluded.  After listing all the landmark scientists mentioned in the series, Dr. Tyson concluded Yes –They were human.

2. Despite Dr. Tyson’s heartfelt appeal for science in a way that reminded me of a religious appeal, one shifting our feelings of awe and reverence to the universe and the unfettered inquisitive mind, as well as the mandatory “think about the children!” statement, I must in turn question the questioner. For you see, I think even now science and scientists fail us in moral matters of the first order in favor of politics of a certain color.
First thing that comes to mind: abortion. It is a fact that the awe we feel at understanding that 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution yield a beautiful, unique, and unrepeatable human being is not enough to either deter or stop a woman – often pressured, aided, and abetted, by a man – to destroy that being in the most arbitrary manner ever devised for one being to exercise the right to deny the right to life to an innocent other. Despite the science that shows the humanity of the unborn from the moment of conception, abortion advocates affirm that the unborn are even “alive” until after they leave the hospital. Repeatedly in her discourses and addresses she bases her positions on science.

Where’s the outrage from the scientific community at the politically correct (P.C.) mob justifying their barbarism by invoking science?
3. I can multiply the examples. What made the American Psychiatric Association remove homosexuality from their list of mental illness? Was it science? No, it was politics. Is there a “gay gene”? None has been found yet; however, that there is one is taken for granted. Deny it and the P.C. mob will come after you. Is homosexuality a permanent state? Many former homosexuals say “no.” Do “science-based” conversion therapies work? Many former homosexuals as well as therapists say “yes.” Can these assertions be tested by scientists in the bigger universities? Yes, but try it and the P.C. mob hiss and yell and if you are tenured, watch out. The P.C. mob is not shy at going after the former homosexual either, humiliating him, taunting him, and questioning his or her character.  Finally, what about that increasing number of men and women who mutilate themselves into believing they are members of the opposite sex? Where is the science in that? (Some scientists who have little to lose, do question…)

For all the protestations Dr. Tyson makes against the anti-science mob, where’s the scientific community’s indignation at having another mob stop the advance of science for political considerations? Where’s the special T.V. series studying that effect? Would Ann Drunyan write the script for one or more episodes of such a series? Would Seth MacFarlane underwrite it? Would Dr. Tyson present it with the same affability and earnestness he did Cosmos?
I venture that the answers will be “nowhere, nowhere, not in your dreams, don’t make me laugh” and “I’m sorry but I have other engagements.” I can bring up a couple of more examples, but these will have to do for now.

The tragedy here that despite Dr. Tyson’s plaintive exhortations, many people who see themselves as holding “scientific worldviews” hold to authorities they won’t challenge, and orthodoxies they don’t question.
4. I think and believe wholeheartedly that the only institution left in the planet able to check the moralistic pretensions of today’s rationalists – whether they are scientists or not – is the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, the Church did not look good in this latest iteration of Cosmos. Dr. Tyson mentioned the Church by name about three times in the first episode while animated comics reminiscent of Jack T. Chick’s played in the foreground.  One wonders why a series devoted to the spreading the knowledge of science among the public has to do with portraying dark, sinister, malevolent Catholic priests who once (supposedly) questioned the dawn of the scientific method, unless the scriptwriter (Ms. Drunyan) had wanted to epitomize the Church as that foremost authority which must be questioned, always.
The Papacy and the intellectual classes of the Church didn’t remain frozen in some sort of catatonic fundamentalism. They were keenly aware then, as we are today, of St. Augustine of Hippo’s fundamental insight regarding the relationship between faith and reason, all the way back in the 5th century:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.
With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation. ~St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis.
Quietly, Catholic Christians in religious orders and universities went to work to verify by themselves the new scientific claims about the order of the heavens. In the process, the Vatican Observatory came online in 1774, crowning an interest in astronomy dating centuries. Many of the new scientists were Jesuits.  In fact, 35 moon craters are named after Jesuit selenographers. In the 19th century, George Mendel , an Augustinian friar – the same order Martin Luther was a member of – discovered the laws of inheritance and set the stage for the advent of modern genetics. Fast-forward to the 20th century and we find Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – another Jesuit – was involved in the discovery of Homo erectus pekinensis (“Peking Man”) and then dedicated most of his life trying to reconcile cosmic and biological evolution with the Christian faith – unsuccessfully, in my estimation, but nice try. Then we have of course Fr. Georges Lemaître, a secular priest, who first conceived of the primeval singularity and of the “Big Bang,” and on and on.
There is nothing inimical in Catholic teaching against the empirical scientific method and findings derived from it. The “Galileo Affair” as well as others took place under particular historical circumstances tied to controversies on issues of ecclesiastical authority, not doctrine, or any misconceived opposition between faith and reason. For in the fusion than in Rome was made of Athens and Jerusalem, modern science founds its cradle: the notion of cosmos, apart from God, and endowed with its own laws discoverable through rational inquiry made Western Europe, not China, India, or the Islamic sphere, the place where the scientific revolution took place.

The Catholic faith has a clear understanding of the limits of natural reason and reason aided by faith, in understanding the created order and the history of salvation. Albert Einstein got it right when he said "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." But St. John Paul said it best: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes."
The Catholic faith is the one fixed point Archimedes wished for in order to move the world. Our faith allows us to question scientists in ways they are not used to be questioned: prophetically. We call to their attention bad things they have done, or allow to be done, as well as good things they have not done. Science might be a powerful tool and its findings have been revolutionary and relevant to everyday life, but if falls short in explaining the telos or ultimate finality of the human race, which is God.

So yes, “challenge every authority,” especially those who say “the Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be” (Sagan); “follow the evidence wherever it leads” and if when it leads you to recognize the dignity of the human life spectrum from conception to natural death, respect that life; "question everything,” especially those who say that human natural in general, and human sexuality in particular, is malleable by social engineering and the politics behind it; and “put things to the test”. Yes, test all things, most especially those who deny the existence of God and affirm that human will and ingenuity are the ultimate power in this world.
Remember this: the Catholic Faith is that fixed point on which we move the world. We Catholics are called to be the ones who challenge scientists not to fall into idolatry and false absolutes.

* Edited: June 6. 2012