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Unbelievable category mistakes

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 05, 2019

It is difficult to know how best to review Michael Newton Keas’ new book, Unbelievable, published by ISI Books. Subtitled “7 myths about the history and future of science and religion”, the book very successfully debunks the following myths:

  1. Christians traditionally believed in a small universe designed by God for mankind, and science has proven a vast universe which renders mankind insignificant.
  2. The Catholicism of the Middle Ages suppressed science, thereby delaying true human enlightenment for centuries.
  3. This myopia led people to believe the earth was flat until Columbus proved it was round, thereby again shattering religiously-sanctioned beliefs.
  4. Giordano Bruno was a martyr for science, executed by the Church for accepting Copernican heliocentricism.
  5. Galileo’s denunciation and arrest by the Holy Office continued to prove Christian/Catholic opposition to the scientific quest for truth.
  6. Copernican heliocentricity “demoted” mankind from a central position in the universe, thereby revealing the falsity of the Christian view of the centrality of the human person to Divine Providence.
  7. The certain future discovery of extraterrestrial life in our vast universe will seal the coffin of Christian belief in God’s focus on man in the drama of sin and salvation.

The first part of the book (“7 Myths about Science and Religion at War”) details the partly deliberate development of these myths to hammer Christianity, tracing their origin and rise to dominance in popular science and textbooks. The second part (“Seeking Sources and Solutions for the Warfare Myths”) more thoroughly charts the development of science fiction as a powerfully anti-theistic myth of the future—as aptly illustrated with the television series Cosmos—and explores important sources for a constructive relationship between science and faith as exemplified by Johannes Kepler and early American scientists.

Keas has done excellent research. Again and again he marshals texts which show the articulation and development of the “seven myths” as tools to used to weaken religious faith. His firm grasp of the printed opinions of scientific writers and popularizers from the seventeenth century onwards leaves no doubt about either the gratuitous nature of these myths or the determination to perpetuate them owing to the steady growth in the hostility of the Western intellectual class to Christianity over the past several centuries. It is important also to mention the role which anti-Catholic polemics among Protestants played in exacerbating the mindless contempt in which the medieval Church was held by the increasingly secular elites of the modern West.

Add to this that Unbelievable is well-written in a lively way which thoroughly engages the reader. For everything I have mentioned so far, then, I can recommend the book unreservedly, with the additional promise that the book can be followed easily, read quickly, and enjoyed immensely: Michael Newton Keas offers outstanding bang for the buck.

Apologetics vs. cultural history

But Unbelievable is not nearly as deep a book as it could be for the simple reason that it is almost exclusively occupied with what we might call pure apologetics. This is not surprising, as the author is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and serves on the board of directors of Ratio Christi, an alliance of apologetics clubs on college campuses, which has a broadly Christian purpose (without the fullness of Catholicism). As a general rule, this approach to argument undervalues two things: (1) In history, the importance of human culture; and (2) In philosophy, the importance of category mistakes.

This is significant for Unbelievable because there are really two issues at stake. The simpler (and less important) issue is whether the Church, either in general or at any given time, impeded scientific inquiry or mistreated the champions of science—proposing, in effect, a faith vs. science dialectic. The second is the larger and more difficult question of whether, even without the Church’s complicity or guilt, questions of conflict between faith and science haunted the cultures of the day. Keas is excellent on the first question…and ignores the second.

Reading Keas’ account the reader can fall easily into the trap of imagining that, because these myths were in some sense made up by one side to weaken the other, they could not have represented significant concerns with which many people grappled within the cultures in which each of the myths took root. It may not have been necessary theologically for Christians to be disturbed, for example, by the shift from geocentricity to heliocentricity or by a growing observational awareness of the vastness of the universe, but that many were disturbed by these things is evidenced by at least some writings at the time and, in fact, precisely by the relatively rapid traction gained by the myths.

Thus we see a gradual shift among the intellectual classes away from the intensely personal nature of Christian theology and into Deism, beginning in the late seventeenth century. this was followed by similar shifts throughout society over time as the increasingly secularized intellectual classes gained control over education and education itself became more widespread—and ultimately compulsory. It is not to be imagined that it was mythologized science alone that triggered such shifts. At the same time, it is certainly true that some employed the myths, or even deliberately enhanced them, as useful tools for the diminishment of the Catholic Church or of Christianity as a whole, and that they did so because they were hostile to God and Christ for different reasons, including serious moral reasons. After all, we see exactly the same pattern in Catholic theological dissent today.

But we can also enumerate several broad cultural influences which fostered this disaffection from Christian orthodoxy. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, then, we witness the following: (a) a rediscovery of classical literature with its emphasis on man as the measure of all things; (2) the political preoccupations and corruption of the Catholic Church; (3) the splintering of Christianity by the Protestant Revolt, which communicated clearly that even Christians could not agree on what was true (contributing to the rise of skepticism); (4) the discovery of undreamed of peoples in largely unknown places around the globe, all with vastly different cultural approaches to reality (a stimulus to relativism); (5) a consequent emphasis on reason divorced from faith as a safe haven for human development; (6) rapid advances in the human sciences which pointed to a better future; and (7) the rise of the myth of Progress, and one futuristic utopian scheme after another as people shifted their hopes accordingly.

My point in mentioning all this is that a demonstration of “science vs. faith” myth-making is not sufficient to understand or respond fully to the cultural perceptions and needs which have arisen during this long period of the gestation of modernism. Moreover, one must raise the question of the relevance of this myth-busting now. I would say it is very relevant to a secularist who has been raised on such lies, for if the secularist can begin to question his dogmas, he may begin to perceive the importance of an open mind. But apart from this apologetical mission to secularists, how important is the myth-busting to Christians themselves? I am guessing that those who tend toward fundamentalism might be relieved by this study, and those who tend toward liberal Christianity might be beneficially chastened by it. But most of the readers of are (I am guessing) aware of the many lies told about the Church in the presentation of the cases mentioned. Moreover, I presume they no longer find the particular myths covered by this book—myths about the significance of the size and layout of the universe, or the possibility of extra-terrestrial life—to be at all troubling to their Faith.

Category Mistakes

The reason for this unconcern is not that these myths are not culturally significant. My point in the preceding section is that the only real significance they have is cultural, and as such I expect most of my readers to know already at least in general how vapid they are, and how insufficient by themselves to generate the sort of malaise which is attributed to them. But my point is also that the standard apologetics of exposing the falsehood involved in the myths is insufficient to the purpose of dispelling the concerns the myths serve to exacerbate. And that is precisely because the cosmological interpretations which underlie these myths all depend for their power on category mistakes.

To put the matter simply, the architecture of the physical universe tells us absolutely nothing about our relationship with God. We are free to theorize about the laws governing this architecture in a thousand ways without once touching on the drama of sin and redemption resolved in Jesus Christ. To conflate the two is to make what in philosophy is known as a category mistake—to argue from the methods and principles appropriate to one aspect of reality in order to find solutions appropriate to a completely different aspect of reality. Again, I suspect most of my readers know this, and because they know it, they are not in the least perturbed, as some of their ancestors may have been, by the theory of heliocentricity, the vastness of the universe, or the prospects of extraterrestrial life. They see immediately that this does not touch the matter of their relationship with God at all.

So how could this ever be a problem? The answer lies in our cultural patterns of thinking, which we have to overcome to avoid category mistakes, and which can be difficult to overcome for the simple reason that information which poses problems according to our current manner of thought may require a different way of thinking to resolve. In other words, it may require the recognition that something upsets us only because we have fallen unknowingly into a category mistake. We are, after all, always to some degree culture bound.

If we find it difficult to imagine how this would work, I think a brief consideration of the theory of evolution will provide the needed illustration, for the evolution controversy is still fresh enough in the minds of many Christians to make them uneasy. In fact, the idea that evolution disproves Divine creation is a far more relevant myth today than those discussed by Keas in Unbelievable. Thus many continue to struggle with the possibility—as strongly suggested but probably not conclusively proven by modern science—that the human species may have emerged over a period of time through a process of evolution, perhaps even influenced by what we are pleased to call random mutations.

This presents us with exactly the two problems which Copernicus (safely) and Galileo (unsafely) presented to ecclesiastical authority. In the first place, the theory of evolution disrupts our sense of the personal involvement of God in the purposeful and loving creation of man just as heliocentricity seems to shift God’s personal gaze away from mankind as the center of His concerns. In the second place, evolution seems in some ways to contradict Sacred Scripture (some aspects of the Creation story in Genesis), just as the earlier theory ran afoul of a few passages such as the one that says Joshua made the sun stand still.

The Scriptural objections are easily dealt with now, as they were then. Just as it is possible to dismiss the difficulty concerning Joshua as language suited to ordinary human perceptions (after all, people still say the sun rises and sets without being called liars), so is it possible to dismiss the Genesis question by perceiving that the passages in question are not written as literal history but to teach something about the relationship between God and man—and this is strengthened immediately by the realization that there are actually two different accounts of creation in Genesis. (Moreover, one of these accounts actually matches quite well with the order of the developmental appearance of different types of beings as understood in the theory of evolution.)

But what I might call the psychological and, in this case, the profound cultural impact of the theory of evolution was very powerful because Christians had been used to thinking about Creation in particular patterns infused with Biblical imagery, and even more used to considering “creation” in human terms, as a kind of “making” out of pre-existing material—as God made Adam from the earth and Eve from Adam’s rib. Many Catholics who are still living have wrestled off and on with this problem, without being convinced that they have found a perfect solution. And yet, right or wrong, the problem disappears completely as soon as we realize that we are guilty of a category mistake.

For God does not create as we do. We “create” by manufacturing things from other things; God creates ex nihilo—out of nothing. Now of course, God could have created each individual species out of nothing, but even that bleary-eyed medieval dunderhead, St. Thomas Aquinas, knew that it took a far superior workman to create out of nothing while imparting to the things He created certain potentialities and principles which would govern their future development, at length attaining everything envisioned at the originating moment. In other words, it is just as easy for God to create the various species through an original creation which unfolded through in-built potentialities and principles of operation, as to create each species out of nothing, singly, one at a time.

That is why Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis taught that Catholics could entertain the theory of evolution as long as they ruled out polygenism and acknowledged the infusion of each person’s soul by God.

Once the category mistake is recognized—that the term “create” has different meanings in radically different aspects or spheres of reality, for ourselves and for God—the problem vanishes. Now we can chuckle over the fact that the theory of evolution ever caused us any consternation whatsoever, even for a moment. And so it is with the cosmological myths so successfully debunked in Unbelievable. Insofar as these myths are framed against Christians—or taken up by Christians—in ways that appear to disrupt the Christian faith, it is because both the perpetrators and the victims have a marked tendency toward category mistakes.


Now, of course, arguments which explain or even justify particular behaviors of particular Churchmen have their own value, and it is part of the purpose of Unbelievable to set the human record straight. For this among other reasons, I was reluctant to write this review, for I knew it would mean taking up a book that was well done on its own terms—and that remains very much worth reading—only with a larger and therefore partially critical purpose in mind. But I was urged to do it, and the reader can judge whether this is unfair.

Here is the justification: If you add an understanding of how human culture is shaped by, and in turn shapes, our insecurities and discontents, the work of Michael Newton Keas should become more than a finely-turned argument. It should become a stimulus to an even deeper understanding of Western history. And if you start thinking in terms of category mistakes, you will understand better the limitations of apologetical arguments which match up precisely with the unbeliever’s contemptuous barbs, as important as these arguments may be.

Now let me close with a story. Similar to the many works of popular science and textbooks cited by Keas, the biology textbook assigned to me in my freshman year at college in 1966 asserted right from the first that the astonishing number of species known by scientists must exceed even the creative powers of God. The meaning, of course, was that this marvelous fecundity is somehow just one more disproof of the God-myth. Most such arguments are exactly like this—a matter of misapplied perception. Anyway, I read that in class one day, and I wondered out loud whether the author knew the meaning of the word “eternal”. (Yes, I was forever piping up even then!)

My thought was that no quantitative task can be impossible to an eternal Being. Good enough for a frosh, I suppose, but I would have been smarter still to recognize my own category mistake. It will not do, after all, to respond as if the answer consists solely in God having endless time to cobble together one species after another. For this is not how God creates.

So if you prefer to avoid anxieties which disrupt your peace of soul, always look first for the category mistake. After that, you may need to address the hold which certain erroneous ideas have on the culture that surrounds you. But you will know enough, at least, to give people’s foibles and insecurities their due, many of which are inherited honestly from this same cultural formation. You will not fall into the trap of thinking that, if only you can prove that a common idea involves a lie or a distortion, then the problem it poses will disappear from people’s minds and hearts. You will be more successful at spotting the real impediments to Christian assent, enabling you better to choose the right battles to fight. And, above the fray, your own faith will remain not just arguable but…believable.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 13, 2019 12:32 PM ET USA

    This is an interesting discussion, but again the categories are blurred. "Random" in science does not mean anything like what we would consider totally random in the strictly logical meaning of the term. In fact, randomness for all things occurs within a relatively limited range of possibilities, according to their nature. So too with God's creative power. What may be attributed to "intended" or "healthy" randomness occurs within an even narrower range (as opposed to the deadly randomness which, outside the normal range, actually destroys). It is perfectly legitimate Biblically and theologically to postulate an evolutionary process arising from such a randomness which is (a) built into all things by their Creator; and (b) in fact designed by Him to lead to the developments He intends. So again, a population of hominids--whether two or more--could have developed at some point from which God chose one male and one female into which to infuse intellective souls (whether at the moment of conception or as a kind of adult "awakening"). We do not know; but what we do know is that we must avoid category mistakes in assessing the possibilities. "Randomness", improperly understood in the scientific sense, is yet another concept that frequently leads to category mistakes--not least among scientists themselves.

  • Posted by: geardoid - Apr. 12, 2019 7:35 PM ET USA

    Evolution by natural selection has more than a biological-anthropological import. It is worse than implausible that at random two mutations of disperse hominids should occur at the same time and place: producing the first man and woman in proximity, as required by monogenism. Since monogenism is de fide, true faith shows the absurdity of human selection as stochastic; thus reductio ad absurdum dismisses mere natural selection. Faith often offers such sound heuristics to correct aberrant fancies.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Apr. 08, 2019 12:21 PM ET USA

    To geardoid: Forgive the long response, but this is a complex topic and perhaps I can clarify.

    I don't THINK I've made a category mistake. It is self-evident that our apprehension of the world around us influences cultural perception, but it ought also to be self-evident that our apprehension is often subject to revision, and that our changing apprehension of the physical order of the universe ought not to upset our supernatural faith. At the same time, in every conceivable apprehension of the physical universe, there will be innumerable causes for wonder at the glory of God. For this, the "scientific" details are largely irrelevant, though any examination of scientific discoveries at any given moment ought surely to stimulate the human sense of wonder!

    As for the value of Keas' book, it is always worthwhile to refute both cultural misperceptions and lies about what others think and teach (as I said in my review). But my whole point is that the book would have been deeper if it recognized (a) that cultural anxieties cannot be dismissed simply by noting the lies of the enemy; and (b) that such anxieties are often caused by our failure to think about various problems in the proper way. Thus we are often fruitlessly upset by things that ought not to upset us at all.

    To explain this, I used the example of evolution, and in this I apparently hit the jackpot. I fear you confuse the meaning of polygenesis in the cautions of Pius XII. The pope did not teach that multiple pairs of hominids could not have appeared through an evolutionary process, but that there could have been only one set of first parents for the human race. Now clearly there is a spiritual element added to material processes in the human person, and the spiritual cannot "evolve" out of the material. (That is a logical impossibility and a category mistake in itself--one frequently made on all sides in our time.)

    Thus, regardless of the mechanisms by which God brought matter suitable to a human person into being, Pius XII properly insists that God took exactly one male and one female and infused each with a human soul--which any other hominids would have lacked. Other hominids, even those more human-like than apes (if they ever existed), would have been, in essence, not really like the progenitors of the human race at all. A male or female "hominid" would have been radically different from a male and female person--radically different from Adam and Eve, the progenitors of the human race. The gulf between persons and non-persons is staggeringly immense, and it is not our biology that makes us persons.

  • Posted by: geardoid - Apr. 05, 2019 9:13 PM ET USA

    This review would vitiate Keas' reasons for writing, as if the myths he explodes are unthreatening ordinance when placed in the apt category. Have you not made the categorical mistake of taking natural philosophy or its aberrations as of no bearing on (religious) cultural perception - in particular, perception of God's love-letters, as de Sales was inclined to see nature.? If philosophy fails to be handmaiden to theology her mistress, both are betrayed. Evolution a la Darwin entails polygenism.