Thursday, October 05, 2006

Theory and Objectivity

Our recent trip to St. Walburga's took place in the context of our community's customary "Community Days." One of the real difficulties of monasticism in the city is the pressure of the city itself. More than one visitor has commented to the effect, "Contemplation is impossible in the city." While I obviously disagree (and I believe that the Holy Spirit does respectfully also), it is certainly the case that in order to find profound silence, it is helpful at regular intervals to retreat somewhere quieter and, I should add, more innately beautiful.

Another related function of Community Days for me is that they provide an occasion, away from the phone and computer and doorbell, to read books not normally a part of my compact day. This particular week I read a book called The Relevance of Physics, by fellow Benedictine Fr. Stanley Jaki. Fr. Jaki is quite the historian of science. I had read other books of his before, but so far, this one was my favorite.

The basic thrust of the book has to do with the relationship between the unfolding theories of physics (and of related but distinct disciplines of philosophy, theology and political science) with the brute facts of observation of the physical world. To state this differently: we theorize about what we observe in the world, but no theory is ever completely adequate to every situation. Observation demostrated that Newton's laws tended to be inaccurate under certain conditions; eventually Einstein proposed a new set of theories to account for these deviations. Today, most people think of Einstein as having had the final word. The fact is that even by 1965 (the publication date of Jaki's book), serious problems had arisen with Einstein's theories of relativity. No clean theory has yet been supplied to help us understand why these discrepancies are there.

So science progresses through a kind of humility. It was Einstein's (and before him, Newton's)willingness to stick to careful observation that allowed them insights into the laws of motion. This careful observation relies on an open mind and a willingness to entertain the possibility that we don't know everything yet. Einstein's contemporaries tended to be blinded by the theories current in their day and so tended not to pay too much attention when the facts contradicted the theory. This is bad enough in science; what is more problematic is when popularizers take the tentative conclusions of scientific theory and extrapolate immutable laws of human behavior, theology and so on (Einstein proves that 'everything's relative!'). Today, much of the supposed 'opposition' of science and religious belief is based on errors on both sides. On the side of science, there is a tendency for scientists to imagine that 'everything is known' and that conclusions about the material world can dictate the laws of the spirit. On the side of religion are those whose formulations of religious belief turn a blind eye to strong observations of the world as it is. Theology can't ignore science; it simply won't do to try and pretend that the universe looks like Dante depicts it in the Divine Comedy. That said, the fact that positing the sun as the center of the solar system assists calculations of planetary motion has little or no bearing on the larger theological claims that Dante is making. Someone trying to write the Comedy today would need a new cosmic symbolism to express the ascent of the soul to God. It could well be done, but it would need to speak in terms credible to physics today. As someone somewhat familiar with developments in physics in the past fifty years, I think this could be done to great effect.

On the other hand, the assertion that God can't intervene in the physical world because everything works mechanically is a philosophical statement, and science frankly has no business making it. There is no proof one way or the other. Once you posit an All-Powerful Creator, no laws are binding. It certainly says something about God's ways of working that He tends to be reticent about miraculous interventions, but the fact that the universe seems to obey laws in no way militates against the existence of God (during the Renaissance, this observation was considered a proof of His existence). Worse than this sort of usurpation of theology by physics is the fact that this usurpation is often carried out with a confidence in scientific theory that history does not warrant. A great example of science's fallibility is the parade of eminent physicists quoted by Jaki who persisted in believing in the element 'ether' in the face of unbelievable inconsistencies (ether was believed to be the element filling up what today is considered the vacuum of outer space). Why did they do this? Ether was necessary to make the nineteenth-century theory of waves work! When it was demonstrated that light could travel in a vacuum, the need for ether disappeared. But most scientists, very learned men, were willing to believe in an completely unobserved element with absolutely fantastic properties, rather than admit that they didn't know how light travelled.

Last thought: theology needs to progress with regard to the objective observations not only of science but of human experience as well. Too often today, I hear it confidently asserted that the 'answer' to someone's earnest question about the Faith (say, about the reality of the Real Presence or the moral problems with birth control) involves a simple quotation of Aquinas or the Catechism. Sometimes, this actually helps a seeker. Other times, it makes it sound as if the fullness of life promised by Christ has been reduced to rote formulas of thought. Obviously, I am very critical of many philosophical currents in our world. But to act as if no creative listening is required, that those who believe in relativism, individualism, existentialism and the like have no valid ideas or experiences, is to close myself off as a channel of grace. Only the 'brute facts' of experience and the irreducible objectivity of other human beings and cultures can keep our theology from becoming rigid and stale. This is not an invitation to change doctrine, simply the reality that doctrine must serve human flourishing (and God's glory!) and not vice versa.

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