An Important Question for the Secular World: Why?

One of the more common misunderstandings of the modern age—we might even call it a delusion— is confusing explanation with meaning. Using the scientific method and other empirical techniques, we have been able to explain many of the processes and mechanics of the natural world.

To give explanation, however, is not the same as to ascribe meaning. To answer how things work is not the same as to answer why they do. Showing, for example, the wonderful symbiotic relationships involved in photosynthesis and describing how it works at the molecular level does not explain why there is such a thing as photosynthesis.

To take it further, why do things exist at all? Why is there observable order in the universe rather than chaos? Explanation is not the same as meaning; how is not the same as why.

The Delusion – In modern times, perhaps as a prideful result of being able to explain so much, we often think we have wholly accounted for not just how things work, but why they do. We have not. Many today like to argue that the material or physical sciences have presented a comprehensive explanation for most things. They have not. By definition, the physical sciences only address physical interrelationships and secondary causes of things.

Put in philosophical terms, the physical sciences deal well with material and efficient causality but are not well equipped or able to answer questions of formal or final causality. Further, the material sciences can address some secondary causality but not primary causality. (Additional information on these topics is available here and here.)

The error of our day, that the physical sciences can provide a comprehensive explanation for nearly everything, is often referred to as scientism. As Bishop Robert Barron and others have rightly pointed out, there is a metaphysical assumption at the basis of all the physical sciences: that reality is intelligible. It is a necessary presumption for the scientific method that things are not mindlessly or haphazardly here.

Science must base itself on intelligibility but cannot answer why there is intelligibility, why there is meaning or purpose at all. It is self-evident that humans think, that we can extract meaning, and that things are intelligible. But why do we have this capacity? Why do rocks, trees, and likely most animals, not have this ability?

Brain chemistry can tell us some of how we have this capacity (though consciousness and the sense of self remain mysterious) but not why.

To explain is not the same as to understand. One of the great tragedies in this unreflective age is that too many people do not realize this. In our focus on intellectual acumen, impressive though it is, many are dismissive of the sense of wonder and awe that engages our humility at the moral level and our faith at the spiritual level.

Man is naturally spiritual, leading us to ask, Why? Despite the relatively recent surge of atheism in the West, faith has been widespread throughout human history and still is today across most cultures. No matter how much we think we have explained, deep down we still have that nagging question, Why? Even the secularists and atheists of the modern age cannot wholly avoid this question, for explanation is not the same as meaning. They may defer it, try to ignore it, or deny its relevance, but one day they will have to confront it.

There is a remarkable story told about a dying soldier in the trenches of World War I. As the 18-year-old lay dying, the chaplain comforted him. In his delirium, the soldier asked, “Why?” The chaplain thought the young man was struggling with why he was dying after such a brief life, so he asked, “Do you mean, ‘Why am I dying?’” The soldier answered with something far more profound: “No, why did I live? What was I here for?”

Why is about meaning and is not a question that science can answer. It is not a question that seems to come from our body or brain but from our soul. There is no evidence that plants or animals ponder meaning or seek to understand. They don’t ask why or agonize over nonexistence as they are dying. These are uniquely human questions: Why? What is the meaning? To explain is not the same as to understand.

No matter how materialistic, secular, or atheistic our culture becomes; no matter how widespread the error of scientism; it is a question that is not going away: Why?

We who are of faith have answers given to us, for faith is a way of knowing based on God’s revelation. Granted, we don’t always fully understand God’s answers and they do contain mysterious elements, but the answer to why things exist rather than not or why we are here rather than not, is simply this: God is, and God is love.

We of the house of faith must gently but clearly continue to raise the fundamental question, why? to an unbelieving age and respectfully insist that it be addressed. There are many ways to do so:

  1. Why is there existence?
  2. Why (not how) do you exist?
  3. Why are you angered when I mention God? You are not angry when I mention a duck-billed platypus or the possibility of ancient space visitors to this planet who sowed the seeds of life, but my mention of God seems to evoke a strong response in you.
  4. If your anger is rooted in a sense of injustice (i.e., that what I say or believe is “wrong”), why? In other words, why do we human beings have a sense of justice, of right and wrong? Where does it come from and on what is it based?
  5. If you believe that everything is caused by random mutation and behavior is biologically determined, then is there any basis for morality at all?
  6. If you claim that believing in God is “wrong” and atheism is “right,” on what do you base this?
  7. If you point to the “evil things” that believers have done in the past (e.g., the Inquisition), where does your sense of injustice come from? Why are you angry with believers if behavior is determined by chemicals in the brains?
  8. If behavior, thought, and decision are biologically determined, why is anything wrong at all?
  9. In a word, Why?

During debates, some will seek refuge in terms like pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus, but these are focused on the how not the why. Why does the brain do what it does? Why does the brain have what it has? Why is the brain there in the first place?


Stephen Hawking Should Stick to Science and Stop Theologizing. And We Should be Very Sober about One of His Very Dangerous Philosophical Assumptions

CBS News seems to have confused Stephen Hawking with a Theologian or spiritual guide. For recently they focused on an interview published in the Guardian wherein Hawking calls heaven a fairy tale for those afraid of the dark.

Well, first of all Mr. Hawking, I am not afraid of the dark. Secondly, you should stick to science and stop trying to psychoanalyze believers. And as for CBS News and the Guardian, please note that Mr. Hawking is a scientist. He is no more qualified to opine on life after death or make psychoanalytic pronouncements than some random person on the street. Smarts in one area doesn’t make him an expert in all areas. Perhaps CBS News would like to interview me on string theory? Of course Mr Hawking and many others might object that I wasn’t exactly the best “go-to guy” on this topic. And that would be true. Asking Mr. Hawking to opine on heavenly matters and the psychological makeup of believers is in the same vein as trotting out Hollywood stars to testify before congress as “experts” on global warming, or some other highly technical matter. Mr Hawking’s opinion on believers or the afterlife is of no more value than anyone else. He is entitled to his opinions on this matter, but it doesn’t deserve to be in headlines and is no more true because he is smart in other areas.

Further, I hope you will note a VERY DARK philosophical assumption he makes at the end of the article. Beware, for he is an influential man.

Let’s look at excerpts from the CBS article. These are excerpts of the longer article which you can read HERE. The original article excerpts are in bold italic typeface. My remarks are in normal red typeface.

Physicist Stephen Hawking believes there is no afterlife (so what?), and that the concept of heaven is a “fairy story” for people who fear death. While he is entitled to his opinion, he has never met me and is not able to know why I believe in life after death. Further he is not a trained sociologist or psychotherapist. He cannot really know the motivations of everyone who believes. Frankly he is also showing himself a poor scientist here. For a good scientist looks for real data and knows that large scale phenomenon (like, say, faith?) are not usually explained by simplistic, single source causes. There are usually a variety of causes and influences at work. For example, when a leaf falls from a tree there is surely gravity, but also wind resistance, and the presence of obstacles that influence its descent.

Mr. Hawking is also condescending and (heaven forfend!), judgmental. For what if I were to say Mr. Hawking does not believe in an afterlife because he fears judgment, or because the existence of God is “inconvenient” to his vision and chosen moral life. You would likely say I should not talk like that, and that I had no real way of knowing that. Exactly. And Mr. Hawking has no business making judgments about my motives either. He doesn’t have a clue as to why I believe in heaven. I don’t fear death any more than he does. I believe in an afterlife because some one I trust, (God and the Church) have revealed it to me and taught me of it.

In an interview published in the Guardian, Hawking – author of the bestselling “A Brief History of Time” – said that when the brain ceases to function, that’s it. This is not a scientific statement, it is philosophical belief on his part. It cannot be verified scientifically, one way or the other, that existence ceases when the brain stops functioning. He is entitled to his belief, but that is what it is. This is not a scientifically verifiable statement. That a renowned scientist is speaking in this way may give the impression that this is science, but it is not. He has moved beyond science and is now in the realm of philosophy.

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Reducing the human person to a brain or computer, or to merely our physical components, is also philosophy, not science. It is true, science can only deal with the material, for that is its realm. But to say that physical matter is all there is, or that there is nothing outside of what science can measure, is not a scientific statement, it is a philosophical one.

Consider if a blind person insisted that there was no such thing as light, concluding this merely because he could not measure it with his senses. But of course for him to assert the non-existence of something merely because he cannot measure it, is both arrogant and wrong. Science too would be wrong to conclude in some absolute sense that there is no soul, or nothing beyond the material, merely because science cannot measure it with its own tools. There are just some limits to science, just as there are some limits for a blind person. Science is not bad because it cannot go beyond the material, any more than a blind person  is bad because he cannot see. But what IS bad is to insist there is nothing beyond merely what I can sense, or measure. Not only is it bad, it isn’t science, for science cannot prove the non-existence of non material things. It just isn’t set up to do that. To say that nothing exists beyond the material is a philosophy, it is not science.

We have already discussed Mr. Hawking’s incapacity to psychoanalyze believers as afraid of the dark. Indeed his caricature of us is dripping with arrogance and thinly veiled superiority. Would I be psychoanalyzing him if I suggested that his superstar status has gone to his head? I guess I would. I withdraw the remark, your honor!

Hawking, 69, who has survived for nearly five decades with a motor neurone disease that doctors believed would kill him while he was still in his early 20s, said he does not fear death. He also said that having lived with the prospect of death from his incurable illness has ultimately led him to enjoy life more. He has dealt with his disease heroically

…Hawking rejects an afterlife and emphasizes the need for people to realize their full potential on Earth. It is an old and tattered claim that belief in heaven somehow limits our concern for this world. The Christian world is replete with examples of those who have powerfully cared for and impacted the people of this world and the world itself. Indeed, Mr. Hawking might reflect of the debt he owes to belief and to the Church for things like the great universities of Europe, the scientific method, the existence of hospitals and modern medicine. Faith doesn’t just make people “other-worldly” it also gives them hope and insists, in its truest form, for great love for the people of this world and for all God has created.

When asked what is the value of knowing why are we here, Hawking replied, “The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.” This is so limiting. It is also philosophy, not science to say this. Mr Hawking is entitled to have a philosophy, but when he says the world is “governed by science” and then goes on to philosophize, that looks pretty silly and contradictory. Further, Mr. Hawking, if you ask me, is edging dangerously close to eugenics in what he says here. What exactly assigning a “higher value” to certain societies looks like as a practical matter is uncertain in what he says, but I sense a growing darkness here, not light. Margaret Sanger and Adolph Hitler may well be smiling as he says this. BEWARE!

Hawking said that our existence is down to pure chance, (Again, philosophy here, not science, Mr Hawking cannot prove this statement scientifically) and that one’s goal should be to “seek the greatest value of our action.”

Well there it is. I will say, not only is Mr. Hawking a poor theologian and psychotherapist, he is also engaging in a very dark and dangerous philosophy in applying once again (as did Sanger and Hitler along with others) a natural selection to societies (races?). Watch out, Mr Hawking is influential, we may be in for some very dark days ahead.

How say you?

Here’s Fr. Barron’s take on Stephen Hawking’s last foray into philosophy and metaphysics some months ago:

Scientism is not Science – Toward a Christian Admiration for True Science

In this essay I want to show forth a Christian admiration for science and distinguish it from the error of scientism. In so doing I pray your patience as I first lay a groundwork in the wisdom tradition of the scriptures and the Natural Law approach of the Church.

Context –In daily Masses we have begun reading from the Book of Sirach. Sirach  is also called, in older Bibles,  the Book of Ecclesiasticus (not the same as Ecclesiastes). St. Cyprian and the Latin Fathers termed it the Liber Ecclesiasticus(or Church Book) since it was widely read in the Church at liturgies and also extensively used in the early instruction of catechumens. In more recent years it has gone by the name  Sirach.  It is so named after  its author,  Jesus Ben Sira, who collected and edited the wise sayings in the Second Century BC.

God’s wisdom in creation– The Book is part of the “Wisdom Tradition” in the Scriptures. Other Books in this tradition include Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiastes. The Wisdom Tradition contains an important insight. Namely, that creation enshrines within it the law and wisdom of God who created it. As such it is intelligible and revelatory. Let me allow and excerpt from the Sirach speak:

All wisdom comes from the LORD and with him it remains forever, and is before all time….He has poured her forth upon all his works,  upon every living thing according to his bounty; he has lavished her upon his friends. ….When at the first God created his works and, as he made them, assigned their tasks, He ordered for all time what they were to do and their domains from generation to generation. (Sirach 1:1, 10, 16:24-25)

Creation is Revelation – Note therefore,  that in making things, God has also poured forth his wisdom upon the work of his hands. He has ordered creation and set forth a law within it. The Wisdom Tradition insists that we are able to discern something of God’s existence, his law, his will and his purpose in what he has made. Creation is thus revelation, revealing to us the One who made it, and manifesting something of the will and purpose of the One who made it. It is for us to discern God’s wisdom which speaks to us from the created order.

In the New Testament,  the Johannine tradition takes up the theme of the Wisdom Tradition and explains how everything God has made he made through his Word (Jesus) and that this Word is impressed on all creation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

Now the Greek term translated here as “Word” is  Logos. As we have just seen the ancient Jews, particularly those who collected the Wisdom Tradition, understood that the created world has a Logike (a kind of Logic) based on the fact that God made it through his Logos (Word). John takes up this theme and teaches that when God spoke creation into existence through his Word (Logos) his Logos (Jesus) sets things forth with a Logike (logic) that is discernible and could be studied to make one wise in the ways (the logic) of God. Creation thus manifests Jesus, for he is the Word through whom the Father spoke everything into existence. In the Catholic Tradition we have come to call this scriptural teaching, Natural Law. In effect we can discern a logic, or  rationality, to what God has made and come to know of God and his will for us.

To summarize: God speaks to us in what he has made,  and we can discern that God has placed order and purpose in creation. There are laws and rationally demonstrable principles at work in all that is.

St Athanasius sets forth the Wisdom/Logos tradition as the early Church understood it:

An impress of Wisdom has been created in us and in all his works…..The likeness of Wisdom has been stamped upon creatures in order that the world may recognize in it the Word who was its maker and through the Word come to know the Father. This is Paul’s teaching: What can be known about God is clear to them, for God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature has been there for the mind to perceive in things that have been made….So there is a wisdom in created things, as the son of Sirach too bears witness: The Lord has poured it out upon all his works, to be with men as his gift, and with wisdom he has abundantly equipped those who love him….and in the light of this wisdom the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. – (Discourse “Against the Arians” by St Athanasius).

This is an exuberant and confident appreciation of the created world and the Catholic Christian rejoices in coming to know more of the created world for, in so doing, he comes to know more of God.

Problems emerge – And yet this exuberant vision  has suffered setbacks in the wider western culture as secularism, and scientism have dealt successive blows.

Secularism tends to see the created world as a closed system which cannot speak to anything outside itself. Secularism tends to exclude anything mystical in creation that points beyond or outside the closed system. It is more than simply an agnostic notion that we simply cannot know of things beyond, it is an antagonism to any reality beyond the here and now. And, in the more militant agnosticism and atheism common in current times, there is downright hostility to any requirements that the spiritual realm or anything outside the secular system might propose.

Scientism is an ideologically unbalanced form of science. It insists that if something cannot physically measured or observed it is not real; it does not exist at all. In its proper form, science is right to state its limits. It uses an empirical method, it limits itself to what is physically measurable and properly states that it is not equipped to pronounce on matters beyond its discipline. Again, this is wholly proper. But scientism strays into philosophy and theology by making claims it cannot measure or verify. Scientism says that if something is not physically manifest, it does not exist. That is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. Those guilty of scientism also often make theological claims in insisting that there is no God. This claim cannot be proved, measured or verified using scientific methods. As such, scientism strays beyond the discipline of proper science. In so doing, scientism creates a toxic climate for a proper dialogue between faith and science.

True Science is a Joy –  Both faith and science have their proper role and proper place and, when these are respected,  a Catholic ought rightly rejoice in the findings of proper science.  The result is,  most often, an  increase in wonder and awe. I never cease to be amazed at the intricacy and magnificence of creation. Science, as never before, shows things hidden since the foundation of the world and now revealed for our wonderment. Science has marvelously demonstrated to me the order and design running through all things. As a man of faith I see the logike (logic) and wisdom of God on display through science that thank God for this wonderful gift of modern science given to us. As such, I rejoice in science.

But scientism is an ugly and fraudulent claimant to the scientific mantle. Cloaking itself in scientific mantle it wanders where no true scientist would go. It makes claims that true scientists would not make. It asserts that nothing exists beyond the material and empirically observable, which is not a claim true science can verify or refute. Scientism distorts true science and adulterates it. It poisons the climate and makes dialogue more difficult. It manifests hostility to religion and faith, something which no true scientist needs to have.

A truly Catholic perspective is to rejoice in science. Our tradition enshrines the understanding that creation is revelation and the more we can know of this creation, the more we can know of God, the more we can know of his Logos, Jesus Christ our Lord. Thank God for true science,  it is, for the believer another path to God.

But woe to scientism, which disregards as real or existent anything outside itself,  or outside the physical and material.  True science properly states its own limits. But scientism reduces everything to its own self and thus mistakes its limits for the bounds of reality.

In this Video Fr. Barron speaks of the error of scientism