Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Reality, Science, God: The Need to Learn How to Know

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 25, 2013

The key to the proper use of all branches of human study is the correspondence of a discipline’s methods with its object of examination. For example, it makes no sense to study history with the scientific method, as if we can do experiments to prove whether our understanding of the past is correct, or as if everything that has happened in history has had a measurable material cause, which can be reproduced again and again. Just as clearly, it makes no sense to study the physical sciences through deductive reasoning, ignoring experimental evidence and material causality in favor of reasoning from the First Cause.

In the English language, the word “science” (from the Latin scientia) originally meant a branch of knowledge; each particular field of study was called a “science”. We now tend to restrict the word to the physical sciences, but the underlying nature and progress of human study have not changed. As finite beings we have no way of coming at the whole truth of things unless we divide the reality within and around us into parts, and study each aspect of it using the methods appropriate to whatever sorts of questions we are seeking to answer in each case.

Confusion of Disciplines

Blessed John Henry Newman carefully explained, in his Idea of a University, how damaging it is when one branch of study usurps the place of another. Commenting on the progressive banishment of theology and even philosophy from the university, under a prejudice in modern society in favor of material explanations for everything, Newman rightly observed an immediate and disastrous result. The other disciplines moved in to occupy the abandoned territory, even though the methods of their own disciplines were completely unsuited to the task. (For more on this, see The Hammer and the Nail.)

Physical scientists especially, whom nineteenth-century society tended to lionize as its new priests, filled the vacuum by making all sorts of pronouncements about the origins and ends of things which the method proper to their particular discipline is completely incapable of investigating. This is exactly like a mathematician claiming to explain politics based on his superior understanding of numerical relationships.

There is an important sense in which the human person is designed to see things whole. That is, we apprehend reality directly, and we can even discern whole truths in at least a hazy way. But to go deeper, we must ask specific questions and utilize specific disciplines. Thus, for example, our understanding of another human being is not exhausted by his or her material characteristics, as catalogued perhaps by the physical sciences; we understand that the other is a whole person, and not just a collection of parts—not just the shape of a nose and the color of an eye. But depending on what we want to know more about, we need to ask different kinds of questions, and we must try to utilize the sorts of methods which can, with patient effort, answer each kind.

Sometimes, alas, we get lost in our sub-division of the sciences. We come to be fascinated by one or another set of methods, one or another field of research, and we forget to put the parts back together again to form the whole. We also fail to take advantage of the corrective power which each particular discipline exercises over the others. The various disciplines are wary of being usurped through improper methods in another field, and the various disciplines can also be mutually corrective when they lead to apparently incompatible answers. When this happens, each discipline must look more carefully into what has led to its conclusions in order to spot errors or see possibilities for reconciliation with what others have concluded in other fields. And the reason again is that, as human persons, we are constituted to see things whole, and we know that when such contradictions about the whole arise from different vantage points, we have made a mistake somewhere.

The Perils of a Materialist Culture

We live in a materialistic culture which has more or less deliberately chosen to limit its view of reality to what can be learned, and indeed harnessed, by the natural sciences and their respective technologies. The result of this choice over time is rather curious. We have gone from choosing certain domains and methods of inquiry to asserting that other domains and methods of inquiry are invalid. Thus a biologist may assert that his science proves there is no need for God and that theology is pointless, when in fact the study of biology is concerned only with direct material causes, which places the God question completely outside of its domain. Indeed, biology does not have a methodology that can address the God question. Nor should it have.

The upshot is that physical scientists who like to cater to the secularism of the age can become fond of making theological, philosophical, political, historical and legal pronouncements which their own special discipline is incompetent to address. Such intellectually careless souls are not infrequently claimed as authorities in other areas simply because their particular field of study is held by our culture in high esteem. To anyone who seeks to apprehend reality as a whole, and who understands the purpose of dividing our inquiries into separate fields, no feature of contemporary intellectual life will appear more absurd than this.

Usually, of course, such scientists play to the crowds by denigrating religion. But many scientists are inspired by their work with a greater appreciation of both the wonder and the order of the universe, which are actually natural and even philosophical indicators of the existence of God. Not only do they see no contradiction between their field of study and religion, but also they have no trouble separating the methods proper to their research from their own personal response to knowledge as a whole. Thus they see in their work one of many reasons for Faith, but they do not abuse the methods proper to their discipline. They neither ignore proper method to reach specialized conclusions in impermissible ways, nor do they twist their specialized methods to a purpose they are not designed to serve.

But sometimes the pendulum swings the other way, and a scientist will try to use the scientific method to buttress religious faith or attempt to give us specific information about the nature of God.

A Case in Point

Such is the case in a book published last year, entitled The Beautiful Scientist, and written by an Italian, Corrado Ghinamo. In this book, Ghinamo attempts to prove the existence and nature of God using the methodology proper to the natural sciences. Indeed, he claims that his studies in physics, astronomy and natural sciences have given him the knowledge to write the book.

Ghinamo claims in the text to be a Christian, and he rightly notes that Christianity is especially open to all knowledge, including knowledge of both the natural and the supernatural. He is quite correct on this and many other points. But somehow along the way, he concludes from his own “scientific” reasoning that, to make sense of the universe, it must be the case that God has both spiritual and physical parts. He takes advantage of the Christian framework of the Trinity to explain that the Holy Spirit is the physical part. The Holy Spirit is a “distributed” being, distributed physically throughout the universe and in all things. For Ghinamo this explains why God can be said to be omni-present, and how God can act in more than one place at once.

Sadly, the book merely demonstrates that Corrado Ghinamo neither understands proper method in the natural sciences, nor proper method in philosophy, nor proper method in theology—nor, of course, the profound difference between spirit and matter. Spirit must by its nature be completely simple and unitary; it cannot have parts; it cannot be made up of other things which can decompose back to their original states. Physical things, by contrast, are necessarily complex, made up of parts, and will eventually decompose.

To attribute a physical component to God is to destroy the very concept of God. Indeed, the whole exercise is a telling demonstration of what happens when you use the methods of the natural sciences, including their essential preoccupation with immediate material causality, to explore the question of God. For example, a physical being cannot be in two places at once, but a spiritual being is not limited by space and time. A spiritual being exists where it acts, and God Himself is pure act. Nothing physical or “distributed” is required to explain this.

Ghinamo’s book came across my desk as just the sort of thing I might read in the hope of finding a scientific corrective to the abuse of natural science in the domains of theology and philosophy. But alas it is just another example, albeit an example in reverse, of the tremendous confusion among the various disciplines today. The success of the physical sciences has too often led us to forget the whole of reality, the great variety of disciplines necessary to gain a knowledge of this whole, and the methodology proper to each. One of the great tasks facing Christians today is to rediscover how we know about God in the first place, and then to correct the habitual mental mistakes which prevent us from learning more.

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: bnewman - Jun. 28, 2013 12:02 PM ET USA

    Very good article and I wish it were more widely understood. In his introduction to his recent book “Belief,” Francis Collins gives the example of Dennett claiming that evolution is a “universal acid” to Christianity. Collins, who is the world’s leading geneticist explains why; “Applying scientific arguments to the question of God’s existence as a showstopper, is committing a category error."

  • Posted by: Obed - Jun. 26, 2013 10:09 AM ET USA

    When I am told I am wrong I usually don't like it and I naturally feel attacked by correction (fraternal correction that is). I have friends. If I show them this article to read I am certain some of them won't even get past the third line. What it boils down to, in my humble opinion, is their rejection (or fear?) of something greater than them. Something that they cannot control. Love. How can they try explaining (or denying) God in any manner if they don't even love correctly?