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 :
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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