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FAQs on Faith and Science

September 19, 2016

 

What is the origin of life? Hasn’t the Catholic Church always been hostile to science? Can a Christian accept the scientific theory of evolution? How can Catholics explain what the Church teaches about the relationship be­tween science and faith?

In her new book, Particles of Faith, scientist, writer, and scholar Stacy A. Trasancos gives us ways we can talk about how science and our Catholic faith work together to reveal the truth of Christ through the beauty of his creation.

We asked her to put together the questions she is most frequently asked about science and faith:

What’s your #1 advice for navigating science?

“If you pray ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,’ then your faith comes first. For you, Christianity is not a hypothesis or a theory; it is everything—a pervasive worldview. As Catholics, we do not call some things intelligently designed and declare other things mere random chances of nature, as if nature was not the handiwork of God, but we see everything as a consistently interacting totality, a Creation, including every last particle and force governed by the laws of physics.”

Can a Christian accept evolution?

“Catholics should not frown when people say humans evolved from atoms and primates. We should add that we evolved from the beginning. Atoms constitute the matter that makes us up, and every atom in our bodies came from the Earth, whose particles seem to have come from supernovas, whose matter and energy probably came from the earliest moments after the Big Bang.”

Can we see evolution happening?

“Biologically, we see a single evolutionary step every time we see a baby. Evolution is the progression of a series of events by which living organisms accumulate changes over successive generations due to genetic inheritance and adaptive variation. Every child is genetically like its parents but also genetically unique as an individual. As such, every child responds to his or her environment in unique ways, however slight the differences may be. Environments change over time, further affecting genetic expression. These are facts.”

Can evolution disprove Adam and Eve?

“No, evolutionary science cannot identify a first man, first woman, or original sin committed in a moment, because evolution deals with populations over thousands and millions of years. Expecting evolution to find our first parents is like expecting a bulldozer to find the first two grains of sand on a beach. Not only is it the wrong tool, it is the wrong scientific concept. We do not think of beaches forming one grain of sand at a time. So if Adam and Eve began to live, literally, as a fully grown man and woman through a miraculous act of God, or if they came to exist some other way, science can only shrug and keep on digging. A Catholic can both explore what evolutionary science has to reveal and, simultaneously, believe in the reality of Adam and Eve. What a Catholic, or anyone else, cannot do is expect evolutionary science to find them.”

Was science was born of Christianity?

“The belief that the universe was created by God with an absolute beginning in time and a faithful order is an ancient Judeo-Christian belief forming an unbroken thread all the way back to Genesis. The Old Testament people held a belief in Creation in time. The early Christians defended that belief against the pantheistic ideas of ancient Greek philosophy, even to martyrdom. If the biblical cultures and early Christianity are taken as the womb that nurtured and protected this fundamental belief about Creation, then the Christian West can be taken as the culture that gave birth to science—upon the works of scholars such as Adelard of Bath, Thierry of Chartres, Robert Grosseteste, William of Auvergne, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Siger of Brabant, Étienne Tempier, and Fr. Jean Buridan who postulated the impetus theory, which was the precursor to Newtonian mechanics.”

But does modern science still need Christianity?

“Since that time in the 11th – 14th centuries, physics has grown exponentially with new insights, understandings, capabilities, and realms of observation and measurement at unimaginable scales of minuteness and grandeur. Science today, as independent as it has become, is like the prodigal son in need of its, well . . . its mother. The Church guards truth and is there to guide her children.”

Couldn’t science have been born in a non-Christian culture?

“Maybe, but the fact is, it was not. The revelation of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ taught us the reality of the nature of God and the divinity of Christ. No other religion has ever come close to such a Trinitarian and Incarnational worldview. God is one God and three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son who became man. Christ is the Word, the Logos, the reason. And science relies on order. Without faith in Christ, science does not make sense.”

What if science says it disproves something about faith?

“We need to be absolutely clear about the limits of science. Nothing a scientist says should shake our faith. If a scientist claims we are nothing but atoms, have no free will, or the world is eternally cycling (as all the other ancient cultures did), then we simply do not agree. What we can do is hear those people out, and if (only if) they are amenable to a leap of faith, lead them to the fuller truth. In this way, we can evangelize through science, the study of Creation.”

What is the best analogy for faith and science?

“Consider the way we bless our meals. We do not examine the pepperoni pizza to decide whether it is a gift from God before we cross ourselves and pray. Rather, in faith we see every meal with a confident acceptance that ‘these Thy gifts’ come from God. It is the same for atoms and energy.”

How do dogmas help navigate science?

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, ‘Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure’ (89). You cannot navigate science in the light of faith if you do not have the lights on, so to speak. We can never accept a conclusion that the soul does not exist or that God did not create the world with a beginning in time. Most of the discussion happens where theological opinions are proposed and science can increase comprehension.”

What if we cannot find an answer?

Think of the process of navigating science in the light of faith as a dive into complementary mysteries. Faith and science are two different manifestations of the same reality. When they seem to have conflicting conclusions, it is because our knowledge is not complete. There are many questions that will not have clear answers, which is why they are debated.”

Can science prove what we hold in faith?

“Scientific evidence can only provide inductive proofs of faith. For example, the Big Bang affirms a beginning in time; it does not absolutely prove the ultimate t=0. On the contrary, deductive proofs narrow from broad statements to conclusions; that is, they confirm. These are, in general, the proofs provided by philosophy and theology. Therefore, do not invoke science as any kind of absolute proof of a theological conclusion. The Big Bang, fine-tuning in nature, design in living things, and order in the periodic table are all inductive proofs of the opening lines of the Christian Creed, but only in the same way rainbows, sunsets, and yellow Labrador puppies are proofs of God. Science should inspire awe and wonder because we see it as the study of Creation.”

Do miracles break the laws of physics?

“God’s law is the ‘supreme law.’ If He moves matter in ways that are outside the natural order known to us, He still acts according to His supreme law. Miracles are simply beyond the laws of physics.”

Does physics explain free will?

If there were no other created being with any kind of will and intellect, then the material realm would follow, to the elementary unit, the laws of physics as God designed them. Physical scientists think (determine) within this strictly physical realm. But scientists themselves act beyond the physical realm because they are human persons with rational souls. Humans move matter through acts of free will, so physical determinism does not apply to humans. Free will is a spiritual power.”

Does free will break the laws of physics?

“As Christians we understand that the total system of reality includes both the natural and the supernatural. In his 1947 book Miracles, C.S. Lewis refers to nature as a ‘hostess’ (94). If a tomato sauce is invaded with basil, for example, nature rushes to accommodate the newcomer. If the sauce is stirred, heated, or spread on a crust and topped with cheese, physical laws follow suit, and these physical laws are the same throughout the universe. If you (like me) prefer not to think of nature as a female serving up munchies, think of matter and energy as the physical medium in which we live. This medium, nature, accommodates the actions of our free will. Indeed, with every choice, we alter the course of a great many atoms.”

Does science disprove the soul?

“No, the soul is not a physical thing and science only studies the physical realm. We are body and soul. With our free will, we can move matter in limited ways. For instance, we can kick rocks, control anger, create symphonies, and build smart phones, but we cannot turn paper into gold, flap our arms and fly, live without food, or ungrow children. We pursue knowledge by ‘discursive intellectual operation’ by advancing from one thing to another rationally, as we do using the scientific method (ST I.58.3). Actually, the scientific method is a perfect example of how body and soul unite. We take in data with our senses. We process it abstractly with our intellects. So you could say that science would not exist without the human soul.”

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