Why Catholics Should Know about Science

 

‘It looks full of hard words and signs and numbers, not very entertaining or understandable looking, and I wonder whether it will make people wiser or better.’ So wrote a cousin of Josiah Willard Gibbs when she happened onto a copy of his most famous paper on thermodynamics lying on his desk.

As quoted from Order and Chaos, by Stanley Angrist and Loren Hepler.

INTRODUCTION

Young people are leaving the Church, according to a recent article in Our Sunday Visitor. Why?—“their belief that there is a disconnect between science and religion.” But if they knew what science is all about, they would recognize that there is no disconnect—indeed, as in Psalm 19A, they would see that “The Heavens declare the glory of God.”  and know that science and faith reinforce each other, as Pope St. John Paul II, has written:

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourishPope St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.

This, then, is my goal: to open the doorway labeled, “Truth cannot contradict truth” (Pope St. John Paul II), so that young people can realize that nothing that science truly tells us about the world opposes Catholic doctrine.   In order to do this I will need to teach what basic science is all about, and  by basic, I don’t mean how to balance chemical equations, calculate trajectories of cannon balls, or analyze electrical circuit diagrams. I mean to know:

  • how science works, what constitutes “proof” in science;
  • that the Catholic Church was the midwife of science;
  • that theories that once were thought fundamental have been replaced by better ones—science is not fixed or static;
  • why science is not just theory, but critically depends on empirical tests;
  • that at a fundamental level, science depends on faith, faith in a universe ordered by mathematics;
  • that the “laws” of science are descriptive, not prescriptive; they are our best attempt to understand God’s Creation.  .

ISSUES: SCIENCE AND CATHOLIC TEACHING

These are some of the issues where science and Catholic teaching intersect:

  • cosmology—the creation of the universe;
  • evolution—the first humans;
  • biology and genetics—right to life, designer babies;
  • neuroscience—soul and conscience;
  • philosophy–explaining purpose, morals and the good: faith, not science

METHOD: IMAGES, ANIMATION AND HISTORY

Clearly, using conventional textbooks have not served to give non-scientists (and many scientists) a notion of what science is all about. Part of the problem is that for many (like my wife) an encounter with equations and numbers causes their stomach to roil and gurgle. So, one has to convey information qualitatively, by words, by images and by animation. Fortunately there are a lot of such explanations on the web, so I won’t have to do them myself, but just provide links and explanatory notes. Accordingly this will be an ebook, rather than paper, in order to provide access via links to graphic material.

Why history? As Pierre Duhem, the French physicist and philosopher, put it:

“The history of science alone can keep the physicist from the mad ambitions of dogmatism as well as the despair of pyrrhonian scepticism.”
Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory

Or, more simply, as my wife (whose graduate work was in Medieval History) would have it:

“History tells you most of what you need to know about a subject”.

Here are some specifics: the history of science tells how we learned what heat is all about; that an early theory, the caloric, was disproved by a cannon-boring experiment; that gradually experiments, theories, arguments and counter-arguments about heat, work, energy and molecules developed into that fundamental principle of science: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the first version of Murphy’s Law, disorder from order, that there will be only unmatched socks in the dryer.

In other words, the history of science shows how we have come to frame observable happenings in mathematical language, how theories are fallible, that the only true theory is that which can be, but is not contradicted by empirical evidence, and, most importantly, that at the deepest, most fundamental level there remains a mystery–a mystery which is the mystery of the Godhead, the Trinity.

QUESTION FOR THE READER

Finally, I ask you, the reader, “Do you think such a book would be useful? Would you read it and recommend it if it was free?”

I look forward to both positive and negative replies.

About Robert Kurland

"Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic. blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)  Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.  Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group."
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8 Responses to Why Catholics Should Know about Science

  1. Dan Knight says:

    Robert,

    About the book, it is hard to say. Most religious folks do not – even at this late hour – recognize that ‘science’ is the greatest obstacle to faith. They do not understand it is the reason for leaving the Church, Christ, and God. It is also the basis for the failure of our community. And they do not understand the ‘threat.’

    Of course anyone who knows science rather than ‘science,’ knows this is untrue. Science has all but falsified the ‘atheist’ religion. Without a Multiverse-god, their theories are toast.

    But even among these folks – mostly aging and naive – they have no idea of the corruption of the academy. They believe all sorts of nonsense that is not true and is not supported by evidence. They do so because it is preached 24/7 from every media outlet. No one is immune.

    This puts a huge obstacle between the would-be author of a book attempting to reclaim science from the ‘science’ of the Secular religion followers. He must not merely get over many basic misunderstandings, but he must address a wide range of ‘settled science.’ And then – there is the question of the counter-fake fake science, by which I mean all those foolish conspiracy theories adopted by so many believers who, having rejected the mainstream fake science, have run to the fake science of the alternative media.

    Cannot count how many times I have falsified mainstream fake science for a believer only to have the believer breath a sigh of relief and express faith in some conspiracy theory ‘science’ he has found on the internet.

    Whatever you decide – I wish you well. – Dan

  2. Kevin Luksus says:

    I agree. Examining the history of science should give one perspective. A huge obstacle we face today is the built-in bias of methodological naturalism, which a priori rejects any data that could support the existence of God. This bias, among others, has blinded even the most intelligent persons and impaired their critical thinking. While an examination of the history of science COULD correct these false views, I am skeptical that it would have much impact because so many have already closed their minds. If you’re interested, I wrote a blog reflecting on this problem. You can find it here: https://parishdynamics.com/2017/07/12/uncovering-life-altering-fallacies-and-how-to-avoid-them-topic-4-science-and-critical-thinking/

    Perhaps someone needs to take direct aim at the unscientific and biased approach taken by today’s scientists and educators. Expose the faulty assumptions and logic. A section on the history of science would add additional objectivity to the argument to recalibrate. But be warned. Anyone who goes after this will be attacked viciously because the truth is so unsettling that most people can’t handle it. On the other hand, it would help to recapture the open-minded who have naively bought what the “experts” have told them.

  3. E. Brunner says:

    Perhaps the most important audience for a work such as this would be teachers – those training to become teachers and/or as a handbook (or even textbook) for high school science teachers. I have read some very interesting thoughts on teaching science by incorporating history (see especially Jain & Clark’s “The Liberal Arts Tradition” and Caldecott’s “Beauty for Truth’s Sake”), but as a non-scientist I just keep thinking there needs to be a Catholic book to show teachers exactly how to do this!

  4. Michael says:

    I think the best starting point is to look at where/when the idea originated that science (really just one mode of reasoning among multiple) and Christianity were in conflict. What grounds do people have for asserting that?
    I’m seeing it as a false narrative being promoted largely by those with little or no background in the hard sciences, and becomes a harder position to defend given that the scientific method cannot be used to establish anything about things outside the natural world.

  5. bob kurland says:

    Thank you Dan, Kevin, E.Brunner, and Michael for your insightful and helpful comments. Rather than replying to each of you in separate comments, I’ll do it all-in-one here.

    Dan: I agree with you that there is two-front battle to be fought: against those who claim science can explain everything and against those who propose theories that can be falsified by the conventional techniques of science

    Kevin: Thanks for the link to your website post. With respect to your comments on Intelligent Design, my feelings are mixed—I believe it to be true (in a certain sense), but I don’t really think it’s a scientific theory. I’ve explained why in a review of Stephen Meyer’s book, “The Signature in the Cell”. See here:
    http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/2015/09/reflections-on-intelligent-design-good.html

    E.Brunner: I agree that perhaps the most important audience for my proposed book would be science teachers. Do you have any suggestions about how to reach this audience?

    Michael: Your suggestion to look at the historical origins of the supposed conflict between science and faith is a good one. We know that science developed in an era where faith was dominant, and was developed by believers: Galileo, Newton, Pascal. Did the split start with Darwin? Or was there a drift away from religious faith before that, in the 19th century? I’m not sure of the answer, but maybe I should do some research on this.

    To all: The question at the end of my article: would you 1) read this book if is published (if it would be free) and 2) would you buy it if it wasn’t free?

    Thanks, again.
    bob k.

    • Michael says:

      The New Atheist view seems to be that The Enlightenment was the point at which religion gave way to scientific thinking and rationality, and science debunked Christian beliefs. They speak of the superstitious ‘Dark Ages’, which the Church actually dragged the Western world out of.
      My view is that the development of current Western thought has been a continuum, from the Classical to the Scholastic and to The Enlightenment eras. It seems pretty evident that we couldn’t have progressed in the sciences if the Church hadn’t preserved and synthesised the Classical literature.
      I’ve found some material dealing with this at Strange Notions, such as ( https://strangenotions.com/5-shocking-plot-twists-in-the-story-of-science-and-faith/ )

      To answer your main question, it would make a great ‘apologetics’ resource. I’d look at some excerpts and give my opinion, but my scientific experience is limited to my post-graduate studies, and your opinion would hold more weight. And there’s a good chance I’d purchase a copy, given the recent additions to my bookshelf.

  6. Dan Knight says:

    To all, good comments. You’re all right. God bless.

  7. I’ll agree that some – by no means all – scientists are a few cards short of a full deck where spiritual and religious (not the same thing, quite) matters are concerned. That’s always been the case – now, when ‘scientists’ were natural philosophers, and almost certainly long before Aristotle’s fan base helped us almost forget Anaximander.

    That doesn’t mean science is Satanic. Just that scientists, philosophers and the maintenance staff are all humans.

    Making a religion out of science makes as much sense as worshiping the Almighty Buck.

    I hope a great many folks – Catholic and otherwise – read your book when it’s published.

    I hope that the quaint 19th century notion that God hates science or that science disproves God will be filed away. Maybe under cultural history, with a cross-reference from abnormal psychology.

    Best wishes, and thanks for the reminder. I’ve got my own textual assembly project to do.

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