From MXnet
Jump to: navigation, search
214567main image 1028 946-710.jpg

The proper domains of religion, philosophy, and science

Revelation tells us Who created everything--the Triune God.

Philosophy tells us what kind of being must be at the origin of all things--a self-sufficient being whose necessary attributes make it proper to call that being "God."

Science tells us how one thing causes another within the observable universe--how forms of matter and energy interact with each other in space and time.

Theological understanding of all that is

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God the Father, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the maker of "the heavens and earth, all that is visible and invisible."

One God created everything that is created. If there are other rational animals on other planets, God created them. If there are many universes besides our own, God created them.

Science studies what God created.

There can be no real disagreement between the truths known from science and the truths known from revelation because the very same God is the source of the universe, our reasoning powers, and revelation. Apparent differences stem from misunderstandings of reason or revelation.

Visible and Invisible

In the Nicene Creed, "visible" really means "what is capable of being observed through our senses or by reasoning based on the senses. The word "visible," in and of itself, deals only with the sense of sight, but it should not be taken to exclude what is known through hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

The natural sciences deal with "visible" (sensible) created reality. The empirical methods of objective observation and decisive experimentation are the best methods for knowing the physical world, which consists of forms of matter and energy that are found in space and time.

"Invisible" realities are metaphysical, from the Greek roots that mean "beyond" (meta) and "physics" (physis). Here, too, the reference to one sense includes all possible knowledge through the other senses. The "invisible" dimension of creation is beyond the realm of the physical universe and therefore beyond the scope of the natural sciences. We cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell metaphysical realities like God, angels, the souls of the dead, universal truths, and the like. Metaphysical realities cannot be observed empirically nor can we construct experiments by which to prove metaphysical realities to skeptics.


Natural theology is a branch of metaphysics, which in turn is a branch of philosophy.

The Church uses Aristotelian realism as refined by Thomas Aquinas to guide its thinking about thinking and to shape is understanding of everything that can be thought.

Rom I & V I

We can recognize that there is one infinite, all-present, all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing being that is the cause of the existence and qualities of everything in the universe.

Science: The Big Bang

Physics studies forms of matter and energy that are found in space and time.

Astrophysicists argue that the Big Bang theory is the best explanation for what we observe in the universe today:

  • All space-time and matter-energy in the universe were once in a particle smaller than the diameter of an atom.
  • That Cosmic Egg, singularity, or God-particle inflated to the size of a grapefruit in virtually no time.
  • For three hundred thousand years, the universe was a continually-expanding, hot, dark plasma. There was no room for even the shortest wavelength of light to travel from one form of matter to another.
  • When the universe had expanded and cooled sufficiently for particles to form from the plasma, there was a great flash of light that is still observable in the microwave spectrum of light. This light is everywhere in the universe, but it is fading. A billion years from now, scientists will not be able to observe it. They will have to take the word of previous generations of scientists about it.
  • The first stars formed by the force of gravity out of hydrogen, helium, and lithium.
  • Those stars fused hydrogen, helium, and lithium into all of the elements of the periodic table.
  • Second generation stars formed out of the heavy elements.
  • Planets formed around those stars from the same clouds of stardust.
  • The expansion of the universe will probably continue, it seems, until it reaches thermodynamic equilibrium ("heat death") on the small scale and unbounded isolation between galaxies.

Theories of Evolution

Strange conviction: everything must pop into existence all at once. If there is anything progressive (Big Bang, evolution), then that means that we don't believe that GOD is the creator of everything.

Either God or evolution, not both.

Philosophies of Science

Aquinas: Right philosophy of nature, right philosophy of God

These seven points are the whole of Summa contra Gentiles, Bk. II, ch. 3:

That Knowledge of the Nature of Creatures Serves to Destroy Errors Concerning God
I have italicized some phrases here for emphasis and inserted comments in footnotes.
  1. The consideration of creatures is further necessary, not only for the building up of truth, but also for the destruction of errors. For errors about creatures sometimes lead one astray from the truth of faith, so far as the errors are inconsistent with true knowledge of God. Now, this happens in many ways.
  2. First, because through ignorance of the nature of creatures men are sometimes so far perverted as to set up as. the first cause and as God that which can only receive its being from something else; for they think that nothing exists beyond the realm of visible creatures.[1] Such were those who identified God with this, that, and the other kind of body; and of these it is said: “Who have imagined either the fire, or the wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the great water, or the sun and moon to be the gods” (Wis. 13: 2).
  3. Secondly, because they attribute to certain creatures that which belongs only to God. This also results from error concerning creatures. For what is incompatible with a thing’s nature is not ascribed to it except through ignorance of its nature—as if man were said to have three feet. Now, what belongs solely to God is incompatible with the nature of a created thing, just as that which is exclusively man’s is incompatible with another thing’s nature. Thus, it is from ignorance of the creature’s nature that the aforesaid error arises. And against this error it is said: “They gave the incommunicable name to stones and wood” (Wis. 14:21). Into this error fell those who attribute the creation of things, or knowledge of the future, or the working of miracles to causes other than God.[2]
  4. Thirdly, because through ignorance of the creature’s nature something is subtracted from God’s power in its working upon creatures. This is evidenced in the case of those who set up two principles of reality;[3] in those who assert that things proceed from God, not by the divine will, but by natural necessity; and again, in those who withdraw either all or some things from the divine providence, or who deny that it can work outside the ordinary course of things. For all these notions are derogatory to God’s power. Against such persons it is said: “Who looked upon the Almighty as if He could do nothing” (Job 22:17), and: “You show Your power, when men will not believe You to be absolute in power” (Wis. .12: 17).
  5. Fourthly, through ignorance of the nature of things, and, consequently, of his own place in the order of the universe, this rational creature, man, who by faith is led to God as his last end, believes that he is subject to other creatures to which he is in fact superior. Such is evidently the case with those who subject human wills to the stars, and against these it is said: “Be not afraid of the signs of heaven, which the heathens fear” (Jer. 10:2);[4] and this is likewise true of those who think that angels are the creators of souls, that human souls are mortal, and, generally, of persons who hold any similar views derogatory to the dignity of man.
  6. It is, therefore, evident that the opinion is false of those who asserted that it made no difference to the truth of the faith what anyone holds about creatures, so long as one thinks rightly about God, as Augustine tells us in his book On the Origin of the Soul [De anima et ejus origine, IV, 4]. For error concerning creatures, by subjecting them to causes other than God,[5] spills over into false opinion about God, and takes men’s minds away from Him, to whom faith seeks to lead them.
  7. For this reason Scripture threatens punishment to those who err about creatures, as to unbelievers, in the words of the Psalm (27:5): “Because they have not understood the works of the Lord and the operations of His hands, You shall destroy them, and shall not build them up”; and: “These things they thought and were deceived,” and further on: “They did not esteem the honor of holy Souls” (Wis. 7:2122).
  1. In our day, we call this philosophy "materialism."
  2. This is the error of idolatry, which is contrary to the First Commandment to worship God alone. In our day, we might also identify this error with that of the "spiritualists" who claim these supernatural powers for the spirits with whom they communicate.
  3. We call the belief that there are two independent divine powers "dualism."
  4. The error reprehended here is that of astrology and any other similar kinds of fatalism or determinism.
  5. Here Aquinas is rejecting the error of supposing that there could be causes operating on the universe independently of God's supreme power. This is the metaphysical error of polytheism. Such an error has nothing to do with the proper task of the natural sciences, which is to examine physical causes using physical (empirical) methods.
Commentary by MXM, SJ
My reflections on this passage are occasioned by listening to an anonymous preacher's sermon, "Science Cannot Explain History; Errors of Big-Bang Cosmology." The sermon is a mixture of weeds and wheat. In calling attention to one error that the preacher makes, I am not denying that there are other true, useful, and edifying things in his sermon.
The preacher begins by quoting paragraph six from the passage above. In this passage, Aquinas condemns materialism, idolatry, dualism, astrology and other forms of determinism, and polytheism. These are metaphysical and philosophical errors, not errors in the natural sciences. It is very wrong to read paragraph six as if it said, "Unless our physics is correct, we cannot have a right concept of God." Physics, in and of itself, cannot say anything of God, for physics deals solely with the physical dimension of creation, not with the metaphysical realm.
Some natural scientists (e.g., Carl Sagan) do not understand that there is a difference between physics and metaphysics; for brevity, I call them "saganists." They make metaphysical claims based on their philosophical interpretation of the finding of the natural sciences as if the metaphysical claims were required by the scientific findings. This is a grave error. Those who reject saganism should not fall into the same trap of thinking that metaphysics is determined by physics or that physics is determined by metaphysics. Neither truth nor error in the natural sciences automatically determines truth or error in metaphysics. The natural sciences have their object (the physical universe) and method (empiricism); philosophy has its own object (all of being) and its own method (rational insight). Neither can substitute for the other.
Nothing in this passage prohibits Catholics from accepting or rejecting the Big Bang as a physical theory about the observable universe. Assent to or dissent from this set of conjectures about astrophysics cannot change the theological view that the Triune God revealed by Jesus Christ is the author of all that is nor the metaphysical view that only the existence of an infinite, eternal being can explain the existence of the universe.
Aquinas was concerned with metaphysical errors about creation, not about errors in physics, chemistry, and biology as we know them today--those "natural sciences" did not exist eight hundred years ago. It is a serious philosophical error to rip Aquinas' words about metaphysical errors out of context and apply them to questions in astrophysics of which he was not aware.
Our theological and philosophical conviction that one God created all things does not specify any particular kind of physics, chemistry, or biology. Metaphysics cannot dictate conclusions for the natural sciences nor can the natural sciences dictate metaphysical conclusions. Supposing that theories from the natural sciences determine our view of God is the very mistake that the preacher is critical of in the case of the saganists. The preacher conflates metaphysics and the natural sciences--just as his opponents do!
It is wrong to think that preachers must advocate for particular theories about nature in the pulpit in order to defend the Church's philosophy and theology. No physical theory can immediately confirm or contradict the Church's dogma that one God created everything. The dogma that one God created everything does not immediately confirm or contradict any proper theory from the natural sciences. Preachers must engage theological disagreements using appropriate theological methods; they must engage philosophical disagreements using proper philosophical methods; they should not imagine that either faith or philosophy gives them authority over the findings of the natural sciences.
The preacher is correct that:
  • Many scientists overstep the bounds of their competence, making theological, philosophical, and historical claims that are not justified by their scientific work.
  • There is a big difference between history and science.
  • Catholics must reject scientism as an all-sufficient method for answering all questions.
The preacher seems to be guilty of a logical fallacy. He supposes that finding some criticism of a scientific theory demolishes the theory's credibility. So, for example, he quotes I. E. Segal, who objected to the theory that the universe has been continually expanding for 13.8 billion years (closer to the best estimates nowadays than the 15 billion year figure he uses). On the basis of Segal's objections, he then declares that the "Big Bang" theory is "bunco, it's a bunch of malarkey, it's a scam wrapped in circular reasoning." If you are going to throw away scientific convictions on the strength of one critic's view, then you may not absolutize that critic's view, for it, too, is opposed by other scientists. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Even if one objection, one question, one alternative interpretation may be sufficient grounds to reject a popular view, it is not sufficient grounds for asserting the alternative view as unassailable.
Supposing for the sake of argument that the Big Bang theory is "a bunch of malarkey," it does not follow that rejecting it changes our theology or metaphysics in any way. The scientific dispute is about how best to interpret scientific observations of our universe. Catholics may accept or reject properly bounded scientific theories without ceasing to be in good standing in the Church. When the preacher implies that the only way to be a faithful Catholic is to reject the theory of the Big Bang, he oversteps the limits of his authority as a priest.
I agree that we need to reject atheistic interpretations of the Big Bang or of evolutionary theory, but those interpretations are philosophical arguments that must be dealt with philosophically--not by pretending that the Church's dogma is attached to one particular scientific cosmology. Opposition to the arrogance of scientists who trespass on the grounds of philosophy and theology does not license us to trespass on their proper domain.




The Meaning of the Center of the Universe


C. S. Lewis
[Ptolemy's] astronomical system was universally accepted in the Dark and Middle Ages. The insignificance of Earth was as much a commonplace to Boethius, King Alfred, Dante, and Chaucer as it is to Mr. H.G. Wells or Professor Haldane. Statements to the contrary in modern books are due to ignorance. . . . the spatial insignificance of Earth, [was] asserted by Christian philosophers, sung by Christian poets, and commented on by Christian moralists for some fifteen centuries, without the slightest suspicion that it conflicted with their theology.[1]
J. Goldberg, The Tyranny of Cliches
Before Copernicus the consensus among Western scientists and theologians was, in accordance with Aristotle, that the Earth was either at, or was, the anal aperture of the universe, literally.[2]


Center stage, spotlight, star of the show. The best seats are closest to the center.


No; that argument about man looking mean and trivial in the face of the physical universe has never terrified me at all, because it is a merely sentimental argument, and not a rational one in any sense or degree.
But if we are seriously debating whether a man is the moral center of this world, then he is no more morally dwarfed by the fact that his is not the largest star than by the fact that he is not the largest mammal.
Unless it can be maintained a priori that Providence must put the largest soul in the largest body, and must make the physical and moral center the same, 'the vertigo of the infinite' has no more spiritual value than the vertigo of a ladder or the vertigo of a balloon.[3]


  1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 78, quoted by David Palm in "Geocentrists Peddle Alien Theology of Centrality."
  2. David Palm, "The Center ≠ You're Significant."
  3. G. K. Chesterton, "Man in the Cosmos," cited in The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton, ed. Dave Armstrong, 197.