There I was, listening to a Catholic argument for Young Earth Creationism. Only a week earlier, I had explained to a friend how Catholics aren’t really susceptible to the fideistic Creationism seen in many Protestant churches. Now, I found myself before a Catholic speaker arguing for a historical reading of the six days of creation and claiming that the earth was only 6,000 years old: Not only did the Bible say so, but the Fathers of the Church said so, and until this century, all the Saints and Councils and Popes said so as well.
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
Tonight, with Christmas Eve only a week away, the Church’s liturgy intensifies in anticipation for the coming of the Savior. Each evening until then, at the Magnificat, the Church prays one of the O Antiphons, a series of invocations to the Lord, each beginning with one of the titles applied to Him in the Old Testament. The first one, quoted above, is sung at Vespers this evening:
O Wisdom, who hast proceeded from the mouth of the Most High, who reaches from end to end mightily and orders all things sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence” (cf. Ws 8:1).
The idea of wisdom is not unique to the Scriptures.
I enjoy reading Edward O. Wilson much more than Richard Dawkins, and recently I started to ask myself why this might be. Both are good writers and present difficult scientific concepts in easy-to-understand language. Both work in the controversial area of sociobiology and the evolution of human beings. Both are post-Christian thinkers with little interest in the nuances and delicacies of theological reasoning. What separates these two men? And, even when we don’t agree with him, what makes Wilson so appealing and interesting? I think it comes down to the fact that, while Dawkins is a biologist, Wilson is a naturalist.
Why is there something rather than nothing? This question, usually thought to fall strictly within the purview of philosophy and theology, has recently received attention in the world of popular science thanks to books by Stephen Hawking and Lawrence M. Krauss. Interestingly, these authors propose something similar to what Christians have always believed—that the universe came into existence out of nothing, or ex nihilo—but they think this could have happened spontaneously, or without God.
You can’t argue with that: it’s science!
With all the force of an incantation, these two words have the power to transport their speaker to the heights of argumentative high ground. Flung down like a nobleman’s gauntlet, they indicate that the debate has just taken a definitive—and deadly—turn. The “argument from science” is one of the most effective weapons today’s disputants keep in their arsenal. I’m not talking about the legitimate use of a well-chosen example from biology, or a knowledgeable appeal to an obscure experiment from particle physics. I’m talking about the argumentative one-punch KO, “You must be wrong because some Scientist somewhere said otherwise.” And yes, “Scientist” gets capitalized.
There’s something particularly satisfying about putting that last piece into a big puzzle. And nothing is more frustrating than the dreaded realization, as you are just about finished, that a piece is missing, and when the frantic search under chairs, tables, and couches ensues. Sure, the picture is mostly there and you can see whats going on, but there’s a gaping hole that screams for attention and demands to be filled. It’s bad enough if you simply knocked the piece off the table, or if it fell out of the box down in the basement, but what if you weren’t completely certain the piece ever existed in the first place?
Before I entered the Dominican Order, I completed a doctorate in mathematics, in which I focused on the narrow subfield of applied probability; this, as esoteric as it seems, has come in handy at least once in discussions among the brethren. Without going into the great, gory details, let me simply say that I wrote about a model for large polymer molecules, such as proteins or DNA, and how their shape changes when pulled in one direction. This model is called stochastic, that is, it takes into account the random movement of the fluid that surrounds the polymer and examines the net effect on its motion.
While I researched this model, I often wondered: is this motion, or any event, truly random? That is, can there be any effect whose cause is completely uncertain, or which has no cause at all?
I’ve probably had the conversation a couple of dozen times over the years and, admittedly, with a bit more frequency since I started wearing medieval garb. When people discover that I’m Catholic and that I have a background in physics, they often want to know how exactly I do it—how I deal with all the tensions and “incompatibilities” between faith and science. The general impression seems to be that a scientist is not allowed to believe in religious mumbo-jumbo, and a Christian can’t really accept the findings of modern science.
The modern world is a materialistic one. Many of us can only believe in what we are able to quantify, what we can measure and put into mathematical formulae. Many think that no one truly knows a thing except through scientific experiment. Thus, studies continually come out attempting to prove what we already know: eating lots of fatty foods will make one fat; not getting enough sleep will make one less productive; spouses who constantly fight are more likely to divorce; people who work hard tend to make more money…
But is all knowledge reducible to the measurement of matter? Can we know more than what science and social science tell us?
“Reality is everything that exists. That sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Actually it isn’t.” Thus begins Professor Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Magic of Reality. In order to explain reality, Professor Dawkins takes us on a tour of modern science by contrasting its explanations with those we find in myths and fables: ”These are the stories we all remember with fondness from our childhood, and many of us still enjoy when served up in a traditional Christmas pantomime—but we all know this kind of magic’s just fiction and does not happen in reality.” “This kind of magic” he calls “supernatural” magic, and he contrasts it with the “magic of reality,” that is, modern science. “The magic of reality,” he goes on to say, “is neither supernatural nor a trick, but—quite simply—wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”
Dawkins’ point is simple: modern science gives true accounts of reality, while mythical stories give false accounts. I think we can all agree with this to a point, but as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” In this case, the details lie in what he means by “modern science” and what he means by “mythical story.” His notion of modern science is common enough: data gathered through our senses by means of experiment and organized in models which best represent what we observe. This definition is fairly straightforward and unproblematic; anyone who has been through school is familiar with it. The problem comes in his notion of mythical story.