Science and Metaphysics as Related Ways of Knowing Reality
David Brown SJ FAITH Magazine November – December 2010
David Brown suggests that even if scientific observation does not enable us to describe its object in its totality, the resulting description cannot be completely cut off from something of its reality. Fr Brown is of the New Orleans province of the Society of Jesus, a researcher at the Vatican Observatory and a member of the editorial board of the New Jesuit Review.
Modern scientific discovery has significant metaphysical and theological implications. This is most evident in how physics and biology have profoundly changed the way in which man thinks about the universe and about life within it. The succession of scientific discoveries and revolutions in physics over the last 500 years have led to fundamental paradigm shifts (Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962) in the way that science conceives of the reality of this universe both on the cosmological scale and in the subatomic realm, and perhaps even beyond this universe. Meanwhile, rapid developments in biology, particularly in the field of genetics, have provided an occasion for serious reflection on how life is structured and even defined, how it might have arisen, and howit might develop in future years. This short essay will briefly examine the basic metaphysical and theological implications of developments in physics and biology and how they can be taken into account into theological discourse in order to make accessible the truths of the Christian faith to the current generation.
Before proceeding to the discussion, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by "metaphysics", given the opinion in many philosophical circles that such an endeavour is neither possible nor even desirable. Traditionally, metaphysics has been understood to be the study of "being" and of the relation of different types of "being" to one another. Criticism levelled at the study of metaphysics from the newly-emerging scientific worldview highlighted the problem of how to establish a sound discourse about things which could not be empirically verified by the scientific method, which resulted in the divergence of science (natural philosophy) from philosophy. Suffice it to say that the complexity of this problem is beyond the scope of this article and that, instead, use of the term"metaphysics" will refer to how science is able to describe the structure and nature of the reality that it observes, the "being" of this universe, or at least the empirically verifiable segment of it. That is, we shall take our metaphysics to be that perceivable reality (of the universe) which science has been able to describe by its own methods, leaving aside critically important questions about the limitations of the scientific method in describing "super-realities". In so far as science strives to discuss what this universe, this reality is, it cannot avoid some form of metaphysical involvement.
A second preliminary issue to discuss is the reverse of what was described above: whether or not philosophy and theology should even bother to use developments in modern science (and the slice of reality that it attempts to explain) as a framework or platform to conduct theological or philosophical discourse. The answer is a resounding yes. Any theological or philosophical discourse should always be grounded on the reality in which we live. Joseph Pieper makes a good point, though in regard to moral theology:
"All obligation is based upon being. Reality is the foundation of ethics. The good is that which is in accord with reality. He who wishes to know and to do the good must turn his gaze upon the objective world of being. Not upon his own 'ideas', not upon his 'conscience', not upon 'values', not upon arbitrarily established 'ideals' and 'models'. He must turn away from his own act and fix his eyes upon reality." [Reality and the Good, pp. 106-180, in Living the Truth, Ignatius Press, 1989.]
Any discipline, be it theology or philosophy, which seeks to understand the meaning of, purpose of, behaviour of, and relationship between the different constituent "beings" of this reality of ours should at least try to account for and incorporate an understanding of that which is observed in such a reality. This should include how that empirical reality affects those beings, even if what is observed empirically cannot fully explain the reality of "being". Insofar as science is able to describe at least a slice of the reality in which we live, it is incumbent on the theologian and philosopher to be cognisant of how science describes the nature of the universe and the beings who inhabit it.
Developments in physics over the last 500 years have changed the way that man thinks about the reality in which he lives in three fundamental ways. First, the Copernican conception of the cosmos revolutionised the way that man understands his place in the universe by displacing him (and the Earth) from its centre. Subsequent discoveries in physics/astronomy/astrophysics have only served to remind humanity of its smallness in relation to a cosmos thought to be vast and almost unimaginable in size and scale. As far as we know our universe came into existence from a primordial singularity (at the beginning of time 13.7 thousand million years ago) which exploded into the expanding universe which we observe today; its expansion is accelerating (perhaps due to dark energy); its content we canbarely conceive of (96\% of it exists in an unseen form known as dark energy together with dark matter) let alone enumerate (its 100 billion galaxies, each contain between 100 billion and 1 trillion stars, many of which may harbour planets with conditions conducive to the existence of other life-forms, many possibly intelligent); its dimensions may be more than four; and its fate (re-collapse?) remains an open question; and it may be only one among many in a multiverse. The mystery of such a cosmological reality whose centre is said to be "everywhere and nowhere", can only serve to reorientate the way in which man conceives of his own place in the universe. He can react in one of two possible ways: with despair as he contemplates his own physical insignificance in the cosmic landscape; orwith a profound reverence and humility before an unfathomable cosmos giving witness to the majesty, power, and awesomeness of God. Such reverence will prompt us to reassess, rather then be humiliated by, our finitude and non-centrality. More than ever, such awareness provides a rich source for theological contemplation: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1, RSV)... "When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him" (Psalm 8:3-4, RSV). Merely contemplating whether or not we are alone in this vast universe calls for profound theological speculation.
Second, developments in physics have changed the conception of reality on a microscopic scale. Particle accelerators have discovered a hierarchy of sub-atomic and sub-nuclear particles characterised by order and symmetry, while theory predicts the possible existence of other particles such as the Higgs boson (colloquially called "the God particle" because it is thought to give mass to other particles). Such particles existing on smaller and smaller scales seemingly reveal infinitesimal realms of existence and thus serve to redefine what we think of as the building blocks of reality itself and how its constituent objects interact with each other and with the universe as a whole. This universe can be defined by relativity as a fabric of space-time (with space and time being malleablequantities), or by classical physics as a vacuum (the emptiness of outer space), or by quantum mechanics as a quantum soup of virtual particles (do they exist or not?) or quantum foam. All of this poses enormous implications for how we exist (as aggregates of smaller constituent particles) and has consequences for how we view identity in such a matrix. What exactly does it mean for a (human) body to exist in space-time or as a macroscopic extension of a quantum foam, and how can the soul be seen to exist in a universe whose hidden dimensions go well beyond the three we can observe? Developments in quantum mechanics (with its emphasis on probabilities, wave-particle duality, quantum teleportation of information and tunnelling, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) may prove a useful,if limited, tool in speculating about topics such as free will, communication, matter-spirit and epistemology.
Third, scientific reflection (in the form of observation and much speculation) on the nature of time itself also has profound implications on how man conceives of his reality as a succession of events (how man connects events in his reality) - interpreted as the passage of time - and whether those events are intrinsically connected, and, if so, whether or not such a connection is changeable. Speculation on the possibility of time travel (with philosophical implications for concepts such as causality) from the point of view of relativity, together with speculation about parallel realities implied by some interpretations of quantum mechanics, leads to questions about the nature of free will, prayer, God's knowledge, and responsibility. In this sense, developments in science affect the wayin which we conceive of how we are connected to and interact with such events.
Until now, the discussion has focused on developments in physics, primarily as a way to describe the reality of the universe in which we live and how we conceive of our place within it. Developments in biology have been no less significant in the last 150 years, and, if anything, have had an even more visible impact on our lives with profound implications for how we conceive of ourselves as human beings, how we view our relationship to other life-forms on Earth, and maybe even how we addresses the possibility of life beyond Earth. Discoveries have had an enormous impact in four ways. The ability of biology to detail the organisation and constitution of life-forms, not just on a cellular level, but now also on a genetic and molecular level, and its description of how such factors canaffect the global behaviour of an organism, should be taken into account in the theological and philosophical discussion of free will, individual identity/personality, conscience, the soul, and other areas concerning human behaviour, especially in regard to morality.
Second, the discovery of ever-more exotic forms of life in extreme environments on Earth, with the unique biological/ chemical factors which allow for their existence, together with speculation about the possible existence of extraterrestrial life, has led to a renewed consideration about what constitutes life itself and by what criteria it can be identified. The discovery of extra-terrestrial life would significantly alter the way in which humanity thinks of itself. In fact, it would probably be the most significant discovery in the history of man.
Third, the theory of evolution has no less an impact on the world than the Copernican revolution in physics. It has affected how man understands the origin of life (including his own) on this planet, and Christianity has had to contend with, account for, and reconcile its implications with the biblical narrative of creation and purpose as stemming from God. Certainly Catholic Christianity has had the ability to engage the issue with seriousness, with respect for the integrity of science, and with fidelity to the biblical narrative and Tradition of the Church, as evidenced by the efforts of Pope Pius XII (Humani Generis, 1950) and Pope John Paul II [Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996).Aristotle considered (prime) matter to be unintelligible andnon-being"
Fourth, developments in genetic engineering will pose a challenge both ethically and metaphysically in the way man deals with attempts to manipulate life (and change it) via cloning, hybrids, and the integration of human (organic) and machine technology (via nano-technology); issues of conscience, soul, purpose, intelligence, memory and morality will require the Church to articulate competently its understanding of the human person in order to provide an ethical voice.
In so far as contemporary developments in science can shed light upon the reality of this universe, they should be taken into account in theological discourse. Metaphysics and theology have to be grounded on, or connect with, the reality of this universe if they are to account for the world in which Christ became incarnate. However, the Church's theological discourse cannot be so intimately bound to any one scientific theory, as "the final way" to explain something, that it becomes difficult to separate itself from such a theory, either because a theological doctrine itself can no longer be explained without it (which it can) or because a scientific theory has been superseded by a more coherent scientific theory (better able to explain reality) as is the nature of progress in science.There is a precedent for this in the Galileo controversy from the 1600s. So ingrained was the non-Christian Aristotelian framework of reality in the theological discourse of the Church at the time, that it proved difficult to conceive letting go of it and to use a different cosmology (Copernican) as a new paradigm for theological reflection on the same truths. This attachment to Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models proved unfortunate. Considerable fruit has come when the Church engages fully but carefully with the best possible explanations of reality available at the moment, knowing that such conceptions can and do change over time and that the unchanging truths of Christian faith are able to adapt without any loss. Modern science in no way threatens the orthodox understanding of CatholicChristianity, as attested by the work of countless theologians and popes, including Pope John Paul II in Fides at Ratio; rather, it provides a rich ground on which to continue to elaborate a profound theology in order to communicate the unchanging faith of the ages in new ways.