Polygenism is Problematic – A Catholic Caution on another Aspect of Evolutionary Theory

102313In the blog last week, we discussed the Genesis account, evolutionary theory and how these can be reconciled with Catholic thought and teaching.

At one level, the genre for the Genesis accounts must be taken into consideration wherein figurative language is sometimes used to confer the sacred truths that God alone created everything out of nothing. Further, that God oversaw every aspect of creation with intelligence, and purpose, and that he created everything out of nothing, each according to its kind. However the genre, or literary form, of Genesis does not purport to be of nature of a scientific journal article, or of a comprehensive historical genre with exact dates and geographical descriptions. What Genesis tells us is true, but it speaks to us in a summary sort of way, more as a poetic description than an earth science textbook. (More on this HERE). As the Catechism states:

Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” ….”nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history is rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun” (CCC 337-338).

Material Sufficient Causality? Not! We also discussed that Catholics may be open to the scientific teachings of evolution but that they cannot accept it uncritically, without certain distinctions. Catholics are free to believe in some sort of evolutionary or gradual process as a secondary cause of biodiversity. But we simply cannot accept a theory which says that the sufficient cause and complete explanation of all life is the combination of natural selection and random mutations. The words NATURAL and RANDOM are positively meant to exclude intelligent activity by God by most proponents of the Theory of Evolution. Catholics can come to accept a kind of theistic evolution wherein God is the primary cause of all secondary causes. But we are not free to accept the Theory of Evolution as most commonly proposed without the necessary distinction that natural selection and random mutations are not sufficient causes or a complete explanation for the existence of all things as they are. (More on this HERE).

Here too the Catechism provides an important and balanced approach that respects the role of science but also announces its limits:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator…..The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called “God”? (CCC 283-284)

The Problem of Polygenism – There is also another matter which the Theory of Evolution gives rise to that a Catholic must be aware of and realize that he or she cannot give it uncritical acceptance. This is the usual premise in evolutionary theory of polygenism.

Polygenism is a theory of human origins positing that the human race descended from a pool of early human couples, indeterminate in number. Hence, this theory, Adam and Eve are merely symbols of Mankind. Rather than being an historical couple, they represent the human race as it emerges from the hominids that gave rise to them as they become homo sapiens, properly speaking.

This is opposite to the idea of monogenism, which posits a single origin of humanity in Adam and Eve. In this understanding, Adam and Eve are historical figures who actually existed and from them alone the whole of the human race is descended.

Polygenism is the proposed vision of almost all evolutionary theorists. It obviously flows from the theory. As life emerged from one-celled organisms, ultimately more complex forms of life arose to include fish, then reptiles, mammals, higher forms of mammals and early humanoid forms, and then the first homo sapiens. But, presumably this process did not occur only in one case. Rather, it is usually supposed that a larger, indeterminate number of this new species of Man arose. So what we had was an emergent group, rather than simply two individuals: Adam and Eve.

But this presents a problem for a Catholic who might wish to uncritically accept evolution, for, simply put, we cannot accept polygenism. Pope Pius XII in 1950 specifically addressed the problem of polygenism in the Encyclical Humani Generis:

[T]he Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter…..When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own (Humani Generis, 36-37).

Hence, it seems clear that a Catholic is not free to accept polygenism. There are some in theological circles who have attempted to assert that the Pope is merely saying it is not apparent how such a theory can be reconciled, but not actually indicating that such a view must be rejected. But this seems fanciful since the Pope says quite clearly that Catholics “by no means enjoy such liberty” and “cannot embrace” the opinion of polygenism. No later Pope or Council has chosen to distinguish or, in any way, limit the conclusion of Pius XII in this matter. Perhaps this does not preclude some eventual theory of polygenism that can be acceptable, but none has yet been offered.

Some Catholics will point to an oversimplified notion presented in the media some ten years ago that science has “proved” that all humans trace their origin to one woman. This woman was dubbed “Eve” or “Mitochondrial Eve.” But, most people have over-simplified understandings of this finding. It does not mean that there were not other women who predated this woman, and other genetic lines that died out. She is merely our most recent common matrilineal ancestor and seems to have lived at a time significantly prior to Y-Chromosomal Adam who is also an important fork in the genetic road. The point is that the theory of one woman is more complicated than the popular conception describes it. [1] It is not likely a resolution to the problem of polygenism.

The heart of the problem in terms of polygenism is, as the Pope notes, the doctrine of original sin as expounded in Scripture:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—….Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:11, 19)

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor 15:22)

We are thus all linked not to a group, but to a man, Adam. And when he sinned, we sinned. Sin reaches us all since we all share one common ancestor. Further, it is hard to conceive a group of early humans, all sinning in such as way as all our ancestors went into this state commonly. Scripture says, sin came through one man. Scripture is inerrant in such a matter. We cannot simply set its truth aside.

Scripture also affirms our connection to the one man, Adam when it records that God sent one, Jesus Christ, as the New Adam. This sets up a parallelism: One Adam, One New Adam. God did not send a committee, or a squadron to save us which would be the parallel for polygenism and/or group sin.

So the problem of polygenism is a significant matter for Catholics who want to uncritically accept evolution or understand it in a simplistic and easy-going way. And herein is the central point of this and previous articles of mine on this subject: Namely, it is essential that we make proper distinctions and exclusions if we choose to embrace some aspects of the Theory of Evolution. The Catholic approach to this whole matter is carefully balanced. We are not fundamentalist and creationists but neither do we uncritically accept the Theory of Evolution. We must make proper distinctions, exclusions and clarifications in order to accept what I might term a theistic evolution as a tenable theory. Even here, Catholics are free to reject aspects of a theistic evolution on the grounds of science. But this last distinction (scientific objections) is beyond the role of the Church. Perhaps again, the old advice is helpful here: Seldom affirm, never deny, ALWAYS distinguish. We need to be careful and sober when it comes to Evolutionary Theory.

Perhaps it is good to conclude with the words of Pope Benedict which remind us that we are dealing ultimately with a deep mystery for which we must ultimately have great reverence:

The clay became man at the moment in which a being for the first time was capable of forming, however dimly, the thought of “God.” The first Thou that – however stammeringly – was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which the spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed. For it is not the use of weapons or fire, not new methods of cruelty or of useful activity, that constitute man, but rather his ability to be immediately in relation to God. This holds fast to the doctrine of the special creation of man . . . herein . . . lies the reason why the moment of anthropogenesis cannot possibly be determined by paleontology: anthropogenesis is the rise of the spirit, which cannot be excavated with a shovel. The theory of evolution does not invalidate the faith, nor does it corroborate it. But it does challenge the faith to understand itself more profoundly and thus to help man to understand himself and to become increasingly what he is: the being who is supposed to say Thou to God in eternity. (Creation and Evolution: A Conference With Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo, S.D.S. Stephan Horn (ed), pp. 15-16)

Order! Order! A Meditation on how the mystery of order proclaims the glory of God

By Jengod at en.wikipedia  Licensed under  CC-BY-SA-3.0  or  CC-BY-SA-3.0
By Jengod at en.wikipedia Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-3.0

One of the things that most amazes me about the universe is its order. And its order is even more striking for its context of another widespread force: disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Let me explain.

When we look at things we can observe that, left to themselves, things tend to fall apart and and become disorderly.

Consider for example a house in Detroit (Photo upper right). Let’s say that in 1890 human beings assembled basic elements like wood, nails, brick, glass, and so forth and ordered (or assembled) these materials into a complex system known as a “house.” It has divisions, known as rooms and other structures that supply electricity, ventilation, water and so forth. It has a purpose, known as “shelter.”

Now, as long as humans live in or near the house and maintain it, the house continues to exist as an orderly and purposeful system. But suppose now it is 1985 and, due to the economic factors, the house becomes abandoned. Within a few years the order of the house will begin to decay. Perhaps within fifty years it will have completely collapsed and been reclaimed by the earth.

This illustrates the tendency of things to fall apart unless they are acted upon by some force outside themselves to order and sustain them.

The Paradox of order – As we look around in the natural order we observe the tendency of things to fall apart or revert to less complex states. For example, mountains erode, compounds breakdown into elements, living organisms and systems die and return to dust.

And yet we ALSO observe the exact opposite. All around us is order and purpose. Somehow natural things have sprung up into orderly systems. Explosive disorder (the big bang) where things moved rapidly apart, have swirled into orderly and complex systems known as Galaxies and solar systems. Here on earth from the most basic elements of dust and water, complex life forms have developed. These life forms exhibit order and purpose. A complex ecosystem interacts at multiple levels and exhibits tremendous order and synergy. And all of this exists in world where we also learn that, without some unifying force things tend to fall into disorder.

Life is ordered energy, and death is disordered energy. And yet, from a purely natural perspective order seems to exist in the midst of a lot of disorder and a strong tendency of things to fall apart.

So where does order come from and what and directs the purpose and complex interaction and order of all things? Order points to purpose, purpose points to intelligibility, intelligibility points to intelligence. To every atheist I know, which is not very many, I ask, why is there order, rather than disorder? Why is there order even in the midst of disorder. What causes it. Why do things seem to work for a purpose and attain an end. The universe manifests a tendency to fall into basic elements. What causes complex interactive systems that are intelligible, manifest a purpose and attain to an end, to emerge out of things that otherwise tend to fall apart? Frankly, why is there existence at all? And whence does order and complexity have its origin.

To me, as a believer, Creation shouts the existence of one who orders and directs it. We who believe call this someone, “God.” It seems evident to me that without God’s purposeful ordering of things, the tendency of things to fall apart and return to basic, less complex systems would envelop all things. Just like the abandoned farmhouse described above, all the complexity and biodiversity we see in the world around us would collapse and be reclaimed by more basic elements. Like the farmhouse, something or someone sustains all this, and orders it in a way that is intelligible and rational since we see order and purpose in it. Creation shouts out God.

Of course all my feeble musings point to a much better articulation of the point by St. Thomas advanced in the Summa:

The fifth way [of demonstrating God’s existence] is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. (Summa I, 2.3)

Here is a beautiful video that rejoices with wonder and awe at what God has made. Such beauty, such order, such glory, the glory of God:


Should a Catholic Accept Evolutionary Theory Without Qualifications?

101013-PopeThe Genesis accounts of creation provide a rich field for controversy and discussion. I have posted before focusing on the question of the genre of the Genesis texts. In this post I would like to ponder another point for discussion: The theory of evolution’s relationship to the Genesis text. I have also discussed elsewhere the  question of polygensism (the theory that Adam was not one historical man but, rather, a euphemism for “mankind”).

Disclaimer– I do not intend to answer all the questions about evolution and Genesis here. This is a blog, not a theological or scientific journal. I am not a dogmatic theologian, neither do I have an advanced degree in Scripture. Neither am I a trained biologist. My MA is in moral theology. What I intend to do here is open a discussion. I would like to suggest some parameters to the topic which Catholicism requires of us. But in the end, I am going to depend on the comments section to broaden the discussion, make distinctions, suggest further limits, or clarify and quote other sources. Many of the commenters on this blog are theologically skilled and provide a valuable service to the rest of us. Likewise there are some with a scientific background who read here and can help clarify on the topic of evolution. I would only ask that all of us not rush to use words like heresy etc. and that the science folks not treat me or the rest of us like a bunch of ignoramuses. The Genesis accounts are very prototypical and archetypal. It is a true fact that the Church gives us guidance on how to interpret them but there is also some freedom to differ with each other as well. So let me set the table and then open the comments.

Sobriety about Evolutionary Theory – It is common to experience a rather simplistic notion among Catholics that the Theory of Evolution can be reconciled easily with the Biblical accounts and with our faith. Many will say something like this: “I have no problem with God setting things up so that we started as one-celled organisms and slowly evolved into being human beings. God could do this and perhaps the Genesis account is just simplifying evolution and telling us the same thing as what Evolution does.”

There are elements of the truth in this sort of a statement. Surely God could have set things up to evolve and directed the process so that human beings evolved and then, at some time he gave us souls. God could have done that.

The problem with the statement above is less theological than scientific because there is a word in that sentence that is “obnoxious” to evolutionary theory: “God.” The fact is that most Catholics who speak like this over-simplify evolutionary theory and hold a version of it that most Evolutionary Theorists do not hold. They accept the Theory of Evolution uncritically.

But, at the heart of evolutionary theory are the concepts of natural selection and genetic mutation. Notice the word “natural” and notice the word “mutation.” Generally speaking, evolutionary theory sees these processes as random, (though influenced by the environment). It sees them as chance mutations that happen to survive because they confer some benefit. But the process is natural, random and not directed by any outside intelligence with a design or purpose in mind.

Mutations in DNA are random, and in natural selection, the environment determines the probability of reproductive success. The end products of natural selection are organisms that are adapted to their present environments. Natural selection does not involve progress towards an ultimate goal. Evolution does not necessarily strive for more advanced, more intelligent, or more sophisticated life forms. Organisms are merely the outcome of variations that succeed or fail, dependent upon the environmental conditions at the time.[1]

Now what this means is that God is excluded as a cause by an unqualified evolutionary theory. It would be fine if evolutionists (as natural scientists) were either silent on the question of God. Or, perhaps if they simply stated that things may be acted upon by an outside force or intelligence but that is beyond the scope of their discipline. But that is not what is being said by many proponents of classical evolutionary theory. They are saying that biodiversity results MERELY from natural selection and random (i.e. non intended or non-purposeful) genetic mutations. They are saying that observable effects of biodiversity are wholly caused by something natural, random and without any ultimate goal or plan.

But a Catholic cannot accept all of this. Even if a Catholic wants to accept that things have evolved in some way (whether through macro or microevolution) a Catholic cannot say that this process is simply random, chance, blind, or with no purpose. We believe that God alone created all things, and that he sustains all things. Neither do we confess some sort of “deist” God who merely started things off and then lets them take their own course. Rather, God sustains and carries out every detail.

The Book of Genesis depicts God as being personally involved in every stage of creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). The text says further “God made the wild animals, each, according to their kinds (Gen 1:25). In other words, God specifically created each animal and person that is in an intentional way. The text of Genesis, while not scientific, states a truth that we cannot set aside: That God created (and sustains) all that we see. That what is, cannot MERELY be explained (as most evolutionists state) by blind, random natural selection. The Genesis text is clear to state that God alone creates and in doing so he is present at every stage, is personal, purposeful and acts with intelligence and goal in mind. He creates everything according to its kind.

This is our faith and so we cannot simply accept evolutionary theory without some distinctions. Evolutionary theory at least as classically proposed, presents itself as a complete and closed explanation for the biodiversity of this planet. Catholics ought to be sober about who and what we are dealing with here. This theory sets aside important things we believe about creation and God, which are described in Genesis and believed by the Church. The theory sets aside God. Things are not the result of a rational, orderly and directed processes, they result from a process that is merely random, blind and tending to no purpose or end. We cannot accept such a theory merely on these terms. If we accept aspects of the theory, such as that things gradually evolved, we have to carefully distinguish this from mainstream evolutionary theory. But a simple, uncritical acceptance of evolutionary theory is for a Catholic problematic in terms of faith.

This does not mean that Catholics therefore run to the creationist school of thought.  There are important insights of science in the matter of creation and the material world that Catholics are free to accept and wise to accept. The Catechism stakes out a middle ground wherein a Catholic may be able to accept certain aspects of evolutionary theory in terms of secondary causality. But this must always be balanced with a deep reverence for God as the first cause of all that is:

God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ co-operation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan…..The truth that God is at work in all the actions of his creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator. God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes: “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Far from diminishing the creature’s dignity, this truth enhances it. Drawn from nothingness by God’s power, wisdom and goodness, it can do nothing if it is cut off from its origin, for “without a Creator the creature vanishes.” Still less can a creature attain its ultimate end without the help of God’s grace. (CCC 306-309).

Hence, a Catholic ought to be careful to avoid  acceptance of the Theory of Evolution without disttinctions.  An old maxim comes to mind: Seldom Affirm, never deny, always distinguish. Not a bad approach when it comes to this great debate about Evolution, the Bible and faith.

OK Have at it. I know much needs to be added. But that’s the point of a blog. To start a discussion, not end it.

On the Relationship Between Light, Time and the Mystery of God

"Sun poster" by Kelvinsong - Own work.  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Sun poster” by Kelvinsong – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I was meditating on time today, perhaps because it is my 52nd birthday. But also on account of some new mysteries I have learned about the light of the Sun that reaches this earth.

I have long known that to look up in the night sky is to look far into the past. Looking up at the star Sirius I am looking nine years into the past. Looking over to the star Antares I am seeing 250 years into the past. Looking over at the star Rigel I am looking 600 years into the past. Looking further still at the Andromeda galaxy, I am seeing one million years into the past. That is how long it takes the light of these stars and galaxies to reach us. We are not seeing them as they are now, but as they were then. The past, even the distant past, is very present to us.

Even in the daylight, the light of the sun takes 8.25 minutes to reach us. Thus we see the surface of the sun not as it is now, but as it was 8 minutes ago.

But I learned yesterday that the light of the sun is even older than I ever thought. A little research on my part revealed this astonishing fact. The photons of light that reach the surface of the sun and head out to us in eight minutes were actually generated 100,00 years ago, in the sun’s core.

Emerging from the sun’s core as the result of nuclear fusion, a photon of light enters the radiative zone (see diagram above). The plasma in that radiative zone is quite a maze for the photon to get through, such a maze that it takes the better part of 100,000 years to make the journey to the convective zone and the photosphere where it finally begins a rapid journey out into the vacuum of space.

Why does it take this long? Consider an image of you, at one side of a large room filled with people, and you want to get to the door on the other side. But on the way many, many people want your attention and strike up conversations and thus delay your journey across the room.

The diagram above shows the meandering, zigzag motion of a photon as it makes it way through a maze of plasma that detains the photon for up to 100,000 years!

Thus, the light we currently bask is much more than 8.25 minutes old! It is 100,000 years old! The light we currently enjoy was made in the sun’s core back during the beginning of the last ice age.

There is a great mystery of time on display for us at every moment. The past is present in many ways. And our past is “out there” on display and still present as well. If there is any one on a planet near Rigel and they look back through a telescope to earth, say to France, they do not see us now, they see Joan of Arc and other events of the 14th Century taking place. The light of our “today” will not reach Rigel for 600 years.

What is the present? That is mysterious is the sum total space of the universe and it depends on where you are. God, who is just as present as Rigel as here, has the same access to the images of France in 1450, as he does to 2013. Indeed, being present at Andromeda just as much as here on earth, 1 million years ago is just as present to him as now.

The future is even more mysterious, but that is just as present to God as the past and distant past is.

Do not miss the irony of the fact that the light of the Sun and the reflected light of the moon, by which we set our clocks and calendars to measure the present, to tell time what time it is now, is 100,000 years old.

Does anybody really know what time it is? Only God, only God. Time is very mysterious, and the more we think we know the less we really do.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.How precious to me are your thoughts, God How vast is the sum of them!Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you. Psalm 139:16-18

If you think You’re in a hurry, you have no idea how fast you’re really getting there

Feeling a little Rushed Lately? – Well,  you might be surprised at how fast you’re actually moving, even when you’re “Standing still.”

  • The earth at this latitude of Washington DC is spinning at about 750 Miles an hour. [1]
  • But the spinning earth is also rotating around the Sun at approximately 67,000 miles an hour. [2]
  • And, the sun around which we move so fast is also rotating around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour. [3]
  • And the whole universe is also spinning and moving outward at 1,339,200 miles per hour. [4]

It’s dizzying to consider our speed and motion: A spinning earth rotating around a sun which is rotating around a galaxy which is rotating around a universe at millions of miles an hour. So if you think you’re standing still, think again. We are actually hurtling through space at dizzying speeds.

Yes, you’re on the move! You’re moving so fast you met yourself coming back. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re loafing.

Here are some biblical speed texts, hurry up and read them!

Look! The Lord advances like the clouds, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. (Jer 4:13)

I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands O Lord. (Psalm 119:60 Heth)

Hurry! Go quickly! Don’t stop! (1 Sam 20:38)

God has told me to hurry. (2 Chron 35:21)

I am not sure why but when I thought of a fast song, Vivialdi came to mind. Here is his setting of the 113th Psalm In exitu Israel de Aegypto, Domus, Jacob de populo barbaro….mare vidit et fugit! (In the going forth of Israel from Egypt, the House of Jacob from a barbarous people, the sea saw and fled! Enjoy a song that sets a brisk pace.

And here’s Vivaldi muy rapido, like you never heard him. It’s the Summer Presto on accordion!

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

Forever Singing as they Shine, the Hand that Made Us is Divine: A Consideration on the Hymn of Creation

A certain number of comments that come over the transom here at the blog never see the light of day. Perhaps they are unnecessarily hateful, contain profanities, or are personal attacks on other commenters, clergy or other public figures.

One such comment came recently which I did not post for just about all the reasons I just listed. Among his profanity-laden words, was a sneering denunciation of  God as “your magical sky-fairy” (sic). Our combative commenter, and self described consumer of “brave science,” may be surprised one day to meet our true and living God who is in fact no little “sky-fairy” but is Deus Omnipotens (God All Powerful).

It is a strange and remarkable thing to me how, in this age of discovery, where we have discovered such magnificent realities that show a universe steeped in order and unbelievable size, that increasing numbers of people want to hold that the whole thing is just dumbly there. In other words, to increasing numbers today, the obvious order of the universe is accidental; we human beings are simply the result of random, blind, and unguided mutations; all the order of creation we can plainly observe, and the sophisticated interdependent systems which give rise to complex life, are all just accidental. We are asked to believe by some that all this obvious order, an order that no one can miss, somehow leapt together, unguided and accidentally, from a primordial dust and soup; that from disorder, came order. Yes, and, although things tend to fall apart and go back to their basic components (the Law of Entropy), nevertheless, in this case, we must believe that in a somehow random and accidental way, things actually moved from disorder to order, all their own, even though, as some insist, no outside force, energy or intelligence acted on them.

To me this sort of belief requires more “faith” than simply to believe that a higher and intelligent being (whom we call God) both created and introduced the order that is so obvious in the universe and in this world, not to mention our bodies, down to the smallest cells and atoms. And to be sure, the atheist/secularist notion of random, unguided, accidental order is a  belief, for its conclusion is outside of what science can study or demonstrate. For all the denunciation by many atheists of Philosophy, Theology and Metaphysics, those who deny God’s role in creation are not making a scientific claim, they are staking out a philosophical, theological and metaphysical claim and asking others to believe it. To me, such a “belief” in the random, unguided, and accidental existence of things, in the face of such overwhelming and consistent order is unreasonable in the extreme.

The whole universe shouts Order! Consistency! Intelligibility! Our bodies, and every delicately functioning system on this planet all echo back the refrain: Order! Consistency!  Intelligibility! And while I cannot, and do not, ask a scientist to specifically affirm the Biblical and Christian God and our whole Catholic Theological tradition by science, the existence of consistent order in the universe and in the world is plainly obvious, and serves as the basis of the whole scientific method. For if things were truly random, and not orderly, intelligible, or predictable, science could not brook theories, test results, or verify them. No experiment would turn out similar results if everything acted randomly. The scientific method presupposes order and consistency within a verifiable range. Thus while science need not draw conclusions as to how this order came about, it is wholly inappropriate, as certain scientists have done, to be dismissive of believers who conclude from order that someone ordered it so.

Yes, what a glorious and magnificent thing creation is. And to this believer it loudly proclaims God who made it.

There is a beautiful hymn that I have seldom heard sung in Catholic Parishes, that takes up the voice of creation, especially that part of creation we call the stars (firmament) and the planets. The hymn is a gloss on Psalm 19, and, to me, it is a minor masterpiece of English poetry. It was written by Joseph Addison in 1712.

It comes from a time before skeptical agnosticism and hostility to the very notion, (let alone existence), of God had taken deep root in our culture. And, frankly, it also comes from a more sober time that was able to accept the plainly obvious fact that creation is ordered, and therefore was ordered by someone in a purposeful and intelligent manner. That someone we believers call God.

Consider the beautiful words of this song and its reasoned conclusion that, as Psalm 19 notes, creation shouts its Creator.

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth:
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
for ever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Yes, the hand that made us is divine, and He has done a marvelous thing!

Here is a sung version of this wonderful song:

The Mystery of Time

Time, what could be more clear? What time is it? 10:00 pm! Next question. We think at times that nothing could be simpler than time. But time has mysteries about it.

Every New Year I ponder the mystery of time, I guess because time is so much on our mind. And as I ponder time, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is, until we are actually asked to define it in some meaningful way. Something makes me think of what St Augustine once said about another mystery (the Trinity). And thus if someone asks me to define time I am tempted to say with Augustine: If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know. So time, while plain at one level is mysterious at other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few puzzlements about time.

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying. 10 minutes here, is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has already disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slows down time. On a very large planet with stronger gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe a big difference, but the Law of Relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way it is almost symbolized by a large, lumbering elephant compared to a tiny little mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) the speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Lifespans – And speaking of animals, why are life spans so different? My cat Daniel is, like me a mammal. He has heart and lungs, very similar physiology in most respects. Yet his clock is set to 15 years, my clock is set to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years, Many types of parrots can live to be over 100. Other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but Carp (a fish) live up to 100 years. And so on. We all see to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar species. We seem to carry the mystery of time in us. I have never heard a satisfying answer to the wide variability of life spans.
  3. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word eternity simply to mean a long, long, time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity, (Aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” That is to say, Eternity is the past, present and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the clock to the upper right. The time is 1:15 in the afternoon. That means that 10:00 AM is in the past and 6:00 pm is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock and see that at that spot 10 AM, 1:15 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not. God lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, and future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering if you or I will get to heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, 10,000 years ago is just as present as 10,000 years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages. For example, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8). Psalm 139 says, Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps 139, 15). Psalm 90 says, For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4). And then there is simply the God’s name: “I AM” In this Name, there is no past, no future, just an eternal now, the present tense. Jesus declared to the crowds, “Before Abraham ever was, I AM.” (John 8:58). So here is the most awesome mystery of time, the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time.