Are Catholic scientists a blessing or a curse to mankind?
My provocative headline raises a question that is quite real among those who subscribe to a secularist worldview, including very probably the majority of headline-grabbing scientists. Even among committed Catholics, the “blessing” answer may be affirmed only with fingers crossed behind the back. One somehow hopes Catholic scientists won’t let their Faith bias their research. The convictions and even fears which lead the contemporary world to question the scientific competence and veracity of Christian scientists are enormously widespread. They arise from the materialist reductionism which so severely limits our contemporary cultural worldview.
But it was not always this way. Science as it is understood today originated in the Catholic universities of the late medieval period. Christianity, with its perception of an ordered universe created through the infinite intellective capacity of a loving God, was actually an essential factor in the scientific approach to material reality, which is impossible unless there is a fundamental and persistent orderliness to the universe. The great discoveries for the first several hundred years of the history of experimental science were made by people of Faith, who firmly believed the universe was a triumph of the Divine intellect.
In many ways, however, the very success of scientific inquiry carried within it the seeds of its own destruction as a “pointer” to the Divine. There are many factors in the intellectual and cultural history which led to secularism, of course—not least the division of Christianity into hostile camps which themselves could not agree about the truth—but one of these factors, surely, is the sheer material success of modern science, a success which has strongly attracted two kinds of people: Those who suffer from increasing religious and philosophical doubts in a radically disunited world; and those who, succumbing to the perennial human temptations of pride, seek to proclaim themselves as the sole masters of the universe.
In a nutshell, that is why we have reached the situation we are in today, in which both the scientific community and the larger culture see religious scientists as clinging to an outmoded vision of reality which is likely to interfere with their scientific objectivity—as if science on the one hand, and philosophy and theology on the other, are competitors in the same intellectual space. And indeed, this conflict is inevitable for those who have fallen into the trap of believing the physical sciences are the only way to explore the totality of reality with useful results, because material things alone are real.
Unravelling the tangles
Into the dense intellectual fog created by all of this confusion comes Thomas B. Fowler with a new and important book, Science, Faith, and Scientists: The Quest to Understand Nature and What It Tells Us about Faith, Knowledge, and Reality. It is an extensive and carefully-researched book, but it is also written to take non-scientific readers step by step through the intellectual shifts that have led us to our current predicament. And it is written very much with the author’s fellow Catholics in mind.
In roughly the first third of the book, Dr. Fowler explores the genesis of the perceived conflict between Science and Faith. In chapter 1, he distinguishes between science and the interpretation of science, and summarizes the issues that have arisen as a result of failing to recognize this distinction. In an extensive second chapter, he provides a history of science as the human attempt to “know” nature, showing how the understanding of both the scope and goals of science gradually changed from the ancient world to the twenty-first century. This also includes more recent shifts that have not yet taken hold culturally—shifts in modern physics which significantly alter the scientific understanding of our ability to measure and specifically predict material causes and their effects, or even to understand the “fields” which seem to influence material behavior. Then, in chapter 3, the author answers the question “What is Science?”, signaling the difficulties created by philosophical “naturalism”.
In the middle portion of the book, Fowler examines science as it is often conceived in our culture today. In chapter 4, “Real Science by Real Scientists”, he examines the validity of the common sentiment that religious belief pollutes scientific objectivity and he finds, in chapter 5, that what has mostly happened is not that religion has interfered with science but that science itself has become a surrogate religion. Thus, in our contemporary culture, science is often regarded as a window on the totality of reality—for the exploration of which no other disciplines are needed and all other disciplines are harmful. This radical reductionism tends to characterize attitudes toward science and religion today, at least in the dominant culture.
Down the home stretch, the author explores this cultural context more fully in chapter 6, explaining that a great many thought leaders today have shifted from a “will to Truth” to a “will to Power”. Thus, in our culture, there is a great deal of energy expended to ensure that what secularist thinkers want to be true (in order to dominate society) must be universally accepted as true (the “will to Power”), regardless of the inherent contradictions. This goes far to explain why modern history seems to be shaped by one ideology after another, united in their denial of “non-scientific” sources of knowledge, including philosophical and theological moral knowledge. In Chapter 7, the author takes a close look at the relationship between “Truth and Science”, and in Chapter 8, the relationship between “Religious Belief and Science” historically and currently.
The last chapter offers Fowler’s “Conclusions and Recommendations”, which summarize the major themes of the book, review the current situation, and explain the clear advantages possessed by scientists of faith precisely because they have an extra-scientific respect for truth—which is essential to saving science from itself, so to speak. There is, after all, a growing trend within the secular scientific establishment to refuse to acknowledge evidence which calls materialist reductionism into question, and to falsify evidence in order to preserve one’s status in the field—not to mention strong pressure to avoid questions and conclusions which undermine the dominant cultural consensus, as the “will to Power” grows generally in the West.
Fascinating Story, Compelling Analysis
In one sense, this is not an easy book. The whole nexus of science, philosophy and faith is complex and full of vital distinctions; the formative historical developments are widely misunderstood; and the dividing line between competent philosophical analysis and mere prejudice is blurred with ever-increasing frequency. Fortunately, Tom Fowler has degrees in both philosophy and physics along with a career in systems analysis to sustain him in this endeavor, not to mention many years of college teaching—which reveal their influence in the clarity of his presentation of even the most difficult topics.
Therefore, in another important sense, this is a very accessible book for those who are willing to take the time to read it carefully. The superb organization of the text; the patient unfolding of the argument; the authorial competence in handling scientific, historical and philosophical issues; even the many accompanying graphs, charts and Venn diagrams: All these ensure that any reader who can, for example, enjoy the commentaries of Phil Lawler and myself on CatholicCulture.org, will not only thoroughly understand Science, Faith, and Scientists but, by taking things at a measured pace, very much enjoy both the narrative and the insights it triggers along the way.
That is how I read it, slowly and carefully wherever the subject matter was outside my normal scope, and now I am convinced that this is one of the most important books published in 2020—and almost certainly the most comprehensive and important study yet written on a critical and fascinating topic which affects every one of us today. My advice, then, is simple: Purchase a copy for yourself. Read it. Internalize its thesis. Save the book in your library. And in conversations or debates, feel free to lean on it. You may not master this subject yourself; but you will know who did.
Thomas B. Fowler, Science, Faith, and Scientists: The Quest to Understand Nature and What It Tells Us about Faith, Knowledge, and Reality. Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America, Washington, DC: 2020. Paper 383pp. $39.95.
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Posted by: Alcuin -
Nov. 10, 2020 3:03 PM ET USA
As a practicing scientist, I would like to emphasize that the Catholic's 'extra-scientific respect for truth' is not just some angle that Fowler cooked up. In one seminar I attended 10 years ago, we were exhorted to substitute Utility for Scientific Truth. Essentially: 'Of course your model will be wrong, but who cares if it cures cancer.' The lecturer correctly dismissed my objections as 'medieval'. Fortunately, the majority of scientist retain such 'medieval' thoughts. For now.
Posted by: philtech2465 -
Nov. 09, 2020 2:02 PM ET USA
Empirical science and Divine Revelation are both sources of truth. If they appear to conflict, that means we don't properly understand one or both of them. Quickly discarding one for the other is never a good approach.
Posted by: ZubirianCatholic -
Nov. 07, 2020 8:58 PM ET USA
What a great review. I look forward to getting a copy myself. It was Fowler who led me to Zubiri's Catholic philosophy years ago. It has been one of the pillars that have helped me maintain my faith all the while integrating what my studies in physics and neurology could have led me to otherwise believe in.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Nov. 07, 2020 12:05 PM ET USA
When I worked as an experimental scientist, and even now in my retired state when I am hanging loudspeakers from a vaulted ceiling, the only religion that matters in these endeavors is trust that God didn't make a mistake when creating the "laws" of physics.
Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 -
Nov. 06, 2020 4:13 PM ET USA
"One somehow hopes Catholic scientists won’t let their Faith bias their research." Yeah, when I'm performing computer simulations of metastable decay in the Ising model on regular lattices with hyperbolic geometry, I have to take special care not to let the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary bias my research. Almost no science has anything more to do with religion than a chili cookoff.