Thoughts on Science and Faith From an Unexpected Source

Generally, when I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I presume that I will be seeking answers or insights into racial justice, and significant issues of poverty and the social Gospel. Yet recently, I came across some quotes which cast light on the relationship of science and faith, another critical issue in our time. Allow me to share three such quotes and then provide a little commentary of my own.

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
From The Measure of a Man, 1958

To place this quote in a philosophical framework, Dr. King is here referring here firstly to the fact that the created world, including each of us is contingent. As a contingent being, I do not explain myself. I owe my existence to another, first of all my parents. Something and someone distinct from me, and often out of sight, is the reason for my existence. I neither explain myself, nor do I cause myself to be.

My parents are both deceased now. Thus they are out of sight, and not to be found in this world. Yet they clearly did exist in this world at one time, for I am here.

The whole created world also has this quality. It is clearly here. But it does not explain itself. It is contingent, and could just as well be as not be.

Scientists are able to trace currently existing things back only so far, and then it hits a wall. It can look back approximately 13.7 billion years.  And the further back we go, the current stars and galaxies were but pure and very compressed energy. As we journey all the way back, all of creation was in an extremely hot and dense state of pure energy called singularity. Beyond this we cannot see.

What caused it to suddenly expand? What put it there in the first place? These are questions that lie beyond science and what Dr. King means when he says that everything we see is a shadow cast by what we do not see. And that which we do not see, beyond matter and space and time, we call God.

Dr. King’s quote also refers to something that philosophy calls efficient causality, and also, to some extent, formal causality. There are basically four kinds of causality distinguished in classical philosophy :

  1. Material Causality – Material causality refers to the physical matter, to the raw materials that cause something to be, for example the bronze of a statue.
  2. Formal Causality – Speaks to what a thing is intended to do or be based on what the intent of the maker or creator is in making it the way it is.  For example a bronze statue has its form based on what it is meant to convey, perhaps a the likeness of a person. Hence the intent of an artisan to convey a likeness, say of Dr. Martin Luther King, will give rise, (or cause) the statue’s form in terms of shape, design, and other more specific features so that the final shape actually resembles Dr. King.
  3. Efficient Causality – Refers to the external entity from which the thing or act first proceeds. That is, the primary source of the thing or action. In the case of a bronze Statue, the efficient cause is the artisan, the sculptor
  4. Final Causality – speaks to that for the sake of which a thing is done, the end reason, the purpose, or end, that something is supposed to serve. In the example of our statue, the final cause may be beauty itself, or to inculcate a memory of the person the statue recalls.

Perhaps you can see that the physical sciences are best at dealing with material causality but not well equipped at all to answer questions related to intent (formal cause), ultimate origins (efficient cause) and ultimate ends or purposes (final cause). Science is good at answering questions like “what” and “how (from a material point of view),” but poor at answering the question “why” and dealing with the issues of intent and the ultimate end of things.

Dr. King’s quote here discloses the limits of science; It can investigate the shadows, but it cannot see beyond to the one who casts the shadows.

Despite these noted limits to material sciences, there are many in our time who refuse to admit there is anything beyond what the physical sciences can measure. To use Dr. King’s analogy, while investigating the shadows, they deny, in effect, that there is anything casting the shadow. They deny there is a world beyond the material world that the physical sciences measures.

Let me be clear that not all scientists, or even most, do this, but those who do so are often loud and public. I will also grant that the physical sciences, as disciplines, must limit their study and conclusions to the physical world. But there is an error called “scientism” which claims there is no real or valid knowledge beyond what the empirical and physical sciences can prove. This is a horribly reductionist view, but it is gaining popularity today.

But let us also be clear, the universe does not explain itself. It’s existence is contingent and depends on someone or something outside itself to explain its exists. If science can investigate the “shadows” then something must be casting the shadows. That something (Someone) we call, God.

Where science cannot go, theology, faith and philosophy can, pondering the questions of what lies beyond the physical. We call this the metaphysical (meta=beyond), and it examines and ponders questions of design and intent, purpose, some of the qualities of the designer, ethical responses etc., all based on the premise that creation is intelligible and that intelligibility bespeaks intelligence. We strive to learn of the intelligent Creator who lies beyond, based on what he has created.

As such faith and theology (and to some extent philosophy) do not compete with science, they compliment it. And this leads us to Dr. King’s second quote:

Science investigates religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power, religion gives man wisdom which is control. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism, and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.” – Strength to Love

Yes, both disciplines are needed. Without science, faith can devolve away from reality into mere abstractions, generalities and ideas. But God has always insisted that we live in the very physical world he has created. We ignore physical reality to our peril. The Catholic Faith, in particular, emphasizes the incarnation, that the Word became flesh. Further we reverence creation and make extensive use of it in our worship and we speak of the “book of creation,” thereby indicating that we see creation as a revelation from God. If we can learn of this created world, we can discover more of God who created it. Hence, true faith values science an the insights it provides. And since the truth is ultimately one, true faith should not fear true science.

But science needs faith too, for science runs the risk of idolizing itself. To think that matter is all there is, is a serious and reductionist error. Even before debates of an existing God, science must admit that justice cannot be found under a microscope or weighed in a balance. Love does not tip physical scales. Mercy is not found on the table of elements. Longing cannot be measured by an electric meter; neither can loyalty, bravery, selflessness.  Though not physical, these things are very real. And even if science can claim to find a certain area of the brain which lights up when these realities are considered, science cannot explain the origin of these non-material concepts and realities or where they come from in a purely material world. There is simply more to life than matter.

Dr. King also warns of the moral nihilism that can result if science, or politics refuses to admit the existence of a higher authority beyond and above itself. And this leads to the third quote:

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. – Strength to Love 1963

Yes, science and technology are wonderful things. But if they are a closed system, unanswerable to anything higher or beyond, the “possible” becomes its own justification. Science without ethics or morals, without a higher end to which it is subject, can too easily devolve into devilish destruction. That something is possible, does not make it right or proper. But our science can fuel our pride. And while pride is not a scientific error itself, science unchecked by the notion that we are accountable to justice, and ultimately to God himself, can lead to some very dark places. The partial control that science supplies is no control at all if we cannot control our very selves.

Just a few thoughts on Science and faith based on some Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo Credit: Creative Photography Magazine

10 Replies to “Thoughts on Science and Faith From an Unexpected Source”

  1. Monsignor, this was a well-written article. One minor modification I would make is to the statement, “And that which we do not see, beyond matter and space and time, we call God.” In fact, beyond matter, space and time lies the rest of creation (the entire spiritual world, containing Heaven, Purgatory, Hell, good and bad angels, and departed souls.) On an entirely different, non-contingent level of existence is God – also beyond matter, space, and time.

  2. Awesome!! I’ll have to read, re-read, pray, meditate, … to really get this. I’ve put the shadow picture and the quotes on my facebook page. I did once comment here, not long ago, that I hadn’t gotten involved in facebook, or similar whatevers, but recently I thought that maybe I’d just try one.
    Also, I just saw this posted on a bulletin board at a poetry club that I used to attend and thought I’d share it; A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher said that it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because, even though it was a very large mammal, its throat was very small. The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. The little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.” The teacher asked, “What if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you ask him.”

  3. I read this neat book called The Philosophy of Being by Henri Renaud, SJ. It is about the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. Renaud points out that neither form nor matter are being, but that they are principles of being. If matter is being, then one must ask what the form and matter of matter is, and so on, to infinity. Sometimes, I think that a problem with science is that it tries to treat matter as being.

    1. Matt,

      I bet I’d actually learn some Physics in your class. I don’t remember a thing from my High School Physics days, except the memories of my teacher routinely showing up ten minutes late, briefly teaching, and then reading his newspaper the rest of the period. On test days, he’d just leave the room. Imagine how that went!

      Anyway, I enjoyed your video. Your points about how both science and religion used “modeling” made a lot of sense to me. In that sense, Religion offers better models than Science I think. The “model” of the Trinity (three Persons in one God) is entirely and forever accurate, at least as far as human reasoning can grasp the Almighty. E=mc2, as we’re finding out, maybe not so much!



  4. I can’t see the wind but I can see it’s characteristics as it moves across a field of grass. If I feel the wind I touch the sky. The wind blows where it will and thou hear the sound there of. Yet no one knows from where it comes or where it goes. Such is the way of the Spirit. Reflections all. E=m(c2)

    1. Yes, I’ve read that “Ruach” the name for God the Spirit, is derived from a root word that means breath, wind and, most originally, movement of air.
      Also, lately there have been a number of claims that Einstein did not derive e=mc^2 but, rather, was the first to use it in a significant hypothesis, thereom, theory, whatever. He may, however, have re-discovered it by calculating it out of the same place where Sir Isaac Newton, S. Tolver Preston and Jules Henri Poincare are alleged to have derived it prior to him. I don’t know how important this is but, if truth strays from its path – where will it lead us?

  5. After some reflection on my part I think that this may be worth considering. Shortly after Dr. King’s first quote you make a reference to the scientific belief in the age of the universe however how accurate is this? Until the next theory comes along? Here’s a page address where a response is given on the reliability of telling the age of fossils on the carbon 14 dating system
    At any rate; first of all science can’t really disprove anything about the world itself but, can only really disprove someone’s theory about the meaning of occurrences, beliefs, and other things of the world or, in this case, beyond the world as we know it but not what was observed. An example of “beyond the world as we know it” would include knowledge of such things as radio-active decay of unstable elements and electromagnetic waves. So, if the scientific proof took a look at our faith based beliefs from their perspective of theories, they could decide that there’s a lack of evidence to support the beliefs and decide to refrain from accepting these beliefs from their scientific viewpoint.
    But, that’s about all they can do. However, the same scientist who does not add a Christian belief to his/her scientific beliefs could still add a religious belief of theirs to their scientific belief and not be in conflict. Science never has, nor probably ever truly can, disprove Christianity – or any other religion. If an individual in the scientific community finds that this creates a personal conflict that they’re uncomfortable with, or cannot handle, they could focus on one to the exclusion of the other but, that would be an individual choice, not a choice of the community of the whole. A core change in scientific principles could, however, lead to a new concept of “knowledge” that could declare religious beliefs, “disproven” but, this “core change” would almost certainly be a corruption of scientific principles.
    So we have what has been called, “scientism” which works more like a religion than it looks like science that depends on research and carefully observed experimentation. In the last eight + years I’ve been exploring, and discovering, my Christian faith that I’ve been mostly detached from in the 45+ years since I dropped out of regular church attendance at about age eleven. In those recent few years, while I was earning a living and studying into other fields, I have found a surprising amount of what appears to be good quality hard scientific data in support of Christianity and I ask myself why I heard virtually nothing about it between when I was 11 years old and when I was 50 years old. During that period I attended different Christian churches on a somewhat hap hazard basis a few times a year and was very receptive to God’s message as it was being passed on. Likely there were a lot of places which tend to assume that anyone who showed up was well versed and concentrated on such things as ritual, sacraments, living a Christian life, etc. so my knowledge didn’t really progress much beyond the Anglican Sunday school for 8-11 year olds.
    I also wonder why so many people who have (but don’t participate in) a Christian faith and why so many agnostics know virtually nothing about this hard data. Could it be a sensational/thrill based bias on the part of the mainstream corporate dominated media coupled with a divided church coasting into a lukewarm coasting effect? As an aside, could this lukewarm appearance be somewhat of a rebuilding after the 100 year toughening conflict and test from 1883-1983 as reported in the vision of Pope Leo XIII? If that’s the case, the event seems to be over with a time to get back up and get on with things.
    Since joining a congregation, attending Catholic bible study, a condensed version of the Catechism and some personal study (between a lot of other things such as earning a living and intense 12 Step work) took me into a modest knowledge on Christianity between the end of the Revelation and our modern faith. The miraculous and miraculously prophetic information, that I heard about, I put a lot of objective scrutiny into and, as a result. I’m left wondering just how much scientific scrutiny the naysayers used to form criticisms of our faith.
    Just a few of the things are the prophecies of Our Lady at Fatima (including her assurances that two of Sister Lucy’s friends would soon go to heaven with Mary); Don Piper’s (author of “Ninety Minutes in Heaven”) body laying dead in a wrecked car for an hour and a half beside a Texas road until someone was moved to pray that he be returned to life without brain damage; his pneumonia from lying too long in a hospital bed that was cured in a miraculously brief time as a result of an overnight prayer vigil.
    Then there’s the predictions of St. Malachy, in Ireland in the twelfth century, about the future Popes. This is presented seperately because, while most may not have been blatantly fulfilled, non seem to conflict with the historic results.
    So, I ask myself, if I find that much – and more – by just glancing around where are the results of the VERY NECESSARY research of the seemingly self appointed pundits of scientism portrayed as science?
    I also ask, where are the majority of tne members of the scientific community who should be denouncing a lot of this stuff? Even an atheist scientist, one might think, should have some concern about scientific principles being portrayed in such an apparently corrupted manner.
    However, many (and maybe even most) “rank and file” scientists need more objective detachment than the average person and, as a possible result, tend to become very introspective. In seeking out the places where scientists, and other intellectual people, hang out I’ve observed this; although seemingly a lot less than on that “Big Bang” t.v. thingy that I find somewhat irritating.
    A classic example that comes to mind is when Einstein went to Copenhagen to visit fellow physicists Neils Bohr and another compatriot. Einstein got off a ferry boat where he was met by the other two and they got on a bus to go to Neils Bohr’s house as they got in a long involved chat about quantum physics. Suddenly one of them noticed that they’d gone about twelve stops beyond their destination, so they got off the bus and boarded another one that was going the other way as the quantum chat proceeded.
    Before they knew what was happening they were back at the ferry terminal. How many times, and for how long a time, they shuttled between the ferry dock and the outskirts of Copenhagen may forever remain a mystery.What about Mrs. Bohr who was presumably waiting at home? Probably used to it.
    The point is that here is an unusually detached group whose worth is based on what new knowledge they achieve and how society benefits. They seem to have a loose social structure, no causes to fight for but, instead, a cause to support and enhance by doing the work they love – which is to seek truth and which work benefits mankind through new technology so blatantly that the best way to deal with them is to leave them alone. Motives for seeking power in such a group would tend to be a lot less inspiring than in most other human societal groups. They love truth so much that they tend to constantly scrutinize and, if error slips through, public interest in them and the resulting funding tapers off. Not much room for the power games that pose so much temptation to force one half formed opinion over another that exist in other pursuits.
    Human imperfections, such as a tencency to cling to pre conceived notions, continue but wihtout much force. So, without much opportunity for personal agrandizement in administrative positions, and a lesser ambition to gain authourity, it might be fairly easy for a group with a deceitful agenda to get their supporters firmly ensconced in the positions that communicate with the public. Could there be many scientists who are very open to looking into recorded data of God’s infinite power and love but, who are being subltley misrepresented by their administrators while they keep their noses to the grindstone of research?
    I also hear that funding is becoming increasingly harder to find as governments lose tax bases due to a globalizing economy and as corporations direct their funding toward market based results; such as cosmetics, chemicals for food processing, petroleum use research that hybridizes automobiles to protect the petroleum industry from a total shift to green based power, etc. Is there be a resulting and increasing dependence on corporate funding?
    Also, the soft sciences; such as psychology and sociology, are being drifted off the path as incomplete hypotheses are presented through the publishing industry as if they were finished and scrutinized theories. Is this a kind of trimming the integrety of scence starting at the edge and working inwards until an only an illusion of scientific integrety remains. The members of the hard sciences may be unconcerned because of their use of hard and direct data instead of statistics that require interpretation but, once the trimming is over will scientism be working on other vulnerabilities of the hard sciences to put them under firm control of supporting a de-humanizing agenda instead of contributing to a betterment of the human race? Is science in big trouble without being aware of it?

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