Extrapolating God from Science
Fr. Robert Spitzer is a gift that keeps on giving, and since I haven’t reviewed one of his books since 2017, I think I may be excused for introducing his work once again. A Jesuit priest and a past president of Gonzaga University who has also founded a number of Catholic organizations, Fr. Spitzer continues his research and writing today, at age 71, even though he has been completely blind for nearly fifteen years. Most of his work is now done through his Magis Center which seeks to “restore, reconstruct, and revitalize belief in God, the transcendent dignity of every human person, the significance of virtue, the higher levels of happiness, love and freedom, and the real presence of Jesus Christ.”
The occasion of my writing today is the publication of Fr. Spitzer’s latest book by Ignatius Press. The title is Science at the Doorstep to God. The book’s descriptive subtitle surveys its contents: “Science and Reason in Support of God, the Soul, and Life after Death”. This new book is consistent with Fr. Spitzer’s purpose of reconnecting all human knowledge and aspiration with God in Jesus Christ, through the exploration of everything from our innate moral yearning to the discoveries of modern science. Fr. Spitzer’s constant aim, in fact, is to reconnect reason with Faith.
His last major book project prior to Science at the Doorstep of God was a trilogy entitled Called out of Darkness; Contending with Evil through the Church, Virtue, and Prayer, the final volume of which was The Moral Wisdom of the Catholic Church: A Defense of Her Controversial Moral Teachings. Before that he wrote Healing the Culture, and before that he produced a “quartet” of books (tetralogy?) with the overall title of Happiness, Suffering and Transcendence. This in turn was preceded by a book back in 2010 that explored territory closely connected with our topic today, New Proofs for the Existence of God, which also looked (in part) at some of the findings of modern science.
Physics and math at the doorstep to God
Fr. Spitzer knows, of course, that the physical sciences cannot prove the existence of God in the strict scientific sense, because the physical sciences (given the nature of their methodology) can study only material things. He also knows that we must beware of the “God of the gaps” fallacy—that is, the fallacy that if we do not know how something in the physical universe came about, then we can conclude that God must have intervened directly to make that something happen. This understanding explains the author’s choice of his title: Science at the doorstep of God. For example, we can learn scientifically that certain aspects of our universe are so finely tuned to remain both stable and hospitable to life as to be virtually impossible through random circumstances, and even radical efforts to overcome this problem (such as positing a multiverse or a “bouncing” universe) are virtually impossible. This is one example of what it means for science to be “at the doorstep to God”.
Now, since some of the material drawn from the physical sciences in this book is rooted in very advanced work in physics and the other sciences (e.g., chemistry and biology) and even mathematics, it is difficult for the non-specialist to verify for himself—or even sometimes to completely understand—the discoveries and conclusions which place scientific study on the doorstep of God. In this sense, we must take Fr. Spitzer’s word for his description of the current scientific conclusions and consensus that guides his argument. I have one friend who has studied enough physics to understand these matters, but most of us must trust Fr. Spitzer’s account of the latest scientific theories and discoveries. With this trust, the argument is at once enlightening, entertaining and compelling—without our eyes glazing over.
But this issue affects only the first two chapters of the book, which cover the “big bang” and cosmic “fine tuning”. In the third chapter, Fr. Spitzer enlists basic sound philosophical thinking to discuss whether Theism is more rational than atheism; in the fourth he considers medical documentation of near-death experiences and terminal lucidity which suggest our possession of an immortal intellective soul—a discussion which can be followed without taking abstruse scientific knowledge “on faith”, as it were. And in the fifth chapter, Fr. Spitzer offers a profound discussion of the uniqueness of human intelligence and self-consciousness, which again is something anyone can fully grasp. For example, it becomes clear that self-consciousness is irreducible to merely physical processes.
The final chapter considers human freedom in our experience of God. Here is an exploration of such things as religious experience, conscience, transcendental desires, the pitfalls involved in a false dualism between soul and body, and the often vexing problem of free will. There is also a fascinating appendix on two other issues which often arise in discussions of this kind: The transition from mere animal life to our first ensouled parents, and the possibility of the existence of alien forms of intelligent life (perhaps in a galaxy far far away).
Fr. Spitzer’s strengths
Fr. Spitzer is highly committed to reconnecting human perceptions, human reason, human desire and human motivation with an awareness of the existence of God in general and, in particular, God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ. This is tricky territory because, when switching gears between the immanent and the transcendent, it is deceptively easy to leap ahead to an assumption that we know by Faith to be true, and allow that knowledge to color our interpretation of the “immanent experience” which takes us, all by itself, to the doorstep of God, but no farther. Fortunately, Fr. Spitzer is extraordinarily good at assembling and analyzing the material evidence in such a way that reasoning or knowledge derived from our own experience (a posteriori) points us to certain reasonable conclusions without the imposition of prior assumptions (a priori).
This means that in his main line of work, Fr. Spitzer tends to advert repeatedly to the same evidence and the same logical conclusions from that evidence. At times this is because he is covering closely-related topics or bringing arguments up to date as new evidence is gathered. At other times, he can be “faulted” (if it is a fault) for making the same arguments over and over again in his several books. Nonetheless, the focus of each book is slightly different, and so I believe the greatest benefit can be obtained by reading the one which is focused most closely on each reader’s particular needs.
For example, in the second volume of his “quartet” (Happiness, Suffering and Transcendence), he includes sections on human consciousness and near-death experiences, and an appendix on the evidence for an intelligent creator from physical science. The same evidence and more is covered in his 2010 book New Proofs for the Existence of God. Fr. Spitzer’s output is prodigious, and it is all extraordinarily strong and clear, but most readers will not want to read all of these books. Each reader will want to study the publisher’s descriptions and, if possible, look at the tables of contents, in order to choose the book(s) that focus most closely on the particular paths he or she is likely to find most helpful in understanding our human aspirations, experience and knowledge as they point to and find fulfillment in God, in Christ and in the Catholic Church.
Some of the books are oriented primarily to Catholics who wish to increase both their faith and their Christian understanding of their relationship with God, including its moral implications. Others are equally suited to those who have not yet discovered Christ or the Church but are open to the possibility of a God who loves them. In this context, Science at the Doorstep to God plays a particular role: Here we have in a single volume the best of Fr. Spitzer’s assessment of how today’s advanced scientific understanding points to God, to the human soul, and to life after death.
Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. Science at the Doorstep to God: Ignatius Press 2023. 299pp. Paper $19.95; eBook $12.97.
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